A walking tour of Buda’s twin city across the river
We spent today exploring Pest, along the Eastern bank of the Danube River. There has been a “lower city” in this location for over 2,000 years, with the Romans building Contra-Aquincum across the river from the fortified town of Aquincum in the 1st century. Built on the flat Danube river plains, Pest was home to the workers, merchants and craftspeople; whereas Buda was home to the upper classes and nobility. This side of the river is much newer and busier than Buda, and though it may not have the old world charm of Buda, Pest is still home to some pretty cool sights – including Hungary’s huge Parliament House, St Stephen’s Basilica and the world-famous Széchenyi Thermal Baths. From the Pest side of the Danube River we also got some fantastic views across to Buda castle and Matthias Church.
We started our explorations of Pest at Hősök Tere (translation = Heroes’ Square), one of the city’s most important public spaces. The square was built in 1896 to commemorate the millennial anniversary of the founding of the Hungarian Kingdom. The square is flanked by statues of the leaders of the 7 Magyar tribes that came across the plains to found Hungary. This huge square is where Hungarians come to celebrate their greatest victories and protest against the things that cause them the most angst. In fact there was a protest organised to happen in the square today, we were just lucky we got there early enough that they hadn’t closed it all off yet (we’re not quite sure what the protest was in aid of, but it certainly looked like it was going to be a big one).
From Heroes’ Square we continued on through City Park to the famous Széchenyi Thermal Baths. It was still early enough in the morning that the park was quiet, with just a few people out walking their dogs. The baths were similarly quiet, with very few people out bathing in the naturally heated pools. The Széchenyi Thermal Baths were built in the early 20th century at the site of an existing natural thermal pool (there are over 80 such thermal hot springs in Budapest alone and many thousands across Hungary). The buildings that house the pools are just beautiful and more like a small palace than a swimming pool! The pools themselves are kept at temperatures around 37-38°C, though the water that springs form the ground is much hotter (about 77°C). Given the brisk autumn chill in the air we did not go for a swim in the pools (it’s not the bit where you get into the water that’s the problem, it’s when you go to get OUT that the cold becomes and issue!), but continued our pedestrian tour of Pest down Andrassy Avenue.
Andrassy Avenue is the central boulevard through Pest that links Heroes’ Square with the river and the Chain Bridge. Originally laid out in 1872 the avenue is lined with beautiful old town houses that today house high-end brand-name stores and expensive restaurants. Being Sunday none of the shops were open but the stroll down Andrassy Ave was still very pleasant, especially given how sunny and warm it was today (it got up to 20°C today!). The street us named after Gyula Andrassy, Hungary’s famous 19th century Prime Minister who helped rebuild so much of Budapest under the auspices of the Austrian Empress Sisi. We were told that there is a commonly held belief amongst Hungarians that Andrassy had a long lasting romance with Sisi and fathered her eldest son, Rudolf. Who knows if the rumours are true or not…
Along the way to the river we took a short detour to see Budapest’s Great Synagogue. This is the largest synagogue in Europe and was built on the edge of the Budapest Jewish Quarter in 1859. The building was rebuilt in 1998 after suffering extensive damage during WWII when Budapest’s sizeable Jewish community was persecuted by the Nazis. Hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews were sent to Auschwitz, with many more killed right here in Budapest.
There is memorial built along the bank of the Danube here on the Pest side dedicated to those Jews who were killed in Budapest during WWII. The memorial consists of 40 pairs of shoes, moulded in bronze, sitting on the river bank. The shoes commemorates a specific incident that occurred in January 1945 when a small group of Jews found hiding in Budapest were taken to the riverbank, ordered to take off their shoes and shot. Their bodies were then dumped into the river. It’s such a simple memorial, made all the more effective for its simplicity.
From the memorial we continued along the riverbank to the Hungarian Parliament House. This enormous, iconic building is arguably Budapest’s most recognisable landmark. With its multiple Gothic spires and huge dome, the Hungarian Parliament House is extraordinary. Unfortunately it is undergoing extensive renovations at the moment and it was hard to get a good look at the building in its entirety due to the scaffolding, fences, cranes and clouds of dust flying around. Still, what we DID see was pretty impressive! We’ll just have to come back in 2016 when the renovations are due to be finished to see it properly!
By this stage it was lunch time so we strolled back through some of Pest’s back streets and found a great little pizza place for lunch. Obviously pizza is not in and of itself very Hungarian, but with the amount of paprika they added to it, the pizza we had definitely had a Hungarian flavour to it! On our way to lunch we passed the Hungarian Academy of Sciences building. The majestic building still houses the headquarters of the nation’s central scientific research agency.
From St Stephen’s we continued on through the streets of Pest, marvelling again at the juxtaposition between the beautifully renovated buildings, the dirty unrenovated ones, and the abandoned, graffiti-covered buildings. There are signs of renovation and public works everywhere in Pest too, which just adds to the uniqueness of the cityscape. Budapest has certainly been interesting – it’s big, it’s busy, it’s dirty, but it’s also beautiful and grand and stylish. There’s a lot of energy here and signs of progression; it would be interesting to come back to Budapest in 5 or 10 years to see what the city has become; to see what effect all the renewal and renovation has on the cityscape. For now though we have to say farewell to Budapest as tomorrow morning we meet our new tour group and continue our journey into regional Hungary. Viszlát until tomorrow blog fans!