After a restless, noisy ride on an overnight train, in a car I shared with a rather large, snoring Hungarian woman, I arrived un-refreshed in Budapest.
This city of nearly 2 million straddles Europe’s mighty Danube River with nine stately bridges connecting the two sides. It originally was three separate cities: Obuda, Buda, and Pest. Over the years, it has belonged to many—Romans, Turks, Hapsburg-Austrians, Soviets—and it was not until 1991, when the last Soviet troops left the country, that Hungary began to rebuild it’s full market economy and Budapest became the thriving modern city that it is today.
Summer was in full swing here complete with outdoor festivals, live music, and even fireworks rocketing off from several bridges in a wonderful spectacle celebrating their first King during the national holiday of St. Stephen’s Day.
Two things I’d noticed in Eastern Europe and Budapest in particular that I hadn’t seen for awhile:
1. Women are wearing shorts (scandalously above the knee!), in many cases ‘short shorts.’ It is definitely a less conservative, more free atmosphere than most countries to the east.
2. Many people are on two wheels around the city—not just for transport, like all over Asia, but for exercise and leisure. Hungary now has more than 2500 kilometers of bike lanes around the country—many of which are in Budapest.
To get an overview of the city, I took a four-hour bicycle tour. We pedaled high atop the ‘Buda’ side of the city to what is known as ‘Castle Hill,’ a UNESCO-designated ‘hood bursting with history, narrow cobblestone streets, a 13th-century church, and, of course the Royal Palace.
Back down the hill and across the Danube one of the main thoroughfares of Pest is Andrássy street. This grand boulevard, in the same vein as the Champs-Elysees, extends over a mile, getting grander, greener, and less commercial the farther down it goes. Like much of Pest, the boulevard was constructed in the late 19th century, and its pedigree shows. Underneath it lies the European continent’s first metro line, opened in 1896, while above ground are scores of gorgeous late 19th century buildings. The street ends with a bang at Heroes’ Square chock full of grand statues perched high atop Greek and Roman columns.
For a nice reprieve from the hot days of sightseeing, I made a trip to one of Budapest’s dozen or so baths. There are about one hundred natural hot springs all around the area feeding natural ‘spas’ that have been used since the time of the ancient Romans. One of the nicest is Gellert Baths. It is basically a beautiful complex of several pools of varying temperatures where you can soak in the medicinal waters and laze the day away on lounge chair.
As I get farther west into Europe, I have started to notice a greater mix of cultures and ethnicities than I’ve seen in many countries in South America, Southeast Asia, and Turkey. And I’m finally in a place where I completely blend in. Hungary was also a place where the Jews of the 20th century blended in. It was progressive in the fact that Jews here were part of society like anyone else and were simply considered Hungarian and were assimilated into the fabric of life. That’s why it was all the more shocking for them when the horrors of the Nazis finally reached Hungary toward the end of WWII. Built in 1859, the Dohány Street Synagogue, also known as the Great Synagogue, in Budapest is Europe’s largest synagogue and the second largest in the world (after Temple Emanuel in New York City). It holds 3000 people seated and can swell to 6000 during the high holy days when it is standing room only. During WWII, the Gestapo literally housed its local headquarters inside the temple which ironically is one of the reasons the building itself survived.
The Hungarian Nazi party, the Arrow Cross, seized control over the country in October 1944. The new government began slaughtering the Jews immediately, killing 600 people in the first days… and eventually 600,000. Papers and certificates allowing Jews to stay and work in the city were no longer valid. 50,000 Jewish men were forced on a death march to dig fortifications against the approaching Soviet army. The area surrounding the synagogue became the ‘Jewish Ghetto,’ similar to many all over Europe at the time, where about 70,000 Jews were forced to live in a very small area behind a fence and could not leave. In all, over 50% of the Jews of Budapest perished in the Holocaust. At its height, the Jewish population of Hungary numbered close to one million, but the Holocaust and emigration has reduced that to around 100,000, most of whom live in Budapest and its suburbs.
It wasn’t until 1991 that the reconstruction and renovation work was done in the Great Synagogue; thanks in large part to American actor Tony Curtis (born as Bernard Schwartz) whose Jewish father had left his home country of Hungary to find a better life in America. Today, Budapest has the third largest Jewish community in Europe after France and the UK with about 100,000 people.