Thursday, January 21, 2010

I'm kind of a Pesty girl! Budapest Part 2

Last I recall, I was telling you about a tasty goulash soup - typical Budapest! At this point in the day, we were in the Jewish Quarter, and figured that since we were there, we should drop by the Great Synagogue, an amazing structure built in the mid 1800s that created 'synagogue' style with its onion-shaped domes. The synagogue is the biggest in Europe and was the first synagogue that was built by Jews on Jewish-owned land. The interior was spectacular, and beat some of the churches I had seen on the trip, with massive chandeliers with white globes and stars everywhere! Underneath the synagogue was a museum, recounting the history of the synagogue and the major players. We learned about the construction of such a structure and how they financed it. It turns out that they actually didn't have enough money to cover the cost, so at the end, they sold seats in the pews. These high-priced seats were bought by either rich people or community groups. In the Jewish religion, however, they believe that everything is passed down through your mother. As a result, the majority of the seats on the main floor were owned by women, even though they couldn't even sit in them - they had to sit in the balcony! Each seat had a placard stating who owned the seat, and in the museum they display some of the previous placards, all of varying metals and fonts. My favorite part of the museum was the display they had of two Haggadahs, a Jewish religious text. One is red and was printed in Austria and shows the Great Synagogue of Budapest. The other is green with the a famous Israeli synagogue...but this one was printed in Budapest! I just thought it was funny that at the time of print, the Hungarians had one of the most famous synagogues and they didn't put it on their Haggadahs!

When we left the synagogue we were staring at the exterior when this old man approached us and asked us if we knew about the mini-synagogue. Of course, we didn't know about it, but then he started talking in German with Theresa and asked us if we would like to go see this mini-synagogue. Cautious as I am, I was a little slow to agree, but this man seemed nice and could actually communicate with one of us, and we figured we would be a bit adventurous and go with him. Grammy, I know you probably are having a small heart attack thinking of me walking around a strange city with a stranger, but I'm ok now hahah! Peter, as he called himself, said he was happy to show us around the Jewish Quarter, because although he isn't Jewish, it was his neighborhood and he loved talking about it. First we walked through the slushy streets to a huge block of houses. Seven buildings fill the block and through the center are walkways that connect every courtyard together. Sounds like a great community aspect, but when Budapest was occupied by the Nazis, it was also a great place to hold all of the Jews in one enclosed spot. During that time, more than 700,000 Jews were locked in there, with no where to go. One part of the wall was lower than the rest and on the other side lived a Catholic priest. Peter explained that one daring Jew escaped over the wall with the help of the priest, only to have them both killed upon finding them. Of these Jews, the majority were shipped off to Hungarian extermination camps, and others were taken to the river, told to take off their shoes and shot in the back of the head, falling straight into the river. A memorial now stands on the river bank to commemorate this horrible act - a statue of empty shoes facing the river.

On our walk, we passed an old German car - one that is referred to as a 'plastic bomb'. Manufactured in West Germany, people in the East had to live with these cars. Normally with an 18-year lead time, many families bought cars for their kids when they were born. Poorly made and very ugly, they are a symbol of how life was in the East.

After walking us past many more buildings that he liked in the Jewish Quarter, we arrived at the mini-synagogue, which was really just a regular operating synagogue filled with Hasidic Jews. By this time, I caught onto the fact that he was probably going to ask us for some money at the end of this tour, so I scrounged 1,300 Forint and by the time we were on the main road, we said he had to go. Sure enough he asked if we had anything to give him and he wasn't so please with our measly 1,300 Ft because it's only about 5€. Either way, he made 5€ and we got a local's view of the Jewish Quarter.

The funny thing for me with the money here was that not only was the exchange rate crazy - 1€ is about 250 Ft. So imagine, if you were to go and change your $1, you would get about 190 Ft! The other thing that I couldn't seem to adjust to is that they abbreviate their currency as Ft. To me, that is feet. Everything I saw, I kept thinking 'Why are they telling me how many feet this scarf is?' or something like that! I am conditioned to see Ft as feet hahaha - you can take the girl out of America but you can't take the American out of the girl!

With all my Ft knowledge, we decided to go look for my Christmas ornament. I have heard a lot about Hungarian porcelain - especially the brand Herend. Do you know it? Well, we happened to be staying right next to the store and walked in to browse a bit. I ended up falling in love with a necklace pendant, that I figured I could hang on my tree and pass down to my daughter or something in the future. This is how I justified spending...(drumroll please) 16,000 Ft on a Christmas ornament! I know you are probably trying to do the conversion math, but I will make it easy for you - it was about 60€ ($85), which is the most I am sure I will ever spend on a Christmas ornament! I hope it becomes a family heirloom! Either way, I had my heart set on it, and I knew at the end I would buy it. When I am 80, staring at my Christmas tree, I'm not going to care that I spent so much money on it, and instead will just remember what a great time I had in Budapest!

To pass the night, we walked towards the Parliament (the biggest building in Hungary) to get a close-up look. Sadly, the grounds were closed and we couldn't get very close so instead we headed to the Four Seasons Hotel. This art nouveau building is one of the most famous in Budapest and was originally called the Gresham Palace. Originally, Gresham Assurance, a British company, built it in 1907 as a space for luxury apartments and offices. During the war it was badly damaged and in 2004 it re-opened as a hotel. Peter had told us about it and said that we could just walk into to see the architecture, so we tried and it worked! With the piano playing in the background the hotel seemed like a dreamland to Theresa and I. The part above the elevator that shows the floor that the elevator is on was decorated with hearts, the curving iron above the doors formed gorgeous designs and most impressive of all was the ceiling, which arched above us!

After seeing that hotel we were sad to go back to our little apartment, but alas we had to! The next morning was sunny...well atleast for 2 hours. With the central market in mind, we headed south along the river and stopped into a small coffee house, which are famous in Budapest. Popular for their lavish decorations and array of desserts, Theresa and I warmed up with a coffee. We thought we ordered a regular coffee but when the tuxedoed waiter came out with our drinks, they were very small espressos. We couldn't help but laugh and finished them off much quicker than expected. Later in the trip we managed to order the correct coffees at Gerbeaud, one of the ritziest coffee shops in Budapest, and ordered accompanying cakes for our treat!

As we managed our way to the market, we passed a gorgeous building that until I was home, I didn't know what it was. Turns out it was the University Library and with its colored roof and dome seemed like a much more important building! This is one of the things I love the most about wandering in a city - you see gorgeous buildings and see interesting things going on that would never be on a tourist map.
Once at the Central Market, we watched the busy shoppers scurry around from the mezzanine, where Hungarian men of all shapes and sizes were feasting on tasty food. Theresa and I decided to try their sausage, which was a bit spicier than German sausage (as I said before with the paprika factor). Next we dabbled in Hungarian wine - from one of the 22 wine regions in the country. I got some tasty white wine called Olaszrizling (which I assume is something like a reisling, but am not sure) haha. Last on our list of Hungarian must-tries was the Langos!!! We had no idea what this was when we decided we were going to try it, but in our heads we thought it was something with lobster, because the Spanish word for lobster is langosta. Turns out, it was just deep-friend dough with powdered sugar. I am finding that deep-fried dough is quite a popular treat in Europe!

The next stop of our list was the massive basilica we saw from Castle Hill. Like all churches, it was amazingly gorgeous, but St. Stephen's Basilica has something special...a mummified hand! I swear it's true! The hand of St. Stephen was adding to this Basilica that is named after him as a tribute. He is considered to be the first consecrated king of the country and of course is of high esteem in this country. His shriveled hand is inside this intricate gold case. Kind of gross, but equally interesting, we opted to admire some art instead of a fist and headed to an Art Nouveau museum. Shame though, because this 'museum' was no such thing. Basically it was a store with all fake art nouveau pieces that were for sale. Big waste of 6€ but atleast the building was pretty!

Tired, we headed back to the apartment for a tasty carbonara and got comfy in our chairs and spent the night watching Hungarian TV. It turns out that the show 'How It's Made' really doesn't require you to have any knowledge of the language it is airing in, and we were encaptured at learning how to make a Rolls Royce, tractor tire and bacon. Hahaha, and you thought I had an exciting life!

With visions of bacon dancing in our heads, we woke up well for our last day. We started the morning out at the House of Terror. Located on Andrássy Boulevard, a gorgeous tree-lined street that is one of the most popular in the capital, the beautiful exterior is misleading. So named because it was once the Police Headquarters for the Nazis and then the Communists, this museum walked us through the horrendous years that Hungary endured with these two rulers. Named the 'House of Loyalty' by the Arrow Cross (the Hungarian army that was puppeted by the Nazis), it was very eerie to walk into a building that you know has served so many bad causes. The first floor taught us about how Hitler commandeered the Hungarian army and could see just how similar a Nazi and Arrow Cross uniform was. It was creepy to see the Nazi uniform, such a symbol of evil, right in front of my face. Directly after seeing the uniform the next room talks about the Gulag (a Soviet abbreviation that stands for the central administration that organized the labor camps). A carpeted room that shows a map of all of Hungary's work camps, in this room we watched countless videos from a few survivors, but mostly from wives who told of the horrible labor camps that their husbands were in. Forced to work endless days in freezing weather, a huge amount of the population was lost to these death camps. One wife recalled that her husband said he only got one piece of bread per week and barely any water. Besides being a Jew, you could be put into these camps if you were sentenced to 'corrective forced labor' by the military courts. With no right to fair trial or even evidence, many prisoners perished. The scariest thing we learned in this room was that from the large amount of prisoners-of-war taken out of Hungary, the last one just only returned home from Russia in 2000.
The museum went on to show daily life in the Communist era, and then how eventually the underground prison where people were tortured and executed. The last rooms pay tribute to those Hungarians who made it out alive and also those who weren't so lucky. One room has postcards from all ends of the earth, showing the many Hungarians who were not allowed to return to thier country and instead took up residence in places such as New York, Berlin, California and Amsterdam. A happy and a sad room at the same time, you can't help but smile thinking how lucky these people were to escape the camps and have the chance to start a new life, but at the same time, how horrible it must have been to not be able to go home. The last room is a room filled with small lights, representing all of those who died between 1945 and 1967, when occupied by the Reds. Opposite the lit room are the names of members of the Nazi party, Communist party and Hungarians who contributed to the deaths of so many innocent civilians. Actually, the museum doesn't use the word die in this tribute, but instead say who was 'murdered' and if you think about it, it's quite appropriate.

In a solemn mood, we headed off to our most anticipated part of the Budapest leg of the trip - the Spa! Named Széchenyi Baths, it is one of the biggest spas in Europe! Painted bright yellow, the interior consists of multiple heated baths, hot tubs and saunas. Water for the spas all come from the underground thermal springs that have been in use since 1879 when they were discovered. With marble columns the interior was very relaxing but didn't even come close to how cool the outside was! In the courtyard of this Neo-Baroque building sits three large pools, all different temperatures - but none below 74º. The first one we slipped into was the most famous for it's famous bathers. Before even coming to this bath, I knew of the famous 'chess-players', a group of men who play chess on a wall of the bath! Bath chess...there is a new Olympic sport for you! I was so tickled to see it and of course laughed out loud. We spent about 4 hours relaxing and the surreal thing was that on the concrete there was snow, and here we were in our bikinis in a swimming pool! The steam rising from the pool reminded us how warm the water was but as soon as you step out of that pool you freeze! Since it was our last night, we made no rush to leave early and were happy to lazily lay around in the indoor pools or chat in the outdoor pools, but when the dark came so did our hunger and we decided that our raisin fingers signaled our time to go!

For our last dinner, we went to a restaurant that Peter recommended. With typical Hungarian food, Theresa and I tried another Hungarian wine and then ordered two dishes and split them. One was a spicy chicken and croquettes that had a sauce that just melted in your mouth and the other was the popular chicken and dumplings with paprika sauce which had just the right amount of spice to make my tongue happy.

Relaxed and full, we spent our last night packing and recounting the last 10 days of whirlwind traveling! It was an amazing trip and one that I have enjoyed telling you through my blog. I hope you have liked it as well!


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