Budapest, the capital of Hungary, lies astride the Danube. On the west side of the river is Buda, built on the hills rising gradually from the river, on the east, where the flat lands of the Hungarian Plains begin, is Pest. Man has lived in this region for more than two thousand years.
Contemporary Budapest came into existence in 1873 by the merger of the two towns of Buda, Pest and Óbuda.
Today the city has a population of over two million people, living in an area of 525 square kilometers in extent..
Where shall we begin our journey? On one of Budapest's famous bridges perhaps? Or down by the river, before cutting across the city on one of the main avenues? Or shall we proceed in chronological order, beginning with Aquincum, the Roman ruins to the north of the city?
Maybe let's start in the very heart of the capital, on the top of the Gellért Hill, a rugged rock which plunges sharply into the Danube and where once, or so legend would have it, witches gathered on broomsticks. It was from here too, that in the 11th century St. Gerard (Gellért), a bishop from Venice, was cast into the river by the pagan Magyars who didn't appreciate his attempts at converting them to the Christian faith.
Pausing by one of the handrails which skirt the hilltop and steep paths around the hill, we can see immediately the Citadel behind us. However, it is not the ancient fortress that it may seem from far below, but rather a construction from the period just after the revolution and War of Independence in 1848. It was built by the victorious Austrians in order that they could keep an eye on the rebellious town below. Today it houses a hotel and restaurant. Adjacent to the Citadel is a huge figure of a woman (from 1947) holding a palm branch skywards, from where we have perhaps the most spectacular view of the city..
Way below us the mighty Danube flows from its source in far away northern mountains through the gorges and passes of the Balkans and beyond to the Black Sea, and gently curves through the city.
To our left, almost out of view, but still well within the city limits, is the green expanse of Margaret Island (Margitsziget) with its parks, swimming pools and hotels. The island is named after a medieval princess who was confined to the now ruined convent, and who later became a saint.
Opposite us in the haze stretches the flat expanse of Pest, which grew during the last century into today's metropolis. To our left and to the north, nestling amongst the now residential but once wooded hills, lies Buda. This old town on the right bank of the river abounds in history, but it is Castle Hill and the former Royal Palace which dominates the landscape.
Looking across the river again, we have the Belváros, the inner city of Pest, and between these two old towns, the bridges. In the center is Lánchid or Chain Bridge, the first and to this day the most beautiful bridge in the city. Below us, at the very foot of the hill, is Elizabeth Bridge, named after an elegant Habsburg Empress. This was the last bridge to be re-built after the devastation of the Second World War. The river is at its narrowest here and thus, as with many towns, it was at this point that the first ferry crossing ran.
If we crane our necks a little, beneath us, a touch to the right, at the foot of Szabadság Bridge, several oriental cupolas will come into view. These are examples of how the architects of the Art Nouveau period imagined the style of the original Magyar settlers, who came from the east.
The majestic Hotel Gellért, of which they are part, was built according to this supposed style. To this day, it it remains the most characteristic and charming hotel in the city. A famous medicinal spa, which itself is of architectural significance, is attached to the hotel and fed by one of the dozen thermal springs which were found gushing from Gellért Hill in ancient times.
On the riverbank directly below us is another cupola. Although it is less imposing and more modest than those on the hotel, at least original. It crowns a Turkish bath (Rudas), still in use, from the Ottoman reign of 150 years. The Turks resided in Buda from 1526 to 1686 (!), during which time only a slim crescent of land in northern and western Hungary remained in Christian hands.
Looking across the Danube at the multitude of buildings in Pest, a semicircular road is clearly discernible running from Szabadság Bridge round to the Chain Bridge. Though this "inner circle" has different names along its route, it is generally referred to as the "Kiskörút". It roughly follows the line of the old city walls. If we were to enter some of the courtyards of the larger houses on the stretch called Múzeum körút, we would find the remains of 5 to 6 meters high walls of rubble and plain stone which, judging by their appearance, were built more to keep out robbers rather than marauding armies!
These gates, which stood at the head of the main roads out to Vác, Hatvan and Kecskemét, have since been pulled down. The original National Theatre was built in 1837 but again, outside the city walls. It was erected with money raised from amongst people nationwide, which illustrates the extent of national feeling at that time and gives us a foretaste of the great events that were to occur.
To return to the "Kiskörút" : it encircles old Pest which lies directly opposite the former Royal Palace in Buda. The remains of a Roman castrum were unearthed in old Pest at the foot of Elizabeth Bridge. This site probably served to guard a river-crossing on the so-called limes system of defense which the Romans placed along the Danube. The river was the north-east frontier of the Roman Empire and beyond here, on the Great Plain, only nomadic tribes lived. These nomads glazed flocks and wandered freely, only occasionally making raids into the border territory of the Empire. Another relic from Roman times, more spectacular than Aquincum, is the amphitheater in Nagyszombat Street. It lies several miles away from the ancient city, to the south of Buda and of Árpád Bridge , and thus gives us an idea of the original size of what was the most important city in the province of Pannonia Inferior. The amphitheater has remained in relatively good condition due to the fact that it was in almost continuous use.
The oldest church in Pest still stands by this spot: the Inner City Parish Church. Originally built in Romanesque style, it was later rebuilt in Gothic style. It stands in part on the foundations of the Roman castrum.
Strolling through today's inner-city Pest, one can easily cover the area from bridge to bridge in a few hours, where buildings from the last century will be found. Some will be elegant but modest Neo-Classical houses from the first part of the century when the whole town reflected such an image. The National Museum is one such building. Most, however, were built during the last third of the century, and a great number of these recall the Italian Renaissance. Yet there are also buildings which exhibit traces of several other styles: French medieval, ancient Egyptian, and just about anything between the two!
Váci Street, which runs parallel to the Danube, is lined in the main by such buildings. It is one one of the most famous streets in the city and has had the most expensive fashion shops for over a century. At the end of Váci Street, beyond the point where the now demolished Váci Gate stood, is Vörösmarty Square, formerly the Haymarket. The most renowned coffee-house in Budapest, the Gerbeaud, is here.
Of course, a walk in the city should begin on the riverbank. Between Elizabeth Bridge and the Chain Bridge, the embankment is lined with three luxury hotels. The war left this whole area in ruins, but before that it was the place where high society came to stroll, chat and sit in elegant cafés and restaurants. From those days only a boat station remains which is now the starting point for river cruises. By the boat station is a small square wedged between the hotels.
Here with its back to Vörösmarty Square, stands the Vigadó Concert Hall, a romantic building from the last century whose Eclectic style recalls a fabulous, imaginary Middle Ages.