Last month I reentered winter, escaping the summer crowds in South America for a few quieter weeks in Europe. What I could not escape was the 50-degree temperature difference. I may have grown up in northern New Jersey, but my blood has recently acclimated to Brazil’s delightfully tropical temperatures. The personal cold spell I felt, however, quickly melted away with a mug of mulled wine at our first stop: Budapest, Hungary.
Though the warmed, spiced wine was delicious on a sunny winter afternoon, Hungary has seen some very cold and very dark times. The country has known few true glory days and is generally accustomed to fighting and losing wars on its own soil. Of course geography has played a significant role in Hungary’s war woes, as author Charlotte Yonge wrote in 1864: “For it was a wild realm, bordered on all sides by foes.”
Throughout its history, Hungary has known an invasion by the Mongols, a nearly 150-year occupation courtesy of the Turks, was dragged into the Habsburg Monarchy, and failed to win their independence through a revolution in the 1840s. The country eventually gained some footing with the creation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1867, which decreed that the two lands would have each have their own parliament and capital, but they would be ruled by a common monarchy and share foreign and military policies. This would cause problems for Hungary early in the next century. The assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand forced Hungary to follow through on those shared military policies, and the Maygar people—four million of them—were once again called to war.
The country was fractured so badly after World War I that it would never again feel whole. The Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed in 1918 and then the Treaty of Trianon, signed in 1920, left Hungary with a country smaller than the size of New York state and with about half the people. World War II didn’t do them any favors, either. The prime minister at the time, Pál Teleki, was so distraught over being caught between German belligerence and promised peace to Yugoslavia that he committed suicide and left a note that perhaps said what many Hungarians were feeling: “The nation senses that we have cast away its honor.” Hungary, once allied with Germany, was then made a target of the Nazi nation after the Germans discovered the Hungarian plan to pull out of the war and make peace with the Allied powers. Hungary was invaded by Germany in 1944 and suffered what I would think would be a nightmare situation for any country: its ally turned enemy and enemy turned ally battling it out in the capital city. The Battle of Budapest lasted 110 days, a desperate siege that transferred Hungary from one evil occupation to another. But behind the scenes of this troubling time was a plan to bring Hungary's most important symbol into safekeeping and out of the capital city that was again surrounded by foes.
A city once torn, Budapest today draws plenty of visitors eager to see its history played out in architecture. One of its most famous buildings is Parliament, situated on the River Danube. This magnificent structure is among Europe’s oldest legislative buildings and was constructed primarily in the Gothic Revival style, though there are significant touches of Renaissance and Baroque styles as well.
We visited Parliament on a rainy February day and discovered that famous Hungarian national symbol which was almost lost to history. The room was so dark I couldn’t make out the height of the roof at first. Once my eyes adjusted I saw a ceiling that soared over Hungary’s most important relic, the one safeguarded in a time when all else seemed uncertain: the Holy Hungarian Crown. Photos were not permitted and neither was getting too close, lest you provoke the angry-looking gentlemen with the swords standing nearby. Perhaps their caution is warranted, as the holy relic is believed to that of Hungary’s first king, St. Stephen and was given by Pope Sylvester II in the year 1000 AD. In the past millennium, the crown has caused its share of turmoil. It was moved around from court to court, stolen and pawned, lost and regained, even buried and dug up over the years. World War II was no exception. The crown, the holy symbol of the Hungarian people, was moved from Budapest into US Army custody in 1945 to keep it out of German and Soviet hands.
Some accounts say it was “spirited away” while others claim it was “seized,” but regardless of the language the crown ended up in Fort Knox, Kentucky and remained there for more than 30 years. President Jimmy Carter returned the crown in 1978 because he believed it belonged to the Hungarian people, though his decision was problematic since many asserted that turning the crown over to a communist government sent the wrong message. As we all know the Iron Curtain eventually fell, but the tearing down of those walls did nothing to change Hungary’s troubled borders, as we see in today’s migrant crisis.
Despite Hungary’s shadowed history and current challenges, its capital city now boasts a blending of new and old world charms. A revitalized Jewish quarter is home to a slew of restaurants and bars, my favorite of which is wine bar Doblo (website currently under construction) where we created our own wine flights solely from nationally produced wine, which is sadly underrated on the world stage. We also discovered a gorgeous library thanks to a friend’s blog post, and I was once again convinced that European libraries and the cities that hold them will always enchant me with their captivating tales of battles won and lost, nations on the brink, and the underdog country just trying to keep hold of its crown.