Towns / Cities Visited: 135
Countries Visited: 22
Steps Taken Today: 20, 028
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,452,755
With plenty on the books to do, we awoke to our alarm, scoffed down some breakfast, and were out the door by 10am; late for some, I know, but we are not morning people. A brisk half hour walk saw us arriving at our first destination, and thus our day’s adventures began. Top of our list was St. Stephen’s Basilica, and we dove right in. Unlike many of Europe’s churches, the basilica is fairly young, with construction only beginning in the mid 1800’s and not being completed until 1905. It was named after Saint Stephen I, the first king of Hungary who ruled in the 10th century. Despite its youth, it still offers the towering grandeur of many of the old churches, with its clock faced bell towers, and its beautiful, blue, spire topped dome. A touch of gilding and the stone carved Latin phrasing over the entrance, reminds you that traditional Roman Catholicism is alive and well in Budapest.
Looking up to the heights of the church, we decided that we should start our exploration of this house of God from the top. Grabbing tickets to the dome and the treasury, we forewent the elevator and began the hike up the three hundred and sixty-four steps to the balcony of the cupola. Pausing briefly on our ascent, we admired the wooden interior of the dome, which spans high above the ceiling of the church below.
As we stepped out on the balcony, our breath was snatched away by the incredible view down over the city below. Thanks to a long-standing rule which prevented structures reaching higher than that of the ninety-six metre tall parliament building, this church, which matches its civil cousin in height, offers one of the best panoramas of Budapest. Their matching heights remind the residents of the city of the balance between church and state, and, to be honest, I find that hugely refreshing after being through so many cities were the churches of old are so often the tallest features of the skyline. We took a long moment to wander the full perimeter, admiring the close up view of the bell towers, the view down over the statues of Jesus and the twelve apostles, and the sprawl of old and new buildings stretching out into the hazy horizon beyond.
Descending back to more earthly domain, we entered the basilica itself. Now, you can’t visit St. Stephen’s without seeing the reliquary which solidifies its dedication to the Saint, and this was exactly where we headed first. You see, sitting safely in a glass case, tucked within a gilded church shaped display chest, sits the rather morbid mummified right hand of St. Stephen himself. Now, like most reliquaries, I did take a second to wonder whether this was actually the hand of a king from almost 1100 years ago, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter either way. If people find comfort and hope in the presence of the hand, whether its that of a king or a pauper, then who am I to judge its existence and authenticity. The pictures don’t do it justice, thanks to pesky glass reflections, but there it something haunting about its lifelessness. Most reliquaries are little more than meagre flecks of bone or hair, so to see an entire hand encased here is definitely worth a peak, even for us non-believers.
Holy hands aside, as we turned to finally regard the interior of the church, we found it to be similarly as grandiose as any of the thousands of centuries old places of worship across the continent. Ostentatious, as Catholic churches tend to be, the decorations here are in no way lacking, with coloured marble and delicate gilding covering almost every square inch. Any space not golden or stone was inevitably filled art; from biblical paintings and statues, to the striking heavenly fresco which graces the heights of the central dome. Despite the lavish interior, there is a quiet calm here, held in the arms of a building which lacks the constant buzz of modern day life.
Stepping through the door into a side altar, we stopped to view another noteworthy piece of art here; the Black Madonna. This depiction of a crowned Virgin Mary holding a similarly crowned infant Jesus isn’t spectacularly interesting, save for the fact that they are both displayed with dark skin. Although it is more than likely that both Mary and Jesus would have been dark skinned in life, it is rare to see such depictions of them, especially given the white washed history of the church. Whether it was painted this way or the paints used have simply discoloured with time is unclear, but either way it makes for a fascinating sight.
One sight down, we continued our adventure, buying a chimney cake as we weaved through the city until we reached the banks of the Danube. Why were we here? Well, as beautiful as the river is, it was not simply to see the water, but rather what sits on its edge: one of the most confronting art installations we had been faced with on our entire trip. If I thought St. Stephen’s hand was haunting, it had nothing on ‘The Shoes on the Danube’. These ownerless shoes are here, on the east bank, to commemorate the 3500 people, 800 of whom were Jews, who were forced to remove their shoes before being shot by Arrow Cross militiamen during the terrors of World War II. The Arrow Cross were a fascist group who modelled their beliefs on the Nazis, and although their rule of the Hungarian government was less than six months, in that time they murdered close to 15,000 civilians, and deported around 80,000 more to Austrian concentration camps.
The lifeless bodies of those murdered here fell into the river and were carried away by the current, and these shoes remind us of all that was left behind once their lives had been stolen. From men’s work shoes, to sturdy women’s high heels, to tiny children’s boots, its hard not to be moved by the display which draws countless visitors, many of whom leave keepsakes, candles, sweets, and flags as a sign of respect for those so wrongfully slain. I won’t lie, as a stood contemplating all before me, I became choked up. Its surprising how an art installation as subtle as this can pull the same heartstrings as standing within the confines of Auschwitz itself.
Moving on with heavy hearts, we finally crossed the river into the arms of old town Buda, which perches on the hill of the western bank. Onto something a little lighter in content, we arrived at the House of Houdini, a small museum dedicated to the famous escapologist who, despite finding fame in the US, was, in fact, a native Hungarian. Stepping on through, we arrived in time to link into the half hourly guided tour of the collection with the handful of other tourists faced with the riddle the group must solve to unlock the entrance to the museum. The start of the visit involves being shown around two rooms which hold a number of genuine belongings of the man himself, while the guide explains a little background on his life. Although his stage name was Harry Houdini, we was born Eric Weisz to a Jewish family in Budapest. In 1878 his family emigrated to the US, changing their family name to the German spelling of Weiss. Eric began performing magic in 1891 under his familiar pseudonym, a name he chose as a nod to French magician Jean Eugéne Robert-Houdin. Initially, he wasn’t overly successful, but he persisted, and even met his wife Bess while performing at Coney Island with his brother. Although he was Jewish and she was Catholic, they married against their family’s wishes, and after that she became his stage hand. Eventually, he moved from magic into escapology when a manager was impressed with his handcuff tricks and got him onto the vaudeville circuit and touring Europe. His aptitude with locks is unsurprising when you learn he was once an apprentice locksmith.
The second room includes a collection of the handcuffs he used in his tricks, and a number of advertising posters for his shows. It is here that the guide talks about his death. In life, he had spent much time outing fake psychics and he happened to upset a supporter of one of the mediums he debunked. It was known that Houdini was able to withstand punches to the abdomen, and while relaxing with a broken ankle in his dressing room at the Princess Theatre in Montreal he was punched in the stomach by surprise by the disgruntled fan of the aforementioned psychic. Without time to brace himself, the punch did more damage than expected. He performed in pain that night, and the pain continued for the next two days, before he finally conceded and went to a doctor. At this point, it was discovered that he had acute appendicitis, but despite medical advice, he forewent surgery and returned to the theatre to perform with a high fever. He was hospitalised afterwards, and eventually succumbed to the infection. Its not clear whether the attack caused his appendicitis, but it certainly masked the symptoms and likely attributed to his death. In the end, a man who was known for his death defying escapes, died from a fairly treatable illness.
With the tour over, we were delivered into a small theatre space, where a magician provided twenty minutes of entertainment for us. There may not have been any daring escapes on offer, but I must commend the gentleman’s sleight of hand, as he dazzled us with some impressive card, rope, and ball tricks. His show ended by transforming a simple white cloth into a cane, and with that we were delivered back out onto the street. It may not be the biggest, or the most exciting little museum, but this city is proud to call Houdini their own, and its a pleasure to learn about him here in his home town.
Stomachs grumbling, we decided it was about time to source some lunch. Stumbling across a little local restaurant offering a cheap, quick, and Hungarian style lunch, we popped in. It was indeed quick, and it wasn’t long before out first course of goulash soup arrived. As good as it was, it was the chicken paprikash with spaetzle that stole the show. A classic dish if Hungary, it was a true delight; moreish to the point of being almost addictive.
Full up, we headed on to the last couple of sights for the day. Heading up the hill we soon arrived at Matthias Church. Built in the 14th century and restored in the 19th atop the site of a 11th century church, its a stunning work of gothic architecture with an eye-catching, multicoloured, tessellated tile roof. Its also strange to see such an asymmetrical place of worship with its one large corner bell tower. The place has held national importance for its entire existence, and it was here that Franz Joseph I and his wife Elizabeth (or Sisi as she was fondly known) were crowned during the reign of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Although Budapest seems so far removed from Vienna and all we had learnt there, it was nice to finally see the other side of the kingdom. Technically, the church is called the Church of the Assumption of the Buda Castle, but it takes its more common name of Matthias church from King Matthias Corvinus, who ruled during the peak of its use, and who’s symbol of a raven sits perched atop one of the spires.
As standard to style as the exterior is for a Catholic church, it is the interior which delivers an almost jarring difference to what is expected. You see, this place is lucky to be standing at all, as most other medieval churches in the city were destroyed during the Turkish invasion. In 1541, the invading Turks converted the church into a mosque, stripping the interior of all of its equipment, altars, art, and idols. As a result, despite Christian paintings being incorporated back into the decor after the city fell back into Hungarian hands, the inside still exudes a mosque-like appearance, with almost every square inch on the walls and ceiling being painted in gorgeous, colourful, geometric patterns. There is something so much more engaging about it than the usual bland white or stone walls of other churches of the same period.
Within the church is a small exhibit of religious artifacts, but is the story of a figure not on display that is of most significance to this place. In 1686, when the Holy League was besieging the city in the hopes of wrestling it back from the Turks, a wall of the church collapsed due to cannon fire. Behind this wall, in a hidden niche which must have been covered over by the Catholics before they abandoned the building during the Turkish invasion, sat a small votive statue of the Virgin Mary. As Islam prohibits idolatry, the praying Muslims from the garrison saw the statue and quickly lost morale. As the story goes, the city fell that very day. Many Christians of the time would have seen it as divine intervention, but in all honesty its probably just the work of some slapdash carpentry to hide treasures.
Heading up to the inner balcony, we admired further treasures held within the church, including the third replica we had seen of the Hungarian crown jewels. Upon the balcony also sits a statue of Sisi, the former Empress of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She was loved widely across the country during her life, and she was instrumental in forming the dual monarchy of Austro-Hungary, thus it is not surprising to see her likeness sitting pride of place amongst the other important artifacts here. As a woman who disliked the formalities of the royal life, and lived most of her life as a recluse, I imagine she would have approved of her placement, tucked out of the way in this quiet house of worship.
With one last look around the church, we ducked back out into the warm afternoon autumn sun, and headed across the courtyard to visit the final attraction of the day; the Fisherman’s Bastion. The Neo-Romanesque terraces which make up the bastion, a part of the larger Buda Castle area we were visiting, offer arguably one of the most spectacular views of Budapest, and, as such, it is almost constantly thrumming with tourists. Despite its historic appearance, building of the site only began in 1895 alongside the restoration of Matthias Church. With that said, there were defensive walls and bastions here in medieval times, as protection for Buda Castle. It is believed by historians that this current site used to host the defensive bastion manned by the guild of fisherman who resided in Fishtown just below the walls; hence its current name. Its bright white stonework matches that of Matthias church behind it, and it gives the area a seamless and ethereal feel. The gorgeous towers dotted along the terrace and the sweeping staircases provide an almost fairytale-like perch from which to peak over the balustrades, and drink in the panorama below, including the almost regal silhouette of the riverside parliament building. It was here, on the stone seats of one of the towers, that we whiled away a good half hour.
As we finally made our way back down, we paused at the Memorial for Péter Mansfeld. The carved stone likeness of the teenager falling from a wall offers a confronting but solemn place to remember this 17 year old young man, who, amoungst a number of other young student revolutionaries, fought against the Communist regime in Hungary from October 1956. During his fight with authorities and a period of hoarding weapons and grenades, he escaped capture by leaping from a 13 foot ledge, breaking his hand in the process. Unfortunately, he was captured several days later and was sentenced to death come his 18th birthday. After months of torture in jail, he was eventually hanged in a botched execution which apparently left him suffering for thirteen minutes before he finally succumbed. He is now held as a martyr for the rights and freedoms of the country.
Our walk home saw us wandering down the riverside, and taking a moment to admire the parliament building once more. Eventually, we tumbled back through the door of our Airbnb, and spent our evening resting our weary legs in preparation for another action packed day tomorrow.
As I reclined on the couch, I took some time to reflect once more on the shoes sitting hauntingly still on the bank of the Danube. I cannot imagine the soul shattering fear which must have coursed through the veins of the victims as they stood facing the flowing waters, awaiting their fate as the watched those around them falling lifeless into the river. Mothers and fathers trying to comfort their children in a scenario where no white lie could convince them that things would be okay, and no amount of stoic self centering would still the shaking hands of a parent who knows they are powerless to save their child. As their lives were snatched away by the cruel hands of intolerant men, I can only hope that their souls were washed clean of fear and sadness by the purity of Mother Nature’s lifeblood flowing smooth and constant down the vein of the Danube. May they rest in a perfect peacefulness denied to their murderers.