Budapest

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Undoubtedly the brightest jewel on the Danube, present-day Budapest was created in 1873 from the separate towns of Buda, Pest and Obuda. Its population of two million resides in twenty-eight districts - the central ones will be covered here.

The definitive view of Budapest is that of Castle Hill and the first district. It's hard to imagine that the palace and entire hill with its medieval and baroque residences were utterly flattened during World War II. More baroque splendour extends along Fo utca and flanks Batthyany ter, site of the most spectacular Buda-side view of Pest and the Parliament.

The adjacent Gellert Hill and the mammoth Freedom
Statue form part of the profile of the first district. The hills drop abruptly into the river and define the city's geography, an utterly flat Pest sits on the opposite bank and the majestic Danube flows between them.

The city center (Belvaros) is Pest's District V, embracing the area within the Kiskorut ('little boulevard'). With the awe-inspiring brick and tiled hulk of the Vasarcsarnok (main market hall) at one end, its spine is the affluent retail hub that is the Vaci utca. The city's administrative flank, the Lipotvaros section, extends between Bajcsy-Zsilinsky and the Danube. It includes the parliament building and the many ministries that make up the country's adminstration. Less institutionalized corruption has ensured that the array of shops and restaurants in this district is ever-changing: here today, gone tomorrow.

District VI is the city's mainstream cultural wedge and features Andrassy ut, Budapest's most beautiful boulevard. Budapest's very own 'Broadway' crosses it at Nagymezo utca and the Opera House and Liszt Academy are also comfortably ensconced here among the hundreds of eclectic buildings. Franz Liszt ter has become the city's social hot spot, particularly during the summer when the hip hold court at the half a dozen outdoor bars and cafés that spill out onto the pavement.

District VII is Budapest's historic Jewish Quarter, containing several synagogues, Kosher bakeries e.g. Frolich Koser Cukraszda, restaurants and hotels. One recurring architectural theme is the presence of long, interconnnected courtyards that link two parallel streets, out of practical and strategic necessity. The most incredible example of this is the haunting, vacant Gozsdu udvar. The sixth undoubtedly has the best 'neighborhood' feel of all the districts within the Nagykorut.

The eighth could also be known as the 'District of Ill Repute'. Rakoczi ter has long since entered the lexicon as more than just a place name, but other areas have outshone it in its brand of commerce. There have been many attempts to establish Red Light Districts for legal prostitution here in Jozsefvaros, and just as many attempts to discourage them. However, visitors won't run into any brazen tawdriness unless they venture outside the Nagykorut.

District IX, Ferencvaros, is similar in character to the working-class if not downright impoverished eighth, except that it is now an 'up-and-coming' area. Trendy bars and cafés are springing up on Raday utca and in the section bounded by the Nagykorut. Gentrification will continue due to the potential for development alongside the Danube.

Let's pop across the river again. Obuda ('Old Buda') makes up District III. It was the site of the Roman encampment Aquincum, the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire in continental Europe. Consequently, many amphitheatres and artefacts have been unearthed here. However, many of Budapest's oldest and most beautiful dwellings were razed during the Communist period in order to make way for the huge apartment blocks just off Arpad bridge. Practically all that remains is a small collection of (restored) buildings around Fo ter.

District II, the Rozsadomb, or 'Rose Hill', is where Budapest's elite live. Dotted thickly with old villas and embassy residences, it got its name from the Turk - Gul Baba - whose tomb is reached via a cobblestone lane.

District XII is the gateway to the Buda hills and serenity, a mere few minutes from Mozskva ter. Buda's tallest hill, Janoshegy, presides over this area, and there are many spectacular views to be had from here, including from the chair-lift, Children's Railway and the cog-wheel railway. The latter two also service Szechenyi Hill.

District XI is where the bourgeois of Buda lived before they took to the hills, but the area remains quite affluent. It curves around Gellert Hill and extends to the border of Budapest itself. Most of the activity in this district centers around Moricz Zsigmond korter and the Technical University, which fronts a huge stretch of the Danube between Szabadsag and Lagymanyosi bridges. It is home to the emergent bastion of Hungarian musical culture - Fono.

History of Budapest

Budapest is often called the 'Pearl of the Danube', and it truly is a stunningly beautiful place. Geography, history and human creativity have all combined to create a city that simultaneously charms, amazes and fascinates.

Budapest is full of diversity, and so is its history. The Romans settled here in the first century A.D. and despite the fact that they remained only a few hundred years, their influence can still be felt: they found the sun-drenched gentle slopes perfect for grape vines, and began what is now a huge viticulture industry. They also introduced modern architectural techniques (columns, stone, plaster, arches and so on), the remains of which can be viewed to this day. The Romans, famous for their love of baths, also made use of the abundant thermal springs that lie under the city: they created the very first public baths, a now world-famous feature of Budapest. During Roman times, Budapest was known as Aquincum

Some five hundred years later, in 896, a wave of brave and fiery people came sweeping into the Carpathian basin. These were the Magyars, the founders of the Hungarian nation. They established various settlements, but Buda and Pest were no more than tiny villages. King Bela built a fortress in Buda in the thirteenth century, and then King Charles Robert moved the court from Visegrad to Buda where his son (Louis the Great) began construction of the now famous Royal Palace.

The city began to flourish when suddenly the Mongols invaded (241-1242) and defeated the Magyars. Buda and Pest were reduced to ashes. However, just as quickly the attackers mysteriously vanished, allowing both the city and the country to regroup and rebuild.

Things seemed to be going well and the settlement was on the road to recovery, when the Turks, under the leadership of Suleyman the First, inflicted a crushing and total defeat on the Hungarian army at the battle of Mohacs in August 29, 1526. By 1541 the Turks had full control of Buda and its huge castle. The Turks, another people with a love of thermal baths, constructed some of the finest bathing facilities in the world here. Several of them are still in use and have brought healing relief to thousands. Also credited to the Turks is the introduction of paprika (although this is a bone of contention to many), and in the famous book Eclipse of the Crescent Moon, the author Geza Gardonyi suggests that the Turks were also responsible for another Budapest speciality: coffee. In the city the Rozsadomb area is covered in roses - a flower imported by the invaders.

It was the Poles who came to Budapest's rescue: in 1686 they liberated both Buda and the castle itself, sending the Turks into a full-scale retreat. Nevertheless, this did not bring about a free Hungary - instead, the nation became a province of the Hapsburg Empire. Still, Budapest continued to grow, despite the many political and military upheavals. While it was denied its place as capital of a free nation, it was not denied prosperity.

Surprisingly, the city was still not known as Budapest. In fact there was not even a bridge across the Danube. In 1849, the Chain Bridge was opened, causing quite a stir. Not long after, in 1873, the city was finally united to encompass the formerly separate and independent Buda, Pest, Margaret Island and Obuda.

All of a sudden the city began to prosper like never before. As the year 1896 approached (the thousand year anniversary of the arrival of the Magyars), a building program was launched on a massive scale. It was during this boom that many of the fine buildings which are still famous today were constructed. The metro (the first on the continent) was completed and Andrassy Ut (Andrassy Street) was created above it. Fine architecture
became one of the city's trademarks.

The First World War saw Budapest emerge as the capital of a country only one third of its pre-war size. The Second World War brought about large-scale destruction: by the end of fighting and the Soviet 'liberation', not a single bridge was left standing across the Danube, the Royal Palace lay in ruins and the Castle District was devastated.

The next big event in Budapest's history was the 1956 uprising. On October 23, a peaceful protest became violent after shots were fired. Thousands of people took to the streets, a new leader (Imre Nagy) was appointed, Stalin's statue was pulled down and the people were ecstatic. However, the Soviets would not tolerate this for long: they sent in troops and tanks, crushing the revolution and killing some 2000-3000 people. Many thousands more were arrested and the famous Hungarian brain-drain began with some 250,000 (mostly well-educated) people leaving the country to settle in the West. Many buildings around town still have pockmarked facades: these are the scars of 1956 and they are a telling reminder of those grim times.

1989 was a true headline year for Budapest and Hungary. Troops began dismantling the fence separating the nation from Austria, while Gorbachev watched silently from Moscow. In Budapest a statue of Lenin was removed, and in June a crowd of a quarter million people attended a ceremony at Heroes' Square for the reburial of Imre Nagy. By 1991, there were no more Soviet troops in Hungary and only seven years later the country became a member of NATO.

Today, Budapest is quickly reclaiming its rightful place as one of Europe's most beautiful and scenic cities. The Pearl of the Danube is once again on full display.

 

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