Last week I had a birthday. No, I’m not going to tell you which one (although if you’re reading this you probably already know) but it was a significant one. Significant enough to warrant a four day trip to Budapest while the in-laws stayed home to look after the kids. Here are a few of the things we saw and did there.
On our first afternoon we saw the main shopping street (full of tourist tat shops and Thai massage parlours) and the Central Market (more on that in the next post, about the food).
The next day it was time for the serious culture and history stuff. We started with the synagogue, which is the second largest in the world after one in New York.
In the courtyard at the back was a metal weeping willow.
Names and dates were inscribed on individual leaves.
There was another beautifully designed and evocative Holocaust memorial off to one side.
Wandering the streets nearby we found Szimpla Kert, the most famous of Budapest’s “ruin pubs“. We weren’t really in the mood for boozing, and it wasn’t the best time of day to get a feel for the atmosphere of the place, but we popped inside anyway for a look.
It’s huge and full of a bewildering variety of bric-a-brac. It reminded me of a friend’s house in London which I crashed in for a few months in the mid-nineties.
In the afternoon we walked up Andrassy Street until we reached number 60, also known as Terror House. The building where the Communist authorities used to detain, torture and execute dissidents has been converted into a museum detailing their practices.
It’s not pretty stuff, but it is interesting, and well laid out. There are a lot of photos and videos (some, but not all, subtitled in English), and an information sheet in both languages for each room.
This room didn’t require any clarification.
There was some (relatively) light relief in the Communist Propaganda room. I especially like the farmer explaining the Five Year Plan to his pigs.
Once you’ve finished with the upper floors a lift takes you down to the basement. When you step inside the lights go out and as the lift descends painfully slowly a video screen shows an interview with the house executioner, explaining his working methods.
This part of the exhibition has extra impact as you know that this is no mere reconstruction, but these are actually the rooms where these things happened.
A ledge on the outside of the building hosts photos and candles to commemorate the victims.
Outside we took the metro. Budapest has the third oldest underground railway in the world after London and Liverpool, and it has remained small and quaint, all wrought iron, wood and tile.
One of the main attractions of Budapest for many is the baths. I’m not really into spas, although I’m happy to relax in a pool of hot water given the chance, so we headed to the Gellert hotel, home to the most famous baths. It’s a beautiful building, but a poorly signposted labyrinth inside, and the main pool is freezing cold. Still, we managed to find some hot pools to soak in, and as it was a weekday afternoon it was relatively quiet; just me and a Karl Marx lookalike.
Later we tried another one: Szechenyi, which was larger, with a larger variety of hotter pools. It was also crowded (this was a Saturday afternoon) with young snoggy couples and American tourists regaling each other with tales of drunken excess across the capitals of Europe.
On the third day we visited St. Stephen’s Basilica. The star exhibit is the mummified right hand of St. Stephen (first king of Hungary) himself.
We passed by the iconic Parliament buidling, but had missed one of the English guided tours and didn’t fancy waiting around an hour for the next one.
On our last day we crossed the river and took the funicular up to Fisherman’s Bastion for the views across the city.
There’s certainly plenty we didn’t have time for (I was particularly keen to see Memento Park, but it wasn’t to be), so I can envisage going back at some point.
There are more photos here.