The fairy garden of Budapest

Summer and good weather are here and you could have a pleasant day if you chose to walk along Margaret Island in the heart of Budapest. You couldn’t do this 250 years ago, because the island was in possession of the church and then became the palatine’s holiday resort. It was the ranch of rollicking artists for a long period, like a kind of ‘artistic colony’; many of their literary works were born under the oak trees of the island. It is a paradise for spa lovers, the gathering place of professional sportspeople, amateur runners and outdoor yoga practicing persons.

Margitsziget az 1830-as években, térképrészlet - Magyar Kereskedelmi és Vendéglátóipari Múzeum, CC BY-NC-NDIf you went back 900 years in time, Margaret Island would show a completely different picture. You would find exuberant vegetation and three separate reefs that were transformed into one big paved-around island just later at the end of the 19th century by linking the southern Festő-sziget to the larger land and by dredging the northern Fürdő-sziget. The island was first mentioned in a land-book, in which Andrew II of Hungary donated the whole area to the Premonstratensians, and that was the time when the important constructions started. The Saint Michael Church, the monasteries of Premonstratensian, Dominicans, Franciscans, the Order of Malta and the castle of the Archbishop of Esztergom stood here. They were attended by the inhabitants of the village of Saint Paul that was built on the island. It was called the Island of Rabbits (Nyulak szigete) in the 13th century, referring to its function: a beloved hunting-ground of rulers. Béla IV of Hungary spent a lot of time here, just like his daughter Margaret, who is an emblematic figure of the island that was known as Saint Margaret Island as of the 17th century. The island became deserted by the 16th century due to the Ottoman occupation, but the land was used as hayfields and it also became an infamous area under the name Girls’ Island (Lányok szigete).

A Margitsziget 1869-ben - Magyar Kereskedelmi és Vendéglátóipari Múzeum, CC BY-NC-NDBy the end of the 18th century, the island got into private ownership. Archduke Joseph, Palatine of Hungary was the first to change the image of the area significantly. He had a classicistic holiday resort built next to the Franciscan church ruins among others. The building was in very bad conditions even in the 1920s and has been destroyed by now. His gardener Károly Tost helped him realise his plans and enriched the island with exotic plants, planted vine-lands around the resort and domesticated plane trees that became typical by now. The island was mentioned as Palatine Island that time, referring to the honour of the owner. It was in this period when the island became accessible to the great public and a colourful social life developed there. A tradition was born: they organised a festival on Margaret’s day every year on 13 July. Finally, the Palatine had enough of the damages caused by visitors and had the festival location shut down. The flood and debacle in 1838 caused significant destructions. Only the 200 year-old mulberry tree with an overthrown trunk planted by Tost attests to the events nowadays.

Ivócsarnok - Terleczky József, CC BY-NC-NDAfter the Palatine’s death, his son inherited the island as of 1847, but did not care much about it. The turning-point was in 1866, when Archduke Joseph Jr. decided that he would revive the place as a bathing location – as the hot-water springs on the north-western side had already been known earlier. Geologist Vilmos Zsigmondy made exploratory drillings, successfully. The flushing 44-degree-Celsius medicinal water was found beneficial to different musculoskeletal and gynaecological disorders. In the beginning, a drinking hall was built for visitors, which stood behind the Japanese garden and the waterfall.

A Szent Margitszigeti gyógyfürdő termális medencefürdője (1934) - Magyar Kereskedelmi és Vendéglátóipari Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND

The demand for a bathing centre emerged soon. The Neo-Renaissance baths, the Grand Hotel, the Lower-Island Restaurant – altogether fourteen buildings that defined the image of the island - were designed by Miklós Ybl. Only the Grand Hotel exists today, transformed significantly, but still functioning as a hotel. The Lower Restaurant, called Casino later, is under restoration now (Holdudvar bar operated here until 2015). The building of Margaret Bath suffered irreparable damages during WW II, thus it was pulled down and a hotel was built on its place. The horse tram had already been operating for a year when the bathing-resort was inaugurated in 1869. The famous wooden coffeehouse was built for the millennial feasts – placed originally in the Városliget (City Park) and then it was moved to Margaret Island – but it burnt down 20 years later.

Everything was available for the cloudless relaxing on the island – and don’t forget that only wealthier people could afford the expensive ship tickets to take a walk there. Many artists worked there: maybe poet János Arany is the most famous among them, who wrote his cycle poems Őszikék and Toldi’s Love in the 1870s. He also lived there for a while and had a regular table at the Upper-Island Restaurant. Other twentieth-century artists were also frequent visitors on the island: Ferenc Molnár, Sándor Bródy, Ernő Szép and Gyula Krúdy.

Krúdy Gyula (1878-1933) a "Magyarság" regényírója (1929) - Magyar Kereskedelmi és Vendéglátóipari Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND

Gyula Krúdy lived in the decaying former holiday resort of the Archduke and also in the Small Hotel (Kisszálló) from 1918 to 1930. He moved into this peaceful place with his new wife after the scandal at his former residence at the Royal Hotel. He hoped for recovery, because the Margaret Spring was said to be a miraculous place. It was a rather fertile period of his life; Álmoskönyv (Book of Dreams) was also created here among others. He wrote down his experiences in the short story A mai Margitsziget (Today’s Margaret Island) published in the volume Pest-Budai hangulatok (Ambiances of Pest-Buda). There is also a short story about his beloved island in Gasztrohangulatok (Gastro-Ambiances) that immortalized the events of a memorable pig-slaughter.

As of 1900, the island resort became accessible without a ferry or a steamer, because an embranchment to the Island was built to Margaret Bridge that had been built 24 years before as the second bridge of Budapest. (Árpád Bridge with its embranchment was built only in 1950.) Around this time Margaret Island got its present form after they linked Festő-sziget and the main island. 1909 was a milestone again in the history of the island. The Board of Public Works of the Capital City purchased it and pronounced it a public garden. The Water Tower that also functions as a viewpoint was finished in 1911. Theatricals in Margaret Island has a hundred year-old past, because the Theatre Club of Margaret Island considered as the predecessor of the Margaret Island Open-air Stage was opened in 1918.

Margitszigeti strand, fürdőzőkkel - Magyar Kereskedelmi és Vendéglátóipari Múzeum, CC BY-NC-NDDuring the Council Republic, the island was accessible free of charge to the great public. Palatinus Bath was opened as the first outdoor bath of Budapest, but it was shut down soon, was reconstructed and re-opened in 1921. An even larger landscaping was started in 1927. A sewage network and promenades were constructed, the horse tram was stopped, and transport was solved by buses. Sport life started developing when the National Swimming Stadium was inaugurated in 1930, designed by the first Olympic swimming champion, also the first Olympic champion of Hungary and architect Alfréd Hajós. The Second World War destroyed almost the entire holiday resort, the former Margaret Bridge and a lot of trees got damaged too. The buildings of the island you can see now are not as fairytale-like as they were in their heydays, but the period photos and postcards in our exhibition might give you some points of reference.


Translated by Zita Aknai



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