Budapest’s Castle Hill District – Part One

Mary and I have visited many forts and castle ruins in multiple settings around the world, and on those tours, the guides will often point out holes in the wall left by cannon fire or some other type of weapon fire.  The thing is, these events often occurred hundreds of years ago, so they don’t necessarily strike a personal chord. But, when you’re standing in front of a wall that is riddled with bullet holes from a 1956 uprising, there is something far more visceral about it.

One of the first things we saw when we got off the bus atop Castle Hill, was the Ministry of Agriculture Building, which served as a backdrop for a pivotal moment in Hungary’s 1956 Revolution against Soviet control. On October 25, now known to Hungarians as Bloody Thursday, scores of spirited yet peaceful protesters congregated at the Parliament Building. To quell the mounting demonstration, Soviet troops and state secret police opened fire on the crowd of several thousand people. Some of the fleeing protesters took shelter behind the façade of the Ministry of Agriculture Building’s colonnade, and as a result, their pursuers fired in their direction, scarring the structure’s exterior in the process (see below).

It’s unclear how many died during the massacre at Kossuth Lajos Square – sources vary, with some citing as few as 22 deaths and others claiming upwards of 100. And despite the bloody two-week revolution, the Hungarians’ bid for autonomy was ultimately squelched by Soviet reinforcements in November of 1956.

I can’t explain why, but this was the first of several moments on a cruise filled with mostly emotional highs, that I was hit by a wave of sadness that I simply wasn’t expecting. I didn’t say anything about it to Mary or any of the other guests on the tour at the time, but even writing about it after the fact, the feelings came flooding back.

All six of the tour groups from our bus were assembled at various points around Disz Square and while some started off toward the Buda Castle (seen in the picture below), our particular group set off towards Matthias Church

The first “landmark” our guide pointed out was “the House of Houdini”, a museum and performance venue located within the walls of the Buda Castle.

House of Houdini

The museum, which opened in 2016, houses the only collection of original Houdini artifacts in Europe. and Budapest was chosen as the location for it as he was born in this city in 1874.

The fact that Houdini’s last name ended with the letter “i”, is significant according to Josef, our tour guide. It seems that Hungarian families whose last names end with “i”, are more often than not from small towns and poor working-class families, which dovetails with Harry Houdini’s personal story (the same goes for Bela Lugosi, another well-known Hungarian performer). Hungarian families whose last names end with the letter “y” come from wealthier and more prosperous backgrounds.

Moving on, our guide explained that we were entering a mall that was built inside the castle grounds after it had stopped being a fortress and serving military purposes. As you can see from the pictures below, trees had been planted as far back as the 1800’s and park benches were placed in areas that had previously been used for defense. The buildings on either side of the street are a mix of Baroque, Eclectic, and Classical style architecture and some of them were built at the end of the 1600’s.

At one point, we came upon a small cluster of retail stores, that included a post office, a small grocery store, and a shop selling hand-made dresses and dolls that were adorned in traditional Hungarian costumes.

Mary had been told that if we wanted to buy “authentic” Hungarian dresses, we could identify them by the fact the embroidery was beautifully finished on both the front and the back of the clothes. She was also told that many of these authentic items were made by women from some of the poorer parts of the country and their sale in Budapest markets represents a major source of income for them.

As we drew nearer to Mathias Church, we entered Tarnok Street, where three ancient commerce houses stand in a row.

The brightly painted building in the centre of the picture (above) was the residence of the king’s cup-bearer – today it is a well-known restaurant. To the right of it, is a building that was once home to the oldest pharmacy in the Castle District. Now it is the entrance to a Pharmacy Museum.

We were now on final approach to Trinity Square which takes its name from a very richly decorated Baroque monument erected in the 18th century as an offering for God to protect the local citizens from the plague.

The Black Plague (causing the death of 30-60% of Europe’s total population) swept across Europe in 1691 and 1709, and many were buried in mass graves. Since people believed that erecting a column would keep away the plague, the foundation stone was laid in 1700.

Even though, the first pillar was ready by 1706, three years later the plague returned to Budapest, and therefore a new, larger plague pillar was planned in order to keep the plague away at any costs. Residents believed the Holy Trinity Statue did its job, as the plague never returned after 1709.

Of course, the squares most attractive and important element is the Church of Our Lady, or as it is more popularly known, Matthias Church.

According to church tradition, it was originally built in 1015, although no archaeological remains exist. The current building was constructed in the later half of the 14th century and was extensively restored in the late 1800’s.

Matthias Hunyadi, the “just”, is Hungary’s legendary king who held his two weddings here. He has always been the favorite king of the Hungarians, although the church is equally famous as a coronation church, for it was here that Franz Joseph I was crowned king of Hungary in 1867. The final coronation took place in 1916, when Charles IV, the last Habsburg emperor and Hungarian king was crowned here. World War I put an end to his reign as well as the Kingdom of Hungary.

The interior of the church is stunning. It features colourfully painted walls and frescoes dating back to the 1800’s and numerous stained glass windows. Today it is a lively religious and focal point in Budapest, with regular services, weddings, classical music concerts, and choir performances filling up the calendar on many days of the year.

Emerging from the church, we found ourselves in the small square in front of it.

In the middle stands the equestrian statue of the Hungarian state founder, King Steven I.

Beyond and behind the statue is a colonnade built around the top of Fisherman’s Bastion and looking through it, we were afforded a fabulous view of the Parliament Building, directly across the water from us.

It was at this point, the organized part of the walking tour came to an end, and we now had about 90 minutes to explore on our own. That portion of our morning adventure is covered off in the next blog, cleverly entitled “Budapest’s Castle Hill District – part two”.

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