Of all the places I’ve traveled to in Europe, Hungary has left the biggest impression on me. I could use this post to tell you about the grand St. Stephen’s basilica in Budapest, the enchanting Chain Bridge, the relaxing baths, but you can find all that on any tourist website.
Instead, I want to tell you about the people in Budapest.
While France, Italy, and Spain receive much praise from tourists, Central European countries are often overlooked. I’m ashamed to admit I knew little of Hungary before my visit. I didn’t even know where Hungarians came from.
“Mongolia”, the owner of the hostel where I was staying educated me on my second day in the city; he quickly became my first friend there. Born on horses, Hungarians are traditionally known to be relentless and skilled fighters who mastered infamous archery techniques on horseback.
“My country used to be much bigger,” my friend mourned one night over dinner, not knowing that he was echoing the exact words my tour guide had said earlier that day. Hungarians can recount their country’s history with passion and precision, including the powerful days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and the dark periods of the Nazi and Soviet occupations.
At first glance, Hungarians appear to be closed and very private individuals; their stern faces seem to show the suppression of the previous Soviet rule. Although the last Soviet soldier left about two decades ago, the country is still recovering from the whiplash of the Communist government. Walking around the Pest area, across the water from the Buda castle, I saw numerous beautiful apartments up for sale; theirneo-Renaissance facades damaged from years of abandonment. The country has had a difficult past; its present shows both signs of uncertainty and recovery.
Having learned about the history of Hungary from locals, I was particularly sensitive to life in Budapest during my sightseeing. Museums were time capsules of pain and suffering; churches became memorials of monarchy and tradition. I’m very thankful to have befriended locals here, for no other accounts of Hungarian history would have been quite as intimate as the ones I received. I also learned that while Hungarians seem reserved on the outside, if you are lucky enough to form a friendship with any of them, they will open their homes and hearts to you with smiles bright enough to warm a cold Hungarian winter day.
On my second day there, it snowed in Budapest, which I thought was very fitting weather since I wanted to see how locals saw Hungary.
Locals lined up outside the Mayor’s office on Monday morning to meet Tarlós István, the current city mayor.
An entertainer and his eagle, by the Buda castle.
People leaving St. Stephen’s Basilica
Inside St. Stephen’s Basilica
Watching a baker make Hungarian pastries. He invited me inside and let me watch while he explained how the bread was made.
Inside the Jewish synagogue.
People enjoying their evening in an outdoor sauna at the Széchenyi Bath.
Budapest sights, lit up at night.
I’ll leave you with this photo of the Chain Bridge at night. Have you ever been to Budapest? If so, I’d love to know what you thought about the city. And if not, I hope this post peaks your interest in visiting Hungary.
As all tourist guide books will elaborate, Budapest is a city with a layered history spanning several epochs, beginning with settlement in 1st century AD by the Romans; punctuated by periods as city of the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire, Nazi occupation, national revolution, and a crushing socialist regime. Straddling two sides of the mighty Danube, Budapest has been the site of power struggles since its beginning. Due to this rich history, the Magyards (as the Hungarians are known to themselves) have themselves a beautiful city with loads to see and do, complimented by a very diverse and active nightlife – so depending on mood or touristic aspiration, this city certainly has something for everyone – and won’t break the budget.
Budapest is walk-able, and the network of socialist-era-retro trains and buses relatively easy to navigate for those that prefer alternative means for traversing the city and its great bridges.
Currently and constantly undergoing piecemeal renovation, Neo-Gothic and Baroque is the predominant architectural style of Budapest’s built heritage thanks to war and destruction at the hands of the Mongols, Turks and Nazis. Budapest was subject to heavy Allied bombing during German occupation towards the end of the Second World War, only to have the retreating Nazis themselves bomb Buda Castle and the bridges spanning the Danube at the close of the war.
No visit to Budapest is complete without seeing these landmarks, now re-built and restored to former glory, together with other must-see sights such as the Parliament Buildings and the Basilica of St Stephen.
Also not to be missed are Budapest’s many outstanding Art Nouveau buildings, including the Budapest Great Market Hall where you can pick up cheap and fresh lunch or souvenirs.
It was the more recent and seemingly temporary spaces inserted within dilapidated buildings, vacant lots and side-streets that drew my attention, as this is where Budapest’s lively bars and clubs are tucked away like speak-easys, in neighbourhoods all over the city. Budapest’s ruin-pub scene is well known. My travel buddies and I enjoyed roaming the streets – finding so many several relaxed open air bars with people enjoying the warm Summer temperatures, supping on cheap beers and cocktails. A pint of domestically brewed beer is setting one back the equivalent of just over 2 Euro. And the food on offer in Budapest restaurants is typically super-stodgy, fat and carb-laden – though fresh salads and healthier options can be hunted out if you look hard enough.
Not so well hidden, but by no means less-cool, GàÆ’ ¶dàÆ’ ¶r Club is a Summer-time open air bar that occupies the site of a former Communist era bus stop overlooking Erzsébet tér in the Inner Town area of Pest. Electronic music emanates from speakers to the adjacent park on Friday and week-end evenings.
The area of Erzsébetváros, running North of Károly kert and East of Bacjszy-Zsilinszky àÆ’ ºt & Andrassy àÆ’ ºt has the densest concentration of bars and relaxed restaurants, though note that many are only open during the summer. Though our group never followed any set map or plan, a convenient summary of some great bars can be found on here, though we sadly managed to miss the famous Szimpla Bar on Kazinczy utca.
Castro Bar on Madách Imer tér and set in a cool colonnade in Erzsébetváros, has a varied menu offering fresh salads and heartier traditional meals.
Further North along Madách Imer tér is new café Little Melbourne, where most of the coffee beans come from Melbourne (or at least Melbourne via London), and baristas crank out coffees that do justice to the café’s antipodean origins. Whilst expensive by Budapest standards, the coffee and food is a great pick me up after a long night at super roof-top bar CorvintetàÆ’ ¶.
There’s often a comparison made between Budapest and Vienna, a grudging admission amongst Hungarians that despite the architectural similarity, the Austrian capital is far prettier because it’s cleaner. Indeed, unlike Vienna, which was untouched by communism, Budapest now stands at a juncture of recovery in which many of the buildings still bear the scars of Hungary’s recently oppressive past. The events that took place here—a string of dictatorships concluding not long ago with a brutal Russian regime—are still relevant and haven’t yet been sorted out, marking every brick and crumble of mortar. A cleaner Budapest would be a fraud, a denial of its history and its current mood, of the profound regret for what once was and the continuing struggle to heal. Though tremendous pockets of beauty exist—especially Parliament, Chain Bridge, the Basilica, the Buda castle and the sprinkle of preserved Art Nouveau architecture throughout the city—it’s too soon for sparkle here.
Walking through Budapest, impressions of a once flourishing country flame my imagination. Apartment building entrances, arched and high ceilinged—fit for horse-drawn carriages to trot into courtyards—are now water-stained and peeling. But a glimmer of their magnificence remains. Detail work on façades—statues supporting iron-railing balconies, lion heads, high-relief carvings—is thickly coated with vehicle emissions and in many cases falling off in pieces, but is nonetheless a testament to a cultural appreciation of artistic sculpture. All are links to the old life, from a time before the downfall of a country when people fought and lost to protect it.
Statues holding up an apartment terrace, a common sight in Budapest.
High relief of a lion’s head. Someone grafittied red “Xs” on the eyes.
Crumbling façade of a building near Kodály Körönd on Andrássy Út
Beautiful building laid waste by lack of funds, time and the elements.
Kodály Körönd is perhaps one of the most beautiful points along Andrássy Út, Budapest’s main thoroughfare. There are four manor-style buildings at this intersection, adorned with turrets and ornate decoration, each forming a quarter segment of a circle. Up close, evidence of corrosion is apparent on all but one of the edifices, the northeast structure by far the worst, supported by heavy scaffolding and netting to protect pedestrians from the deteriorating façade. The southeast corner—once home to Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály after whom the circle is named—is the only one that has been entirely refaced. It is a stark contrast to the others, a stunning representation of 1800s Hungarian glory. Yet I prefer the southwest and northwest corners. The southwest is arguably the most architecturally elaborate. It has been somewhat renovated, but its visibly abandoned attics—now likely home to families of birds—are still in ruins, begging to be explored for whatever relics might be up there, coated in a half-century of dust. The northwest is uniquely hand-painted, although the intricate work is difficult to see from afar. It’s a source of pride for Hungarians who know little will be done to protect or restore this art in a country that has a modest budget for such endeavors.
The deteriorating northeast corner of Kodály Körönd
Detail of the northeast corner of Kodály Körönd
The resplendent southeast corner of Kodály Körönd
The southwest corner of Kodály Körönd
The attic of the southwest corner of Kodály Körönd
Detail of the northwest corner of Kodály Körönd
Standing in the center of Kodály Körönd, surrounded by grandeur, I’m in a time before the collapse. And today the buildings are still being used as they always have been—as homes. Occupied by tenants, they are not roped off as museums (with the exception of Zoltán Kodály’s apartment). They’ve endured the Nazi’s—the circle named after Hitler from 1938-1945—and communism, emerging from those harrowing events a little worn, just like the people who still live in them today.
Hungarian history unfolds more explicitly in many other parts of the city. In October of 1956 citizens rose up to speak out against their Russian oppressors. However, what began as a peaceful protest of students rallying against communist ideals soon broke out into desperate war as Soviet tanks entered Budapest to stifle the demonstration that threatened to overcome the entire country. Russians blasted the streets with Molotov cocktails, and Hungarian militias arose in retaliation, removing red stars, burning communist books, and killing Soviet sympathizers. War consumed the city for nineteen days until the Russians forced Hungary back into submission. Although this story is over fifty-five years old, it still lives and breathes today. Bullet holes etched into building façades tell some of that tale.
This particular pattern of bullet holes around the window brings the reality of war times to the forefront. Someone was in that apartment, spotted by a shooter on the ground. (Note that some of these scars could be from WWII, but the general consensus is that they are from the revolution.)
Bullet holes scattered across the façade of a building
Bullet holes in district five’s police station
Bullet holes in district five’s police station
For all its grueling recent history, Hungary was once an empire, its capital a European center of art and culture, grander than Paris, London, Rome, and yes, even Vienna. Not so long ago thinkers, composers, and inventors gathered in Budapest to exchange ideas and expand their intellectual knowledge. Today this is easy to forget. Not only was the architecture damaged and forced to slowly fade and wither, Hungary’s reputation as a great and powerful nation was also pillaged. Snail-pace renovations are taking place, speaking to the people’s resolve to one day recover. Until then, before the scars are plastered over, the remains will be here, weathered and gritty, telling their stories.
It was cold outside in Budapest on the day I visited Széchenyi Bath (or fürdő in Hungarian), a Neo-baroque-style bathhouse built in 1913. Snow flurries were intermittent and wondrous, the chill broken by pockets of bright sunshine streaming between the cloud cover. It was about 34 degrees Fahrenheit and I wore only a swimsuit, my skin goose-pimpled as I crossed the outside courtyard toward the pool. Steam wafted from the surface of the thermal water, purported to be healing. I stepped in and sunk down, wading slowly through the vapor, the air smelling faintly of minerals, icy flakes melting on my shoulders.
There are roughly 1,300 natural thermal springs in Hungary, ranging from warm to scalding temperatures. Mineral water jets upward through a geological fault that runs along the Danube River, creating a lasting supply that the people of this region have been harnessing for nearly two thousand years for both recreational and therapeutic purposes. The Romans built Acquincum bathhouse along the Danube to aid in the general wellbeing of their soldiers stationed in the area. During the Ottoman Empire, the Turks used the springs for their cleansing sauna-like bath practices. And today, even in a modern age where prescription drugs are the globally dominant method of “healing” , visits to Hungarian baths are often medically subsidized for locals. Indeed, Széchenyi Fürdő is one of the largest bathhouses in Europe. Doctors commonly advise soaking in pools of various mineral compositions and temperatures, knitting modern medicine together with an ancient understanding of water’s revitalizing properties.
Although Acquincum now sits in ruins, there are a number of perennial bathhouses still operating. Király Fürdő—renovated and restored over the last four-hundred-plus years—is one of two Turkish baths in Budapest built in the sixteenth century, its Ottoman influence architecturally defined by domes and four octagonal pools. After conquering the town of Buda (on the west side of the Danube), Turkish ruler Arszlan Pasha ordered its erection, choosing the location specifically within his stronghold to ensure he could continue to bathe in the event of a siege, a prioritization that speaks to a significant and elemental belief in the benefits of thermal mineral water.
Király Fürdő building at Ganz Street. Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
Király Fürdő octagonal pool. Source: Budapest Gyógyfürdői és Hévizei Zrt.
Arszlan also constructed the domed pools of Rudas Fürdő, later expanded upon by the Habsburg Austrians, and today a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Shafts of light pierce the octagonal pool room through stained glass in the cupola, creating a surreal, vibrant warmth of color. It’s possible to bathe naked at this fürdő, but before 2006 it was only for men. The policy has since been amended, and every Tuesday is now exclusively for women to soak sans swimsuits.
Rudas Fürdő octagonal pool. Source: Budapest Gyógyfürdői és Hévizei Zrt.
Gellért Fürdő is one of the more recently constructed bathhouses, decorated beautifully with mosaic tiles in the Art Nouveau style and found within the world-famous Gellért Hotel. The original bath here was first named mud bath, or Sárosfürdő, because of the rich silt that settled at the bottom of the pools. After its opening in 1918, it has since served as a recreational facility as well as a daytime outpatient hospital that includes an inhalatorium for asthma and chronic bronchitis patients. The curative potential of these particular springs was first discovered as far back as the thirteenth century; evidence shows that the site was a hospital during the Middle Ages. The water in the two pools contains minerals that have been easing and possibly even curing people of their physical ailments for centuries.
Gellért Fürdő entrance behind the famous Gellért Hotel. Source: Budapest Gyógyfürdő és Hévizei Zrt.
Gellért Fürdő baths decorated with Art Nouveau tiles. Source: Budapest Gyógyfürdő és Hévizei Zrt.
It’s easy to take this wealth of spring water for granted when it’s at your fingertips. A twinge of a headache and doctors are scribbling out “bath time” prescriptions for Hungarian citizens. Yet, this seems right to me, that whatever stresses the people of this country must endure, at least they have an affordable and soothing means to help them cope. But it’s more than medicinal. For many, baths are social gathering places, much like a night out at a pub, or a movie with a friend. And it’s also an opportunity for unadulterated repose at the end of a long workweek. This was my purpose at Széchenyi Fürdő. It was a definite form of preventative care, a deflation of accumulated stress as I reclined against the edge of the warm pool, tasting snowflakes, steam rising around me in tendrils.
Santa always came to my house when I was young. My mother—an ex nun from Oregon who strayed far from the path of Catholicism into the realm of astrology and a relatively strong belief in reincarnation—made sure of it. Despite her cynicism about God and Jesus, she clung to this holiday that had marked her own youth with so much joy. Every year she’d whirl about the kitchen in dust clouds of flour and sugar, baking and filling Christmas tins with cookies, letting my brother and I lick the mixing spoons and beater sticks in the aftermath. A veritable paragon of Christmas spirit, she’d pass her delicious delicacies out to the neighbors, her coworkers, to my grade-school teachers. And my father also had his part to play. A Punjabi Sikh whose birthday happens to be December 25, he’d assert that he was Jesus reborn, exaggerating a wink in my mother’s direction while she prepared his favorite foods—crab curry and spiced taro—for our holiday feast. My brother and I barely slept the night of the 24th, waking up at 5 a.m. on Christmas Day, shrieking and squealing, pulling my sleepy parents out of bed and upstairs where treasures awaited us, only to be tortured by my dad’s insistence on setting up the camcorder.
Chima Christmases were tremendous in their own right, but absolutely different from the Christmases taking place in other American households. That’s the nature of life in the United States; there existed—and still does exist—only a loose sense of uniformity where this holiday is concerned, centered primarily around gift sales at the mall. Aside from the shopping, families generally go their own ways. Some folks get their tree on the first of December, some mid month. Some open presents on the 24th. Others wait until the morning of the 25th. It doesn’t seem to matter. Some people have advent calendars. Others take stocking stuffers to insane heights of serious thought while still others are amused by gifting travel-size shampoos and hair ties, maybe a pack of Tic Tacs. For dinner, every ethnicity has their special dish. The unique customs in nearly every home generate that common question: “So what does your family do for Christmas?” Santa seems to be our only constant, burrowing down our chimneys, eating our cookies and drinking our milk. But for the most part, for those who observe it, Christmas in the United States is individual, each family’s celebration born of a hodgepodge of cultures and backgrounds.
Living now in Budapest, I’m in unfamiliar territory. There’s a sense of cultural and Christmastime solidarity here that I never experienced before in the States. During these cold days, residents of the city venture out of their warm homes in search of traditional foods like hurka and kolbász (two types of sausages), roasted chestnuts, mugs of spiced, hot mulled wine and Christmas sweets. There seems to be less emphasis on gift shopping, and, in the spirit of togetherness, people gather socially to eat and drink at the many fairs and festivals around the city.
Hurka and kolbász (Hungarian sausages)
Bubbling, steaming pots of spiced mulled wine
Hungarian sweets from Gerbeaud confectionary at Vörösmarty Tér
It’s my first holiday season in Hungary, and although I am still learning what it means to live here, I already have some idea of what to expect. Not on any other random December day, but on Christmas Eve, I’ll be out there with the rest of the country in search of a tree, which I’ll help decorate that evening with gilded nuts and szaloncukor (individually wrapped chocolates) while eating homemade honey cookies and beigli (pastry with walnuts or poppy seed filling). I’ll have fish soup for dinner and sing Christmas songs. I’ll receive a present not from Santa Claus—who already came on December 6th to determine who was naughty and who was nice—but from baby Jesus. And in the morning, on Christmas Day, I’ll attend mass for the first time in my life, joining the rest of the country in celebration, the people connected during this time by a history of beautiful and shared tradition.
Homemade honey cookies
Still, I’m feeling a bit wistful for my Christmas, the one that no other but my brother, my ex-nun mother, my Punjabi father and I celebrated. The one with a ten-foot-tall tree we cut down ourselves and lit every night in anticipation of the big day, the one with crab curry, the one totally unmoored in anything remotely religious, the one that isolated us in a little bubble of familial safety and warmth. And although I appreciate the opportunity to partake in the customs of another country, I’ll be thinking of what Christmas used to be like at home, before growing older dulled the magic and my parents stopped pulling out the box of Christmas decorations from the garage rafters. Nothing since then has gotten me willingly out of bed at five in the morning.
1980 Rubik’s Cube, made in Hungary. Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
The Rubik’s Cube, the iconic brainteaser introduced to the world in 1974 by Ernő Rubik, originated in Hungary. So did the ballpoint pen in 1938; that portable metal tube encasing an internal reservoir of ink is courtesy of László Bíró who grew weary of refilling his fountain pen. And today humanity benefits from holography. Holograms, impossible to duplicate, are instrumental today for security purposes, particularly to help prevent banknote counterfeiting. The science was first discovered by the late physics Nobel Prize winner and Hungarian citizen Dénes Gábor in 1947. This country has produced an astonishing number of geniuses: composers like Béla Bartók (1881-1945) and Ferenc (Franz) Liszt (1811-1886), and physicians like Ignac Semmelweis (1818-1865), who deduced that something not visible to the eye (bacteria) was making pregnant women sick and therefore became known for his advocacy of hand-washing before child delivery. I’m not even surprised anymore when my Hungarian husband points at something mundane and common, but often a necessity for modern life, and says, “Did you know that a Hungarian thought of that?”
Magnified tip of a ballpoint pen. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
Ferenc (Franz) Liszt in 1843, at the height of his career. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
Ingenuity is an important part of the country’s pride. The people who live here know that the intellectual and artistic contributions they have made to the world have been significant. We are able to keep our food cool and fresh because Leó Szilárd worked closely with Einstein between 1926 and 1930 to develop the world’s first refrigerator. Thanks to István Győrffy’s work in 1959, those of us who always felt self-conscious and nerdy in our thick, bottle-bottom glasses can wear soft contact lenses. For two generations the United States music industry recorded albums on long-playing microgroove vinyl phonograph discs (otherwise known as LPs), developed by Károly Péter Goldmark in 1948. In 1940 Goldmark also gave us the color television, of which at least one is found in every household in America—and in many cases, found in every room of every household. József Petzval invented opera glasses in 1843, which led to telescope and microscope lenses, as well as binoculars. And the world-famous prize awarded to those people possessing special journalistic, literary and musical merit was established by Hungarian-born József Pulitzer before his death in 1911 and first awarded in 1917.
Porro-prism binoculars. Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
The list of historical inventions is long, but Hungary also continues to produce a unique wealth of clever ideas. Last decade, Áron Losonczi developed light-transmitting concrete, a combination of concrete and optical fibers (each one of which is pure glass no wider than the width of a human hair). As strong as traditional concrete but semi-transparent, the energy-saving possibilities for high-rise lighting are enormous. The material has even been considered as a protective casing for New York’s Freedom Tower. Also, in 2010, Dániel Rátai created a virtual reality kit called Leonar3Do, allowing users to fashion 3D drawings on the computer and move them around “in the air.” And the Hungarian company iPont has created a screen that allows several people, positioned at different angles from a television, to view images in 3D without glasses.
Hungary is tiny and most people don’t even know where it is. It’s been through a rough patch since the beginning of the 20th century when it was drastically partitioned to a pea size of its former glory. But that hasn’t stopped the people of this country from continuing to do what they have always done. They dream and pioneer, blazing trails. They invent.