Postcard from Budapest, Hungary: The church of the Raven King of Hungary stands as stunning landmark

In 1458, a raven flew from Transylvania to Prague bearing a ring sent by the mother of Matthias to let him know to return home. Or so some claim. The raven and the ring symbol can be seen throughout Budapest, and Matthias became known as Matthias Corvinus, corvinus meaning raven in Latin.

The Diet elected the 15-year-old king, even though he had no direct dynastic claim to the throne. He would rule until his death, somewhat suspicious in cause, in 1490. His reign was noted for increased military power, the rise of power of lower nobility at the expense of the upper crust and an artistic Renaissance.

Perched atop a hilltop on the Buda side of the river, the church known as Matthias Church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The earliest portions of it were built in the 13th century. Styles range from a medieval relief depicting Mary’s death dates from 1370 to major Gothic details added to the outside and murals inside added at the close of the 19th century. The tallest tower was added by King Matthias, whose royal wedding was held in the church.

Conquering Turks in the mid-1500s white-washed the walls and covered them with carpets to transform the church into a serviceable mosque. Before the Ottoman invasion, some of the faithful walled up the Loreto Chapel containing a statue of the Black Madonna dating from 1515. An explosion in 1686 at the castle nearby sent that wall crumbling, and the statue reappeared for the faithful prior to the end of Ottoman control in 1699.

The church then was remodeled in the Baroque style. Among the kings whose coronations have been held there is Emperor Franz Josef in 1867.

The extensive changes characterizing the appearance of the church today were undertaken in 1895, including the installation of the gleaming, colorful Zsolnay ceramic roof tiles. Despite the intermingling of so many conflicting styles through the centuries, Matthias Church stands as a stunning landmark above the Danube.

Postcard from Budapest, Hungary: Home for Saint Stephen’s holy dexter

The right hand of the blessed man was deservedly exempt from putrefaction because, always reflourishing from the flower of kindness, it was never empty from giving gifts to nourish the poor.

Bishop Hartvic, Life of King Stephen of Hungary, about 1116

Construction of the Basilica of Saint Stephen in Budapest took more than 50 years because the original dome over the facility designed to accommodate up to 8,500 worshippers completely collapsed in 1868. During the intervening years, the desired style evolved from neo-classical to neo-renaissance by the time the church was inaugurated by Emperor Franz Josef in 1906. The dome is the same height as that of Parliament, and no buildings in the historic center are allowed to tower above them.

Saint Stephen (975-1038) is celebrated as the first king of Hungary. His royal coronation was held on the first day of the second millennium, and the crown itself was a gift from Pope Sylvester II. King Stephen’s later sainthood was merited for his commitment to crush paganism in Hungary and for miracles credited to his right hand, the holy dexter.

The incorrupt hand was stolen at one point, recovered, hidden by nuns and finally returned and honored with a public procession in 1938 and enshrinement in a chapel in the basilica. The annual procession of the mummified dexter was ended abruptly by the communists in 1950. Since 1988, the church has been free to parade it through the streets annually on his day, August 20.

The crown presented to King Stephen served as the coronation crown for all subsequent kings of Hungary, but, like the dexter, spent some time in hiding. It and some of the royal jewels were spirited away for safekeeping in the United States during World War II. They remained locked in Fort Knox until returned to the Hungarians by an order of President Jimmy Carter in 1978. The crown and jewels are displayed in the House of Parliament.

Postcard from Budapest, Hungary: Graves reveal layers of Hungarian history

The policy of the house of Austria, which aimed at destroying the independence of Hungary as a state, has been pursued unaltered for 300 years.

Lajos Kossuth (1802-1894)

A bronze winged genius, a protecting spirit defiantly bearing a torch of freedom, stands guard with a powerful lion atop the recently restored massive wedding-cake-like mausoleum memorializing Lajos Kossuth. A lawyer and extremely effective orator, Kossuth’s journalistic endeavors to promote an independent Hungary led the Austrian monarchy to imprison him for treason.

The Austrians later regretted releasing him, as he became the inspirational leader of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. By 1850, the interlude of independence faltered and Kossuth was in exile in Turkey. In London, he was welcomed as a hero, and New York staged a parade on Fifth Avenue to herald the defeated Hungarian leaders. A bust of him is displayed near one of Winston Churchill in the United States Capitol. While Kossuth spent most of the rest of his life in exile, he was well honored at home after his death.

Kossuth is one of many residents of Kerepesi Cemetery, opened for occupancy in 1847. The national pantheon sprawls over more than 130 acres of peaceful grounds shaded by so many different types of trees it doubles as a botanical garden. Declaration of it as a decorative cemetery in 1885 led to its role as a sculptural paradise reflecting Hungarian artistic trends as well.

Alright, a cemetery is an unusual entry point for the upcoming series of travel posts about Budapest, but it is no secret I love wandering among ancient graves. Also, Hungarian history is so complicated by the turbulent history of all of Europe, the cemetery serves a restful resource for slowly absorbing some of the waves that swept through it.

For example, the genius atop the mausoleum of Ferenc Deak (1803-1876) seems much more peaceful than that of Kossuth. The angelic figure bears a palm frond and a laurel wreath, symbols of immortality. Deak is remembered as a statesmen who successfully negotiated with Emperor Franz Josef to establish a dual Austrian-Hungarian monarchy, the Compromise of 1867.

Here you find graves of artists and writers inspiring patriotism and those motivated by their words who fell in wars. Arcades adorned with mosaics offering shelter to some of Budapest’s wealthy stand in contrast to the workers’ pantheon added in 1958. There are graves of Russians who died liberating Budapest from the German fascists, and memorials for Hungarians who were killed during the 1956 unsuccessful revolt against Soviet control.

Art deco details in some sections stand in stark contrast to the severe style dictated by later Communist rulers. Four horses struggle to break free from the corners of a tent-like shroud ominously sheltering the tomb of the Hungary’s first elected president after the fall of Communism, Jozsef Antall (1932-1993).

Introducing you to Budapest through this cemetery is meant to illustrate how we failed to strictly adhere to guidebook lists of the top 10 must-see attractions and things to do when visiting, despite staying there for a month. I’ll just get our shortcomings as guides helping shape your future travels, probably verging on sinful to many, out of the way now.

(1) We did not take the dinner cruise on the River Danube. Spending time standing in a buffet line to get food while missing the scenery seemed as though it would defeat the point, so we walked both sides of the river instead. Multiple times.

(2) We did not dip into the famed Turkish baths. As architecturally seductive as they are, the images of people crowded in the pools and men standing in waist-deep water playing chess failed to entice me to want to join them. They seem to have an abundant supply of wrinkled, overweight patrons without me.

(3) We only tasted goulash once. Can’t believe I confessed to that last one.