We emerged the next day to the unrelenting heat of a central European summer. The morning of Budapest brought us meandering through the alleyways of Pest, among the architectural gems dotting around the city. Certain buildings have retained their ageless grace, such as the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in the Renaissance Revival style; others have been rebuilt since the Second World War with a typical grey and concrete Soviet slant. The diverse architectural characteristics of the city are best represented by St. Stephens Basilica, a building with a neoclassical façade, gothic bell towers, and a neo-Renaissance central dome. Its uniquely patchwork design is the result of a long construction time, during which three head architects supervised its creation, as well as structural damage to different parts of the structure. It was only a soon-to-begin wedding that prevented us from gaining more than a peek at the largely wooden interior.
We made it to the Danube riverfront shortly later, greeted by a statuette playfully perched upon a railing. The Little Princess, sculpted by the prize-winning artist László Marton, was inspired by the sculptor’s eldest daughter. The girl would often play in a crown made of newspaper and bathrobes simulating princess garb, prompting the sculptor to create this portraiture of his daughter, which has now become a symbol of Budapest. A few minutes upstream brought us to the muted yet heart-breaking Shoes on the Danube Bank. The installation consists simply of 60 iron-cast pairs of shoes on the Danube’s embankment, in remembrance of those who lost their lives to the fascist Arrow Cross party. Jewish men, women, and children were told to take their shoes off and were lined up along the Danube. They were then executed, their bodies falling into currents, leaving behind only their footwear.
Crossing the Szechenyi Chain Bridge, we bypassed the short funicular railway, instead opting to hike up a meandering dirt path up Castle Hill. First colonised in the 13th century to evade the Mongolian invasion, it quickly became the site of the royal castle. Castle Hill was at its apogee during the 15th century when King Matthias Corvinus (for whom the opulent church atop Castle Hill is named) wedded Beatrix of Naples, attracting artists and craftsmen across Europe to Buda. Unfortunately, the hilltop was heavily sieged during the Second World War, and much of the castle complex was left in ruins. While most of the hilltop required significant rebuilding, some medieval buildings, marked by patches of rough stonework among painted walls, can be found today. Within the depths of Buda Hill, an intricate and interconnected tunnel system has been carved out by hydrothermal springs and human engineering. Today, there is even a church, belonging to the Paulite Order, buried deep within the cavernous network of Gellért Hill.
The hilltop is dominated by the azure-domed Royal Palace, which today houses the Hungarian National Gallery and National Library. Castle Hill and its tree-lined cobblestone streets are best explored on foot, and soon we found ourselves along a passage behind the busy castle complex. The paths open up to the rolling hills of Buda, and among them, the residences flanking the meandering avenues. The hills of Buda offer an outdoor respite from the unrelenting heat of the city. Its pleasant municipal parks and residential areas make the hills a popular summer getaway for city-dwelling families. For the more adventurous, the Libegõ chair lift takes visitors to the top of János Hill, the highest point in Budapest, where various walks and hikes radiate outwards from the Erzsébet lookout tower.
The path led to Matthias Church and, within a stone’s throw towards the Danube, Fisherman’s Bastion. Fisherman’s Bastion is a beautiful ivory terrace with spiral towers and ribbed columns, offering a vista towards the Hungarian Parliament and the entirety of Pest. For most of Buda’s history, thick castle walls were erected where the Bastion today stands. This particular section of the castle wall was purportedly guarded by the fisherman’s guild (halasz), who lived in the area just under the wall, giving the Bastion its name today. As the requirements for fortifications diminished, so too the expanse of the castle walls were reduced. The bastion was finally completed in the early 20th century, providing the famous view of the Budapest skyline.
Matthias Church has historically served the population atop Castle Hill since the times of St. Stephen in the 11th century. Fallen to neglect, the church was restored by Frigyes Schulek, the same architect who designed Fisherman’s Bastion. The stylistic similarities are uncanny as both structures are ivory and are adorned with neogothic spires. Strikingly, the steeple of the church is also ornamented with colourful orange and white Zsolnay tiles, renowned for their handicraft and quality. Although the original tiles were replaced in the early 21st century during a restoration project, each was individually catalogued and certified. These little pieces of UNESCO World Heritage can be purchased around Budapest today.
The church’s interior is truly unorthodox. Unlike the often muted and sombre naves characteristic of classical European churches, Mathias Church contained unbridled explosions of patterns and colours, casting the innards of the church in an incredible technicolour. Upon closer examination, each column and arch seemed to have its own patterned design,complementing flags which project from the pillars. The church also contains a miraculous Madonna and Child statute, which was purportedly abandoned and entombed in Mathias Church upon the Turks’ invasion. The Turks rebuilt a mosque on the church grounds, and the statue was hidden away for centuries. Upon the Austrian siege of Budapest, the mosque was partially destroyed, revealing the intact Madonna and Child statue, unnerving the Turks and prompting them to flee.
After a quick lunch at the quaint Budavari Retesvar, known for its apple or poppyseed stuffed-strudel (rétes), we ventured down the steep slopes of Castle Hill. Buried away in the caverns of the domineering hill is the Hospital in the Rock, a museum dedicated to a former emergency hospital and nuclear bunker. The use of a natural cavern as a hospital dates back to World War II, when Castle District was a key part of the government district. Its construction was ordered as the war came to the forefront in Europe. The hospital was completed in 1944 and was operational during the Siege of Budapest by the Soviet forces. Both civilians and soldiers were treated at the hospital, but the wards eventually became so overcrowded that patients were packed against the damp and rocky ground of the minimally equipped hospital. It is thought the hospital’s capacity was exceeded by more than ten-fold at one point. Infection was rampant, and corpses had to be carted out of the hospital every night, to be buried in bomb craters.
Following the end of the war, the hospital was only used once more during the Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Union in 1956. The hospital was soon upgraded to a secret nuclear bunker, as well as acting as a centralised advance warning system. Among other apparatus, a water tank (providing up to 3 weeks of uncontaminated water), gas filtration system, and diesel generators were installed. Thankfully, it was never required for its purpose during the Cold War. Today, the hallways where patients were stowed among bodies are now adorned with display cases showcasing the medical equipment and medicines of yesteryear. At the end of the tunnels, an exhibit demonstrating the atrocities of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombs served as a stark reminder of this truly horrific past.