City witness to rise and fall of civilisations

21:00, Aug 31 2009
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The frontage of Castle Hill, from the Danube.

Top of Eastern Europe's list of "gotta go" destinations is the bustling and exotic Hungarian capital of Budapest.

Long a punching bag for invading powers, today's city of 2 million people, has been scrapped over by a plethora of imperial rulers and rapacious empires.

Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Huns and the Slavs flexed their muscles, followed by the invasion of Mongol Hordes in the Middle Ages.

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River beauty: Charin Bridge, spanning the Danube and linking the twin cities of Buda and Pest.

The Ottoman Empire overthrew the Hungarian monarchy, and left its mark, by making great use of the city's abundant natural hot springs. The proliferation of Turkish baths is a lasting legacy to the Ottoman era.

In the late 17th century, the ever-expansive Ottomans were driven out of Europe, defeated by the Hapsburgs for control of Vienna, who in turn sent them packing from Budapest. For over 200 years, the Hapsburgs ruled the roost, until World War I brought about their demise.

The past century has been a turbulent and torturous period for Hungary; first as a puppet for Nazi Germany, and subsequently a Communist state, with the Soviet Union pulling its strings.

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Soak it up: Take a curative dip in the Gellert baths.

Twenty years ago, Hungary was at the forefront of world history again, as it was the first domino to tip over, triggering the complete collapse of Communism across Eastern Europe.

With such a turbulent and blood-stained history, modern day Budapest is interlayed with story upon story about the rise and fall of civilisations. A history so resonant, that you can place your finger in the bullet holes.

It is a city of exceptional architectural grandeur. Medieval churches, Islamic minarets, glistening baroque structures and bucket loads of art nouveau.

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The Gellert Hotel

Contemporary Budapest is still finding its feet since the fall of Communism. All of the trappings of globalisation are conspicuous across the city, yet alongside the modern infrastructure and ever-present multi-national brands, some Budapest districts look frozen in time.

As many visitors to the city are surprised to discover, the mighty Danube bisects the twin settlements of Buda and Pest, that were only officially united as one city 135 years ago. Necklaced with nine bridges, this vast ribbon of water accentuates the city's beauty so much, that you could be forgiven for thinking the Danube was an aesthetic man-made invention.

Both sides of the river offer the tourist a tantalising feast of sights. This week, we'll concentrate on leafy, hilly Buda. And we'll cross the river to Pest in next week's column.

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The Danube, looking across to the Buda side.

Nestled amid the verdant hills and tumbling greenery, the Castle District is the city's top tourist drawcard. This UNESCO-protected treasure chest of historic properties contains churches, mansions, statues, museums, galleries and, of course, the Royal Palace complex.

Budapest's heady procession of rulers all cracked the whip from this hill-top fortress. The Royal Palace is an architectural mish-mash, modified across the centuries, with various wings and interconnecting courtyards.

In previous times, many of the floridly sculpted fountains gushed with wine.

The Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa added a 200-room palace to the complex in the late 18th century. It was heavily damaged in World War II, and has been undergoing restoration ever since.

Buda Castle was destroyed in the war, and it took 30 years to return it to the state you see it in today. Nearby is the Castle Labyrinth which is a 10km-long network of caves, which was used as a hardy air-raid shelter during World War II.

Stop by gorgeous Matthias Church, a gingerbread stone structure that is saturated in history. First built in the 13th century, it was converted into the Great Mosque by the Ottomans 300 years later, before reverting to Christianity under the Hapsburgs.

Next door is one of the city's great panoramic viewpoints.

Fishermen's Bastion was constructed during the Golden Age of the late 1800s, when the Hapsburgs agreed to greater autonomy for the city. An extravagant and largely decorative building boom ensued, to celebrate Budapest's new spirit and status.

Fishermen's Bastion features seven turrets, one representing each of the original Hungarian tribes.

The most romantic way to ascend the hill to the Castle District, is to take the siklo (funicular), that operates from the Danube riverbank. It was originally built in 1870 to transport the city's administration clerks up the hill to work. Nowadays, it's one of Budapest's must-do tourist experiences.

Just a short stroll down the Buda-side riverbank brings you to Gellert Hill. This evocatively named rocky outcrop, takes its title from the city's patron saint, Saint Gellert.

In the 9th century, the Venetian missionary was invited to Buda, to help convert the city to Catholicism. A pagan revolt led to Bishop Gellert being placed in a spiky barrel, and rolled off the hill-side into the Danube. His violent death led to him being canonised, and the eponymously named hill now bears a glittering statue in his honour.

At the foot of the hill, a cave-like grotto has been developed to imitate the Lourdes grotto, and is one of Christianity's most sacred sites in Hungary.

The Ottoman Turks conquest of the city gave rise to Budapest's enduring love affair with its natural hot springs. The Art Nouveau designed Gellert Hotel was built during the Golden Age of the late 19th century, and houses a lavish complex of deliciously ornate thermal baths and swimming pools. Many Europeans have made a bee-line to the Gellert Hotel over the past 100 years, to pamper themselves in the healing spring waters.

Whether you stay at the hotel or not, be sure to take a curative dip in the Gellert baths.

Next week, we cross the Danube to soak up the sights of Pest.

MIKE'S GIVEAWAY Congratulations to G Alsop who won last week's Guide to Vienna. To be in to win a copy of Lonely Planet's Hungary guidebook, email me your contact details and good luck. mikeyardley@xtra.co.nz

South Canterbury