Budapest, Hungary – Pearl of the Danube, An Introduction

The Danube River, the second longest river in Europe and one of the most important lifebloods of Europe. From the life-giving rapids sprang forth cities such as Vienna, Bratislava and Belgrade, but perhaps the unarguable pearl of the Danube, located smack in the centre of the Danube, is Budapest.

This is the capital of Hungary, home of the Magyars. The land that is today called Hungary was originally settled by Romans although the people who are todays Hungarians mostly do not have Roman heritage. The majority of Hungarians trace their ancestry to the Magyars, who took over the plains in the 9th century, and established the first non-Christian Arpad Dynasty.

As this video expertly shows, the Hungarians were considered outsiders to Europe for centuries, being raiders who constantly invaded Europe on raiding missions. This state of affairs would soon come to a head, as the semi-nomadic tribes would have to decide if their interest would be best served by adopting the Christian religion of the West or fighting against it. King Istvan (Stephen) would eventually convert the whole nation into a Christian Kingdom under his leadership, and Hungary would go on to become (like Poland, Slovakia, Croatia and Lithuania) the bulwark of Latin Catholic Christianity in comparison to its Orthodox Christian neighbours in the east, and during the Soviet Era.

The capital and home to the story of the Hungarian peoples, is Budapest. The story of the city opens like the story of the nation, with its original establishment by the Romans and later on changing hands until it reached the Magyars in the 9th century. Despite being home to an old civilisation, Budapest is actually a relatively new city, as it came from the merger of three cities – Buda on the hill, Pest on the plains and Obuda (Old Budapest) where springs are. Obuda was the site of the original Roman city, while Buda located to the hilly western side of the Danube River became the established city and capital of the Hungarian peoples, the vast open plains to the east were a city called Pest. It was only in 1873 that the city of Budapest was merged and created.

A view of Pest and the Chain Bridge from the Buda Side

Buda has constantly been seen as a prize, and a gateway to Europe for invaders from the East. Just as the Magyars invaded from the east in the 9th century, so too was it a vital site that the Mongols captured during their invasion of Europe in the 13th century. Only after the Tartar invaders were pushed back did the then King of Hungary construct walls around the city to increase the defence and security of the city.

Buda became the capital of the Hungarian Kingdom in 1361 and reached a cultural apogee during the region of Matthias Corvinus in the 15th century. Corvinus brought in learning from all over Europe and established the largest European library outside of the Vatican, the Bibliotheca Corviniana; a university was established in Obuda, printing was established, the architecture and ideas of the Italian Renaissance were brought to the city.

Buda Castle Hill

Corvinus Church

Then came the Ottomans, who attacked Buda numerous times in the 16th century before occupying it in 1541, a rule that lasted for 140 years. It was the Ottomans who introduced baths to the city, baths that took from the thermal springs located around the city (especially in the Obuda area), it was in fact the springs that made the Romans give the city its latin name Aquincum. Some of these baths are still in use today.

Thermal baths are a touristy must see in the city today and have become a unique aspect of the nightlife scene in the city.

But the presence of a Ottoman (Muslim) city at the doorsteps of Europe irked the kings of the day and the Ottomans showed no sign of stopping on their expansionist path, reaching the doorsteps of Vienna in 1683. This was to become a turning point for Buda too.

The Ottomans retreated in the siege of Vienna and the alliance of Christian nations (called the Holy League) pushed forward taking back the whole of present day Hungary into Christian hands before a peace was signed between the Ottoman Empire and the Holy League in 1699 at Karlowitz.

The invading powers may have a different religion and worship God differently, but they are the same beneath the surface. Hungary and Buda, now conquered by the Austrians became a possession of the Austrian kingdom instead and called the Land of the Crown of Saint Stephen (a fancy title for what was basically annexation).

If there were insurrections in the 16th and 17th century against the Ottomans, than the18th century became an era of struggle for independence from the Habsburg Austrians with a failed revolution in 1848 that led to the eventual formation of the Kingdom of Austria-Hungary. The loss of the war however triggered a new phase of development including the construction of the Chain Bridge linking Buda and Pest.

Then there was the small issue of World War I that halted progress and led to the eventual dissolution of Austria-Hungary as they ended up on the wrong side of the war, the shrinkage of Hungary and the decline of the nation.

World War 2 was up next, and deciding that it was a good opportunity to gain back their old lands lost in the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, Hungary supported the Third Reich. Budapest was flattened in 1945 during the Battle of Budapest, when the allied forces led by the Soviet Union and Romania invaded the city defended by the Nazi Germans and Hungarian troops.

World War 2 is notorious for the holocaust and one of the cities most hit by it was Budapest, where the then local government sent its own Jewish inhabitants who mostly lived in Pest to concentration camps.

A topic that has today led to raw wounds due to a controversial attempt labelled as historical revisionism, but more on that another time.

What has become of the Jewish Quarter in Budapest? It is now home to ruin bars and some of the best dining concepts in the city.

We all know how history turned out, and Hungary once again chose wrongly enabling themselves to be liberated by the Soviet Union and beginning a new era of Red Hungary.

1956 was an important year in Budapest and Hungary, a failed revolution led to a strict Stalinist communist rule be replaced by a more relaxed one, known as Goulash Communism – because life became a lot tastier after the revolution.

Democracy came to Budapest in 1990 and Hungary and Budapest have finally been able to govern themselves as an independent country on a stable rise and Budapest is once again regaining its status as the Pearl of the Danube.

Let’s go check it out!

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