The Parliament, St. Stephen’s Church, Andrássy Avenue and more!
This time, let’s start our tour of the second half of the Hungarian capital, Pest. Like I did for my article about Buda, I’ll try to write here the summary of the places I’ve visited on this side of the Danube. It starts early as usual, to enjoy the calmness of the beginning of the day even if it is not easy in a big city like Budapest. So I climb on the first tram passing by and head to Buda. While I am crossing the Danube via Margaret Bridge, I get off at “Margit-Sziget” stop or “Margaret Island”, a small piece of land located in the middle of the river, connected between towns on both sides by a bridge at each end and named in honor of the daughter of King Béla IV, St-Marguerite. The place, also called “Island of rabbits” once, is a real attraction for the inhabitants of Budapest, just like the thermal baths. On hot summer days, you will see huge crowds of people sitting in the grass, drinking beer, laughing, singing and having fun. In winter, there are obviously less people outside, given the often freezing temperatures, but the island still remains the favorite spot of joggers and cyclists with its 5.3 kilometers of specially adapted tracks.
At a totally different pace, I follow a few runners on the roads bordering the Danube and discover the charm of the island. I understand also quickly why this place is so well-known: I feel quite isolated from the rest of Budapest, away from traffic, exhaust gases, noise and of course other tourists, especially so early in the morning! I even forget for a moment where I am when I cross a very simple, but so peacefull small Japanese garden. Over here, the plants are watered and over there, bushes are cutted. Some elderly even take a morning sunbath sitting on a bench and I almost regret not speaking any Hungarian just to have a chat with them. A plain and simple “Good morning” will do it, especially when it is returned to you with a friendly smile! So I get gradually back to reality as Margaret Bridge comes closer, but I decide to come back here the next day at the same time to enjoy once again this peaceful place.
I now retrace my steps along the tram line. My goal once back in Pest is to walk along the Danube to the Chain Bridge and visit all that can be between St. Stephen’s Cathedral and the Heroes Square far east. Rest assured, this was done in several days as there is little interest to do so running in every direction (as I often say), especially when visiting the capital of Hungary. After a short walk, I arrive in front of a masterpiece of architecture and one of the wonder of Budapest: the Parliament. Undoubtedly one of the most recognizable buildings in the capital and printed on all the postcards, the largest building of Hungary sits majestically along the river Danube and is surrounded by a large square and landscaped gardens. I enjoy now a complete tour of the building from outside. Each element seems to differ from the others, including the foothills, the towers and the imposing dome, not to mention so many windows that I quickly stopped counting them! To admire this building from such a close angle is a real treat for the eyes, perhaps even more than from the Fishermen Bastion on Buda by night, even if the Parliament was at that time coated with a sublime golden light adornment.
Now, some numbers about it. Its construction began in 1885, lasted 17 years and employed about 1000 workers. It is not less than 40 million bricks that were used and about 40 kg of gold 22-23 carat. The building is 268m long, 123m wide and the dome is 96m high. The main entrance opens on Kossuth Square, itself covered with various monuments like the Statue of Kossuth (who led the revolution of 1848 to 1849, governed the country and was sent into exile), the majestic equestrian statue of François Rákoczy II and the monument to the heroes of the Revolution of 1956. Inside are 691 rooms, 10 courtyards and 29 staircases. Its neo-Gothic style is inspired by the Palace of Westminster in London and like his “English counterpart”, the building can be visited. Remember to book your tickets online or directly on site. Group size is limited and tickets are sold very fast, but if you come early in the morning you can certainly visit the Parliament the same day. This is exactly what I am planning to do and the time that my group is forming, I even have the opportunity to enjoy a cup of coffee and a small pastry!
An obligatory passage through a metal detector follows, as well as a full search of my backpack. It’s like passing the security check at an airport! We are then greeted by our guide who tells us more about some safety rules, things we must not do and we finally left for our tour of the Parliament. We start by climbing some stairs, the first of a large series. Allergic to them? Ask the guide to be able to use the lift! Once in the first rooms, I admire with interest the magnificent marble interior. We walk from small corridors to large hallways, most of them being beautifully decorated with stained glass windows, chandeliers, carpets, patterns and intricate designs that emerge from the ceiling, accented with a large amount of gold! In fact, the construction of the Parliament cost so much that the money used to build it would have been enough to build a small town in the Hungarian countryside! Special mention to the many “cigar-holders” located around the outskirts of the Assembly Hall. Once used by the aristocrats, bourgeois and other members of the local elite, cigar holders are numbered, allowing a smoker to easily find where he or she had deposited his or her precious Havana.
Our tour of the building continues, first in the main staircase, then in the hall of the National Assembly of Hungary to finally end in the room of the dome, in which is the most important attraction of the tour: the Crown of St. Stephen. The latter, enclosed in a large glass case, is protected by two guards who ceremoniously change the position of their swords every five minutes. Photos and videos are strictly prohibited! We can nevertheless take our time to admire the crown while our eyes linger on one of the elements that compose it: the enigmatic bent cross, as bent as the Tower of Pisa, which sits at the top of the crown. All visitors and all tourists without exception imagine that the bent cross has a precise symbolic meaning. Well, sorry to disappoint you, but there is none. The inclination of the cross is due to a fortuitous circumstance. During a political upheaval, Queen Isabella wanted to flee with the holy crown. She put it in a box far too narrow and relying on the lid in order to close it, she broke the cross which bowed on one side. Since then, the crown remained in this state, the Hungarians being reluctant to change that accidental failure. After about one hour, our guided tour of the Parliament finally comes to an end. I am a bit disappointed because this was relatively short, but it still provides a very good overview!