It is perhaps a little unfair that Budapest is sometimes described as “The Paris of the East”. The city offers more than enough attractions of a romantic nature to stand on it’s own without hanging on the coat-tails of Paris. However, it can be said, that the Eastern influences seen through some of the architecture do add a slightly more exotic feel to this fascinating city that is as popular with couples in love as it is with party revellers and culture vultures.
Buda and Obuda on the West Bank came together with Pest on the East Bank on 17 November 1873 to form one city. Like an argumentative couple that are as different as chalk and cheese, Buda and Pest sit side by side separated only by Europe’s longest River “The Danube”. Buda, home of The Royal Palace and amazing views from Fisherman’s Bastion – peaceful green gardens and squares and a popular residence of families with young children. The louder Pest, more bustling and crowded – the place for the young to party. Budapest, as the locals will tell you, should actually pronounced “Buda-pesht”.
Arriving on my Whizz Air flight from Luton on Wednesday afternoon I took the airport shuttle bus to my apartment very centrally located on Rakoczi ut (on the Pest side of the city). As Budapest is pretty compact, I chose to walk to most of the attractions over the next few days (though there were plenty of public transport options should I have needed them). I was lucky enough to be blessed with several full days of blue skies and sunshine (almost T-shirt weather!)
On my trips I am always amazed at how many aspects of the history and culture of lands so every different from my own is inter-woven with that of the County of Middlesex – evidence of the wide reaching the influence of the County around the world. 10 highlights from my trip to Budapest – some with a Middlesex twist – are listed below.
(1) Shakespeare Statue – Shakespeare (though born in Stratford-Upon-Avon) was resident in and around Middlesex living for some time in the Bishopsgate area and eventually moving to Southwark to be close to the Globe Theatre. Therefore on my first afternoon in Budapest, I was surprised to discover this statue of Shakespeare located on the Banks of the Danube (on the Pest side) outside a Bank near the Marriot Hotel.
Whilst Shakespeare never visited Budapest (Whizz area weren’t doing cheap flights in those days!), the image of Bard reached the Banks of The Danube due to the vision of retired Hungarian Attorney and Shakespeare admirer Dr Karoly Nagy. On a visit to Australia, Nagy came across the original statue created by Hungarian Sculptor Andor Meszaros in the City of Ballarat. He thought it would be a great idea to create a replica in Budapest. Upon his return to Hungary he founded the Shakespeare Statue Committee and began raising funds for the project. In 2002 the moulding was organised on site in Australia, the casting done at the Foundry of Hungarian sculptor Gabor Mihaly and the statue was finally erected in Budapest in 2003.
Returning to the statue a couple of days later, I came across an event celebrating the birth (and death) of the Bard on 23 April – where the audience enjoyed live performances of Shakespeare’s work and music of the era. Unfortunately, I could only stay for the beginning of the event, but walking back along the Danube later that same evening I saw flowers had been laid at the foot of the statue (perhaps a sign of appreciation of the audience).
(2) The Tree of Life outside The Great Synagogue. On the occasion of my visit, the Synagogue was closed for Passover, so I wasn’t able to go inside but got this photograph of the Tree of Life Memorial located outside the building.
The Tree of Life was designed by Imre Varga in 1991 and is made of stainless steel and silver. The willow tree is a traditional symbol of mourning. The names of Hungarian Jews killed during the Holocaust are inscribed upon each leaf. The memorial was sponsored by the Emanuel Foundation of New York (the Foundation was created in 1987 by the actor Tony Curtis – real name Bernie Schwartz – in honour of his father Emanuel Schwartz, who emigrated to New York from Mateszalka in Hungary). Visitors often place rocks by this memorial, a custom which is believed to have come from burying the dead underneath rocks to protect them from the wildwife and weather.
In Middlesex, we also have work by Imre Varga in the form of a statue of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok located on a traffic island outside South Kensington tube.
This statue was originally unveiled in 2004 but then taken away when the area outside the station was re-developed. It was then placed back in it’s current position in 2011. Bela Bartok is one of the most significant Hungarian composers of the twentieth century. His work established a connection between the music of rural Hungary and that of the concert hall. Bartok lived in South Kensington and often stayed there whenever he visited London at the address of Sir Duncan Wilson and Lady Freda Wilson at 7 Sydney Place.
(3) The Hungarian Parliament Building – designed by Imre Steindl in 1885 this building was thought to be inspired by London’s rebuilt Palace of Westminster (Middlesex Guildhall is of course just over the road from the Palace). A blend of neo-Gothic, neo-Romanesque and neo-baroque the Hungarian Parliament building is certainly stunning. Sadly, Steindl did not manage to see the full construction going blind before completion of the building in 1902. During Communist times a large red star was added to the central tower above the dome but later removed when Hungary gained independence. Judge the similarities for yourself from photos of the Hungarian Parliament and London Parliament Buildings below.
Hungarian Parliament Building
British Parliament Building
(4) Walking Across The Chain Bridge linking Pest and Buda – Budapest has 8 iconic bridges (Megyeri Bridge, Arpad Bridge, Margaret Bridge, Chain Bridge, Elizabeth Bridge, Liberty Bridge, Peofi Bridge, Lagymanyosi Bridge). All bridges were bombed and virtually destroyed during World War 2. I used The Chain Bridge (officially known as Szechenyi Chain Bridge) most during my trip to cross from the Pest to Buda side of the City. The Chain bridge was designed by English civil engineer William Tierney Clark – who also once worked as a engineer for West Middlesex Waterworks Company (a utility company that used to supply water to parts of the county). The Chain Bridge opened on 20 November 1849 and was, at that time, the second largest bridge of its type in the world. Interestingly, Tierney Clark’s first suspension bridge project was actually in Middlesex – Hammersmith Bridge – which opened in 1827.
(4) Art Nouveau Buildings – there’s no doubt that Budapest is an Art Nouveau treasure trove. I recommend visiting Bedo House (an apartment block designed by Emil Vidor) to view some lovely furniture, china, glass and costumes from the period. There’s also an excellent coffee shop on the ground floor in the same building.
Other Art Nouveau buildings worth visiting are the Primary School (designed by Armin Hegedus which has some colourful mosaics depicting childrens’ games) and Torok Bank House (which sports a secessionist mosaic by Roth called Patrona Hungariae) – both of which date from around 1906.
Torok Bank House
Whilst Middlesex/London doesn’t have as many Art Nouveau buildings as Budapest, there are a few good examples – one of which is pictured below in the form of the exterior of The Fox and Anchor Pub in Charterhouse Street, Farringdon.
This dates from around 1898 and is constructed from moulded cast stone and Doulton tiles designed by William James Neatby.
(5) Soviet Era Statues – On the 4th day of my trip I awoke to find the blue skies and sunshine of the first 3 days of my visit had vanished to be replaced by a steady drizzle and big drop in temperature. I decided to explore a little further from the main tourist area by travelling to Memento Park in suburban Southern Buda. I took the park bus from Deak Ter (don’t be fooled by the sign saying the bus stop is out of use as the white coloured park mini-bus does stop there). At the time of writing the bus leaves at 11.00am every day and takes roughly 30 minutes to reach the park. The cost of the bus is about 4,500HUF (including admission to the park and museum).
This park contains some of the last symbols of Soviet occupation in Budapest in the form of 42 Communist statues (including The Republic of Councils Monument, the Worker’s Movement Memorial and the Bela Kun Memorial).
Following the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Hungary in 1989 (the last Soviet troops left in 1991) the statues were removed from the city centre. Whereas in other countries such symbols of dictatorship were destroyed, in Budapest (after much heated debate) it was decided to create a park in the Suburbs of Southern Buda where these statues could be viewed. There is a small shop at the park where you can buy a guide providing more detail about the statues and also a small museum where you can view films on how the secret police were trained to spy on their own citizens.
It is incredible to think that these somewhat intimidating statues were towering over the gardens and squares of central Budapest as recently as the late-1980s.
In Middlesex, Soviet era statues are not easily found but I did recently come across this bust of Lenin in the Islington Museum.
The statue was originally the centre-piece of a monument erected in 1942 by Finsbury Council. The monument stood in Holford Square looking towards number 30 where Lenin had lived in 1902-03 (during this time Lenin worked for a newspaper called The Spark). It was originally planned as a sign of friendship in support for Russia which was an ally during World War 2. However, some people felt that Communism should not be celebrated and the bust was vandalised. It was then taken away and displayed in Islington Town Hall where it was again vandalised and red paint was thrown over it. During the 1980s the bust became one of the symbols of what the press described as a Looney Left Council.
(6) Strolling along the Banks of the Danube
I just love river walks. I never grow tired of walking alongside the banks of the Thames in London and viewing the ever changing landscape and of course those buildings that seem to form the very fabric of the city such as St Paul’s Cathedral.
In Budapest, this stroll along the Danube towards the Chain Bridge quickly became one of my favourite walks.
With the music of Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz ringing in my head, I admired the Royal Palace and the Chain Bridge are lit up against the inky blue night sky punctuated by the sound of the trams trundling past every so often.
(7) The View from Fisherman’s Bastion
This area is heaving with tourists but the view of the Chain Bridge and Parliament is simply stunning so a must have photo opportunity.
(8) Matthias Church Roof – It’s well worth exploring the interior but to my mind nothing can beat the beautiful roof of this building – covered with Zsolnay tiles manufactured only in Pecs, Hungary.
(9) Heroes Square – The nation’s monument to its earliest ancestors and a memorial to its war dead. This is the largest square in the city and is located at the end of Andrassy Avenue next to the City Park. The Millenium Monument in the middle of the square was erected to commemorate the 1000 year history of the Magyars. Archangel Gabriel sits on top of the central pillar holding the holy crown of St Stephen (the first King of Hungary) and double cross of Christianity. When the moment was originally constructed the last 5 spaces on the left of the colonnade were reserved for members of the ruling Habsburg dynasty. The Habsburg emperors were replaced with Hungarian freedom fighters when the monument was rebuilt after World War 2.
(10) The Basilica of St Stephens – St Stephens Basilica was given it’s title by Pope Pius XI in 1931. It took more than 50 years and several architects to build the Basilica. During construction the dome collapsed with added to the time taken to build it.
The Basilica contains one of Hungary’s most sacred objects: the mummified holy right hand of its first King St Stephen. Every year on the Feast of St Stephen on 20th August, the right fist is carried at the head of a parade through the city. St Stephen was canonised in 1083, and as part of this process his corpse was exhumed and his right arm was found to be as fresh as the day he was buried. The arm (which was said to have holy properties) was cut off and preserved. The mumified hand went through a number of different owners before returning to Hungary. In the 13th century during the Tartar invasion, it was sent to Croatia for safekeeping by Dominican monks. Around this time the monks cut the hand from the arm and sent the upper arm to Lemburg and the lower arm to Vienna – the idea being that different branches of the church could own different pieces to ensure no one felt hard done by! In 1771 the Austro-Hungarian Empire placed the Holy right in Schonbrunn Palace, Vienna before eventually returning it to Hungary. However, as World War 2 approached the hand was returned to Austria and kept by the Archbishop of Salzburg. On 20 August 1945, a priest of the American army returned the hand from Austria to Hungary.
It’s worth taking the lift up to the viewing deck of the dome to catch the wonderful city views. On the day I visited I was fortunate enough to take in the scenery to the background of some relaxing music from a local band.
Views of the Zsolnay tiles on the Roof of the Post Office Savings Bank and other City Views Taken from St Stephen’s Basilica Dome
Back at home in Middlesex, we know of St Stephen through the Christmas Carol “Good King Wenceslas”:
Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath’ring winter fuel
Other things worth doing in Budapest
Try the Goulash – apparently the secret’s in the Hungarian Paprika!
Whilst being no Goulash connoisseur – I did enjoy this dish (made with very tender beef) at a little pavement cafe in the Buda area in the castle. The people of Budapest love their meat and the city is a bit of a carnivore’s fantasy – though it is possible to find vegetarian options too.
Take a Walking Tour – You can’t beat exploring a City on foot. I recommend taking this tour on your first day. It’s a great opportunity to orientate yourself with the layout of the City, the main sites and to learn some little known facts from the knowledgeable guides. Though they are called Free Walking Tours, everyone usually leaves some tip money and the idea is that you give whatever you can/or feel the tour is worth.
I would love to return to Budapest one day, so with these thoughts in mind I paid a visit to this young lady just before my departure.
The Little Princess Statue sits on the Banks of the Danube on the Pest side. Created by Laszlo Marton in 1972 this was inspired by his eldest daughter who enjoyed dressing up in a Princess Costume and also wore a crown made out of newspaper by her father – the image of his daughter playing in the Taban area of Budapest dressed in this clothing inspired him to create this sculpture and locate it on the river bank. Apparently, Prince William liked this statue so much that he had a replica of her installed in Buckingham Palace. In the interests of research I made sure I rubbed her knees as legend says that if you do so you will return one day to Budapest. I hope I am able to do just that and one day re-aquaint myself with this wonderful city.
Further Information – please click on the headings below to go to the relevant sites to check details of admission charges and opening hours.
The Great Synagogue – Budapest, Dohány u. 2, 1074 Hungary.
Hungarian Parliament Building – Kossuth Lajos tér 1-3, 1055 Hungary.
Chain Bridge – Budapest, Széchenyi Lánchíd, Hungary
Bedo House – Budapest, Honvéd utca 3., 1054 Hungary
Matthias Church – Szentháromság tér 2, 1014 Hungary
Memento Park – Balatoni út – Szabadkai utca sarok, 1223 Hungary
Heroes Square – Hősök tere, 1146 Hungary
St Stephen’s Basilica – Szent István tér 1, 1051 Hungary
Free Walking Tours – I took the original walking tour which leaves Vörösmarty square (at the lion fountain) at at 10:30am and 2:30 pm and takes approximately two and a half to three hours.