Budapest: Exploring the Golden Interiors of Parliament and the Opera House

Spending a semester abroad, one thing I worry about is becoming desensitized to incredible experiences. What I mean is this: sometimes, even though places are amazing, things start to blend together. It begins to feel like just another grand piazza, just another imposing cathedral, just another beautiful mural – and so on and so on. I will be visiting a place, and I’ll know I’m seeing something important or special, but at the same time, I’ll also know I’ll be seeing something just as important and special next weekend, and that makes it hard to get too worked up about what’s right in front of my eyes. Which, when you think about it, is kind of a shame.

But then there are the places that stand out, the places with that extra something that makes them particularly memorable, the places that demand to be more than “just another” whatever. For me, Budapest had two such attractions: Parliament and the Opera House. Over the past few years – and certainly over the past few months – I’ve seen my fair share of elegant opera houses and grand government buildings. But the versions in Budapest were so decked out and ornate that I found myself unusually impressed by their grandeur.

First up, the Opera House. While you can walk in the front door and peek into the lobby – which is certainly beautiful in its own right – you can only see the full extent of the opera house by taking a tour, which is just what I did. Often, I find guided tours somewhat boring and, despite my best intentions, my mind tends to wander during them. This was not the case here; the tour of Budapest’s Opera House was one of the more interesting tours I have taken recently, and the guide was informative and engaging.

A few facts from the tour stood out. First, we learned that all the materials in the Opera house are from Hungary, with a few exceptions – marble from Italy, a gigantic chandelier from Germany, and a huge mirror from Belgium. Second, we learned that, when the Opera House was being built, Emperor Franz Joseph decreed that it could not be larger than Vienna’s. But, as our guide pointed out – “He made a mistake, because he forgot to say it couldn’t be more beautiful.” Touché.

Compared to the Opera House, my tour of Parliament wasn’t as exciting – but the interior of the building itself was no less spectacular than the Opera had been. Hungary’s Parliament building is absolutely enormous – housing 490 rooms – so we obviously only toured a fraction of it. Everything inside the building was flat-out big; for example, there’s a two-ton light fixture under the cupola. Or, in the words of our guide: “As you can imagine, it’s hard to change the lightbulbs.”

Another cool detail of Parliament were these cigar holders in the hallways – we learned that, back in the day, Parliament members each had their own numbered slot for their cigars, lest someone else inadvertently use theirs. I have no idea why, but this fact amused me greatly.

I mentioned in a previous post that I was surprised at how big Budapest was, and both the Opera House and Parliament embodied this trend. Not only were they physically large structures, but everything about them was opulent and excessive: gold leafing everywhere, gigantic painted murals, crystal chandeliers, the works. They might be a little over-the-top, but both are definitely worth a visit.

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