Budapest has always captured my imagination since my mother told me wonderful stories about her visits there when I was little. She claimed Hungarian ancestry on one side, although my Slovak cousins don’t agree. They can’t imagine that she would claim a heritage that to them meant centuries of oppression. Yet, she did, and so I was anxious to see more of Budapest in the daylight.
I had my first glimpse of the city when we flew into Budapest for our Christmas Markets cruise in 2014. Unfortunately, our flight arrived in the late afternoon, and it was nearly dark by the time we rode from the airport to our boat, the Uniworld Beatrice. The next day was equally dark, gloomy and rainy. Although we toured the city, we certainly did not see it at its best.
Today our bus neared the outskirts of Budapest in late morning, and we saw first hand, the industrial impact of Soviet occupation in the outskirts of the city.
Drab, sometimes vacant factories and buildings lined the highway on both sides of the freeway as we neared the city. This time, we wouldn’t be going to the quay to board our boat. Instead we would have a day long city tour and lunch at a famous restaurant before we got to our hotel We soon saw that Budapest had visible scars remaining from the Hungarian uprising in 1956. At first, the city looked very drab on an overcast Saturday despite a vibrant social scene with many people, both young and old on the streets.
Yet Budapest would not disappoint me. Its mix of ornate 19th century buildings next to modern construction, its heroic monuments and construction zones were fascinating.
It has a raffish charm, unlike that of other Eastern European capitals. As we drove through the city towards our first stop, Heroes’ Square, the Ramblers noticed many once grand buildings with boarded up windows patiently waiting to be restored, although the lower floors were obviously occupied.
We had stopped at Heroes’ Square on our Christmas Markets cruise, but it was pouring rain, and we didn’t get out of the bus. Today it was cloudy with intermittent drizzle. but I was eager to see what I had missed. The largest square in Budapest was full of people. It is a very popular destination for tourists and local residents alike. There were many other tour groups already following their guide’s upraised signs towards the statuary that had given the square its name. They had obviously disembarked from the long line of busses parked nearby.
So what is Heroes’ Square? At one end of the large paved square next to City Park is its central feature, the Millennium Memorial built in 1896. The Memorial was built to commemorate both the thousandth anniversary of the Hungarian conquest of the Carpathian Basin and the founding of the modern Hungarian State a thousand years later. Ironically, when the monument was first proposed, Hungary was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (tho considered a separate entity). The last five statues on the left side were reserved for members of the then ruling Hapsburg dynasty including Maria Theresa and Franz Joseph. However, the monument was severely damaged in WWII and when it was rebuilt the Habsburgs were gone.
The new statues depicted earlier Hungarian rather than Hapsburg kings and leaders. The seven statues in the center depict the Magyar chieftains who led the roving bands of Hungarian people into their final home in the Carpathian basin. These statues are in no way historically realistic but rather an artistic depiction of these men. The are magnificent sculptures which tell the story of Hungary’s heroic past both mythic and historic.
To the Ramblers, the square recalls the more recent past as the place where 200,000 or so Hungarians assembled in 1989 for the funeral of Imre Nagy, who had been summarily executed by the communist government of Hungary in 1958.
Nagy, though a communist, wanted to move Hungary out of the Soviet sphere. His attempt triggered the Revolution of 1956 which ended very badly for the Hungarians and Nagy. ( He had been buried upside down in an unmarked grave with his wrists and ankles chained, but was re-interred with honor in the Budapest Public cemetery in 1989. Facing the square is the Serbian Embassy where Nagy fled when the revolution failed.
in addition, in back of the cenotaph which is surrounded by a decorative chain a plaque marks the site of an artesian well drilled in 1878. The well still provides water for the famous Szechenyi Baths at the back of the monument as well as the Dagaly Baths.
This is a very deep well which taps into one of the hundreds of thermal springs which were formed eons ago deep underneath Hungarian soil. The original artesian well pumped out 831 liters of water at 74 degrees Centigrade (165 degrees Fahrenheit) while the new well, drilled in 1938 produces water at 77 Centigrade (171 degrees Fahrenheit). Needless to say, the water temperature has cooled down by the time it reaches the many swimming pools of the baths.
Here is a link to the more modern Dagaly Baths which also gets its water from thermal springs under the square. There are more than 50 spas in Budapest alone, as more than 70% of Hungarian territory is blessed with underground thermal springs. Sadly we did not have a chance to visit even one of these famous spas while we were in Budapest.
Heroes’ Square also holds two of the cities’ most important museums, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Hall of Art or Kunsthalle Budapest. Both buildings were erected around the turn of the century in similar yet strikingly different styles. They both have elements of Greek Temple in their design, popular with museum architects at the turn of the last century but one is gleaming white, while the other is built of tan bricks with a more Byzantine style of decoration.
The Museum of Fine Arts was built in the neoclassical style and opened in 1906.
It contains an eclectic collection of international art, excluding Hungarian. Its galleries are devoted to Egyptian, Antique, Old Sculpture, Old Masters paintings and a Modern collection. The more than 100 year old Museum was closed for renovation in 2015 and is expected to re-open in 2018. Interestingly there were people walking up and down the steps when we were there. I am not sure why. In addition, several brightly colored benches had been placed on the steps. I am not sure why but you can see them in the photo. If anyone who reads this knows the answer, let me know. I couldn’t find one on the internet
The Hall of Art on the other hand was doing a brisk business.
It is slightly older than the Museum of Fine Art having been opened in 1895.
The Hall of Art or Kunsthalle contains contemporary rather than classical art. In fact, its mission is to display works that illustrate the latest trends in art and photography both Hungarian and international.
As our bus was leaving the square, an incongruous modern building caught my eye. It really stood out among its 19th century brethren.
I later learned that the extremely modern Deloitte Building, flanked by two 19th century baroque structures, opened in 2008 as the headquarters for ING. It has been praised by architects but the Rambler is not sure about it. What do you think?
More on our Budapest adventures next time.