There is a lot to be discovered in Budapest. This is the third article from the Pest side of the city and it will underline the foremost impression of it: It is monumental.
Join me on a walk
Like the previous two articles this is basically a walking tour, although you may do what we did, take the metro for at least some of the distance. We will be starting at the Parliament building by the Danube river, cross a couple of squares downtown, enter a magnificent basilica, walk up the city’s most important shopping street and end up at the huge Heroes’ Square.
The map below shows the approximate and simplified route to follow. The 5 km will take around one hour to walk. Zoom in and out of the map as you like and click on the markers. The map may also be expanded into a new tab. This walk is the green route, marked #3.
Parliament, Liberty Square and St. Stephens Basilica
I introduced the Parliament building at the end of the previous article and will not repeat all. Let me just reiterate my conclusion: It ought to be seen. We skipped the tour of the interior for lack of time. I am sure it will be rewarding.
You might also want to spend some time absorbing the atmosphere and sheer size of the square in front of the Parliament. It is called Kossuth Lajos tér.
When you visit a foreign place, time is always a constraining factor. Returning home, writing my articles, I often find that there are places I should have been to, things I should have done. I may not have been aware of them at the time, or I simply did not have the time to visit them all. Big cities are particularly demanding in this respect.
This is basically an introduction to the following: We did not have the time to visit the Liberty Square, but it makes such a great stop on this semi-imaginary walking route. Instead we move fast forward to a place we did visit.
St Stephen’s Basilica is one of those great European cathedrals of which many are included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. This one too.
We found it to be a lovely church with a richly decorated interior. Stephen was by the way the first king of Hungary.
Our walk went to the square called Deák Ter, but my suggestion is for you to follow the map above and have a look into Erzsébet tér first. These two squares are in fact parks and connected to each other.
If you have time to relax you should spend it here for what is coming up next leaves very little room for it.
The Andrássy Avenue is the wide, straight road leading from Deak Ter downtown Pest right up to the Heroes Square, roughly 2,4 km away. We walked the first 900 metres and took the Metro for the rest.
Let us start with the beginning.
UNESCO rarely mentions particular streets as part of their World Heritage Sites, but this avenue is one big exception. The site’s official title is “Budapest, including the Banks of the Danube, the Buda Castle Quarter and Andrássy Avenue”. The reason is this, according to UNESCO:
“The symbol of the development of the city as a modern metropolis was the radial Andrássy Avenue. (…) From 1872, the Avenue radically transformed the urban structure of Pest, together with the construction of the European continent’s first underground railway beneath it in 1893-6.”
The avenue has wide pavements on both sides, with trees. The buildings lining the avenue are amazing not least because of their decorations.
The Andrássy Avenue is not only history, it has remained Budapest’s premier shopping street – at least for the affluent people among us. A number of the famous brands are in place here. By the way: Tourists usually gather at the Vaci utca downtown, a street filled with souvenir shops and restaurants offering traditional food and live gypsy music.
We walked the street and soon found the Hungarian State Opera House, a magnificent edifice dating back to 1884. We actually had tickets for Verdi’s Don Carlos the previous evening but unfortunately they had moved the performance to the much less prominent Erkel Theatre, the People’s Theatre.
On this sunny Saturday in September we realised that there was something special going on. The entire avenue had been sealed off for traffic, there were a lot of barbecue and beer stands with tables and benches out in the street. And the street was seething with locals. This was a big day and we knew nothing of it.
We would later learn that it was all related to the horse races taking place at the Heroes’ Square, and that is where we were heading.
At this stage we felt we had walked enough. Our metro map had shown us there was a line running the length of the Andrássy Avenue so we went looking for a station. As elsewhere in Budapest they are hard to find, as if they are hiding the “M” signs. At a square called Oktogon we finally found an entrance.
Metro line no 1 runs underneath Andrássy Avenue. In 1893 they started digging it and in 1896 it was opened as the world’s second underground system, after London. The solution was in effect quite simple. They dug a hole the length of the avenue and more, in total 3.6 km, placed rails at the bottom and put a lid on top. The lid was the street.
This is actually what it is like today as well. The train we took looked old, but not original. The fact is that they have tried to maintain the atmosphere and look of the old times. It is a fascinating metro ride. (In case you wonder: The other metro lines of Budapest are more like you will be used to.)
We left at the station called H?sök tere and so did most other passengers.
H?sök tere is the Hungarian word for Heroes’ Square. After walking the short stairway up from the underground station you immediately realise the reason.
The square is huge, flanked be the wide Andrássy Avenue behind us and two art museums on our left and right. Behind the monumental square in front of us is one of Budapest’s largest public parks, the City Park (Városliget). (Inside the park is found one of Budapest’s most famous thermal baths, the Széchenyi. The following day we went to another one, at the Gellért. Read about it in the next article in this series.)
What is this square about?
The centre is dominated by a column with the archangel Gabriel on top. The base has seven Magyar chieftains on horseback. At their feet is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Behind the column there are two colonnades with even more heroes in bronze inside.
The square was opened in 1900 but work began in 1896 a thousand years after the foundation of the Hungarian state by St. Stephen I. It is one of the most important landmarks of Budapest, and Hungary.
The National Gallop
The National Gallop has over the last seven years been an annual event on Heroes’ Square celebrating Hungarian equestrian traditions. With horses as important monument objects what would be a better place to revive this part of Hungary’s military history and their hussar’ culture. (“Hussar” is a term originating in Hungary meaning any type of light cavalry soldier.)
Over three days in late September they close the Andrássy Avenue for traffic, they build an oval race course around the Heroes’ Square and they invite towns and villages all over Hungary to send their best horses and riders for a peaceful competition.
We had been offered tickets for one of the stands but had declined on the offer without much consideration. As a matter of fact we more or less unknowingly plunged into the fuzz on the square aiming at having a look at the monumental sights on it, rather than the races. When we arrived there was an opening and we slipped inside the barricades only to realise that we were locked in. Fortunately they provided an opportunity to get out after a few races. For us, that was sufficient.
That said, it was a fascinating ritual and a quite exciting race to witness. We were there for four races each with six horses involved. Each race would start with a procession around the entire circuit by the riders in 19th century hussar uniforms waiving the banners of their city or village. The riders then reappeared without the hats and capes for the two-round race.
The show gave me a flashback to my visit to Siena in Italy and its palio a few years ago. The Italian race involves the city’s suburbs and is also a display of colours and traditions.
Several of the places mentioned in this article are part of the World Heritage Site officially called “Budapest, including the Banks of the Danube, the Buda Castle Quarter and Andrássy Avenue”. Read more.
You may also read the other articles from this trip to Budapest in September 2014.
Have a look at the pictures from this walking tour. Click on the miniatures to enlarge and browse.