Monday 5 June 2017


Travelling east, we've been learning more and more of the convoluted history of this neck of the woods, and of the historical figures around whom so much of it revolved. In Vienna we found a fascination with Empress Elisabeth of Austria, and a garden dedicated to her memory.

She'd hated the position she acquired by marrying the young emperor Franz Joseph and became, increasingly, an absentee, for which she was criticised. Her murder in 1898 by an Italian anarchist turned her almost instantly into a revered and beloved figure, and there is evidence of her impact everywhere, including a fascinating museum dedicated to her in the Hofburg palace in Vienna. The anarchist intended a symbolic act – the consequence was the creation of a legend of a sort he would probably have detested.

Vienna is naturally very conscious of its identity and the ways in which that is expressed, from the horse-drawn tourist carriages…

to the soaring spires of St Stephen's cathedral.

When we reached Bratislava, we found that an earlier, 18th century, Habsburg empress had left her mark on that city. Slovakia was then part of Hungary, and Empress Maria Theresa, in modernising mood, declared that the old walls of the city should be removed, since their mediaeval function was no longer relevant. But she excused one of the towers from this destruction, probably because it supported a resplendent upper section which she herself had donated.

Budapest is our third capital in three days, and just as full of symbolism. We were taken by coach past a square with statues commemorating the original seven Hungarian tribes which had migrated in the 9th century from the Urals, and the figure of the angel Gabriel, who supposedly appeared to the pope of the day to tell him to accede to the Hungarians' request to become a recognised kingdom.

Gabriel thereby became something of a national symbol, and representations can be found all around the city. One was as part of a monument which, as we examined it, turned out to have been highly contentious.

It shows an eagle representing German forces occupying Hungary in 1944, and Gabriel, holding an orb, as a peaceful victim. But along the fence in front of the monument is a protest, backed up by people gathering every afternoon, against what is seen as a whitewashing of Hungarian history. There are personal and household objects that people have left, and explanatory leaflets pointing out the complicity of the Hungarian government and people in the Nazi project, and in the forcible removal and / or murder of many Hungarian citizens, principally Jews and Roma. Down on the edge of the Danube is another, very different monument remembering the war.

This is the place where many Jewish men, women and children were shot so that they fell into the river, but were required to remove their shoes first because of their value. It's a very moving spot.

We fly home from Budapest tomorrow. This has been an extraordinary cruise, and it's appropriate that we say farewell from such a historic city.

This fella was in Bratislava. He must symbolise something, though I'm not sure what it is. But perhaps Jeremy Corbyn might add this to his nominal collection of manhole covers, and manage a visit if he becomes Prime Minister on Friday.

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