There was some marginal improvement in the weather after lunch as the swirling mists over the Danube began to retreat and a watery sun tried to force its way through the fog but by mid afternoon it seemed certain that it was destined to fail.
We were in full speed sightseeing mode now and next it was St Stephen’s Basilica which at ninety-six metres high is the tallest building in Budapest. Actually the Hungarian Parliament building is also ninety-six metres high which might sound a bit of a coincidence but in fact is quite deliberate because the number ninety-six refers to the nation’s millennium, 1896, and the conquest of the later Kingdom of Hungary in 896.
The Basilica is named in honour of Stephen, who was the first King of Hungary from 1000 to 1038 and whose mummified fist is kept in a shrine at the back of the church. I’m afraid that I have no explanation about what happened to the rest of him.
Seven years after Budapest was united from the three cities in 1873 the National Assembly resolved to establish a new representative Parliament Building that appropriately expressed the sovereignty of the nation.
A competition was announced, which was won by the architect Imre Steindl and construction was started in 1885 and the building inaugurated on the one thousandth anniversary of the country in 1896 (no surprises there) and finally completed in 1904. During construction the project was a major employer in the city and there were about one thousand people working on its building in which forty million bricks, half a million precious stones and forty kilograms of gold were used. It is the third largest Parliament building in the World after those in Romania and Argentina.
Although it has an eastern appearance it is similar to the Palace of Westminster in London and was built in the same Gothic Revival style with a symmetrical façade and a central dome. It is two hundred and sixty-eight metres long and one hundred and twenty-three metres wide. Its interior includes ten courtyards and six hundred and ninety-one rooms.
It is set in the spacious Louis Kossuth Square and there is plenty of room to wander around and admire the magnificence of the building. Louis Kossuth was the man who led the 1848 revolution that attempted to overthrow the Hapsburgs and there is a large monument to his memory at one end of the square.
At the other end is a statue of Imre Nagy, another Hungarian martyr and hero who was Prime Minister during the post war occupation years and led the ill-fated 1956 anti-soviet government rebellion after the revolution of the same year attempted to break free from Soviet control.
Nagy’s government formally declared its intention to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact and pledged to re-establish free elections. By the end of October this had seemed to be entirely successful but on 4th November a large Soviet force invaded Budapest and during a few days of resistance an estimated two thousand five hundred Hungarians died and a further two hundred thousand more fled as refugees. Mass arrests and imprisonments continued and a new Soviet installed government was installed, an action that strengthened Soviet control over Central Europe for several more years. Nagy was executed for treason in 1958.
Even with half price entrance fees (2,000 Florints) for citizens of the European Union there wasn’t a great deal of enthusiasm to visit the interior of the building and after a show of hands it was only Sue and I that paid up and waited in line to go inside while the others made their various ways back to the Hotel Gellért.
The forty minute tour took us up wide open staircases, through elaborately decorated corridors, magnificently appointed state rooms and into the debating chambers but the highlight was the central dome (ninety-six metres high, remember) and in pride of place the fabulous crown of Saint Stephen.
The Holy Crown is the most important part of the Hungarian Crown Jewels because it represents the authority to rule in the country. Budapest took a bit of a pounding in the Second-World-War and as the Russian Red Army arrived it was removed from the country in 1945 for safekeeping and entrusted to the United States Government. It was kept in a vault at Fort Knox until 1978, when it was returned to the nation by order of US President Jimmy Carter and it is now kept at the Hungarian Parliament building where it belongs.
It is a pity that Jimmy Carter doesn’t run the British Museum because then the Elgin marbles might get returned to Athens.
The tour over, Sue and I walked back to the hotel along the east bank of the Danube and passed close by a famous piece of Budapest street art. The Shoes on the Danube Bank is a memorial that remembers the Jews who were killed by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest during World War II. They were tied together in pairs, lined up and ordered to take off their shoes and were shot at the edge of the water so that their bodies fell into the river and were carried away by the current.
The Arrow Cross was a national socialist party which led a government in Hungary known as the Government of National Unity from October 1944 to March 1945. During its short rule it is estimated that up to fifteen thousand people were murdered on the streets and eighty-thousand people were deported to their deaths in the Auschwitz concentration camp. It is said that they were so nasty that even Adolf Hitler thought they were extreme!
While everyone got ready for evening meal Mike and I found a curious drinking den just around the corner, it was scruffy and uncomfortable but with a half a litre of Hungarian beer costing less than a pound we were happy to stop there for two.
As soon as everyone had assembled in the lobby we returned to the river because the price of the city bus tour included a one hour evening river cruise so we made our way to the quayside and took the ride as far as Margaret Island one way and then to the Hotel Gellért going the other. The cruise provided a different perspective of the city as we sailed under the illuminated castle on the Buda side and the Parliament building in Pest.
After returning to the quay we went into the city and I was nervous about dining because I had insisted on finding somewhere traditionally Hungarian but was worried that anywhere could match the excellence of the Greek restaurant the previous night. We found somewhere and I was right it didn’t really compare but we enjoyed acceptable ethnic Hungarian food and then after a long day wandered slowly back to the hotel.