1. It was almost called Pestbuda
No joke. Even though Budapest may seem like it’s been around forever, it’s actually the result of a somewhat recent merger (1873) between two cities – Buda on the western bank of the Danube and Pest on the east. (Is it wrong that I’m humming the Spice Girls’ song ‘When Two Become One’ right now?) Both sides think they’re the best, of course, and it took some deliberation to agree on the name. Which, by the way, is correctly pronounced Buda-pesht.
A few other cities could learn from their example (I’m looking at you, Dallas/Fort Worth). Doesn’t Dallasworth have such a nice ring to it? What About Minneapaul? I see a future career developing here…
2. No building can be taller than 96 meters
You won’t see any skyscrapers or high-rises in the newer developments of Budapest. Although the city is rich with incredibly intricate architecture, two very historic buildings have the honor of being the ‘tallest building.’ Both of them are exactly 96 meters high, and this is no accident. The number 896 signifies the year that Hungarian Magyars first settled in the region.
The first, the Hungarian Parliament building was built in the Gothic revival style using no less than 40kg (about 88 pounds) of solid gold. Yeah, it’s pretty epic. It represents the importance of the city’s government.
St. Stephen’s Basilica, built to honor the first king of Hungary (later canonized) took a whopping 54 years to complete due to the fact that the original architect got so old he made a major miscalculation, causing the dome to collapse. It represents the importance of religion to the city.
The fact that they are exactly the same height symbolizes the concept that worldly and spiritual thinking have the same importance in Budapest. An ordinance was passed forbidding any other building from being built higher.
3. Hungarian goulash is totally different than you think
I always thought goulash was macaroni noodles and ground beef with maybe some onion or cheese thrown in. It’s totally not. Authentic Hungarian goulash (actually pronounced gulyas) is basically beef & vegetable soup with dumplings and a lot of paprika. Goulash is traditionally served as a soup, NOT to be confused with Hungarian beef stew. That version is similar to American goulash in that it has a thicker consistency and can include pasta. It also contains copious amounts of paprika.
4. A severed hand has its own parade
Legend has it that nearly 50 years after King Stephen’s death in 1038 they opened up his sarcophagus to check for signs of a miracle and found that his body was all decayed except for his mummified right hand. He was then canonized by Pope Gregory VII, as the hand was deemed to have miraculous properties.
The hand was removed from the grave and sent to the basilica treasury, where it was promptly stolen by the man who was supposed to be guarding it. It was taken and buried on his estate in what is now Romania. It was later discovered, but the reigning King László forgave the thief and even erected a monument in the spot it had been buried.
The hand made its way around the Balkans, traveling from Szentjobb/Siniob back to Székesfehérvár in the fifteenth century. During the Turkish occupation, however, it mysteriously turned up in Ragusa (Dubrovnik) and was held by Dominican friars. Queen Maria Theresa eventually purchased the hand and gifted it back to her Hungarian subjects.
The hand is now housed in St. Stephen’s Basilica and carried in the Holy Right Hand Procession each year on August 20th. I’m bummed I’m going to miss it. However, there is a bit of speculation that the hand in the basilica is not the real hand of St. Stephen at all. I guess if you don’t perform any miracles for a few hundred years people get suspicious.
5. Gellért Monument has a stellar view but a grisly background
St. Gellért was on a pilgrimage to Palestine when he was detained by King Stephen to help convert the pagan Magyars to Christianity. Gellért agreed, although he lived to regret it. Or rather, he didn’t. After the king died, he was no longer under the protection of the palace, and was captured by the pagans. They were slightly pissed off at his conversion tactics, and showed their displeasure by stuffing him into a spike-filled barrel and rolling him down the hill.
A monument was later erected at the exact spot where he met his death. It can be seen from all over Budapest and provides one of the best views in the city. The monument also depicts heathen Magyars looking up in awe at the Saint, so I guess you can say he got the final word in.
6. There are lucky charms everywhere
Forget the leprechauns, Budapest has all the luck you’re going to need. The Hungarian Policeman was built in the 1900’s to commemorate a certain officer who always had a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. This twinkle was due to the fact that apparently he loved two things in life: food & women. In fact, he liked both of them so much that he devised a way to flirt while he was eating – twirling his mustache at the ladies. Apparently this worked a lot better than it would today because his numbers were said to be in the hundreds. Today, if you rub his belly it’s said that you will be lucky in love, and if you twirl his mustache…well, you’ll just get lucky. (Wink, wink.)
Heroes Square is one of the most famous landmarks in Budapest. The statues atop the colonnades symbolize war, peace, work, welfare, knowledge and glory. Around the base, the equestrian statues honor the seven chieftains of the original Hungarian tribes.
Which is all fine and dandy but what I was interested in was the Statue of Anonymous (who looks a bit like the grim reaper) located in the nearby park. It’s believed that if a person finds the statue and touches the pen in his hand, he or she will become a better writer and find great success. New York Bestseller List, here I come…
The Little Princess is the most photographed statue in Budapest. She is a bit of an icon and well ahead of her time. Unlike other young girls her age, she never wanted to be a princess or a queen. Instead, she dressed only in her bother’s clothing and wore a paper crown on her head wherever she went. She aspired, when she grew up, to become the King. Her father, a sculptor, was so amused by this that he immortalized her. If you rub her knees it’s said to bring you luck and self-actualization.
There’s one more iconic statue that students might want to pay a visit to and that’s András Hadik, the Russar general. Near Matthais Church on Castle Hill you can find this statue of a man on his horse. He became famous because, unlike most Hussars who achieved the position through their nobility (ahem, money), he rose through the ranks based on skill alone. Now he is said to bring luck to students before standing for exams or writing a paper. Which lucky part of the statue should you rub to achieve this? The horse’s balls. (Sorry I don’t have a photo of horse testicles for you.)
7. The Chain Bridge is one giant urban legend.
The Chain Bridge was completed in 1849 as the first bridge across the Danube River connecting Buda and Pest. Construction was instigated by Count István Széchenyi, although there are opposing stories on WHY he decided to undertake this feat. The first says that his father had grown fatally ill in the dead of winter, but, because the river had become too dangerous to cross by boat, he could not make it in time to say goodbye. He swore to his mother that he would complete the bridge so that no family would go through that again.
Another version says that he simply had a mistress on the other side of the river and wanted to be able to visit her more often, to…you know. (In actuality he most likely just wanted to stimulate the economy, but I prefer the legends.)
The statues of the four lions, carved by János Marschalkó, guard each end of the bridge. Legend has it that he spent YEARS studying lions in their natural habitats so as to carve the most perfect statues ever created. Before unveiling the lions he boasted to anyone who would listen that his statues were flawless. He said that if anyone could find a flaw in his work he would kill himself.
Unfortunately for him, the story says that one day a young boy was overheard to have asked his father loudly where the tongues were on the lion statues. Upon realizing that he had forgotten this crucial point, Marschalkó jumped from the bridge, thus becoming the first official suicide. (This rumor has been proven completely false as the lions do, in fact, contain tongues. You can only see them from a high angle because they are behind the teeth.)
Another legend says that the bridge’s architect, Péter Wellner, also jumped from the bridge when he realized that he had miscalculated and did not have enough materials to span the full width of the river. (Also untrue, as the bridge was completed upon schedule and Wellner actually went on to design another bridge).
Palaces are grand and bridges majestic, but I prefer digging up quirky facts about the places I visit. Budapest didn’t disappoint!