Europe,  Hungary

Budapest: Exploring Pest

We spent a week in Budapest, exploring the city with Andy’s sister, Anne, and brother-in-law Martin. We all loved the city; it was very relaxed and had stunning architecture, plenty to see and do and great cafés. I have already written about the Buda part of this interesting city, so here now are our highlights of Pest.

The Hungarian Parliament Building

Budapest’s Parliament building is on such a grand scale that it is hard to miss it. It stretches 268 metres along the side of the Danube and at its centre is a huge 96 metre high dome. It opened in 1904, took 19 years to build and on average there were 1,000 builders working on it at any given time. It is very richly decorated, both inside and out and if you think it looks familiar, you’re probably right: it was inspired by the Houses of Parliament in London.

Hungary Budapest Parliament Building
The stunning Hungarian Parliament Building dominates the bank on the Pest side of the River Danube

To get the best views of it, you need to head across to the opposite bank of the Danube, or do as we did and see it from a boat along the river. It also looked pretty magnificent lit up at night.

Hungary Budapest Parliament Building at night with tram
The Parliament Building looked pretty spectacular lit up at night

Shoes on the Danube Bank

Just along short way along the Danube promenade from the Parliament building is Budapest’s most moving memorial. Called ‘Shoes on the Danube Bank’, it features sixty pairs of 1940s-style shoes, sculpted in iron and its purpose is to remember the 3500 men, women and children, 800 of them Jewish, who were murdered here by Arrow Cross militiamen during WWII. They were brought down to the waters edge, ordered to remove their shoes (a valuable commodity at the time) and were then shot so that their bodies fell into the Danube and were carried away.

Hungary Budapest Shoes on the Danube Bank
The moving Shoes on the Danube Bank installation

What was so haunting about the memorial was how the shoes looked as though someone had just kicked them off and how their different sizes and styles represented all of the different people killed here, of all ages and from all walks of life. There were even tiny children’s shoes amongst them.

The killings happened at a time during WWII when Hitler had occupied Hungary, overthrown its leader, Miklos Horthy and replaced him with Ferenc Szalasi. Although Hungary had sided with Germany during the war, Horthy had been planning to surrender to the Soviets and Hitler wanted to prevent this, fearing a big hole in his eastern defences if they did. Szalasi was ideologically similar to Hitler and his anti-Semitic Arrow Cross party brutally and publicly persecuted the Jews in Budapest during the last year of the war, beating and killing thousands of them. Thousands more were removed from Hungary and sent to concentration camps or forced on a death march to the Austrian border where many died of starvation and extreme cold.

Budapest Shoes on the Danube Bank

The memorial was very thought provoking and made me reflect on this horrific time in history and the poor, terrified souls who must’ve once occupied these shoes and many more like them. It is unpleasant and uncomfortable to learn about these things, but it is important that we remember what can happen when people are motivated by hate and fear. And with the rise of extreme right wing parties in Europe today, it feels like this message has never been so important.

Margaret Island

We discovered that locals living in Budapest (and visitors too) have a fabulous green oasis in the middle of the Danube on which to relax, play and take a break from city life. Margaret Island is easily reached from either shore and belongs neither to Buda nor to Pest. Its shaded walkways, gardens, fountains and water park make it the most popular public park in Budapest. We strolled past families picnicking and playing games under the shade of the trees and alongside them fitness and yoga groups making the most of this outdoor space.

Hungary Budapest Margaret Island
The green haven of Margaret Island, in the Danube. Clockwise from top left: the musical fountain, a keep fit group having an outdoor class, a yoga class and the Centenary Monument, commemorating the joining of Buda, Obuda and Pest to create Budapest in 1873

The island has apparently been inhabited since Roman times. It is named after Princess Margit (Margaret), daughter of King Béla IV. The story goes that after years of the Mongols invading and destroying the city, the desperate King Béla IV offered to give his daughter to God if, in return, He would ensure that the Mongols never came back. So, in 1251 he sent his then 9 year old daughter Margit to the convent on the island, where she stayed for the rest of her life. The mongols never returned and you can still see the ruins of the convent as you stroll across the island today.

Central Market Hall

The Central Market Hall in Budapest was built in 1896 and the city claims it is Europe’s most beautiful indoor market. It is certainly big and ornate, both on the outside and in the inside. Groceries are available on the ground floor, with souvenirs and crafts on the upper floor, along with bars and bistros. In the basement are butchers shops and the fish market, as well as stalls selling pickled vegetables.

Hungary Budapest Central Market Hall
The enormous, decorative and colourful Central Market Hall

The fruit and vegetables being sold looked so colourful, fresh and appetising. Maybe it goes back to my days working in a greengrocers when I was at school, but I always love to see and smell the colourful displays. And I have never seen blueberries and raspberries being sold from enormous piles in the middle of the table like they were here. We are so used to them only being available in set amounts in tiny plastic punnets, but here you could buy any weight you chose and they looked absolutely delicious!

Great Synagogue

Budapest is home to the largest synagogue in Europe, and the second largest in the world (after the Temple Emanu-El in New York). There was tight security as we entered and male visitors were supplied with a paper kippah with which they were asked to cover their head whilst inside. Although normally the men would be seated in the lower part of the synagogue and the women upstairs, we were all invited to sit in the main prayer hall whilst our guide explained the history of the building.

The Dohány Street Synagogue, also known as the Great Synagogue, seats 3,000 people and was built between 1854 and 1859. Unusually for a religious building at the time, it was built with decorative iron columns supporting the upper galleries and roof and these give it a distinctive elegance and style.

Hungary Budapest Great Synagogue interior
The interior of the Great Synagogue. The enormous chandeliers in the centre apparently weigh 1200kg each.

The architect, Ludwig Förster, wasn’t a Hungarian (he was from Vienna) and he wasn’t Jewish (he was Christian). Our guide explained that the Jews who commissioned him wanted their synagogue to look more like a Christian church, but with a Moorish style reminiscent of the golden age of Jews in Spain. And this is definitely what he gave them: the synagogue has a central nave and two side aisles, rather like a cathedral; two pulpits (even though we were told Jews don’t use these in worship); and a pipe organ (that, once again, is rarely used). Our guide said that Förster also placed the Bema or Torah table centrally at the front of the synagogue, rather like an altar. Above this hangs a red light, an eternal flame that symbolises the presence of God in the synagogue. It was beautiful inside and apparently the design was so popular that elements of it were copied in synagogues all over the world.  The Central Synagogue on Lexington Avenue in New York, built in 1870, is an almost exact replica of it.

Hungary Budapest Great Synagogue
The Great Synagogue on Dohány Street is the biggest in Europe.  Bottom left: the cemetery where thousands who died in the ghetto during WWII are buried

We also learnt that this is an active and fairly liberal synagogue. It was badly damaged during the siege towards the end of WWII when the Soviet Red Army freed the city. After the war and during the communist era, the damaged building was again used as a prayer house but it wasn’t until the 1990s with the return of democracy in Hungary that it was able to be renovated. The renovation cost $10 million, 20% of which came from donations (including apparently a large donation from Hungarian Jewish American, Estée Lauder) and the rest from the Hungarian government. It was finished in 1996.

Jewish Cemetery

It is not customary to have a cemetery next to a Jewish synagogue, but there is one at the Great Synagogue in Budapest and it is there because of historical circumstances. A Jewish ghetto was set up in this part of the city during WWII and tens of thousands of people lived together here in inhuman conditions.  When the city and the ghetto were liberated, the bodies of thousands of Jews who had frozen or starved to death during the winter, or who had died as a result of the siege and the brutality of the Arrow Cross, were found in the streets. The garden plot at the side of the synagogue had been earmarked for a memorial to Jewish soldiers, but instead it was turned into a graveyard where more than 2000 of these souls were buried in mass graves.

Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Park

At the rear of the synagogue is an area of peace and reflection containing several memorials to the Holocaust and its victims. The first is a weeping willow tree designed by the sculptor, Imre Varga. Each leaf on the tree is inscribed with the names (and sometimes the tattoo numbers) of thousands of Hungarian Jews killed during the Holocaust. It is also known as the Emanuel Tree because it was sponsored by the Emanuel Foundation of New York, a foundation that was created in 1987 by the actor Tony Curtis, in honour of his father, Emanuel Schwartz, who had emigrated to the U.S. from Mátészalka in Hungary.

Hungary Budapest Great Synagogue memorials

Memorials like this one really bring home to you the scale of the deaths that happened during this awful period of history. Seeing the thousands of leaves, each with a name in it, was a shocking and thought-provoking sight.

Two hundred and forty non-Jewish people are also remembered in four red marble plates that form part of the memorial. These individuals did heroic things that saved the lives of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. One of these was the man after whom the memorial garden is named – Raoul Wallenberg. He was a Swedish diplomat who sheltered and prepared protective passports for Jews, under the auspices of the Swedish embassy, that saved the lives of thousands of people.

The final memorial is a beautiful stained glass panel featuring a serpent, symbolising evil, being engulfed by flames.

Our visit to the synagogue had left me with many questions about what happened to the Jews in Hungary during WWII.  The speed and scale of their removal from the country was frightening. Our guide had told us after the Nazis occupied Hungary in early 1944, 600,000 of the 750,000 Jews in the country were moved out to concentration camps in less than 3 months. It is thought that up to 12,000 people were taken by train from Hungary to Auschwitz every day during this period and that one third of all the people killed at Auschwitz were Hungarian Jews. What happened here caused Winston Churchill to write, in a letter to the Foreign Secretary on July 11th 1944, “There is no doubt that this persecution of Jews in Hungary and their expulsion from enemy territory is probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world…”.  It is a very sad part of the history of Hungary and it is ever present in the city today: as well as the memorial garden at the Great Synagogue and the Shoes on the Danube Bank, you can also take tours of the Jewish ghetto area and learn more about the history of Jewish people in Budapest, including what happened to those who lived here during the war.

Budapest Statues

On a lighter note, Budapest had lots of beautiful statues dotted all over the city, two of which had me turning to Google to discover their connection with the city. The first was of former US president, Ronald Reagan, who stands in Liberty Square, facing the US Embassy. The statue was apparently placed there to show the Hungarian people’s appreciation of his efforts to end the Cold War.

Bronze statues of actor Peter Falk (as Columbo) and actor and former US president, Ronald Reagan in Budapest
Budapest had a lot of great statues, including these two of actor Peter Falk as his most famous character, Columbo, and actor and former US president, Ronald Reagan

The second is of actor Peter Falk, as his most famous character, the American detective Columbo. This one stands on the corner of a Falk Miksa utca (Miksa Falk Street) and from that you might guess the (supposed) connection. However, although the American actor is known to have Hungarian roots on one side of his family, no-one seems to be sure whether he is actually related to the 19th century Hungarian political figure, Miksa Falk, whose name the street bears.

Second Breakfast

Finally, one of our favourite memories of Budapest will be of having ‘second breakfast’ * with Anne and Martin at the Elysée Café in Parliament Square. We were first introduced to this idea when they visited us in Spain earlier this year: often when we called to arrange to meet up we would find that they were just finishing second breakfast. And when the girls stayed over with them, they too looked forward to going out for second breakfast. It is highly recommended as a relaxing way to start the day!

(* Second breakfast is something you have when on holiday or at the weekend when you have more time. You need first of all to have had ‘first breakfast’ at home of something healthy and light such as fruit and yogurt. You then go out to find a nice café, where you order a coffee (or smoothie) and your ‘second breakfast’ items such as a croissant, toasted sandwich, eggs Benedict or whatever.)

All in all, we loved Budapest. Our only difficulty with the city was coping with the extreme heat that the whole of Europe seems to be experiencing at the moment, and avoiding the midges, great clouds of which you would often unknowingly walk through or see spiralling over your head. But we had created such great shared memories with Anne and Martin and thoroughly enjoyed our time with them, whether that be exploring the city together or simply chatting over a meal. Our favourite activity that we did whilst in Budapest though was to visit one of the many thermal baths for which the city is famous. And our trip to the Széchenyi Baths will be the subject of our next blog post.