Category Archives: History

Pest, Part 1, a brief history

A Pest Square
A Pest Square

Pest, which lies on the east bank of the Danube, is flatter, bigger, busier and younger than Buda and Obuda. However, it is by no means less well endowed with majestic buildings, grand monuments, fascinating history and iconic characters than its west bank sisters.

Following the final defeat of the Magyars in 955, Istvan I set up Hungary’s Royal Court in Pest. His Arpad Dynasty flourished here until 1242, when, after the Mongol attacks, Bela IV moved it to his hilltop castle in Buda. Life continued peacefully for Pest until it was razed by the Turks in the 14th century. The town was rebuilt from the ashes after Hungary was finally freed from the Turks by the Hapsburg commander Eugene of Savoy in 1686. So, even though Pest’s history as a Hungarian town is older than Buda’s or Obuda’s, its bricks and mortar are younger. Its oldest building is the former Péterffy Palace, now Százévres Restaurant, which was built in1708.

With the formation of Budapest in 1873, came a frenzied building boom as the Dual Monarchy sought to create a city to rival Vienna, Paris and the other great cities of Europe. Pest, as the centre of government, administration and commerce for the new capital, benefited royally from the boom and its beautiful, coherent cityscape was born of this time.

Flat, compact, logically laid out and liberally dotted with landmarks, as well as picturesque spots to pause and drink them all in, Pest is a wonderful place for walkers.

A stroll around the boulevards uncovers one brilliant building after another. Each little side street opens onto a stunning square. Every square has at least one great monument with its own fascinating story.

 

Obuda

Just along the Danube from Buda, lies Obuda. The oldest and most culturally diverse of Budapest’s three townships, its history dates back to the Stone Age and its settlers range from Romans to Germans.

View of Obuda from Margaret Island
View of Obuda from Margaret Island

The first settlement here, the town of Ak-Ink, meaning ample water, was apparently Celtic. By 89 AD it had become a military base for 6000 Roman soldiers. In 107AD the Roman Emperor Trajan established the civilian town of Acquincum, meaning abundant in water, as the capital of Pannonia. While Ak-Ink appears to have vanished with out trace, there is a great deal left of Acquincum. The ruins of a large public bath, the Thermae Maiores still lie under the flyover to the Arpad Bridge. Nearby is the huge 131 by 107 metre military amphitheatre which rivaled Rome’s Colisseum. Excavations during the 1950s and 60s uncovered the 2 room Roman Hercules Villa with mosaics depicting the Hercules myth and the Dionysus saga. The Acquincum Museum houses courtyards, baths, a marketplace, sarcophagi, sculptures, tools, jewels, glassware and wall-paintings.

During the Middle Ages, after Bela IV had moved his court to the west bank of the Danube in the wake of the Mongol invasions, Obuda became the site of the Palace of the Hungarian Queens and a thriving community grew up around it. Little remains of the mediaeval town except for the old Convent on Kiskorona Utca. Most of it was swept away in the 15th century Turkish invasion or fell into decay during the occupation.

The Turks, however, left not only their trademark Turkish Baths, but a legacy of Hunagrian rose gardens. The Kirraly Baths, at FoUtca, overlooking the Danube, were built in 1556. It is crowned by four green domes with the tallest topped by a golden crescent. Inside, four flights of steps lead up to an octagonal pool. Near the Buda bridgehead, the Dervish, known as the “Father of Roses”, who introduced the flowers to Hungary, lies in his tomb, surrounded by a bed of roses.

During the 17th century, after the Hapsburg conquest, an influx of German settlers restored life to Obuda and by the 18th century, it had become a thriving centre again. The buildings in picturesque Fo Ter date back to this time, like the Town Hall and baroque Zichy Castle, commissioned in the mid 18th century by Count Nicholas Zichy.  Grand bourgeois mansions point to an affluent citizens and a luxurious lifestyle. Jewish settlers, banished from the royal lands of Buda and Pest moved into Obuda. They had been invited by Count Zichy to service the commercial interests of the community as moneylenders, merchants and traders. The splendid classical Jewish Synagogue was built at this time to serve their prosperous community.

Although its history is long and rooted in ancient times, twenty first century Obuda is symbolized by the starkly beautiful, modern Imre Vargos sculpture, The Women with Umbrella, which stands in Szentlelek Square.  Obuda still centres on quaint, pretty, old world Fo Ter. The Town Hall still functions but the Zichy Castle is home to a museum. The Synagogue is now a TV studio, its congregation decimated by the Holocaust. The Roman ruins and the Turkish Kirraly Baths attract hosts of visitors. Locals frequent Uj Sipos Fish Restaurant, famed throughout Budapest for its Hungarian fisherman’s soup. Every summer young people pour in for the Sziget Festival on Hajogyan Isalnd just offshore. The outer circle of the little town is dominated by plain-faced Russian high rise housing and Hungary’s largest ever housing estate is a work in progress

Buda, Part 3, North of Castle Hill

While the southern and middle peaks of Castle Hill hold the most popular tourist attractions, the northern end is not without its share of interesting landmarks and monuments.

Musicians at the Vienna Gate
Musicians at the Vienna Gate

At the edge of the hill the Vienna Gate looks across a square to the massive Hungarian State Archives. Nearby is the gothic Magdalene Tower, the only part of the Church of Mary Magdalene left standing after the ravages of World War II. There are three great Museums. The Museum of Military History is crammed with relics from Hungary’s many invasions and occupations. The Music History Museum displays beautiful old instruments and houses the Bela Bartok exhibition. Although the Hungarian Museum of Commerce and Catering sounds like boring old cake tins and cash registers, it is actually a fascinating insight into Budapest in its heyday under the Dual Monarchy. The commerce section has replicas of early Budapest shop fronts and displays as well as contemporary advertising. The catering section features memorabilia from the chic coffee shops, elegant hotels and glamourous restaurants of 19th century Budapest. There is a  fascinating exhibition on the life and work of Hungary’s leading culinary light, confectioner Emil Gerbaud.

In and around all the great historical monuments and throngs of tourists, ordinary Buda life goes on. Gypsy violins from the buskers in St Matyas Square drift down through quiet, narrow back streets with old-world bakeries. Vertiginous stairs and paths lead between lovely old baroque, art nouveau and art deco houses with windows dressed in lace and Italianate shrines sculpted into their facades. There are tiny courtyards and playgrounds carved into the hillsides. School bells ring behind high brick walls. The vista up through the trees to the battlements of the Buda Castle and the spires of St Matyas Church is as old as Corvinus, Matyas the King.

At the foot of the hill, the streets spill into a busy square with solid stone 20th century office buildings and shops. Beyond it the traffic roars towards south to Obuda or over the Margaret Bridge across the Danube and into Pest.

 

 

Buda, Part 2, Castle Hill

St Matyas Church, Buda
St Matyas Church, Buda

Outside Buda Castle’s back gate, on a narrow saddle with sensational views over the valleys to the west of Buda, artisans sell traditional costumes, hand-made wooden goods in bright primary colours and table-linen with exquisite embroidery and lace.

In the distance are the distinctive towers of St Matyas Church which stands in a sunny square next to a statue of Istvan, the first King of Hungary. Built between 1255 and 1269 and dedicated as the church of Our Lady, it has come to be known by the name of the great ruler, Matyas. The king celebrated his two marriages in this church. He also extended and redecorated it, adding his symbolic crow to the spire. St Matyas was renovated again at the time of the Dual Monarchy by the architect Frigyes Shulek. Today its long journey across the centuries and the many hands that have shaped it are reflected in its rich mix of architectural styles. Pieces of the lives of the monarchs who worshipped there are displayed inside the church. There is a robe embroidered by the wife of the Emperor Franz Joseph on the death of their son and a fragment of her platinum embroidered wedding veil. On the rear wall is a fresco depicting a scene from the battle where Matyas’ Father, Janos Hunyadi defeated the Turks in 1456.

On the other side of St Matyas is another Frigyes Shulek architectural wonder, Fisherman’s Bastion, which was built in 1905 to remember the fishermen who defended Buda against the 15th century Turkish invasions. Its pink-tinged stone minarets stand against the Buda skyline and its arched windows look east across the Danube to Pest.

Buda, Part 1, Buda Castle

They are tied by the threads of shared history and culture. They are bound together economically, administratively and demographically. Geographically close, they are linked by a chain of bridges over the Danube. Their architecture has common touches of the Magyars, the Turks, the Renaissance, the Dual Monarchy’s lavish quest to create a new Vienna and the Communists’ iron fist. Yet, for all that, the three little towns of Buda, Obuda and Pest, which in 1873 became Budapest, are quite unique. Each has its own remarkable stories and its own distinctive style.

Buda holds the high ground, on the west bank of the Danube. A strip of motorway and a narrow promenade run along the river. Behind them the hills rise steeply.

Buda Castle
Buda Castle

Buda’s most prominent and most famous monument is Buda Castle, which sits on Várheg or Castle Hill.  After the Mongols had razed Pest in 1241, Béla IV, fearing another attack, chose this seemingly impenetrable site for his new royal castle. The cliff face in front of it is alarmingly steep. At the foot of the hill traffic whirls around Adam Clark Ter past the 0 kilometre stone and through a tunnel to the other side. For pedestrians unable to face the perpendicular stairs to the top, there is the Budaváry Siklo, the quaint, creaking, art deco funicular railway.

In spite of the supposedly unassailable hill, however, the castle was destroyed time and again; first by the Turks in the 16th century, then during the 1848-49 revolution and finally during World War II. Rebuilt and renovated as often as it was knocked down and ruined, the now enormous Buda Castle is a blend of architecture and ornament which reflect its long history and varied life.

Buda Castle is no longer the royal seat but instead houses the Hungarian National Gallery, the Budapest History Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in its vast wings. The castle is surrounded by cobbled courtyards, massive arches, statues and monuments to former monarchs. Its splendid front gate is guarded by a giant crow, the symbol of King Matyas which featured in his coat of arms and which gave him his name Corvinus. The King Matyas Cascade, the grand fountain in the front courtyard, is decorated with a sculpture of the monarch hunting. Gardens with old gnarled, lichen dusted trees ramble around the outside of the castle and drop down the steep cliff to the embankment

 

 

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 Cosmos in Athens, Part 1

We stood on the steps of the hotel and took in the panorama of blue and white – the sun-bleached stone houses rising in thick layers across the slopes of the low, rocky hills and above them, against a flawless, early morning sky, the pale cliffs of the Acropolis, crowned by the towering columns of the Parthenon. We had one day, one frustratingly, almost insultingly, inadequate day to explore Athens. How could we cram thousands of years of civilization, history and culture into twenty four hours, less if we planned to sleep? Where should we start? How should we start? As luck would have it, the doorman had an uncle, who had a taxi…

The Parthenon, Athens
The Parthenon, Athens

The doorman’s uncle was an imposing, bronzed figure, with a head of thick white hair, a gravelly voice which rang with conviction, a hearty laugh, an enthusiastic handshake and a profile which would have looked well on an antique medallion. His name was Cosmo. As a young man, Cosmo had worked, married and raised his family in Australia. He had returned to Greece twenty years ago, to settle and enjoy the prime of his life, sharing his home in the hills or his villas in the islands with friends and showing his city to tourists. He knew Athens. He knew Australians, New Zealanders too. He knew what we liked and what we wanted to see. He knew what would make us happy. No worries!

He gave us Athens, its ancient monuments, their history and their stories; the Arch of Hadrian, the gateway to the benevolent Emperor’s new Roman Athens; the mighty Temple of Olympian Zeus, the largest in the ancient world, conceived by Peisistratus and completed by Hadrian 700 years later; the beautiful marble Panathinaikon Stadium, built in the 4th century, where the first modern Olympics took place in 1896. He gave us the Acropolis, the ancient citadel, propped up with scaffolding now, still but dominating the cityscape and still haunted by the spirits of the ancient gods. He left us to wander at leisure through the ruins of the “glory that was Greece”, to the architecturally perfect Parthenon, the sanctuary and the theatre of Dionysus, birthplace of drama; the theatre of Herodeion, home of the annual Athens festival; the Agora, the political, commercial and religious centre of the ancient city;  the high slippery limestone rock of Mars Hill, once Athens’ highest court, where St Paul first preached the Gospel in AD 51. He gave us the  cemetery of Kerameikos, the oldest and largest in Attica. He gave us the capricious gods, the mighty kings and the super heroes who shaped this great city.

It became clear, as he whizzed us around, pulling in under monuments while the traffic banked up honking around us, parking in clearways, seizing spaces from tourists coaches and idling with impunity on pavements, that Cosmo belonged to Athens and Athens belonged to Cosmo.

 

 

The War Graves of Crete, Maleme

I am standing on a hillside, in a field of red daisies, just above the village of Maleme, on the north coast of Crete. To the east, olive groves stretch for miles, wrapping around clusters of white stone houses and blue-domed churches. To the west is a straggle of villages. Luxury seaside resorts sprawl among them, their terra cotta courtyards and bright swimming pools mirror the impossible colours of the Cretan sand and sea. Just below me is a bank of grey-green olive trees and beyond it a strip of flawless blue sky meets the fabled azure of the Aegean Sea. It’s a postcard perfect Cretan vista.

The German graveyard at Maleme, Crete
The German graveyard at Maleme, Crete

But all around me are grim reminders that the world is not perfect. To my right stand three grey crosses and at my feet are two small white plaques. On the other side of the field are another three crosses and behind me three again. Neatly spaced and hidden among the daisies, lie 4, 463 more plain white plaques.  This is the resting place of the Fallstirmjager, or hunters of the sky, the German paratroopers who dropped from the sky one fateful day in May 1941, to take possession of Crete. Barely visible through the trees is a strip of parched earth. Rusted, twisted remnants of metal and chunks of broken concrete lie among the weeds at its fringes.  This is Maleme airfield,  the first objective of the German invasion

At the gate of the Cemetary, display boards tell the story of that invasion. Code named Operation Mercury, it was to be a surprise attack, followed by a swift and easy conquest.  It was not. The Allies were waiting for them here  on Hill 101, the very hill where they are now interred.  Many of the Fallstirmjager were picked off as they floated through the sky. Others were mown down as they hit the ground or as they ran for shelter in the olive groves. Others, who landed near villages, met their deaths at the hands of local Cretans desperate to defend their homeland. It is a profoundly sad story – a story that highlights the horror, the tragedy and the pointlessness of war.

Mykonos, Part 13, From the First to the 21st Century

With the fall of Rome, in the first century AD, Mykonos became part of the Byzantine Empire. It remained so until Constantinople fell in The Fourth Crusade in the 12th century.

Holy water at Panagia Tourliani
Holy water at Panagia Tourliani

In 1204 Andrea Ghisi, a relative of the Doge of Venice, occupied the island and it became part of the Venetian province of Tinos. Then, in 1390, at the request of the people of Mykonos, it was given over to direct Venetian rule.

In 1537, while the Venetians still reigned, Mykonos was attacked by the Ottoman navy, who established a fleet on the island. Under the Turks, it  was important naval centre, a position it enjoyed until the end of the 18th century. During this time it also saw a great deal of pirate activity.

In 1821, the Revolution against the Ottomans erupted. Led by Mando Mavrogenous, a wealthy local woman who sacrificed her fortune to the cause, Mykonos played an active role. Their efforts paved the way for national independence which was won finally in 1830.   Mando Mavrogenous is now a national heroine and her statue sits in square in the main town of Mykonos.

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, Mykonos slowly lost its hold as an important port and naval centre. After World War I,  people began to leave the island to find work in mainland Greece and in foreign countries, especially the United States.

1873, the French School of Archaeology started excavations on nearby Delos and the first tourists arrived on Mykonos.

By the 1930s Mykonos had become a holiday destination for the rich and famous and tourism had become the island’s number one industry.

During World War II Mykonos served as a major port for the Allies and was subsequently occupied by the Italians and then the Germans.

After the war, tourism picked up again and from the 1950s until the present day, Mykonos has played host to countless visitors from all over the world. Since has earned its stripes as one of the world’s most desirable holiday destinations, it looks set welcome millions more in the future.

Mykonos, Part 12, ancient history

According to an ancient legend, the island of Mykonos was formed from a rock thrown by Poseidon, god of the sea, during a battle with some giants. Poseidon was victorious and the vanquished giants were finally  laid to rest. Rocky outcrops around the island mark their graves.

The graves of the giants, Mykonos
The graves of the giants, Mykonos

The island took its name from Mykonos, son of Anios who was also the grandson of the god Apollo and the nymph Rhoe.

The discovery of Neolithic settlement in Mavrospalia places the first humans on Mykonos in 3000BC.

In the 11th century BC, the Ionians settled here, leaving coins stamped with their favourite deity, Dionysos, god of wine and celebrations, so it seems entirely fitting that it is should evolve into one of the world’s most popular party places.

Around 500BC, Mykonos was embroiled in the historic battle of Salamis between Persia and Greece. Mykonos fought on the Persian side. Why? Because they felt slighted by the fact that the name of Mykonos was not mentioned in the thanksgiving tripod presented to the Delphic Oracle by the rest of the Greek States. When Persia was defeated, Mykonos became a colony of the state of Athens. Its citizens were forced to pay heavy taxes and endured a long period of hardship.

The island’s fortunes of Mykonos changed when Alexander the Great swept into Greece in 336 BC. Mykonos grew rich exporting grain, agricultural products and high quality clay to support and sustain his campaign to conquer the world.

In 146 BC the Romans marched into Greece. They constructed cities and ports and Mykonos, a valuable outpost in the Mediterranean, grew truly wealthy.