In October 2009, with our youngest daughter Anna at the wheel, Pat and I toured several of the capital cities of Central Europe. In the course of that fascinating journey, we crossed and re-crossed both the mighty River Danube and the former Iron Curtain. So named by Churchill in his famous 1946 speech in Fulton, Missouri, the iron curtain separated the communist world from the free world for nearly half a century. A regime that needed a system of walls and fences to prevent its people from escaping is something that should certainly be remembered, so that such evil may be avoided in the future. Yet today there is no evidence on the ground that the iron curtain ever existed. Whenever we crossed the Danube, we were certainly aware of it. There were magnificent bridges, often accompanied by a tall observation tower. On the other hand, the absence of border controls in countries which are members of the European Union allows one to pass through the former iron curtain at 80 mph without even slowing down. For example, as one drives from Germany into the Czech Republic or from Hungary back into Austria, one sees no reminders of an iron curtain. There is nothing to suggest that, until only 20 years ago, people were shot by border guards as they attempted to escape to freedom in the west. There are no remnants of barbed wire or other similar evidence. Indeed, what few buildings remain on site from that time remind one more of disused car dealerships than an iron curtain. How quickly is history forgotten!
A capital that we enjoyed visiting was Budapest, Hungary, a city of nearly two million people. In fact, it is two cities. On one side of the Danube, sits the city of Buda with its castles built high in its hills. On the other side of the Danube lies the city of Pest, which spreads itself out on much flatter land. From the castle terraces up in Buda, it is possible to look down upon the whole capital. Nearest is the rest of Buda. Then the Danube flows by, with Margaret Island sitting in the mid-river. Beyond that, stretching to the horizon, Pest spreads itself out.
Click this link Hungarian Parliament to see a fantastic slide show on the Parliament. You will need to click on each slide to move forward. I don’t know who to credit this to, but I didn’t make the slide show.
Hungary’s very grand parliament building occupies a prime riverside site in Pest, but one can see it all from up there in Buda. There is something very satisfying about being able to view the whole of a great city from one vantage point. That’s why a trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris is not to be missed. There is the story of the man who disliked the Eiffel Tower so much that he had lunch in the restaurant there every day because “it was the only place in Paris where one could avoid looking at it”. The heights of Buda provide a similar vantage point.
In the 19th century, Budapest and Vienna were the twin capital cities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, ruled by the Hapsburg dynasty. That empire did not survive its defeat in World War One and, for that reason it seems light years removed from our world of today. Head of state was Emperor Franz Josef, the assassination of whose son in 1914 at Sarajevo triggered World War One. Born in 1830 and emperor since 1848, Franz Josef was a character from the pages of history, whom one does not associate with the modern era. To have Emperor Franz Josef riding the subway would be the ultimate anachronism. It would be rather like having a character in a Shakespearian tragedy walking on stage with a laptop computer. Yet the old Emperor did ride the subway. Budapest has one of the oldest subway systems in the world. It opened in 1896 and guess who opened it? You’ve got it. Franz Josef did the honors and rode the train, although there is no evidence of him strap-hanging.
As one looks down on the River Danube, as it flows through Budapest, one has to remember its increasing importance. Rising in the Black Forest in southern Germany, it travels for 1771 miles until it empties itself in the Black Sea. In recent years however, canals have been completed to link the Danube with the River Rhine so that travel by boat between the North Sea and the Black Sea is now possible. Finally, although the Danube flows through many different countries, not one of those countries uses the word “Danube”. They all call the great river something else. Danube is a word created and used only by English speakers.