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.
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.
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.