|Budapest is often called the 'Pearl of the
Danube', and it truly is a stunningly beautiful place. Geography, history
and human creativity have all combined to create a city that
simultaneously charms, amazes and fascinates.
Budapest is full of diversity, and so is its history. The Romans settled here in the first century A.D. and despite the fact that they remained only a few hundred years, their influence can still be felt: they found the sun-drenched gentle slopes perfect for grape vines, and began what is now a huge viticulture industry. They also introduced modern architectural techniques (columns, stone, plaster, arches and so on), the remains of which can be viewed to this day. The Romans, famous for their love of baths, also made use of the abundant thermal springs that lie under the city: they created the very first public baths, a now world-famous feature of Budapest. During Roman times, Budapest was known as Aquincum
Some five hundred years later, in 896, a wave of brave and fiery people came sweeping into the Carpathian basin. These were the Magyars, the founders of the Hungarian nation. They established various settlements, but Buda and Pest were no more than tiny villages. King Bela built a fortress in Buda in the thirteenth century, and then King Charles Robert moved the court from Visegrad to Buda where his son (Louis the Great) began construction of the now famous Royal Palace.
The city began to flourish when suddenly the Mongols invaded (241-1242) and defeated the Magyars. Buda and Pest were reduced to ashes. However, just as quickly the attackers mysteriously vanished, allowing both the city and the country to regroup and rebuild.
Things seemed to be going well and the settlement was on the road to recovery, when the Turks, under the leadership of Suleyman the First, inflicted a crushing and total defeat on the Hungarian army at the battle of Mohacs in August 29, 1526. By 1541 the Turks had full control of Buda and its huge castle. The Turks, another people with a love of thermal baths, constructed some of the finest bathing facilities in the world here. Several of them are still in use and have brought healing relief to thousands. Also credited to the Turks is the introduction of paprika (although this is a bone of contention to many), and in the famous book Eclipse of the Crescent Moon, the author Geza Gardonyi suggests that the Turks were also responsible for another Budapest speciality: coffee. In the city the Rozsadomb area is covered in roses - a flower imported by the invaders.
It was the Poles who came to Budapest's rescue: in 1686 they liberated both Buda and the castle itself, sending the Turks into a full-scale retreat. Nevertheless, this did not bring about a free Hungary - instead, the nation became a province of the Hapsburg Empire. Still, Budapest continued to grow, despite the many political and military upheavals. While it was denied its place as capital of a free nation, it was not denied prosperity.
Surprisingly, the city was still not known as Budapest. In fact there was not even a bridge across the Danube. In 1849, the Chain Bridge was opened, causing quite a stir. Not long after, in 1873, the city was finally united to encompass the formerly separate and independent Buda, Pest, Margaret Island and Obuda.
All of a sudden the city began to prosper like never before. As the
year 1896 approached (the thousand year anniversary of the arrival of the
Magyars), a building program was launched on a massive scale. It was
during this boom that many of the fine buildings which are still famous
today were constructed. The metro (the first on the continent) was
completed and Andrassy Ut (Andrassy Street) was created above it. Fine
The First World War saw Budapest emerge as the capital of a country only one third of its pre-war size. The Second World War brought about large-scale destruction: by the end of fighting and the Soviet 'liberation', not a single bridge was left standing across the Danube, the Royal Palace lay in ruins and the Castle District was devastated.
The next big event in Budapest's history was the 1956 uprising. On October 23, a peaceful protest became violent after shots were fired. Thousands of people took to the streets, a new leader (Imre Nagy) was appointed, Stalin's statue was pulled down and the people were ecstatic. However, the Soviets would not tolerate this for long: they sent in troops and tanks, crushing the revolution and killing some 2000-3000 people. Many thousands more were arrested and the famous Hungarian brain-drain began with some 250,000 (mostly well-educated) people leaving the country to settle in the West. Many buildings around town still have pockmarked facades: these are the scars of 1956 and they are a telling reminder of those grim times.
1989 was a true headline year for Budapest and Hungary. Troops began dismantling the fence separating the nation from Austria, while Gorbachev watched silently from Moscow. In Budapest a statue of Lenin was removed, and in June a crowd of a quarter million people attended a ceremony at Heroes' Square for the reburial of Imre Nagy. By 1991, there were no more Soviet troops in Hungary and only seven years later the country became a member of NATO.
Today, Budapest is quickly reclaiming its rightful place as one of Europe's most beautiful and scenic cities. The Pearl of the Danube is once again on full display.