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dinsdag 11 maart 2008

Pest (1)

The city of Pest has taken on a series of changes during the 19th century. In 1838 a flood destroyed most of the rural dwellings, the Chain Bridge, the Danube's first permanent crossing was built during 1838-49, and the city's development was boosted by the unification in 1873 and the 1000 year anniversary of the Magyar conquest in 1896. At the same time it was also a period of political unrest, which culminated in the failed revolution of 1848. "After the civil war of fighting for independence ended in defeat for the Hungarians, Habsburg repression was epitomized by the newly built Citadella on top of Gellért Hill, built to frighten the citizens with its cannons and large garrison of soldiers overlooking the entire city. Following the agreement of Compromise of 1867 which made an allowance for a Dual Monarchy, familiarly known to its subjects as the K&K (based on German for "Emperor and King"), the twin cities underwent rapid growth and expansion, and finally formally merged. Pest was extensively remodeled in the image of Vienna, acquiring the main artery: Nagykörút (Great Boulevard) and Andrássy Avenue which led out to Heroes' Square and a great park with fountains and lakes."

Around the Parliament - The National Assembly is housed in the magnificent Parliament building (third largest in the world), which was constructed between 1885 and 1896 (opened during the festivities of the millénaire. A competition was issued, which was won by the architect Imre Steindl. The plans for second and third place were realized as well and can be found facing the Parliament: one serves today as the Ethnographical Museum, the other as the Ministry of Agriculture. While the latter buildings are in a typical Austrian Baroque style, architecturally sound but nothing like you've never seen before, the Parliament is something different. Very spiky and white. In my opinion one of the must-sees in (Buda)Pest. Especially for members of the European Union, since we get a free tour. The outside is in sharp contrast with what you find on the inside. The interior is a bit more bombastic, with (almost) an overload of gold coating and statues. To me Hungarians have a tendency to put statues all over the place. You'll be hardpressed to find a building without tons of them all over. During the tour you get the see the main entry hall, the Holy Crown of St. István (together with the royal orb and sceptre and the Conference Hall. The Holy Crown, surrounded by statues of former kings and leaders, was sent by Pope Sylvester II to St. István, who was crowned with it on Christmas day 1000. Another theory states that it was created under the reign of Béla III. Whatever it may be, since it has become a symbol of Hungary, and as such it has made its way into the national coat-of-arms (including the lobsided crucifix). More impressive was the Conference Hall. We got the see the Old Upper House Hall, which is a mirror image of the Deputy Council Chamber. As good as the entire room is gold plaited. On the wall behind the speakers you can see the coat of arms of the different former regions of the empire, flanked by paintings depicting historical events. Apparently the representatives used to like a good Cuban cigar back in the days. Smoking, however was forbidden inside the hall. Just outside you can find a designated spot where everyone could leave their cigar, to be picked up later after the discussions were finished. If a speaker had made a particularly good point, it was possible that his cigar was gone, as a sign of respect. I'm not really sure what that's supposed to mean. If someone would nick my cigar I wouldn't really like it.

On a side note, right outside the building you can see the national flag with a hole cut out in the middle. This represents the freedom of the Hungarian people. It is a replica of the one used in the 1956 uprising against the communists. During soviet rule there was a commie symbol in the middle, which the insurgents had cut out. If you walk past it and keep to your left, you can get to St. Stephen's Basilica by crossing Liberty Square. As in so many places in Budapest the square is surrounded by exquisite Habsburg buildings, but what struck me the most was the excellent contradiction that it offered. An obelisk on the northern end commemorates the Red Army soldiers who died during the siege of Budapest in 1944-45. On the eastern side, a statue honors the US general H. Bandholtz, who foiled the looting of the National Museum. Communists and capitalists face to face so to speak.

Commemoration of the victims of the Arrow Cross - If you walk to the back of the Parliament, you will find a walking aisle next to the Danube, where you can go for a stroll. At some point you will see an artist's rendering of the holocaust. The local fascists, the Arrow Cross Party had shot a number of Jews and other dissidents on the banks of the Danube, when they were in power (1944-45), and dumped their bodies into the stream. To remember these atrocities an artist constructed a statue consisting of a series of metal shoes. In in it's own, yet small way, it is a powerful image. Which made the attitude of this Asian family completely incomprehensible to me. The mother thought it was a good idea to pose for the camera with a big smile next to these shoes that represent bloody murder. Now, I know that Asians have a compulsive need to stand and smile in pictures. Fair enough. But then, the husband wanted to test the solidity of the metal by kicking one of the shoes. How disrespectful can you get? To me, that's almost the same as striding into a mosque with dirty combat boots or sacrificing a chicken in a buddhist temple. Well, maybe not, but you know what I mean. Let's just suppose that they didn't know what it was for.

St. Stephen's Basillica (Szent István-bazilika) - Dedicated to King István, the first Hungarian christian king, this church was designed in a neo-classical style, based on a Greek cross floor plan, and built during the second half of the 19th century. The massive main door is decorated with the heads of the 12 apostles. On the inside there are several excellent paintings and a very beautifully lighted statue of István. The most impressive sight however is the dome with its exquisite mosaics and other decorations. I'm not really sure how it happened, but we totally forgot to climb the tower to take in the 360° panorama of the city. We did see the Holy Right Hand. Stephen died in 1038 and was canonized in 1083. Apparently his hand was found intact a good time after his burial. This was seen as a holy portent. So, they kept it and put on display. The hand has travelled all over Hungary before arriving in Buda in 1771. Being so holy and all, the reliquary needs to be maintained. If you want to see it in decent lighting you need to throw in some coins.

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