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Budapest: A Tale of Two Cities

A view at before St. Matthias Church in Buda.

The astrological sign of Gemini – the 3rd sign of the Zodiac – symbolizes the split personality. Its mythical origin stems from two twins, Castor and Pollux, bonded together and transformed into the immortal constellation Gemini. Channeling their inner Gemini, Buda and Pest it seems met with a similar fate. They became conjoined together after centuries by the Szechenyi Chain Bridge that unites them. Alas, we have Budapest, and we are blessed indeed to have it.

On the long bus ride to the metro that takes you into Budapest, a young Hungarian twenty something greeted me. Hungarians tend to be affable, honest, direct and extremely attractive. We spoke for a while about Hungary, its long history of conflict and triumph, and its current pleasantries. He described Hungarians as a conflicted people, always proud but also scarred by the wounds of past battles. Unlike many peoples, the Hungarians wear their scars well, they blend into the beautiful human landscape of the Magyar people. In a moment of honesty and pride, I asked him if the women of Hungary are as beautiful as advertised. He smiled and without hesitation replied, “Yes, they are.”

Cities are defined by the people who built them, and their spirit lives on in the words that survive into posterity. The etymology of the words Buda and Pest are somewhat obscure. Some theorize that both terms derive from Slavic words and others believe that Buda was named after Attila the Hun’s brother and founder (Bleda), while Pest dates back to Roman times. Regardless, north of Obuda (the old city of Buda) was originally Magyar (Hungarian), south of Obuda was largely German. Like the twins of Gemini, Budapest hails from different mothers and other extended family as well.

The Buda Castle is a microcosm of Budapest’s multifaceted heritage. It was first crafted as a defense against Mongol invasion but it has seen many occupants since. In 1541, it fell to Turkish invaders, in 1686 the castle was reconstructed by Charles III to repel the Turks, and eventually it became the palace of Archduke Joseph. Underneath the castle hill is an infamous complex of caves and cellars that once housed Vlad Tepes, better known today as Dracula. Like an aging beauty in need of a makeover, the palace was rebuilt in New Baroque Style in the mid-19th century.

Incredible view of Stephanus Rex.
Picture of Stephanus Rex statue in Buda.

Walking along the castle perimeter and through the labyrinth inside is truly spectacular. An art museum sits atop the hill, a kind of Magyar cultural mecca. A stroll away leads to the old parliament building. However, by far the most ineffable part of Buda is the statue of Stephanus Rex and the Church it faces. Saint Stephen was the last Grand Prince of the Hungarians and he reigned around 1000 AD. His statue is both majestic and powerful, serene and visionary, the way any king would want to be portrayed. Here tourists gather for pictures and the incredible view of the Danube, and twin brother Pest.

A simple word association helps illuminate the difference in style and feel between Buda and Pest. Buda is beautiful, palatial, and smooth. Pest might stand for party (as in fiesta) and energy, the feel is jagged. Once you have crossed the bridge into Pest the crowds swell, the streets churn, and the pace picks up. A stroll through Vaci Utca is a fashionista’s dream; it is lined with posh stores, fancy restaurants and street entertainers. When you penetrate deeper into the heart of Pest you discover beautiful nooks and crannies, side streets with interesting buildings and cafés. If you have some time in the early evening I recommend café Csendes, a local favorite.

Budapest aerial view.
A view of Buda (Left) and Pest (Right) separated by the Danube River.

A must see is the Hesok Ter, heroes square. Here the true character of the founding people, the warrior Magyar Chieftains have assembled in their timeless glory. Flanked by Man with a Snake and Chariot and the Couple of Labor and Wealth, are the statues of national leaders. Before WWII, these were leaders of the Austro-Hungarian empire but it was damaged during the war and never replaced. The centerpiece of these statues is the Seven Chieftains of the Magyar tribes dating back to 900 AD when the Magyars first arrived at the Carpathian Basin. Overlooking them and holding the Hungarian Holy Crown is Archangel Gabriel. This site is inspirational, nationalistic, and opens the portal from past to present. It is somewhat remote from downtown and the old train station carries you there but no trip to Budapest is complete without it.

As with any tour through Europe’s great cities the mind and body must relax to fully process and enjoy. The ideal way to accomplish this is a visit to the famed thermal bathes of Budapest. Here too, the storied occupants of the city including the Romans and Turks constructed stylish bathes to sweat out the stress of the times. I strongly recommend Szechenyi, among the biggest natural spring spas in Europe. The bath house is a complex of saunas, intricate rooms, and a luxurious outdoor bath. Go to relax, go to observe, go to party, whatever you do, just go.

With any pairing, there is conflict in variation and Budapest reflects this dichotomy. The cities identity represents a cultural crossroad: it is Magyar and German, Austro and Hungarian, Eastern and Western, it is Buda and Pest. In a sense, the Vajdahuny Castle expresses this better architecturally than I can verbally. The castle was expressly created to show the evolution of the cities architectural design. Its myriad influences include Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque. James Bilington said in his famous work The Icon and the Axe: “Only some such sense of involvement can take the external observer beyond casual impressions.” In Budapest, a higher sense of involvement is complemented nicely by such casual impressions.

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