Tag Archives: Hotel Gellert Budapest

Budapest, The Castle and a Cruise

There has been a castle and a palace in this strategically important position since very early times but when the previous building was destroyed in the civil war of 1849 the palace was rebuilt between 1850 and 1856.

When in 1867 Franz Joseph was crowned the king of Hungary as Austria and Hungary became the Dual Monarchy the palace became an important royal home and the newly autonomous Hungarian government set out to create a royal residence so splendid that it would match any other in Europe.  The process of rebuilding lasted about forty years between but just like the  Hotel Gellért was completed in 1912 just as the Hapsburg Empire was about to topple over into the abyss of history and both Budapest and Hungary was about to lose top table  international status.

It is indeed a very fine building with magnificent architecture, impressive sculptures, magnificent landscaped gardens and a view to die for.  Prior to 1867, under Habsburg rule, Buda and Pest were subordinate in status to Vienna and Bratislava but after the agreement of Compromise which created the Dual Monarchy, the twin cities underwent rapid growth and expansion to become a major European city.

Like most of Budapest, the entire castle district was destroyed in the last year of the Second-World-War because Hitler declared it a fortress city and ordered it to be defended to the last man regardless of damage and destruction or loss of human life.  The defending Germans and Hungarian fascists loyally obeyed their orders but there was a high price to pay for this military obstinacy and in a few weeks the city was almost completely destroyed to the extent that what we see now is all due to post war reconstruction.

After the city finally fell Soviet revenge for holding up the Red Army advance was swift and brutal, with reprisals against the defenders  going largely unchecked.  Fuelled by alcohol, drunken bands of Soviet soldiers rampaged across the city, dispensing instant justice to those who resisted their violent advance and opportunist looting.  Budapest gave up one group of savage invaders for another.

But the city has done a first class job in putting it back together again and although there are obvious gaps where grand buildings once proudly stood there is now hardly a trace of the damaging legacy of the war.

Statues

The castle is at one end of the castle district next to the restored official residence of the President of Hungary and we passed a theatrical changing of the guard ceremony as we walked to the other end of the district and to the Matthias Church which dates from 1015, was destroyed in 1945, and has recently enjoyed extensive renovation.  It was hastily reconstructed after the war but the communist authorities only made available sub-standard material for the project and the whole thing had to be done again properly and its multi coloured tiled roof sparkled magnificently in the afternoon sunshine.

The Church stands next to a public open space where there was a lot of intrusive restoration work taking place but it didn’t spoil the visit to the adjacent Fisherman’s Bastion which is a magnificently restored viewing terrace with seven towers that represent the seven Magyar tribes that settled in the Carpathian Basin in 896 and has magnificent views over the Danube looking in both directions and with an especially fine view of the Parliament building on the other side of the river.

Budapest Hungary Cathedral

Our plan now was to get as much value as we could from our city bus tour tickets but without too much collective enthusiasm for the open top bus itself we thought that it was a good idea to take the river cruise option again instead – this time in daylight.

So we made our way on foot down the zig-zag footpath that dropped down from the top of the castle to the river bank below near the Chain Bridge and we walked a few hundred metres to the boat stop.  We waited for a while until doubt began to creep in because no one else turned up but five hundred metres further on a line was beginning to form.  We were waiting in the wrong place and had to hurry up to get to the pick-up point just ahead of the boat as it slipped across the Danube and approached the jetty.  We really have been unlucky with boat trips this year!

To be honest the night time cruise was better than the daylight option but we stayed on board and listened to the commentary for a second time as the boat visited Margaret Island and then sailed south down the river before making a 180° turn and returning to the jetty at the end of the trip.

Leaving the boat we walked back to the hotel because now we were looking forward to visiting the famous Gellért baths for spas, swimming pools and massage treatments.

Budapest, Gellért Hill

Gellért Hill Liberty Monument

The next morning the previous days fog had lifted and the sun was shining over the Danube and ploughing a fiery russet furrow in the water running all the way from the east bank to the west.

Because of this we left the hotel early to take full advantage of the unexpectedly good weather.  On the other side of the Liberty Bridge was the Market Square and the covered central market building.  As with other cities that we have visited the market was filled with excellent produce, meat, fish vegetables and several stalls devoted to selling different paprika and herb combinations to be used to flavour the Hungarian national dish of goulash.  We identified potential souvenir options but decided to return for them tomorrow and then walked back over the bridge to Buda.

There was some debate about walking or taking the tour bus but the consensus view was that we should take the steep paths through the woods to the top.

Opposite the hotel there was an extraordinary church carved out of the bedrock stone of the Gellért Hill.  It was certainly unusual even if it wasn’t especially spectacular containing nothing of any special interest except for its curious construction and the visit didn’t detain us much longer than just a few minutes.

Leaving the church there was choice of several paths that meandered aimlessly through the terraced park and climbed steeply towards the top of the hill.  There were no helpful signs to indicate which would be the quickest so we each identified what we thought might be the shortest route and split into three to see who was right.  Sue and I took a route along the very edge of the cliffs and every hundred metres or so there were seats and viewing platforms that provided uninterrupted panoramic view of the city and the river below.  I remain convinced that our route was the shortest and blame the viewing opportunities and frequent stops for getting us to the top last!

At the top of the two hundred and thirty five metre high hill is the Liberty Statue which was first erected in 1947 in remembrance of the Soviet occupation of Hungary after World-War-Two.  At the time of the monument’s construction the defeat and expulsion of Nazi forces by the Soviets was considered to be a liberation.  The original inscription on the memorial was “Erected by the grateful Hungarian Nation in memory of the liberating Russian heroes.

Pest from Gellért Hill

I suspect the Russians themselves were responsible for this and gratitude didn’t last very long.  After the country liberated itself from the Soviet Union in 1991 the inscription was changed to read “To the memory of all of those who sacrificed their lives for the independence, freedom, and success of Hungary.”  On the previous day in Pest we had come across a memorial in a park which commemorated Russian soldiers during the 1945 siege of the city.  There was a small demonstration there and it seems that Hungarians don’t like this memorial either and are campaigning for its removal.

The top was the best viewing point of all and from here it was possible to see both sides of the river, the Parliament building in Pest and the castle district in Buda.

Budapest The Parliament Building

Leaving the monument we passed the Citadella at the very top of Gellért Hill and then followed the path down, past the statue of St Gellért that was less impressive in daylight with a lot of litter and graffiti than it had been the previous evening from the middle of the river with its dramatic illumination.

St Gellért is the Patron saint of Budapest who died in 1046 while trying to spread the Christian faith  and there are various versions of the circumstances of his martyrdom.  Some stories say that he was stoned, others that he was hacked to death with a lance and others that he was thrown from the highest point into the river.  Most gruesome is the account that he was sealed in a barrel with nails hammered through as spikes and then rolled down the hill into the river.  Whichever it is I am constantly staggered by the inventiveness of the human mind when it comes to coming up with some unpleasant way of inflicting pain and discomfort on one other.

The route down from the top took us through wooded hills and gardens until we reached the bottom next to the river and we followed the bank side walk as far as the bottom of the castle hill.  Our plan now was to take a funicular railway to the top but this was foiled on account of it being closed for a few days for essential maintenance.

Having just walked all the way down no one really looked forward to walking all the way to the top so we found the city tour bus stop and waited for the next bus which took us the steep and road winding one stop journey to the centre of the castle district where we immediately set about looking for somewhere suitable for coffee and cake.

 

Budapest, The Metro and the Hotel Gellert

hotel Gellert Budapest

“Budapest is a prime site for dreams: the East’s exuberant vision of the West, the West’s uneasy hallucination of the East. It is a dreamed-up city; a city almost completely faked; a city invented out of other cities, out of Paris by way of Vienna”                                                                                                                                            M. John Harrison  ‘The Course of the Heart’

The Ryanair flight landed around mid-morning at the Budapest Ferenc Liszt International Airport, named after the nineteenth century Hungarian composer (quiz questions below*) and once through baggage reclaim and passport control we looked for transport into the city a distance of about about fifteen kilometres away.  I am a natural skinflint so turned a blind eye to the taxi line and Mike is an incurable train enthusiast so he steered us in the direction of a bus that would take us to the metro station.

The bus travelled for twenty minutes or so and then dropped us at the southern terminus of metro line three, Kőbánya-Kispest and we waited just a short while for a lumbering but workmanlike Prussian blue train to come into the station. Budapest has the oldest electrified underground railway system on the European continent, and the second-oldest in the world after London.  I think this train may well have been part of the original rolling stock, it was noisy and uncomfortable but it was quick and efficient and in just a few minutes we were at our stop close to our hotel.

We walked the last couple of hundred metres or so to our hotel down a wide boulevard and across the River Danube (grey and uninviting rather than blue and gay) and as we entered through the revolving doors it was everything that we had been expecting.  We had been tempted to stay at the famous spa hotel, The Gellért, after watching Michael Palin’s ‘New Europe’ when he featured the hotel in his TV travel programme.  This is a five star hotel and ordinarily a bit beyond my budget (actually quite a lot beyond my budget) but with bargain price flights we considered the additional cost of a superior room with a view over the Danube to be entirely justified.

Hotel Gellert

The hotel is a reminder of those powerful days of Empire with a towering façade, in need of a bit of restoration, and an entrance lobby of huge dimensions and acres of wasted space.  After check in a bell hop tried to wrestle my bag from me but I held on to it and explained that I thought we would be able to find the room unaccompanied.  I don’t mind someone carrying my bag for me it’s just that I am never sure how much to tip for the service.  They haven’t done a great deal of work so I am not minded to tip generously but a couple of low value coins also seems embarrassingly miserly to me.

The third floor room was excellent, well decorated with substantial furniture, a mini bar with only slightly above prices (a big bonus in case of an emergency) and a balcony with a view of the Liberty Bridge crossing the Danube with Pest sprawling away on the other side of the river.

Trams ran adjacent to the river and every so often one would rattle by and ring a bell to warn pedestrians to move aside out of the way.  I like to see trams as they are one of the distinctive and romantic images of eastern European cities and seem to me to be a symbolic reminder of the pre-war and the soviet eras.  Immediately outside the hotel there was a busy intersection with an intricate spider’s web of overhead electric cables providing power to the yellow carriages that regularly rattled past on the steel tracks in the roads.

Some of these were modern Bombardier flexi-trams that hummed rather than clanked but my favourites were certain future museum pieces from the 1960s that conjured up images of the old days of the Soviet Empire that creaked and complained with rusty metal wheels that squealed along the metal tracks.

I noticed that as passengers got on board they immediately began to look grey and tired and seemed to become a feature of the tram as though locked permanently into a 1960s Budapest time warp.  The trams whirred and screeched and sounded bells to warn of their approach as they drew up and pulled off, setting down and picking up and clattering away again between the rows of elegant buildings and out towards the residential apartments of the city suburbs.

After we had settled in and approved our rooms, the girls declared it coffee and cake time so we found a salon on the ground floor of the hotel and sat and planned our sightseeing tour of the city – we thought that we might start with the Danube and the Bridges of Budapest.

 

* Quiz Time

Which International Airports are named after these famous composers/musicians?

Frederic Chopin

John Lennon

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Louis Armstrong

Guissepe Verdi

Franc Josef Strauss

Sergei Prokoviev

Henryk Wieniawski

Leos Janacek

Bonus Question – What is the connection between Elvis Presley and Prestwick Airport, Glasgow?