Budapest: Seductive capital

Budapest is not only considered by many to be the most beautiful city in eastern Europe, but also a well-situated portal to Western Europe.

Chief rabbis in Budapest (photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
Chief rabbis in Budapest
(photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
It’s my first day in Budapest. I climb the steps in the Buda section of the city. I sit on a wall and gaze down at the bridges which are “sparkling necklaces” looping across the Danube River dividing the city into two sections, Buda and Pest.
Most visitors are confused as to which side is Buda and which side Pest. Very simple. Buda rides the hills and slopes of the west bank, garnished by gardens, crowned by castles, church spires and forts. Buda is characterized by medieval cobblestone streets. Pest, on the other hand, lies wide and flat, a tabular city, neat as a ledger, with wide massive streets, boulevards and buildings. Crowded with shops and government structures, Pest is the “busy corner of Hungary.”
The setting is exceptionally beautiful and it costs no money to climb the hills on an afternoon and look out over the metropolis spread out on the banks of the Danube. Anyone who has lived in a city alongside a river as I have, knows the feeling when seeing the town below from on high.
Travel experts are correct: Budapest remains Europe’s most “seductive capital.” In Budapest, the Danube runs swifter than it does in Vienna. But this tributary is not blue. As one Hungarian guide told me, the “blue” in Johann Strauss’s “Blue Danube,” was a figment of his wonderful imagination.
“Welcome to the Land of the Magyars,” an ethnic group which originated in the Urals and migrated westward to settle, in the ninth century CE, in what is now Hungary.
Budapest is not only considered by many to be the most beautiful city in eastern Europe, but also a well-situated portal to Western Europe.
Most of the historic Budapest sights lie along the banks of the Danube, including the neo-classical Parliament, the neo-gothic Matyas Church, and the Hungarian National Museum. Tourists should not miss the Royal Palace and the Hungarian National Gallery. Check out the imposing façade of the State Opera House. Take advantage of the fact that Hungary, including this capital city, is one of Europe’s great spa destinations. Frequent one of the city’s outdoor baths. Shop on pedestrian street, Vaci utca.
It is the Jewish sites that interest me and they are magnificent.
Budapest boasts the largest synagogue still in use in Europe, the Dohany Street Synagogue, also renowned for being the second largest in the world behind Temple Emanuel in New York City.
Regarding this house of worship, it is fitting, at times, to read the visitors’ book. One tourist wrote:
“This is the most beautiful synagogue I’ve seen in my life. It makes me so sad to know that the people who worked so hard on it, can’t enjoy it,” obviously referring to the 600,000 Jews murdered in the Holocaust.
Designed by the German architect, Ludwig Forster, this impressive Moorish-style building features minaret-like towers that are 43 meters high, and crowned with bulbous cupolas. The temple is 53 meters long and 26 meters wide. When you walk into the synagogue, you will notice the exquisite floor mosaics.
In the courtyard of the garden of the Dohany Street Synagogue, near the Heroes Synagogue, Wesselenyi utca 5-7, is a memorial park dedicated to Hannah Szenes, (1921-1944). She trained as a British commando and then parachuted into Eastern Europe to locate downed Allied pilots and help the Jews. She infiltrated into Hungary to organize Jewish resistance in that country. After being tortured by the Hungarian fascists, she was executed on November 7, 1944 in a prison on the Buda side of the city. She was 23 years old. Her remains were taken to Israel in 1950 and interned on Mt. Herzl. Before her death, she wrote the famous poem, “Blessed is the Match.”
The Dohany Street Synagogue is located at 4-6 Dohany utca. Tel: 36-1-413-55-84, www.jewishtourHungary.com.
Another important site is the Weeping Willow Memorial Tree, the Memorial to the Hungarian Jewish Martyrs. This monument is situated at the corner of Rumbach Sebestyen and Wesselenyi. The Memorial for the Righteous Among the Nations is in the background.
The Ghetto Wall Memorial stands at Dohany utca, 34, and/or 15 Kiraly utca.
The Jewish Museum and Archives of Hungary stands at Dohany utca, 2. It is to the left of the Dohany Street Synagogue as you face the house of worship. Theodor Herzl, founder of modern Zionism, was born in a house on this site. There is a memorial plaque marking the birthplace. The square on this site, just in front of the Jewish Museum, was recently named, “Herzl Square.”
The Monument to the Swedish Diplomat Raoul Wallenberg is located on a grassy expanse on the Buda side on Szilagyi Erszebet Fasor at the corner of Lupeny utca. Wallenberg is remembered for saving tens of thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary.
One of the most fascinating monuments is Shoes on the Danube Riverbank Statue. In 2004, a cast-iron memorial about Jewish martyrs shot at the Danube during the 1944-1945 winter by the Arrow Cross militiamen was created by the late sculptor Gyula Pauer. The monument is located near the Parliament and the Chain Bridge. Those shot, mainly Jews, were ordered to take off their shoes, and were fired at while standing at the edge of the water so that their bodies fell into the river and were carried away. The statue, displaying 60 pairs of shoes, represents their shoes left behind on the bank.
The Holocaust Memorial Center stands in a new structure attached to the Old Pava Synagogue, which has been renovated. This is the home of the Holocaust Museum of Hungary at Pava utca, 39, IX District.
It should be noted that the civic Memorial to the Victims of the German Occupation, Freedom Square, has roused the opposition of the Jewish community and man and women of goodwill. They charge that this huge bronze statue with a large German eagle with open wings that seem to be landing over innocent Hungary, symbolized by the Archangel Gabriel, minimizes Hungary’s culpability in the extermination of a half-million Jews and at the same time rehabilitates Admiral Miklos Horthy’s (regent of Hungary) reputation from that of an opportunistic Nazi ally to selfless defender of national independence.”
The Jewish population of Hungary is about 100,000. Nine of 10 Hungarian Jews live in Budapest. The above listings are just a few of the many Jewish sites, monuments and synagogues in Budapest which also boasts fine kosher restaurants and markets.
A number of travel centers and guides aid the tourist. Jewish Tour Hungary, is the tourism department of MAZSIHISZ (Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary), Sip utca 12, 1075 Budapest. [email protected], www.jewishtourhungary.com. Tel: 36-1-413-55-84. FAX 36-1-413-55-83.
Licensed tour guide, Nandor Gerei, MSc., Tel/FAX, 36-1-383-3390, 36-1-251-37-36, Cell: 36-309-217-548, [email protected], www.flatrent.webs.com. Mr. Gerei is an excellent guide for Budapest and all of Hungary. He and his colleagues, conduct Jewish heritage tours, general sight-seeing programs and trips to visit Jewish landmarks in Budapest or in the countryside.
So, enjoy your trip to the largest Jewish community in Eastern Europe. By the way, most river cruises on the Danube stop at Budapest; it’s a wonderful way to visit the capital. Anchors away!
Ben G. Frank, travel writer and travel-lecturer, is the author of the just-published, “A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe,” 4th edition, (Pelican Publishing), “Klara’s Journey, A Novel,” (Marion Street Press,) and “The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond,” (Globe Pequot Press). Follow him at twitter:@bengfrank