History Lessons in Hungary

Budapest is not a city study abroad students typically visit. Rome, Paris, Barcelona—all of these cities tend to be higher up on the list, and thus the extra expense for Budapest is often not worth it. Yet, because one of my best friends from Georgetown is studying there this semester, I decided to make the trek to visit her. I knew almost nothing about it before I went, due largely to the not-traveling-there problem I just mentioned, but I could not have been more pleasantly surprised.

Budapest is absolutely gorgeous. The timing was ideal—the clear blue October skies complemented the fall foliage beautifully—and the city itself is the perfect combination of fascinating history, stunning architecture and spectacular vistas. It certainly helped, too, that I had my own personal tour guide who also spoke a bit of Hungarian and knew the best places to go. Plus, everything I ate was delicious, and made me realize that the stereotype about subpar British cooking is actually somewhat true.

The first stop was the beautiful St. Stephen’s Basilica, which was decorated with flags for the anniversary of the 1956 Revolution this week, when Budapest residents tried to overthrow the communist rule. The inside of the basilica disproved the “Once you’ve seen one church, you’ve seen them all” myth—the red marble walls and the heavy ornamentation made it distinctly Hungarian, yet still gorgeous and awe-inspiring. And, even though I’ve seen more top-of-building vistas in the past two months than I ever have in my life, the view from the top was also amazing.

After eating gelato formed into the shape of a flower—super cool—we came to the ultimate Budapest attraction: the Széchenyi Medicinal Baths, the largest of their kind in Europe. I had heard about the baths, but I was half expecting them to be holes in the ground and half expecting them to be for actual bathing. They were neither of these things. Although their water comes from natural thermal springs, making them warm and very relaxing to sit in, the baths are a series of pools constructed as part of a palace complex. We spent about three hours there, slowly moving between the indoor and outdoor pools.

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Combined with the baths, that night was probably my favorite part of the entire Budapest experience. We went out to dinner at a Soviet ruin restaurant—which again, had amazing food, despite the fact that it was just a hamburger—followed by a trip to a ruin bar. Essentially, old Soviet factories and buildings have been converted for modern usage. Sitting in these places and seeing the decrepit-looking walls and imagining what would have happened there during the communist era was slightly eerie, but mostly added to the ambience. This was my first encounter with Budapest’s communist history, but it would become a theme throughout the rest of the weekend.

The next day was a conglomeration of visiting pretty buildings and eating fried foods. We visited the famous Great Market Hall for breakfast, where locals go to get fresh groceries for cheap. Upstairs, though, they had several booths of traditional Hungarian food, including lángos, or fried dough. Traditionally, lángos has cheese and sour cream on top, but I opted for Nutella and banana instead. Not so traditional, just as delicious. We worked off that breakfast with a trip to the top of Gellért Hill, which provides great views of the Danube and Budapest as a whole. It also has the Liberty Statue, a testament to Budapest’s freedom from the Nazis when the Soviets took over. The statue was beautiful, but it’s also strange that a monument to the Soviet occupation, which would go on to be a nightmare to the Hungarian people, is still situated in such a prominent place in the city, as all of the other communist remnants have been moved to museums or transformed into something else, like the ruin restaurants and bars.

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A trip to Buda Castle was next, and illuminated the fact that Hungary’s history is extremely rich—the castle, which has existed since the 13th century, used to house Hungarian kings. We didn’t go inside it—I’m not actually sure that you can—but it was still impressive. The other parts of the Castle Hill district, Fisherman’s Bastion, an outlook over the city, and Matthias Church, were actually even more beautiful and had even more stunning architecture. After having cake for lunch—to continue on our theme of healthy eating after lángos—a trip to another completely different part of the city was next.

Buda Castle

Buda Castle

Matthias Church

Matthias Church

Fisherman's Bastion

Fisherman’s Bastion

Budapest’s unfortunate history also includes the Nazi occupation, and the Jewish quarter still exists today. Although the Great Synagogue was closed by the time we made it there, we saw the beautiful exterior, which wasn’t destroyed during the war due to some sort of labor agreement. The most appalling part was the mass gravesite in the back, where several thousand Jewish bodies are buried in an extremely small plot of land. Unfortunately, this was also closed, but it was still extremely shocking. The fact that remnants of the Holocaust were right there in front of me—not on a TV screen or in a book—was a sobering experience that I can’t really explain.

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To me, the entire Jewish quarter felt like that. The buildings were much darker and more rundown than the rest of Budapest, and for some reason I felt like the history was palpable. Today, the Jewish quarter is turning into one of the hippest parts of the city with cool shops and restaurants, but I couldn’t seem to shake the feeling that something really terrible happened there. It’s also strange, though, because the communist occupation is of much greater importance to the Hungarian people than the Holocaust was. According to my personal tour guide, mentioning the Holocaust wasn’t permitted during the communist occupation, so it’s hardly spoken of today. Thus, it was strange to be in the presence of a site where something unspeakably terrible happened, but to have it presented almost without comment—as just another pretty building to look at.

That night, we took a break from the history and visited Margaret Island, an almost completely forested island in the middle of the Danube River, which separates the original cities of Buda and Pest. Seeing the city gradually light up as the sun set was a spectacular end to the day, and made me really fall in love with Budapest.

Margaret Island

Margaret Island

Sunset over the Danube

Sunset over the Danube

My last day there had much fewer items on the itinerary, but I learned more about Hungarian history in a few hours that day than the entire weekend. That morning, we visited the National Museum, which we managed to get into for free due to it miraculously being the third Saturday of the month and thus student day. The museum covers the history of Hungary, from before the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the 1956 Revolution’s attempt to overthrow the communist party to the end of the occupation in 1989; there was nothing about the Holocaust, though. The artifacts from all of these periods were amazing—everything from Austro-Hungarian imperial furniture to Hungarian flags with communist symbols in the center that were cut out during the revolution. They even had Beethoven’s original piano, donated by the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt. The communist part was by far the most interesting, though, as I realized how much of an impact the regime had on this country. It was also strange to think about just how recently this happened—it ended barely before I was born—and the fact that nothing even comparable was happening in the US at the time.

I think the communist influence really hit me that afternoon, when we took a 30-minute bus ride to Memento Park, located far outside the city in the suburbs and away from any kind of tourist attraction. In addition to a model communist car, the park holds all of the communist propaganda statues that at one time existed in the city center. After the regime fell, the Hungarian people did not want to be reminded of this oppressive time any longer, but they also wanted to preserve them for history’s sake, so they moved them out to the country. Most of these statues, including one of Stalin that was entirely destroyed except for his boots, are massive, and either exist as monuments to important figures or as examples of the ideal Soviet comrade. Standing in their shadow, I could almost imagine how humbling and terrifying it would have been to walk past these every day on the way home or to work, and I started to really understand how all-consuming communism was.

That marked the end of my historical experience of Budapest, but I think I really did get a comprehensive survey of the city. We followed it up with dinner at a traditional Hungarian restaurant, where 25 USD gets you all you can eat and all you can drink for three hours, and an all-nighter before my 6 am flight the next day. Though I was exhausted for several days afterwards, it was completely worth it to be able to experience life in a Central European country for three days, which is so different both historically and culturally from the UK. I realized just how used to British life I have become when I landed in Edinburgh—I was thrilled to hear Scottish accents again and I was happy to see that the cars were driving on the left side of the road and that my tea was served with cream and sugar. Still, Budapest was beautiful and fascinating, and definitely deserving of a spot on the list of cities for study abroad students to visit.

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2 Responses to History Lessons in Hungary

  1. Bob Slater says:

    Great description of the emotional impact of being in such a culturally fascinating city with its colorful and sometimes terrifying history.
    There is nothing like being there in person to get a true sense of what did happen there and what might happen in the future as the Hungarian people try to learn from (or hide from) their past.
    Thanks for the virtual tour !
    Love,
    Dad

  2. Penny says:

    Most excellent recap and outstanding photos.

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