Photo: Mary Murphy

The capital with the eye of an expat

Who’s Margaret?

‘We’ve never been to Margaret Island.’ It was a simple statement of fact, not a complaint. My many-time visitors had never, ever, been down to Margitsziget. I’ll admit to being a little taken aback. How can you come to Budapest and NOT visit the island in the middle of the Danube?

Yes, they’d taken the 4 or 6 tram numerous times across Margaret Bridge but had never once alit at the stop in the middle of Margit híd.

I thought back.

I’d been to Budapest a few times myself before I’d ventured down there. There was so much to do in the city, and so many other places to see that the island was always for the next visit. And the next. And the next.

I wasn’t a runner, so I wasn’t looking for the flat, rubberised, runners-only track that clips the outer edge of the island’s 5.3-km (3.2-mile) perimeter.

I wasn’t a swimmer, so I had no need to visit the four-storey Alfréd Hajós National Swimming Stadium with its eight outdoor and indoor training, diving, and competitive swimming pools. [I see that another name has been added to the complex – that of Tamas Széchy; between 1972 and 1998, athletes he trained won 15 Olympic medals (8 gold, 4 silver and 3 bronze) and 21 world championships medals.  Known locally as the úszópápa, Széchy earned the moniker ‘swimming pope’.]

But I did occasionally brave the crowds mid-week and rent a sunbed at Palatinus Strand, one of the better outdoor bathing complexes in the city with a fabulous Bauhaus entrance. In operation for more than 100 years, it was the first of the Budapest baths where visitors could bathe in the open air. Back in 1919, it boasted a caged swimming pool in the Danube but in only a couple of years, the first three of its current fifteen pools were built. Until WWII, the granddad of the pools at 5000 m2 was the largest in Europe. Today, passers-by might stop and wonder at the periodic loud music that foretells the waves arriving at the wave pool. Some might go to avail themselves of the spa. More still want the slide action. If you’re in Budapest with kids of any age, it’s worth an afternoon.

I’m a fan of the musical fountain but hadn’t realised  that there was a running order you can check and time your visit. If you’re after some classical music, you can check the playlist to see when it’ll be playing Strauss’s Radetzky March or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Or maybe Michael Bublé or Paddy and the Rats are more your style. There’s something for everyone. In the evenings, there’s a light show, with the sheets of water doubling as a film screen. Magical.

It was at the open-air theatre recently, my second visit to Margitszigeti színház, that said friends made their jaw-dropping comment. We’d tickets to see Puccini’s Tosca. The weather forecast predicted rain from 7 to 9 pm. The performance began at 8. I asked the young lady checking tickets what would happen if the performance was rained off. She assured me that it wouldn’t rain. I looked at the black clouds swelling across Pest making their way across the river to Buda. Had I laid a bet, I’d have lost. Although there were anxious moments when the wind looked like it might turn Floria Tosca into Mary Poppins, the rain did hold off. They have quite the line-up this summer with more opera, musicals, and concerts on the cards. Had I been thinking, we’d have booked ourselves into one of the island’s two hotels and stayed locally. Next year.

The Art-Nouveau 1911 water tower makes a beautiful backdrop. Once (still?) providing the water for the island’s few bars, restaurants, and hotels, it opened for visitors in 2012. You can climb the stairs to the top if you are so inclined. I wonder if you’d get away with watching a performance from there.

Both the musical fountain and the water tower are UNESCO sites.

The island also has a rose garden (opposite Palatinus) and a Japanese garden (northern tip). And it has its ruins, too. The remains of a thirteenth-century Franciscan Church destroyed by the Ottomans in the 1500s can still be seen.

But it was on the grounds of the old Dominican Convent that the ghost of Margaret, Saint Margaret, finally made an appearance.

Photo: Mary Murphy

Her parents, King Béla IV of Hungary and his Greek wife Maria Laskarina, sent their daughter to the Dominican monastery in Veszprém in 1245 when she was only three years old. They’d promised that were Hungary liberated from the Mongols, they’d dedicate the ninth of their ten children to God. At nine, Margaret was sent to the convent on Nyulak Szigete (Rabbit Island). [What we know as Margaret Island today is the amalgamation of three islands of old: Festő (Painter), Fürdő (Bath), and Nyulak (rabbits).] Margaret spent her life there, in the convent, on the island that now bears her name.

Despite her father’s best efforts to marry her off to King Ottokar II of Bohemia and his seeming forgetfulness when it came to the dedication he’d made, Margaret took her vows at 18. Later she was consecrated a virgin just in case her dad tried to get the pope to dispense her vows and marry her off to someone else. She was one determined young lady.

Sadly, she died young. Too young. She was just 25. Her story was written down in the fourteenth century and translated from the Latin a century later. One copy remains – the Margaret Codex – copied by a Dominican nun, Lea Ráskauy in 1510. If anyone knows where this is housed (presumably in Hungary?), I’d like to know.

The legend tells of how seriously Margaret took her vows and her penance on earth. Hairshirts, an iron girdle, and shoes with spiked nails were all part of her wardrobe.

It was approaching midnight as we walked back to Margit híd, leaving Puccini’s Rome behind us. We passed the ruins of the old convent, its stillness in marked contrast with the pods of young people still lolling about enjoying the summer.

I’d forgotten what a lovely spot it is.

Photo: Mary Murphy

Getting to the island is easy. The No. 26 bus runs the length of it (2.5 km). As the island is connected to Margit híd, you can alight at the 4 or 6 tram stop and walk down to the fountain where you can rent bikes or golf buggies, or a host of other weird and wondering pedal-propelled vehicles to tour around.

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