Lesson #24: The Hungarian State Opera

The Hungarian State Opera is one of the most beautiful opera houses I have ever seen. It does well to represent the tradition of stunning eastern European opera houses like those in Prague and Vienna.*

The Opera House was opened in September 1884 and was designed by Hungarian architect Miklos Ybl. The (giant) chandelier in the main hall weighs three tons and the main staircase (my very favourite feature) was clearly designed for women to show off their gowns…it’s this gorgeous, huge stone staircase carpeted in red.**

The theatre itself is gorgeous and gilded and has a proscenium stage that at one-time had a rotating stage. There is a royal box in the centre of the balcony area that’s all sorts of lush and everything is all red and gold.

I managed to talk two of my travel companions (including a friend who I spent months and months trying to convince to come with me to the opera in Prague) into seeing a production of Johann Strauss Jr.’s Die Fledermaus. It was absolutely spectacular, even though it was spoken in Hungarian and sung in German, neither of which are languages we understood. The costumes, the sets, the principal singers, the performance, the atmosphere***…they were all just stellar. I would put it on the top of my opera viewing experiences.

*The State Operas in both those cities are amazing.

**For more about the history of the opera house, see here. For a virtual tour of the building, see here.

***Two things that I really, really appreciated: 1. with the exception of a few people like me and my friends, everyone was dressed up. I was wearing dress pants and a nice-ish shirt and I was seriously underdressed. Had I expected to go to the opera, I would have taken the clothes for it. 2. there was no standing ovation. I hate that the standing ovation has become the norm in the west. Even mediocre performances — and I have seen a lot of truly mediocre performances — are given standing ovations these days.

Lesson #22: Harry Hill

I chose to ignore the fact that it’s very, very wrong that I saw a statue of a hero and started humming 76 Trombones, a song sung by a con man, in my head.

Moving right along…

There’s a statue in Freedom Square in Budapest of an American soldier, which struck us as a bit odd. And since none of us speaks Hungarian and the English quote* did nothing to help us learn, we had to rely on other things for the information. Yay for Wiki in this case.

The statue is of US Army (then) Lieutenant Harry Hill Bandholtz,** who served in the first World War and he is situated outside of the American Embassy (which a college friend of mine who spent a semester in Budapest during the fall of 2001 could probably have told me had I asked). The statue was erected in 1936 in honour of Bandholtz who, according to legend, kept a group of Romanian soldiers from pillaging the Transylvanian Collection at the Hungarian National Museum and protected the furniture at the Royal Palace in the autumn of 1919. With a whip.

The whip part may or may not be true and the Hungarians have the (purported) whip on display at the Hungarian National Museum.

An interesting side note: Bandholtz is considered to be the father of the US Army’s MP Corps.***

*”I simply carried out the instruction of my government, as I understood them, as an officer and a gentleman of the United States Army.”

**He would later be promoted several times and wind up as a General.

***More information here.

Lesson #21: The Chain Bridge

The Chain Bridge is THE bridge in Budapest.* You’ve seen pictures of it, I promise. It is beautiful.

My friends and I ushered in the New Year smack in the middle of it with the most gigantic bottle of champagne I have ever seen and it was great fun!

The Chain Bridge was the first permanent bridge across the Danube and was designed by Englishman William Tierney Clark on the initiative of Count Istvan Szechenyi and built between 1839-49 by a Scot named Adam Clark.** The lions that guard the bridgehead were sculpted by Janos Marschalko who is rumoured to have been so distraught over forgetting to give the lions tongues that he drowned himself in the Danube.***

All of this information from DK’s Eyewitness Travel Budapest, pages 162-63.

*And unlike THE bridge in Prague (the Charles Bridge), it was built to carry more than just foot and cart traffic. Then again, the Charles Bridge was built in the 14th century, so they were centuries away from needing a bridge wide and strong enough for motorized vehicles.

**Who is not related to William Tierney Clark.

***A fun, if macabre, story that is completely untrue. The lions do, in fact, have tongues. We looked.

Lesson #19: Unicum

I was aware of Unicum long before I went to Hungary. One of my best friends from college spent a semester studying abroad in Budapest and brought me and my roommates back a bottle of it when she made her triumphant return to Baltimore. I remember it being awful. I did one shot and let the rest of our friends polish off the bottle.

Unicum is like Becherovka (the Czech herbal liqueur) or Jagermeister in that it is made from a combination of herbs. It doesn’t taste anything like either. According to the guidebook I borrowed from my parents when I was home at Christmas, it is a bitters made from over 40 herbs. As the recipe is a secret, that’s the closest I can get you to an actual number. Created by the Zwack family, Unicum was prescribed to the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz I in the late 1700s by the royal physician. I suppose it should be noted that the royal physician was a member of the Zwack family. Nothing like making use of the post to advance the family business!*

Having just spent a week in Budapest, my opinion of it has not changed; it’s still awful. But, when in Hungary…

*This information comes from the Eyewitness Travel, Budapest book, published by DK. In my edition (the 2007 version, which is when my folks were in Budapest), it can be found on page 195.

More information here and here.