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Budapest's reputation as a food capital of the world dates largely from the late 19th century and, bizarrely, to a certain degree from the chilly days of communism. During the heady period following the promulgation of the Dual Monarchy in 1867 and right up until WWII, food became a passion among well-to-do Budapesters, and writers and poets were generous in their praise of it. This was the 'gilded age' of the famous chef Károly Gundel and the confectioner József Dobos, and of Gypsy violinists such as Jancsi Rigo and Gyula Benczi, when nothing was too extravagant. The world took note and Hungarian restaurants sprouted up in cities across the world - including a 'Café Budapest' in Boston, Massachusetts - complete with their imported Gypsy bands and waiters who sounded like Bela Lugosi.

After WWII, Budapest's gastronomic reputation lived on - most notably because everything that was offered in the other capital cities of the region was so bad. Food here was, as one observer noted, 'a bright spot in a culinary black hole'. But most of the best chefs, including Gundel himself, had voted with their feet and left the country in the 1950s, and restaurants were put under state control. The reputation and the reality of food in Budapest had diverged.

The Republic of Hungary reborn

It may come as a surprise to some, but Budapest has only been the capital of the Republic of Hungary for just over a decade and a half - since 23 October 1989, the 33rd anniversary of the 1956 Uprising. For some four decades before this, it had been the chief city of the socialist People's Republic of Hungary.

At its party congress in February 1989, the ruling Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party - having seen the handwriting on the wall - changed its name to the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) and later in the year 'generously' agreed to surrender its monopoly on power and to hold elections. Its new programme advocated not jailing dissidents or shooting people who attempted to flee across the border but social democracy and a free-market economy. Most voters saw them as evil, two-faced despots who had just changed their outfit; hollow promises were not enough to shake off the stigma of four decades of autocratic rule.

The 1990 election was instead won by the centrist Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), which advocated a gradual transition to capitalism and was led by a softly spoken former museum curator, Jozsef Antall. The social-democratic Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), which had called for much faster change, came in a distant second with 18% of the vote. As Gorbachev looked on, Hungary changed political systems as if it were clothing and the last Soviet troops left Hungarian soil in June 1991. Street names in Budapest such as Lenin körút and Marx tér ended up on the rubbish tip of history and monuments to 'glorious workers' and 'esteemed leaders' were packed off to a socialist-realist zoo called Statue Park.

In coalition with two smaller parties - the Independent Smallholders (FKgP) and the Christian Democrats (KDNP) - the MDF provided Hungary with sound government during its painful transition to a full market economy. Those years saw Hungary's northern (Czechoslovakia) and southern (Yugoslavia) neighbours split along ethnic lines; Prime Minister Antall did little to improve Hungary's relations with Slovakia, Romania or Yugoslavia by claiming to be the 'emotional and spiritual' prime minister of the large Magyar minorities in those countries. It was also a relatively lawless period so fittingly described in Julian Rubenstein's Ballad of the Whiskey Robber .

Despite initial successes in curbing inflation and lowering interest rates, a host of economic problems slowed the pace of development, and the government's laissez-faire policies did not help. Like most people in the region, Hungarians had unrealistically expected a much faster improvement in their living standards.

In the May 1994 elections the MSZP, led by Gyula Horn, won an absolute majority in parliament. This in no way implied a return to the past, and Horn was quick to point out that it was in fact his party that had initiated the whole reform process in the first place. (As foreign minister in 1989, Horn had played a key role in opening the border with Austria) The following year, Árpád Göncz of the SZDSZ was elected for a second five-year term as president of the republic.

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The road to Europe

After its dire results in the 1994 elections, the Federation of Young Democrats (Fidesz) - which until 1993 limited membership to those aged under 35 in order to emphasise a past untainted by communism, privilege and corruption - moved to the right and added 'MPP' (Hungarian Civic Party) to its name to attract the support of the burgeoning middle class. In the elections of 1998, during which it campaigned for closer integration with Europe, Fidesz-MPP won government by forming a coalition with the MDF and the agrarian and conservative FKgP. The party's youthful leader, Viktor Orbán, was named prime minister.

Despite the astonishing economic growth and other gains made by the coalition government, the electorate grew hostile to Fidesz-MPP's - and Orbán's - strongly nationalistic rhetoric and perceived arrogance. In April 2002 the largest turnout of voters in Hungarian history unseated the government in the country's most closely fought election ever and returned the MSZP, now allied with the SZDSZ, to power under Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy, a free-market advocate who had served as finance minister in the early Horn government. In August 2004, amid revelations that he had served as a counterintelligence officer in the late 1970s and early 1980s while working in the finance ministry, Medgyessy resigned, the first collapse of a government in Hungary's postcommunist history. Sports Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány of the MSZP was named in his place. In April 2006 the MSZP-SZDSZ coalition became the first government to win consecutive general elections since 1989, but it hasn't been a smooth ride. Occasionally violent demonstrations have become a regular feature on the streets of Budapest, especially during national holidays. The radical right-wing nationalist party Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom (Movement for a Better Hungary) and its uniformed militia arm, Magyar Gárda (Hungarian Guard), have been at the centre of many of these demonstrations and riots. Many Hungarian people are deeply concerned with the rise in the activities and increased popularity of the extreme right.

Gyurcsány, who could be called Rasputin for his ability to survive near-death blows, had his head on the block again in March 2008 when the opposition forced through a referendum on the government’s health-care reform program. The referendum was soundly defeated and the SZDSZ quit the coalition, leaving Gyurcsány to head a feeble minority government until general elections scheduled for 2010.

At the time of writing, Hungary, once the success story of Eastern Europe, was still reeling from the fallout of worldwide economic collapse. Overborrowed and overspent, the country had been especially hard hit and, with such unlikely fellow travellers as Iceland, Belarus and Pakistan, had just a week before Republic Day approached the International Monetary Fund for an economic bailout. It felt like a century – not less than two decades – had passed since the heady moments of 23 October 1989 when the republic of Hungary had re-emerged phoenix-like from the ashes of Communism.

Hungary joined NATO in 1999 and, with nine other 'accession' countries, was admitted into the EU in May 2004.

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From the beginning

Budapest has been called 'the Janus-faced city' because it looks in opposing directions. It is at the same time one of the oldest and one of the youngest cities in Europe. The Romans settled here early in the 1st century AD and built what would eventually become one of their most thriving metropolises. At the other end of the spectrum, the story of modern Budapest only begins in 1873 when hilly, residential Buda and historic Óbuda on the western bank of the Danube (Duna) River merged with flat, industrial Pest on the eastern side to form what was at first called Pest-Buda. But, of course, a whole lot more happened here before then.

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Early inhabitants

The Carpathian Basin, in which Hungary lies, has been populated for hundreds of thousands of years. Bone fragments found and exhibited at Vértesszőlős near Tata, some 70km northwest of Budapest, in the 1960s, and believed to be half a million years old, suggest that Palaeolithic humans were attracted to the area by its thermal springs and the abundance of mammoth, buffalo and reindeer. The capital may have been something of a slow starter, however; the earliest evidence of human settlement in the greater Budapest area is the remains of a Neanderthal hunting camp in the Érd Valley to the southwest. Complete with tools, cutters and scrapers, the camp is thought to date back 50, 000 years.

During the Ice Age, temperatures in the area rarely exceeded 15°C even in the height of summer. During the Neolithic period (around 5000 BC), a warming of the climate forced much of the indigenous wildlife to migrate north. The domestication of animals and the first forms of agriculture appeared, as they did in much of Central Europe. The first permanent settlement in this area - on the Buda side near the Danube - dates from between 4600 and 3900 BC. Remains from this culture, including bone utensils, fishing nets and even a primitive loom, have been unearthed as far north as Békásmegyer and as far south as Nagytétény.

Indo-European tribes from the Balkans stormed the Carpathian Basin from the south in horse-drawn wheeled carts in about 2000 BC, bringing with them copper tools and weapons. After the introduction of more durable bronze, forts were built and a military elite developed. The remains of several settlements dating from this time have been uncovered on Csepel Island in the Danube.

Over the next millennium, invaders from the west (Illyrians and Thracians) and the east (Scythians) brought iron, but the metal was not in common use until the Celts arrived in the area in about the 3rd century BC, settling at Békásmegyer and Óbuda, which they called Ak Ink (Ample Water), and erecting one of their signature oppida (palisaded settlements) on Gellért Hill. The Celts introduced glass and crafted some of the fine gold jewellery that can still be seen in the Hungarian National Museum.

Around the beginning of the Christian era, the Romans conquered the area west of the Danube and established the province of Pannonia. Subsequent victories over the Celts extended their domination, and the province was divided into Pannonia Superior and Pannonia Inferior. The Romans brought writing, viticulture and stone architecture to the area, and at the end of the 1st century AD established Aquincum, a key military garrison and trading settlement along the Danube in today's Óbuda.

Aquincum became the administrative seat of Pannonia Inferior in AD 106 and a fully fledged colony in 194. A fortress was built at Contra Aquincum in what is now V Március 15 tér in Pest and the proconsul's palace on a secure island in the Danube (now Óbuda Island). Villages nearby, such as Vindonianus (Békásmegyer) and Vicus Basoretensis (Kiscell), were populated by Celts, who were not granted Roman citizenship.

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The great migrations

The first of the so-called Great Migrations of nomadic peoples from Asia reached the eastern outposts of the Roman Empire in Dacia (now Romania) late in the 2nd century AD. Within two centuries, the Romans were forced by the Huns, whose short-lived empire was established by Attila, to flee Aquincum and abandon the rest of Pannonia. Aquincum offered little protection to the civilian population; in the late 430s, the Huns razed it.

After the death of Attila in 453, Germanic tribes such as the Ostrogoths, Gepids and Longobards (or Lombards) occupied the region for the next century and a half until the Avars, a powerful Turkic people, gained control of the Carpathian Basin in the late 6th century. At first they settled on the Pest plains, but their chieftains soon established their main base at the northern end of Csepel Island.

The Avars were overcome by Charlemagne in 796 and the area around Budapest and the Danube Bend was incorporated into the Frankish empire. By that time, the Carpathian Basin was virtually unpopulated except for scattered groups of Turkic and Germanic tribes on the plains and Slavs in the northern hills.

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The Magyars & the conquest of the Carpathian Basin

The origin of the Magyars, as the Hungarians call themselves, is a complicated issue, not helped by the similarity (in English, at least) of the words 'Hun' and 'Hungary', which are not related. One thing is certain: Magyars belong to the Finno-Ugric group of peoples, who inhabited the forests somewhere between the middle Volga River and the Ural Mountains in western Siberia as early as 4000 BC.

By about 2000 BC, population growth had forced the Finnish-Estonian branch to move west, ultimately reaching the Baltic Sea. The Ugrians moved from the southeastern slopes of the Urals into the valleys of the region, and switched from hunting and fishing to farming and raising livestock, especially horses. Their equestrian skills proved useful half a millennium later when more climatic changes brought drought, forcing them to move north onto the steppes.

On the grasslands, the Ugrians turned to nomadic herding. After 500 BC, by which time the use of iron had become commonplace among the tribes, a group moved west to the area of Bashkiria in Central Asia. Here they lived among Persians and Bulgars and began referring to themselves as Magyars (from the Finno-Ugric words mon - to speak - and er - man).

After several centuries, another group split away and moved south to the Don River under the control of the Turkic Khazars. Here they lived among different groups under a tribal alliance called onogur, or '10 peoples'. This is thought to be the origin of the word 'Hungary' in English and (more obviously) 'Ungarn' in German. The Magyars' last migration before the so-called honfoglalás (conquest) of the Carpathian Basin brought them to what modern Hungarians call the Etelköz, the region between the Dnieper and lower Danube Rivers north of the Black Sea.

Nomadic groups of Magyars probably reached the Carpathian Basin as early as the mid-9th century AD, acting as mercenaries for various armies. It is believed that while the men were away during one such campaign in about 889, a fierce people from the Asiatic steppe called the Pechenegs allied themselves with the Bulgars and attacked the Etelköz settlements. When they were attacked again in about 895, seven tribes under the leadership of Árpád - the gyula or chief military commander - struck out for the Carpathian Basin. They crossed the Verecke Pass in today's Ukraine sometime between 896 and 898.

Five of the seven tribes settled in the area that is now Budapest and the two principal leaders of the tribes made their bases here. Árpád established his seat on Csepel; according to the chronicler Anonymous, it was Árpád's overseer, a Turkic Cuman called Csepel, who gave his name to the island. Árpád's brother, Kurszán, the chief táltos (shaman), based himself in Óbuda. On Kurszán's death, Árpád took all power for himself and moved his seat to Óbuda; Buda and Pest were no more than small villages.

The Magyars had met almost no resistance in the Carpathian Basin. Being highly skilled at riding and shooting (a common Christian prayer during the Dark Ages was 'Save us, O Lord, from the arrows of the Hungarians'), they began plundering and pillaging in all directions, taking slaves and amassing booty. Their raids took them as far as Spain, northern Germany and southern Italy, but they were stopped at the Battle of Augsburg by the German king Otto I in 955.

This and subsequent defeats - raids on Byzantium were ended in 970 - left the Magyar tribes in disarray, and they had to choose between their more powerful neighbours to form an alliance: Byzantium to the south and east or the Holy Roman Empire to the west. Individual Magyar chieftains began acting independently, but in 973 Prince Géza, Árpád's great-grandson, asked the Holy Roman emperor Otto II to send Catholic missionaries to Hungary. Géza was baptised in his capital city, Esztergom, 46km upriver from Budapest, as was his son Vajk, who took the Christian name Stephen (István). When Géza died, Stephen ruled as prince, but three years later was crowned 'Christian King' Stephen I, on Christmas Day in 1000, with a crown sent from Rome by Otto's erstwhile tutor, Pope Sylvester II. Hungary the kingdom and Hungary the nation had been born.

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King Stephen I & the Árpád Dynasty

Stephen ruthlessly set about consolidating royal authority by expropriating the land of the clan chieftains and establishing a system of megyek (counties) protected by várok (fortified castles). Much land was transferred to loyal (mostly Germanic) knights, and the crown began minting coins. Stephen did not find the area of Budapest suitable as a base; he made his seat at Székesfehérvár, 66km to the southwest. Esztergom remained the religious centre.

Shrewdly, Stephen sought the support of the Church and, to hasten the conversion of the populace, he ordered one in every 10 villages to build a church. He also established 10 episcopates throughout the land. Monasteries staffed by foreign scholars were set up around the country; in Óbuda it was the religious Chapter of Saint Peter. By the time of Stephen's death in 1038 (he was canonised less than 50 years later), Hungary was a nascent Christian nation. But pockets of rebellion remained; in 1046 a Venetian-born bishop named Gerard (Gellért in Hungarian), who had been brought to Hungary by Stephen himself, was hurled to his death from a Buda hilltop in a spiked barrel by pagan Magyars resisting conversion. Gellért Hill now bears the bishop's name.

The next two and a half centuries - the reign of the House of Árpád - would further test the new kingdom. The period was one of relentless struggles between rival pretenders to the throne, which weakened the young nation's defences against its more powerful neighbours. There was a brief hiatus under King Ladislas I (László; r 1077-95), who fended off attacks from Byzantium, and under his successor Koloman the Bookish (Könyves Kálmán), who encouraged literature, art and the writing of chronicles until his death in 1116.

Tension flared again when the Byzantine emperor made a grab for Hungary's provinces in Dalmatia and Croatia, which it had acquired by the early 12th century. He was stopped by Béla III (r 1172-96), who had a permanent residence built at Esztergom (by then an alternative royal seat to Székesfehérvár), but was headquartered at Óbuda. Béla's son Andrew II (András; r 1205-35), however, weakened the crown when he gave in to local barons' demands for more land in order to fund his crusades. This led to the Golden Bull, a kind of Magna Carta signed at Székesfehérvár in 1222, which limited some of the king's powers in favour of the nobility, recognised the 'Hungarian nation' and allowed for a diet, or assembly, of nobles to meet regularly in a meadow in Pest. It was during Andrew's reign that Óbuda grew from just a centrally located town to a royal and military seat.

When Béla IV (r 1235-70) tried to regain the estates that Andrew had forfeited, the barons were able to oppose him on equal terms. Fearing Mongol expansion and realising he could not count on local help, Béla looked to the west and brought in German and Slovak settlers. In March 1241 Béla amassed his troops at Óbuda and crossed over into Pest. But his efforts were in vain. The Mongols, who had raced through the country as easily as the Magyars had conquered the Carpathian Basin some 2½ centuries before, attacked from every direction. By the end of the final attack in January 1242, Pest and Óbuda had been burned to the ground and some 100, 000 people killed.

To rebuild the nascent royal capital as quickly as possible after the Mongol retreat, Béla, known as the 'second founding father', again encouraged Germans and Saxons to settle here. He also ordered those still living in Pest and Óbuda to relocate to Castle Hill and build a fortified town there. Béla proclaimed Buda a municipality by royal charter in 1244 and bestowed civic rights on the citizens of Pest in 1255; another century would go by before Óbuda's citizens won the same rights. By the start of the 14th century, all three had begun to develop into major towns.

But Béla did not always play his cards right. In a bid to appease the lesser nobility, he handed over large tracts of land to the barons. This enhanced their position and bids for more independence even further. At the time of Béla's death in 1270, anarchy ruled. The Árpád line died out with the death of the heirless Andrew III in 1301.

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Medieval Budapest

The struggle for the Hungarian throne after the death of Andrew III involved several European dynasties, but it was Charles Robert (Károly Róbert) of the French House of Anjou who finally won out (with the pope's blessing) in 1307 and was crowned in Buda a year later. He didn't stay there long though; until his death in 1342, Charles Robert ruled from a palace he had built on the Danube at Visegrád, 42km to the northwest. Buda would not play a leading role in Hungarian history for another five decades, but after that it would never look back. In the meantime, Pest had started to develop as a town of wealthy and independent burghers; by 1406 it had its own royal charter and full independence from Buda.

Under Charles Robert's son and successor, Louis the Great (Nagy Lajos; r 1342-82), the kingdom returned to a policy of conquest. A brilliant military strategist, Louis acquired territory in the Balkans as far as Dalmatia and Romania and, through an alliance, as far north as Poland. But his successes were short-lived and the menace of the Ottoman Turks increased.

As Louis had no sons, one of his daughters, Mary (Mária), succeeded him. This was deemed to be unacceptable by the barons, who rose up against the 'petticoat throne'. Within a short time, Mary's husband, Sigismund (Zsigmond; r 1387-1437) of Luxembourg, was crowned king. Sigismund's long reign brought peace at home, and there was a great flowering of Gothic art and architecture. Sigismund enlarged the Royal Palace on Castle Hill, founded a university at Óbuda (1389), oversaw the construction of the first pontoon bridge over the Danube (until then the only way to cross the river was by ferry) and set national standards of measurement, including the 'Buda pound' (490g) for weight and the 'Buda icce' (about 0.85L) for liquids. But despite these advances and his enthronement as Holy Roman emperor in 1433, he was unable to stop the march of the Turks up through the Balkans.

A Transylvanian general born of a Wallachian (Romanian) soldier, János Hunyadi began his career at the court of Sigismund. When Vladislav I (Úlászló) of the Polish Jagiellon dynasty was killed fighting the Turks at Varna (now Bulgaria), Hunyadi was declared regent. His victory over the Turks at Belgrade (Hungarian: Nándorfehérvár) in 1456 checked the Ottoman advance into Hungary for 70 years and assured the coronation of his son Matthias (Mátyás), the greatest ruler of medieval Hungary.

Matthias, nicknamed 'the Raven' (Corvinus) from his coat of arms, ruled from 1458 to 1490. Wisely, he maintained a mercenary force of up to 10, 000 soldiers through taxation of the nobility, and this 'Black Army' (one of the first standing armies in Europe) conquered Moravia, Bohemia and even parts of Austria. Not only did Matthias Corvinus make Hungary one of Central Europe's leading powers, but under his rule Buda enjoyed something of a golden age and for the first time became the true focus of the nation. His second wife, Beatrice, the daughter of the king of Naples, brought artisans from Italy who completely rebuilt, extended and fortified the Royal Palace; the beauty and sheer size of the residence astonished visitors, and its royal library of more than 2000 codices and incunabula became a major cultural and artistic centre of Renaissance Europe.

But while Matthias busied himself with centralising power for the crown in the capital, he ignored the growing Turkish threat. His successor Vladislav II (Úlászló; r 1490-1516) was unable to maintain even royal authority as the members of the diet, which met to approve royal decrees, squandered royal funds, sold off the royal library and expropriated land. In May 1514, what had begun as a crusade organised by the power-hungry archbishop of Esztergom, Tamás Bakócz, turned into an uprising against the landlords by peasants who rallied near Pest under their leader, György Dózsa.

The revolt was brutally repressed, some 70, 000 peasants were tortured and executed, and Dózsa himself was fried alive on a red-hot iron throne. The retrograde Tripartitum Law that followed in 1522 codified the rights and privileges of the barons and nobles, reduced the peasants to perpetual serfdom and banned them from bearing arms. By the time Louis II (Lajos) took the throne in 1516 at the tender age of nine, he couldn't rely on either side.

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The battle of Mohács & Turkish occupation

The defeat of Louis' ragtag army by the Ottoman Turks at Mohács in 1526 is a watershed in Hungarian history. On the battlefield near this small town in Southern Transdanubia, some 195km south of Budapest, a relatively prosperous and independent Hungary died, sending the nation into a tailspin of partition, foreign domination and despair that in some respects can still be felt today.

It would be unfair to put all the blame on the weak and indecisive boy-king Louis or on his commander-in-chief Pál Tomori, the archbishop of Kalocsa. Bickering among the nobility and the brutal crackdown of the Dózsa uprising a dozen years earlier had severely weakened Hungary's military power, and there was virtually nothing left in the royal coffers. By 1526, Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (r 1520-66) had taken much of the Balkans, including Belgrade, and was poised to march on Buda with a force of some 80, 000 men.

Unable - or unwilling - to wait for reinforcements from Transylvania under the command of his rival John Szapolyai (Zápolyai János), Louis rushed from Buda with a motley army of 26, 000 men of mixed nationalities to battle the Turks and was soundly thrashed in less than two hours. Along with bishops, nobles and an estimated 20, 000 soldiers, the king himself was killed - crushed by his horse while trying to retreat across a stream.

The Turks then turned north, sacking and burning Buda before retreating. John Szapolyai, who had sat out the battle in the castle at Tokaj, was crowned king three months later but, despite grovelling before the Turks, he was never able to exploit the power he had so desperately sought. As would be the case as late as the mid-20th century, greed, self-interest and over-ambition had led Hungary to defeat itself.

After the Turks returned and occupied Buda in 1541, Hungary was divided into three parts. The central section, with Buda - Budun to the Turks - as the provincial seat, went to the Ottomans while parts of Transdanubia and what is now Slovakia were governed by the Austrian House of Habsburg and assisted by the Hungarian nobility based at Bratislava (Hungarian: Pozsony). The principality of Transylvania east of the Tisza River prospered as a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire. This division of the country would remain in place for almost a century and a half.

The Turkish occupation was marked by constant fighting among the three divisions: Catholic 'Royal Hungary' was pitted not only against the Muslim Turks but the Protestant Transylvanian princes as well. Although Habsburg Hungary enjoyed something of a cultural renaissance during this period, the Turkish-occupied part and Buda itself suffered greatly, with many people fleeing the town to Pest, where some churches remained. The Turks did little building in Buda apart from a few bathhouses, dervish monasteries and tombs and city walls; for the most part, they used existing civic buildings for administration and converted churches into mosques. Matthias Church on Castle Hill, for example, was hastily converted into the Büyük Cami, or 'Great Mosque', and the heart of the Royal Palace became a gunpowder store and magazine. In 1578 lightning struck and much of the Danube wing was reduced to rubble.

Turkish power began to wane in the 17th century, and with the help of the Polish army, some 45, 000 Austrian and Hungarian forces advanced down both banks of the Danube from Štúrovo (Hungarian: Párkány), now in Slovakia, to liberate Buda in 1686. An imperial army under Eugene of Savoy wiped out the last Turkish army in Hungary at the Battle of Zenta (now Senta in Serbia) 11 years later. Peace was signed with the Turks at Karlowitz (Serbia) in 1699.

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Habsburg rule

The expulsion of the Turks did not result in a free and independent Hungary. Buda and the rest of the country were under military occupation and governed from Bratislava, and the policies of the Catholic Habsburgs' Counter-Reformation and heavy taxation further alienated the nobility. In 1703 - the very year in which both Buda and Pest regained their privileges as royal free towns - the Transylvanian prince Ferenc Rákóczi II raised an army of kuruc (Hungarian mercenaries) against the Habsburgs. The war dragged on for eight years, during which time the rebels 'deposed' the Austrians as rulers of Hungary. But superior imperial forces and lack of funds forced the kuruc forces to negotiate a separate peace with Vienna behind Rákóczi's back. The 1703-11 War of Independence had failed, but Rákóczi was the first leader to unite Hungarians against the Habsburgs.

Though the compromise had brought the fighting to an end, Hungary was now a mere province of the Habsburg empire. Its main cities - Buda, Pest and Óbuda - counted a total of just over 12, 000 people. With the ascension of Maria Theresa to the throne in 1740, the Hungarian nobility pledged their 'lives and blood' to her at the diet in Bratislava in exchange for concessions. Thus began the period of enlightened absolutism that would continue under her son, the 'hatted king' (so-called as he was never crowned in Hungary) Joseph II, who ruled for a decade from 1780. By then the population of Buda and Pest had risen to almost 35, 000 - a significant number, even in the sprawling Habsburg empire.

Under the reigns of Maria Theresa and Joseph, Hungary took great steps forward economically and culturally, though the first real moves towards integration with Austria had also begun. Buda effectively became the German-speaking town of Ofen and the city's first newspaper - in German, of course - was established in 1730. Funded by the grain and livestock trades, Pest began to develop outside the city walls. In 1749 the foundations for a new palace were laid in Buda, the university was moved from Nagyszombat (now Trnava in Slovakia) to Buda in 1777 and seven years later Joseph ordered the government to move from Bratislava to Buda, the nation's new administrative centre.

Joseph's attempts to modernise society by dissolving the all-powerful (and corrupt) monastic orders, abolishing serfdom and replacing 'neutral' Latin with German as the official language of state administration (1781-85) were opposed by the Hungarian nobility, and the king rescinded some of these reforms on his deathbed, but not the ones pertaining to freedom of religion and the serfs.

Dissenting voices could still be heard, and the ideals of the French Revolution of 1789 began to take root in certain intellectual circles in Budapest. In 1795 Ignác Martonovics, a former Franciscan priest, and six other prorepublican Jacobins were beheaded at Vérmező (Blood Meadow) in Buda for plotting against the crown.

By 1800 Pest, with a population of about 30, 000, was the nation's most important commercial centre while Buda, with 24, 000 people, remained a royal garrison town and developed under the eye of the monarch. But 90% of the national population worked the land, and it was primarily through agriculture that modernisation would come to Hungary.

Liberalism and social reform found their greatest supporters among certain members of the aristocracy in Pest. A prime example was Count István Széchenyi (1791-1860), a true Renaissance man who advocated the abolition of serfdom and returned much of his own land to the peasantry, proposed the first permanent link between Buda and Pest (Chain Bridge) and oversaw the regulation of the Danube as much for commerce and irrigation as for safety; the devastating Danube flood of 1838 had taken a heavy toll, with three-quarters of the homes in Pest washed away and some 150 people drowned.

The proponents of gradual reform were quickly superseded, however, by a more radical faction demanding more immediate action. The group included such men as Miklós Wesselényi, Ferenc Deák and the poet Ferenc Kölcsey, but the predominant figure was Lajos Kossuth (1802-94). It was this dynamic lawyer and journalist who would lead Hungary to its greatest ever confrontation with the Habsburgs.

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The 1848-49 war of independence

The Habsburg empire began to weaken as Hungarian nationalism increased early in the 19th century. The Hungarians, suspicious of Napoleon's policies, ignored appeals by France to revolt against Vienna, and certain reforms were introduced: the replacement of Latin, the official language of administration, with Hungarian; a law allowing serfs alternative means of discharging their feudal obligations of service; and increased Hungarian representation in the Council of State in Vienna.

The reforms carried out were too limited and far too late, however, and the diet became more defiant in its dealings with the crown. At the same time, the wave of revolution sweeping Europe spurred on the more radical faction. On 3 March 1848 Kossuth, who had been imprisoned by the Habsburgs at I Táncsics Mihály utca 9 on Castle Hill for three years (1837-40), made a fiery speech in parliament demanding an end to feudalism. On 15 March a group calling itself Márciusi Ifjúság (Youth of March) led by the poet Sándor Petőfi, who read out his poem Nemzeti Dal (National Song) on the steps of the Hungarian National Museum, took to the streets of Pest with hastily printed copies of their Twelve Points to press for radical reforms and even revolution.

The frightened government in Vienna quickly approved plans for a new Hungarian ministry responsible to the diet, led by the liberal Lajos Batthyány and to include Deák, Kossuth and Széchenyi. The Habsburgs also reluctantly agreed to abolish serfdom and proclaim equality under the law. But the diet voted to raise a local army, testing Habsburg patience.

During September 1848, Habsburg forces under the governor of Croatia, Josip Jelačić, launched an attack on Hungary and Batthyány resigned from government. Pest and Buda fell to the Austrian army in the following spring, and the Hungarians hastily formed a national defence commission and moved the government seat from Pest to Debrecen, where Kossuth was elected leader. The parliament declared Hungary's full independence and the 'dethronement' of the Habsburgs for the second time.

The new Habsburg emperor, Franz Joseph (r 1848-1916), was not at all like his feeble-minded predecessor, Ferdinand V, and quickly took action. He sought the assistance of Russian tsar Nicholas I, who obliged with 200, 000 troops. Support for the revolution was already crumbling, however, particularly in areas of mixed population where the Magyars were seen as oppressors. Weak and vastly outnumbered, the rebel troops were defeated by August 1849 and martial law was declared.

A series of brutal reprisals ensued. Summary executions of 'spies' (mostly simple army deserters) took place in the gardens of the National Museum. Batthyány was executed in Pest, 13 of his generals (the so-called Martyrs of Arad) were incarcerated and shot in Romania and Kossuth went into exile in Turkey. (Petőfi had been killed in battle.) Habsburg troops then went around the country systematically blowing up castles and fortifications lest they be used by resurgent rebels. What little of medieval Buda and Pest that had remained after the Turks and the 1703-11 War of Independence was now reduced to rubble.

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The dual monarchy

Hungary was again merged into the Habsburg empire as a vanquished province and 'neo-absolutism' was the order of the day. Hungarian war prisoners were forced to build the Citadella atop Gellért Hill to 'defend' the city from further insurrection, but by the time it was ready in 1854 the political climate had changed and the fortress had become obsolete. Passive resistance among Hungarians and disastrous military defeats by Prussia in 1859 and 1866 pushed Franz Joseph to the negotiating table with liberal Hungarians under Deák's leadership.

The result was the Compromise of 1867 (Ausgleich in German, which actually means 'balance' or 'reconciliation'), which created the Dual Monarchy of Austria (the empire) and Hungary (the kingdom). It was a federated state of two parliaments and two capitals - Vienna and Budapest (the result of the union of Buda, Pest and Óbuda six years later). Only defence, foreign relations and customs were shared. Hungary was even allowed to raise a small army.

This 'Age of Dualism' would carry on until 1918 and spark an economic, cultural and intellectual rebirth in Budapest - a golden age the likes of which the city has never seen again. Trade and industry boomed, factories were established and the composers Franz (Ferenc) Liszt and Ferenc Erkel were making beautiful music. The middle class - dominated by Germans and Jews in Pest - burgeoned, and the capital entered into a frenzy of building.

Much of what you will see in Budapest today - from the grand boulevards and their Eclectic-style apartment blocks to the Parliament building, State Opera House and Palace of Art - was built at this time. The apex of this belle époque was the six-month exhibition in 1896 in City Park, celebrating the millennium of the Magyar conquest of the Carpathian Basin. A small replica of Vajdahunyad Castle in Transylvania, but with Gothic, Romanesque and baroque wings and additions to reflect architectural styles from all over the country, was built to house the exhibits (it now houses the Hungarian Agricultural Museum`). Around four million visitors from Hungary and abroad were transported to the fairground on Continental Europe's first underground railway (now the M1 or 'little yellow' line). By the turn of the 20th century the population of the 'new' capital jumped from about 280, 000 at the time of the Compromise to 750, 000, Europe's sixth-largest city.

But all was not well in the capital. The city-based working class had almost no rights - and the situation in the countryside was almost as dire as it had been in the Middle Ages. Minorities under Hungarian control - Czechs, Slovaks, Croats and Romanians - were under increased pressure to 'Magyarise' and viewed their new rulers as oppressors. Increasingly they worked to dismember the empire.

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WWI & the republic of councils

In July 1914, a month to the day after Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Habsburg throne, was assassinated by a Bosnian Serb in Sarajevo, Austria-Hungary entered WWI allied with the German empire. The result of this action was disastrous, with heavy destruction and hundreds of thousands killed on the Russian and Italian fronts. At the Armistice in November 1918, the fate of the Dual Monarchy (and Hungary as a multinational kingdom) was sealed.

A republic under the leadership of Count Mihály Károlyi was set up in Budapest immediately after the war, and the Habsburg monarchy was dethroned for the third and final time. But the fledgling republic would not last long. Widespread destitution, the occupation of Hungary by the Allies, and the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia had radicalised much of the working class in Budapest.

In March 1919 a group of Hungarian communists under a former Transylvanian journalist called Béla Kun seized power. The so-called Tanácsköztársaság (Republic of Councils) set out to nationalise industry and private property and build a fairer society, but mass opposition to the regime unleashed a reign of 'red terror' in Budapest and around the country. In August Romanian troops occupied the capital, and Kun and his comrades (including Minister of Culture Béla Lugosi, later of Dracula fame) fled to Vienna. The Romanians camped out at Oktogon, taking whatever they wanted when they wanted it, and left the city in November - just ahead of Admiral Miklós Horthy, the hero of the Battle of Rijeka, mounted on a white stallion and leading 25, 000 Hungarian troops into what he called the bűnös város (sinful city).

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The Horthy years & WWII

In the nation's first-ever election by secret ballot (March 1920), parliament chose a kingdom as the form of state and - lacking a king - elected as its 'regent' Horthy, who remained in that position until the penultimate year of WWII. The arrangement confused even US president Franklin D Roosevelt in the early days of the war. After being briefed by an aide on the government and leadership of Hungary, he reportedly said: 'Let me see if I understand you right. Hungary is a kingdom without a king run by a regent who's an admiral without a navy?'

Horthy embarked on a 'white terror' - every bit as brutal as the red one of Béla Kun - that attacked Jews, social democrats and communists for their roles in supporting the Republic of Councils. As the regime was consolidated, it showed itself to be extremely rightist and conservative, advocating the status quo and 'traditional values' - family, State and religion. Though the country had the remnants of a parliamentary system, Horthy was all-powerful, and very few reforms were enacted. On the contrary, the lot of the working class and the peasantry worsened.

One thing everyone agreed on was that the return of the territories lost through the Treaty of Trianon was essential for national development. Budapest was swollen with ethnic Hungarian refugees from Romania, Czechoslovakia and the newly formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, unemployment skyrocketed and the economy was at a standstill. Hungary obviously could not count on the victors - France, Britain and the USA - to help recoup its land; instead, it would have to seek help from the fascist governments of Germany and Italy.

Hungary's move to the right intensified throughout the 1930s, though it remained silent when WWII broke out in September 1939. Horthy hoped an alliance would not mean actually having to enter the war but, after recovering northern Transylvania and part of Croatia with Germany's help, he was forced to join the Axis in June 1941. The war was just as disastrous for Hungary as the 1914-18 one had been, and hundreds of thousands of Hungarian troops died while retreating from Stalingrad, where they'd been used as cannon fodder. Realising too late that his country was again on the losing side, Horthy began negotiating a separate peace with the Allies.

When Hitler caught wind of this in March 1944 he sent in his army, with Adolf Eichmann in command from the Buda Hills and the Wehrmacht billeted in the Astoria Hotel. Under pressure, Horthy installed Ferenc Szálasi, the leader of the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party, as prime minister in October and the regent was deported to Germany and later found exile in Portugal, where he died in 1957.

The Arrow Cross Party moved quickly to quash any opposition, and thousands of the country's liberal politicians and labour leaders were arrested. At the same time, its puppet government introduced anti-Jewish legislation similar to that in Germany, and Jews, who were relatively safe under Horthy, were rounded up into ghettos by Hungarian pro-Nazis. During the summer of 1944, less than a year - 10 months! - before the war ended, approximately 430, 000 Hungarian Jewish men, women and children were deported to Auschwitz and other labour camps in just over eight weeks, where they either starved to death, succumbed to disease or were brutally murdered by the German fascists and their unsayable henchmen. Many of the Jews who did survive owed their lives to Raoul Wallenberg, a Budapest-based Swedish diplomat and the Swiss consul, Carl Lutz.

Budapest now became an international battleground for the first time since the Turkish occupation, and the bombs began falling everywhere - particularly around Castle Hill and, in Pest, in the northern and eastern districts of Angyalföld and Zugló, where there were munitions factories. The resistance movement drew support from many sides, including the communists, and by Christmas 1944 the Soviet army had surrounded Budapest. When the Germans and Hungarian Nazis rejected a settlement, the siege of the capital began. By the time the German war machine had surrendered in April 1945, three-quarters of the city's homes, historical buildings and churches had been severely damaged or destroyed. Some 20, 000 Hungarian soldiers and 25, 000 civilians of Budapest had been killed. As their goodbye gift, the vindictive Germans blew up Buda Castle and knocked out every bridge spanning the Danube.

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The people's republic

When free parliamentary elections were held in November 1945, the Independent Smallholders' Party received 57% (or 245 seats) of the vote. But Soviet political officers, backed by the occupying Soviet army, forced three other parties - the Communists, Social Democrats and National Peasants - into a coalition. Limited democracy prevailed, and land-reform laws, sponsored by the Communist minister of agriculture, Imre Nagy, were enacted, wiping away the prewar feudal structure. Budapest experienced the worst hyperinflation the world has ever known at this time, with notes worth up to 10, 000 trillion pengő issued before the forint was introduced. Still, Independence Bridge, the first of the spans over the Danube to be rebuilt, reopened in 1946.

Within a couple of years, the Communists were ready to take complete control. After a rigged election held under a complicated new electoral law in 1947, they declared their candidate, Mátyás Rákosi, victorious. The Social Democrats were forced to merge with the Communists into the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party.

In 1948 Rákosi, a big fan of Stalin, began a process of nationalisation and unfeasibly fast industrialisation at the expense of agriculture. Peasants were forced into collective farms, and all produce had to be delivered to state warehouses. A network of spies and informers exposed 'class enemies' such as Cardinal József Mindszenty to the secret police, the ÁVO (or ÁVH after 1949), who interrogated them at their headquarters at VI Andrássy út 60 (now the House of Terror) in Pest and sent them to trial at the then Military Court of Justice on II Fő utca in Buda. Some were executed; many more were sent into internal exile or condemned to labour camps like the notorious one at Recsk in the Mátra Hills to the east. It is estimated that at some stage during this period a quarter of the adult population of Budapest faced police or judicial proceedings.

Bitter feuding within the party began, and purges and Stalinesque show trials became the order of the day. László Rajk, the Communist minister of the interior (which also controlled the ÁVH), was arrested and later executed for 'Titoism'; his successor János Kádár was jailed and tortured. In August 1949, the nation was proclaimed the 'People's Republic of Hungary'. In the years that followed - among the darkest and bleakest in Budapest's history - apartment blocks, small businesses and retail outlets were expropriated by the state and new cultural and sports facilities, including Népstadion, or People's Stadium (now the Ferenc Puskás Stadium), were built.

After the death of Stalin in March 1953 and Khrushchev's denunciation of him three years later, Rákosi's tenure was up and the terror began to abate. Under pressure from within the party, Rákosi's successor, Ernő Gerő, rehabilitated Rajk posthumously and readmitted Nagy, who had been expelled from the party a year earlier for suggesting reforms. But Gerő was ultimately as much a hardliner as Rákosi had been and, by October 1956 during Rajk's reburial, murmured calls for a real reform of the system - 'Socialism with a human face' - could already be heard.

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The 1956 uprising

The nation's greatest tragedy - an event that for a while shook the world, rocked international communism and pitted Hungarian against Hungarian - began in Budapest on 23 October when some 50, 000 university students assembled at II Bem József tér in Buda, shouting anti-Soviet slogans and demanding that Nagy be named prime minister. That night a crowd pulled down and sawed into pieces the colossal statue of 'József Sztálin' on Dózsa György út on the edge of Városliget (City Park) and shots were fired by ÁVH agents on another group gathering outside the headquarters of Hungarian Radio on VIII Bródy Sándor utca in Pest. In the blink of an eye, Budapest was in revolution.

The next day Nagy formed a government while János Kádár was named president of the Central Committee of the Hungarian Workers' Party. For a short time it appeared that Nagy might be successful in transforming Hungary into a neutral, multiparty state. On 28 October the government offered an amnesty to all those involved in the violence and promised to abolish the ÁVH. On 31 October hundreds of political prisoners were released, and widespread reprisals against ÁVH agents began. The following day Nagy announced that Hungary would leave the Warsaw Pact and decree its neutrality.

At this, Soviet tanks and troops crossed into Hungary and within 72 hours began attacking Budapest and other centres. Kádár, who had slipped away ratlike from Budapest to join the Russian invaders, was installed as leader.

Fierce street fighting continued for several days - fighting was especially heavy in and around the Corvin Film Palace, VIII József körút and the nearby Kilián army barracks opposite on IX Üllői út in Pest, and II Széna tér in Buda - encouraged by Radio Free Europe broadcasts and disingenuous promises of support from the West, which was embroiled in the Suez Canal crisis at the time. When the fighting was over, 25, 000 people were dead. Then the reprisals - the worst in the city's history - began. An estimated 20, 000 people were arrested and 2000 - including Imre Nagy in 1958 and his associates - were executed. Another 250, 000 refugees fled to Austria. The government lost what little credibility it had and the city many of its most competent and talented citizens. As for the physical scars, just look around you in some of the older parts of Pest: the bullet holes and shrapnel damage on the exterior walls still cry out in silent fury.

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Hungary under Kádár

The transformation of János Kádár from traitor and most hated man in the land to respected reformer is one of the most astonishing tour de force of the 20th century. No doubt it will keep historians busy well into the next.

After the revolt, the ruling party was reorganised as the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party, and Kádár, now both party president and premier, launched a programme to liberalise the social and economic structure based on compromise. (His most quoted line was 'Whoever is not against us is with us' - a reversal of the Stalinist adage that stated 'Those not with us are against us'.) In 1968 he and the economist Rezső Nyers unveiled the New Economic Mechanism (NEM) to introduce elements of a market to the planned economy. But even this proved too daring for many party conservatives. Nyers was ousted and the NEM whittled back.

Kádár managed to survive that power struggle unscathed and went on to introduce greater consumerism and market socialism. By the mid-1970s Hungary was light years ahead of any other Soviet-bloc country in its standard of living, freedom of movement and opportunities to criticise (softly) the government. Budapesters may have had to wait seven years for a Lada car or 12 for a telephone, but most could at least enjoy access to a second house in the countryside and a decent material life. The 'Hungarian model' attracted much Western attention - and investment.

But things began to sour in the 1980s. The Kádár system of 'goulash socialism', which had seemed 'timeless and everlasting' as one Hungarian writer has put it, was incapable of dealing with such 'unsocialist' problems as unemployment, soaring inflation and the largest per-capita foreign debt in Eastern Europe. Kádár and the 'old guard' refused to hear talk about party reforms. In June 1987 Károly Grósz took over as premier, and in May 1988 Kádár was booted out of the party and forced to retire. He died the following year.

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The end of an era

A group of reformers - among them Nyers, Imre Pozsgay, Miklós Németh and Gyula Horn - took charge. Party conservatives at first put a lid on any real change by demanding a retreat from political liberalisation in exchange for their support of the new regime's economic policies. But the tide had turned and there was no stopping it.

Throughout the summer and autumn of 1988, new political parties were formed and old ones revived. In January 1989 Pozsgay, second-guessing what was to come as Mikhail Gorbachev kissed babies and launched his reforms in the Soviet Union, announced that the events of 1956 had been a 'popular insurrection' and not the 'counter-revolution' that the regime had always said it was. In June 1989 some 250, 000 people attended ceremonies marking the reburial of Imre Nagy and other victims of 1956 in Budapest. Towards the end of the year the communists agreed to give up their monopoly on power, paving the way for free elections in spring 1990.

In July 1989, again at Pozsgay's instigation, Hungary began to demolish the electrified wire fence separating it from Austria. The move released a wave of East Germans holidaying in Hungary into the West and the opening attracted thousands more. The collapse of the communist regimes around the region was now unstoppable. What Hungarians call az átkos 40 év, 'the accursed 40 years' of sham, drudgery and broken dreams, had come to a withering, almost feeble, end.

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