After braving the cold winds, seeing some historical stuff, enjoying a marionette show and a street program with lovely music on day 1, I was curious to learn more about this beautiful city. So I went to the location where the walking tour was supposed to start.
But I also needed some cash first and found that the exchange shop that I’d found the previous day was closed. I needn’t have worried because there were many others close to the Lion Fountain. Found one which offered a good rate and proceeded with the tour.
It was a bit difficult to locate the fountain due to the street market that was getting set up in the morning hours. I don’t know if it was a regular one or special because of Easter.
There at the Lion Fountain I saw a huge crowd – of course the people interested in the tour. There were so many that the tour guides had to divide it into four or five groups with one guide assigned to each. I got into the group with a nice guide named Barbara with the nickname Barbie (and she indeed looked like a doll :-)).
The tour started with a brief history of Hungary. It is about 1000 years old. It is widely accepted that the people were non-Europeans – most probably from Asia. In 896 AD, 7 tribes decided to make one nation under Prince Arpad. In around 1000 AD, the king Stephen converted to Christianity and was canonized (granted the title of Saint) posthumously. There were 2 mongol invasions – one in 1241 and another in 1541. The second one established the rule of the Ottoman Empire for 150 years over central part of Hungary. The Habsburgs (Austria) who ruled the Western part of Hungary, finally liberated central Hungary from the Turks in 1686 AD. The Hungarians were not really happy under the Habsburgs and there were 12 uprisings, each of which was squashed. In 1867 there was a compromise between Austria and Hungary, with double centred monarchy – in Vienna and in Pest-Buda. In 1873, Pest, Buda and Obuda were unified and thus came into being the metropolis – Budapest. After the WWI, 77% of the territory was lost to 7 countries! The nationalist sentiment grew and Hitler took advantage of that in WWII by giving back 40% of the territory to make Hungary its ally. However, in 1944, they occupied Hungary to prevent them from switching sides. In that period of war, 450K people were sent to Auschwitz and 150K were killed. Around 700K people were killed in a period of 7 months. Finally the Soviet Red Army arrived and liberated Hungary in 1945 and then occupied it. In 1956, there was an uprising against Stanilism but it failed. Finally in 1988, the transition began. In 1990, the Soviet army left Hungary and the democratic system began.
After the tour was over, I went to see this memorial for the Jewish people who were shot dead into the Danube during the German occupation. The victims were made to take off their shoes and other belongings before being shot. The memories from my trip to Krakow came back on seeing this.
Walking and talking, we reached the Elisabeth (Sisi) Square, which is the main square of Pest. Sisi was the Empress of the Austro-Hungarian empire by her marriage to Emperor Franz Joseph I. She spent more time in Budapest than in Vienna.
But the more interesting thing here is the Michael Jackson tree!
This tree is opposite to the hotel where Michael Jackson once stayed and the fans have made this tree a kind of shrine after his demise.
We also got to know about two national drinks of Hungary which contain 40-70% alcohol by volume! They are Unicum and Palinka. The first one is made of 40 herbs and the second one is made with fruits. I didn’t get a chance to taste them but then, there is always the possibility of a next time! Another tidbit we got to know was that the name Buda comes from the Slavic word for water and Pest comes from the slavic word for Oven.
We reached the Basilica of St. Stephen. Interesting thing is that it is not that old! It’s only about a 100 years old. It is quite impressive and is 96 m high (same as the Parliament). It was completed in 1905 after 54 years of construction. The delay is because first of all the original architect died, and then later, the dome collapsed in 1868, which led to the complete demolition and reconstruction from scratch.
It is very impressive from inside as well. I went to see it later after the tour.
An important photo-op was with Charlie – the policeman. The legend is that if you rub his belly, you are guaranteed a very good meal in Budapest :-).
Barbara also informed us that there was a major flood (5 m high) in the Danube in 1838, destroying almost all the buildings in the St. Stephen’s square. So the reconstructed buildings are of course not very old.
Then we walked towards the Chain Bridge and cross it to reach the Buda side of Budapest. On the way, we also learnt that the Hungarian language does not bear similarity to Slavic or Latin or any Indo-European languages. It is closer to Finnish but still different. The Hungarian word for Hungarian is Magyar.
The Chain Bridge or the Szechenyi Bridge was the first permanent bridge between Buda and Pest, opened in 1849. The story goes that Szechenyi who was an influential politician in the 1800s, personally paid for the construction when he faced a personal tragedy. His dad died on the Buda side and there was no bridge to easily go from one side to the other!
It was so windy crossing the bridge that it was very difficult to walk and to have a conversation!
We then stopped for a break at the end of the bridge – at the Clark Adam square – named after the Scottish engineer who built the bridge (Adam Clark). There is a funicular that can be taken to go up from there, or a bus (like I did the previous day). But it was not so difficult to climb either, which is what we did! On the way we saw an old musician and Barbara told me that he plays the same tune everyday, to which I said “but, to several new people each day” :-). Now, the Royal Palace has been there since 1200s but it was let to fall into ruins in the 17th century by the Ottomans. Then the Habsburgs reconstructed it which is the Baroque structure we see today. It was destroyed in WWII but reconstructed in 1976. Barbara drew our attention to the plastic sheets covering the windows in the communist times – functionality over beauty.
Then we walked towards the Matthias Church and the Fishermen’s Bastion before ending the tour. Passing by the President’s house, we also heard a bit about the current Hungarian politics which didn’t sound good. At the end, we received lot of good advice from our guide on how to explore the city for the rest of our visit, tipped her for the lovely tour she gave us and went in pursuit of our interests.
Phew! I finally managed to complete this post. Will be back soon with the final post.