European Times - Budapest: Shadow over Hungary will turn the Danube black Hungary set for another type of darkness at noon

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The Independent Online
DARKNESS AT NOON is once again coming to Budapest. The Hungarian capital was the birthplace of the writer Arthur Koestler, author of the book of that title, probably the century's finest novel about Communism.

But this time the darkness falling over Budapest, more or less at noon, will last for hours rather than decades, and the cause is celestial, not ideological. Budapest will be one of Europe's best vantage points for the last solar eclipse of the millennium. For more than two minutes, the "Blue" Danube will turn black, the sky will darken, traffic on the city's grand sweeping Habsburg-era boulevards will grind to a halt as the moon crosses between the earth and the sun, casting a giant shadow across the city shortly after 2pm on 11 August.

The shadow enters at 12.47pm local time and the moon will take about 80 minutes to block the sun. Total darkness will last about two minutes, and then after another 80 minutes, full sunlight will return.

The Hungarian post office has issued 200,000 commemorative stamps showing a map of Hungary and the path the eclipse will take as it travels across the country.

Hotels on the shores of Lake Balaton, an hour's drive from the capital, have been fully booked for months. Local officials predict that 200,000 visitors will flood the area, and many will rent boats and watch the darkening from the water.

As in Poland, where companies cashed in on the Pope's recent visit with a deluge of T-shirts, stamps and other assorted knick-knacks, Hungarians are seeking to profit from the eclipse.

First Hungarian Sun-Hunter Ltd has been marketing special eclipse viewers so that locals can stare safely into the heart of darkness. It is also organising a human chain along the path of the eclipse as it travels over Hungary. The company has issued a double CD with the Hungarian Astronomers' Association, providing music and scientific information in Hungarian, English and German.

Politicians are pushing for the day of the eclipse to be declared a holiday. "Nobody will be doing much work anyway," said Karoly Herenyi, an MP for the Lake Balaton area.

The event will be captured by Hungarian state television. Technicians are mounting a camera on a MiG-29 fighter plane. The plane will track the path of the eclipse as it travels across Hungary from Austria to the Romanian border. The shadow moves at 1,522 mph, so only a supersonic jet can follow its progress.

According to the US space agency Nasa, the "instant of greatest eclipse" will take place in south-central Romania, where the sky will darken for 23 seconds, a second more than over the Balaton city of Siofok.

Romania is also gearing up for an influx of visitors, but their poorly developed tourism industry and infrastructure mean that their neighbour and historic rival Hungary will gain more profit.

Hungary's last solar eclipse occurred in 1842, six years before the 1848 revolutions that erupted across Europe, including Hungary.

The famous poet and Hungarian national hero, Sandor Petofi, who fought in Hungary's failed uprising of 1848 paid a high price for looking too hard into the eclipse. Petofi was later killed at the battle of Segesvar in 1849, and many blamed his death on his damaged eyesight, which prevented him from seeing the approaching enemy troops clearly.