Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Budapest, Hungary

Sadly, we misjudged Budapest, planned it badly, had obnoxious weather and generally frittered away a great opportunity. Even at that, it was another memorable education highlighting our misconceptions, misinformation and general ignorance of eastern Europe and its tortuous history. The weather was in the high eighties, both temperature and humidity, and the eye-watering smog rivaled anything America has to offer. Our campsite was in a tram terminal that had been abandoned twenty something years earlier and the Office was in the original depot building which was well past its "Best By" date.
A frighteningly ramshackle bus took us downtown through heavy traffic and past dreary buildings all garnished with uncut grass, knee high weeds and out of control shrubs.
The bus terminated at the main tram, trolley, bus and train station downtown, at the back of which you can see a McDonalds. Once again, public transport abounds and, given time to study the options, one could get anywhere in town quickly and inexpensively. But, Budapest is H-U-G-E. Every other city visited on this trip, before and after this one, was readily conquered on foot, albeit often with a good deal of trudging. Not so Budapest.
History has produced a massive capital city of 1.7 million people - more than one in six of the entire population live there - for a country that is only the size of Indiana. The Celts, of course, were there 100 years BCE before being shooed away by the Romans. The original Roman city, Aquincum, was slowly replaced by the city of Obuda after the Romans had been routed and the Magyars had finally settled down to invent Hungary and all things Hungarian in the late 9th century. In recent times, Aquincum has been excavated and about a quarter of the original city is now unearthed and open to visitors. This is a major tourist draw. Obuda sits on the west bank of the river Danube.
Later on, the city of Buda developed to the south of Obuda and a fabulous palace was built atop a rock along with a church. At the same time, on the east side of the river, in Pest county, the city of Pest developed. The locals however, were probably too busy at the time to give this much thought, as they were overrun by the Turks for a couple of hundred years following which the Austrians made them part of their colossal Empire in the late 16th century. And so it was, up to the middle of the nineteenth century, when the slowly failing Hapsburg mob in Austria, agreed to split the Empire control between Austria and Hungary. Must have been a great party in Hungary where it was quickly agreed, in 1873, to roll all three cities into one and call it - what else - Budapest.
A huge Parliament building, befitting the size of the country at that time, was planned and, in this cultural and
economic heyday, grand design schemes for the entire city were made and generally executed. Targeted for completion in 1896, in time for the millennium of the Hungarian nation, the Parliament Building ran six years past due, taking almost twenty years in all, before being opened in 1902.
From that time on sadly, for the next ninety years, it was all downhill. WWI loomed, Austria got smacked around and had most of her Empire removed, while Hungary gained independence but lost two thirds of her lands and was just left to get on with things. Slowly, as they were beginning to get their act together, WWII broke out and not only did much of Budapest suffer severe bomb damage, Hungary emerged from the war as a member of the Eastern Bloc, firmly manacled to Communism.
In 1956, a student led rebellion against the Moscow Masters was brutally crushed, and it wasn't
until 1989 that Hungary become the second country, Poland being the first, to break free of the Warsaw Pact. Broken treasures were slowly rebuilt, some in new locations, with the net effect that key items are spread all about the place. One quirky outcome of the fall of communism was the collection of all significant Soviet era statues from public places, for redeployment in Statue Park outside of town. A brief, but somewhat eclectic history of Budapest can be seen by clicking the link.

This unusual sculpture lurks at the back
of the main tram terminal

Malodorous homeless persons campsite in a railway station

Margit Bridge over the Danube.
Juxtaposition of late 19th century bridge
ornamentation on the right and
impoverished socialist solution to
collapsing safety rail on the left

Presumably another holdover from the pre-communist period

Freedom Statue in Freedom Park
- post-Eastern Bloc

Parliament building from the Chain Bridge

The parliament building has more than 600 rooms and is far
larger than required by the current administration. Among
other activities, the main hall is used for orchestral concerts

Even so, access to the building was carefully guarded by armed
soldiers and, not having an official invitation, we gave it a pass

Across the street from the parliament is the Museum of Ethnology

Budapest sports numerous museums, many of worldly fame,
another legacy from the golden years 1870 to 1905

Library of the Hungarian Academy of Science

From the east side of the river there were smoggy
views of the Buda side - here looking north west

Directly across is St Mathias church and the Fishermen's
Bastion on the hill behind the riverside boulevard

Slightly to the south is the magnificent Palace

Crossing the river by the Chain Bridge it is possible to look
straight through the tunnel under the hill. Both the bridge
and the tunnel were designed by the same engineer in
the mid nineteenth century

In the prevailing weather, the climb up to the old town was
quite a chore. Indeed, the weather was so debilitating
that we elected to skip the Palace altogether

In a courtyard at the top of the climb
is an equestrian statue of St Stephen

Before he became a Saint, Stephen worked for a while as
the first King of Hungary after being appointed by the
founding Magyars in the ninth century

That's not a real halo by the way, you can see the mounting

Fishermen's Bastion - a pure piece of Hungarian Hollywood -
was finished in 1902 and was designed as embellishment for
the adjacent church. First, it is not a bastion and second,
the only connection to fishermen is it was built on the old
fishmarket. Looks pretty cool, though
From the "Bastion", St Stephen's Basilica could just about be seen

The Church of Our Lady, more commonly
known as the Mathias Church, undergoing
further reconstruction

The apse and other buildings associated with
the Mathias Church viewed from the Bastion

"Old Town" behind the church and the palace,
old being twenty years in some case!

Another "old" building about to be rebuilt.
All that remains of this church is the
entrance and the tower but, in a year
or so, it will look just like old

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