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Budapest: A River Runs Through It

David Holzer finds himself musing on the endlessly moving Danube as it flows through Budapest, and what that means for the city and its inhabitants.

The first time I took my Hungarian partner to London, we went on the London Eye. As we climbed slowly into the sky, I realized that the couple next to us were Hungarian. When we were back on terra firma, I asked her what they had been saying.

“The woman said the view of the Thames was beautiful and the man said it wasn’t as good as the Danube,” my partner said.

Every time I see the Danube, I have to agree with that Hungarian man.

The idea for this article first bubbled up to the surface when I was high above Budapest, sitting in the splendid St. Andrea Wine and Skybar. As my partner sipped a glass of what she assured me was a delicious Chateau Beaubois Cuvée Elegance Blanc, I gazed over the rooftops towards the sky above the Danube, trying to decide what I thought about the river. 

Let’s start with the facts, I thought. But, after trawling around, I understood that these don’t begin to explain the mystery of the river. Apart from the revelation that you can pan for gold along its length. Now that’s worth knowing.

I also can’t tell you what it means for Budapest to have the river flow through it. The best I can say right now is that, for me, it creates a profound sense of transience.

The Danube is so clearly a working river, a route from somewhere to somewhere else. Watching an enormous barge chugging upriver towards Vienna or a pleasure cruiser heading down to the Black Sea makes it feel that Budapest is only a temporary port of call for me also. 

The fact that the river has flooded throughout Budapest’s history to such disastrous effect adds to this strange feeling of impermanence.

High Water Mark

I recently discovered that there are high water markers all over Budapest that indicate flood levels over the years. The easiest of these to find is on one side of a ticket-sales center for ferryboats and dinner-cruise ships on the Pest side of the river near Vigadó tér. 

The highest marker nearly reaches the roof and shows the level the river reached in 2013. Just below it is a marker for 1876. I find it impossible to imagine the river rising so high.

But a marker for the most terrifying flood to hit Budapest is missing. When the river broke its banks in March 1838, this building would have been a long way underwater.

If you walk into the city’s fifth district and look for the corner of Király Pál utca and Egyetem tér, you’ll also find a strange little monument that shows the extent of the devastation in 1838. Half of the Pest side of the river was flooded.

Should you prefer something more dramatic, head for Ferenciek tere and look for the huge metal relief sculpture on the side of Belvárosi Ferences templom, or Inner City Franciscan Church. The man offering his oar to a family stranded on a rooftop is the hero of the 1838 flood, Baron Miklós Wesselényi.

In these times of global warming and wild fluctuations in rainfall, it’s impossible to say whether the Danube’s water levels could ever rise as high again as they did in 1838. If anything, river levels may be falling.

Rock of Misery

Apparently, when the Danube is at its lowest, the Rock of Misery at the foot of Mount Gellért appears out of the water. This happened in 2003, 2011 and 2015. Should you want to pray for rain this summer, you can always pop into the Cave Church, inside Mount Gellért.

The church, called Saint Ivan’s Cave (Szent Iván-barlang) after a hermit and healer who holed up there, is inside a cave system formed by thermal springs. It was founded in 1926 by a group of Pauline monks after they returned from a pilgrimage to Lourdes. In 1951, the church was closed by the socialists. It was restored and reopened in 1991 and is one of the most intriguing places in the city.

While you’re in the area, you might want do something rather more daring than simply visiting the Gellért Baths, beautiful as they are. The remarkable S’39 hybrid design manufacture collective has built a free spa for the people of Budapest literally on the bank of the Danube, fed by overflow hot water from the Gellért.

For most of us, sitting in the free spa may well the closest we get to swimming in the Danube. As a keen swimmer, I often wonder what it would be like to brave the waters of the river. It seems I’m not the only one.

In September 2017, swimming across the Danube from the Pest side of the Szabadság híd (Freedom or Liberty Bridge) to the Buda side was an event in the Budapest Urban Games.

The organizers provided a rescue crew of 40 people on ten boats. Everyone taking part had to be over 18 and needed medical proof that they were, in theory, able to take part in the 100-meter swim. Which, when you consider that there are whirlpools in that part of the river, not just strong currents, and the water is 20 degrees centigrade, is not surprising. An impressive 200 people swam the river, but 63 swimmers had to be rescued.

The organizers are keen to make the event annual so, if you’re tempted, perhaps you ought to get in training.

You can take a number 47 or 49 tram directly from Deák Ferenc tér to the Cave Church. St. Andrea Wine and Skybar is at 5 Deák Ferenc utca. If you’d like to take a deeper dive, as they say, into the subject of the Danube, I recommend regional BBC correspondent Nick Thorpe’s “The Danube” and “Danube” by Claudio Magris. They approach it from different ends: Thorpe begins at the Black Sea and Magris at the river’s source.