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Notes on the Geography of Hungary: Pest of the Habsburgs

Dare we explore Budapest on our own? A city we've only heard of and hardly know? A city where we have less than two days to look around? Foolish question! If "36 hours in X" works for The New York Times, it's good enough for us.

Besides, we're armed. Here it is, our trusty 1911 Baedeker's Austria-Hungary, topped up with 1999 Budapest 2000, a re-photography project with old photos from Klosz Gyorgy that have been paired with new ones from Lugosi Lugo Laszlo. What more could you want? Yes, yes, if you insist we'll take Edwin Heathcote's cute little Budapest (1997).

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Here we are on Castle Hill, on the Buda side of Budapest. Paddle into the distance and you'll eventually arrive at Bratislava, Vienna, Linz, and, 800 miles from here, in the Black Forest headwaters of the river. What? You need to be told that it's the Danube? Oh, I forgot, we don't do geography any more. And while we're at it, I suppose I should say that the name Budapest was bestowed on this place in 1872. Until then it had been Buda on this side and Pest (better, Pesht) on the other.

See that nice dome over there?

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It belongs to the Parliament House, designed by Imre Steindl. Built between 1883 and 1902, it leans heavily on the Palace of Westminster.

Why did Budapest get a parliament at all, when in those days it was the second city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, headquartered in Vienna? It got one because a few years earlier, the Compromise (or Ausgleich or Kiegyezes) of 1867 granted Hungary a kind of independence. The Hungarians got their own parliament and ministers, in other words, while the head of state remained the Emperor-King, Franz-Joseph (Ferenc Jozsef in Hungarian). He kept the army, too. Oh, one more thing. You'll have to do without Hungarian diacritics here. Blame the software.

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We've just turned the camera downstream a bit. The bridge is a post-war reconstruction of the city's first bridge, the so-called Chain Bridge of 1849. (The Germans blew all the bridges on their way out of town.) The dome belongs to St. Stephen's Church, named for Hungary's first Christian king (975-1038). Baedeker, never in doubt, says of the district here and just upstream that "the finest part of the town on the left bank is that adjoining the Danube, with the House of Parliament and other handsome buildings." He especially praises "the Francis Joseph Quay (Ferencz-Jozsef Rakpart)." The name has changed, as have those of most things here built by the Germansn. Now it's the Pesti Also Rakpart, or Lower Pest rampart.

See that building right at the end of the bridge?

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It's the Four Seasons Hotel, one of those places where if you have to ask how much it costs.... On the bright side, back in the 1990s it was abandoned, empty and deteriorating. When first opened, in 1907, it was the Gresham Palace, an office building commissioned by the London Gresham Life Assurance Company. The architect was Zsigmond Quittner, working with Jozsef and Laszlo Vago. Architects since then have been known to get all squishy over this building. Almost in control of himself, Heathcote writes of the "relief carvings which seem to grow organically from its surfaces." You can see his point. (Gresham Life, for the record, dates from 1848 and was absorbed into Windsor Life in 1992.)

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Further rotation, showing the river as it passes under the (rebuilt) Elizabeth Bridge and, beyond it, the (ditto) Liberty bridge. The Black Sea lies another thousand miles downstream. If you've already begun wondering where the highrises are, now's the time to tell you that the city has a height-limiting rule, just like D.C.

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A close-up of the Liberty (Szabadsag) Bridge, opened in 1896 by Franz Joseph and originally named for him. (Similarly, the Elizabeth Bridge upstream was named for his wife, assassinated in 1898.)

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Time to cross over. Here, from near the river, is the Chain Bridge again, along with the Gresham Palace and its more traditional twin, which houses the ministry of local government and regional development. The bridge, opened in 1849 and the city's first permanent one, was a catalyst for urban growth.

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We're looking back to the Buda side. The church is the Matthias Church, after King Matthias Corvinus (1443-1490) or Hunyadi Matyas in Hungarian. In Baedeker's time this was the Coronation Church, because it was here that Franz Joseph was crowned King of Hungary in 1867. Long ago and far away.

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And here is the sprouting and budding Gresham Palace, in Heathcote's words "a complete synthesis of architecture and the applied arts."

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A mall stretches east to St. Stephen's, rebuilt in 1873 after the collapse of an earlier dome.

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We've walked a few blocks north to Szabadsag Ter, which is to say Liberty or Freedom Square. Baedeker uses the name, though barracks had just been cleared from the site and the freedom in Baedeker's time was definitely relative or conditional. The building on the right is the Hungarian National Bank.

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Here it is, straight on. Completed in 1905, the design was by Ignac Alpar, originally a stone mason and later an assistant to Imre Steindl, designer of the Parliament.

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Alpar's background shows in these details on the bank. The reliefs are by Karoly Sennyei and show a range of grim but wealth-producing activities.

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This was a bank apparently with global ambitions.

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On the western side of the square is this giant from 1898. Heathcote calls it a "magically monstrous creation." It was designed by the very prominent Miklos Ybl (1814-1891) and opened in 1905 as the city's stock and commodities exchange. After the Soviet takeover, the building became the Lenin Institute, then the home of MTV. (No, no, not that MTV. This would be Magyar TV.) Since then, there's been a scandal, with MTV selling the building in 2006 to a Canadian firm that hired Beyer Blinder Belle to produce a plan for adaptive reuse, only to find the new owner renting space back to MTV, which still needed a home.

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Directly facing MTV and just north of the bank is the former Hungarian Hall of Commerce, by Aladar Karman and Gyula Ullman. Completed in 1901, it looks like three buildings but functions as one, with hallways that run through all three. The roofs are post-war and were originally more distinctive. Blame the Americans, who have used the buildings since 1935 as their embassy.

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Directly behind the embassy is the Postal Savings Bank, completed in 1901. The architect was Odon Lechner, creator of the Magyaros style, which combined modern materials (try steel-frame construction) with Hungarian decorative motifs. The bank catered to people with small accounts maintained at any of hundreds of post offices.

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The building is hard to photograph because the most extravagant element is the roof. You can see why Lechner picked up the label "Hungarian Gaudi." Heathcote writes that the roof is "alive with green and yellow Zsolnay ceramics" portraying serpents and dragons.

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Most of the city was far more conservative, as for example here on Andrassy Avenue, named for Count Julius Andrassy, at one time Franz Joseph's foreign minister. Baedeker, proud as punch, points out the resemblance to Vienna's Ring-Strasse.

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The street's grandest building is the opera house, completed in 1884 to a design by the same Miklos Ybl who did the stock exchange. He lived long enough to see Gustav Mahler conduct here. Appointed director in 1888, Mahler left two years later for Hamburg. Perhaps the failure of his first symphony, whose premiere here fell flat, had something to do with his departure.

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Unmoved, Franz (Ferenc) Liszt looks up from a score.

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Twenty-five years later comes the Parisiana nightclub, designed by Bela Lajta and opened in 1909. Heathcote calls it an "absolutely stunning structure which dazzles the eye when seen from the grand, pompous opera building opposite." The building was altered in the 1960s but restored to its original form by 1990. Heathcote writes that Lajta "revelled in the visual languages of archaic civilizations."

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What else is unusual? At a prime location but stripped of its cupola and (presumably) its original color scheme, this was once the Modern and Breitner department store, from 1912. It remained a department store during the Soviet period, when it stocked goods from behind the Iron Curtain.

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What have we here?

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It's the Hungaria Baths, now the Continental Hotel Zara. The building is a copy of the original, built before 1910 and later abandoned and left to decay. Too deteriorated to be renovated, the original building was destroyed in 2008, but the replacement recreates the original sculpture by Sandor Krisztian.

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Boys will be boys.

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We're on our way to something highly exotic, but how's this for a factory?

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Here we are, the Museum of Applied Arts by Odon Lechner (soon to design the dragon-and-serpent-topped Postal Savings Bank) and Gyula Partos. The building commemorates the celebration in 1896 of the arrival of the Magyars a thousand years earlier. Like the Postal Savings Bank, this building, too, has a steel frame. Draped on that skeleton? Heathcote calls this "probably the first major museum in the western world not to be executed in a historicist style."

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Frontal view.

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Back to meat and potatoes, here in the form of a stroll along the Rakoczi (or Rakoczy) Ut, a street named for a Hungarian family exceptionally wealthy until one of them took part in an anti-Habsburg uprising. The street connects the Elizabeth bridge to the main railway station, 1.5 miles to the east.

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Seen individually, the buildings are more varied than you might expect.

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Some buildings are a handy reminder of how the city must have looked in its grimmer Soviet days.

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Others have been fixed up.

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The Romans called the region Lower Pannonia. Starting in the first century, the Prima Adjutrix legion was stationed here, in the place the Romans called Aquincum. Eventually the Germans moved in and stayed until the arrival of the Mongols in 1241. Fast forward past that chaos and the later Ottoman interval and lo! Baedeker in 1911 recommends the Pannonia Hotel. It's no longer in business.

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Here's something else that's unusual along the same street. It's part of the Rokus Hospital, begun in the 1710s as a plague hospital.

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The Ervin Metropolitan Library, 1904, was named for its first director, Ervin Szabo. What! Not for a donor!

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Here we are, last stop before the bridge. Opened in 1900, the bridge made this prime property, which is why Klotild Maria Amalia, a grand duchess, bought the land in 1899 and asked two architects, Korb Floris and Giergl Kalman, to build a pair of palaces. They complied, thoughtfully naming the place the Klotild Palace and putting ducal crowns up top. The buildings in 2011 were under renovation by an Italian firm transforming them into a combination of retail spaces, offices, and residences.

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A more unusual building is next door. It's the Parisian Arcade (Parisi Udvar), completed in 1913 and the work of Henrik Schmahl, a stonemason.

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Originally it was the home of the Inner City Savings Bank. It survived World War II but in 1948 was nationalized. Now it's being transformed by the Platinium (sic) Group into a hotel combined with apartments.

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The architects at work here today refer to the building as in "Venetian Gothic with Islamic elements."

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Tympanum over one of the entrances.

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We'd all like a better picture, but this is what the cook made for lunch.

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"Please, sir, I'd like some more."

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Here's another exotic riverside building, this time downstream at the east end of the Liberty Bridge. It's the Great Market Hall, the result of a competition won by Samu Petz. The building opened in 1896, with plenty of Zsolnay tiling.

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The interior: three floors of it. Goods were originally delivered by a canal that ran along the central axis of the building's ground floor.

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Like the Museum of Applied Arts, the Liberty Bridge was opened in 1896 to the thousandth anniversary of the arrival of the Magyars. Originally the bridge was called the Franz Joseph Bridge, and it was he who opened it. The name's changed now, of course, but those birds are still up top. You didn't notice them, or think they were significant? Wrong. They're Turul Birds, embedded in Magyar mythology as bearers of divine messages. They alight in the Tree of Life and are accompanied by smaller birds bearing the souls of children to come.

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Speaking of souls, we should venture out to the famous cemetery near the main railway station. There are many elaborate tombs here, such as this one for Gyorgy Rath, whose Oriental art collection is now on display in the Budapest museum of his name.

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Rath Gyorgy/ He lived for truth and beauty/ Faith dwelled in his heart/ He had a strength of will/ He acted and shared/ He hoped for a better future/ He left everything to the nation.

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Here, representing the right brain, is the tombstone of Pal Vasarhelyi, an engineer who made the Danube navigable from here to the Black Sea.

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And here is the painter Bela Pallic. The ram is no accident. Pallic was most appreciated for his pictures of farm animals.

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Vagi Imre Szazados 1896-1923. Occupation unknown.

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And again, despite the musical notation.

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A cemetery contains a section of graves placed during the Soviet period. Peaceful, calm, graceful? Those aren't the adjectives I'd pick.

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