Thursday, 10 August 2017
Birds, beasts and zoo buildings of Budapest
There's a happy little zoo, if such a thing isn't a contradiction in terms, in the middle of Budapest's Margaret (Margit) Island where the nesting storks are presumably free to come and go as they wish.
Finding it on a hot day's slow stroll around the lime-blossom-scented island was serendipity. But I consciously sought out the main Budapest Zoo not so much for the animals as the architecture.
This may look like a mosque but in fact it's the Elephant House, originally designed by architect and university professor Kornél Neuschloss, who was in charge of the technical works which led to the opening of the zoo roughly as we know it now in 1912. Its chequered history had begun in 1866, and in the interim attempts to liven up the public's reluctance to just come and gape at the animals included the introduction of circus acts. In vain. Only when the Municipality of Budapest took over the site in 1907 did things change for the better. In addition to Neuschloss's work, which also featured the wonderful Main Gate
topped by polar bears
and with a mandrill in the wider design,
his talented former pupils Károly Kós and Dezső Zrumeczky added other houses in various 'exotic' styles (they were influenced, of course, by Art Nouveau and the Vienna Secessionists). Most were destroyed in the Siege of Budapest, when the animal species shrank from 2,000 to 15 and the populace were reduced to eating most of them, but the buildings were handsomely reconstructed or rebuilt after 1945. Among these, I take it, are a mosque in Maghreb style surrounded by zebras and flamingos,
as well as a far eastern Reptile House
and what is now the Lemur House, in its rather splendid decadence within but still spacious.
And my first ever acquaintance with ring-tailed lemurs was actually rather marvellous.
They have the run of quite a few trees in their compound, scurrying and shrieking above a couple of well-placed seats.
The Elephant ('Pachyderm') House, though, is the design highlight, from the archways at front
with a minaret to the side
and the dome splendidly decorated within
along with the corridors,
though the 'rooms' leading off the lanterned hallway are more what you might expect.
One elephant was nearly out of sight beyond the back entrance, though from there one got the best view of the hippos basking in the water to escape the heat, in the company of two unperturbed ducks.
More elephants were to be found in the huge Savannah Complex, designed in 2008 by Anthony Gall,
trunking up for their bales of grass
while a white rhino didn't look quite so happy nearby.
I was also pleased to see my first aardvark, pigging around in the dark. This isn't the greatest of photos, owing to the semi-dark, but it does offer the ocular proof of this strange creature.
As zoos go, though it isn't big, Budapest's example - now, I'm told, run by a rather visionary CEO - is green and lovely. Its south end, which used to be a funfair, is now more a botanic garden with the old iron-structured Palm House of 1912 by Gyula Végh as its centrepiece.
And the central lake, with ubiquitous pelicans, gives a further feeling of space.
My visit was a rather restricted one on the last morning of my week-long Wagnerfest visit, and I ran out of time to hunt out the rarest creatures - Komodo dragons and wombats - but I did catch passing glimpses of an African crested crane
and a not-laughing, in fact rather melancholic-looking kookaburra.
The storks were happier far in their little sanctuary on the island, and with them I take my leave of Budapest for this year.