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July 2000

Power Hungary

A nation of positive thinkers and the beautiful city they created

Hungarian resilience in the face of adversity is proverbial, at least in Hungary. My Hungarian father used to remark with a hint of pride — even though he left the country in 1935 — that if a Hungarian were to enter a revolving door behind you, he would exit first. And that without much use of elbows. Budapest, the capital of this nation of survivors, has also been through the revolving door of history and has come out if not first, then at least as a major contender. In fact, in the 20th century it has seen occupation and wars, revolutions, floods and architectural barbarisms, and in spite of it all, or indeed because of it, it still exudes a vivaciousness, a sensuality, a sheer energy that seldom fails to lure and entrap its guests. As the old joke goes: “On her it’s becoming!”

Everyone knows that Buda and Pest were separate cities until 1873. Buda is the hilly one on the right bank of the Danube, Pest (pronounced Pesht) sprawls on the flat plain on the left bank. The last piece of this little puzzle is óbuda, or Old Buda, to the north of Buda. At one time it was a Roman outpost at the edge of the empire, on the western bank of the Danube.

A good place to start a tour of Budapest is Gellért Hill (Gellérthegy), which looms above the white, ephemeral Elizabeth Bridge (Erzsébethíd), affording a bird’s eye view. Here, a great bronze statue surrounded by a colonnade represents Bishop Gellért (or Gerhard of Csanád), who Christianized the heathen Magyars, that is, until they rolled him off this very rock in a spiked barrel in 1046. Within the work, a woman holding a palm frond commemorates the liberation of Budapest from the Nazis in 1945. The Red Army soldier sculpture once standing below the statue has gone, but the outline of the Soviet star remains. One suspects the whole ensemble would have been transported to the Statue Park south of Buda, where all the Lenins and his cohorts are on public display, if it had not become a well-known landmark of the city. Some console themselves with the idea that this work by Zsigmond Kisfaludy-Stróbl was commissioned by Admiral Horthy, who ruled Hungary from 1920 to 1944, in memory of his son. Behind the monument is the Citadel, a grim military bastion built by the Austrian army in the mid-19th century to keep an eye out on the cantankerous Hungarians. Nowadays it houses a hotel and café, offering a superb view of Buda.

To the north of Gellért Hill is the Castle District Várnegye, which runs parallel to the river atop a 1.5-km-long ridge. This is Budapest’s First District, a restful place where automobile traffic is strictly controlled, where a few VIPs reside and where the history of the city can be seen in concentrated form in the narrow cobblestone streets and museums. The Castle District has been on the UNESCO’s cultural heritage list since 1987.

Many stairways and paths lead up to the Castle District, but the traditional way is to catch the old (1875!) funicular train (sikló), which departs from Clark Ádám tér at the bridgehead of the Chain Link Bridge (Lánchíd). It arrives, 100 m later, next to the Royal Palace, a grandiose edifice surmounted by a green, telltale dome. Built in the mid-13th century, the palace was destroyed by war and rebuilt in accordance with changing fashions. Its heyday was during the reign of Matthias I (1458-1490) of the Hunyadi dynasty. On the broad terrace overlooking Pest is a statue of Eugène of Savoy, the Austrian general who freed the city from nearly 350 years of Turkish rule, in 1686. The bird of prey perched on the gate to the palace is the legendary turul, which allegedly showed the Magyars the way to the fertile Danube Basin.

The residence of the kings did not survive World War II. When the palace was rebuilt after the war, it was designed to accommodate museums. One wing houses the National Széchenyi Library; another is home to the excellent Museum of Contemporary Art centered on the collection lent by the German connoisseur Peter Ludwig, which includes works by Robert Rauschenberg, Joseph Beuys, Claes Oldenburg and Roy Lichentstein. Wings B, C and D house the National Gallery, which displays works ranging from Gothic religious artifacts to 19th- and early 20th-century paintings. Included in the collection are several works by Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka, whose Expressionist works take up religious and quotidian motifs of life on the puszta, the Hungarian prairie. For a detailed history of Budapest from the days when the palace functioned as the country’s administrative nerve center to the collapse of communist rule, visit Wing E.

The second attraction in the Castle District is Szentháromság tér, Trinity Square. The house of worship at its center, the Gothic Church of Matthias (Mátyás templom), was ambitiously restored by architect Frigyes Schulek from 1873 to 1896. The crypt contains a network of passageways, decorated with the coats-of-arms of various Hungarian noble families, in which religious artifacts such as monstrances, vestments and reliquaries are on display. Frigyes Schulek’s masterpiece is the Fisherman’s Bastion, five playful, white towers connected by arcades (today containing a restaurant) built in honor of the members of the Fisherman’s Guild who lived at the foot of Castle Hill in the Water Town (Víziváros) and defended the city in times of trouble. Castle Hill offers the chance to drop into interior courtyards where medieval elements have been excavated, or visit other museums and galleries. The excellent Ruszwurm café on Szentháromság u., a tiny establishment with an original Biedermeier interior, has been serving the cake- and coffee-hungry since 1827.

When coming down from Castle Hill, you will inevitably cross the Széchenyi Chain Link Bridge, completed in 1849, but now in its third edition. Over the bridge lies Roosevelt tér, once a nice square, but now, unfortunately, taken over by heavy traffic. To the left is the Neo-Renaissance Academy of Science.

Several blocks beyond it to the north is the country’s Parliament building, a huge, domed structure on the banks of the Danube completed after 17 years of construction, in 1902 (guided tours by appointment only, inquire at the main gate). Opposite the Parliament on Kossuth Lajos tér is the former Palace of Justice (with ceiling frescoes by Károly Lotz in the main foyer), now serving as the Ethnographic Museum. Before purchasing alleged Hungarian folk art, it is wise to visit the permanent collection on display here to get a sense of what has been made by hand and what was merely churned out on a conveyor belt.

Heading back to Roosevelt tér via Nádor u., visitors can enjoy viewing one of the finest architectural ensembles in all of Budapest, Freedom Square (Szabadság tér), whose buildings include the American embassy, the Hungarian National Bank and the imposing Hungarian television building. The Dunakorzó promenade leads south from Roosevelt tér along the Danube. Here, gaudy postwar hotels are still controversial, but even the discriminating eye will get used to them after a while. Especially delightful in the midst of these contemporary boxes of glass and plastic is the eccentric Neo-Byzantine Vigadó concert hall, which survived the building boom of the late 1960s.

Further along, the promenade is Március 15 tér, where the remains of a Roman bastion were discovered, Contra Aquincum. The adjacent Inner City Parish Church’s simple exterior conceals a colorful past: it began as a Romanesque basilica, was used as a mosque and was finally reconceived in the Baroque style in the 18th century.

Behind the Vigadó is the local hub of the city, Vörösmarty tér, named after the 19th-century poet Mihály Vörösmarty. The traditional Gerbeaud coffeehouse (now with a beer hall) has long been a great people watching spot, but now the Café del Art brings a less conventional, Caribbean beat to the plaza. Váci u. and environs is the area for chic clothing, used books, folk art and sidewalk cafés. Over the past years, the formerly sleepy extension of Váci u. beyond Kossuth u. has experienced a revival, and can now be enjoyed all the way to the Inner Ring boulevard at which point it almost spills into the newly renovated Market Hall, another excellent place to shop.

The Inner Ring road leads to a huge open plaza consisting of two adjacent squares, Deák tér and Erzsébet tér. On the way there you will pass the National Museum (Nemzeti Múzeum), a severe Neoclassical building presenting almost 1,000 years of Hungarian history, with such artifacts as coins and the cloak of Stephen I, Hungary’s first king. Further on, in Dohány u., is the newly renovated Great Synagogue, which was completed in the 1850s by German architect Ludwig Förster, and now houses the Jewish Museum. Behind the Synagogue is sculptor Imre Várga’s Holocaust memorial, a metal weeping willow whose tiny leaves bear the names of those who never returned. Beyond is the Jewish Quarter, an area of narrow streets and somewhat dilapidated houses, which breathes nostalgia, sadness and tragedy at once. A walk through this enchanting neighborhood reveals delights, such as the Otto Wagner Moorish-style synagogue in Rumbach Sebestyén u., or the magnificent Gozsdu Udvár, a series of connected courtyards that runs from Dob u. to Király u.

When Hungary celebrated 1,000 years of Magyar life in the Danube Basin in 1896, Budapest was subjected to a heroic rebuilding, which produced Andrássy út . This magnificent boulevard begins at Erzsébet tér and can either be “done” by foot or by using the Földalatti, the Metro line, No. 1, which was completed at the same time and was the first underground built in continental Europe. First, however, step over to St. Stephen’s Basilica, which abuts on Bajcsy Zsilinszky út. The huge 96-m-high, 22-m-wide dome was completed over a 55-year period (1851-1906), and involved three architects, the most significant of whom was the famous Miklós Ybl, whose name crops up like a mantra in Hungary’s architectural landscape. Inside is a famous statue of St. Stephen as well as Hungary’s most holy relic, the alleged right hand (Szent-Jobb) of the saintly king and founder of the Hungarian state.

Andrássy út is a single sequence of gorgeous houses. The Opera House is another opus by the aforementioned Ybl. It stands opposite the Drechsler house designed by Ödön Lechner, who became the prime exponent of Hungary’s particularly playful style of Art Nouveau architecture (his work can also be seen at Münchner Freiheit, incidentally). Further up, Andrássy út plows through diamond-shaped Oktogon tér and circular Kodály körönd before reaching its apotheosis in Hösök tere, Heroes’ Square, or the “Millennium.” This vast plaza, where tourists, peddlers, street artists and inline skaters mix freely, is more than just a pompous expression of national history. The Archangel Gabriel stands on a 9-m-high column and is visible from a great distance. At its foot, faces reflecting fierce determination, are the seven tribal chiefs headed by Árpád, who led the Magyars westward over the Carpathian Mountains ca. 896. Below them is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The City Park (Városliget), which begins behind the Millennium, is a place to relax and enjoy the sights. For year 2000 celebrations, architect Ignáz Alpár selected special monuments from around Hungary and built replicas of them here. These include the Transylvanian fortress of the Hunyadis, a Baroque palace and the portal of the Romanesque church in the town of Ják near Hungary’s western border. If in need of a rest, enjoy the warm waters at the beautiful, Neo-Baroque Széchenyi Baths opposite, or try a luxurious meal at world renowned Gundel’s Restaurant.

Doing justice to a city like Budapest is very difficult in one trip. After the major sights have been registered, there are the thousands of smaller gems left to be discovered: a glint of gold in the grime, a statue peering out of a courtyard, a relief over a doorway or a grandiose mosaic on a high gable. Typical of the city and its spirit, perhaps, is the roof of the Postal Savings Bank, a magnificent, eccentric symphony of majolica ornamentation by Ödön Lechner that is virtually invisible from the street. When asked who was supposed to look at this marvel, Lechner answered casually: “Why, the birds of course!”

Budapest offers a two- or three-day city card (Budapest Kártya) costing 2,800 Ft. or 3,400Ft. respectively. The pass, which gives one adult and child not older than 14 free entrance to most museums and unlimited use of the subway, can be purchased at tourist offices, travel agents, museums and subway or train ticket offices.

How to get there
>>> By TRAIN: From Munich arrive at the Eastern Train Station (Keleti Pályaudvar). Watch for pickpockets and be firm with the aggressive moneychangers and taxi peddlers.
>>> By PLANE: Planes land at Ferihegy 2 Airport. The best way to get to the city is with the Centrum Minibus (600 Ft) to Erzsébet tér, or with the airport minibus, which will take you to your hotel for 1,500 Ft. <<<

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