Copyright Mark Ahsmann
Gellért Hill, at a height of 771 feet, is located on the hilly Buda side of Budapest, and has a beautiful lookout view of the Danube and the Pest side of the city. It spans Districts XI and I, and takes its name from Saint Gellért (Gerard) of Csanád, who was martyred on the hill on 24 September 1046. Accounts vary on how exactly he was martyred, but all accounts transpire on the hill.
Gellért Hill was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. Attractions include the Gellért Thermal Baths, Hotel Gellért, Gellért Hill Cave, the Citadella (Citadel), the Statue of Liberty (Szabadság Szobor), and the Tabán area. Like much of the rest of the Buda side, the Gellért Hill area too has historically been rather affluent. It’s a very popular hiking and daytrip spot.
In 2007, private construction revealed a new cave beneath the hill. This cave has three rooms, is covered with beautiful white crystals, and was created 300,000–500,000 years ago by one of Budapest’s thermal springs. The cave immediately came under legal protection.
Typical 1945 damage, Copyright Fortepan, Source Fortepan
Copyright Andrzej Otrębski
Hotel Gellért was constructed from 1916–18 in the Art Nouveau style (Vienna Secession subbranch), at the foot of the hill, next to Liberty Bridge (Szabadság Híd). A spa, swimming pool, and plaza were built next to the hotel, creating a huge tourist draw and important reputation. The hotel’s nickname was “the first lady of Hungarian tourism.” In 1927, a fine restaurant was added.
Sadly, during WWII, the hotel was badly ruined, and the façade along the Danube was totally destroyed. In 1946, the section facing the hill began repairs, and in 1957, the Danube-facing side began restoration. In 1962, restoration was complete, and in 1973, another renovation was undertaken.
Hotel Gellért, Copyright Marc Ryckaert (MJJR)
After the Habsburgs put down the 1848 Revolution and the 1848–49 War of Independence, they forced Hungarians to build a fortress on top of the hill. It was meant to remind the Hungarian people of who ruled them, and to try to keep them in line. This Citadella was the most hated establishment in Hungary, and was often called the Hungarian Bastille.
In the late 19th century, the Habsburgs gave it to the City Council, and parts of it were symbolically destroyed. In the years since, it’s served as a prison camp, homeless shelter, hiding place during WWII, anti-aircraft battery site, and Soviet patrol. Since the 1960s, it’s been a tourist attraction.
Aerial view of Citadella, Copyright Civertan Grafikai Stúdió
Partial demolition of Citadella, 1897 or 1898, Copyright Lakner
Copyright Pasztilla aka Attila Terbócs
Opposite the entrance to the Gellért Thermal Baths is a cave church. The network of caves is known as Saint Iván’s Cave, after a hermit who lived there and was said to have used the thermal waters of a nearby muddy lake to heal the sick. In the 19th century, a poor family lived there and built an adobe house in the opening. The cave’s mouth was boarded up and used as a courtyard.
In the 1920s, Pauline monks made a modern entrance to the cave, and consecrated it as a church and monastery in 1926. The Soviets walled it up in 1951, arrested the monks, and murdered their leader. In 1989, the wall was ripped down, and the church was reopened.
Copyright Thaler Tamas
The Statue of Liberty in front of the Citadella can be seen from almost all parts of Budapest, and has become a symbol of the city. She commemorates Hungary’s liberation from the Nazis. According to legend, she was originally designed in memory of Regent Admiral Miklós Horthy’s son, who died in a plane crash during WWII. She was meant to hold a propeller blade in her hands, but by the time she was erected, Horthy wasn’t the ruler anymore.
My characters Csilla Bergman and Imre Goldmark go to Gellért Hill for their first real date in October 1945, timed so they can catch sunset over the panorama. While they’re there, Imre gives her a pearl on a silver chain. She’s his Pearl of the Danube, tarnished on the surface but pure and whole underneath, waiting to be polished back to her former splendour.