For those who don't know it, Buda and Pest ("Pesht" in the Hungarian pronunciation) are two separate cities divided by the Danube River. The Buda side is hilly and primarily residential, while the Pest side is flat and has the business district and the government buildings, as this is the capital of the country.
Speaking of pronunciation, our guide told us that there are no exceptions when pronouncing letters in the Hungarian language (Wayne's ESL students must be jealous of that!) So, he said, after a 5 minute lesson you can read any Hungarian book perfectly. Of course you wouldn't understand any of it! The language has no resemblance to any other European language! Some think it is related to Asian language groups as that is where the Magyars (the real name of the people) came from. "Hungarian" is a version of "Sons of the Huns" because people thought the Magyars were related to that Atilla fella.
Once we arrived we took a short walking / orientation tour in the area around our hotel. WOW!!!! What a beautiful city!!! It has a long history but the current city (as it stands) only dates back to the 1850s; the Danube flooded and basically destroyed everything. So it has been completely rebuilt and heavily modeled after Paris. In fact, many of the buildings were designed and built by the Eiffel Steel Company. It has that same 19th century, heavily ornamented, 4-story look. Of course, the ground floors are now all filled with 21st century shops (Fact: the first and only McDonalds to operate behind the Iron Curtain is here!). However there are many Communist-era buildings - you know, those gray, utilitarian monoliths. Our guide described the style as Stalinesque-grotesque.
Wednesday's meal was a dinner cruise on the Danube! A violin player serenaded us with lots of favorites including, of course, the Blue Danube Waltz, and finished with the Radetsky March, which is always the last song played at the New Year's Eve concerts in Europe. It's a real crowd pleaser! Details of the meal itself to follow.
Thursday we took the real tour of the city. We first visited the Opera House, a magnificent building.
It was the first air-conditioned building in Europe, using a series of ducts that pulled cool air from the riverside underneath the floor and up through vents beneath each seat. Our visit included a "surprise" serenade on the staircase by a tenor who sang 3 of the most popular arias in the operatic canon.
Next we went to Heroes' Square which was built in 1896 to celebrate the 1,000th year of the country. Our local guide, Balant, told us that Hungary is the only country in the world that is completely surrounded by itself. What he meant was, Hungary used to be much larger, but over the centuries it has been occupied and overrun and chopped up. So now, no matter which way you leave the country, you still cross over into land that was once Hungary's.
Certainly there was some typical tour guide shtick, but Balant said the real first language of Hungary is "sarcasm". This was a mechanism the people used to survive 45 years of Communist rule ("We welcomed the Russians in 1945 because they chased out the Nazis; unfortunately they liked our country so much, they stayed for 45 years").
Then we toured St. Stephen's Basillica. St. Stephen was the first king, in the 1100s. Apparently he is still a big deal here (e.g., there was also a statue of him in Heroes Square). Inside we saw his mummified right hand! Lore says it spontaneously mummified (and a full battery of tests a few years ago in the U.S. found nothing to disprove this), so it was accepted as a genuine miracle.
Later in the day we toured the Dohany Street Synogoue. Built in the 1850s, and seating 3,000 people, it was, for a long time, the largest synagogue in the world; now it is the third largest.
(See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doh%C3%A1ny_Street_Synagogue ). This is certainly the largest synagogue we have ever seen, and the ONLY one with an organ and pews! Our tour guide at the synagogue, Agnes, was convinced that she is Wendy's distant cousin (on the Baron / Cohen side). And we did see a slight resemblance!
Outside the synagogue was a beautiful memorial garden dedicated to the Righteous Heroes, those non-Jews from Budapest who risked their own lives to save the lives of many Jews (though 400,000 Hungarian Jews did perish in Auschwitz). Some of these heroes were also killed by the Nazis.
Next, we took the subway to the Szechenyi Bath and Spa ( http://www.szechenyibath.com/ ). This large public "pool" actually contains 14 different pools of varying sizes and temperatures. Some were indoors and some were outside. Wendy and two new Tauck friends checked them out....it was amazing and super fun!
For dinner we went to the Hungarian restaurant Dio (which means "nut"), a local favorite. Stay tuned!
Friday was another tour of Pest and then over to Buda. We started with a drive by the river where we saw the Shoe Monument. This is 50 pairs of (iron) shoes symbolizing the 50 Jews lined up and shot and thrown into the river in the ending days of the war. While Budapest was heavily bombed (by the Germans, Russians, and U.S.) it did not suffer as much damage as Warsaw or Krakow.
On the route we passed through a square which had two signs: one contained the current name of the square. The other said "Roosevelt Square" with a red line through it. Huh? What's that about? Well, the square was actually named by the Russians as a way of thanking Roosevelt for his help in dividing up Europe. So when the Reds were ousted in '89, the Hungarians x'ed out the old sign and renamed the square.
Next we went to the Hungarian Parliament building, one of the largest such buildings in the world. It is truly huge and magnificent. The square in front was the site of the 1956 Hungarian "uprising", which (per our guide) was largely instigated by the Russians as a pretext for staying longer in the country. The photo below shows only a small section of one wing of this building! And talk about ornate! This place makes the Opera house look shabby. In the middle, under the huge dome, protected 24 hours a day by two sword-carrying soldiers is, you guessed it: St. Stephen's crown.
Then we finally went over one of the city's 7 bridges to the Buda side and the Buda Castle district. We saw the beautiful Matthias Church, and we were lucky to get in as it is periodically closed due to the ongoing major renovations (reminded us of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona!). Also at this site is the Fisherman's Bastion, built only a few years ago to honor the fishermen of the area, but mostly as a platform for a beautiful tourist's view of the Pest side of the river.
Then the bus took us back over the river to a large market. As with ones we've seen in other countries, this was filled with butcher stalls, fish stalls, and many vegetable stalls. Unlike many others it was bright and clean and relatively odorless. Of course, it had local things like paprika stalls and strudel stalls (which, we were surprised to see, also sold challahs).
The mile walk back to our hotel was on a pedestrian-only street filled with beautiful buildings and lots of merchants and sidewalk cafes including this one with food to die from:
At 6pm on Friday we went back to the Dohany Street Synagogue for Kabbalat Shabbat. What a fascinating experience! The synagogue, a hybrid of Orthodox and Conservative, requires men and women to sit separately. Everyone was so warm and welcoming when we came in—Shabbat Shalom means the same thing in Budapest as in Highland Park. Of course, head coverings are required for men but many (including Wayne) were wearing baseball caps (there were no kipot available for use); so Wayne felt right at home! We made sure to each pick up a siddur (prayer book) but they were written primarily in Hungarian—a fascinating way to display transliterated Hebrew. As mentioned earlier, there was an organ and at least two chazzan (cantors). Their chanting was magnificent and Wendy was quite sure that one of them hit a high G—no straining! Another interesting phenomenon was that on the women’s side, there was very little attention paid to the service—just a lot of kibbitzing. At least 100 worshippers were in attendance—representing a broad age span. Most touching, perhaps, was that several of them seemed to be Dohany regulars. One gentleman, in particular, must have been in his 90s. How powerful to have survived the Shoah and be able to continue worshiping in your own shul. For the most part, the melodies were unfamiliar but we tracked with the structure of the service and certainly recognized and participated in the Sh’ma and Kaddish prayers and understood the choreography during the l’cha dodi. They did the Kiddush mid-service and two gentlemen passed around tiny plastic cups of wine. When it was time for the sermon (in Hungarian), Wayne and I discretely stepped out. Hopefully, the Rabbi was not talking about kindness to strangers. This was such a memorable and meaningful experience!
For our last night in Budapest we had an absolutely divine meal at Onyx. Tres chi chi! Yes...food really to die for. But you'll have to wait!!!!
Next: on to Bratislava and Vienna!
Things we've learned:
Just because a country is in the EU does not mean it is on the Euro. In fact, only 12 of the 28 EU countries are!
So far we have ridden the subways in Warsaw and Budapest. The Budapest subway is actually the 2nd oldest in the world (after London's)!!! While it got the job done, the trains and stations do look much as they must have when it opened in the 1890s.
We had expected the beers to be dark and heavy, but to the contrary they have all been rather light-colored and mild. We shall see what Austria has in store.
Only recently, two new laws were enacted in Hungary. First: no smoking in all public buildings! This looks like it will be a big change for these folks Second: no jaywalking! Our guide said there is a $100 fine and that the police really are citing people. Yikes!
OK, help us out here: these people eat all this heavy food and drink a lot of beer, but we have yet to see an overweight Pole or Magyar! What gives????