The diminutive country of Hungary, weighing in at just under 10 million people, is home to the third largest parliament building in the world. Consequently, some Hungarians have coined the phrase, “little country, big parliament” (to which a few add “big costs”). Hungarians, understandably, tend to be jaded.
Beyond its sheer massiveness, the limestone building – to this day the tallest in Budapest – is wildly ornate: rose windows; statues of statesmen, clerics and kings; an elaborately carved cornice – all topped with turrets, mansard roof lines and a copper colored dome. Should the building strike a note of familiarity, you are probably thinking of its model, the British parliament in London.
To me, this edifice stands as a reminder of the complexity of Hungarian history. When this building was conceived, Hungary was a country of three times its current land mass and over twice today’s population. In the 1880s, when the Hungarian government approved the plans and initiated the construction, the building certainly made more sense than it does today.
In 1914, a Yugoslav nationalist assassinated the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Archduke Ferdinand, in Sarajevo. Austria retaliated, attacking Serbia and igniting the First World War. The consequences of the next four years redrew the map of Europe and deeply impacted the future of Hungary.
Hungarians have not forgotten the Trianon Treaty, signed in 1918 at the end of the war, which decimated the size of their country. A few still blame the French for the subsequent Hungarian downfall and all mourn the loss of millions of countrymen – particularly, it seems, those Hungarians living in the Transylvania region of current day Romania. (I learned the depth of this emotion the hard way, when I choose “Armistice Day” as my English conversation topic – an interesting discussion but a big mistake.)
The frustrations of the concessions at the conclusion of the First World War simmered in Europe and set up the political backlash and eventual eruption of World War II. Back to back world wars created a mess and a situation which fostered the spread of communism from the Soviet Union and into the eventual Warsaw Pact countries, including Hungary. Western Europe flourished while the east languished behind a barbed wire barrier for nearly forty years.
When communism fell in 1989, the parliament building was a wreck; the porous limestone damaged and stained black with soot. For the next 25 years, scaffolding surrounded the building as the massive renovation project progressed ever so slowly.
I first came to Budapest in 2006 and then returned for the summer of 2008. At that time, much of the city was dirty, crumbling and in enormous disrepair. Yet a glimpse of the promise of parliament was becoming evident in slivers as scaffolding inched along – each time it moved revealing a newly cleaned and gleaming section. Yet until this year, some major chunk of the building was undergoing renovation.
Shortly after we moved to Budapest in early 2013, the square in front of parliament, Kossuth Lajos Ter, was cordoned off by a fence which surrounded the entire grounds. Pat and I avoided the area which had become a mess – a mountain of construction debris and dust with crews working seven days a week.
This year, in time for Saint Stephens Day (March 15th), workers toiled all night to remove the fencing and to unveil the final results. Hungarians, and especially older Hungarians, swarmed to witness the completion of a project they has awaited for nearly 30 years. Perhaps some octogenarians remembered the fabulous building of their youth but for most this was a new experience. I walked down the Danube from my apartment to witness the finished work with them.
The transformation was stunning. The entire building reverted to its original cream color augmented with new statues lining the square along with a reflection pool . People stood, stared slack jawed. Some draped Hungarian flags over their shoulders, others waved the flag from hand held poles and most wore red, white and green ribbons pinned to their lapels. One older man appeared disoriented, as if lost or dazed, while tears streamed untouched down his face.
I never lived through anything like the history of Hungary. Hopefully, I never will. Yet I stand in awe of this country, these people and their incredibly impressive city. The Parliament building and its environs are one of the most stunning sights in Europe.
A few months ago, we met an older couple on the train from Bratislava to Budapest. The woman was an American, her husband had been born in Hungary. They were returning to visit his homeland after a 20 year absence. The wife mentioned, “I always remember the parliament building from our last visit, looming over the Danube – huge and pitch black.”
I wish I could have accompanied them as they walked down the Danube and watched their reaction as the building came into view. Parliament is Hungary – their history is inextricably linked. Thankfully, they are both back, scrubbed clean and ready to face the future.
Categories: Insiders Budapest