A! Magazine for the Arts

Arts All Around ... Budapest, Hungary

March 27, 2007

From the hillside vantage points of Buda looking across the Danube, the Pest riverfront is dominated by the neo-Gothic Parliament building with its huge Renaissance dome. Completed in 1902, it has become the national symbol of a democratic Hungary. Tours of the interior are available and allow art lovers to see the marvelous historical paintings, frescoes, and tapestries.

A fun way to move from the heights of Buda to Pest is to take the funicular down to Adam Clark Square and then travel by foot or taxi across the Chain Bridge. Directly opposite the city's oldest bridge is the recently opened Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace, where attendants appear to expect casual visitors. No wonder! The Canadian luxury chain has completed a massive renovation of this 1906 Art Nouveau structure, and its entrance is a pure Art Nouveau, Hungarian style. From its tea room, there are gorgeous postcard views across the Danube to Castle Hill.

The Pest part of Budapest is flat with impressive semicircular boulevards, but its important sites are so spread out that touring Pest can be more challenging than hilly Buda. My husband and I enjoyed walking several miles but still needed to use public buses and one taxi to visit the major sites we felt compelled to see: City Park and Heroes' Square, the Opera House, St. Stephen's Basilica, and Central Market Hall. Other sites along the way caught our attention, especially the distinctive architecture from the massive building program at the end of the nineteenth century. That was the time of the millennial celebration of the establishment of the Hungarian nation. The Hapsburgs, under the enthusiastic support of Emperor Franz Joseph I (1830-1916), went all out to prepare for the 1896 Millennial Exhibition in City Park.

Heroes' Square was the largest of the Hapsburg public works projects. A classical column monument stands in the center of the expansive square, and a classical semicircle of colonnades with statuary of the chiefs of the seven Magyar (the name Hungarians use for themselves) tribes. From my perspective, the most important building on the square is the massive neo-classical Museum of Fine Arts which opened in 1906. The permanent collection is a fairly impressive survey of world art without any specific stand-out pieces, with the exception of a group of El Greco paintings. The museum staff has distinguished itself in the last decade by organizing blockbuster visiting exhibits. When I was there in October, a Rembrandt show paid distinctive homage to the Old Master on his 400th birthday. Currently, critics are applauding a heart-stopping Van Gogh exhibit. Another imposing neo-classical building on Heroes' Square is the Palace of Art, which does not have its own collection but is making waves with its temporary, cutting-edge contemporary world art exhibits. It deserves more attention than the hurry-through visit I had near closing time.

While the visual arts are relatively new passions for the Magyar people, the love of music is engrained historically, as evidenced by many music halls and performance venues about the city. Most outstanding is the Opera House. Flanked by marble sphinxes, this royal hall of opera (and ballet) rivals those in any European city. A guided tour of the interior is offered several times daily except Sunday. With red and gold everywhere, a grand staircase, elaborate chandeliers and frescoes, and royal box, the interior is all a nineteenth-century 1,300-seat opera house should be. Equally impressive is the nearby blue and gold Liszt Concert Hall. The Franz Liszt apartment, which contains original furnishings and personal effects, is a fascinating place to visit. We did not find the B?la Bart?k Memorial House in time to visit but enjoyed seeing the full-size sculpture of the Hungarian composer (1881-1945) by Imre Varga.

Many churches dominate Pest and offer additional venues for concerts. None is more significant than the Basilica of St. Stephen, a nineteenth-century marvel in neo-Renaissance style with mosaic dome. Its history is a favorite topic of guides because the first dome collapsed, and it took nearly 50 years to rebuild it in all of its splendor. Legend tells that attendees at the coronation of Emperor Franz Joseph I (1830-1916) could not watch the ceremony because they were repeatedly looking up at the dome in fear of its falling again. The organ in St. Stephen's has a very different reputation, in part because of the excellent acoustics in the church. The famed organ was recently restored, and the organ master offers concerts for the public Monday evenings from May through October. The panorama from the cupola is the most expansive on the Pest side of the Danube.

The eclectic architecture that resulted from the building boom in honor of the 1896 Millennium Celebrations provides Pest with every sort of neo-building style. Most distinctive, however, is an array of fantastic Art Nouveau structures with a special Hungarian version often referred to as Secession Style. Characterized by Asian and Hungarian folk influences, these residential and business buildings can be spotted throughout Pest. Among the many are two masterpieces that I recommend be sought out by visitors: the 1902 Post Office Savings Bank, decorated with gilded bees climbing up pilasters as if taking their savings to the beehive-like domes at the top, and the 1907 Gresham British Insurance building.

No visit to Pest would be complete without time spent in the three-story, steel-and-glass reconstructed Central Market Hall. This large vintage marketplace is the perfect place to get a feel for the old and the new of Hungary, to survey the vast array of Hungarian food products (salami, paprika, and wine), and to shop for handmade souvenirs such as craft embroidery and painted eggs. There is a cooking school in the Grand Market Hall, which offers lessons in making Hungarian goulash and pancakes filled with lemon curd.

If antiques are a draw, and they are for me, strolling down the pedestrian-only Vaci Street is heaven. To my delight, I found several old knife rests but resisted buying to splurge on a new Herard porcelain one.

Two eateries are in the best of old Pest traditions. The 1870 Baroque Gerbeaud Tea-room transports patrons back to the time of Swiss chocolatier Emil Gerbeaud, who brought the best chocolate-making tradition to Pest and invented liqueur-filled chocolates and the famous chocolate cookies called tortaks. Another compulsory stop is Gundel Restaurant in City Park where Magyar cuisine was invented more than a hundred years ago.

Because of their natural beauty on the Danube River, Buda and Pest have for centuries been identified with romance and history. Now the united Budapest is benefiting from its turn-of-the-twentieth century building boom and its emerging place in the global art world. Budapest is fast becoming a twenty-first century European destination. I recommended a visit soon, before you find this glorious city suffering from too much commercialization and trendy tourism.