No matter how many times we come to Budapest, there are always more things to do and see than we can possibly fit in. On our previous visits, we had always intended to take the tour of the Hungarian Parliament building, a very impressive building on the Pest bank of the Danube.
On Wednesday, despite the on-and-off rain, we set out to do touristy things. Parliament is indoors, and so is the Terror Museum, so it shouldn’t matter what the weather is doing, once we get there.
When we hopped off the tram at Parliament, we saw the soldiers on guard in the plaza in front of the impressive front entrance. Like the guards at Buckingham Palace, they stand utterly still, pretending to be statues, while tourists take photos with them. They don’t wear furry hats, though.
The very impressive and well-guarded front door is never used. Well, hardly ever – when a visitng Head of State or similar dignitary visits parliament, they come in through the front door. Otherwise, the hoi polloi are kept to a respectful distance by iron gates and a security guard.
As we were taking photos with the soldiers (as you do), we saw the security guard opening the iron gates. Not knowing what we now know about the front door not being used, we headed over, but were firmly redirected to the brand spanking new Visitor Centre at the north end of the building.
As were were hiking the several hundred metres around the building to the Visitor Centre, we saw a young woman in jeans scuttling along the side of the building, up the steps, and through the iron gates to the front door. We can only assume she was a princess travelling incognito. Or an actress who had received a Nobel Prize for her charity work. Or the security guard’s girlfriend.
The new Visitor Centre is underground, and beside the steps leading down to the doors is an enormous photographic mural of the shore of the Danube a hundred years ago. It is a lively area, with docks and industry, very unlike the sterile shores of the Danube today.
There are a few wharves where floating restaurants are permanently moored, and some where pleasure cruises depart, but for the most part, the people are safely separated from the water by concrete walls, fences, a road and a tram track.
Not that you would necessarily want to swim in the Danube, anyway. By all reports it is rather polluted. Then there is the estimate that by the time a drop of water travels from the source of the Danube to the Black Sea, it has passed through seven human bodies.
But then, all those cities upstream would have excellent sewage treatment systems.
We queued up to buy tickets for our tour. The Hungarians are very accommodating, running tours in English (four or five times per day), German, Italian, Spanish, and Russian, as well as Hungarian. Tom got his tickets for half price, because he was an EU citizen! Discrimination, that is ..
Unfortunately, the next two tours in English were fully booked, so we got tickets for the last one of the day, to give us time to go and do something else in the meanwhile.
But what to do?
Fortunately, at the moment, it occurred to us that just the day before we had bookmarked a square with a lángos stand. And it was about time for lunch…
When it came time for us to leave, it was still raining. But we had paid for the tickets, so we broke out the plastic ponchos and dutifully sloshed off to the tram stop.
Because the Visitor Centre is underground, the tour begins in brick tunnels through the foundations of the parliament building. These foundations are so deep, and so strong, that the building hasn’t sunk even a millimetre in 150 years, despite being built on the sandy flood plain of the Danube. Our guide gleefully contrasted this with the new Visitor Centre, opened a couple of months ago, which already has a leaking roof.
From the basement, there were 191 steps to climb. The guide did offer an elevator to any sick or elderly visitors, but fit young things such as ourselves were requred to walk up. We didn’t mind, though, because the stairwells were so beautiful.
There are a lot of stained glass windows in the building, which were hand-painted, and are priceless. The ones in the north wing, however, are different. They are a more modern design, because the north wing was destroyed by bombing in World War II. Both the Germans and the Russians bombed Budapest.
As the danger became apparent, the staff removed the stained glass from the other windows and packed it in crates in the basement.
The Hungarian parliament building has two chambers, one for the upper house, and one for the lower house. As in Engand, the upper house was composed of the nobility. When the Russians occupied Hungary after World War II, the aristocracy was abolished, and the Hungarian parliament became unicameral. There wasn’t a referendum about this constitutional change, nor did the Russians seem to consider an elected upper house, like the one in Australia.
The former upper house chamber is now unused, unless it is rented out for a conference. And, of course, it is photographed by a dozen tour groups a day.
Along the windw sills outside the doors to the chambers are rows of numbered cigar holders. Apparently, MPs in 19th century Hungary were no more diligent about sitting in the House during debates than are our modern-day ones. Instead, they would network in the hallways, smoking expensive cigars.
Occasionally, an interesting debate would break out, creating a major dilemma for a politician who was part-way through an expensive Havana cigar, which could potentially burn for three hours, because there was no smoking allowed in the chamber.
The cigar racks were the solution. The politician could deposit his precious cigar, remember his number, attend the debate until it became boring again, and then return to his smoke. On rare occasions, the speech would be so entertaining that the politician would return to find his cigar had been reduced to a cylinder of ash. At this point, he would describe the discussion as having been “worth a Havana”. Our guide tells us this expression is still in use in Hungary today to indicate that something is very interesting.
In the foyer of the upper house chamber were statues of working folk, to remind the politicians of the people they supposedly represented.
This is the Grand Staircase, leading from the mostly unused front door to the first floor, where the chambers are located. It seems a large amount of space and decoration for such a little-used door, but that’s monumental architecture for you.
The tour officially ended at the front door, and we were then herded rapidly along the corridors, which made it difficult to take good photos. We can understand the need to keep tour groups together, as they only allowed one group at a time in each area, and of course you don’t want people dropping out of a tour and staying in the building to create terrorist mayhem overnight. We get that. But the haste was a little unseemly.
We enjoyed the quirky architectural features like the knee-high windows, and the small door-to-Narnia exit back to the subterranean accessways. The building is a bit of a mixed breed architecturally, having elements from Baroque, Neo-Gothic, Neo-Classical, and Neo Renaissance architecture.
It’s also full of symbolism – there are 365 spires, one for each day of the year, and the central dome which houses the Crown Jewels is 96 metres high, commemorating the year the Hungarians completed their “conquest of the homeland” in 996. Theoretically, of course, the dome should therefore be 996 metres high, but that design may have taxed the engineering technology of the time.
We eventually arrived at a basement display, where we had all the time in the world to look at the architectural model of the reconstructed north wing, and to buy souvenirs. There was also a photographic exhibition, but it didn’t hold our attention for long, and we made our way through the subterranean brick tunnels back to the Visitor Centre.
We thoroughly enjoyed the tour – both the building, and the historical and architectural information supplied by the guide. Even if it was expensive (especially for the non-EU citizen in our party!), and we did feel a bit hurried along at some points, it was a good experience, and one we would recommend.