I’d had it in my mind for a fair while that Budapest was a place I wanted to visit. I don’t know where the idea came from or why it was there but it was and now having been there I can think of a lot of reasons why I would want to visit there and am very pleased I went!
Budapest, and Hungary, are both a city and nation steeped with history. Having endured both Nazi and Soviet rule they are a city/nation that has experienced persecution in many forms and given that Soviet rule only ended in 1989 the various forms of persecution are still relatively fresh in public consciousness. Despite studying history through Uni and focussing on modern history, specifically the Cold War and WWII it had never really crossed my mind that I was travelling to a country where I would be surrounded by memorials and the legacy those conflicts left behind. This was the first reason I loved being in Budapest, everywhere I turned there were places to learn more about WWII and the Cold War – it also reminded me of how limited our curriculum can be in terms of informing us about all aspects of these conflicts – as Hungary was not such highly contested land as say Poland, France and Germany it has been somewhat neglected by the history books (or at least only mentioned in passing in the books that I was given to study).
One of my favourite memorials to the Holocaust in Europe would have to be the Shoes on the Danube. Sixty pairs of iron shoes are fastened to the bank of the Danube near the Hungarian Parliament to commemorate Jews who were forced to strip naked (including removing their shoes) and stand on the edge of the Danube to be shot by Arrow Cross militiamen from 1944-1945. There is something very real about this memorial, perhaps it’s the fact that there are women’s, men’s and children’s shoes mixed up along the bank – a strong reminder that the persecution of Jews was uniform, with disregard for age and gender.
I also went to two very different museums in Budapest both related to WWII and the Cold War.
The first was the House of Terror on Andrássy Avenue. The House of Terror is building was used by both the fascist and communist regimes of the 20th century to detain, interrogate, torture and kill victims of the regimes. Now transformed into a museum you are able to walk through the building and see the rooms while also being given a detailed history of both regimes in Hungary and how each regime utilised the building.
The exhibitions span three floors with the last floor being the basement – aside from the ridiculous system of having one lift that holds eight people, very slowly, to transport people down to the basement (stairs are not an option) – this was by far the most chilling part of the exhibition. You could walk into the cells people were held in, see the gallows they were hung on and here quotes from their executioners.
The second museum I went to was the Hospital in the Rock. This hospital was built in the 1930s beneath Buda Castle in preparation for WWII. The hospital was constructed within a series of caves and tunnels under the castle that are naturally warmed by the thermal waters running through tunnels parallel to the hospital. Utilised through WWII and during the Hungarian uprising against the Soviets in 1956 the hospital that was designed to house 200 patients often had over 600 patients there during these periods of intense conflict. The hospital was later repurposed as a nuclear bunker to face the threat of the Cuban Missile Crisis during the Cold War. This is not a museum you can just wander through, you have to go on a tour – while originally this pissed me off it did mean that I learnt a lot more about the siege of Budapest in WWII and the Hungarian uprising in 1956. The museum is full of wax figurines and it seems obvious to me that the person who made the figurines had a real sense of humour e.g. The person depicted on the loo really looked like they were trying to squeeze one out!!! Seeing this hospital (and the wax figurines in it) made me even happier with Coventry Hospital where Alice is than I was before.. Things looked very grim in this hospital!!
As well as the history of the city Budapest is full of beautiful buildings, bridges and views over the Danube! Buda Castle Hill, situated on Buda side is a wonderful area to walk around, from here you see Buda Castle, Fisherman’s Bastion, and Matthias Church as well as having a great view over Pest and the Parliament buildings.
The castle has now been turned into an art gallery and a museum, neither of which I went into, but rumour has it like most castles it’s quite good looking on the inside! I spent quite a large portion of the day wandering around Buda Hill. I paid to go into Matthias Church and the Fisherman’s Bastion – the view from Fisherman’s Bastion is no more impressive than anywhere else on the hill and the church, like many churches in Europe is very grand on the inside, but it’s exterior is truly beautiful!
Another church I visited was the Basillica of St Stephen – again unless one was totally enamoured with European churches I wouldn’t bother with the interior… I would however encourage people to pay the 500 HUF and climb up to the dome viewing deck. As the Basillica is in Pest this gives you a view of Buda Hill, the climb isn’t hard and the view is worth it!
The final church I admired in Budapest was the Sziklatemplom (the Church in the Rock), like the Hospital in the Rock it is built in the naturally occurring caves under Buda Hill the church is unlike any other church I have seen in Europe (and therefore was my favourite in Budapest). The church pews wind through the cave and it is a wee bit difficult to work out how a service would work in the church, but it is very impressive that the Hungarians have managed to utilise the space!
Not only has Budapest got an array of impressive buildings but it also has plenty of large green spaces and views… Walking along the Danube, climbing up to the Citadella, walking around the City Park (and going into the Széchenyi Public Baths) and running around Margaret Island – all activities I was able to enjoy in the beautiful city!
Walking up to the Citadella is a fairly easy walk uphill to a beautiful view over Pest…
I was very surprised to find really good coffee in Budapest… Probably the best I have had since leaving NZ! The Pest side seemed to be overflowing with cool little cafe that made delicious pastries and breakfasts alongside their coffee. For anyone heading to Budapest here are my top recommendations for coffee
- My Little Melbourne – Great coffee and pastries – all designed to be takeaway (including muesli)… While the guy who completed the transaction was very slow at working out change that is really my only complaint outside of that the whole operation was fantastic!
- Blue Bird Coffee – Only does coffee (and sells beans)
- Kontakt – This was my favourite coffee shop in Budapest, mainly because across the alley there was also an amazing cafe where you could buy really delicious food for about $6 NZ (Szimply Good Food)!! There was however a slightly strange rule… You could drink the coffee shops coffee at the cafe, but couldn’t eat the cafe’s food at the coffee shop!
I must confess, I did not find Hungarian food to be all that appealing… A heavily meat based style of cuisine I was not enthused! I did manage to find delicious alternatives in the form of Japanese, Italian and Turkish cuisine (oh and lots of ice cream).
Overall, Budapest was a very beautiful and cool city to be in… I decided it would be an amazing city to be a student in as everywhere is within walking distance (the only public transport I took was to and from the airport), there is a great public transport system and it looks Ro have an amazing nightlife (not that I got involved in that haha). While I still don’t think it has overtaken Salzburg as my favourite city in Europe it definitely has made itself the other woman in my relationship and placed Salzburg under serious threat!