HUNGARY  |  Budapest, Hungary Travel Guide
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Budapest's Bridges

Budapest's Bridges: A Brief History

The stirring history of the union of Buda and Pest actually begins with its bridges, straining across the wide river to join two different worlds into one city and one nation. Before they were built, the two sisters were strangers, even into Roman times, when the Romans also had a lesser though still significant outpost on the Pest side of the river. As with Hungary, so with Buda and Pest, the bridges have been built and torn down over and over again.

Lánchíd Suspension Bridge 

No greater symbolism of Budapest exists than the romantically draping supports of the Lánchíd suspension bridge. It encapsulates both the struggle and the union of Buda with Pest. From the Buda side of the Danube, at Clarke Adam tér, facing the lions that guard the entrance to the Lánchíd, you face a history of nearly 200 years. In the 1820s there was no towering causeway. Instead, a long narrow pontoon bridge bobbed perilously on the surface of the Danube current. Pest was bursting at its seams, filled with tanners, craftsmen and travelers, Baroque houses and huts, narrow alleys and dust-filled roads.Wood-framed stables and huts competed for space and odiferous dominion over the rising sea of humanity. Beyond Pest stretched the Alföld, a wasteland wiped clean by the dominating Turks and Tartars, and crowned with the ravages of the Austrian mercenaries. Fields, and only a few farms, and mansions and marshes stretched across the flat fertile lands to the distant Transylvanian mountains. There the borderlands of the Hungarians abutted the principalities of Balkan, Slavic, and Romanian nobles amidst the crumbling Ottoman Empire. However, on the Buda side, nobles and bishops and craftsmen intermingled in theWatertown and the Buda Hills. At the toes of the Buda Hills, the shoreline strip of flatland along the Danube stretched north from the Watertown to Obuda. There a new class of merchants bartered for wealth amidst the shadows of the once-great empire, the Roman ruins. The roads that snaked through these once separate towns joined, and then stretched out to Vienna, the new golden imperial city, and the Austrian crown lands. The link would tie the future of Hungary and Budapest to the rise of the Holy Roman Empire, as her kings and queens played pivotal roles in the future of Europe. But, just as that future was foretold by the roads that linked Buda and Vienna, that greatness depended on the joined hands of Buda on the west, and Pest on the east of the Danube shore.

The Growth of Budapest

In 1810 a Russian naval officer named Vladimir Bronyevsky wrote that the populations of the two cities live at constant variance with each other, representing two entirely different societies, lifestyles and outlooks. But, times were changing. Feudal dominions were crumbling and nobles competed ever more with merchants and the middle class for road space. Pest grew to rival its neighbor and then to surpass it. After the Turks were driven out, the population of Buda and Óbuda was jointly 9,600 and Pest a meager 2,600. By the time our Czarist officer wrote his memoir, the population of Pest was at 35,000, while the Buda banks sheltered 25,000. By 1870, Pest dwarfed Buda, with a population of 200,000 against 70,000 for Buda and Óbuda combined. The growth was almost geometric. By 1901, scarcely 30 years later, Budapest was at 734,000 people, one of the most populous and advanced cities in the world. Much of that growth sprouted from the flat, fertile plains of the Alföld on the banks of Pest.

Before the Bridges

Before bridges, the river was a barrier, to be forded by barge and ferry alone. Nevertheless, cold winters sometimes froze the Danube and makeshift straw-covered roadways would string across the ice. It is not insignificant that Matthias Corvinus, the son of János Hunyadi, the great Christian hero who stopped the Turkish advance, was chosen to be king while standing in the middle of the frozen Danube. A chronicler wrote about this event in 1848, “on this night, the Almighty who dwells in Heaven did freeze the water of the Danube to its very depths, and such a thick, stable mass of ice was formed thereby, that next morning every man could cross the Danube without a boat, as if he were indeed walking across a most flat field, no manner of water obstructing the traffic.”

But the same frozen roadway had been a catastrophe in the winter of 1241 when, as the smoke of burning Pest rose up behind them, the fierce Mongol armies of Batu Khan tried the ice with their horses, warriors astride. Then, while desperate prayers and chants arose from the churches and monasteries on the Buda shore, men laced ropes around the most prominent juts of the ice flows and pulled, trying to break the ice apart before the hordes could cross the river on its frozen surface.

The Pontoon Bridge Era

The pressure of time and growth created a different situation in 1820. After many years, a pontoon bridge had finally been built that strained against the current, and held. The Pest-Buda pontoon bridge was pulled out of the water at noon and in the evening to allow for barges and ships traveling the Danube, and also for the horse-drawn barges moving up and down the river. Long lines of wagons and carriages accumulated on both shores, horseflesh and leather mingling in the wind across the river, while they waited their turn on the pontoon roadway. But winter’s bite ended the lifeline. The 46 pontoons were dismantled and huddled in Pest for fear of ice flows. In such times, either side may as well have been a completely different world, as most often the river did not freeze. It became a vicious, impassable barrier with a relentless current pushing jagged-edged blocks of ice that would pierce the hull of a ship. In December of 1820, Count István Széchenyi, then a Hussar captain, was on his way to his father’s funeral. He spent an entire week trying to find a way across the Danube ice, when he wrote, “I would give a year’s income if a permanent bridge could be built between Buda and Pest.”

Though bridges had been standing for centuries on the Moldau, the Thames, and the Seine rivers, their structures of wood and stone were simply unsuitable for the powerful current and the severe winters of the Buda-Pest Danube basin. But, time and the Industrial Revolution added a new terminology, steel suspension bridge. Széchenyi brought back the technology and a British architect and engineer, Adam Clarke, to build a bridge. A joint stock company was formed in 1837, and the debate for approval began in parliament.

Debate Over the Lánchíd

Only commoners paid a toll on the old pontoon bridge across the Danube. The anecdote of a traveling Frenchman was repeated throughout Hungary. How do the toll takers know who should pay and who should not? ‘Whoever looks as though he has money pays no money. Whoever looks as though he has no money, pays. But, the construction of the Lánchíd was politically charged because everyone would have to pay! In the debate in Parliament, one noble said he would rather travel for days to ferries at other parts of the river than be taxed. Nevertheless, rising expectations led to the laying of the first foundation stones in 1848. Kossuth Lajos, the leader of the Hungarian Revolution of 1849 wrote in his newspaper, Hirlap, that the foundation of civil equality was laid.

It was opened at the high point of the Revolution, and it was joked that the bridge should be tested with Hapsburg loyalists, and if it held, then they knew it would be good; if it collapsed, well, all the better!

1849 Revolution: The Bridge as Part of History

The bridge did not wait to become a part of history. Hungarian and Austrian forces, armed to the teeth, marched over it in the see-saw movements of the 1849 Revolution. Finally, the Hapsburg Emperor’s Austrian army was trapped in the castle. A plan was hatched to destroy the bridge. It would stop further incursions from Pest and isolate the army surrounding the castle from re-supply. The commander of the risky sabotage was an infantry colonel. A massive quantity of gunpowder was providentially misplaced under the bridge, under the carriage way instead of at the anchors. To those involved, fate would seem to have sealed the bridge’s end. However, the colonel’s soldiers refused to ignite the charge beneath this symbol of Hungarian equality. So, in imperial fashion, he took the cigar out of his mouth and set the burning edge to the black powder trail. Incredibly, the explosion did no damage, except that is for the colonel, who failed to outrun the explosion and blew himself out of existence!

Lánchíd spanned the river to drive the spirits of Buda and Pest together across the water. Bridge followed bridge, until finally, at every possible spot of communion, a bridge reached across the two shores.

Margit Bridge 

Margit Bridge was inaugurated in 1873, a conglomerate, with iron from France, granite from Bavaria, and statues by the Parisian sculptor Thabard. Tragically, it was the first of the Danube bridges to be victimized at the end of WWII. The Germans were busy preparing their charges, around the pillars and beneath the spans. The bridge was jammed, overflowing with screaming people, blaring trucks and cars, horse-driven wagons, and trams desperately struggling and pushing across in a panic, fleeing from the fastapproaching front lines. In the middle of the day, suddenly, a thunderous explosion ripped through the shrieking humanity and steel and concrete. “I shall not forget it as long as I live. A tram crowded with passengers was thrown into the air and I saw men, women, and children sinking into the water,” wrote an eyewitness. How many lives were snuffed out on the river that day will never be known and not one man from the German platoon lived to tell what happened. So has tragedy multiplied across the Danube. January 1945 saw this, the last bridge designed by a foreign engineer and constructed with foreign materials, disappear.

Frances Joseph Bridge

Frances Joseph Bridge, built in 1894, was dedicated by Emperor Franz Joseph I. Today, reconstructed after the war, it is called Freedom Bridge, with its legendary Hungarian bird, the turul, adorning the topmost pillars with wings outspread, a testimony to the millennial celebrations of the Magyar conquest. It has come to symbolize the Hungarian fight for independence.

Elizabeth Bridge

Then there was Elizabeth Bridge, which at the time it was opened in 1903, was the longest chain bridge in the world, at 870 feet. It always was and is today the symbol of the modern world, somehow joining the old world of Hungary with the new.

The Germans did a thorough job in 1945. After they were through, the Danube again divided Buda and Pest, and it would have seemed that the heart of the city and of the nation had been dealt a lasting blow. But the cement holding the Magyar people together was stronger than the river’s current. In the spring of 1945 Budapestens were crossing the Danube on pontoon bridges again, laying plans to reconstruct the bridges in their old glory. That post-war pontoon link, called "The Ugly Duckling," is commemorated by plaques where the floating causeway once linked the opposite shores. It reached from Batthyanyi tér across to the south end of Parliament, following approximately the line of the metro’s underwater link today. Of the reconstructed bridges, only Elizabeth Bridge was completely redesigned. The others (all visible from the Citadel) are faithful to the spirit in which they were built – Szabadság híd (Freedom Bridge), just across from Gellert Hotel, Lánchíd (Chain Bridge), at city center, Margit híd (Margaret Bridge) at the southern end of Margit Island, Árpád híd (Árpád Bridge), at the northern end of Margit Island. They therefore link not just the two cities, but the history and the culture of Budapest and Hungary, a statement of the will to survive.

Last updated December 24, 2010
Posted in   Hungary  |  Budapest
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