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     Volume 6 Issue 35 | September 7, 2007 |

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On the Banks of the Danube
Visiting Budapest

The Royal Palace on the Danube

“Before my eyes the Danube follows its eternal course and the gleam of the evening sun is caught by its waves.”
Gustav Mahler (1880-1911)
Austrian composer

Of the cities we visited during our tour of Eastern Europe with our friends, in the spring of this year -Berlin, Budapest, Vienna and Prague, we especially liked Budapest. While all these cities have long and interesting history and old-worldly charm, Budapest had special attractions, which is difficult to explain. It is a captivating city with fascinating architecture in both its old and new buildings, fine people, and arts, crafts and music and of course the Danube river, uniting or separating depending on your outlook, the twin cities of Buda and Pest. Here history has always been a series of catastrophes but due to the indomitable spirit of its people, it has been able to recover every time in a forceful manner and retain its originality. The city was practically destroyed during the Second World War but today it is fully rebuilt in its unique tradition, form and beauty

Johann Strauss, king of waltz, wrote the music “Blue Danube” about one-hundred and fifty years ago. During my first visit to Vienna thirty years ago, I went naively to the Danube River to see how blue it was. Alas, I saw a river without any shade of blue in the water. This time, when I revisited the river in Budapest and Vienna it was still the same- minus the blue that Strauss had written about. Some people in Budapest jokingly say that Strauss, who loved wine, was heavily under its influence when he attributed the colour to the waters of the Danube. But it remains a beautiful river, witness to a lot of romance, tragedy and history on its shores. It is the second longest river in Europe.

The Danube passes through many great cities including Belgrade and Vienna. It also passes through Budapest, the capital of Hungary. On one side is the city of Buda, which is one third of Budapest and on the other side is the city of Pest, which is two-third. These two became one city in 1872. Right on the river in Buda situated on a rugged hill is one of the biggest and most impressive royal palaces in Europe. At night, the palace, the churches, other public buildings and many beautiful bridges across the Danube, including the Chain Bridge are illuminated. At the top of the hill, from the Fishermen's Bastion, one can get a panoramic view of the surroundings and of the Danube delicately curbing between Buda and Pest. According to legend, at times of imminent external aggression calls would go out to fishermen who would come to the fortified Bastion to watch out for the enemy and defend the city. We took an enjoyable lunch cruise on the river and saw the magnificent Parliament and many other fine old buildings on the riverbank.

While the Danube, originally called Duna or “the great river”, brings many benefits for agriculture, communication and trade, it also often brings deadly misery in the form of high floods. The Hungarians are stoical people and they clean up and reclaim their magnificent buildings and palaces of extraordinary architecture and squares from the ravages of the river. They have similarly, with courage and fortitude, rebuilt their proud national monuments like the beautifully decorated neo-gothic Parliament Building and the Concert Hall after they were nearly destroyed by bombing during the Second World War. In recent years, many international hotels have taken over old buildings and reconstructed them in modern style, but keeping the ambience, the architectural pattern and tradition. The Hilton hotel has, however, been built in a very modern style-almost as a giant glass house. You may like it or hate it. We spent a lot of time visiting the Heroes' Square, with its magnificent colonnades and a grandiose monument to the Millennium in the middle. Construction began in 1896, the year in which the one thousanth year anniversary of the Magyar conquest of the country was celebrated. The visit to the Riverside Promenade was an unforgettable experience. Lined by trees and with plenty of benches to sit, one can silently contemplate without being disturbed by the sound of traffic or human beings. We went to an old Tavern up on a hill on the Buda side at night for a rest and drinks in the most romantic of surroundings. There, a local singer, accompanied by a piano accordion sang many ballads and even though we did not understand the words, it conveyed a message of love and romance.

Parliament Building and Chain Bridge on the Danube

From a brief visit to Budapest, we got the impression of melancholy among its people. Admittedly, we met only a few, but whoever spoke painted a picture of the past with historic injustices on the Hungarian people, who call themselves the Magyars. They settled in this area in the ninth century. Before that, the Romans came in the first century AD, found plentiful underground springs, and called the city Aquincum or “abundant water.” They ruled for about three centuries. The Magyar people adopted Christianity in the year 1000. Gellert, a monk of Venetian origin, is given credit for the spread of the religion. The highest church on the mountain named after Gellert on the Danube bear testimony to a tragedy. That was the merciless killing of Gellert, who was put inside a barrel, systematically nailed from outside and then thrown in the Danube. The Turks defeated the Hungarians in 1541 and ruled for one hundred and fifty years. The Austrian monarchy held long sway over Hungary for centuries, until it was brought under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After the First World War, Hungary became a republic.

In the post- Second World War period, Soviet Russia's rule is remembered with a great deal of bitterness. The Hungarians had sided with the Nazi Germany and the Soviets had lost eighty thousand of their soldiers in liberating Hungary. But the undemocratic, monolithic, and secular soviet system was anathema to Hungarian culture and traditions. Finally, the world saw the Hungarian uprising in 1956 led by Imre Nagy and the rolling of the Soviet tanks in the city, brutally crushing the shortlived national resistance and freedom. Imre Nagy was sentenced to death for treason by a kangaroo court and his body was left hanging in a public square. In his place, Janos Kadar, the puppet communist leader was installed as the premier. Even after half a century, Kadar and his rule is so much hated that no one has occupied his room in the prime minister's office since. I clearly remember reading about the tragic suppression of the Hungarian and Czechoslovak revolutions against tyranny in the fifties, well before the velvet revolutions of the nineties, which brought democracy to most of the East European nations.


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