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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.