The Grand Boulevard is Budapest’s living “artery”. Life continuously pulses round the clock along its curving streets with people and traffic. The yellow 4 and 6 trams rumble along connecting the Petőfi Bridge with Margit Bridge, carrying commuters by day and party goers by night. Its name, Nagykörút in Hungarian, translating as the Great Ring Road, seems apt for this semi-circular road that connects up the inner Pest boroughs covering 5 districts.
On a daily basis, most of us take this boulevard for granted, usually rushing along from place to place or stumbling back from a ruin bar in the late hours of the morning with a kebab in hand, but this weekend everyone had the chance to go behind the scenes and explore the Grand Boulevard from a different angle.
Every year, selected houses in Budapest open their doors for a single weekend allowing outsiders to explore their hidden courtyards and stairwells. Budapest100 is an annual urban festival celebrating the city’s architecture, which to date focussed on buildings that are 100 years old. However, in 2016 they shifted their focus onto the Grand Boulevard, in which over 50 houses built at varying dates took part. This offered the chance for us to go behind the scenes and find out more about these houses we see and take for granted on a daily basis.
The Grand Boulevard
The Grand Boulevard became the city’s major thoroughfare in 1896, forming a semi-circle that links most of downtown Pest, where many consider this road as the border marking the inner city. While its name, the Nagykörút categorises it as one road, it’s actually segmented into sections based on the district it runs through, so you actually have Szent István Körút (XIII District), Teréz Körút (VI District), Erzsébet Körút (VII District), József Körút (VIII District) and Ferenc Körút (IX Distirct), where the boulevard itself crosses some of the city’s most important squares and streets.
Exploring the Grand Boulevard
It would have been tough to have done all the open houses in a day, and since Sunday I had to work I decided to just pick a few houses and do as much as I could. I missed out the middle section in the VII and VIII District, opting for focus more on the VI, XIII and then back to the IX.
Teréz Körút 25
Built in 1886-87, this apartment block built by Henric Schmahl, commissioned by Gusztáv Politzer might look like another 19th century apartment complex from the outside, but inside it opens out into a beautiful ivy strewn courtyard filled with a neo-classical feel. While the flat itself is residential, it’s courtyard is home to a few wedding shops.
Teréz Körút 43 – The Radisson Hotel
I used to work round the corner from the hotel, so its exterior resembling a medieval tapestry was a common site I eventually took for granted. The building dates back to 1913, by an unknown architect. The hotel has some beautiful old features, but much of its 1970s remodelling inside loses much of the building’s character. However, its amazing cupola in the cocktail lounge upstairs is a fin de siècle gem, with amazing acoustics.
Teréz Körút 48
Across the road, this 1898 house already looks beautiful from the outside, but its interior resembles an art nouveau wedding cake in a creme de menthe colour. The lighting is poor, but that doesn’t distract from the beautiful details and faces staring out from the plaster walls.
Teréz Körút 51
Located next to the Nyugati Station (built by Gustav Eiffel), this building on the edge of Teréz Körút is beautiful to look at from the outside, but its interior is rather stripped back, mostly housing a post office today.
Nyugati Tér 4
I have passed the houses across from Nyugati Station a dozen times, whether on the tram or simply walking it. Perhaps because getting to Nyugati Tér involves taking the Nyugati underpass is akin to going down to the Underworld and back might have eclipsed the feeling of stopping and looking around.
The gate for this apartment was open, but its interior was a beautiful mix of art nouveau and neo-baroque details to the amazing wrought iron balconies that stretched round the courtyard like a garden.
Nyugati Tér 5
This was a true hidden treasure, but not on first impressions. The first courtyard was dark, a tight tetrahedron that let in barely any light and felt like being trapped at the bottom of a well. But people were going up the staircase on the side, so I felt that perhaps there was more to this house. The second courtyard was a treasure – neo-romanesque columns, mixed up with mosaics, columns and Italian details all lined round a glass pyramid in its courtyard. From the ground floor, looking up, the proportions looked like something out of an Escher painting in some regards. A wonderful building housing something you’d never expect it was there.
Szent István Körút
We wandered down this part of the boulevard, popping in and out of houses at random, but began to feel tired. We found courtyards with textile displays, and even had a look in the Vígszínház, a beautiful late 19th century theatre, which was mostly closed due to a show going on. While the courtyards in the neighbourhood known as Újlipótváros had beautiful accents along with some live music and activity, with people stopping in and out with the instantly recognisable yellow Budapest100 map in hand, we wanted to see what was going on at the other end of the Grand Boulevard.
Boráros Tér 3
We hopped on the tram and went all the way to Ferenc Körút, right by Danube banks. This area is home to a lot of industrial architecture, and is not quite as picturesque as the other neighbourhoods. However, I find the IX District especially due to the this eclectic mix of architecture. On my frequent commutes on the 4 or 6 tram, I’ve passed this art nouveau house on a number of occasions and have been curious to see and learn more about it.
It was particularly interesting, since there were a couple of architect and art historians at the house who told us a little about its history. Built in 1905 by László and József Vágó, the set up of this house was quite unusual when compared to the traditional Budapest apartment block. For a start, there were no grand courtyards, just a stairwell decked out in beautiful stained glass windows and secessionist motifs within the building. There was a courtyard but it was simple and more functional as a lookout for the kitchens and the former servant’s quarters. The apartments here were once stretched out into palatial proportions, but today, all except one has been carved up into one or two flats.