Tamara and I spent five days in Budapest, and our experience was positive. It is a relaxed city with great architecture and friendly people.
Hungary sits on the movable border between the East and the West. It is a small country occupying an area of 93,000 sq. km (36,000 square miles) with a population of under 10 million.
What to compare it to? It is a third of the size and a seventh of the population of the UK.
It is landlocked, bordered by Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria.
And like its neighbours Austria, Slovakia, Romania, Croatia, and Slovenia, it is a member of the EU, which it joined in 2004.
It is not yet in the Eurozone, but it wants to be.
As and when it joins the Eurozone, maybe the Western Europeans won’t take it to the cleaners as they did with Greece, for example.
It has been a Schengen area member since 21 December 2007, so its borders are porous. And it has become a ‘this far and no further’ border for illegal immigrants trying to get deeper into fortress Europe.
Compared to other former Eastern Bloc countries, it is doing well economically.
The capital, Budapest, lies just south of a ninety-degree bend in the River Danube, and the river is the point of orientation wherever you are in the city. It’s a wide river, joined by a series of bridges.
The city was two separate towns at one time – Buda and Pest. The bridges across the Danube joined them and the city became Budapest, with Pest to the east and Buda in the hills to the west.
Getting Into The City
We arrived by air, at the Ferenc Liszt International Airport.
Ferenc Liszt is the Hungarian spelling of the name of the composer and pianist Franz Liszt, who was Hungarian.
We read up beforehand about getting into the city from the airport, so we went straight to the Minibud shared minibus counter.
But the Minibud price we had read about was only if one was going back to the airport for a return journey. We were not intending to fly out of Budapest, so a one-way Minibud trip would work out more expensive than a taxi.
So of course we took a taxi, which we booked at the ticket office outside the airport building. We paid and collected a voucher with the licence plate of the taxi written on it.
I don’t know quite what I was expecting from the look of the approach to the city, but probably some echoes of the former Eastern bloc. In fact, on the drive from the airport I could see that the roads were well maintained and the buildings looked in good repair.
The lovely architecture starts right on the outskirts of the city. Unlike many cities, there were no miles of ugly sprawl to navigate.
The architecture dates back to and reflects the city’s history as the eastern capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Vienna was the western capital, and Budapest the eastern capital – until the Austro-Hungarian empire was broken up by the victors after the First World War.
The Taxi Takes A Detour
The taxi driver detoured in the city to drop off a small box to a man waiting for it at the entrance to a small shop. It looked like it might be a mobile phone.
As a result of the detour – or maybe not – we got stuck in traffic. On arrival at our hotel, the driver said the price was greater than quoted and pointed to the small print on voucher about traffic conditions.
We had a small exchange of old-fashioned looks and he accepted a lesser amount even as I was in the act of putting notes for the full amount into his hand.
Did he recognise that he was partly responsible for the extra time? Whatever the reason, he is happy and everyone is happy. Already I am beginning to see a certain characteristic facial feature – very wide, square jaws. Not long, just square – wide and square.
We check in, and when we go up to the room we see the carpets on the landing have seen better days.
Our Hotel Room
We have a huge suite. The bedroom and sitting room are huge with 1960s furniture. We learn later that the hotel was recently bought out in management buyout and will be refurbished. It needs it.
The carpet in the room too is a bit threadbare and the furniture has seen better days. But the location is good and building is interesting.
We are happy enough and we learn that there will be some limitations on revamping the rooms because the building was a former hospital and is listed as of historical importance.
Everything works except the tap in the bathroom which spritches everywhere. We tell reception. We also wonder why previous guests did not report it. A couple of attempts by the maintenance people to repair it ends in failure. The same with the electronic lock on the door.
In the end, the manager comes and fixes them. We comment how handy he is with plumbing gear and electronics. He explains that a manager has to have training in all these trades and while he works he tells us about the history of the building and the problems of renovating it.
Walking To Buda
Tamara jokes that she thought Hungarian architecture would be a ‘snow-based’ style and that the architecture of Budapest would be more utilitarian. I had been to Budapest before, but it is as though I am there for the first time. I always seem to see more when I am with Tamara.
The next day we walk by the river marvelling at the architecture. Some remind me of Finnish or Scandinavian styles.
We hear that tram number 2 runs by the river, so I keep an eye out for the numbers when we see trams.
We call in at a concert hall with wonderful architecture and lovely decoration inside. We ask about programs and wonder whether we will have time to see something.
We walk to the Buda side of the Danube over the Chain Bridge.
Even from the bridge we could see that the funicular up to the castle was not working. So we catch a tiny, open-sided minibus up the hill and see the changing of the guard at the Sandor Palota – the Alexander Palace – the residence of the Hungarian president.
Then we walk to the Museum of Music History in the Buda castle district. On the way we see an old car that is crying out to be photographed.
Tamara is disappointed in the Museum of Music History because she hoped to see some of Liszt’s original manuscripts. We learn, though, about Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly going around the countryside recording folk tunes and writing down music, tracing the origins back to their Oriental roots.
We wander the streets. The architecture is lovely and the buildings are painted mustard, ochre, green. Tamara loves them. Is this really a capital city? The pace is so relaxed.
We go back down the hill with the open-sided minibus which takes a circuitous route so we see lots of lovely streets. I saw none of this when I was here 30 years ago.
Exhausted, we rest in the hotel.
The Dohány Street Synagogue
The next day we go to the Jewish District and the Dohány Street Synagogue. The name ‘Dohány’ means tobacco and comes from the fact that at the time of the construction there was a cigar factory further down the street.
First impressions- there is a balcony and upper balcony. The structure looks very insubstantial, and well decorated. There are two pulpits. Two? Even one pulpit is very un-Jewish.
We sit down to hear the guide speak. Our guide is Yoel who at one point mentions he was young and motivated so he went to the Berlin Wall to help knock it down. That was 1989, so maybe he was 20 then. So he is 49 now.
He explains that the architect of the synagogue was not Jewish and put in some Catholic features that suited the assimilated community – the pulpits and the organ. He points out the bima, which we hadn’t noticed – which instead of being in the centre of the space is down near the front behind a low grill.
He mentions the Moslem-looking features of the two minaret-looking towers at the front of the building.
As I am listening I am thinking of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s writings in the 1800s about the similar dangers of Jewish assimilation in Germany.
Yoel explains that the building was constructed in just three years – from 1854-59 and that the structure was built in iron, a new technique at the time, which accounts for its light and airy appearance.
The minarets are what saved the Synagogue. At the end of the Second World War, the Germans used them as communication towers to contact Berlin, so they did not blow up the building.
Meanwhile in 1944-45 the fascist Arrow Cross members were shooting Jews out of hand on the streets of Budapest.
Yoel showed us the extent of the ghetto from 1944 after the Government tried to surrender to the Allies and was overthrown by Arrow Cross and the Germans marched in.
In front of us are buried 2,281 people in mass graves in what look like raised flower beds in a small area by the wall of the synagogue, marked by some plaques. We stare at the space.
The Danube Palace
In the evening we walk to the Danube Palace, to a folk dance and folk music event – great music from nine violins, a double bass, and two cymbalom.
En route we notice – cannot help but notice – how many restaurants there are and how much is on the streets in the warm days and evenings.
The next day we walked to Vaci Street that the guidebook said was the classiest shopping street. It is not. The best area is along Andrássy Street. Times have moved on. With just five days in Budapest, I slightly resent being led astray by a guide book. Is that too harsh, I ask myself.
The Liszt Museum
Then on to the Liszt Museum. Tamara is in her element and enjoys it very much.
I read about Liszt’s generosity – how he helped many people and how he was besieged by budding composers sending manuscripts to him, so much so that he put notices in the Budapest and Vienna newspapers imploring people not to send him any more manuscripts.
We take a metro to the Parliament building. That is interesting because the Budapest metro is the oldest in Europe. The metro cars are square like in St Petersburg. The metro escalators are steep and long. And the lighting is interesting – little panels in the ceiling – all a bit faded and past its best, but nice for all that.
The metro gets used a lot and this is perhaps the busiest in terms of people moving along at a fair lick compared to what is happening above ground.
At the Parliament building we ask a policeman what is going on, because something obviously is. He tells us the Colombian President is at the Parliament. There are big black cars in a long line and no one allowed near.
We have a meal the next evening in the ‘M’ Restaurant – a memorable experience – warm, relaxed, intimate, nice ‘brown paper’ decor, good food, and wonderful company for our five days in Budapest.