Thursday, 12 February 2009

Budapest - Day 2, castles and churches

The weather for January was unseasonably warm but an inspection from the hotel bedroom balcony revealed an overcast day with chalky white clouds that hung low over the city and bleached the colour from the buildings on the opposite side of the river. After a quick breakfast with the mobile telephone brigade all having unnecessary and intrusive conversations that spoilt the atmosphere that the hotel had worked hard to achieve in the grand breakfast room we left the Gellért with the intention of exploring the Buda side of the river.

Opposite the hotel the there was an unusual church carved out of the bedrock stone of the Gellért Hill. It was certainly unusual even if it wasn’t especially spectacular containing nothing of any special interest except for its unusual construction and the visit didn’t detain us much longer than just a few minutes.

Leaving the church there was choice of paths that meandered aimlessly through the terraced park and climbed steeply to towards the top of the hill. Every hundred metres or so there were seats and viewing platforms that provided uninterrupted and panoramic view of the city and the river below. As we climbed we were accompanied by more great tits than I have ever seen in one place at the same time and there were some squabbling blackbirds and a green woodpecker busy doing what woodpeckers do, an impersonation of a pneumatic drill as he carved a hole in the bark of a tree looking for insects. The only thing that spoilt the Gellért Hill was all of the litter that was strewn around the viewing points because this is clearly the place where the youth of the city congregate in the evening with their four-packs and their take-aways and having consumed the contents neglect to dispose of their waste responsibly. The steep hillsides were covered in debris that in the summer the undergrowth will disguise but today looked ugly and unpleasant. There was a council street sweeper who was doing a good job of tidying the paths and emptying the litter bins but she had no realistic chance of clearing the litter from the steep sides of the hill.

At the top of the two hundred and thirty five metre high hill is the Liberty Statue which was first erected in 1947 in remembrance of the Soviet occupation of Hungary after World-War-Two, because at the time of the monument's construction, the repulsion of Nazi forces by the Soviets was considered to be a liberation. The original inscription on the memorial was "Erected by the grateful Hungarian Nation in memory of the liberating Russian heroes." I suspect the Russians themselves were responsible for this and this gratitude didn’t last very long. After the country liberated itself from the Soviet Union in 1991 the inscription was changed to read "To the memory of all of those who sacrificed their lives for the independence, freedom, and success of Hungary."

This was the best viewing point of all and from here it was possible to see both sides of the river, the Parliament building in Pest and the castle district in Buda. Budapest did not become a single city until the official amalgamation on 17th November 1873 of right-bank Buda and Óbuda together with Pest on the left bank. This was seen as a supremely symbolic event that marked a union between Western Europe, Buda and Eastern Europe, Pest and the city became the second capital of Austria-Hungary. I have speculated on why it became Budapest and not Pestbuda? But I am yet to find a convincing explanation, I expect it was probably because the Buda side was where the military muscle was. This is demonstrated perfectly by the Citadella on top of Gellért Hill, which was built following the revolution of 1848 that attempted, but failed, to overthrow the Hapsburg rule in Hungary, and the purpose of which was to intimidate the citizens with its cannons and large garrison of soldiers overlooking the entire city.

A quick look inside confirmed our suspicion that there wasn’t a great deal to see so we followed the path down the hill, past the statue of St Gellért that was less impressive in daylight than it had been the previous evening with its dramatic illumination and then a climb again into the castle district of the city.

There has been a castle and a palace in this strategically important position since early times but when the previous building was destroyed in the civil war of 1849 the palace was rebuilt between 1850 and 1856 and when in 1867 Franz Joseph was crowned the king of Hungary when Austria and Hungary became the Dual Monarchy the palace became an important royal residence and the autonomous Hungarian government set out to create a royal palace that matched any other in Europe. The process of rebuilding lasted about forty years between and was completed in 1912 just as the Hapsburg Empire was about to topple over into the abyss of history.

It is indeed a very impressive building with magnificent architecture, impressive sculptures, magnificent landscaped gardens and a view to die for. Prior to 1867, under Habsburg rule, Buda and Pest were subordinate in status to Vienna and Bratislava but after the agreement of Compromise which created the Dual Monarchy, the twin cities underwent rapid growth and expansion to become a major European city in 1873.

The entire castle district was destroyed in the last year of the Second-World-War but the city has done a first class job on putting it back together again and there is now hardly a trace of the damaging legacy of the war. An exception was the Matthias Church which dates from 1015, was destroyed in 1945 and was currently undergoing extensive renovation. It was hastily reconstructed after the war but the communist authorities only made available sub-standard material for the project and the whole thing now has to be done again properly. Even under scaffolding it looked impressive with a multi coloured tiled roof and it is going to be simply stunning when it is completed.

There was a modest entrance fee to visit the church which I didn’t mind paying because it was contributing to the cost of the renovation work and this included a commentary on the history of the church in English by an official tour guide. We didn’t have a lot of time and when he asked how long we planned to spend at the church we did indicate to him that our schedule was tight and we weren’t planning to stop all afternoon. He seemed to interpret this as though we only had only two minutes or so to spare and he launched into a narrative about the church at breakneck speed that left us gasping for breath. We caught bits of it and the rest we had to fill in later from the guide book. What was clear was that this was a really nice church with an interesting history and one that deserved more time to appreciate than we had available to us.

Leaving the Castle District we crossed the Chain Bridge again and crossed to Roosevelt Square on the Pest side of the Danube and walked about a kilometre to the Parliament building which dominates the river and stands proudly facing the castle on the opposite bank. We didn’t hang about for long because it was late afternoon by now and we wanted to return to the hotel for the health and wellbeing experience.

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