On our first full day in Budapest, there was a window in the afternoon when neither of us was fainting from jet lag, so our hosts took us out for a quick tour of the local sights.
We are staying in District Seven, which Jenny can never say without thinking about The Hunger Games! This puts us close to the very large City Park and the Heroes Square monument.
The highlight of the afternoon though, was St Stephen’s Basilica, the first Catholic Church in Budapest. The square in front of the church featured a circular paving pattern which we have subsequently seen in several other locations, so we suspect it is a traditional design.
The inside of the church is intricately decorated with paintings and gold fixtures. It was impressive enough to explain to us why the Mongols and other barbarian hordes always looted the churches first. Fortunately, The Golden Horde had withdrawn by the time St Stephen’s Basilica was built, and the Turks were more civilised invaders, allowing it to remain unharmed.
A wedding was just about to commence when we arrived at the church, so we could only view the interior of the church from the transept (the bit that sticks out to the side). We were amused by the elderly gentleman working on his tablet beside the votive candles – perhaps he was trying to download the “Votive Candle” app …?
We spent a few minutes admiring the bubbles produced by this street performer before heading to the river for our first glimpse of the Danube, and Buda Castle.
The next day, we were up bright and early for a serious day of tourist activity.
The first stop was Buda Castle. While Hungary is generally flat, there are small local heights, and Buda Castle occupies the entire top of one such hill on a bend in the Danube. Budapest is actually two cities – Buda and Pest. Buda is located on the west side of the Danube, which is somewhat hilly, while Pest is an absolutely level town built on a sand plain to the east side of the river.
Buda has been continuously occupied (and for most of that time, fortified) for centuries. It marked the Eastern frontier of the Roman Empire, before the Roman Empire collapsed and raiding Avars took over the area. Modern Hungarians arrived (legend is unclear exactly from where) in the 10th century, efficiently butchered the resident Avar population, and founded the modern state of Hungary. The first modern king, Istvan (Stephen) I, officially commenced his reign in 997.
Parts of Buda Castle date back to the 15th century, but these parts are mostly in ruins because of the beating Buda Castle took in the 20th century, particularly during World War II and its immediate aftermath, when Russia took control of the country. Other parts were built (or rebuilt) later, and resemble the palaces built in the 18th and 19th centuries elsewhere in Europe.
There are many buildings inside the walls of Buda castle, although “walls” usually refers to some courses of brick laid at the top of a cliff or steep hillside. The walk from the bottom, where we parked the car, to the first gate into the castle gave us a personal appreciation of the value of holding the high ground. You wouldn’t want to make that climb wearing armour and dodging boulders, arrows and boiling oil!
When we reached the top, though, the view was amazing. The lookout point is watched over by an eagle. Well, it’s not exactly an eagle. It’s a creature from Hungarian folklore which resembles an eagle. Apparently it wasn’t all that well-known until the occupying we mean allied-and-very-helpfully-contributing-armed-forces-for-defence-against-our-mutual-enemies Germans endorsed it for its similarity to their eagle emblem.
For many centuries, Buda Castle was home to the Habsburgs, who ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This empire was eliminated in the Treaty of Versailles, which also reduced the land area of Hungary by two thirds. The Habsburg descendants, no longer monarchs, still exist, but don’t live in Buda Castle any more. The President of Hungary has his home here, complete with soldiers in guard boxes.
There are also residential apartment blocks within the walls, but our hosts were not sure if anyone special lives in them.
From some angles, Buda Castle looks like an 18th century palace, but from other angles it resembles a Disney-esque fairytale castle. One particularly lovely area was the Fishermen’s Bastion.
We were offered two alternative explanations for its intriguing name. The first was that the bastion was built or pehaps defended by local fishermen during a particularly trying period when the soldiers were otherwise occupied. The second was that this was the place where they had the fish market.
While Romance would advocate for the former tale of heroic self-sacrifice, Practicality and Occam’s Razor would suggest that the latter explanation is probably the more likely.
We could have lingered longer at Buda Castle, but the sun was creeping downward, and we had yet to visit the highest point around, the Citadella. The view from up here is, understandably, spectacular.
We were very impressed with the consistency of Pest – nothing is taller than the spires of St Stephen’s Basilica. Almost every building is Victorian or earlier (partly because a devastating flood in the 1840s caused most of Pest to need rebuilding), and newer buildings have either been blended in very well in style, or have architectural value all their own.
The Citadella was occupied by both German and Russian soldiers in the 20th century, before being abandoned. It was reclaimed from dereliction and squatters in the early 1970s, and became a cultural centre.
It is crowned by this Statue of Liberty, erected to commemmorate the “liberation” of Hungary from the Germans by the Russians after World War II. Somehow, mysteriously, the statues of Russian soldiers which used to surround her have vanished, and the liberty she represents has become less specific as a result, and therefore less controversial. The thing she’s holding? It’s a palm frond. Why a palm frond? Err … it seemed like a good idea at the time …?