Budapest has got to be one of the most inhospitable cities I have ever visited. For those who aren’t familiar with Budapest, it’s very big and very cold, but (with a few exceptions), the people aren’t very friendly.
Earlier this week, we (husband, daughter and I) spent a few days there. We started our trip with high hopes of strolling round the city, map in hand, visiting the various famous landmarks. We eschewed all offers of official tour guides and tour buses…we were equipped with sensible walking shoes, 2 coats each, hats, scarves and gloves. We would make our own way around the city on foot, having carefully researched those places which we intended to visit.
For those of you who have never visited, Budapest is dissected by the River Danube into Buda, the quieter, hillier, more residential side and Pest, the flatter, more vibrant touristy side where most of the famous landmarks are located. We got a great deal in the Novotel on the banks of the river on the Buda side over looking the amazing Parliament building. Nice hotel, excellent value, just a short hop over to the other side of the river…or not, as it turned out.
Our first planned stop was the Dohany Street Synagogue in the Jewish quarter. Before leaving our hotel, we managed to locate the splendid Synagogue on the map and started to make our way there. First we had to cross the river. A short walk along its banks to the famous chain bridge followed by a short hop over the bridge itself and then a wander through the streets to the Jewish quarter, taking in the sights as we went. This is how I envisaged our first morning in Budapest. Unfortunately, it didn’t go like that at all! Once we’d crossed the river to the other side, a not so short walk as it happens, taking almost an hour (everything looks much closer on a map), we found ourselves walking around aimlessly. Having declared myself ‘amazing with maps’, I was appointed the official tour guide. On the face of it, it looked easy enough. All of the places which we intended to visit were listed in English down the side of the map with a corresponding location number. How hard could it be, I thought?
Absolutely, bloody impossible, as it turned out!
‘Which way do we go now?’ my travel companions asked, as soon as we arrived at the other side of the river. I took a quick look at the map and couldn’t even see the Jewish quarter on there! Where the hell had it gone! My husband then had a look…clearly I was incompetent and he’d be able to find it in a jiffy. He too, however, couldn’t find it either! No bother…I’d just ask one of the not so friendly local tour guides and we’d be on our way.
An hour later we were still walking…intermittently consulting the map and asking various people, non of whom spoke any English, if we were heading in the right direction. Eventually we saw a tourist information desk. We were all delighted! It was akin to spotting an oasis in a desert, only a lot colder. The woman behind the desk spoke perfect English and clearly knew her way around the city. She’d definitely be able to help us find the synagogue. When my turn came I asked her how to get there. She pointed behind her to a huge building…we were standing right in front of it…in its shadow! She must have had some pretty odd customers, but I imagine none quite as stupid as us! I smiled weakly, thanked her profusely and moved on, swiftly!
We’d found it and nothing was going to dampen our spirits…or so I thought. There were 2 queues for tickets, one cash, the other cards. The cash only booth was free and so, assuming that we had sufficient, (how much could they charge to look round a synagogue…rather a lot, as it happens) I marched up to the booth and asked for the tickets. When it became apparent that we didn’t have enough cash, the woman became very irate and snapped, ‘give me your card! I’ve put it through now so you will have to pay me!’ She continued to chide my husband for being in the wrong queue as he paid for the tickets. His protests that the sign ‘cash only’ was barely visible from the queue fell on deaf ears. As luck would have it, however, we arrived just in time for an English speaking ‘free’ tour which we almost missed as, surprise, surprise, we went the wrong way once we’d passed through security. I assumed that the entrance was at the far end of a long corridor and beckoned my travel companions to follow me, which they did. What fools! You’d have thought that, with each passing moment, my utter incompetence when it comes to directions would have become more and more obvious! My husband and daughter had however put their faith in me and nothing was going to shake it!
When we finally made it inside the synagogue, we were all struck by its size and beauty. The synagogue itself is a stunning building, steeped in history. Built in the 1850s, it is the largest synagogue in Europe, seating 3000 people.
The full horrors of what happened there 75 years ago soon became apparent as we listened intently to our guide.
Next to the synagogue is a small garden which formed part of the Budapest ghetto, created on 19th November, 1944. By January 1945, 70,000 Jews were crowded into the ghetto and many tragically died there from disease, hunger and extreme weather conditions. Their bodies were left unburied in the streets and courtyard of the synagogue. The small garden by the side of the synagogue now offers an eternal resting place for many of those victims as over 2000 Jews are buried there in a mass grave, the majority of their identities unknown. The fact that our visit to the synagogue fell on Holocaust Memorial Day made it even more poignant.
The sheer scale of the horrors which befell the Jews of Hungary (half of whom lived in Budapest), towards the end of the war were utterly incomprehensible. The sight of that small garden housing the bodies of 1000s of innocent people, murdered simply because they were Jews will never leave me.
The rest of the day continued in much the same vein, albeit in a rather more subdued manner. We walked aimlessly, asking strangers for directions and periodically consulting the map.
By some miracle we managed to find our next stop, the world famous thermal baths. We hadn’t intended to go in the baths themselves on our first day…we were just doing a recce. I watched in disbelief as people wandered around outside in nothing but swimwear! What were they thinking? It was -1 degree outside, although it felt more like -10 to me! It was freezing…literally! To add insult to injury, these people had actually paid a not insignificant sum for the privilege of freezing their proverbials off. I watched open mouthed as they gingerly made their way to the huge thermal bath, into which they all immersed themselves, a collective mass of gently thawing pink bodies. I felt uncomfortable just watching this display of utter lunacy and bravery. My travel companions however, looked on in awe, saying what fun it looked and how they couldn’t wait to try it! I was horrified! I knew I’d have to find a way to discourage them from going back there the following day as planned, without sounding like a killjoy! Fortunately for me, the fact that nothing is cheap in Budapest worked in my favour, on this occasion.
While I’m on the subject of Budapest and having to pay for everything, I should warn women of a certain age about the public toilets. They are few and far between and fiercely guarded by elderly women who refuse to let you use them unless you have the correct entry fee. No amount of pleading and crossing one’s legs will break their resolve, so be warned! Go easy on the drinks! Regrettably, by the time I’d found this out, it was too late.
Our run of bad luck didn’t let up as the day wore on. By the end, when, having walked 15km, (mainly round in circles) we decided to take the tram back to the hotel. Unfortunately, not knowing how the tram system works there, (it’s not enough to simply buy a ticket and present it to the ticket inspector…you have to validate it too) our journey was cut short as we were unceremoniously thrown off the tram. Thus, we ended up walking most of the way back to our hotel on the other side of the river. At least we didn’t get lost that time! We picked up a few bits from the supermarket and ate in our room that evening before getting an early night…after all, we had to be fresh and alert for our second day of sightseeing, with all the pitfalls that undoubtedly lay in wait for us!
Day 2 began on a more positive note. I’d woken early and hatched a marvellous plan which would almost certainly ensure that we did not get lost. The day would go smoothly…with the help of google maps and a series of screenshots. It was genius! With the whole day mapped out on my phone, we made our way to our first stop, Buda Castle. Google guided us through some backstreets and we oooo’d and aaaah’d at the ‘real’ Budapest; streets where real Hungarians lived and worked. We’d broken out of the tourist bubble and were now officially ‘travellers’.
The castle itself is perched high on the top of a cliff. A funicular is usually available to take visitors up to it. As our luck would have it, the funicular was closed due to maintenance work on that particular day and we were forced to take the stairs. By the time we reached the top, we were all exhausted and wet as it had started to rain. It was worth it however. The castle and the surrounding area is magnificent with stunning views across the river. I even managed to scrape together enough coins in order to avail myself of the facilities on offer.
From there, we followed my carefully plotted route to a restaurant on the other side of the river which had been highly recommended to us. It didn’t disappoint. Not only were my directions perfect, leading us straight to it, the restaurant itself was fab! Hungarian dining at its finest. We all enjoyed a wonderful lunch before continuing with my meticulous walking tour. We took in the Parliament building, where I was refused entry to the facilities as I didn’t have the correct change. I had no one to blame but myself, as I should have been better prepared on my second day in the city. Utter foolishness on my part.
Our final stop was the incredibly moving ‘Shoes on the Danube’ memorial, a fitting end to our trip. This memorial serves to commemorate all those Jews who were forced to strip bare by the side of the river before being shot at close range, their bodies being washed away by the river into which they had just fallen. Unimaginable cruelty depicted by a simple display of cast iron shoes. Cruelty which befell so many Hungarian Jews towards the end of the Second World War. That memorial and our visit to Dohany Street Synagogue alone, made our visit to this beautiful city, a city in which unspeakable cruelty took place 75 years ago, worthwhile.