Budapest looks its most beautiful at dawn. As the sun slowly rises over the eastern plains, bathing Pest in soft pastel hues, it radiates back from the buildings of Buda as if they were a giant mirror; the windows on Castle Hill positively glisten in golden jubilation.
But Budapest is also spectacularly appealing at night. The Chain Bridge is festooned with white lights, and the main public buildings like the Parliament, the Opera and the Royal Palace, as well as the entire panorama of the Castle District, are imaginatively and sensitively floodlit.
There are plenty of other capital cities built on the banks of a river, and in many cases the river runs through the historic centre. But such a wide and majestic river, as is the Danube at Budapest, is more of a rarity. Even more exceptional is the perfect contrast between the right and left banks. Buda is built upon hills, the feet of two of them – Castle Hill and Gellért Hill – almost stand in the water. Facing it is Pest, as flat as a pancake (or, as a Hungarian might say, as flat as a “lángos”, a pita-type bread popular for many a century).
It’s no exaggeration to say that Budapest is one of the finest capital cities in Europe, and also one of the best situated. Among the several places in Hungary that have been afforded the classification of UNESCO World Heritage Site, the first were the Danube panorama (on the Buda side from the Gellért Hotel all along Castle Hill to Margaret Bridge, and on the Pest side from the Parliament back down to Pet?fi Bridge, and Andrássy út (along its entire length from the centre of Pest to Heroes’ Square, where the Millenary Monument stands on the edge of the City Park).
At the time of the Magyar Conquest in 896, the first Hungarian tribes settled in the plains to the east. They migrated to the hills further west later on to take advantage of the greater protection they offered. Buda became the royal seat in the thirteenth century and saw the court’s rising status reflected in the building of ever more splendid palaces and the expansion of the town into a flowering middle class town. Pest at this time was a town of merchants and artisans.
In the history of Budapest the year 1872 stands out as a milestone, for it was then that the three separate settlements of Pest, Buda and Óbuda (literally “Old” Buda) were united. Budapest officially became the capital city of Hungary, and underwent rapid growth in size and eminence. This was the city’s golden age, and coincided with the Hungarian millennial celebrations in 1896.
Budapest, now home to two million inhabitants, would appear countless times on any list of superlatives. The Continent’s first underground railway was built here. From here originated more pioneering Hollywood film makers than from any other European city. Budapest was the home of such world class inventors as Kálmán Kandó, the father of electric railways, and János Irinyi, one of the early developers of matches. Hungary’s two most celebrated composers – Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály – lived in Budapest, and Nobel Prize-winning Hungarian author Imre Kertész was born here.
Along the Danube:
Just a half-hour north of Budapest is a special area where the Danube changes course, known as the Dunakanyar, or Danube Bend. Situated here is the lovely town of Szentendre, impeccably preserved in vivid Baroque architecture and colours. It is the town of artists, tourists and the new rich. The Serbian minority cordially tolerates the summer flood of visitors. At the Danube Bend, in Visegrád, which in the Slav language means “High castle”, fortresses were built for the past 1,000 years. For some time, this was the Hungarian royal seat, and later in the 15 th century a cultural centre of European level developed here.
Further upriver is contrasting Visegrád. Once a royal seat of medieval Hungary, its atmosphere is maintained with the partially restored palace of the Anjou kings. Even more tempting is the fortress ruin overlooking the vast expanse of hills rushing to meet the Danube.
Esztergom was the first Hungarian capital in the 10 th century. When the kings moved from here, the archbishop remained, up to the present time. In the 12th century, the kings who marched through the country with the Crusaders were hosted here. The Basilica on top of the Castle Hill is the country’s largest cathedral, whose gold religious items dating back 1,000 years form the richest treasury in the country. Not far from here, there is the Christian Museum, which was founded in the 19 th century.
Small towns such as Koeszeg or the jewel town of Sopron, lend a certain Austrian atmosphere to this part of the country. Koeszeg is a type of hero town, which once resisted the hundred times stronger Turkish army. According to many, this prevented the Janissaries from occupying Vienna.
Sopron is the most faithful Hungarian town. In a plebiscite after the First World War, the local citizens chose to belong to Hungary and not to Austria.
There are many castles and mansions in the neighbourhood, offering accommodation to visitors. They were all restored in the past few years.
Lake Balaton is the largest freshwater lake in Central Europe and Hungary’s favorite resort. Extending nearly 80 kilometres (50 miles) across the west of the country, its average depth is under 10 feet (3 meters). Lake Balaton and the nearby towns are abundant with thermal springs and therapeutic spas, which add to the lake’s allure. Nearby lies the oldest Hungarian town, Székesfehérvar, where Hungary’s kings were crowned for over five centuries, as well as magnificent Baroque palaces.
The Great Plains and Puszta are the setting for much of Hungarian folklore and literature. These feature images of the brave cowboy (csikos) astride five horses racing across a lonely track of barren land.
These flatlands on both sides of the Tisza River are actually quite diverse in landscape, displaying sand drifts in one area and plum orchards in another. Some areas are preserved as national parks, including Hortobagy and the Opusztaszer, where the Magyars established Hungary 1,100 years ago. Towns in the region include Kecskemét, home of the world renowned Zoltan Kodaly Music Teaching Institute, and Szeged, known for its food specialties.