First a quick apology, this is a longer post, I really liked Budapest!
While Prague’s party scene may have taken me by surprise (read about it in, I didn’t come to Prague to party), by the time I arrived in Budapest I was fully aware this was a party city. So while I was really excited to see the city, I was also excited to see the ruin bars and eat some kebab at 3:00 am.
I’ll start with a mix of the two by telling you what’s up with Budapest’s “ruin” bars. After WWII, the part of VII District referred to as the Jewish Quarter became dilapidated. Most of the buildings were beyond repair, and few people could afford to completely demolish and rebuild, so many of the buildings were left abandoned.
In 2004, one of these run-down buildings was set to be demolished when a group of entrepreneurs looking to open a cheap bar/community space decided to buy it. But rather than redevelop, they chose to work with the building in its current state, add some artwork and fun/quirky decorations, and see what happened. It turned out to be a huge success and so started the “ruin bar” trend – there are now over 20 ruin bars in the Jewish Quarter built in unused outdoor spaces, old tenement buildings, car repair shops, parking lots, etc., and it’s become a huge part of Budapest’s culture. I had the pleasure of visiting a few, including Szimpla Kert (the original ruin bar), Kuplung, and a few others I don’t recall the name of…
Every city has statues and monuments, even more so in Europe in order to memorialize every royal family and horse to set foot in the country. While I find them nice to look at, I don’t particularly care for most of them. But in Budapest, the statues and memorials were probably my favorite thing about this city because they all tell really interesting stories. Here are some of the ones I really liked:
In July 2014 the above monument was ordered to be erected by Victor Orbáin, the current Hungarian Prime Minister. It was put up in the middle of the night and it commemorates the 70th anniversary of the Nazi occupation of Hungary. It depicts Hungary as the Archangel Gabriel being attacked by a German imperial eagle and it is dedicated to “the victims”. The monument was immediately controversial because of the role Hungary played in WWII.
Hungary lost about 2/3 of its territory after WWI, and was the first country in 1940 to join the Axis powers with the hopes that Hitler would help get them their land back. When Germany started to lose the war, Hungary got cold feet and even tried to negotiate an armistice with the Western Allies, and this is when the Nazi occupation of Hungary began. The mass deportation of the Jews to concentration camps from Hungary was so fast and so efficient that the Nazi’s had to build an expansion at Auschwitz. In just 2.5 months, around 400,000 Jews were deported, most of them to Auschwitz. It is understood and well documented that the Hungarian authorities coordinated their efforts with the SS to meet any German demands, and did so with no opposition.
So the portrayal of Hungary in its entirety as a victim of the Nazi’s was not well received by many Hungarians. Within a few months, Hungarian citizens began to bring memorial pebbles, personal items, photographs and other Holocaust items to display in front of the controversial monument, in open protest of what they see as a falsification of history. These items have become a permanent display in front of the monument. The following explanation also hangs along with these items if you want to read the full text, it is very strongly worded:
This next one is the Soviet War Memorial, which is a monument to the Soviet liberation of Hungary from Nazi occupation and a tribute to fallen Red Army soldiers. It’s ironic of course because the Soviets didn’t leave Hungary for 45 years after this liberation. The reason it still stands is because it is protected by a treaty between Hungary and Russia (Russia made similar treaties with other previously occupied now independent countries). The one good thing that can be said about this monument, is that it is situated right in front of the US Embassy, and Hungarians like to say it’s as if Putin is giving Trump the middle finger 😀 .
This next one shows Imre Nagy, who was prime minister at the time of the Hungarian uprising against communism in 1956. The monument is situated between the Soviet monument I mention above and the iconic Parliament building. It is meant to show Nagy walking across the bridge from Communism to Democracy. The bridge is open to the public and you are encouraged to walk on it (always from Communism to Democracy, without looking back).
Below are the Shoes on the Danube. This is a tribute to the people killed by the Arrow Cross militiamen during WWII. They were ordered to take their shoes off, and were shot at the edge of the water so the bodies could by carried away by the river.
Honestly, this is just a snippet of the amazing monuments and memorials scattered around the city.
Another trademark of the city are the thermal baths. Budapest has amazing thermal springs, which is one of the reasons the Roman’s first colonized the area. The baths were constructed during the Turkish reign, and are one of the main tourist attractions here. I spent a few hours at the Széchenyi Baths and was not disappointed. My favorite thing to do was go back and forth between the 20° and the 40° C spas (yep, I’m learning to talk in Celsius, for my American readers, this is 68° to 104° F).
I also really enjoyed having an opportunity to hit the pause button, as this trip has been moving really fast, and reflect on what I’m doing (and I think sitting in a thermal bath in Budapest is a good place for reflection). It’s easy to get wrapped up in the sightseeing, the planning, (the partying), and it’s not lost on me how privileged I am to be doing what I’m doing.
Some other random notes on the city:
- Budapest was founded in 896 AD. The famous parliament building and St. Stephen’s Cathedral are both 96 meters high, to represent that church and state are equal.
- Ferenc Puskás was a famous Hungarian football (soccer) player and is so cherished by the Hungarian people that he is buried in St. Stephen’s Cathedral, among the royal families.
- In October 1956 the Hungarian Revolution began, but was suppressed by the Soviets by early November. The facts around the uprising are really interesting and there is a wonderful memorial to victims of the revolution, but there was also a sports element that of course peaked my interest. Just a month later, the defending Olympic Champion Hungarian water polo team matched up against the USSR at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. Tensions were obviously very high, the game was extremely violent, and with a minute left a Hungarian player was punched and left the pool bleeding. This pushed many spectators over the edge and police had to escort the fans out of the arena before a riot broke out. The game was called, Hungary won, and they went on to win another gold medal. There was a movie made in 2006 for the 50th anniversary called Children of Glory, that I intend to watch.
- I met some really awesome people here, so quick shout-out and photo montage to Room 7 & Friends!
There is so much more I’d love to cover in this blog, more on the Jewish Community here prior to and during WWII, much much more on communism, more on Hungarian language and currency, but I’m afraid I’d never stop. There is also more I want to do in Budapest (Memento Park, Margaret Island, visit the House of Terror Museum on Communism, visit the central food market, to name only a few!), but sadly I leave tomorrow. I guess I’ll just have to come back some day.
Oh yeah, FOOD! The top is Lángos, a Hungarian specialty consisting mainly of deep fried dough. The traditional one comes with sour cream and cheese. I added fried onions because why not. It was delicious, but I definitely felt my heart slow down a little… the bottom is falafel, hummus, and shakshuka, all courtesy of Hummusbar which I may have gone to more than once.
Some other pictures:
Next up? Austrian Alps…