While Budapest today has pragmatically shucked off its Eastern European past and rushed into the future, it has retained strong cultural and architectural links to its often-confusing history.
There is something magical about exploring a city such as Budapest on foot. And Christmas is the perfect time to do it. From November 11 to January 6, a Christmas Fair takes place on Vörösmarty Square where the stalls compete with music and a light show as well as food and mulled wine and hot chocolate, with or without rum. Dress warmly and it’s particularly magical in the evening.
The city of Budapest only came about in 1873 when the town of Buda, on a ridge overlooking the Danube, merged with Pest, an old Roman city of wide boulevards across the river. Anyone who has been to Budapest and seen its magnificent setting finds it hard to imagine that there hasn't always been a great city here.
In fact the Roman outpost city of Pest of the first century had, by the 19th century, become cramped within its medieval walls and was largely overshadowed by craggy and bustling Buda, which literally looked down on it.
However, once the city of Pest extended beyond the walls it went into a period of great cultural and commercial growth and quickly came to look as it does today. When the cities were unified, Hungary was the heart of an important country and second only to Vienna in the all-conquering Habsburg empire.
New Year's celebrations in Budapest
Several bridges link the two parts but the best known is the Chain Bridge (Szechenyi lanchid), a picturesque structure heavily decorated with gargoyles and stone lions. It was built after a city resident became fed up with waiting for the river to freeze up so he could attend his father's funeral in Buda.
In Hungarian architecture divisions often aren’t clear. Take the hilltop Matthias Church, for example, with a distinctly patterned roof that dominates the skyline. It was built in as a mosque the 13th century by occupying Turks, destroyed in the 18th century, rebuilt, destroyed again in World War II, and rebuilt in its current form. We should be grateful that the south porch is original.
Just down the road stands the Buda Castle where German troops made their final stand to retain Budapest in the war. When the rubble was cleared away, the original foundations of the medieval palace of King Matthias Corvinus were found and are now an integral part of the Budapest History Museum.
Little is as it seems – or as it was – in Budapest. The Fishermen's Bastion that is beautifully illuminated above the city at night looks ancient but is a romantic neo-Romanesque folly constructed at the turn of the century.
Budapest's famed Chain Bridge over the Danube river
The best-known image of Budapest is the enormous neo-Gothic Parliament Building that took 17 years to construct. It reveals an eclectic heritage: the pinnacles along the top are medieval, the dome is renaissance and the spire is neo-Gothic. The Prime Minister of the time declared that the 691-room building was “intended to impress our friends and foes alike”. Until 1989 the parliament was largely a rubber stamp for the real power in Moscow and used to have a red star on top above the balcony that was used to announce the end of Soviet rule of Hungary.
While the Museum of Fine Arts is closed for renovations until 2018, nearby Heroes Square has a striking geometric pattern in the tile pavement. This memorial began in 1896 as a celebration of 1000 years of Hungarian history from its establishment by the original Magyar tribes. The principal statue is the angel Gabriel high on a giant pedestal protected by the seven leaders of the first tribes. Peace and War drive chariots towards the column from either side of the colonnade.
It's quite a sight! Make sure you visit the grand Buda Castle
The Hungarian language reveals an unfortunate leaning towards the later letters of the alphabet – and the avoidance of vowels. So the Fine Arts Museum is the Szepmuveszeti Museum. Mercifully, everything from menus to daily newspapers can be found in English. Indeed, Budapest is one of the easiest cities in Europe in which to move around. The subway system is cheap, logical, safe and cheap. And no matter where you end up at dinnertime, there will be paprika in the meal and a paprika shaker on the table, that, along with coffee, is an enduring legacy of Turkish occupation.
A cruise along the Danube give views of more Turkish heritage: the riverside baths, the Lukacs Baths and the Császár Spa Bath and, some distance away, the Kiraly Baths that are distinctly Islamic. The Kiraly baths were constructed by Pasha Sokoli Mustafa, the patron of Buda's bathing culture. Originally, the baths were for purely medicinal purposes and were administered by the Knights of St John. The Turks turned them into recreational centres that, almost incidentally, were able to cure rheumatism.
After dining in a medieval palace, being surrounded by a wealth of architectural styles on every street, and continually serenaded by every conceivable stringed instrument, leaving Budapest by bus or train seems too ordinary. Fortunately, more of us are discovering Budapest as the starting or finishing point of a river cruise along the Danube.
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