March 26, 2020

Budapest, Hungary

Oct 2010

Budapest was under foreign rule for most of the time.  First the Mongols.  Then the Ottomans.  Then the Hapsburgs.  WW1 was not nice to Hungary.  Hungary lost 70% of its land, and 50% of its population in the post war treaty.  The resentment made Hungary join the bad guys in WW2 and came under Soviet influence and control after the war.  After the velvet revolution of 1989, Hungary embraced the European Union and is today one of the rapidly growing economies in Europe.

Budapest does not have the soul less monolithic blocs of Soviet era.  It has kept its beautiful palaces and wide avenues of a glorious past right through the communist era and has nicely slipped into prosperity without angry youth painting graffiti all over city center.

Budapest's best landmark is the Hosok Tere, or The Heroes square.  The tower and the colonnades stand tall in a wide open space and sport statues representing various values that Hungarians strive for (such as Peace, Liberty, Equity etc) and statues of the heroes of Hungary.  (When constructed, one of the colonnades was supposed to sport the Hapsburg monarchs.  At the time of completion, this was changed to a then current list of modern heroes).

Hosok Tere, the Heroes Square

Right in front of the Heroes Square is a stone slab guarded by soldiers.  Most folks misconstrue this to be the tomb of an unknown soldier.  It is not.  It is just a cenotaph representing those who sacrificed their lives for Hungary.  There is no body inside.  Represents patriotism and sacrifice nevertheless.

Soldier guarding memorial

Around the Heroes Square are the Budapest Museum and the Revolution memorial, each representing the architecture of its times.  (The Revolution memorial celebrates the student uprising in 1956 against Soviet control of Hungary; a movement that had some wins initially but was brutally crushed by Soviet army later in the same year).

Budapest Museum

Revolution Memorial

Budapest was created by merging two cities in Hungary:  Buda on the western side of River Danube, and Pest on the eastern side of Danube.  Buda is old, conservative, and seat of royal power.  Pest is modern, and has the best shopping streets, restaurants, and nightclubs.  Though Budapest is one merged city now, the two cultures remain distinct and can be seen and felt.  The two are connected by various bridges across Danube.  The most famous one among them is the Chain bridge, designed by an English engineer and built by a Scottish constructor.

Chain Bridge across River Danube, connecting Buda and Pest

Sitting on a park bench in very cold weather with a packet of warm roasted pea nuts to eat and looking at River Danube flow by is, well, a blessing.  When you look across the river, you get to see the Castle Quarter, the Palace, the Matthias Church, the Fisherman's Bastion etc which are popular landmarks in Budapest.

View across Danube:  Matthias Church, Buda Palace etc

View across Danube:  Matthias Church

The Buda Palace was funded by Maria Theresa of Hapsburg empire.  No royal lived there.  The Empress gave it to a group of local nuns for use.  The nuns found it quite inconvenient.  Later it was given to a university.  The university used it for a long while with difficulty.  Goes to show religion and knowledge can sometimes find temporal power's benefits inconvenient!

View across Danube:  Buda Palace

Varnegyed, the Castle quarter in Buda houses most of the royal buildings and the old town.  The castle is protected by an impressive fortress wall!

Castle Quarter:  Fortress wall

The Castle quarter has, among other things, the Old Town with impressive buildings and public spaces.

Inside the Buda Castle

Inside the Buda Castle

Inside the Buda Castle.  She was playing.  I was enthralled and listening.  She was pleased.

Inside the Buda Castle: A quiet street

Budapest suffered a massive plague in 1691.  People believed building a tower would ward off plague and built one.  Budapest suffered a massive plague again in 1709 losing more than 40% of its population.  People believed the tower ought to have been taller/bigger and built this one inside Buda Castle.  The Tower of Holy Trinity in front of the Church of Holy Trinity worked.  Plague has not returned.

Inside Buda Castle:  Church of Holy Trinity and Tower of Holy Trinity

Matthias Church (formally, Church of the Assumption of Buda Castle) was built in XIV century (and restored multiple times since).  Two of the Hungarian monarchs had their coronation here.

Inside Buda Castle:  The Church of Assumption of Buda Castle aka Matthias Church

The Fisherman's Bastion aside the Castle on the banks of Danube has look out terraces offering excellent views of Pest.  The Bastion in its current form was built in the last days of XIX century.  But this side of the walls of Buda Castle were earlier defended by a guild of fishermen.  The new walls were therefore named honouring that guild.

Just outside Buda Castle:  Fisherman's Bastion

When you climb to the look out terrace on Fisherman's Bastion, you get to see the Hungarian Parliament and the St Stephens Basilica on the other side of Danube.  The basilica is named after Stephen, the King who founded Hungary in 1000 AD.  His right hand is preserved in the Basilica.

View from Fisherman's Bastion:  Hungarian Parliament

View from Fisherman's Bastion:  St Stephen's Basilica

Buda has history.  But Pest has all the fun.  The Vaci Utka (Vaci Street) in Pest is one of the popular shopping streets in Budapest.

Pest:  Vaci Utka (Shopping Street full of restaurants and stores)

Pest:  Vaci Utka.  Street artiste.

Visiting erstwhile Soviet bloc countries evokes mixed response.  Some have raced ahead to be rising stars in EU economy (Estonia).  Some are moving ahead at a slightly moderate pace (Hungary).  Some are still trapped in Soviet era growth rate and struggling to grow (Czech).  But there is a cult that prefers some relics of the Soviet era.  Fans of Trabant is one such group. 

There used to be several jokes about Trabant, the East German car:  One, Trabant is made of plastic.  Sorry, recycled cotton.  Two, the value of a Trabant doubles when you fill it with gas.  Yet there is a noticeable fan following for Trabant not just in erstwhile East Germany but also in various other erstwhile Soviet bloc countries. 

We found a Trabant parked in Budapest with this invitation!

Rent a Trabant.  Just for old times sake.

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