Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Churches and places to visit in Budapest

The overall impression of the Gothic church in Budapest is unmistakably Victorian. We enter by a door in the south-western wall which leads down into a heavily and romantically stencilled nave. The walls bear the Corvin motif of the raven in whose beak rests a ring, a reference to the tale of how the young Matthias realized his vocation when a raven bearing a ring disturbed his reverie in a forest. The spiral west windows are remarkable.

The presence of so many Corvin crests and the church's name are explained by the fact that he was married here in 1463. The southern porch contains several plastered coloured decorations, while the murals depict the lives of Hungarian saints. The northern aisle has a series of chapels, that nearest to the chancel containing the impressive sarcophagi of Bela III and his wife Anne of Chatillon, which were brought here from Szekesfehervar.

The former crypt has been converted into a lapidary museum, while the gallery of the church contains a collection of ecclesiastical art with several notable jewelled chalices. The noble south tower is also adorned by a fourteenth-century relief depicting the Virgin Mary's death.

Trinity Square Budapest

The Trinity Square outside the west end is essentially a creation of Baroque times. Opposite stands the old Town Hall, now a scientific establishment. The statue at its corner is of Pallas Athene holding the Buda escutcheon. The Trinity Column at the square's centre, like those at the centre of Vienna, commemorates the deliverance of the city's inhabitants from plague in the eighteenth century. Damaged in the Second World War, it was restored only in 1968. The rather ugly Neo¬Gothic building to the north of the statue is the former Ministry of Finance, converted now into a student hostel.

It is impossible to ignore, however much one would wish, the astonish¬ing structure which stands just beyond the Matthias church on the Hess Andras ter. At first sight• it seems as if a temporary set for a Magyar version of Star Wars has been grafted onto this most venerable part of the Hungarian capital. A medieval tower is crowned by a late twentieth¬ century imitation ballistic missile. An imposing eighteenth-century monastery with a fayade adorned by friezes and pilasters has been filled with orange windows, most of which appear from the outside to be impossible to open. An unedifying but in contrast almost self-effacing sign announces this building to be the Budapest Hilton.

Architectural historians, students of the Central European political situation, to say nothing of any hard-line communists who may be around, are to this day mystified as to how it was possible to construct such a striking example of the worst excesses of the capitalist economy in the very heart of a communist capital. It may be that there was simply nowhere else to put the Hilton, and certainly its ancient shell makes it comparatively inoffensive in comparison with most establishments of its type. None the less, no one who ever knew Buda before the Hilton will admit that this part of it is ever likely to be quite the same again. Inside, the spaces are rather more impressive, and no one should miss the dramatic view of the Parliament through the ruins of what was a monastery chapel. Performances of operas here during the summer vary enormously in quality but the sight of the hot summer sky turning into a star-filled backdrop to the strains of Mozart can be quite magical.

From the hotel the short Szentharomsag utca (Trinity Road) leads to an interior which has remained untouched since 1827 NO.7, the Ruszwurm Cafe, which, besides containing some of the most delightful empire furnishings, offers excellent cakes in its cramped, invariably overfilled, low-ceilinged rooms.

The Szentharomsag utca leads to the western end of the castle hill, where there is a view over the hills towards Austria. Until 1878, these hills were rich in vines, but phylloxera destroyed them and they are now the garden suburbs of Buda.

The Museum of Catering Budapest

Between here and the Hilton is the Fortuna utca, which contains the uninspiringly named but nevertheless charming Museum of Catering. Of all the museums in Budapest, this more than any other gives an impression of what it was like to enjoy Hungarian hospitality in the nineteenth century. It consists of several rooms each designed to simulate the entrance hall of a Budapest hotel from Biedermeier times onwards. Proceeding from one room to another is to discover not only the traditions of a world-famous cuisine but also to glimpse something of the opulence which accompanied travel in this part of Europe before the First World War.

Menus boasting 1889 champagne and Tokay of even earlier vintage recall a time when Budapest was an essential part of the aristocracy's playground. Many of the menus contain English names and date from a time when nearly every important hotel bore a name like Queen of England, Prince of Wales or Victoria. Even after the First World War, the best way to acquire a fashionable clientele was to name an establish¬ment after a member of the British royal family. An elegant cheque book of the 1920s is a curious exhibit for a communist country.

The museum's chief glories are its changing exhibitions, which draw on a vast amount of stored material, including mouth-watering photo¬graphs of the Magyar chef's art. One particularly interesting room contains a fascinating reconstruction of a nineteenth-century shop. Others evoke a world of elegance which the Hungarians remain justly proud of, retaining in their speech such anachronisms as 'Kizet cokolom' (pronounced 'chocolom'), which means 'I kiss your hand' and is easily the most heard greeting in the country.

On the right of the catering museum runs the Orszaghiz utc. Left through the Darda utca, with its remains of the old bastion walls, is the Uri utca, almost every house of which contains an interesting fayade. To the right, across the square at the end of the Uri ut, are the Baroque houses of the Tancsics Mihaly ut. The house at NO.7 was built from the remains of several medieval houses and in 1800 witnessed a brief visit ¬so a plaque recalls from that itinerant musician Beethoven. NO.9, a rather more empire affair, was used in the first half of the nineteenth century as the royal archives and once housed the Hungarian mint.

Back in Kapisztnin ter, standing rather neglected, is the solitary tower of the church of Mary Magdalene, which was the second most important church in Buda and was all but destroyed in the Second World War. From here, the bastions lead to the War Museum, guarded by numerous rusting cannon. It concentrates on the Hungarians' heroic struggle against the Austrians and Russians in 1848, and is rather biased against the former. Many of the cabinets are filled with brightly coloured hussar uniforms, reminding one that all hussar regiments formed in the nineteenth century were originally inspired by the dash and elan of Hungarian cavalry. There are several mementoes belonging to the dozen Hungarian generals who were subsequently executed for their part in the uprising. Whatever one's attitude to war, there is no doubt that this small museum offers a unique insight into the essential romanticism of the Magyar character.

Further down along the bastion to the right is an arch beckoning us down towards the river. The square nearby, Becsi Kapu, contains several exquisite stucco favades, recently restored in a rather jolly shade of green. These may tempt one to ignore the arch and continue exploring the castle district.

Old Budapest

The medieval cellars of the Fortuna restaurant on the Hess Square (near the Hilton) may supply an agreeable lunch before the descent to the newer quarters of Buda. Going from the arch near the War Museum down along the gas-lit path on the right is probably the most picturesque way of accomplishing this. Deserted villas, overgrown gardens and other melancholy signs of neglect can be seen on all sides.

Whether you take the tempting cross-paths to our right or continue down along the steps, eventually we shall reach the main thoroughfare of Buda. This is by no means the most attractive street in Buda, but by turning left along it and continuing for some minutes we shall come to the Turkish domed mosque-like building which is the Kiraly baths.

The Budapest Baths

There are many baths in Budapest, the city's waters having been written about since Celtic times. The Romans called their settlement near here Aquincum precisely because of the rich abundance of thermal springs.

In the Middle Ages, hospitals were established near the medicinal springs, with the result that today many of them are still part of large complexes devoted to hydropathic therapy. The fashion for cures in the nineteenth century led to the construction of several rather imposing baths both in Pest and in Buda, but however inspiring the art-nouveau decoration of baths like the Gellert, further along the Buda side of the Danube, there is nothing more evocative of the ancient tradition of taking the waters than the Turkish structures which remain here.

Of these, the Kiraly is easily the most intimate and charming. Its pleasures of course can be enjoyed only by men, emancipation being sadly almost unheard of in certain walks of Hungarian life. (Ladies should not be too disheartened by this, for other baths such as the Gellert and the Czaszar baths cater for both sexes on most days or have an arrangement whereby men and women alternate.) In the best of them, and certainly in the Kiraly, it is possible to spend an essentially lazy hour contemplating between dark medieval masonry a coloured glass ceiling over six centuries old, partly obscured from time to time by clouds of steam rising from the waters. The Kiraly, in common with nearly all the older baths, are built on artesian wells where water comes from a great depth and is rich in dissolved radioactive salts of considerable curative power.

It has been estimated that sixteen million gallons of medicinal water stream out daily from 117 thermal springs on both sides of the Danube. Those who have never been in any way devotees of saunas and other similar experiences will be converted by a couple of hours at one of these establishments. As well as restoring one's strength, they offer a unique insight into the way in which Budapest society is organized. Like the coffee-houses of Vienna, the baths are places for regular meetings, informal discussions and a general gathering of news. Not for nothing is there a legend that the instigators of Hungary's 1956 uprising were intellectuals who plotted the entire affair in the city's baths. Those who have lived in Budapest for some time are convinced that there is a bath for almost every profession in the city. On the other hand, the bath culture would seem to be on the decline in Budapest, as more and more young people turn to 'western' ways of amusing themselves during the day and visit bars.

A few steps further on from the Batthyany ter is another picturesque square, Corvin ter. The church here is not of great interest, though it has a pleasant interior. To the right under a rather impressive portal is one of the very best second-hand bookshops in Hungary, discreetly masked by the facade of what seems to be a nineteenth-century house imitating an eighteenth-century palace.

From Corvin ter, the possibilities are legion. IfBuda has captured the imagination, another picturesque path will return one to the castle for tea at Ruszwurm or dinner at the Fortuna or the Hilton, whose restaurant it must be said is entirely Hungarian in character. Otherwise the underground from Batthyany ter takes one back to the bustle of Pest and another evening in the Carpathia or the Hundred Years.

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