“If you come from Paris to Budapest you think you are in Moscow. But if you go from Moscow to Budapest you think you are in Paris.”
György Ligeti 1987
As I noted in the Vienna blog, four world capitals, including Budapest, are situated on the banks of the Danube River, the great waterway in Central and Eastern Europe. The city’s annals report that the first permanent settlers in the area date from between 4600 and 3900 BC. They were induced to put down roots in what would become Budapest when they noticed a particular narrowing of the Danube precisely there. This narrowing would facilitate crossing to the other bank for trade, defense, and communications. For millenia, foreign powers had besieged the area––among them, the Romans, Magyars, Turks, Hapburgs, Germans, and Communists––occupying and exploiting the region until 1990 when today’s Republic of Hungary was born.
Budapest is considered a 19th Century city, because technically it didn’t exist until 1873. The final merging of Buda and Obuda on the western side of the Danube with the town of Pest on the opposite bank came about through a complex series of events. Most important was the construction of the Danube’s first bridge––the Chain Bridge, built between 1842 and 1849, which to this day represents an important thrust toward 19th Century Hungarian nationalism.
After my fellow travelers and I had walked across the Chain Bridge, we learned that until the bridge existed, crossing the Danube was a perilous endeavor. In the winter the river often froze, making it easy to cross the waterway on foot. But then came the thaw–the melting of ice that made the crossing by even small vessels precarious. In the summer a pontoon bridge was laid, but this temporary structure blocked river traffic, so it was dismantled and reassembled at different hours of the day. It wasn’t until the 1830s when Istvan Szechenyi, a Hungarian nobleman, later described as “the greatest Hungarian,” received permission to construct the Chain Bridge, uniting the two sides of the Danube, thus laying the groundwork of what would eventually become the vibrant metropolis of Budapest.
In spite of the fusing of municipalities on both sides of the river, both towns continue to retain parts of their former identities: Buda has preserved elements of its past, while Pest has embraced the future, especially in matters of commerce.
In spite of Budapest’s convoluted past, impressive landmarks survive, offering insight into Hungary’s history:
(1) THE PARLIAMENT––constructed between 1885-1902 along the Danube in Pest in Neo-Gothic style. This location was to serve as a counter to the Royal Palace on Buda Hill, a one kilometer long plateau on the opposite side of the river, overlooking the Danube. Symbolically apparent, royalty was being upstaged by an institution that spoke to the nation’s future, one that lay with popular democracy.
(2) THE CASTLE DISTRICT––includes the aforementioned Royal Palace, home since the 13th Century to royalty and occupiers.
(3) FISHERMAN’S BASTION––built in 1905 as a viewing platform offering unmatched vistas of the Danube and Pest.
(4) MATTHIAS CHURCH––represents Castle Hill’s iconic church, dating back 500 years. This place of worship has an elegant spire, exquisite stained glass windows and frescoes.
(5) THERMAL BATHS AND SPAS––praised by some of my fellow travelers, who indulged. They commended the Gellert Baths, in particular. My guide book reports that a dip into these waters is good for joint pains, arthritis, and blood circulation. Each day 18 million gallons of richly mineralized water gush out of the city’s natural hot springs. They have existed since Roman times and were especially popular with the Turks during their occupation.
(5) THE CENTRAL MARKET HALL––Budapest’s popular produce and meat arcade, also a treasure trove of indulgences such as silk scarves and leather gloves.
Another gift Hungary has given to posterity is its classical music. One artist stands out:
(6) FRANZ LISZT (1811-1886). He established the Ferene Liszt Music Academy, still the leading performing center in Budapest. Liszt liked to say that he was “part gypsy,” and some of his compositions, such as the Hungarian Rhapsodies, suggest the Roma people’s time-honored music.
(7) THE HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL is a sculpture of a weeping willow by Imre Varga, unveiled in 1991 in memory of the 600,000 Hungarian Jews who fell victim to Nazism during World War II. This memorial was partly funded by the Hungarian-American actor Tony Curtis. Our local guide told us that Jews had lived in Hungary since about the ninth century, contributing substantially in science, the arts, and business. However, in the early 1940s, Hungary, an ally of Germany, was pressured to impose certain anti-Semitic laws on the Jewish community that progressively took from them such rights as owning property, entering certain professions, and marrying non-Jews. Beyond undergoing restrictions, large numbers of Jews were deported to death camps such as Auschwitz. When the war ended, the Jewish population of Hungary had been reduced by two thirds.
But there were humanitarian figures such as Raoul Wallenberg (1912-1947), a Swedish diplomat, who in 1944 was sent to Nazi-occupied Hungary by the Swedish Foreign Ministry to help save Jewish lives. He and a colleague set up safe houses in Budapest and secured forged Swedish passports for them, saving, it’s estimated, as many as 35,000 Hungarian Jews. Following the liberation of Hungary by the Red Army, in January 1945 Wallenberg was detained on suspicion of espionage and subsequently disappeared. His ultimate fate is uncertain. Hungary honors his memory with the Raoul Wallenberg Monument and an honorary grave.
Hungarian cooking represents a blend of the many cultures that have occupied the land, thus making it one of Europe’s most flavorful cuisines. I was especially attracted to its stews such as Hungarian Goulash, which was a mainstay in my German grandmother’s kitchen. Over the years, for convenience’s sake, I’ve simplified my grandmother’s Goulash recipe. I now use a slow cooker recipe, which has reduced prep time to about 15 minutes. The recipe below was inspired by Terry Grieco Kenny, but I modify it by adding more vegetables such as shredded cabbage, a few potato slices, and maybe some tomatoes.
2 slices bacon, cut into strips
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 large onion, chopped
1 small bell pepper, diced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons sweet paprika
1 tablespoon minced garlic
¾ teaspoon caraway seeds
½ tablespoon salt
1 cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons minute tapioca
2 pounds boneless beef chuck cut into chunks
½ cup sour cream
4 cups cooked egg noodles
- Cook bacon in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat until crisp, about 4 minutes. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and place in medium-size slow cooker (about four-to-five-quart size).
- Melt butter in same skillet over medium heat. Add onion, pepper, tomato paste, paprika, garlic, caraway seeds and salt and cook, stirring frequently, until onion is golden and tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in broth, scraping bottom of pan to loosen browned bits.
- Pour into slow cooker. Stir in tapioca, then beef.
- Cover and cook on low 7 to 8 hours or until beef is very tender. Season with salt to taste.
- Serve over noodles and top with sour cream.