Budapest: A Tale of Two Cities on the Danube
Danube’s magnificence cannot be appropriately appreciated until seeing it in Budapest, the famous ancient city in north central Hungary.
The transnational Danube in Europe links 10 countries, flowing through four capitals and several other cities. However, its magnificence cannot be appropriately appreciated until seeing it in Budapest, a famous ancient city in north central Hungary. This used to be two cities facing each other on opposite sides of the middle reaches of the Danube River. In 1873, Buda on the left bank and Pest on the right were combined to form presentday Budapest.
Budapest: Inspiration, Romance and Bridges
Today, Budapest is renowned as the ‘‘Paris of Eastern Europe” and the ‘‘Pearl of the Danube.” It contains the remnants of monuments such as the Roman city of Aquincum and the Gothic castle of Buda, both of which have had a considerable influence on architecture. The present-day city is one of the world’s outstanding urban landscapes and illustrates great periods in the history of the Hungarian capital. In 1987, Budapest, including the Banks of the Danube, the Buda Castle Quarter and Andrássy Avenue, an area of 60 hectares, was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Buda on the hill and Pest on the plain are like lovers who live across the river. The Danube is like honeyed words flowing between them, and each bridge over the river is reminiscent of lovers’ interlocked hands. As a result, Budapest is a nostalgic and romantic city. It has provided inspiration to native sons, poet Petofi Sandor (1823–1849) and composer Franz Liszt (1811–1866). It was one of the beloved empress Sissi’s
most cherished places and elements associated with Sissi, formally known as Elisabeth of Austria, can be found throughout the city. One bust of Sissi is on display in the Matthias Church in the Buda Castle Quarter, which was built on the highest spot in Hungary. Standing in its tower building, visitors have a magnificent view of the picturesque landscape along the Danube.
Many travellers to Budapest may not know that Andrássy Avenue, the city’s most thriving street, is also associated with Sissi. The street is named after her admirer, Earl Andrássy. At one end of the avenue is the Elisabeth Square, which was named after her.
Today, there are nine bridges across the Danube in Budapest, each different in shape and style. Among them, the Chain Bridge is the oldest and the first permanent structure to connect Pest and Buda. It is a landmark of Budapest, like the Eiffel Tower for Paris or the Statue of Liberty for New York. Originally known as the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, it was named after the main funder, Earl Istvan Széchenyi, a light cavalry officer from a Hungarian aristocratic family. In December 1820, Széchenyi was informed that his father was critically ill in Vienna. He then set out from Pest immediately to see his father, but the floating ice on the Danube stopped the floating bridge which was used to cross it at that time. When Széchenyi was able to cross and reached Vienna, he found that his father had died. Denied the chance to see his father one last time, he resolved to build a real bridge over the river. Construction of the Chain Bridge, which spans more than 200 metres (m), began in 1839 and was completed in 1849. At that time, it was considered a world marvel. During World War II (1939–1945), the German army blew up the Chain Bridge to secure the fort on the Castle Hill. The Chain Bridge standing today was rebuilt after the war and was reopened in 1949, 100 years after the completion of the original. Presently, the Chain Bridge allows access to Buda Castle via cable cars, providing great convenience for tourists.
To the south of the Chain Bridge is the Elizabeth Bridge, which is the most beautiful bridge crossing the Danube, and is also named after Sissi. Standing next to the Elisabeth Bridge is the Freedom Bridge symbolising Franz Josef I, her husband. Built in 1896, the Freedom Bridge is a dark green bridge, at the opening ceremony of which the then Emperor of Austro-hungary (reign: 1867–1918) cut the ribbon. It was renamed Freedom Bridge after the end of World War II. The Freedom Bridge and the Elisabeth Bridge are collectively called the “couple bridges,” symbolising love and freedom. When referred to alone, nowadays the Freedom Bridge is simply called “green bridge” because of its colour.
Budapest’s nine bridges have other notable characteristics. Some are wide enough to allow two trolley buses to pass each other, so they are still in use today. The city’s latest addition, the Lagymanyosi Bridge, was completed in November 1995 and has now been in use for more than 20 years.
Buda Castle, a Museum on the Castle Hill
Every day, vehicles on these picturesque bridges shuttle visitors across the Danube, between the political centre of Buda and the commercial centre, Pest. The main historical sites in the city are mostly located on the west bank of the Danube, on Castle Hill. They include the Gothic castle of Buda and historical human settlement sites. Archaeological findings show that the earliest settlers in the area were the Celts, but they left few traces. However, Budapest was also the site of the second-century Roman city of Aquincum. The ruins of this city are the most complete Roman relics present in Hungary from that time.
Buda Castle, with is exquisite shape, long history and precious collections, attracts visitors from all over the world. To guard against invasion from the Tatars, King Bela IV (reign: 1235–1270) of Hungary spent decades building the castle during the 13th century. Its site on Castle Hill was especially selected for defence. The long and narrow ancient city on the hill was 1,500 m long and no more than 500 m at the widest point. The city was surrounded by a wall built against the hill on four sides with three gates. During the 1541 to 1686 Ottoman Turkish occupation, Buda Castle served as a military garrison. By the 17th century, the Habsburg Monarchy drove out the Turkish army and rebuilt the castle in a Baroque style. This castle was destroyed by fire. The renovated Buda Castle in 1930 was again damaged in the flames of World War II. Today’s Buda Castle was rebuilt in 1950, and houses the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum.
There are four main streets in the Buda Castle, with several side streets and lanes intersecting and eventually leading to the main streets. Big or small squares are formed where side streets meet, just like in many ancient European medieval cities. The roads inside the castle are made of stone and lined with houses and street lamps like they were in the Middle Ages. Many historic elements from the reign of the Ottoman Turks have also been preserved. The heart of the Buda Castle is the Trinity Square, on which the iconic Baroque Trinity Column stands. A Gothic-style cathedral which had been erected on the square was destroyed during the Turkish occupation and rebuilt in the late-19th century.
In the front of Buda Castle stands a statue of the Turul bird, built in 1986 to commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of the settlement of the Magyars. The Turul is a sacred totem for the Hungarian people. Legend has it that the Magyars were led to Budapest by the soaring Turul, which dropped the “sword of Attila” (flaming sword of God) there.
Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion
There are two other famous attractions on Castle Hill, namely Matthias Church, with a history of over 700 years, and the unusually-shaped Fisherman’s Bastion. Matthias Church is a superb Gothic building with a spectacular arch inlaid with dark brown, light yellow and light green glass that shines in the sun. In the white walls of the church are long vaulted windows, with window lattices of carved stone. Several slim and pointed towers decorate the eaves of the roof. A cylindrical spire that was once used as a minaret stands at the main door, ornamented with tall windows of blue glass in arched, pointed fames of carved stone, making the spire look like a delicately scuplted tower of ivory. The spire tapers abruptly at the top like a dagger rising into the sky, displaying its solemnity and holiness.
Building of the church was completed in 1269, and in 1470, King Matthias I (reign: 1458–1490) of Hungary and Croatia ordered his royal emblem to be hung on the gate. A tall bell tower was another later addition to the building. The church and bell tower were together named Matthias Church. Over the next few centuries, many kings were crowned there, so it came to be called “the coronation church” by the Hungarian people. The church also now bears the imprint of Sissi, where Franz Joseph I and Sissi were crowned king and queen of Hungary in 1867.
The church has gone through many additional changes throughout its history. Its interior art and frescoes were destroyed when it was occupied by the Turkish in the 16th century and transformed into a mosque. It was then restored as a Catholic church after Buda recovered its territory. The present-day Matthias Church was renovated in 1874 and 1896 in a Neo-gothic style some Turkish elements were added. The most beautiful feature of the church is its spiral sidewalls and roof inlaid with stained glass. Looking up, the ceiling resembles a snail’s shell, spiralling up in circles. The crown and sceptre from when Sissi was crowned queen of Hungary are on display on the second floor. Curiously, a statue of a crow with a ring in its mouth can be found on the spire of the church’s facade. This is because of a legend that someone tried to kill King Matthias I with a poisoned ring during his reign, but the ring was carried off by a flying crow. Since then, crows have become a symbol
of good fortune in Hungary. Now, a mural of a crow with a ring in its mouth can be found inside the church.
Not far from Matthias Church is the Fisherman’s Bastion. Facing the Danube and the Hungarian Parliament Building, the Fisherman’s Bastion boasts picturesque views. Many new couples choose to take wedding photos there. The romantic Fisherman’s Bastion is also known as a “land of first kisses,” as it is said to witness more first kisses of Hungarian youth than anywhere else in the country. The Fisherman’s Bastion has poetic scenery be it morning, dusk or night, further adding to its romance.
Built in 1905, the Fisherman’s Bastion is made entirely of white marble and is elegantly shaped. It was originally the site of a fishing village and fishermen later built the bastion to protect their homes. Today, up the bastion’s stairs is a spacious square above the castle, which overlooks the Danube flowing quietly below and gives a panoramic view of Budapest. This attraction is associated with Empress Elisabeth, or Sissi, as well. It is the site of a popular cafe where Sissi frequently enjoyed coffee. The entire Fisherman’s Bastion area is now an important place for Budapest citizens to take a leisurely walk after dinner, and a famous destination for tourists.
Pest, an Ancient City on the Plain
Across the Chain Bridge to Pest on the east bank, one can clearly see the Royal Palace on the opposite Castle Hill and the Liberty Statue on the Gellért Hill. The nearby Andrássy Avenue was built in 1872 to relieve traffic pressure on the parallel Király Street. The Andrássy Avenue was named in 1885 after then Prime Minister Gyula Andrássy, the nation’s first prime minister and a main supporter of the construction project. In 1867, an agreement was reached between the rulers of Austria and Hungary to establish Austria-hungary. Sissi became the queen of Hungary and Earl Andrássy was appointed as the prime minister. On June 8, 1867, Sissi arrived in Budapest and was crowned by Earl Andrássy amid the cheers of the Hungarian people.
Andrássy Avenue was once the “Wall Street” of Austria-hungary. It is lined with glorious buildings which were mostly owned by aristocrats, bankers and landlords. They are now popular tourist attractions. There are many historical structures there such as the world-renowned Hungarian State Opera House and the Franz Liszt Academy of Music. Some of the villas now serve as embassies of foreign countries.
On the outbound end of Andrássy Avenue is the Heroes’ Square, which was built in 1896 to commemorate the 1,000 years of Magyar settlement in Budapest. The Millennium Monument in the middle of the square is a Baroque cylindrical stone topped by a statue of Archangel Gabriel. Its base bears statues of seven chieftains of the Magyars, all armoured and on tall horses, with weapons in their hands. The Budapest Hall of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts also sit on the square.
There are other notable locales in the square’s vicinity. Behind it is the City Park, built in 1817 featuring hot springs, zoos, playgrounds and botanical gardens. Established in 1908, the Széchenyi Thermal Bath within the park has a history of more than 100 years, with 12 hot springs, five swimming pools, an outdoor spa, sauna, massage area and other facilities. The park’s Vajdahunyad Castle combines a variety of architectural styles from European history, including Roman, Gothic, Tudor and Baroque.
Another popular tourist attraction is the Millennium Underground Railway, otherwise known as Budapest Metro Yellow Line 1, the oldest subway system operating in Europe. Metro Yellow Line 1’s renovations and expansions have preserved its original 1896 appearance. The line is still served by three old- fashioned carriages ( 6 m wide × 2.7 m high). These train carriages are made specially and furnished with ornate floors, wooden benches, long wooden chairs, wooden windows and wall lights in the shape of kerosene lamps. Because of this, every platform along the Metro Yellow Line 1 looks like a set for a nostalgic film. The 5- km- long Metro Yellow Line 1 includes 11 stops and passes by major attractions such as the Hungarian State Opera House, the Heroes’ Square and the Széchenyi Thermal Bath. It has remained a major means of transportation along Andrássy Avenue.
The Hungarian Parliament Building located on the Danube
Széchenyi Chain Bridge
Matthias Church has a history of more than 700 years.
Fisherman’s Bastion, the perfect vantage point for enjoying views of Budapest