My second day in Budapest, February 17, 2012, started off as an overcast and snowy day. Fortunately the big cold snap had broken and the temperatures were more agreeable. As the outdoor conditions were not too pleasant I decided to come up with an indoor program to explore some of the stunning architecture that Budapest has to offer.
My first item on the list was to take a guided tour of the Hungarian Parliament Building. A fairly large group of tourists had gathered outside the Parliament Building behind the barrier for the 10 am tour and a guard was directing everyone to purchase tickets at Gate X. Punctually at the appointed time we were led into the building through one of the side doors by our guide.
Modelled after the Palace of Westminster in London, this enormous Neo-Gothic complex was built between 1885 and 1904, and certainly no expense was spared. A competition was held for the design which was won by Imre Steindl, whose other claim to fame is the design of Vajdahunyad Castle in Budapest’s City Park. With its 691 rooms, the Hungarian Parliament Building is the largest building in Hungary and was constructed by a crew of about 1000 people. Around 40 kilograms of gold was used in the decorations of the building.
The building’s height of 96 metres was also carefully chosen: it refers to the creation of the Kingdom of Hungary in 896 AD as well as the nation’s millennium in 1896. The same height of 96 metres is indeed shared by St. Stephen’s Basilica in downtown Pest. Our tour started in the main staircase which features sumptuous decorations as well as frescoes and sculptures by some of the most well-known Hungarian artists of the time.
The Central Hall is also lavishly decorated and is the seat of the Holy Crown of Hungary. Presided over by 16 statues of Hungarian kings and rulers, this crown was used in the coronation of almost all Hungarian kings throughout history and resides in a well-guarded glass case in the central Domed Hall. Armed guards are protecting the crown and follow the well-rehearsed changing of the guards’ ritual. Not a smile was to be seen on the guards’ faces.
The Central Hall also has a magnificent domed ceiling with displays of the coat of arms of the country’s noble families. The Hunter’s Hall led us to one of the Parliament’s council chambers and is decorated with sculptures of people from the Hungarian countryside.
As the Hungarian Parliament Building was constructed for a bi-cameral parliament, it has a Deputy Council Chamber that is still used as the current parliament, while the Old Upper House Hall is used as a conference facility today. The walls of the council chamber are decorated with murals depicting historical events.
On our way out our guide also pointed out the numbered cigar-holders on the window sills outside the council chambers. Smoking politicians would leave their cigars in their respective numbered slots, would go in the hall to vote and pick up their cigar after the formalities were done.
After my guided tour was done I embarked on a snowy ten minute walk to my second destination: Gresham Palace, a huge Art Nouveau complex that was originally built for the London-based Gresham Life Assurance Company. The building was used as a soldiers’ quarter during WWII and suffered heavy damage towards the end of the war. During the Communist era it was used as an apartment building and fell into disrepair until it was purchased in 2001 by the Four Seasons hotel company. After undergoing extensive renovations, it was opened as the city’s foremost luxury hotel.
After introducing myself and asking for someone from the marketing department, I was able to get a private tour that started with the Royal Suite which looks directly at Castle Hill and the Chain Bridge. This spacious luxurious suite has a full-size balcony that overlooks the Danube with a perfect view of the Danube and the Buda side of the city. Past the Chain Bridge you can see the entrance of the tunnel through Castle Hill and on a clear day you can even see all the way through to the tunnel’s exit on the other side of the mountain.