The hilly side of town
Buda is the older part of Budapest; it’s on the Western side of the Danube and is quite hilly (Pest, by comparison, is newer, flatter and on the Eastern bank of the Danube). Buda is also where we spent our day sightseeing.
Budapest is an ancient city, originally a Celtic settlement and then a Roman citadel. Along with most of Central Europe, the town was conquered by the fierce, horse-riding Magyars (i.e. Hungarians*) in the 9th century and became the capital of the newly established Hungarian Empire not long after. The Hungarian Empire was a European super-power in its time, beating back Mongol raiders and conquering many territories. Consequently Buda, the imperial capital, became very wealthy and powerful; from the 10th to the 16th century Buda was one of the largest and greatest cities in Europe.
*Given how unique the Hungarian language and culture is, we have often wondered where the language and the people of Hungary had originally come from. At the National Museum of Hungary, we found out today that Hungarians are descendants of the Finno-Ugric people – a tribe from the Northern reaches of the Ural Mountains. This tribe is believed to have travelled across Central Europe and conquered the Carpathian Basin more than 1,000 years ago. They also settled in Southern Finland – which is why the language that is closest to Hungarian is Finnish, despite the thousands of kilometres that separate the two nations. The truly fascinating thing is that, despite numerous invasions and influences from surrounding Slavic and Germanic nations, Hungarians have managed to keep their very unique language and culture alive for hundreds of years.
Then, in 1541, the Ottoman army invaded and occupied Buda and it’s smaller twin city across the river, Pest. For the next 145 years the region was under Ottoman rule; during this time many of the old Gothic and Romanesque churches and buildings were destroyed and replaced with mosques and structures of Turkish design. When the Holy Roman Empire, under the banner of the Hasburgs of Austria, finally liberated Hungary in 1686, the entire process of destruction and rebuilding was repeated. Mosques were torn down and churches rebuilt, and Neo-Classical palaces built on top of Turkish buildings. As a consequence Budapest’s cityscape is actually quite uniform and “modern”, which we did not expect.
The city, and in fact the whole of Hungary, entered a new age of prosperity in the 18th and 19th centuries when it joined the Austrian Empire. During this time Budapest became the second capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a centre of learning, culture and the arts renown across Europe. It was also during this time that the Austrian Empress Elisabeth (SiSi) became a favourite amongst Hungarians as she spent so much time in Budapest and championed the cause of the Hungarian Kingdom with her husband, Emperor Franz Joseph. It was SiSi who commissioned the rebuilding and restoration of much of Buda Palace. In 1849 Buda and Pest were united into one city and linked by the Chain Bridge, Budapest’s oldest cross-Danube structure.
We spent hours strolling through the grounds of Buda Palace today, enjoying the views over the Danube and learning all we could about this great city and Hungary in general at the museum which is now housed in one of the wings of the palace.
We also visited Fisherman’s Bastion and Matthias Church, which are both up atop Buda Hill. The Halászbástya, or Fisherman’s Bastion, is a terrace in 1895 to allow the nobility of the time to sit and admire views of the Danube and Pest. Today it serves the same purpose, just for hordes of tourists instead. The Bastion takes its name from the guild of fishermen that was responsible for defending this stretch of the city walls in the Middle Ages.
Just behind Fisherman’s Bastion is one of Budapest’s main cathedrals (there are 2: one in Buda and one in Pest): Matthias Church. Originally built in the 10th century and then rebuilt in the 14th century, the church is beautiful. It’s decorated roof, stained glass windows and hand-painted interior were just stunning.
After hours of exploring Buda Castle and strolling the streets of Buda itself we went back across the Danube via the famous Chain Bridge in search of some dinner. Hungary is, of course, famous for its lavish use of paprika and for its wonderful stews. Put paprika (and few other spices) into a hearty, meaty stew and you get this nation’s culinary signature dish: gulyás (translation = goulash). Yum yum yum! Bellies and brains full we must now retire for the night and prepare ourselves for tomorrow’s explorations across the river in Pest!