Budapest wasn’t always one city. When ethnic Hungarians (“Magyars”) first arrived in this part of Central Europe, they settled along the banks of the Danube in the vicinity of two small Bulgarian towns perched on the very edge of the Medieval Bulgarian Empire. For centuries, Buda and Pest existed separately from one another, with Buda as the more important of the two cities– as well as the one most often attacked and raised by invading armies.
Today, Pest– where I have been living this past week– is the most important of the two halves of this city. It is in Pest that the Hungarian Parliament is located, as well as most of the city’s population, several important cultural sites such as the Heroes’ Square and Jewish Quarter, and, just as importantly, the heart of Budapest’s night life.
That’s not to say that the other side of the river doesn’t have its own merits. Just across the Danube, the Castle District– named after the Buda Castle, which served as the seat of the old Hungarian Kings– boasts beautiful historical buildings, the Presidency, and more than a few camera-totting tourists. All in all, more than worth the day-trip across the river.
This last week has been a bit of a blur– my sleep cycle, never fully recovered from the initial bout of jet lag, has led to me falling asleep at 3 or 4 and waking up closer to 11:30 each day (I haven’t slept like this since High School). Days are passed walking around the city, visiting museums and subjecting myself to grueling hikes up Budapest’s highest point, Gellért Hill (to the reward of beautiful views of the entire city– see above). Nights are spent with new and old friends alike, more than a few beers, and walking aimlessly around the city attemptng to get into one of the dozens of clubs and bars that make this city an (unfortunate) haven for British bachelor parties.
But it’s been good for me. Sometimes it’s nice to just let go, if just for a week or two, and not abide by any particular rhythm or need to do anything. For now, I’m just focusing on having fun, enjoying this city, and learning what I can while I’m here.
Such as going to museums. Last night, all of the museums in the city open their doors to the public, offering bands in the parks, stands selling lemonade and beers, and special events such as string concerts and tango dancing lessons tucked into museum rooms. It is nights like this that make me love summer in the city– just watching the entire town come to life at night, the cafes staying open late, the bars packed to their brims. Young couples holding hands in the street, and older men and women walking arm-and-arm into the Opera.
Budapest has dozens of museums — this city has one of the most storied histories in all of Europe, after all– but the one that stands out the most is the House of Terror, on the embassy-lined Andrassy Street. A beautiful building that could easily house an embassy on its own, for decades the House of Terror served a far darker role: as the heart of political persecution in Hungary, first as the headquarters of the Fascist Arrow Cross Party, which during the Second World War collaborated with the Nazis during the Holocaust and the conquest of Europe, and later as an interrogation center for the Hungarian Communist regime.
It’s a building that tells the darker side of this city and country that other museums, focused on art, history, and the old Hungarian monarchy, prefer to leave out, but it’s important because of that very reason. While the House of Terror served as the heart of terror for both the Fascists and Communists, the museum has a clear emphasis– some could perhaps say a bias– of the crimes of Communist times over that of the Arrow Cross Fascists. But what the museum does do is show just how much the Hungarian people suffered during those long decades, as well as highlighting their moments of resistance, such as the anti-communist 1956 Revolution, which much like the Prague Spring in 1968 was violently crushed by the tanks and armies of the Soviets.
Purges designed to replace the middle class with the more easily influenced landless peasantry, ethnic cleansing campaigns that pushed ethnic Germans out of towns they lived in for generations, political persecution of Jews, Liberals, and the Church– there are dozens of these stories within this museum, as well as the opportunity to walk through the very concrete jail cells build far below the street level, where political prisoners were tortured and disappeared for decades.
As I said in my last post, for all of the problems Hungary has with nationalism and anti-Muslim, anti-refugee sentiment, it’s remarkable how much the country has managed to push forward following its trials under communism. Visiting the House of Terror has only reinforced that feeling, while at the same time drawing questions on why modern Hungary is willing to admit the atrocities of its communist past (where it could easily make the case of living under occupation) while shying away from the equally horrible events of its nationalist, fascist history during World War 2.
But enough on that. To end on a high note: one of the must-see attractions in this city is the Szechenyi Bath, the largest and one of the oldest bath house within Budapest. Built over a thermal hot spring, Szechenyi not only draws throngs of tourists (again, especially Brits), but also local Hungarians seeking to spend the evening soaking in the quieter Sulfur pools or resting in the Sauna. To spend a full evening there with just a couple of friends, swimming, soaking, and just enjoying the evening summer air, was more than a perfect way to wash away some of the stress that has been resting on my shoulders these past few weeks.
One week down, and only a few more days left to go. I’m beginning to be ready pick up where things left off, and to move forward one step at a time with life, this time for a full six months in Northern Ireland. After that– we’ll see. I’m trying not to think to far into the future lately, and to instead focus on enjoying each day as it passes by.
But until then– there are plenty of bars, museums, and cafes that still need to be seen in Budapest. A few more days of this city isn’t so bad of a thing.