Friday 26 October 2007

The Bridges of Budapest

Digital photo of the Széchenyi Lánchíd lion
by © Lucy Mallows 2006

With all the hoo-ha over the naming of Budapest's latest Northern MO Danube Bridge and faux-political commentator Stephen Colbert's success in getting 17 million people to vote for 'The Stephen Colbert Bridge' as the new híd-moniker, here is the real story of the Bridges of Budapest.

The world’s great cities are almost always graced with great bridges.
London has Tower Bridge, San Fransisco has the Golden Gate, Florence the Ponte Vecchio and Paris the Pont Neuf.
Budapest has the iconic Chain Bridge (Széchenyi Lánchíd), but it also has six more road bridges linking Buda and Pest, each with a fascinating tale to tell.
The mighty Danube flows for 2,850km through Europe from Breg in the Black Forest to the Black Sea and passes through Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania on its journey to the swampy delta at Sulina. It is Europe’s second longest river after the Volga.
In Vienna, however, the Danube doesn’t run through the center of the city.
In Budapest the Kék Duna (Blue Danube) as its known cuts right through the heart of the city, both literally and geographically, dividing the hilly residential Buda from the flat commercial Pest and running right up the middle like a gash across a lover’s chest.
The magnificent panorama surrounding the river is the nerve center of the city, the place every tourist visits and swoons at the sight, justifiably listed as one of Unesco’s World Heritage Sites.
To cross the river from Buda to Pest one could use the red metro line, but most choose the more photogenic method, the bridges.
A common Budapest phrase says, “The best thing about living in Pest is the view of Buda,” and it is the fabulous panorama swinging down from the Liberation Monument, past the fairy tale castle and Fisherman’s Bastion all the way to Margit Bridge that makes the view so special.
There was a bridge across the Danube as early as the C15th.
In King Zsigmond’s time, there is record of a pontoon bridge. Musztafa Szokollo, who ruled during the Turkish occupation, built a pontoon using 70 floating boxes.
Nowadays, each híd (bridge) has a totally different character and style.

Árpád Bridge
We start from the northernmost of the city bridges, Árpád híd (although strictly speaking there is one further up, the Újpest vasúti híd, or Újpest Railway Bridge).
Árpád híd, named after the leader of the seven tribes of Magyars who rode into the Carpathian basin in the 9th century, is the longest of the Budapest bridges and one of the youngest.
The authorities decided in 1939 that workers from Óbuda should be able to move more easily to the Angyalföld district and that a bridge was needed.
However, the work was held up by the war, and the bridge was not finished until 1950 when it was named Stalin híd.

Margit Bridge
Árpád híd also offers access to Margit Island on the other end of which is Margit híd.
I visited Visegrád Sanitorium and while there I met two elderly sisters Bozsi and Rózsika, who spent regular cure sessions there and even had a special room to themselves. Bozsi was on Margit híd when the Germans blew it up in November 1944, “I have had stomach and nervous problems ever since,” she said.
She was one of the few survivors of the dramatic incident, black and white pictures of which can be seen in the Margit Bridge subway on the Pest side.
At the time – a Saturday afternoon – the bridge was full of pedestrians, trams and cars and several hundred people were killed.
In fact the explosion was an accident, the charges exploding while the German engineers were still underneath the bridge, setting them.
For a while, a temporary rope bridge, known by locals by the nickname Manci, led from Szent István Park to the island so stressed out Pest folk could still enjoy a walk amongst the trees.
The bend in the middle, commonly known as the könyök (elbow) had to be so designed to take account of the currents coming from either side of Margit Island.
Margit Bridge was the second permanent structure when it was built between 1872 and 1876 by French engineer Ernest Gouin’s company Societé de Construction des Battignolles.
The statues, which you can see from the lower reaches of Margit Island were designed by Parisian sculptor Thabard.

Kossuth Bridge
If you go to the embankment on Kossuth tér, just past the statue of the seated poet Attila József, you can see the place where Kossuth Bridge set off towards Batthyány tér on the other side. The inscription reads: “In this place stood Kossuth Bridge. Our workers’ heroic and self-sacrificing work in eight months built the bridge as a temporary replacement for all the bridges senselessly blown up by the fascists.
On January 18, 1946, on the first anniversary of the last fascist bombing, it was opened to traffic. Its temporary objective completed, it was taken down in 1960.”
The Kossuth Bridge was designed by Károly Széchy and had nine spans, and because of financial constraints, was constructed mainly of metal girders bolted together, standing on eight iron and concrete supports.

Széchenyi Lánchíd – The Chain Bridge
The famous landmark of Budapest, the Széchenyi Lánchíd – Chain Bridge – was commissioned by Count Istvan Széchenyi and was the first of the eight permanent road bridges in the city. Széchenyi asked Frenchman Marc Isambard Brunel for advice on bridge building and in 1832 he went to see William Tierney Clark’s bridge across the Thames at Marlow, England.
Clark was asked to design a bridge for Budapest and another Clark, no relation, Adam was the contractor.
The bridge was built between 1839-49. The lions guarding each end were designed by János Marschalko and local legend has it that the sculptor forgot the tongues and when this was pointed out by a little boy at the opening ceremony, he was so distraught, he committed suicide by jumping off the bridge.
Some people claim there are tongues, but if they are there, they are nigh on impossible to detect, even if you clamber on the graffiti-covered pedestals at the four corners of the bridge.
Count Széchenyi then decide that a tunnel should be built to link the bridge to the Tabán district, on the other side of the Castle hill, and construction began in 1853.
People used to joke that it was built so that the bridge could be dragged into the tunnel during the rain. The inscription in English on the Pest side of the tunnel reads, “To commemorate the only two surviving bridges designed by William Tierney Clark, the Széchenyi chain bridge over the Danube in Budapest and the suspension bridge over the Thames at Marlow, England.”
It is reported, however, that he used the still-standing Hammersmith Bridge as a model for his design.

Elizabeth Bridge
Erzsébet híd was the fourth bridge built, following the Lánchíd, Margit and Ferenc József (now called the Szabadság híd).
In 1885 the government decided to build a bridge between Eskü tér (Oath Square) now called Március 15 tér and the Rudas Baths on the Buda side.
The original plan was to build the Buda side at a slightly northern spot but that would have involved demolition of the Tabán inner city parish church.
After much discussion with church officials, it was agreed to built it heading towards the base of Gellért hill and that is why the road has such a dangerous swing around to the right when leaving the bridge. It was the longest single span bridge in the world until 1926.
However that is not the bridge you will see today – the original was blown up by the retreating German army in January 1945, along with all seven other Danube bridges.
A modern elegant white suspension bridge was built in 1965 with six lanes of traffic. The view from the bridge toward Saint Gellért on his hill is one of the most spectacular vistas in the city.

Liberty Bridge
The name Szabadság híd means Liberty Bridge. Most bridges in Budapest are named after a person and the Liberty Bridge was at one tie called Ferenc József after the Emperor.
The third of the bridges, it was designed by Aurel Czekelius, according to János Feketeházy’s plans and the Emperor himself hammered in the last rivet.
On the top of each pillar is a Turul – the mythical Hungarian bird standing on a golden ball. Its girders are very easy to climb and that may be a reason why it is one of the most popular bridges from which to commit suicide, although maybe it is for more romantic reasons, since the name ‘Szabadság’ suggests release from the cares of the world.
Other bridges are also quite popular for suicides, including the Chain Bridge, and I have even seen a man on the top of difficult-to-scale Erzsébet Bridge. He had climbed up the service ladder inside one of the columns when its little hatch had accidentally been left unlocked.

Petőfi Bridge
Petőfi híd, named after the revolutionary poet, Sándor Petőfi, is possibly the least inspiring of all the Budapest bridges.
It links with Margit Bridge right round at the other end of the Nagy körút, the grand boulevard which rings Pest. Slightly older than Árpád híd, it dates from 1933-37 and was built by Algyay Hubert. Until 1945, the bridge was named after Miklós Horthy, Hungary’s right wing leader and ‘admiral without a sea.’

Lágymányosi Bridge
Lágymányosi híd, which looks like a kind of red toast rack, is the newest of all the bridges and replaced the összekötő vasúti híd (linking railway bridge).
Lágymányosi híd links up with Árpád híd via the great Hungária ring road, an outer version of the grand boulevard.
It was opened in 1996 and has special giant mirrors which light the road evenly.

…and the bridge that never was
There is one more bridge which never got built, for which some may say thank goodness, but which would indeed have been a dramatic sight.
Towards the end of the last century, engineers were discussing how best to reach the top of Gellért Hill.
Spurred on by the tourist office, people were asked to make suggestions on how to reach the peak.
Some suggested a funicular, others a cogwheel railway in place of what is now Hegyalja út. However the most interesting proposal was put forward by János Ruppenthal, who suggested building a giant steel tower where Irányi utca leads out onto Belgrád rakpart.
From this tower a bridge would lead right to the summit of Gellért Hill.
On the bridge two carriages similar to the Castle District’s Funicular would travel up and down the still relatively steep climb giving a gorgeous, if rather terrifying view to passengers.
On the lower portion of the iron girders, a ramp would be built for pedestrians to make the breath-taking and spine-tingling walk.
A lift would lead up the tower but if people wanted to save money they could stagger up on foot. The design was to be similar to the Ferenc József bridge (Szabadság híd) although lacking its dainty character. It was in fact, positively clumsy.
An article appeared in the Vasárnapi Ujság (Sunday News) and then the storm broke. Experts and laymen all rose up against this “mindless plan” which would “for eternity disfigure our world city, whose glorious sights have so often invigorated visitors from home and abroad.”
Ruppenthal suggested it would be useful for tourists, and mentioned how people had baulked at the Eiffel Tower’s construction. City leaders debated but rejected the idea. The reason given was “that was Paris, this is Budapest,” and the case was closed.

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