Episode 365 – Beautiful Budapest

My mother always referred to Budapest as “the Paris of the Danube”, and it is true that much of the architecture and city planning here was inspired by France. Much of the rest bears the unmistakable imprint of the Habsburgs.

THIS is what it is like to sail into Budapest at dawn.

My mom and grandmother also often talked about Budapest’s seven bridges across the Danube, and how beautiful they were when lit at night (prior to being darkened during WWII). We were lucky enough in 2013 to sail in under the lights; today we came in just after daybreak, and then saw some of them again under sunny skies, which allowed us to appreciate the beauty of their engineering and construction. Somehow, though, we ended up without photos of the Margaret Bridge.

The newest bridge over the Danube between Buda and Pest was completed in 2008: the Megyeri Bridge.

The North Rail Bridge, opened in 1913, destroyed in 1945, and rebuilt in its current form in 2008.

The Petofi Bridge, built in 1937, rebuilt in 1952.

The Liberty Bridge (formerly Franz Josef Bridge), built 1896, rebuilt 1946. Below is a zoomed in detail of the Hapsburg red and white colours, their eagles, and an imperial crown in the centre.

The Elisabeth Bridge (named after Empress Sissi), built 1903, rebuilt 1964.

The Chain Bridge, built in 1849, rebuilt 1949, and currently being restored and repaired. Earlier this year, while the majestic lions were being restored, Full-size Lego models took their place!

During Budapest’s glory days right around the time they celebrated their MILLENIUM in 1895, such importance was placed on making the city beautiful that all new construction was required by law to spend 20% of the entire construction cost of any building on the façade. By contrast, as our guide pointed out several times during our tour, the Soviets spent nothing on making buildings attractive during their decades in Hungary.

Top left: a castle built as part of the Millenium celebrations. It overlooks a huge public skating rink, which itself has a baroque-style pavilion. Bottom left: a gorgeous church seen in the distance between flat concrete shops and apartments. Right side: a late 19th century home featuring an intricate mosaic in a sculpted frame as part of its roofline.

Our motorcoach tour took us past lots of ornately decorated buildings, while our guide gave us the Coles Notes synopsis of Hungary’s long history, all the way back to the 7 tribes who settled here in the Carpathian region beginning around 830 AD and forming an allegiance by 895 AD. Budapest was settled by Celts and Romans prior to the 7 tribes, with a short period after that of Mongol rule, and an interval of 150 years when it was part of the Ottoman Empire.

1895/86’s Hungarian millenium celebrations saw several huge parks and monuments erected here in the country’s capital, including Heroes’ Square and Fisherman’s Bastion.

The massive Heroes’ Square. At the top of the central pillar is the depiction of Stefan (Istvan) I being given his crown and the double apostolic cross which granted Hungary a papal veto. In the centre of the square is a plinth with the 7 Hungarian tribes depicted on horseback, as well as a cenotaph commemorating ALL those Hungarian soldiers who died defending their country, no matter in which conflict.

Some of the 7 tribes. Our guide pointed out that their horses in the 9th century would have been much smaller Asian horses, not these majestic stallions.

The 14 Hungarian rulers from Stefan I who was canonized through to the beginning of the Habsburg era (no Habsburgs depicted)

The Matthias Church high on Castle Hill on the Buda side of the Danube is gorgeous inside and out. When it was restored in 19th century the interior was repainted using Mediaeval colours but in geometric designs reminiscent of Islamic decoration – a perhaps unintentional nod to the mosque that was there during the period of Ottoman reign. There is also plenty of Christian altar iconography, and many gilded murals and stained glass windows. The once controversial melding of themes and designs is now considered one of the highest achievements of Eastern European Art Nouveau.

For me, the result is awesome in the truest sense of that word. It brought back memories of our visit to the Hagia Sophia, which was a cathedral, mosque, museum, and then mosque again, and retained the historic decorative elements of both religions.

On this visit, we were able to climb the spiral stone stairs to the church galleries, where we got an extra-close look at the ceiling, windows, frescoes, and high altar.

From the gallery we could get much closer views of the altar.

Top: the window depicting the Lamb of God, the murals around it, and the baptismal font form an integral whole. The springs flowing from under the legs of the lamb represent the resurrected Christ, while the deer drinking the water in the streams and the baptismal font refer to the source of salvation. Bottom left: the triptych represents 3 scenes related to the 1456 AD order for a noon bell rung as a call to prayer for victory against the Islamic conquest of the city. Bottom right: the oldest stone carving in Budapest, dating to 1260 AD, still in its original location.

Left: looking down from the gallery. Right: a bust of Empress Elizabeth of Habsburg (Sissi) has pride of place in the church.

We also got to walk through the Chapel of the Knights of Malta in an oratory in the northern gallery of the church. The chapel was created in 1927 and restored in 2005. It was especially interesting to us after our visit earlier this year with a living Knight of the order when we were in Malta. Episode 271 Since then, we seem to find Maltese crosses everywhere!

After our guided tour, Ted and I headed on foot to the nearby market, where we gawked at all the varieties of paprika, sweet Tokaj wine, Hungarian street food, embroidery, leather, and crochet work, while noshing on authentic Csabai sausages.

The market: foodstuffs on the ground floor; crafts, souvenirs and “fast food” (like no fast food you’ve ever seen before) on the second floor; and an Aldi underground! “Fast food” turns out to be plates absolutely loaded with goulash, paprikas, stuffed peppers, cabbage rolls, sausages, kraut, various kinds of breads and rolls – and accompanied by beer!

Our all-meat “lunch” gave us the energy to walk along the waterfront. Our goal was the Chain Bridge, but it was closed to pedestrians due to ongoing construction. We did get to see some great waterfront sculptures though, as well as smell the mulled cider and ogle the pastries on offer from outdoor stalls.

A not-so-wonderful blast from Hungary’s past behind the Iron Curtain that has attained a bit of a cult following: the Trabant (“Trabi”), the car manufactured in East Germany from 1957 until 1991. It was noisy, belched smoke, had a body made from Duroplast (similar to fibreglass but using recycled cotton and paper) – and had a 3-4 YEAR delivery period AFTER full payment was made!!

When the skies got dark, I sent poor Ted out into the cold to get some night photos from the “sun” deck.

Top: the Liberty Bridge. Bottom: the Elizabeth Bridge with the parliament buildings lit in gold in the background.

Everyone on board disembarks tomorrow, so thete was a farewell cocktail party before dinner. Lucky us though, because we get to continue our exploration in Prague for 3 days with our friends.

Chef prepared a Hungarian-themed dinner for our last night: farmer’s fresh vegetable salad with crispy pork skin “croutons”, chicken paprikas, and layered walnut and chocolate cake.

One last set of food pics from the Viking Baldur.


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