Sunday, September 18, 2011

A (re)-Introduction to Budapest: Buda and the Danube

Before I got too far along with this blog entry, I stepped back to read my first impressions of Budapest the last time I was here.  They were a bit superficial (given the time frame and the fact that I had been to three countries that I was unfamiliar with immediately before Hungary), but that's not terribly surprising.  It of course takes longer than three days to really get a sense of the place.  Longer than two weeks as well.  So I won't intend for this to be comprehensive, as there's much of Budapest left to see and left to experience. 

Much of modern Budapest dates from the turn of the century.  Most of the most famous Budapest buildings were all built for the 1896 millennial celebrations, celebrating the 1000th anniversary of Árpád settling in the old Roman town of Aquincum (currently located in the northern parts of the Buda side of the river).  The role of the river - as well as the strong differentiation between the banks - gives Budapest sort of a Paris-of-the-east feel at times. 

That said, there's a grittiness to Budapest in ways that the inner arrondissements of Paris lack.  The ordinary stone buildings, though architecturally beautiful, show the scars of 50 years of Communist apathy.  Of course, the further you get from the center of the city you can see the apathy of communist design, not maintenance, so it's a trade off. 

Just for some semblance of organization to the rest of the post (and as a method of conveying pictures to appease some people who shall remain nameless), I'll do a bit of Buda/Pest/Danube division.

So far, Budapest has an interesting relationship with the Danube.  There's an architectural nod to be sure - buildings façades often face the river rather than anything more logical for an engineering point of view.  But there's no readily apparent sense that it was the economic lifeblood of the area in a fashion like the Mississippi has been for most of the cities on its banks.

Budapest does do Bridges fairly well.  All of the inner city bridges are in completely different architectural styles.  I'll go through the four major ones from north to south.

The Margaret Bridge is the longest of the inner city ones and connects Buda and Pest to Margaret Island, an outdoor recreation center that is one of the biggest parks in the city.  It's currently under reconstruction, but tram lines are still running across it.  

The most famous and first bridge across the Danube in Budapest, the Chain Bridge.  It, of course, was reconstructed after World War II as well, but still retains its original character.

 The Elizabeth Bridge, a more traditional suspension bridge, with the moon rising in the background.

The wrought metal Freedom/Liberty Bridge (depending on your translation - and depending if you've also rejected the recently rejected name of the Franz-Joseph Bridge).  Hungary has a peculiar habit of renaming things when new administrations take power.  On my metro line there are two stops that have been renamed for purely political reasons within the past year. 
There is one historical center-city bridge missing - just south of the Parliament was the Kossuth Bridge, a bridge that the Soviets had to rapidly construct as a river crossing after the retreating Nazis destroyed all of the existing bridges in Budapest.  Rumors have it that a new bridge will be constructed on the site sometime in the next decade to make river crossing easier.   If you want to put that in river order, it would fall between the Margaret Bridge and Chain Bridge.

There are of course other bridges further north and south, but they are A. outside of the typically walked inner city and B. much less architecturally interesting.

Buda is the wealthier, stodgier, and more omnipresently touristy of the halves of Budapest.  Not to say that there isn't touristy stuff in Pest or that no one lives in Buda.  It's more that no one WORKS in Buda.  It simply moves from tourist sites along the river (Buda Castle, the Fisherman's Bastion) to progressively more expensive houses as it feels like you're moving further up into the Hollywood Hills.  It's much quieter than Pest.  I would like to say slower paced, but everything is at the more leisurely European speed; perhaps I can say even more slowly paced. 

Beyond the economics of the situation, the biggest difference between Buda and Pest is elevation.  Buda is hilly, whereas Pest seems to be the beginning of the plains of eastern Hungary that the country is so famous for.  I've spent a couple days within the last week going up two of the more significant Buda Hills: Géllert Hill in the city and János Hill out the far side of Buda.

János Hill is the highest hill in Budapest proper.  It's peaked by a stone lookout tower that emerges from the trees looking like a Lost set.  The day we climbed was a bit smoggy, but you can still oversee all of Buda and much of Pest - if you look closely, the Parliament is visible on the right side of the frame just above the river.  Apparently on clear days you can see as far as 77 miles.

Closer to the main city... Géllert Hill - next to the similarly named Géllert Hotel

 - is notable for two things.  This statue:

 The Hungarian Statue of Liberty, which is visible from pretty much anywhere in Budapest.

and this view:

With that I'll leave you for today, as classes start tomorrow.  I'll talk about Pest sometime soon, as well as my day trip to Eger and whatever else grabs me in the interim.


  1. These pictures are remarkable! I'd appreciate hearing about your classes/the Hungarian language, if you need materials for future posts :)

  2. Classes I can pull off in a couple weeks once they're all sorted out better. I can try with language, but it won't be done with any of the linguistic sophistication that you usually employ so you might not get all that much out of it!