Shopping for Nirvana in Budapest

Quick Trip to Budapest 2017

Hop, skip, and a jump from Amsterdam to Budapest. A once regal city, Budapest boasts of being the Paris of Eastern Europe. My travel buddy, Chester Simpson, and I stayed at the famous street Kertesz Utea in the Jewish Quarter. Budapest is a big city with big buildings and big history. Seemingly old and crumbly yet vibrant – it is a city full of young people.

views of historic Budapest

We stayed across the street from one of the most famous neighborhood hot spots, Szimpla Kert. Old rundown buildings in what was once the Jewish Quarter, have been transformed into Ruin Bars and they are the center of art and culture in Budapest. By day Szimpla is a farmer’s market. By night, it’s a popular bar and restaurant. The line to get in was always super long. Good thing we were staying directly across the street in an apartment so we could come and go all day long.

me at Szimpla Kert

Gerbeaud is a famous cafe and chocolate bar that opened in 1858 by the Kugler family in Jozsef nador Square. Quite a spectacular interior in the Rococo style of Louis XV. Gerbeaud had the tables sent from the Paris World Fair to create an elegant style. A cup of tea or coffee is like stepping back in time.


The Chain Bridge (1849) over the Danube River connects Buda with Pest – two different cities.

I was shocked to read about all the people who were shot and thrown into the Danube River over many years of war, especially during the Holocaust. We were there during the Red Bull Air Race. Daring pilots flew small planes under the bridge. Chester captured some amazing photographs of the race.

While in Budapest you must go to one of the famous baths. As one of the great spa cities, natural hot springs pour out 18 million gallons of richly mineralized water every day. We took the subway out of town to Szechenyi, boasting the deepest thermal baths and Neo-Baroque architecture. It was probably the most visually interesting – definitely the most touristy. It was like a giant public pool. Apparently we arrived too early for the nightly Bath Party where strangers rub up against you under the thermal waters.

Szechenyi Bath and Danube River

As a Jew, there is a certain pilgrimage you must make in Eastern Europe to what is left of the synagogues. The Dohany Street Synagogue is the setting of the traditional life of the Jewish community. It is quite spectacular with three balconies. In the gift shop, I bought a hamsa hand charm and blessed it inside the temple. Synagogues do not have cemeteries, but in this case, the garden cemetery was a necessity. In 1945, when the genocide took place for residents of the ghetto in Pest, they were not transported to the concentration camps. They became victims of hunger, bitter cold, and mass murder in their homes. This is their final resting place and they were the lucky ones. I bought the book, Yellow-Star Houses: People, Houses, Fates about the people who lived in the houses marked with yellow stars. There were 1,950 houses marked with a yellow star for 220,000 Budapest Jews from 21 June 1944 until late November 1944.

Dohany St Synagogue

One of the best restaurants was a local spot called Spinoza. We waited for almost an hour for a table, but it was worth it. The pianist Tibor Soos was one of the last representatives of a great Hungarian bar pianist-generation. From the 20s until the 70s piano bars were flourishing in Budapest creating a legendary nightlife in the city. Tibor started working steadily since 1953 and has been playing around town without a break. He has played around the world for Elizabeth Taylor, Clint Eastwood, Leonard Bernstein and on this particular night – for me! He bought me a bottle of wine and spoke English really well.

Tibor Soos piano player and me

Did you know that Budapest is actually two cities located on opposite sides of the Danube River? Buda is on the western bank. Buda has the Castle District and Matyas Church from the 13th c. Buda was built on hills with sweeping panoramas, a grand Hapsburg Palace, and an air of Imperial wealth. Everything on the Buda side was destroyed and rebuilt after February 1945.

Pest is on the eastern bank. Pest is flat, busy, and buzzing. In 1873 they merged.

From my tour guide, I learned that half of the Hungarians were Jewish during WWII. It was a small weak country. In 1938 Hitler took Austria and Hungary. 600,000 Jews were gathered in 1944 from March 19 to November 29 – mostly from the countryside. Holocaust means “burn them all.” It was the coldest winter – a lot died in the ghetto and were punished all the time because maybe they didn’t smile.

Since the end of WW II Russia has had a big influence on Budapest. My tour guide took me on public transportation and explained that people in public still don’t speak loudly and keep a low profile. The last Soviet Troops left as recently as 1991 and their influence is still felt by the pubic, especially the older residents.

7th District

We ventured down new streets and saw new things. Gypsy musicians from Romania played for tips. Did you know Budapest is the bachelor and bachelorette party capital of Europe? And we found an Israeli restaurant that had been on “my list” called Mazel Tov at Akacfa Utca 47. Best food. Fresh. Live music.

Central Market

I had high hopes for the Grand Market that Chester raved about from his trip on a USO Tour many years earlier. I found it disappointing, crammed with tourists. Sunday Farmer’s Market back at Szimpla Kert was fantastic, so that’s where we hung out. Next stop – train to Prague.

Shopping for Nirvana in Amsterdam

Quick Trip to Amsterdam 2017

Bucket-list 60th birthday trip with photographer pal Chester Simpson began in Amsterdam. I loved this city and wish we had spent more time here. The first thing you notice in Amsterdam is that life revolves around the canals – boats – bikes- and cafes. I thought I would end up “bike roadkill” on a daily basis.

canals and bikes in Amsterdam

My favorite hotel was the Pulitzer located on Prinsengracht in the center of the action. Each room has a plaque with its history. Owner Peter Pulitzer joined 135 rooms to create higglety-pigglety hallways with charm beyond belief. I loved the Santal 33 Le Labo bath products in each room along with the Dutch waffle cookies I couldn’t stop eating.

KLM collectibles

Stewardess Barbie caught my eye in the window of an antique shop. I walked inside and couldn’t resist the tiny blue Delft Ware ceramic houses and started my collection. Created in the 1950s to be given as gifts for 1st class passengers on KLM Airlines, they originally had alcohol inside. A book 4 years in the making, tells the story of each real house with a photo of the ceramic house. I bought Mata Hari’s love nest #26. Born Margaretha Geertruida Macleod August 7, 1876 (D: Oct. 15, 1917), she was a Dutch exotic dancer and courtesan convicted of being a German spy during WW1 and executed by a firing squad in France.

Me inside a brothel window

Concentrated on the Oude Kerk, a nighttime stroll around the Red Light District is a must. Prostitution in Amsterdam dates back to the city’s emergence as a port in the 13th c. By 1478, prostitution was so widespread because of sailors flooding in, it had to be contained. Window prostitutes and seedy clubs are popular. It was not really what I expected. Located on one main canal lined with two streets of bars, clubs and yes, red-lit windows with scantily clad ladies. We are told not to take pictures but we snuck a few anyway (if the Russian bodyguards caught you they would toss your camera in the canal.) There are tight alleys off the main drag where the women are behind glass lit by black lights to make them appear more appealing. It actually makes them look more ghoulish and right in your face. Men appear and disappear inside each tiny room. Negotiations are made before they are allowed inside. Tourists gawk. Best Advice: explore once, it’s fun. We went back after my birthday dinner and it was creepy the second visit.

at my bday dinner

We got an Amsterdam Holland Pass to hit up the many world-class museums. The Rijksmuseum has an unrivaled collection of Dutch art. It opened in 1885 with over one million pieces, 8,000 are on display. The Museum district hangs Vermeer, Van Gogh, and Rembrandt. We stopped in when it was pouring down rain. Then the rain stopped and we decided to meander around the city instead of being inside a museum. Getting lost and exploring the city was the best part of the trip. Next visit, I plan to see all the museums.

me at the Anne Frank house – paintings from the Dutch collection

In some ways, Amsterdam to me was all about Anne Frank. July 1942, 13-year-old Anne Frank, her family, and the Van Pels went into hiding at the rear end of her father’s factory warehouse in what was called The Secret Annex. Her last diary entry was August 1944, 3 days before being arrested and sent to a concentration camp. In March 1945, Anne Frank died at Bergen-Belson. She longed for Hollywood and glamorous life. A dreamer and ambitious person who knew in her heart she’d be published. Her diary has sold more than 30 million copies translated in 67 languages. She wrote in Dutch occasionally using German and English words. What I got out of the Anne Frank Museum and her diary was that she was an author discovering her voice during extreme diversity.

me at Rembrandt house

For 20 years, Rembrandt lived and worked in this house. He ran out of money and had to sell it. A distant relative of his was the tour guide. Displayed was his cabinet of curiosities that he drew from. Visiting his house was a unique way to experience this famous artist imagining his life from 1606-1669.

9 Streets

The quaint and quirky streets that straddle the grandest canal is De Negen Streetjes or The Nine Streets. Bursting with boutiques, cafes, designer shopping, and all-cool stuff. Located in the middle of the World Heritage Canal Belt (and near my hotel The Pulitzer) the 6 bigger streets refer to animal skins for leather industries: Reestraat, Huidenstraat, Wolvenstraat, Berenstraat, Hartenstraat, and Runstraat. Most buildings in this district date back to the 17th c.

Amsterdam locks

I loved my short visit to Amsterdam and can’t wait to return.