A city tour of Budapest II.

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buda castle district


Just to the right of the Basilica, our eyes meet the straight line of the most beautiful avenue in Budapest. Andrássy út cuts through Pest from the Small Boulevard to the greenery of City Park (Városliget), where, at the turn of the century, the city ended.
In the park stands the Chateau of Vajdahunyad, the only building still standing from the national fair organized to celebrate the Hungarian millennium. Today most of it houses the Museum of Agriculture. Andrássy Avenue is lined with attractive Neo-Renaissance houses, once the homes of the aristocracy and well-to-do classes, which have preserved the taste and wealth of the early years of this century.

The impressive Opera House also stands on this avenue. In a square near the junction with Teréz körút, one finds the Academy of Music - founded by Ferenc Liszt - with its Art Nouveau concert hall, perhaps the most beautiful in Europe.
Accommodations nearby: Hotel Andrassy

This most beautiful of Budapest streets ends in theatrically designed square, the Heroes' Square: on both both sides there is a building with a tympanum and a colonnade, obviously erected to be museums. The one on the right is the Palace of Exhibitions (the Mücsarnok), the largest exhibition hall of the city for major temporary shows; the one on the left is the Museum of Fine Arts. This museum has one of the finest collections of paintings ranging from the Italian early Renaissance to French fin de siécle of many museum in Europe.
In the center of the square a huge obelisk rises with an archangel holding aloft the patriarchal cross of the apostles. It is the embodiment of Hungarian history, as the other hand holds the Holy Crown. At the foot of the pillar seven proud and fiery horsemen in oriental garb. They are the "seven leaders", the chieftains of the seven Magyar tribes which settled here in 895 A.D.  There is a semi-circular colonnade behind the statues of the tribe chieftains, between whose columns the greatest figures of Hungarian history can be seen.

Heroes' Square is the largest square in Budapest, capable of holding half a million people between the two museums. So it is hardly surprising that the key moments in the 20th century, many public meetings and demonstrations have taken place here.
The most important occasion recently was in the summer of 1989, when the remains of Imre Nagy, the Prime Minister executed after the 1956 revolution, were laid on the steps of the Mücsarnok before being reburied with some of his companions.

Next to the Heroes' Square is an area of concrete used mainly as a car-park, which, however, is also of historical interest. This wasteland was created by the cutting down of some of the park's trees and was the venue for the huge officially organized marches and processions of the 50s. A gigantic statue of Stalin used to stand here before it was demolished by demonstrators on the 23rd of October, 1956.
Accommodations nearby: Hotel Benczur • Hotel Ibis Heroes Square

And now let's return to the top of Gellért Hill and look across the river to the wide, straight street which leads from Elizabeth Bridge. This spoke of the city's circular layout also follows an old highway. The first stretch of this street bears the name of the statesman Lajos Kossuth, while the second bears that of Ferenc Rákóczi, an 18th-century Transylvanian prince and leader of another struggle for independence. This wide street, which starts from where one of the city gates once stood, is another main shopping street.

Another shopping street is the Nagykörút (the Great Boulevard) which changes its character and name as it proceeds from one stretch to another. At one end (the southern) stands Petöfi Bridge, and at the northern end Margaret Bridge. The buildings along this boulevard maintain a certain homogeneous style. Their facades preserve the great, turn-of-the-century era of Pest. Italian Renaissance mansions and Gothic noble residences stand side by side. Many of these buildings formerly had cafés or restaurants on the ground floor.
The only remaining café from this period is the New York Café, which has a beautifully ornamented interior. The ornamentation is almost beyond description, with fine stone carvings, spires and bronze devils bearing blazing gas torches on the facade above the heads of the passers-by.
Accommodations nearby: Hotel Queen Mary • Corinthia Hotel

Turning our attention to the right bank of the river, we can see a long, straight street running along the foot of Castle Hill parallel to the Danube. This is Fö utca (Main Street) which has the so called Watertown (Viziváros) lying on either side beneath the formerly affluent royal town on the hilltop, it was once the core of the slum area, constantly threatened by floods. The Tabán quarter at its southern end used to inhabited by Serbs, who settled here during the Turkish occupation.
At the far end of Tabán Quarter, near Margaret Bridge, one can find medicinal spa baths over a hundred years old : the Szent Lukács (St. Luke) and the Császár (Emperor), where the city's first hospital was built in 1330 by the Knights of the Order of the Holy Ghost. Here, at the foot of the bridge, between Castle Hill and the wealthy, residential area of Rózsadomb, the inner circle of Buda begins.
This traffic-laden stretch is called Margit körut and is a continuation of the road from Pest. Its wide arch encircles both Castle Hill and Gellért Hill to reach the river again by the hotel Gellért. Opposite this point, in Pest, on the far side of Szabadság Bridge, is the southern end of Kiskörut and the elegant Neo-Renaissance building of the old Customs House - today the University of Economics - and a building which recalls a medieval castle, which in fact the biggest and certainly the most attractive market hall in Pest.
Accommodations nearby: Hotel Victoria • Hotel Carlton

Looking to the immediate left from Gellért Hill the view is dominated by the dome of the Royal Palace. What we see today is the result of the renovation of the burnt out palace which suffered a siege of several weeks during the Second World War. The civic town, on the northern part of the hill near the palace, was also nearly destroyed at that time. For weeks the whole district was littered with smoldering ruins and corpses, just as in 1686 when the Christian forces regained Buda from the Turks and the residence of the medieval Hungarian kings was raised to the ground. The ruins, however, were preserved beneath the Baroque buildings that were subsequently constructed in the area, and ironically, it was the devastation of the last war that made possible their excavation. Just below ground level, the remains of King Matthias' Renaissance palace, built in the Italian style, was unearthed. Below these ruins were those of the Gothic castle of Sigismund of Luxembourg, King of Hungary and Holy Roman Emperor a hundred years earlier, and some medieval fortifications. All these are now on display in the cellar of the palace.

The first fortress to be built in the then latest western style was erected by Béla IV., King of the House of Árpád, in 1242 after the devastation of the country and the slaughtering of his people by the Mongols, who ruled almost the whole Asia to the Pacific coast. After this invasion they disappeared as unexpectedly as they had come. Only then did Buda become a royal residence. The only building which remains from the first constructions of this period is the Nicolas Tower. It is now part of the Hilton Hotel along with remains of a monastery and Gothic church which were incorporated into the design of the hotel to the left of the main entrance.

Buda was restored to its former dignified self upon the creation of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy in 1867. This new relationship was brought into being by the Hungarian contemporaries of Queen Victoria, and the new constitution obliged the king to keep up a residence in Budapest too. It had became apparent that Hungary, Which had rebelled on many occasions - the last time being in 1848 - was after all an indispensable part of the Empire. She had been suppressed but never broken and was now accepted for what she was. The new monarchy called for a worthy residence, and thus work was immediately begun on a major extension for the palace. This was when the huge complex we see today was built. The halls which were gutted in 1945 hose the National Gallery, the Budapest Museum of History, and in the wing facing the Buda Hills, the National Library.

Franz Joseph I, the first king of the dual monarchy and famous for his longevity, was, of course, crowned in Buda in accordance with the agreement reached under the compromise. The coronation was held in the Church of Our Lady, known by the general public as the Matthias Church, which stands in the center of the civic town on Caste Hill. Its richly carved stone tower was originally built by King Matthias and restored at the end of the 19th century to its former gothic glory.
At the turn of the century, the country was developing at great speed and fashion desired the scenery of the past : thus behind the sanctuary of the Matthias Church a splendid Neo-Romanesque architectural capriccio was erected. This replaced the rather characterless fortifications which legend holds used to be manned during sieges by the fishermen's guild. In summer one can hardly move here for the hoards of tourists who throng beneath the mounted statue of King Stephen. This spot should be visited at night, when from beneath the arches of the Fishermen's Bastion, which reminds one of the cloisters of a monastery, a most memorable view of then city reveals itself.

The Castle District itself should be explored house by house, since each, with the graceful Baroque residences that stand out amongst them, have their own stories to tell, some of which are revealed by the traces of the various reconstructions of their walls. Who would believe for example that the large plain building at number 9 Táncsics Mihály Street, near the Hilton, was once a prison, where even Lajos Kossuth was held as a prisoner. To kill time whilst there he translated "Macbeth" into Hungarian.
The history of Buda is the history of never ending reconstructions - an authentic European history in a nutshell.
The Castle District has an "underground history", too, a secret story interwoven with unverifiable legends which has only in part been disclosed. The limestone hill is similar to a ripe Emmenthaler cheese, with caves formed by thermal waters. In the course of its history the inhabitants of the hill joined the caves together until today they form a 10 kilometer long, three-storey system of cellars and tunnels. In these tunnels, some of which is still intact, the citizens of Buda didn't merely keep their wine barrels and winter fuel, but in times of danger (also during the long siege in the Second World War) they actually lived there. Two floors beneath the Ruszwurm, a lovely Biedermeier café, a skeleton in chains was found when explorers lit up the corridors where no man had stepped for over 200 years. A short stretch of this tunnel system is accessible to visitors through the cellars of number 9 Úri utca.
Accommodations nearby: Hotel Burg • Buda Castle Fashion Hotel

Budapest, which was born in 1873 from the union of three neighboring towns, Pest, Buda and Óbuda in the north, is beginning to disintegrate once more. The districts, which developed from the centers of the small towns and villages of the region are only connected to the city center by public transport. The area which is more or less visible from our vantage point on Gellért Hill, the rejuvenated city of the turn of the century, heir of Romans and of Medieval monarchs and citizens alike - this is the real city.

Budapest is already an elderly lady, slowly getting on in years as she heads towards Europe.
Her houses recall a more and more romantic past, and have incredible stories to tell. Looking back from the vantage point of passing time, the stone carvings of the ancient Matthias Church and those of the more recent Fishermen's Bastion merge into one.
More and more ghost figures tread the narrow inner-city streets and the wide boulevards; the stories narrated by the shabby houses become more and more exciting.
If we manage to ignore the cars parked on the pavement which block our way, and allow ourselves to be carried away by the atmosphere radiating from the stones, the city will tell us the most fascinating tales...

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