Aug 24, 2014

The past is not past in Budapest

The Chain Bridge in Budapest, the most famous bridge
that connects Buda and Pest. 

I never understood the craze about Budapest. For me it was a dull and gray place with terrible flight connections that I annually had to go for business. Add to this Hungarian cry babyism -never ending how they lost their territory in the first world war, how the whole world is against them etc- and recently Orbanism that can only be compared to authoritarianism of my native Turkey, Budapest never grow on me. In fact, Hannah Arendt in "Eichmann in Jerusalem" brilliantly put my frustration: "It was (...)  unsolved social questions and general backwardness that gave Budapest society its specific flavor, as though Hungarians were a group of illusionists who had fed so long on self-deception that they had lost any sense of incongruity". 

Budapest Castle district as viewed from the Pest side.

The interior of the Hungarian Parliament
building is as pretty as its exteriors.

Ofcourse Arendt was writing about Hungarian society before the world war in the context of the Holocaust. Its Antisemitism and strong fascist moverments notwithstanding, surely, everything must have gone for the better after the fall of communism? Otherwise why the hype about Budapest? The legendary Sziget Festival? The Central European University and all sorts of human rights NGOs established by Mr. Soros? There had to be a fertile ground. Finally, on my fifth or sixth visit, I found the answer. It turns out I should have visited it in the summer. Indeed, in May 2014, it seemed almost like a Mediterranean coastal city with a lot of light and with many people on the streets. It did make a difference: now Budapest was alive and kicking.

View towards the Parliament from the Castle district.

Austro-Hungarian policeman statute in Budapest's Zrinyi Ut.

Nice use of public space in with London inspired
Budapest Eye in the back.

In addition to our love for authoritarianism, Turks and Hungarians seem to share two additional things: coffee and baths. Indeed, Hungarians' favorite pastime item -coffee- was brought over by Turks when the country was ruled by the Ottomans. Even the Hungarian word is very similar to the Turkish one: kave in Hungarian-kahve in Turkish. While the old legendary caffees of Budapest may seem a little dull today, try to indulge in most recently established ones that are spread all over the city. The same goes for the Turkish baths that are still preserved. 

And a tribute to Franz Liszt, the Hungarian composer.

St. Stephan Basilica in Budapest.

In addition to visits to kavehaz (coffee houses) and baths, river boating during the day or night with dinner without dinner is another typical touristic attraction in Budapest. As is known, Danube river divides the city to Pest and Buda and there are various pretty bridges connecting the two sides. If you are going to do the touristy thing, visit the famous St. Stephan Basilica on the Pest side and after a coffee in the bustling surroundings, walk by the statute of the Austro-Hungarian policeman which offers a funny photo opportunity. Then go to the banks of the river and cross over to the Buda side on foot over the pretty Chain Bridge. This walk would allow you to then take the funicular to the Castle District. You can spend a day there and enjoy the good views.  

Dohany Street synagogue in Budapest.
The traveller should also note that Hungary/Budapest is also a place of great suffering. And I am not only talking about the 1956 Hungarian Uprising against the Soviets which was bloodily crushed. During the World War II, Hungary was allied with the Nazis and while this alliance helped it to get back a lot of "lost" territory, it also meant death for its large Jewish minority. Indeed, Antisemitism runs deep in Hungary and it was one of the first countries to produce anti Jewish legislation even before the War. Its enthusiastic deportation of Jews in less than 2 months led to 640.000 of them being killed, mostly in Auschwitz. And this was as late as 1944. In fact, the mass deportations were so publicized that Vatican and even President Roosevelt and neutral countries put a lot of pressure on Hungary to stop the deportations or else face the consequences, a point they emphasized with a heavy air raid on Budapest in 1944. Today, there are many sites that commemorate the death of the Jews and Budapest is also home to a very heartbreaking but simple Holocaust Memorial on the bank of Danube. 

Holocaust Memorial on the Danube, Budapest.
Photo: Ozan Çağlayan.

Gozsdu Courtyard.
Photo: Andras Zombory
(Dear Andras, I emailed you to use this photo, pls. respond)

Making up for the sad past, today, the 7th District of Budapest, the old Jewish Quarter is quiet hip and full of kosher eateries as well as bars and restaurants. In fact, the Dohany Street synagogue remains the second largest in the world and the largest in Europe. In fact, Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionist movement was born in one of the houses close to the synagogue. Walk along Kiraly and Wesselenyi streets to observe the synagogues and buildings and cafes of the quarter. 

The train ride from Budapest Keleti station
to Bratislava is scenic at times.

Budapest is also famous for "ruin pubs". One can only imagine the creativity behind it: encountering capitalism in a pennyless post Communism setting when beautiful and centrally located but decrepit buildings are empty and in need of expensive renovation. In that sense, Szimpla Kert was the first ruin pub in Budapest but today it appears pretty touristy. Click for top five ruin pubs in Budapest including Szimpla. For me, the run downness of ruin pubs feels almost tacky. I would prefer to have a prosecco and marvel the amazingly restored art nouveau building of the Four Seasons Hotel in its bar. If you want to spare the extravaganza and hang out with more people, you should go to Gozsdu Udvar (Gouba). Located in a renovated court yard, it is full of bars, bistrots and restaurants. And take a daily train to Bratislava with the train and see the countryside. Unfortunately, all of this does not stop a Hungarian and a Turk from having the below chat in a Budapest cafe:

-Do you think about immigration like I do?
-All the time.