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New Europe

Day Seventy-one: Budapest

Beautiful Budapest 
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Beautiful Budapest. The Liberty Bridge, with turuls spreading their wings on the top.
Michael Palin - New EuropeOnce inside we find ourselves on a wide red-carpeted staircase with stained-glass windows and gilded columns rising high on either side.

'It's far too big,' Péter mutters. 'There are only 386 members of Parliament. Which is about 186 more than necessary.'

But he can't deny the presence of the place.

'Six years ago I first mounted these stairs as a member of Parliament. It was an incredible feeling. Every Hungarian MP is called "Father of the Nation".' He smiles with not entirely mock pride.

'So, I'm a father of the nation you see.'

The red carpet leads inexorably up into a high-domed central hall and another iconic national image. In this case the iconic national image. In an impregnable glass case on a marble plinth set directly beneath the highest point of the 300-foot dome, and guarded by three soldiers with drawn swords, is the 1,000-year-old crown of Istvan I, father of the nation, which was a gift to him from the Pope. The gold cross on it is bent to one side, which apparently makes it even more special for it happened, so they say, when it fell from the young king's horse as he was being chased by pagans. At the end of the Second World War, the symbol of Hungary found its way into American hands and was kept in Fort Knox until 1978, when President Carter authorised its return.

Parliament isn't in session today so Péter and I have the Chamber of Representatives almost to ourselves. It's as extravagantly grand as an opera house, with panelling, desks and seats all carved from light oak with such fine attention to detail that there is even a numbered cigar rack in which members can leave their smokes before entering the chamber.

Though it looks an immaculate period piece, the Parliament building has been largely rebuilt after being bombed in the Second World War. Péter remembers life here at the end of the war as the British, Americans and Russians tried to flush out the occupying Germans.

'If you could hear the whizz of the bomb you were OK,' he recalls. 'When it fell silent that was the time to worry.'

Whilst dodging friendly bombs he was facing the much worse threat of unfriendly Hungarians. The Zwack family, like ninety per cent of Hungary's merchant aristocracy, was Jewish, and as pressure on the city increased the Germans began to round up and deport Jews on a massive scale. They were helped by the Arrow Cross, Hungarian Nazis, who Péter remembers as 'the real butchers'. They would take their victims down to the Danube, tie three or four tightly together and shoot one of them, who would then drag the others under the water. He himself was only minutes from being picked up when he managed to escape the city in 1944, returning eventually in 1987 to a communist country in transition from the hardline pro-Soviet days, but still capable of 'beating up young students with sticks outside the Parliament'. But he was totally taken by surprise by the abrupt fall of the communists, and the equally abrupt departure of Soviet troops from Hungary.
Beautiful Budapest 
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Beautiful Budapest. The Parliament Building (Westminster meets the Vatican).
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Seventy-one: Budapest
  • Country/sea: Hungary
  • Place: Budapest
  • Book page no: 172

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