Budapest, the capital of Hungary, is a beautifully peaceful city straddling the Danube River, with Buda on the western bank and Pest in the east. Originally two separate cities, Buda and Pest were joined in 1873 when Hungary was part of the Austrian Hapsburg empire.
Like much of Eastern Europe, Budapest took a beating during World War II. Bombs rained down like a proliferation of hailstones and left smoldering piles of rubble in their wake. Then, in a final act of desperation, German troops blew up the city’s bridges during their retreat from the advancing Soviet army. By war’s end, a staggering 75 percent of Budapest lay in ruins.
Walking around Budapest today, it’s difficult to believe that so much of it is newly built. The Hungarians have slowly and painstakingly reconstructed their beloved city, from the Hapsburg palace atop a Buda hill to the iconic domed Parliament building standing proudly on the Pest side of the Danube. Looking at photos of the destruction (do a Google image search) I am astounded at the transformation. Budapest has truly risen like a phoenix from the ashes. The city’s rebirth is made even more amazing given the fact that the Soviets took over Hungary after the war and tried to impose Communism on the reluctant population.
After forty years of Soviet rule, Budapest could be chock-full of squat grey concrete structures but, mercifully, it is not.
Dramatically curved cobblestone lanes are fronted by rows of four-story buildings painted in a rainbow of hues. (Fun fact: Yellow is the color of choice because historically it represented gold.) Historic buildings have been renovated with respect for their ornate facades and doorways have been left their original horse-and-carriage size. Public squares dotted with benches, fountains and leafy trees create an atmosphere seemingly straight from the 18th century. Bells ring out from reestablished churches and relaxed locals enjoy glasses of Hungarian wine in cafes. At least visually, the vestiges of Communism have been shaken off like snow from a winter coat.
Not all the buildings have been restored, and their damaged exteriors are the more charming for it. They provide a fascinating glimpse of the past and illustrate just how far Budapest has come.
Most incredible to me is the recreation of the city’s now-famous bridges. The first permanent bridge to link Buda and Pest was erected in 1849; today nine bridges make the crossing, including the five once destroyed by the Nazis. Széchenyi Chain Bridge was the first and has become the most iconic. The vision of Count István Széchenyi, Chain Bridge is easily recognized by its stolid stone arches and the imposing lions which flank each entrance and miraculously survived the war intact.
Originally completed in 1896 and named Franz Joseph Bridge after the reigning emperor, Liberty Bridge was designed for the Millennium World Expo. It was the first to be rebuilt after the war as it sustained the least amount of damage.
Emperor Franz Joseph’s wife, Elisabeth, was widely considered to be the most beautiful woman in the world at the time and was absolutely beloved by her people. Elisabeth Bridge, completed in 1903, was an appropriately grand structure to pay homage to its namesake. It boasted a center span of 290 meters (the world’s longest at the time) and 17 meter-tall stone plinths supporting the flanks. Rendered unsalvageable by German explosives, a replacement wasn’t erected until 1964. Elegant in its simplicity, the gleaming white new Elisabeth Bridge still enjoys pride of place for Budapest’s residents. Remnants of the old bridge can be found in the city’s Transportation Museum.
Have you been to Budapest? What were your first impressions?