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The International Writers Magazine: East European History - Travel Archives

1000 Years in Budapest
Kathleen Hegedus-Beeksma

Kings and queens and medieval battles, Hungary has seen all of that. This is a story of foreign occupation, revolution, the struggle to reclaim territory, and the fight for freedom. The first stop on the chronological journey is in Budapest at the Basilica of St. Istvan. In 895, the Magyar (Hungarian) tribes settled in the Carpathian Basin and a national identity began to form.

St. Istvan was crowned the first king of Hungary in 1000. A.D. He brought Christianity to the Hungarians and built a church in one of every ten villages. The city panorama from the basilica dome is spectacular, and the church is full of history, including one odd ancient treasure – the mummified right hand of St. Istvan. English guided tours are available. 

Basilica Although the Basilica of St. Istvan is in Budapest, the first seat of royalty was in Esztergom. The magnificent Esztergom Basilica is the country’s largest cathedral. Nearby, Visegrad is on the Danube Bend. The grand palace on this site was renovated by King Matthias Corvinus and Queen Beatrice during their reign, 1458-1490. They brought in Italian Renaissance artists to work on this masterpiece. A few royal rooms have been reconstructed, but the big draw here is the citadel ruins. The museum gives a flavor of life in medieval times, and the mountain-top view of the Danube Bend is breathtaking.

King Matthias Corvinus and Queen Beatrice were married in Budapest at St. Matthias Church on Castle Hill. This gothic structure houses some wonderful stained glass and frescoes. Directly in front of St. Matthias Church is the Fisherman’s Bastion. Each of the seven fairy tale-like turrets represents one of the original Magyar tribes. It looks ancient, but it is only 100 years old. The Fisherman’s Bastion is another great spot with a spectacular view of the Danube winding its way through Budapest.

Art Also on Castle Hill is the National Art Gallery, within the National Palace Cultural Complex. Art enthusiasts will appreciate four floors of renaissance and baroque paintings, wood and stone sculptures, medieval altars, through to modern and contemporary art displays. From Castle Hill the view includes Margit Sziget (Margaret Island) right in the middle of the Danube. Margit Sziget takes its name from Bela IV’s daughter, who was a nun at the Dominican monastery on the island.

The Ottoman Turk’s invaded Hungary in 1526 and occupied it for almost two centuries. Margit Sziget was turned into a harem and no infidel was allowed to set foot on it. Today, all are welcome to this beautiful island park. Locals and tourists alike can find some tranquility on the beaches or on the walking/cycling trails. Bike rentals are available.

One Ottoman legacy that the Magyars kept was the Turkish baths. As a result of Budapest’s location atop a geological fault line, warm mineral water rises in thermal springs. Grand spas, like the Danubius and the Gellert, were built around these therapeutic wonders, but the most authentic Turkish baths are the Kiraly and the Rudas, dating back to the mid 1500s. There are men only, women only, mixed times, and bathing suit optional times, so the schedules should be checked when planning a trip to one of these baths.  

Soon after the Turks left, Hungary came under Habsburg rule until they formed the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary in 1867. They entered WWI as a united force, but the end of that war brought the Trianon Treaty of 1920, which remains a sore spot for Magyars because it resulted in the re-drawing of borders and the loss of two-thirds of Hungarian land. Hungary entered WWII with the hope of regaining their lost land. In 1944, near the end of the war, Germany occupied Hungary and this was the year of the Hungarian Holocaust. Three sites in the Jewish Quarter – the Great Synagogue (the largest synagogue in Europe), the Jewish Museum, and the Holocaust Museum – contain several moving displays and monuments in memory of the Jewish lives that were lost. At the end of WWII, the Hungarians were “liberated” from the Nazis by the Soviets.

Views On October 23, 1956, revolution erupted as students in Budapest led the attempt to liberate the country from Soviet occupation. The revolution was put down with the arrival of Soviet tanks and troops that had the young freedom fighters greatly outgunned. Approximately 200,000 refugees left Hungary in November and December of 1956. This part of the Hungarian story is best heard on the walking tour that leaves from 16 Lazar utca (street) at the back of the Opera House on Andrassy.    

The Parliament building is on the 1956 walking tour because it is the site of several important memorials related to the uprising. Still, it is worth setting some additional time aside to go inside Parliament because it is by far the most expensive building in Hungary, resplendent with marble and gold. Gone are the days of kings, queens, and dictators; Hungary is now ruled by democratically elected officials, but Parliament is still where the ultimate symbol of Hungarian historical power resides and can be viewed: the original crown of St. Istvan.

If the thirst for history is still not quenched, the next two stops should be the Budapest Museum and the Nemzeti (National) Museum, where the entire 1000 years can be revisited through the displays.

Once the history thirst is quenched, and it’s time for some shopping and some dining, Vaci utca is the place to go. The more upscale shopping is on the northern stretch. Heading south, it turns into a pedestrian-only street with more touristy souvenir shopping prospects and also some great opportunities to sample traditional Hungarian gulyas (goulash) and paprikas-csirke (paprika-chicken). Palinka is a well-known Hungarian aperitif and comes in a variety of fruit flavors, plus paprika flavor. Hungary also grows some very good grapes, especially in the Eger region. Egri Bikaver (bull’s blood) is one of Hungary’s most famous red wines.

After shopping and dinner, there is one more thing that must be done: a night walk along the shores of the Danube and over the bridges. Night cruises and dinner cruises are also available, but the Danube at night must not be missed. The twinkling city lights dancing on the water reflect the soul of Hungary, past and future, in all its dazzling glory – Budapest, the jewel of the Danube.
© Kathleen Hegedus-Beeksma November 2007

Kathleen is a retired social worker who has recently completed her Master of Arts degree in Literature and finally has the time to pursue her own dreams: to travel and write

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