Majestic and unforgettable Budapest at twilight.


Arriving by river, visitors are mesmerised by the sheer grandeur of Budapest and its civic and cultural resilience.

JOY DODDS reports.

RATHER like the crescendo of a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody, arrival in Budapest as the final port of a Danube cruise is breathtaking. Its opulent Art Nouveau buildings rise from the bank, overlooked by the majestic castles on the Buda Hill. Floodlighting at night makes them almost surreal.

Budapest’s grandeur reflects the Danube’s importance as a national border, trade route and impetus for cultural and political development, as do the numerous castles and fortresses along its banks. In Roman times, it was the dividing line between civilisation and “the barbarians” and in the Middle Ages between Christian Europe and the Ottoman Empire.

Liberated by the Hapsburgs in 1686, Buda enjoyed a renaissance under Empress Maria Theresa, celebrating with a blaze of Baroque architecture.

Today’s city was formed by the union of two towns. Buda, the older of the two, stands on the hilly west bank while Pest, the centre of the modern city, occupies the flat east bank. Numerous bridges link the two. Recognised as one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, most buildings had to be rebuilt after WWII as a result of air-raids and the 14-week siege by the Soviet troops.

Foremost among Buda’s attractions are the Castle Hill (Varhegy) and Gellert Hill precincts which reflect medieval times.

The Royal Palace (1770) houses the National Gallery and the History Museum, the Church of St Mattias dates back to 1269 and the neo-romanesque Fisherman’s Bastion stands on the lofty ramparts near the equestrian statue of St Stephen, Hungary’s first king. The huge Liberty Monument stands on Gellert Hill, near the fortress called Citadella, as do the Gellert Baths, a 16th century thermal spa built by the Turks and preserved as an Art Nouveau monument in marble where locals soak in steaming mineral waters.

Northern Buda is the site of Quincum with ruins of a second-century Roman settlement, complete with amphitheatre and baths.

The grand domed Parliament House built 1884-1904 is located on the opposite bank, Pest, and along the embankment to the south is a row of palaces including the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Near Kossuth Square in front of the Houses of Parliament is St Stephens neo-Renaissance basilica, the Opera House and the 1000-year anniversary of the Magyar conquest monument. What’s left of the Jewish Quarter is fascinating. The twin-towered synagogue has a Holocaust Museum and the Memorial of the Hungarian Jewish Martyrs is in the shape of a weeping willow. Bronze shoes along the riverbank commemorate mass drownings.

Exploring Budapest is as much about music as buildings and Andrassy Boulevard is perfect for experiencing the soul of the city. Musical opportunities abound including the Hungarian State Opera House (1884) and Liszt Ferene Academy of Music. And it’s not all classical - the live music scene really swings, including Transylvanian, Romany, and Balkan, with plenty of jazz on the water.

On the Pest side there’s the Museum of Fine Arts and the vastly different House of Terror Museum, from 1944 to 1956, the former headquarters of the secret police and a place of torture and execution. Today it is a memorial and multi-sensory museum dedicated to Jews and other detainees. Some 2500 died in the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. Photographs of 1991 scenes when the last Soviet troops left the city are fascinating. Another sobering museum is the Hospital in the Rock under Buda Castle.

A sojourn in Budapest is as information-packed or as laid-back as you choose, thanks to the plethora of trendy pubs and cafes serving everything from goulash and paprika dumplings to beer. Downtown, Budapest is easily explored on foot – and with its many bridges, notably Chain Bridge, Budapest’s equivalent of Brooklyn Bridge, the Danube is always omnipresent, uniting and eternal.

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