I 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.
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!