The island has an interesting history, and an awareness of the past adds to its’s allure. Beginning in the 11th century, the island was used almost exclusively as a religious retreat. The island’s 13th century Dominican Church and Convent was built by a grateful King Bela IV, who promised his young daughter Margit to God if he successfully defeated invading Mongols. The Princess lived as a nun at the convent for 20 years before her death, and was canonized many years later. The church was abandoned and destroyed in the mid-1500s, during the Turkish invasion of the city. The ruins were discovered 300 years later after floods severely eroded the island. Today, the outline of the church and the adjoining convent that housed Margit are clearly discerned, and a small shrine to the saint stands on her gravesite. Some renovation/excavation work was in progress during our visit in late October 2001 (a floor was being installed in the church area). The ruins are located in a shady wooded area, and it is a peaceful and pretty place to rest.
The island was opened to the public as a park in the late 1860s. Margit’s convent now rests in the shadow of a 1911 water tower that looks as if Jules Verne concocted it. The UNESCO site now houses art exhibitions. The park is criss-crossed by pathways that lead through pretty flower gardens, wooded areas, and open spaces, which are full of locals exercising their dogs (lots of Viszlas!). Near the Water Tower and the convent ruins is a wooded path known as Artist’s Way, which is lined with busts of Hungarian painters, sculptors, musicians and writers. Other areas of interest include the ruins of two other churches: St. Michael’s Church (near the Water Tower, it was destroyed by the Turks in the 1500s and reconstructed in the 1930s) and a 14th century Franciscan Church (only a fragment of the exterior walls remain – a nice place to picnic). In summer, musical performances take place at the Summer Theater (near the Water Tower). The Palatinus Strand baths (with outdoor thermal and swimming pools) is also located on the island.
The island has several small café’s were you can get a pretzel, popcorn, ice cream, soft drinks and beer. There are also vendors renting dangerous-looking pedal cars – it’s hysterical: groups of young men were racing each other in 4-person pedal-powered canopied contraptions. We got a good laugh out of that – too bad they don’t have that sort of thing in New York! Our only regret is that we didn’t try it ourselves.
Sea Girt, New Jersey
January 7, 2002
From journal Romantic Budapest