Budapest, in the beginning

Looking across the Danube from Buda to Pest
Looking across the Danube from Buda to Pest

As a city, Budapest, Hungary’s Capital, is relatively young. It came into being in 1873 with the amalgamation of the communities of Buda and Obuda, on the west bank of the Danube, and Pest on the east. Its history, however, is long and marked by many rises and falls in fortune.

From their earliest days, Buda, Obuda and Pest had been tossed between a number of masters. Between the 1st and the 4th century AD the Romans pushed their empire across the Danube and the area was caught into the new state of Pannonia. In 896, the Magyars invaded. In 1241, the marauding Mongols swept through. The Turks came after, in 1541, followed by the Habsburghs in 1686. The invasions continued after the creation of the new city in 1873.  In 1919 the Rumanians stormed in. During World War II it was occupied by Nazi Germany. In 1945 the Russians took charge and the iron curtain fell. In 1956 Soviet tanks rolled in to quell a popular uprising and to re-assert their control.

Still, there were times of peace and great prosperity too. The Magyars were finally defeated at the battle in 955 and in 1001, Istvan I founded the Arpad Dynasty. He centralized royal authority, established Christianity as the official religion and organized Hungary into the administrative counties whose borders still remain today. The entire country flourished. Prosperous and orderly times continued between 1172 and 1196 under Bela III. After the defeat of the Turks by Janos Hunyadi in 1456 and the coronation of his son Matyas as King Corvinus in 1458, Hungary entered a seventy year Golden Age. Corvinus’ Neapolitain wife Beatrix transformed the royal palace at Buda into the greatest renaissance palace in Europe. Meanwhile Matyas extended Hungary’s borders into Moravia, Bohemia and parts of Austria, transforming it into the greatest kingdom in Europe. In 1867 the great compromise established the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy and ushered in a period of stability and prosperity, with a resurgence in Hungarian culture. Buda, as its centre, flourished for almost fifty years. Then in 1989, the Iron Curtain fell and Budapest entered a new age of optimism.

Today’s Budapest bears the marks of these 2000 years of checkered history. Ill fate and good fortune are etched in its buildings, its bridges, its streets, its public squares and gardens, its monuments and statues and on its people. In spite of and because of its history, Budapest is one of the world’s great cities. Tourists pour in from all over the globe, drawn by its legendary culture. Budapest is also the political, economic and cultural heart of Hungary, drawing people from all over the country in search of opportunities.

 

A day out with Cosmo in Athens, Part 6

The best way to digest a large Greek lunch, when a siesta is out of the question, is, according to Cosmo, with a good walk. And the only way to explore the fascinating area that sprawls around the Acropolis, is according to any Athenian, on foot.

Monastiraki, Athens
Monastiraki, Athens

Close by and to the west of Monasteraki Square lies quaint, charming, picture-postcard Psiri. Zorba-esque music flows from the old taverna which line the streets. There’s an aroma of roasting lamb, warm bread, honey and strong coffee. Young Greek gods, in the guise of waiters, smile from the terraces of restaurants and cafes. Nonchalant locals and shutter snapping tourists mill in the streets. On the other side of Monasteraki is Plaka, “the neighbourhood of the Olympian gods”. Hailed as the Hellenic Montmartre, it shares the bohemian ambiance and picturesque appearance of its Parisian counterpart. Close packed houses press into the steep, narrow streets. Ancient ruins rise from the dry earth in fenced-off excavations. In shady squares local characters sit smoking in the sun and old men quarrel over card games. There are tiny shops selling souvenirs, gold, leather, furs and pottery, interspersed with neighbourhood grocers, fruit stalls, bakers and cake shops. There is a bath house. Olive trees and vines overhang bleached stone walls. Miniature gardens are crammed with lush green leafy vegetables and fat tomatoes.

Every evening just before sunset a soft purple light spreads slowly up Mount Hymettus and settles over Athens like violet crown. We watched it fade to indigo from a taverna in a back street of Plaka, high on the rocky slope of the Acropolis. A young singer crooned Demis Roussos’ My Friend the Wind”. Our wonderful day out with Cosmo had come to a close. He had taken us into his Athens, introduced us to its capricious gods, its mighty kings and its great heroes, as well its ticket and postcard-sellers, shopkeepers, chefs, baristas and waiters. He had shown us its famous places and its secret corners, shared its smells, tastes, textures and sounds. He had told us its stories. It was a sad, goodbye, with a firm, long grasping of hands, kisses on both cheeks, promises on Cosmos side to visit us down under and on ours to show him our Antipodes, to come back soon to Athens and to drop in on his sister-in-law, the best Greek cook in Australia, at her home in Mount Waverley, Melbourne.

The rosemary and bay leaves, crumbling now, are pressed between the pages of scribbled notes for this story in my diary, along with Cosmo’s card and the address of his sister in law.

Our tour of Athens cost 100 euros each. Our day out with Cosmo was priceless.

To find your Cosmo, ask the concierge or the doorman at your hotel – he’s sure to have an uncle, a cousin, a brother – Athens is like that.