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New Europe

Day Seventy-one: Budapest

Gellért Spa 
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After the bath, a breather in the grand hall. I feel a little over-dressed.
Michael Palin - New EuropeFrom my balcony I look out over the rumbling tramlines to the green girders of Liberty Bridge and the Danube, or Duna as it's called in Hungary, swirling by on its way south. It's a big river, wider than the Thames in London. In the nineteenth century there were two cities here, Buda, where I am now, and Pest, on the far, and flatter, side of the river. The Romans didn't even bother to try crossing here and left the Danube to mark the limits of their empire. Buda was part of civilisation, Pest was on the Barbarian shore. It was the bridges of the nineteenth century, beginning with the English-designed Chain Bridge in 1849, that sewed the two cities together into one great capital, Budapest. The Liberty Bridge was built at the height of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1896 and is capped by two wrought-iron likenesses of a mythical bird, the turul, which is believed to have sired the father of Arpad, the leader who brought the Magyar tribe over the Carpathians and into Hungary. The sword of Attila, clasped in the hands of the turul, is an attempt to cling on to a more tenuous myth of Hungarian history, that the Hun in Hungary means descent from the great warrior himself. It's now pretty well accepted that the name comes from a group of Magyar-like tribes called the Onogur.

The Buda shore may have the height and the dramatic skyline of Castle Hill, but the building that most characterises the power and gravity of the city is the monumental neo-Gothic Parliament building over in Pest. It comes with the obligatory raft of staggering statistics: seventeen years in the building, 691 rooms, forty million bricks and a workforce of 1,000 men. For Ceausescu this would have been a kitchen extension, but when it opened in 1902 it was the largest Parliament building in the world.

I'm shown around it by an engagingly wise and witty man called Péter Zwack, an independent MP, and head of the family that makes Hungary's most popular digestif, Unicum. We meet up beside a huge, rather disdainful, bronze lion which reclines below the twin flags of Hungary and the European Union, both hanging limp and lifeless on this torpid morning.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Seventy-one: Budapest
  • Country/sea: Hungary
  • Place: Budapest
  • Book page no: 171

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