Walking and Talking Budapest History

Palace courtyard, Castle District, Budapest
Palace courtyard, Castle District, Budapest

If a place is located between two powerful empires, situated on a major river, and at the crossroads of east-west and north-south trade, things are going to get complicated.

It’s complicated here in Budapest, Hungary. A walk through the Buda Castle neighborhood is no walk in the park. Brace yourself for striding through a thousand years of swirling history, a vortex of changing political powers, ruins of war, and probably some brisk winds, too, up on the hill above the Danube river.

But this was all a manageable experience with Nada Zecevic of Context Travel. Without regurgitating dull history books, she walked us through the last thousand years of Hungarian history, and related it eloquently to the present and future. All in all, a fascinating three-hour walking tour.

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Editor's note: Can't travel to Budapest right now? As a result of the 2020 pandemic, Context Travel has introduced an excellent series of virtual seminars. These live, scholar-led courses even allow time for discussion and questions. Browse the Context Conversations calendar and book your seminar today. When you register, use the discount code tp50 for a 15 percent discount on your first booking. Just pull up a chair and soak up the knowledge, even if you can't travel.

What we saw and learned goes back to pre-Christian settlements, Roman times, and the time when Hungarians migrated across the Ural mountains to the Carpathian basin. From here, they raided west and north as far as Germany, where in 955 they were defeated by German King Otto I. They fell back to this area, and Buda, on the western, hilly side of the Danube, was established to protect local communities, particularly including Pest on the opposite side of the river.

As this pseudo-gothic carving on a medieval tower (topped by a 20th Century modern top level) shows, Hungary is constantly re-imagining its past.
As this pseudo-gothic carving on a medieval tower (topped by a 20th Century modern top level) shows, Hungary is constantly re-imagining its past.

So Buda was a military post, an international trade community of merchants and craftsmen, and a town with all the usual centers: administrative offices, churches, markets, houses, squares. As such, it saw–and reveals–tremendous upheavals and changes.

As we talked, the historic vicissitudes melded into conversations about present-day Hungary, roughly like this:

  • Around the year 1000: St. Stephen, the pagan king who accepted Christianity. He's considered the founding father of the Kingdom of Hungary.
  • 13th Century: The original, medieval version of Buda Castle was completed.  During this century King Bela IV tried to defend the area (including Croatia, Dalmatia, Bosnia, Serbia) from persistent attacks by the Mongol Tartars of Asia.

The Hungarian language is considered an orphan language, with some traces back to central Asia, like Finnish or Turkish. In fact, there is a popular notion that the fabled Hungarian sense of angst and alienation comes from being removed from their original civilization, and from their remote and isolated language–a concept Nada dismisses with a smile. Modern Hungarian, of course, also incorporates the languages of political and religious interaction: German, Slavic and Latin.

St. Stephen at Mathias Church, Budapest
The statue of St. Stephen faces Mathias church, and like the restoration of the church itself, follows the 19th Century concept of the Hungarian millennium celebrations
  • Renaissance Centuries: The local family line of heirs died off in the 14th Century. King Mathias, the “Renaissance King,” was engaged in wars against the Ottomans and established stronger connections with other European powers, namely Austria, Bohemia, and the Aragon Kingdom of Naples. (Enter the Hapsburgs.) Connections with the Roman Catholic Church were strengthened. After the Battle of Mohacs in 1526, the central and southern regions of the medieval Kingdom of Hungary were taken over by the Ottomans.

The majority of Hungary's population today identifies as Christian (primarily Catholic and Lutheran).

  • 17th Century: In 1686 Buda was ‘liberated’ by the Austrians, expelling the Ottomans and enveloping Hungary into the Hapsburg empire.
  • 18th Century: But maybe Hungary didn’t want to be part of Austria. So the next couple hundred years simmered, and power was alternately seized, granted, taken back. The Buda Palace was built over the old castle (1749-1769), and served largely as an administrative seat of Hapsburg counts in charge of the Kingdom of Hungary.
  • 19th Century: The resistance to Vienna boils over in 1848, after which Austria grants some concessions to Hungary, including its internal autonomy. In 1873, Budapest, newly formed by combining Buda, Pest, and Óbuda settlements, is named the ‘twin’ capital of the Empire. So in 1896 (considered the Millennium of settlements of Hungarians in the Carpathian basin), national pride is on parade. Palaces of the nobility spring up, Europe’s first underground metro rail line is constructed, and numerous buildings are renovated with a weird vision encompassing the past and future of Hungarian Baroque.
  • 20th Century: We didn’t need to spend much time talking about this as we walked. WWI starts (reminder: the Austro-Hungarian archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in 1914 by a Serbian nationalist gets things rolling). Hungary is right in the middle of the Austrian-German alliance, and squeezed further by the Turkish treaty with Germany. Then WWII. In Budapest, Germans and Russians faced off and the town, especially the Buda side, was destroyed, as were the bridges over the Danube.
  • And then came Soviet rule, which the Hungarians contested in the quickly suppressed revolt of 1956.

From the 1970s, Hungary slowly deviated from the core USSR socialism; since 1989, after the end of the communist control in Central Europe, Hungary established a multiparty political system and initiated reforms that aimed at establishing a capitalist market economy. Today, Hungary is a member of the European Union, integrated into a global market economy. It's possible Hungary will adopt the Euro by 2017.

Archives Building, Budapest
The Archives Building, built in 1912-1923, references the Millennial design features also incorporated in the renovations of Mathias church down the street.

So now, in the 21st Century, we’re walking around old Buda neighborhoods, past church ruins, old fortifications, from the rebuilt church of St. Mathias to the enormous castle up on the edge of the hill.

Our guide, Nada, came to Hungary twenty years ago as a refugee from Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegonia. She’s Hungarian now, married, a mother, and a scholar of medieval studies.

As I’m listening to Nada, I’m pretty sure I can’t begin to grasp all this history, keep track of the political winds, and understand the significance of each regime. But Nada sums it up nicely, “This region of Central Europe, although nowadays defined by borders of modern national states and the European Union, is still No Man’s Land and Everyone’s Land.”

“My grandmother was born as a subject of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and has lived in five countries without ever leaving her home.”

Our American jaws dropped at that thought. But, despite its volatile past, and current political leanings, Hungary stands out in the region and offers some solace at the beginning of this century. A walk through old Buda attests to the subtle ties of its inhabitants, guests, and invaders, and the delicate balance between independence and participation in regional and world affairs. Budapest deserves all the walking and talking through history that time allows.

A small part of the immense cave system under old Buda. Through history, the caves have been used for hiding, storage, spring water–and now tours and restaurants.
A small part of the immense cave system under old Buda. Through history, the caves have been used for hiding, storage, spring water–and now tours and restaurants.

We have done more than a dozen Context Travel tours on four continents and have always found them excellent, informative, and enjoyable. You can see our other stories on our Context Travel tours in Buenos Aires, Paris, Berlin, Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, Montreal twice, Budapest twice, Rome twice, Arles, Florence, and Venice by clicking on the links.

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21 thoughts on “Walking and Talking Budapest History”

  1. Budapest is a gorgeous city, both sides! We were lucky enough to be shown around by locals, which is always my preferred way of seeing something new. Did you take in any of the waters?

    • Last trip I visited Gellert; this time we are thinking of checking out the classic pools up in the City Park. We’ve had some good recommendations for nearby towns, too. So maybe on our way back through…

  2. We came on a river cruise. The sight of the city at night, all lit up, was so beautiful.
    I remember little, I’m ashamed to say, of their complicated political history told to us and repeated by Nada to you.
    But I still carry the memory of the view of the city.

    • The views at night are mesmerizing! It will be cool to get perspective from the river itself. And of course we are looking forward to visiting some new territory for us: Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania via Viking River Cruises.

  3. I agree completely – a great guide makes a world of difference when it comes to learning and experiencing the history of a city. Nada Zecevic of Context Travel sounds like an ideal resource to take a traveller through Budapest. You have some fantastic photos too. That shot of the chandelier with a devil perched on it is really unique!

    • Photo credits go to Tom, except the Mathias niche statue in the medieval tower. We’ve really appreciated Context’s in-depth tours in several cities: Venice, Rome, Florence, Barcelona….and on a variety of topics, not all history.

  4. Fancy living under five different countries without moving. This is something we can’t begin to contemplate. It’s these little anecdotes that encourage us to take guided tours wherever we go…be they history or food tours. We haven’t been to Budapest yet but now that friends have moved there, we may visit sooner than later!

  5. I thought the differences in perspective between young people (say 35 and younger) and older was so intriguing. The ones we didn’t live or barely remember living under Communism have so much enthusiasm and are quite entrepreneurial. Their parents and grandparents lived in a world of constant surveillance and suppression and worry about the confidence of the “kids”. Walks with the locals are so interesting. Like you I never had much interest in history before I started to travel and it came alive.

  6. My jaw dropped with the thought of Nada’s mother living in 5 countries, yet never leaving home. Context does such a great job in their tours. Their guides can really bring the history to life. Although I’ve been to Budapest a couple of times and spent time on the Buda side, I didn’t know all of the history you covered here — fascinating.

  7. It’s a complicated history, but fascinating at the same time, and it all makes Budapest the place that it is today. You were lucky to see it through the eyes of a local (I loved the idea of living in so many countries without ever moving!).

    • I’m not sure, if given a choice, these folks would like to be batted back and forth like chess pieces–while staying in the same home. The political world must feel so completely out of one’s personal control, but still has such impact on it!

  8. Oh! Budapest! It’s been on my bucket list for years, and I can’t seem to get there. The cave system under old Buda is so unique and a bit scary-looking. I WILL get there soon — your story has inspired me to make a better effort.

  9. This must have been a wonderful tour. We loved the labyrinths and the views from the Buda side. Coming from Vienna, Pete said, “I wondered why it is Hungarians don’t smile so much,” and then I realized, if we’d been invaded, conquered and subjected every 50 or 60 years, we might not be smiling as much either. My favorite city in Europe because it’s achingly beautiful, gritty yet dignified in disrepair, and fascinatingly complicated. Great write-up, Kristin!

  10. Thanks, Betsy. While I hadn’t noticed the unsmiling demeanor so much in Budapest, I have been aware of it as we move East through Serbia and Bulgaria. The tentative ways are certainly understandable!


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