17 Sep 2011

Budapest Day 3 – Friday, September 16, 2011

Posted by Deborah

(By Deb AND Seth)

On our third day in Budapest, we set out to tour the inside of the Great Synagogue, stopping en route at St. Stephen’s Basilica, the largest church in the city. While most churches are named after religious figures, the “saint” of this basilica was actually the first king of Hungary. Apparently, he was so well-loved that the people elevated him to sainthood. After he was entombed, his right hand became mummified and the Hungarians thought this was some kind of sign from God. So what’d they do? They put the hand on display in the cathedral. Of course. You have to drop a euro into a machine to light up the case that it’s kept in if you actually want to see it. Luckily, our tour guides had forewarned us about this and given the useful tip to just stand there and wait for some other sucker to light up the box. The highlight of the church, however, was taking an elevator to the top of one of the towers where you could see a 360 degree view of the city.

After that grand vista, we moved on to the Jewish section of town, starting at the Dohany Street Synagogue. The main sanctuary was absolutely immense with seating for over 3,000. Oddly, its decor was not distinctly Jewish in any discernible way. There were numerous stars to be seen, but they were eight-pointed stars rather than the six-pointed Star of David. The architect was obviously inspired by Arabic themes. Another element we don’t commonly associate with synagogues was the large fully-functional organ. It was quite transparent that the Jewish community wanted to compete with the likes of the Christian cathedrals that are so common across Europe.

Attached to the front of the synagogue was a collection of Judaica and a few small history exhibits that were remarkably mundane in a way. It’s amazing how you can travel the world to different Jewish communities, and yet most of the material aspects of Jewish life look utterly interchangeable.

A side wing of the synagogue that was built years after the original building was designed to be a small park, but was turned into a mass grave during World War II. It’s extremely unusual for bodies to be buried near a synagogue, as Judaism tends to segregate death from life. However, in the aftermath of the war the community decided to turn the area into a memorial rather than exhume the bodies. Past the graveyard garden was a fantastic silver sculpture reminiscent of a weeping willow – a memorial to the 400,000 Hungarian “martyrs” who were murdered by the Nazis, as well as a statue in honor of Raoul Wallenberg and other heroes who rescued Jews who would have otherwise been bound for concentration camps.

To complete our Jewish tour, we walked a few short blocks to another synagogue that’s apparently been under reconstruction for years. The colors were stunning – deep reds, blues and purples, with a kind of Persian motif decorating the main dome. Aside from the walls, however, the building was just a partial shell, with no staircases to the balconies, no pews and no bima. Clearly, it will take years of fundraising to complete this project.

We were past due for lunch so we trusted the handy map from our free tour to navigate to the nearby Castro Bistro. Yet again, we ended up with an amazing meal: chicken and apples in a curry sauce for me; a bacon-y chicken thing for Seth, plus local beer and wine and a huge slice of “repartorta,” for dessert. Repartorta means carrot cake, a highly important Hungarian word for my vocabulary.

Stuffed, we headed to a markedly darker sight, the Terror Hauza. The house at Andrassay Ut 60 was once the base of the occupying Nazi power and their collaborators in Hungary – the Arrow Cross party. It served not only as a bureaucratic home for the fascists but also a basement detention center and sometimes torture chamber. When the communists took over, there was a natural transition as the powerful secret police elements of the Soviet regime set up shop in the same building. Today, it’s a stark museum that chronologically traces the two consecutive reigns of terror. Printed sheets of information in each room offer great detail of various aspects of the oppression. Unfortunately, a few of the rooms were out of English sheets, so we found ourselves wandering through a maze of soap walls without any clue why. The museum tour finishes in the basement dungeons where prisoners were interrogated and often tortured.

With just a little daylight left, we hopped a trolley toward Margit Island. I mainly wanted to go there as a tribute to my great aunt Margie, who was named after the island and always so proud of her Hungarian heritage (and cooking – which I can appreciate even more after consuming countless delicious calories in Budapest). The island is basically a large public park, though there were a few hotels with thermal springs further in. We rode a bus toward them, and made our way back toward the main entrance on foot, stopping to feed the fish and turtles in a little pond as we went. We didn’t get far before the sun set, though, so we ended up catching the bus again and transferring to another line to get back to Deak Square in Pest.

There, we stumbled upon a wonderful jazz band from Prague at a “sunken” semi-outdoor club called Godor, which was built in the underground parking area that was originally intended to be the foundation of a new National Theater. The government abandoned those plans, and hip youngsters stepped in to repurpose the space, similar to the story of the ruin pubs. Not only was there free music there, a crowd of swing dancers was out in full force! Hungarian swing dancers! It was a little tough to crack into the scene with my Phillies shirt and lack of dance shoes, but I got a few dances in with some authentic Hungarian swingers before the band finished the set.

I would have stayed around longer but our stomachs were growling so we walked on to find food. Since it was already late, we ended up at one of the trendy looking restaurants on a pedestrian street near the Opera House. We should have stuck to our map recommendations. The food was a huge let down, especially after all the wonderful meals we’d had so far. Seth’s chicken tasted like it was coated in mustard and my goulash was just okay. On the plus side, we had mini cakes and duro ruddy, a beloved type of Hungarian candy, back at our room to give us a sweet ending to a busy day.

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