My favourite building in the world is the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest. Full stop, no more contenders. To me, it is perfection.
Over the years, I have made this very public. I have read about it, taken photos of it, compared it with the building from which it was inspired (the Houses of Parliament in London). To me, the original (with its showy Big Ben) doesn’t even come close.
On each of the tours I have guided into Budapest, I would already be talking about the building at the start of the week, when we were still three countries away. I would build it up, big time, and when people gushed about it to me, I would feel proud. The compliments would flow, and I would smile and nod as if I’d built the behemoth with my own two hands.
On each tour, our passengers would join a Danube River cruise and us guides would provide the commentary. I LOVED this. I got to rabbit away on the microphone, not really caring if people were listening or not, describing the different sights on each side of the Danube. If anything I was entertaining myself, and I would rattle off a whole bunch of facts about the Parliament. Often we’d be way past Buda Castle and I was still going on about that bloody Parliament. I’m sure that’s what the crew on board were thinking, anyway.
The Hungarian Parliament (officially called ‘The House of the Nation’) is not an old building, particularly by European standards. It was inaugurated in 1896, a year that is special to me in that it was the first year of the Modern Olympics, but to Hungarians it marked a thousand years since the Magyar tribes arrived in today’s Hungary. Plain and simple; the country was celebrating its thousandth birthday.
Despite not being that old, the building is steeped in history and symbolism. It’s 96 metres high, a reference to the country’s founding year. There are almost three hundred sculptures and statues of famous Hungarian and Transylvanian kings and military leaders on the facade and entrance. The Holy Crown of Hungary is placed directly under the central dome; the thousand-year old relic sits pretty with its iconic crooked cross atop.
Of course, I had not seen the famed crooked cross, nor even a portion of the reputed forty kilograms of gold used in its construction. I hadn’t been in any of the 691 rooms.
So, on my last visit to Budapest, I decided to do something about it. I had a few hours in between tour guiding duties, so I decided to switch spots and be a tourist myself. I signed up for a guided tour online, and presented myself outside the mighty building the next morning.
Unfortunately, the weather gods really weren’t looking out for us that morning. I was freezing in my sandals and thin jacket, huddling outside under a makeshift marquee waiting for my tour to be called in the drizzle and grey. The Hungarian Parliament always seems to be under construction and the whole square surrounding the building had been dug up, meaning that it was one giant mud puddle. This had better not let me down, I thought.
And it certainly didn’t. Well, the tour did; the tour was crap and full of people who spoke with outdoor voices the entire time and a tour guide who spoke as if she’d never been exposed to the wonders of intonation.
But the building, oh the building. I can hardly think of a building more tastefully decorated in my life, full of rich carpets, sparkling chandeliers and dazzling stained glass. In some parts it looked like a wonderfully restored cathedral, and in others you could be mistaken for thinking you were in the corridors of Neuschwanstein Castle. There was no peeling paint, no missing stained glass panels.
Walking around, I could hardly believe that I was inside the National Assembly of a country of only ten million people; a geographically small, geopolitically insignificant central European nation. It just felt so regal, so… important.
Before moving to Europe I worked for state politicians, trotting down the road to the Victorian Parliament during sitting weeks. Even back then, I loved the building and felt incredibly special working there.
But it was hardly ever exciting. There was a fancy chair for the Queen, but she hadn’t graced us with her presence in years. The best visitors we got were perhaps a visiting trade delegation from Singapore. The biggest commotion we’d get would be when Rob Hulls would perhaps call a shadow minister a ‘silly sausage’. There wasn’t any chair throwing or fistfights, something I’ve always associated with small post-communist nations.
But walking around the Hungarian Parliament, you got the sense that this was a special place. In my personal opinion, it is a building fit for an insitution like the European Union or the United Nations (Hungarians are probably recoiling in horror at that sentence).
Viewing the Hungarian Parliament from the Danube, the building looks as if it belongs there. But viewing the building from the inside; that’s when it hits you. That’s when you can appreciate what the building means for Hungary, and all they’ve done to ensure it’s just as striking today as it was in the glory days of 1896.
(And in case you were wondering, it’s still my favourite building in the world. It even went up a few notches, if that’s at all possible.)
The Hungarian Parliament offers guided tours in English everyday at 10am, 12pm and 2pm (this is the only way to enter the building as a visitor). The tour takes about an hour and costs 2520 HUF.
You are welcome to take photos during the tour, except under the dome. However you are rushed around quite a bit so it’s pretty tricky to take decent photos. My only regret of the day is that I did not have my SLR as due to low lighting my iPhone just didn’t cut it. I debated whether or not to include my crappy photos but decided to anyway. Use your imagination!