Georges Rouzeau - 2005-12-15
Budapest is fascinating by its architectural diversity and the influences that have shaped its Magyar identity over the centuries, from the Turkish occupation to the stamp left on it by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The capital of Hungary ideally combines the pleasures of art, gastronomic delights and the bathing ritual, a veritable philosophy of well-being.
What strikes you straight away is the geographic contrast between the two banks. On one side, Buda sits aristocratically on its hill, with its Mátyás Church and royal palace; on the other, lies Pest, flat like the great Hungarian plain, with its wide, busy avenues bordered by imposing buildings and literary cafes. In between flow the brownish waters of the Danube, crossed by many metallic bridges. Theatrical like a Baroque retable, charming like a palace from the Thousand and One Nights, Budapest immediately captures your attention. You can feel there will be many pleasures ahead.
En route to my hotel, I recognised successively the Chain Bridge (Lánchíd) guarded since 1849 by its stone lions, the immense Neogothic Parliament (a copy of Westminster), Gresham Palace (a Secession* masterpiece and today a Four Season chain luxury hotel), Marguerite Island (Margit-sziget, a place of mystical retreat in the Middle Ages and nowadays a fitness park). And when night falls, all the city and its main monuments are floodlit. The pearl of the Danube casts its spell…
Várnegyed, the castle district
Here I am then in Buda, on the castle hill (Várhegy), some fifty metres above the Danube. The castle district, a star attraction for tourists to Budapest is nevertheless charming and concentrates in a small area the royal palace, churches, museums and many Baroque houses. These are decorated with medallions and cherubs on their facades and feature wells hidden away in their courtyards. There is an ample amount to fill a day, without forgetting a pause at the confectionery Ruszwurm.
The royal palace (Budavári palota)
This little plateau surrounded by ramparts was therefore the site where everything or nearly everything began in the 13th century when Bela IV built a fortress to resist the Mongolian invasions. Around 1400, the Emperor Sigismond build on this site a Gothic castle which was to be transformed and embellished in 1458 under the enlightened reign of Mathias Corvin, the brilliant, well-read and humanist sovereign. Destroyed then rebuilt, this castle which had become a royal palace (Budavári palota) was constantly altered by the successors, especially by the Hapsburgs, becoming a hotchpotch of styles and forms. It received direct hits during the siege of Budapest in 1944-1945. Restoration work has since been executed in accordance with the palace plans of 1905.
The wrought iron entrance gate (Várpalota kapuja), decorated with floral motifs and Franz Joseph’s monogramme, is a masterpiece of light delicacy signed by the wrought iron craftsman Gyula Jungfer. Threatening Pest with its sharp beak, an enormous bronze bird of prey, wings unfurled, perches on the left pillar: this is Turul, the pagan Magyars’ totem bird. Another masterpiece, King Mathias’monumental bronze fountain, the work of the sculptor Alajos Stróbl (1904), presents the monarch in a hunting and love scene, next to the beautiful Helen, daughter of the hunter with whom he fell in love.
Inside the palace, several museums await you, including the Budapest History Museum (Budapesti Történeti Múzeum) and above all the Hungarian National Gallery (Nemzeti Galéria). I opted for the latter to learn about the history of Hungary painting which begins with a magnificent series of Gothic retables. As in France, 19th century Hungarian painters discovered the joys of realism (illustrated by the great Mihály Munkácsy) and of nature, in a style recalling that of the School of Barbizon more than Impressionnism. The highlight of this museum is however the work of the self-taught painter Csontváry, a former pharmacist who used striking psychedelic colours.
The castle district
White and immaculate, Mátyás Church (Mátyás Templom) may well shock you by its outrageous Neogothic style. It is however another emblematic place of Hungary’s history where Franz Joseph 1st and Sissy were crowned sovereigns at a mass written and directed by Franz Liszt. Purists will perhaps call this a kitsch pastiche confection. Yet, the stained glass windows and frescoes by the two decorators, Bertalan Székely and Károly Lotz, combine felicitously Art Nouveau, popular Hungarian traditions and Oriental influences, and trumpet the originality of Hungarian taste.
On leaving the church, don’t miss the panorama from the fishermen’s bastion (Halászbástya), a set of ramparts and seven turrets representing the seven Magyar tribes. Built to celebrate Hungary’s millennium in 1896, like so many other buildings in Budapest, this fairytale Neoromanesque castle offers unimpeded views over the Danube and Pest.
The rest of the district is worth a long walk through the streets Táncsisc Mihály, Tárnok, Országház, Úri and Fortuna bordered by houses with Baroque facades and Gothic elements (such as seat recesses situated under porches where coach drivers could rest) and freshly restored fine ochre or green parging.
A radical change in decor! Here is Pest with its broad avenues like Andrássy ut (the Budapest Champs-Élysées), its assortment of highly varied architecture, its pompous monuments and its cafes, some of which contributed to the capital’s intellectual and artistic glory at the beginning of the 20th century.
Vörösmarty Square and Váci Street
Located in the very heart of the pedestrianised district, Vörösmarty Square is a place not to be missed in Pest, thronged with Budapesti out shopping. At the back, the clothes shop Luxus, occupying a building constructed in 1911 by the architects Kálman Giergl and Flóris Korb, is a curiosity: the nec plus ultra of luxury fashion under the socialists, the shop is today slowly declining in our age of globalised brands. Opposite, the tearoom Gerbeaud has represented for over a century the excellence of central European confectionery and some of its products are exported as far as … Palerma, incredible as that may seem.
VáciStreetis a highly commercial pedestrian thoroughfare. If you like Art Nouveau blocks of flats just explore the surrounding streets (such as Párizsi, Haris köz and Kígyó Streets). You’ll come across a rare example of Brussels Jugendstil, ceramic facades and even a shop decorated with burr walnut (20, Petőfi Sándor Street). Nearby, at Rózsavölgyi és Társa, musicians can buy superbly edited classical scores at a low price, works which are an honour to the city of Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály and Franz Liszt!
At the end of Váci Street looms a monumental red brick building topped by Neogothic towers and a roof covered with majolica tiles, something like a giant station typical of 19th century industrial architecture. In actual fact it is the central food halls (Vásárcsarnok) by the architect Samu Petz. Its interior is a vast metallic nave under which many fruit, vegetable and cooked meat stalls are to be found (see our article). A must on any walk in Pest!
Andrássy ut, the Budapest Champs-Élysées
This 2.5 km long straight avenue, inspired by Haussmann town-planning, enjoyed its heyday under the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Since the fall of communism, the town mansions and the highly varied blocks of flats have been restored to their former glory. With its porch advancing on to Andrássy Avenue, the National Opera (Magyar Állami Operaház) is Miklós Ybl’s masterpiece, to be distinguished among all the other Millennium buildings. The interior decoration is a marvel, especially the grand marble staircase with its twin flight of steps and its coffered ceiling painted with mythological scenes.
Further on, the avenue intersects Nagymező utca, nicknamed at the beginning of the 20th century Pest’s Broadway with its numerous cabarets and its festive life reminiscent of that of Vienna. To this day a few theatres such as the Thália and the OperettaTheatre keep the tradition alive.
Andrássy út then widens with two squares: on one side Jókai tér, with its statue of the Romantic author Mór Jókai, and on the other, Liszt Ferenc tér where you’ll find a young, trendy district with a succession of hip bars and restaurants, such as Menza. Franz LisztMusic Academy (Liszt Ferenc Zeneakadémia), built between 1904 and 1907 by Kálmán Giergl and Flóris Korb, is above all worth a visit for its entirely black, copper and bronze interior Secession decor which has remained intact. The most brilliant pianist and conductor Zoltán Kocsis reigns over the programming of the two 1200 and 400 seat concert halls.
Heroes’ Square ( Hősök Tere)
This monumental square, laid out by the architect Albert Schickedanz, is not lacking in panache, with on each side a museum inspired by Greek temples. In the centre stands the Millennium monument commemorating the thousandth anniversary of the Magyar conquest: this 36 m column bears a statue of the archangel Gabriel standing on a globe and holding the Hungarian crown and the Apostolic cross. On the pedestal, an imposing sculptural group of seven warriors with Viking moustaches represents the Magyar Prince Árpád leading the seven mythical tribes to victory. Behind the column, the colonnade, decorated on top with sculpted allegories, features statues of Hungary’s great, from Saint Steven to Lajos Kossuth, hero of the 1848-1849 revolution. On 16 June 1989, Heroes’ Square was the setting of a commemorative celebration of Imre Nagy and his comrades executed in 1958 after the Soviet intervention.
The Fine Arts Museum (Szépművészeti Múzeum)
Of the two museums on the square, we opted for the Fine Arts Museum. Also built as part of the Millennium celebrations, this colossal Neoclassical building houses European art treasures, namely the collections acquired in the 19th century by Prince Esterházy and the Hungarian archbishop Pyrker, patriarch of Venice. Italian painting is also very well represented with examples of the Schools of Venice, Florence and Urbino, from the early Renaissance to the Baroque period. But it is the Spanish school which best represents the purchasing talent of Prince Esterházy and another collector, Marcell Nemes, both of whom took an interest in El Greco, Velasquez, Zurbaran and Goya at a time when their paintings were worth nothing on the art market!
Széchenyi baths (Széchenyi Gyógyfürdő), the capital’s most popular, are located five minutes on foot from the Fine Arts Museum! Build in the first decade of the 20th century to take advantage of a 75°C source, Budapest’s hottest, this Neobaroque palace painted an outlandish mustard yellow is a marvel devoted to the art of bathing. This ritual, combining hygiene and relaxation, is practised in the interior thermal baths, the large outdoor pool heated to 27°C and 50 m long, and the two other outdoor semi-circular pools heated to 34 and 38°C, with their well-known chess players. Winter, when wafts of steam rise from the surface of the hot water, is the best season to take advantage of this antechamber to paradise…
* Name given to Hungarian Art Nouveau
Hungarian air company
The best means to reach Budapest from the airport
is certainly to catch the Airport Minibus. Their ticket counter is in the arrival hall on your right if you arrive with the company Malev. The driver will drop you off in front of your hotel. If you wish to travel into town by taxi with Airport Taxi or Tourist Taxi, the airport centred taxi companies, the cost is between approximately £13.50 and £20.25. The airport also has a tourist office (Tourinform) branch.
Szentháromság tér 7.
Tel.: +36 1 212 0269. Fax: +36 1 212 3970
Ideally located on Buda hill opposite Mátyás Church. Spacious, well kept rooms.