I found Budapest both beautiful and slightly elusive. Partly due to hazy mornings that made the views of the city look ethereal, like a watercolour painting. Partly because of a language filled with Sz’s and unfamiliar accents, although Hungarian wins for the best hi/bye greeting of “szia” (see ya). In part because of a broad mix of architecture styles from intricate and lacy to upright and martial. But mostly because it has changed rulers so often and fought on the unpopular side of the two world wars that even the history is hard to grasp.
To start, Budapest is the amalgamation of two cities: Buda and Pest (pronounced Pesht). The Buda side is hilly and boasts the Castle District. The Pest side, flat and is home to pretty much everything else. They are separated by the Danube as it meanders through 10 countries. The commentary on the Danube boat cruise stated proudly that Budapest has “never had trouble with the Danube, except in 1838 when it completely wiped out Pest.” That’s like saying, “I’ve never had trouble with clowns, except for the one that killed my father,” (paraphrasing an old Jack Handey joke).
Between that, the occupations by the Huns, Tartars, Ottoman Turks, the Habsburgs, Austrians, Germans, Soviets, a war of independence and two world wars, it isn’t surprising that the architecture is a mix of over eight styles:
There are a few oddities of architecture as well. In the late 1800s, the Jewish population divided into three congregations: the Neolog (modern), the Orthodox (traditional) and the Status Quo (moderates), with each building its own synagogue. In what sounds like a fairy tale, the Neologs hired an architect more used to building cathedrals or basilicas so the Great Synagogue has the cathedral layout with a central rose window and is jokingly called the most Catholic synagogue in the world. The moderates hired a protege of the first architect who, in some kind of odd competition, built a synagogue with Islamic elements like minaret-style spires. And the third synagogue, neither too hard nor too soft, too hot nor too cold, was just right.
That was described on a free walking tour about the Jewish history in Budapest. The guide also spoke about what it was like to be on the losing side both two world wars, having aligned with the Germans. It was tragic and a bit disorienting to see how both Allied and German bombing left only 26% of Budapest undamaged. Most of it has since been rebuilt using original materials and matching the architecture where possible, as shown in an eye-opening set of before-and-after photos on Castle Hill.
While the Jewish Memorial and Museum were closed for a high holiday there was a low key but impactful memorial called “Shoes on the Danube Bank” on the river wall near the Parliament that is not mentioned in many guidebooks. Shoes sculpted in iron represent Jews who were made to remove their shoes and stand on the bank before being shot by the Arrow Cross Party (Hungarian Fascists) so their bodies would fall into the Danube and be swept away. People come to fill the shoes with flowers.
But Hungary is not dwelling as much in the past as I have here. The city is vibrant, the people friendly and speak such good English that it feels pretentious to attempt our limited Hungarian travel phrases. And much like Canadians who name all the famous Canadians in other countries, Hungarian commentary lists their proud accomplishments, both known (Liszt, Rubik’s cube, ballpoint pen) and lesser known (vitamin C, the computer, the foundation of physics, and Windows and Excel). I’ll have to fact-check those last ones. So despite its elusiveness, or maybe because of it, Budapest should not be missed.