From Stalin's boots to Stephen's arm

Hungary's history as the crossroads of conquerors has left its mark on its capital.

September 15, 2007 20:37
From Stalin's boots to Stephen's arm

hungary jewish memorial. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Full of Austro-Hungarian elegance and touched with a mixture of communist-era residue, Budapest is without a doubt one of the most intriguing and multi-faceted of the grand cities of the Danube. More elegant than Bratislava and a bit rougher around the edges (and significantly less pricey) than Vienna, the partnered cities of Buda and Pest offer visitors a vision of a past colored by conquest - and a future still hanging in the balance. Hungary's history as the crossroads of conquerors has left its mark architecturally and culturally on the city, which dates back at least as far as the Roman Empire. It is exactly this complex history that has brought the country - and Budapest with it - to its current state, where the red and white flags of the nationalist Right can be seen alongside the national banner of red, white and green. And from the mummified, withered hand of Hungary's patron saint, the legendary King Stephen, to the monumental boots (literally and figuratively) of "Uncle Joe" Stalin, Budapest's history opens up to tourists in a myriad of symbols and monuments. Most of the city's hotel options are on the Pest side of the river, the flat bank dominated from above by Buda's imposing castle compound. Pest's architecture recalls an era of Austro-Hungarian greatness, with many of the buildings dating from the latter half of the 19th century. Although the facades of buildings off the main roads are perhaps not as pristine as Vienna's, the sheer volume of period architecture allows the casual tourist to imagine himself or herself back in a time when Budapest was an imperial capital. Although public transportation is frequent, plentiful and multi-faceted (there are subways, above-ground trams and busses), the best way for even a not-so-adventurous tourist to explore Pest's possibilities is through the numerous bicycle rental facilities found throughout the town. With prices for bikes running as low as 250 Forints (about NIS 5.50) per hour, and the streets of Pest flatter - if possible - than those of Tel Aviv, tourists can pedal their way through the city, enjoying the architecture and breathtaking views along the Danube. In the downtown area surrounding Parliament and the St. Stephen's Basilica, bikers can even enjoy dedicated bike paths and crosswalks meant for riders. Although many of the bike rental facilities provide maps that include tour suggestions, one of the easiest rides available takes tourists on a loop down one of the city's main streets - Karoly Konit - passing landmarks including St. Stephen's Basilica (home of the aforementioned mummified arm) and then merging at the fork to Dohány Utca, a turn unmistakable when you see the onion domes of Budapest's Great Synagogue rising on your left-hand side (Dohány Utca 2-8). Built in 1859 with a capacity for almost 3,000 worshippers, the Great Synagogue is the second-largest in the world, and is open for tours. In the immediate area can also be found the Holocaust Memorial, erected in 1989 in the synagogue's courtyard atop a 1944 mass grave, and the Jewish Museum (Dohány Utca 2), which displays pre-World War II artifacts hidden during the Holocaust in the basement of the National Museum. The Jewish Museum also marks the site of the house where Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl came into the world in 1860. The narrow streets winding behind the synagogue all were part of the WWII-era Jewish ghetto, and were also the heart of pre-Holocaust Jewish Budapest. Taking a bike down the winding cobblestone streets may be a bit jarring, but it's worthwhile because of its views of two additional synagogues - the Rumbach Synagogue ( Rumbach Sebestyén Utca 11), newly reopened to the public, and the Orthodox Kazinczy Street Synagogue (Kazinczy Utca 29-31). Also on Kazinczy Utca, across the street and a few doors down, can be found the only surviving mikve in the spa-filled city. There are at least a dozen other significant Jewish sites in the area, and visitors looking to probe the city's Jewish history in-depth can always join a day-long walking tour that departs from the Great Synagogue. Bikes can be rented in the synagogue's front courtyard. Continuing further south, and returning to main street Karoly Konit (which quickly becomes Muzeum Konit), bikers will see the neoclassical structure of the National Museum on the left. The National Museum is a good place to turn northward and head along the river through shopping and dining districts characterized by pedestrian arcades and sidewalk cafes. Bikers will find marked bike routes parallel to the river that offer views of Budapest's famous Danube Bridges. (It is not recommended, unless you are a fitness demon, to attempt a similar bike tour of Buda, which is situated on bluffs high above the Danube.) The jewel in the crown of Buda, the city's older half, is undoubtedly the Castle District, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the Castle District, each house is a protected property, with each building's facade strictly preserved by law. Visitors seeking a reminder of the city's tumultuous past need look no further than those same facades. As a result of numerous conquests, almost none of the area's medieval facades are left standing, although here and there, a bare stone archway, window frame or doorway signifies remnants from, before and immediately following the period in which the Mongols were the rulers of Hungary. It was another set of conquerors - the Ottomans - who first taught residents to utilize the potential of one of Budapest's most unusual resources, the 118 thermal springs and boreholes that dot the city. It was when this resource met the tradition of the Turkish bath that Budapest's spa culture was truly born. Today, after a long day of pedaling, visitors can enjoy any of the city's spas, which are frequented by locals and tourists alike. Even in the winter, the water bubbles up at Jacuzzi-like temperatures. While there are too many spas and baths to list, would-be visitors should stop at, where they can search Budapest for a spa according to restorative qualities, water temperature and chemical content. If you can't decide on a spa, the Rudas Bath, whose Turkish bath dates to the 16th century, is a good choice, as it has both separate hours for each gender and mixed-bathing times, making it one of the few if not the only Turkish bath open to women in Europe. To appreciate the impact of Hungary's most recent foreign masters, one must venture to Budapest's suburbs. In Statue Park, travelers who venture off the beaten path will be rewarded with one of the most striking sights in post-Communist Europe. Stalin's boots, larger than life in concrete, stand planted meters above visitors' heads, marking the entrance to this most unique of outdoor museums. Opened in 1993, the statue garden is one of only two in Europe to preserve communist-era statues of the type familiar to those of us who remember the Cold War. Stylized proletarians, communist heroes, partisans and politicians stare down at visitors, bringing to life a bygone era - one that curators say many Hungarians would be just as happy to forget. Despite the travel required to get to the out-of-the-way park, it's well worth the visit, with a direct bus line that departs from downtown's Deák Square at least once a day. Admission to the park is HUF 1000, with discounts available for students. This winter, for the second year in a row, the Hungarian National Tourist Office has teamed up with hotels and Malev Hungarian Airlines to sponsor Winter Invasion. From the beginning of December until the end of March, tourists visiting participating hotels will receive their fourth night for free. In addition, those participating in the hotel deal will also qualify for a buy-two-days, get-a-third-free special available on the Budapest Card, allowing them unlimited travel on public transport, free or discounted entry to 60 museums and numerous tourist sites, city tours at half price, discounted tickets to cultural and folklore events and discounts in restaurants and spas. The writer was a guest of the Hungarian National Tourist Office.

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