Happy as a Habsburg in Budapest

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A view from a hill

I felt quite at home in Budapest. It’s a bit like London but more relaxing, with far fewer people and less of a prostitute. I walked from St Stephen’s Church to the Danube and crossed the Chain Bridge to my hotel in Buda in almost complete solitude on a Saturday night. If that had been London’s West End I’d have had to negotiate crowds of drunken yobs and somehow get onto the tube through a seething torrent of humanity, avoiding puddles of vomit and making sure my hand was firmly clamped around my wallet.

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Budapest Technical University was founded in 1782, making it the oldest of its kind in the world. I could easily imagine being a student here. In fact one of my fondest of many fantasies is that I’m a kind of wandering European Renaissance scholar in the mould of Paracelsus or Cornelius Agrippa, enrolling at different universities across the Continent to learn what I can before restlessly moving on. There’s a lot of drinking and fornication involved of course, and I pen learned tracts along the way that mark me out as a rare enlightened soul in a dark and superstitious world, and centuries ahead of my time.

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Hungarian Parliament

The famous Parliament building is like one of the white, fluffy confections you find in the cake shops here, delicious but way over the top. It doesn’t have the gravitas of Westminster and seems more the sort of thing Ceausescu in neighbouring Romania would have liked to have had for his palace.

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‘Shoes by the Danube’

There are 60 pairs of bronze shoes just next to this building, on the water’s edge. They’re in remembrance of a group of Jewish men, women and children who were murdered on this spot in 1940 by the Nazis during their occupation of the city. Wherever you go you hear of deportations, executions and demolished buildings. It sometimes seems in places like this that just having a border with Austria or Germany at one time put you in danger of suffering serious physical harm. It always makes me feel thankful for the English Channel. That didn’t stop the Normans, of course, but I doubt whether the Germans would have had such an enriching influence on the country.

Fisherman's Bastion

Fisherman’s Bastion

I think the most atmospheric places I visited in Budapest were the old Ottoman hammam just around the corner from my hotel, and the tomb of Gül Baba high above the city. I had a tough time finding that and the struggle up the narrow streets that finally led me to it nearly did my back in. Gül Baba was a Dervish poet and his tomb was built in 1543 by the third Pasha. The Ottomans occupied Hungary for 150 years and understandably not much has survived from the time of these uninvited guests. Civic building was not, and still is not I would argue, the Turks’ strongest point, and it was left to the Habsburgs to revamp the city between 1687 and 1916. They’re the ones we need to thank for all those stately, elegant and eminently civilised buildings that line the Danube today.

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Budapest is as famous for its bridges as is my own home city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The 1849 Chain Bridge is most impressive, and the first to permanently connect Buda and Pest. The Elizabeth Bridge, finished in 1903, was the world’s longest suspension bridge at the time. After World War II it had to be completely rebuilt because of yet another parting gift from the retreating Germans.

Matyas Church

Matyas Church

St Stephen’s Basilica is home to the mummified hand of Hungary’s first king, St Stephen, so naturally I was attracted to that. Of the rest, I found Fisherman’s Bastion a bit too like Disney World, Memento Park with its Communist-era statues too depressing and Buda Castle not old enough. It was completed in the 18th century and I like my castles to be at least 700 years old. I would have liked to have seen the Bela Bartok Memorial House, and also Esztergom Basilica in a neighbouring town, but there was no time. I didn’t get to have a proper bath either in this famous old spa city, but I did manage to splash my face in the blue Danube, so that was something. The Bosphorus (Istanbul), Tagus (Toledo), Tiber (Rome), Rhine (Cologne), Danube and Tyne are all now safely accounted for.

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