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Our first stop on an Eastern-European Christmas adventure

semi-overcast 4 °C
View Christmas 2012 on kmclean's travel map.

This has turned out to be a really amazing city. We got here in the evening on December 16 and are already leaving. As always I wish we had a month here, but I feel like we definitely should have given this city at least one more day. It’s got a much deeper and more diverse history than I ever knew about, and there is just so much to see. Plus, I guess one thing we kind of forgot about traveling in the winter is the shortage of daylight hours. They’re really limited this time of year, which is fine but it means there’s no time to go see a building or site after the museums close… sometimes you just have to choose, I guess.

We’ve taken advantage of some free (plus tip) walking tours here, which have been amazing. I would definitely recommend these since you get a great overview of the city and they show you great restaurants and museums along the way. Our first day here we did a general tour of the city in the morning, which gave a great overview of the history and the main sites, and in the afternoon we did a communist tour. This is the first post-communist country we’ve visited and the first former-communist city I’ve seen (other than Berlin – kind of). The difference is that here, there’s no wealthy western country footing the bills for re-development. East Berlin was definitely dingy and showed its scars, but nothing like the way Budapest does. In Berlin the whole city has kind of been turned in to a museum. Every subway station and street corner has monuments and public information. Here everything is still so raw. Some of the buildings have been repaired, but most haven’t. There are some buildings that have been re-purposed. A lot of old factories have been turned into bars or restaurants. It’s a really cool idea. There are so many gorgeous, old buildings, but you can always tell where the bombs fell because the holes have been filled in with the hideous concrete buildings the communist era is so well known for.

They have a really great museum here, the House of Terror, about the fascist regime at the end of WWII and the later communist rule that lasted over 40 years. The building was the headquarters of the Arrow Cross Party, the Hungarian Nazis, in 1944 and after that the communist terror organizations, the ÁVO and later the ÁVH. I had no idea how deep Hungary was into the communist mess before 1989, so I guess coming here in complete ignorance lead to a really interesting learning experience. The communist tour was really amazing because we got to hear and see what it was like under Soviet occupation and essentially Soviet rule.

After getting sufficiently bummed out about the communist era hell these people lived in, we lucked out and saw a show at the Hungarian State Opera. We got seats (terrible ones, but still close enough) for the Budapest philharmonic for 1000 Forints, about $5 – I never want to go back to euro countries! The opera house is beautiful, modeled after the one in Vienna.

The second day we did another walking tour through the Jewish quarter. It’s not a happy place to be learning about Jewish history, but it’s really interesting and they’ve got a lot of really great monuments here. There’s one right on the Danube, it’s 50 pairs of shoes about to walk into the water. A couple of other great monuments are right outside the “great synagogue” – the biggest synagogue in Europe, and one of the few that didn’t get destroyed during WWII. The Nazis only invaded Hungary in 1944 and left the synagogue standing because it was the highest place they could put their antennas to communicate with Berlin. Theodor Herzl had his bar mitzvah there. The original ghetto wall has been torn down but there a couple of segments that have been rebuilt in commemoration – one in the cemetery outside the synagogue. The Jewish quarter today is one of the liveliest and most diverse districts of Budapest and the locals say one of the least “touristy” places.

This morning we went to the castle hill on the Buda side of the Danube. We were there the first day with the general walking tour, but it was so foggy we couldn’t even see across the river. It was great to go back and see the view of Pest from the top. It really is a beautiful city. The parliament is huge and sits right on the water, so you get an amazing view from the top of the hill across the river. There are so many other things I wish we could have seen. There’s an art museum here that an Italian guy at our hostel said was comparable to the Louvre, a park with a few former communist monuments they keep for old time’s sake, and it would have been great to have time to check out the inside and the museums attached to the synagogues and the basilica. We definitely should have given ourselves at least one more day, this is a city we’ll definitely be back in.

I never really thought of Hungary as being so interesting, but it’s got such a rich history. Budapest has a lot of beautiful buildings and a great city plan thanks to the Austrians from the Austro-Hungary days, it’s had its tragic but fascinating fascist and communist eras and today it’s a really lively and diverse city, working on getting itself back together but with a long way to go. It’s cheap and well connected, overall and really great city. I hope we get a chance to come back someday.

Here are some pictures.

Posted by kmclean 20:20 Archived in Hungary Tagged budapest walking eastern tours christmas hungary europe

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