Discovering Józsefváros, the Palace District

Károlyi Csekonics Palace in the Budapest 8th District

Sometimes we stumble across some of our best tours by accident. That’s exactly what happened when we met art historian and Context docent Enikő Békés for a coffee in the Budapest 8th District a while back. Conversation turned to the amazing palaces that line the streets here, and before we knew it we were crafting our Budapest Palace District Tour.

It seemed only fitting to sit down with Enikő and get further insight into what makes this walking tour so special and how it can help visitors gain a new understanding of Budapest’s role in European history during the 19th and early 20th century.

Context: This walk is based off an idea that you presented to Paul and I when we first came to Budapest.  How did you get the idea for the walk and what made you think it might be interesting for our clients?
Enikő Békés: The Budapest 8th district, where this tour takes place, which we also call in Hungarian, the “Quarter of Palaces,” is one of the most dynamically growing parts of Budapest. These kinds of walking tours, organized by Context, exist also for Hungarians, and this area is often included in these walks, but there is a difference between them – the latter doesn’t take you into the interior of the palaces. The discovery of this historical district and the possibility to enter the renovated palaces gives the impression of an initiation for the clients, where they can learn about Hungarian history and also encounter the results and questions of contemporary urban development.
Context: There are many different families that this walk discusses.  Can you tell us a bit about one of those families and perhaps an interesting story attached to that family that our clients may not know about?


EB: One of the oldest and wealthiest Hungarian noble families was the Esterházy family, who owned palaces in the Budapest 8th district. They gained their wealth mostly through fortunate weddings. The family was always loyal to the Habsburg court, which is why members of the family held important offices, like the position of the palatine, a kind of a vice-king in the Kingdom of Hungary. Among the Hungarian noble families only they received the title of the “imperial prince”, the others remained “only” counts. From the 18th century onwards they began to collect paintings, and other works of art. This huge art collection later became part of public museums, like of the Museum of Fine Arts. Their richly decorated castles in Fertőd, Eisenstadt, and Forchtenstein (Austria) can be still visited as museums. The last descendant of the family was Esterházy Pál, who was imprisoned after the Second World War.  After his release he emigrated to Switzerland, like many other heirs of noble families who survived that period. This prince married a ballerina, but they didn’t have child, so the Esterházy-castles now belong to the property of the wife’s family.

Lotz Károly fresco in the Károlyi Palace, in the Budapest 8th District
Lotz Károly fresco in the
Károlyi Palace.

Context: Are there particular characteristics of the architecture that make these palaces uniquely Hungarian or are the styles we’re viewing more pan-European?

EB: I wouldn’t say that the style of these palaces is typically Hungarian, but still, one of the main features of the architecture of Budapest is that the city is determined by a quite homogeneous historical and eclectic style. The facades of these palaces are characterised also mainly by the Neo-Renaissance style, while the interiors were designed in Rococo style, which both were proper forms for those noble families for expressing and representing their identity. In a certain sense it can be considered unique, as the different architects applied these historical forms in various ways  and so this resulted an interesting interpretation of the historical details. It is also worth for mentioning that in the Budapest 8th district one can examine not only the Italian Neo-Renaissance style, but also the influence of French palace-architecture.
Context: The spaces we enter are now either used for private or public use, but you can see that they are incredible spaces for entertaining.  Can you tell us a bit about what sort of entertaining used to happen in these palaces and how that relates to the overall history of the period?
EB: In almost every palace in the Budapest 8th District we can still find a huge ballroom, the most elegant example of which is the Neo-Rococo Hall of Mirrors in the Festetich Palace, or the double ballroom in the former Wenckheim Palace, today it is the main reading hall of the Metropolitan Library. In the latter 500 people could enjoy themselves with live music; the king was even present once. Balls were integral part of the noble families’ social life at that time, and it formed also part of their self-representation. Every day another family gave a party, where the purpose was not only entertaining, but also cultivating private and social-political contacts.


Context: Anything else you think our clients would enjoy knowing about this walk and the time period it discusses?

EB: The time period it discusses is mostly the second half of the 19th century, which was the beginning of a golden age in the Hungarian history, in terms of education, culture and also economy, within the frame of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. The inhabitants of the palaces we visit were protagonists of contemporary political and cultural life. The architecture of this quarter is special, since you can visit only here in Budapest free-standing private palaces of old Hungarian noble families. The present public function of these buildings is a good example for how these historical palaces can be renovated and filled again with life, while walking on the streets and small squares of this quarter clients can experience one of the most livable parts of Budapest.