When we talk about Eastern Europe, many are presented with images of former communist nations that are backward and grim. Indeed for a long time post World War II, Eastern Europe was such a place.
But it belies the fact that this region was once thriving and dynamic, and the centre of one of the largest continental empires of Europe. We have all heard of Austria. But did you know that Austria was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire?
In the middle ages, Eastern Europe came under the domination of a family known as the Habsburgs. They ruled over vast tracts that come to be part of Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, large slices of Poland and the Balkan countries. We once wrote in an earlier newsletter that these were run like family businesses those days! And indeed they were, for they more resembled a collection of countries with vastly different cultures, traditions and languages.
Out of this “collection”, Hungary deserves a lot of mention. Because it appears to be named after the Huns that thundered into Europe in the 5th century. But did you know the present Hungarians are not related to them at all? Magyars, the ethnic group that migrated into the plains of the country are more related to the Finns and Estonians. And they came to this part of Europe in the 8th century. That explains the history part.
So what did we do in Hungary?
Now you need to know we did this journey well in the past, at a time when the region was opening up. And it did the journey with a group. So this is a myopic view in the sense it was limited to the activities laid out for us.
Appreciate the past
For one thing (and good too) we started with a visit to Budapest, one of the capitals of that classical empire, where famous writers, painters and musicians originated. The city comprised of Buda/Óuda on the west bank and Pest on the east bank. They were only merged officially in 1873 to form the present city as the city grew in size and population. It was a capital, a dual capital with Vienna for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the largest continental entity of the early 20th century if one excludes Russia.
Located within the city itself is a host of UNESCO heritage sites such as the heroes’ square which we visited upon arrival. It is the city’s largest square and was constructed in 1896 to commemorate the 1000th year of Hungary’s existence. That millennium monument in the center has seven horse riding statues as if circling it. Well these were the chieftains that led the Magyar tribes into their present home.
Though we came with a group, we traveled local as transport was easily available (there were already multiple metro lines) and we found it to be a quick way to get around town. Because most of the city is on a plain (well the Pest side anyway) with the Danube river running through, the city’s rulers built a large stone wall to protect the city. Where? Well mostly on the hill side of the city – ie Buda.
Unfortunately those walls weren’t enough, for the history of the city reads like the ebb and flow of conflict. In the 16th century the country was defeated by the Ottomans and remained under its domination for 140 years. Then it switched master to that of the Habsburgs following the Ottoman’s ouster. During all that time, the city was enriched as each succeeding conqueror rebuilt the damaged city. We were amazed with the depth of preservation that remains despite the years of conflict.
Looking down from them hill
Now Buda on the west bank of the Danube is higher ground. In fact, if one took the evening cruise (which we did), one will easily see that the hills well overlooks the eastern bank that Pest is. It used to be full of vineyards but then a fortress was built on Gellert hill in the 1850s, to actually watch over the city. In case it revolted again. Talk about homeland security bearing down on the civilian population instead of protecting it! Sigh.
But you see the spirit of independence of the Hungarian people did not get extinguished just because they fell first under the Ottoman and later the Habsburg yoke. Guess walls don’t do much to change minds huh? Today though, the reason to assault ascend the hill is for a Panorama of the city with the river Danube running through the city.
The Matthias Church was built by King Matthias in the early middle ages (who else?). It survived the Mongol destruction and became a mosque during the period of Ottoman rule. Because the city was a dual capital from the 1850s, the church was used as a coronation site for newly minted emperors. It is such a beautiful church from the outside. And nearby is Fisherman’s bastion. Did you think it was a place for the fishermen to gather and sell their produce? Duh.
First let’s be clear what’s a bastion. It is a part of a fortification that sort of juts out in an angular fashion. So obviously no fishermen selling fish here since this is all military speak. Remodeled in the early 1900s, these ramparts afforded yet another wonderful view of the city of Pest below. But do you know why it is named after fishermen? Ok, if literature is to be believed then that’s because the fishermen’s guild was responsible for manning and protecting this stretch of the city defense wall. So the name stuck, according to these sources.
True or not? Well you tell us!Budapest is also famous for having the third largest parliament building in the world. While the plan for it started in 1885, it was only in 1904 that it was completed. Today the building is only used partially by the government and it is open to the public. You can admire the beautifully decorated interior of the parliament with its chandeliers and view the Crown of Hungary in its central hall (no there is no King here anymore) in a giant glass vault.
Enjoy Hungarian culture, coffee, tea and cakes
Vasdahunyad castle is a beautiful castle that we visited too. Despite how it looks, this one’s built in 1896 as a sort of folly (remember what this is?). The architecture of the castle combines architecture from across different design epochs such as Romanesque or baroque. It is so beautiful in the sun! We also made a short visit inside the Castle to listen to Organ music. If you have time you must visit.
Spend time at the café. That’s also what anyone coming to Budapest need to do in our opinion. And there are plenty of them to choose from. Here is where one gets on a high with a combination of caffeine therapy and sugary confectionery. They both give you a rush and the combination along with the beautiful setting of the café will definitely make your day. While we were not at a café per se, we did dine at one of Budapest’s refined restaurants of the time – Gundel. Located not too far from Vasdahunyad castle, we had the mandatory Hungarian cuisines followed by excellent desserts and coffee!
And how can one come to Hungary and not venture into a folk village? Well if you part of a tour group it is mandatory – or rather its part of the itinerary we paid for anyway. So off we went to nearby Szentendre’s Skanzen open air museum. Like most folk museums, they try to show you how people lived, the homes they had etc. Well that was nice… but then it did not pack enough punch for the experience in our opinion back then. We know they’ve added exhibits and improved since then, so perhaps you might consider it. We had dinner there which was ok, after all we too had to sample the traditional foods such as the goulash. And being serenaded while having your dinner? Stop it, trying to enjoy our food!
If we get to return to Hungary and specifically Budapest, there are a three things we want to do:
- Take a bath at Rudas Spa, built by the Ottomans
- Visit the Roman ruins of Aquincum
- Do a café “crawl” through downtownMaybe we did not spend enough time in Hungary. It was mostly (if not entirely) in Budapest though we stopped at Gyor on the way to Austria. And we know there are lots more out here in the country. In fact as you know the entire Eastern Europe and the Balkans is where we’d like to do something more in-depth. Will we have this opportunity? As you know, we believe opportunities lie in how one works and plans for it. It’s WIP for now.
We spent a few days in Hungary during our journey around Eastern Europe in July 2001