Friday, August 4, 2017

Being in Budapest

Parliament Building
Each morning on the Danube was beautiful, but this day was special. We were awakened to a wonderful view of the House of Parliament with the rising sun’s rays on it. Although it was close on to 5:00AM, it was hard to go back to sleep with the stunning scenery sliding by. Budapest was officially created by merging Pest, Buda and Óbuda in 1873. But back in the first century BC the Celts built the first town that would become a portion of Budapest. This was a densely populated settlement with potteries and bronze foundries, and perhaps a trading center. Romans colonized an area immediately west of the Danube, using the natural thermal springs; the new baths in Budapest reminded me of those in Karlovy Vary in Czech Republic. By 106 AD the city had become the
Exterior of a bath house
capital of the province Pannonia Inferior and the headquarters of the governor and a significant military force. Of course this means that it was frequently involved in wars along the Danube. A parade of conquerors made the city their headquarters from the 5
th century AD through the Middle Ages. Buda and Pest started their development in the 12th century because the French, Walloon, and German settlers worked and traded under royal protection along the Danube. The history of Hungary followed the path of Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Austria with prosperity, and the flourishing of the arts followed by wars and destruction; in some instances Buda was a leading in others Pest was preeminent.


Buda Castle, sitting atop Castle Hill, is historic home of the Hungarian kings in Budapest. The first iteration of the castle was completed in 1265, but the Baroque building that today occupies most of the hilltop was built
Top L to R: Patterned roof, Matthias Church, Funicular
Bottom L to R: Gargoyle, Falconer, Chain bridge and
Buda Castle
between 1749 and 1769. We got to the top by taking a replica of the historic Castle Hill Funicular. Although it was originally built in 1868, it was bombed during World War II then restored and re-launched in the mid-1980s. From this hill you can see part of Buda and most of Pest. There are lots of shops, places to eat, and even a falconer dressed in period clothing. We had some ice cream then wandered into a paprika shop to pick up the spice of the area. Paprika is actually ground from bell pepper or sweet peppers. Smoky paprika is from smoked peppers and hot paprika has cayenne pepper added to it. What I found odd was that although paprika is most often linked to Hungarian cuisine, the peppers the spice comes from are actually native to central Mexico then introduced to Spain in the 1500s.

While Buda Castle is very historic, Vajdahunyad Castle didn’t come into
Top L to R: Castle, Happy dog
Bottom L to R: Festival, Castle
existence until 1896. Designed by Ignác Alpár, the building features copies of landmark buildings from various places in the Kingdom of Hungary, including the Hunyad Castle in Transylvania (with border changes it’s now in Romania). Since parts come from different buildings, the architectural styles range from Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque. The castle was actually constructed for the 1896 Millennial Exhibition to celebrate the colonization of the Budapest Basin by the Magyars. This materials used in this initial construction were wood and cardboard; however, the people liked it so well that it was rebuilt out of stone and brick. In the courtyard is a wonderful statue of the Anonymous the Chronicler and although his identity really is unknown, it is known that he was a notary for King Béla III of Hungary and that he wrote ‘Deeds of the Hungarians’ sometime in the 12th century. Much of the building was obscured when we visited by a festival with people selling all sorts of goods; and I also missed the statue of Béla Lugosi that was inside the castle.

One of the most beautiful buildings we visited was the Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest. It was built in the Moorish Revival style between 1854 and 1859; the decoration is based on Islamic forms from North
Top L to R: Willow sculpture, Synagogue
Bottom L to R: Willow leaves, Jewish cemetery

Africa and medieval Spain. Just inside the entrance is a gift shop with all sorts of items that one would classify as ‘Jewish art’ and with an item that I had been told was Arabic. The Hand of Fatima, I was told by one of the docents, was a symbol of protection and to quote the man, ‘If you believe in it, it works.’ Prior to World War II about 200,000 Jews lived in Budapest making it the center of Hungarian Jewish cultural life. But once Hungary joined with Nazi Germany this all changed. Jewish life became severely restricted, with homes confiscated and hundreds of Jews across the country rounded up and interned in the Kistarcsa transit camp. The Jews in Budapest were effectively the only ones remaining in Hungary; they were sent to over 2,000 Star of David designated buildings scattered throughout the city, thereby completely breaking up their community. However, the Jews living in the suburbs were not nearly so lucky; they were sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp.  Numerous foreign diplomats living in the city aided many Jews who were looking for places to hide, trying to obtain false papers, and hunting safe houses. The Eichmann-plan moved 70,000 Jews into the Ghetto of Pest in 1944. Within the ghetto more than 2000 people died of exposure and hunger during the 1944 – 1945 winter. These people are buried in the courtyard of the synagogue in a makeshift cemetery. Generally there is no cemetery next to a synagogue, but in this case oppression and hardship made interment here necessary. The Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park is just behind the synagogue and has a sculpture of a weeping willow with the names and tattoo numbers of the dead and disappeared etched on the leaves. It is a peaceful and lovely place.

Once World War II ended, Hungary was gobbled up by the Soviets and
Top L to R: Park arch, Soldier from Gellert Hill,
Stalin's boots
Bottom: Worker's Movement Memorial, Monument
to Hungarian Socialist Republic
they manipulated elections to become the political leaders. It took years, but communism was finally peacefully ousted in 1989 through a free election. Once this change took place, capitalism rose, unemployment fell, and the standard of living increased. Budapest has long been hailed as the ‘Paris of the east’, and that designation has endured because of the architecture, culture and art, fine food and wine. The people, freed from the tyranny of communism, set about destroying public art that reminded them of that time. One of the statues was of Stalin. This artifact was 26 feet tall and made of bronze. The crowd sawed the statue off at the knees; all that was left were Stalin’s boots. Eventually, cooler heads prevailed and most of these works, including the boots, have been put into an outdoor museum called ‘Memento Park’. Thankfully there was some shade for some of our group to take refuge in, but the rest of us went out to play among the statues. We walked around and saw these statues as works of art rather than having the looming over us on city streets as a reminder that you are the lessor being. There is a film, The Life of an Agent, that is subtitled in English; it’s about how people were recruited to spy on their neighbors – rather chilling. 


Several of the statues that were put up during the Communist Era are still standing where they were intended. One such is the Spirit of Freedom (originally called Spirit over Budapest), which is located at the top of Gellért Hill, and was designed in 1947 by Kisfaludi Strobl in honor of the Soviet soldiers who liberated Budapest from the Nazis. We first saw the
Left: Warrior
Right T to B: View down the river, Spirit of Freedom
statue from our ship on the Danube. I told Barb it was a man holding up a tuna; she this believed until we actually went up the hill. The Soviet soldier that once stood in front of the monument has been moved to Memento Park. There are several other sculptures on this hill and Hungary is sprucing up this UNESCO designated site to support its bid for the 2024 Olympics.

We saw lots of places on this tour, stayed in hotels and on a boat, found some interesting things to do, and ate in several restaurants. Next week I’ll post my review of these experiences!
Soft sculpture decorating one of the booths at Vajdahunyad Castle
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