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First Pest, Then Buda

Probably the first thing you learn when you’re traveling to Hungary is that Buda and Pest were two cities, divided by the Danube River, and became a single city in 1873. Buda means “water” and Pest (pronounced “pesht”) means “hot hole.” Can you guess why? Of course, because of their famous spas! I spent my first day in Pest, which is characterized as the more busy, bustling side (primarily because of the nightlife). I ventured to the Buda side the next day, which is supposed to be calmer, more peaceful .

The Citadel rises prominently on the Buda side of the Queen Elizabeth Bridge

My lodging was on the Pest side, so I crossed to Buda via the Elizabeth Bridge, named for the wife of Franz Joseph, King and Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Hungarian people had a fondness for “Sissi”—as she was called—because it’s said she fought with her husband as much as they did! Nevertheless, she was beloved by the Hungarian people who erected a statue of her on the Buda side of her bridge.

The impressive Buda Castle, which houses a myriad of museums, dominates this side of the river. It is a lovely area to walk, with gardens situated next to the castle. I chose to spend much of my time in the National Gallery of Hungary which houses pieces from some of Hungary’s best known artists. There was a picture that startled me as I approached it—the main subject reflected horror as the whites of her eyes were completely visible. I said to the docent, “what happened?!” And she said, rather stonily, “I veel tell you.”

Ordeal of the Bier
Portions of the gallery had paintings arranged “salon style“. This is how paintings were hung in 19th century salons.

Jenő Gyárfás’s painting is titled “Ordeal of the Bier”, based upon a famous ballad by a Hungarian poet. A bride flippantly places a dagger in the hand of her fiancé when he declares that he would kill himself for her love. On the day of the wedding, the bridegroom is found dead! According to an ancient belief, if the killer walks by a dead body, the corpse will bleed. Thus, all the wedding party files past the groom’s body and everyone—-including the bride—is shocked when blood begins to flow as she approaches. She was unwittingly responsible for his death. The artist won the grand prize of the National Society for Fine Arts for this work.

Beyond the castle is St. Matthias Church, used for centuries as the coronation church of Hungarian Kings. In fact, Franz Joseph and Sissi were crowned King and Queen of Hungary here in 1867. As you approach the church, it’s magnificence rises prominently and you have the feeling you can’t comprehend it’s beauty. Your eyes are immediately directed to the roof, which consists of multi-colored glazed tiles. These spectacular tiled roofs are familiar in Hungary because they are made in Pécs by the Zsolnay Porcelain Manufactory. In the late-1800s, Zsolnay developed a process that made their roof tiles acid- and frost-resistant so they could be used on the exterior of buildings. They are called “pyrogranite” ceramics.

After enjoying the interior of the church—which is equally resplendent—I made my way to Fisherman’s Bastion, situated below the church. It offers beautiful vistas of Budapest because of the Neo-Romanesque terraces. The seven stone towers symbolize the seven Hungarian chieftains who founded Hungary in 895. This was a perfect spot to have a meal with a view.

Fisherman’s Bastion and St. Matthias Church
From Fisherman’s Bastion overlooking the Danube and Parliament

Then I discovered a funicular! I didn’t know what a funicular was before discovering them in Europe, and when I find one I feel like I’ve stumbled into a carnival. “funicular (/fjuːˈnɪkjʊlər/) is a grade-separated fixed guideway transit system powered by a cable traction designed for steep inclines.” They aren’t really very exciting because they simply go up or down, But the funicular by Buda Castle affords sparkly views at night across the Danube River.

To return home, I walked across the Chain Bridge, which has featured prominently in Hungarian Culture. Built in 1849, after the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, it has remained a symbol of national awakening. Why do I feel that bridges are somehow sacred? I guess they’ve always been critical to accommodating our ability to connect and interact with others. Obviously for commercial purposes, but they’ve also made relationships accessible. When visiting a place I always want to walk across their bridges so I can enjoy the water, the people, the views. And the evening I walked home from Buda was especially memorable because a woman with an orotund voice was singing “Caro Mia Ben.” It has been a favorite since my daughter sang it at a recital years ago. Feeling that beloved connection for her across the globe brought tears to my eyes.

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