Maybe it was the Hollywood coverage of Richard Burton's throwing a 40th (1972) birthday bash for his wife Elizabeth Taylor in BUDAPEST, HUNGARY that drew me to put that Eastern European city on the travel itinerary my husband and I followed in 1974. Even in those dark days of Soviet control, the Hungarian capital was a magical place - really two places: Buda on the hilly west bank of the beautiful Danube River and Pest on the opposite flat plain. Through the years, haunting dual panoramic postcard-like images of those two distinct areas stayed in my mind more clearly than of any other European city.
I feared our return visit last fall would be disappointing, that the excitement of the Medieval and Habsburg-renovated city would have somehow lessened in its new days of free enterprise and openness. NOT! Budapest is even more enchanting than I remembered, and the arts communities are clearly energized by the last decade of freedom.
From either side of the Danube, the two halves of the central city appear as works of art to the eye taking in vista after vista. Many vantage points on the Buda hills offer breathtaking views of the Danube and her bridges linking the distinctive cities, long independent but unified since 1873. The most memorable of the five city-center bridges is the Chain Bridge. Built in 1849, it is touted by locals as the oldest suspension bridge in Europe. Day or night, when it is outlined with lights, the Chain Bridge is an engineering marvel, guarded by famous lion statues. Crossing the Danube by foot via the Chain Bridge is a must.
Buda encompasses the eighteenth-century town of Obuda, the oldest part of Budapest with some Roman ruins and several thermal baths, originally built by the Turks and still popular with the locals. It is in this section of Buda that the most important contemporary Hungarian sculptor, Imre Varga (born in 1923), has a gallery devoted to his work. Realistic statues of women walking with umbrellas down Laktanya Street mark the entrance to his gallery. Once familiar with his creations, one can spot them about Budapest.
Buda is a city of rolling lush hills, winding narrow cobble streets, and many historical sites. Most dominant is the Buda Royal Castle that houses both the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum. Because the exhibits are expansive, I chose carefully and focused on an amazing display of the revered hand-painted Hungarian porcelain by Herend. I also became acquainted with the works of two of Hungary's most popular painters: Mihály Munkácsy (1844-1900), a Realist painter known best for his religious and historical subjects as well as landscapes, and LászlóPaál (1846-1879), who painted only realistic but romantic landscapes.
The major church in Buda is the Matthias Church with a roof of diamond tiles and distinctive Gothic spires. The church history reflects much of the turbulence of Budapest, which includes its Medieval Christian conversion, domination by the Turks in the seventeenth century, and then rule by the Hapsburgs during the nineteenth Austro-Hungarian stronghold on central Europe.
Next door to Matthias Church is the Hilton Budapest, which opened in 1977. Ordinarily, I would not recommend a hotel visit. This Hilton, however, is an exception because it incorporates the ruins of a thirteenth-century church and offers superb views of Pest from its terrace. In the same neighborhood is the Fishermen's Bastion, a 1905 promenade with monumental historical sculptures, the most important being an equestrian sculpture of King Saint Stephen the Great (977-1038). He is depicted raising the revered double cross of Hungary.
With sweeping flights of steps, turrets, terraces, and circular walkways that offer breathtaking vistas of the Danube and the flat, sprawling city of Pest, the Bastion is a favorite for locals out for a stroll and for tourists attempting to take in the sweeping beauty of the Danube and the other half of the city across the riverPest, whose tale will be told next month.