From Buda to Pest

IMG_3000I have a fascination with bridges. When I was in college in Dublin, I would take the bus back up to the city on a Sunday evening. As we drove in along the quays on the banks of the Liffey, the Ha’penny Bridge was my landmark. Once I could see it, I knew I was back in the city. It’s still the same today. When I drive in from home, that’s my marker. Passing down the left side of the Liffey, I say a mental goodbye to Dublin as it’s behind me. In London, my marker was Tower Bridge. Oxford had the Bridge of Sighs. Chichester just had bridge clubs! But Budapest has the Chain Bridge (Széchenyi lánchíd). One of the most spectacular night views in the city (for me anyway) is the view of the Gresham Palace (originally built in 1906 as the HQ for the London-based Gresham Insurance Company and now home to the Four Seasons Hotel and owned by some lads from Ireland) as you stand midway on the bridge with your back to the Fisherman’s Bastille.

The bridge itself was the first solid connection between Buda and Pest and was first opened in 1849 (it took 13 years to build). It’s 375 metres long and 16 metres wide and is named after Count Széchenyi, which is only fair really, considering it was his idea to build it in the first place. Mind you, he originally had the idea in December 1820 when he heard that his father had died in Vienna. The pontoon bridge that spanned the Danube at the time was out of action because of the ice floes. Széchenyi was stuck on the Pest side for a few days before he could make it to Vienna for the funeral. No more pontoons for him – he envisioned a solid structure that would be open year round. He still keeps an eye on his baby from his lofty position in Roosevelt tér, next to the ancient acacia tree which is thought to be the oldest tree in Budapest.

The Clark Adam tunnel (remember, Hungarians put the last name first), dug by the Scottish Engineer who oversaw the project, runs for 350 metres through  Castle Hill and connects the bridge to the rest of Buda. In 1989, it was on the Chain Bridge that  Hungarians demonstrated for freedom and independence and, perhaps fittingly, since then the bridge has become a symbol of Hungarian liberty. Clark Adam tér (square) is home to the zero kilometre marker in Budapest – and it’s from here that all distances from the city are measured. IMG_3007

The pair of lions guarding the bridge at either side were added some three years later. Rumour has it that the sculptor forgot to give them tongues and was given such a hard time about his ‘mistake’ that he threw himself into the Danube (he did get out again and lived on for another 40 years or so).  Apparently though, they do have tongues; we just can’t see them from our vantage point – about 3 metres below.

Like all the bridges in Budapest, it was destroyed during the war and had to be rebuilt. Some of the original parts are still housed in the Transport museum. It was reopened on the centenary of its original inauguration, 21 November 1849. Every weekend from July to mid-August, the bridge is ‘pedestrianised’. Craft stalls showcase local art, musicians from the region entertain the crowds, and you can eat as much artery-clogging food as your conscience will allow. Sure ’tis all in a day’s work!

A wink from Lord Darsy

No matter where in the world you go racing, you’ll always see style. Derby day in Budapest was certainly no different. What was missing was the crowd. The Curragh, home to the Irish Derby, is guaranteed to be packed to the seams on Derby day. The city of Louisville in Kentucky has been hosting the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs racecourse for 135 years. The city itself takes on a carnival atmosphere during Derby week. As for the whole of Australia… when Melbourne Cup day comes around, the country comes to a standstill and for a few glorious minutes, the nation is united in one loud cheer. (Billed as the ‘race that stops the nation’,  I was reminded of this recently when I saw an old episode of Inspector Morse when Morse and Lewis visit a small town in the outback only to find it deserted – everyone is in the pub watching the race!)

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In Budapest last Sunday, everyone was somewhere else, too. Kincsem Park was practically empty.  Okay, so maybe the weather had a part to play. Fantastic thunder and lightning storms started the day and torrential downpours took us into early afternoon. At mass that morning, a massive lightning strike through the stained glass window lit up the priest as he lifted the Host for consecration. Amazing stuff. Still though, it did brighten up and the day was fine – but the people were missing.

KP can hold about 10,000 people so you can imagine how it looked with about a tenth of that. It’s a strange place that apparently makes a sizeable loss year on year and yet stays open. Wonder what business model they’re using! There is no entrance fee (contrast that with the €25 you pay to get in the gate to the Curragh on Derby day) and the minimum bet is just 200 HUF (less than €1). It’s tote betting only; there are no bookies, so in this respect it does lack a certain atmosphere. Half the fun for me at home was finding the right chap offering the right odds for the right horse in the right race. Still, mastering the Hungarian tote system was a challenge.

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Tét – win (your horse comes first)
Hely – place (your horse comes first, second or third)
Befutó – exacta (you pick the first two horses past the post in the right order – no messing around here!)
Hármas befutó – trifecta (you pick the first three horses in the right order – the moneyspinner)

I had a blast.  I had treated myself to a corporate day out (ironic really, as I am the corporation) with the Irish Hungarian Business Circle so had a VIP pass, lunch, wine, perfect vantage point, great seat and 10 races on the card. Did I mention the wine??? The highlight of my day was when the cup was awarded. The whole place stood to attention for the Hungarian National Anthem and you could have heard a pin drop. It was particularly poignant because Garabonciás (the Derby winner) has an Irish Dad – Black Sam Bellamy, and an Irish mother – Green Seed. Somehow it seemed rather fitting. Mind you, for all that, I hadn’t backed him. When I was down at the parade ring, No. 8, Lord Darsy, looked straight at me and winked… enough said!