History has blended Buda and Pest into one. But they were two very distinct and separate medieval towns at one time. Buda and Pest each honor their own culture and historical glories amidst the horrors of war and an extraordinary will to survive. Inspired by the past, Budapest’s split personality beckons.
Every city is smudged by contrasts – old and new, east and west, secular and sacred, opulent and downtrodden. From the dignified Parliament building in Pest to the pockmarked, machine-gun riddled buildings on Castle Hill in Buda; Budapest, Hungary is a city of contrasts and complex history.
The mighty Danube River not only slices Hungary’s capital city geographically, but also culturally. Native Hungarians are quick to correct the naïve tourist unknowingly referring to Budapest as one city. I was one of those bumbling travelers set straight by our tour guide Yuri.
A Tale of Two Cities
Buda, older than Pest and positioned in the western hills, was a very Hungarian town and birthplace to the historic Castle District. It is also the more affluent, prestigious piece of the city. Narrowly crammed cobblestone streets winding slowly in and around a hilly terrain permeate this predominantly residential area of trendy addresses.
The Castle District of Buda became a town seven and a half centuries ago. The former royal palace towers swirl toward the sky on the Buda hillside. Its formation began in the 13th century and was added to over the centuries with its historic buildings detailing the splendid architectural styles of Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance.
Pointed arches and ribbed interior vaulting identify Gothic architecture. Baroque is characterized by ornate decoration, carved surfaces, sculpture, color and oval spaces, while Renaissance style architecture, the European dominant style after the mid-16th century, is marked by round arches and symmetrical composition.
Pest, the eastern part of the city, is the newest section – a mere 1,000 years old – boasting modern streets, flat terrain, glass-encased commercial buildings, fast food restaurants, luxury hotels, and the other numerous tribulations of a capital city.
Buda, a Slavic word for ‘water’ and the city of Pest, meaning ‘hot’, assimilated to become Budapest in 1873.
Hot water is just one of the city’s surprises, discovered by the Turks in the Middle Ages. There are nearly 150 thermal hot springs in Budapest supplying 50-some medicinal thermal baths, spas, and medical center therapy pools. The springs supply 15.4 million gallons of water daily ranging in temperature from 70° to 170°.
The thermal baths, constructed in Pest during the 20th century, are in the modern Art Noveau architectural style, a distinct contrast to Buda’s Gothic and Baroque architecture.
Typically, women and men have designated days in which to use the thermal baths, according to Yuri; however, Budapest does have some co-ed baths now.
Stripping off layers of history, I learn that in the 18th century, Pest was Catholic and more of a German town than Hungarian with allegiance to the German Habsburgs. Under the Habsburg reign, only Catholics, Serbs and Greeks were allowed to build places of worship within Pest’s town walls. An exception was made for the German-speaking Lutherans although not for the Jews and Hungarian-speaking Calvinists.
In 2006, Budapest’s religious delineation encompasses 67% Catholic, 27% Protestant, 1% Jewish, and 1% Eastern Orthodox. The remaining 4% are atheist.
King Stephan, the first Hungarian King, commissioned a cathedral to be constructed on Castle Hill. It was named for him in 1850, yet it would take until 1906 before completed. St. Stephan’s Basilica remains the largest Catholic Church in Hungary. King Stephan, canonized in 1083, was responsible for converting Hungarians to Christianity. In the Basilica’s St. Leopold chapel rests Hungary’s most religiously guarded relic – the embalmed right hand of St. Stephan.
Budapest History Museum in the Castle District presents the history and events relating to the capital from the past 1,000 years. The Holy Crown of Hungary is housed here.
Gellert Hill, the rocky limestone hill bordering the Liberty Bridge, is a protected area and named for Gellert, an aristocratic Venetian who came to Hungary to convert the “heathens”. He befriended King Stephan and was eventually killed in 1046 by rebels trying to eradicate Christianity from the country. A small chapel is tucked away in a dark cave on Gellert Hill in his memory.
Fisherman’s Bastion, located on the Buda hillside overlooking the Danube, consists of seven pillars. Each pillar represents the seven tribes that conquered Hungary in the ninth century. Town legend says this section of the medieval town wall was defended by the fishermen’s guild.
Mathias Church, built within the castle grounds after 1350, was constructed in a Moorish style of architecture from Spain with its green spire puncturing the blue sky. Mathias Church, as the Hungarians commonly know it, has had seven names. It has had its current name of Coronation Church since 1916 although it is better known as Mathias Church. Remarkably, all of its original stain glass windows survived World War II. Mathias Church sits next to Fisherman’s Bastion and across the street from City Hall.
Historic Landmarks in Pest
The majestic Parliament building, constructed of limestone, rises stately along the banks of the Danube. It houses the largest library in Hungary. If you think it resembles London’s Parliament building, you are correct. The structure was indeed modeled after London’s.
Before and during World War I, the aristocratic Gellert Baths were incorporated within the splendid Gellert Hotel. The baths were badly damaged during World War II and subsequently miraculously repaired to their former glory. The Gellert Hotel is also renowned as an international meeting location for foreign dignitaries.
In 1896, Europe’s first Underground Railway was constructed and became one of the stops for the famed Orient Express. It also served to connect Budapest to Vienna providing the rich and powerful relatively easy access to the Austrian capital’s abundant cultural offerings.
Hero’s Square, an open-air square built in the late 19th century, exhibiting the Millennium Monument, the focal point of Hero’s Square, is a symbol of Budapest. The clustered monument consists of the allegorical figures (War, Peace, Knowledge, Work, Welfare, Glory), the Archangel Gabriel holding the Cross of Lorraine and the Hungarian Holy Crown, the seven Hungarian chieftains on horseback, while behind them in a semi-circle pose the 14 Hungarian kings, ruling princes, and statesmen.
Hall of Exhibitions (including the Museum of Fine Arts) and Opera House are to the right and left of the Millennium Monument, respectively.
When the Budapest Opera House was built from 1875-84, it had to compete with the Vienna Opera House. So, in addition to headlining the best: Wagner, Verdi and Gounod, Hungarians added opulence, the most modern stage machinery of the time, extravagant refreshments, fine art, and gold gilding everywhere to create a resounding effect.
Good railway links assured Budapest and Vienna opera fans of being a four- to five-hour train ride from each other so as not to miss out on the latest opening of a new production or a famous opera singer’s performance.
World War 11’s Destruction
Unlike Prague and Vienna, Budapest was hard hit during World War II destroying its architectural splendor. More than 70 percent of the walled city was damaged and/or destroyed by bombs.
At the time of the war, there were 50 Jewish synagogues in Budapest; all but one was destroyed. The Germans missed the surviving yellow temple, which purposely bore no resemblance to a traditional looking synagogue.
The second largest synagogue in the world was built in 1863 in Budapest, and unfortunately, was one of the totally destroyed structures.
The retreating Germans blew up every one of the bridges over the Danube in 1945, including the Chain Bridge, the first permanent bridge spanning that river and linking the two cities. It was rebuilt and is again a symbol of the shared Hungarian capital.
After the fall of Communism in Europe in 1989, investors flooded Hungary, and Budapest in particular, throwing up quick and cheap business centers and buildings. These are easily identified in Pest by the sheer numbers of glass-enclosed commercial structures, as glass is an inexpensive building material.
Today, city and country leaders are faced with the dilemma of how to renovate their historic and/or broken-down structures seared by the war. Hungary’s economy is still recovering since the fall of Communism; thus, empty shells of buildings and bullet-ridden structures are painfully obvious with a lack of government funds to repair.
As we cross the Danube a final time, one last sweeping, panoramic view spotlighted by postcard-studded landscapes reinforces the complex and difficult history Buda and Pest share. They are survivors.