6 June 2019
What do Harry Houdini, Tony Curtis, Estée Lauder, and Béla Lugosi have in common? Stay tuned.
I have learned a great deal in my years of travel since last in Budapest in 1995. For one, studying Goggle Maps, which did not exist then, I did not realize I had lodged on the Pest side of the Danube. I thought I had landed in Buda. I liked Budapest and knew I wanted to return. Reading my diary, I can see how busy I was and how much I enjoyed the city. My last night, in the oppressive heat of July, I walked to the Danube to do what most people did – gaze at the beautiful views of the city and its lights. Buda’s Citadel and Castle Hill was alight against the night sky and the views were magnificent. I promised I would return to walk across that bridge and climb the hill to the Citadel. I did not think it would take me 24 years to do so.
The muddy Danube carves a broad path through the middle of this exceptional European city, splitting it into two banks and two cities: the hills of Buda and the plains of Pest. Yesterday, I explored Pest. Today, I explore the west bank of Buda.
Budapest has seen the family of Man for over 50,000 years, but its name dates back to just over 140 years ago when Old Buda, Buda and Pest were united into one in 1873. Today, it is the capital of Hungary and the tenth-largest city in the European Union. The Hungarians arrived in the late 9th century, but in its history, this land has been home to Celts, Romans, Mongols, Ottomans, Germans and Russians. Buda had its ups, becoming the center of Renaissance humanism with a desire in the 15th century to develop a strong civic life learned through the studies of the humanities (grammar, speech, history, literature and philosophy). Buda had its downs, most likely hitting rock bottom several times: under 150 years of Ottoman rule until the reconquest of Buda in 1686; under the murderous Nazis in WW2; and under the Communist thumb until 1989.
Much of its rich history and art came as a result of being a co-capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until its dissolution following WW1. Budapest was instrumental in the 1848 Hungarian Revolution for Independence and again in the revolution of 1956. Because Budapest was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and again supported the Germans in WW2, it suffered immense damage during the siege and Battle of Budapest, a 50-day-long encirclement by Soviet forces in late 1944. Soviets, by this time, were viewed as the lesser of two evils, but for Budapest this was not the case. Some 38,000 civilians died in the siege and much of the city was destroyed, particularly the Castle District. Of the beautiful nine bridges spanning the Danube, the Germans left all of them in rubble. What the Germans did not destroy in their wake, the Soviets bombed to pieces.
Today, Budapest is often cited as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. I have no argument with that boast. There is a plethora of 22 museums and galleries, 47 theaters and concert halls, cultural centers, historic squares and 237 monuments, over 100 thermal springs and baths, and many beautiful churches reflecting the diverse ethnicity of the city.
Our morning stop is the rebuilt Castle District, its historic palace complex dominating the Buda skyline. Buda Castle was built in 1265 but the massive baroque palace came later in 1749. The entire Royal Castle, a UNESCO Site, served the Hungarian kings for centuries. The hill is surrounded by a wonderful maze of medieval, baroque and neoclassic homes, churches and public buildings. There are lots of flags, monuments, and views – always a good way to start one’s day.
Most of the medieval castle was destroyed by Ottomans, who were removed by Christian armies in 1686. Then it was the Habsburgs who moved in, rebuilding the castle and palace, starting small but eventually creating what would become a magnificent palace, gardens, terraces, fountains, monuments and church fit for the kings. Architectures were attempting to outdo Versailles and Schönbrunn.
Everywhere one looks, the architecture, statues and fountains are grand. But perhaps the oddest statue is that of the giant bird that can be seen atop the bastions of the hill. From the Danube, the giant eagle appears noble and fierce with outstretched wings. However, up close and personal the bird looks more like a big turkey vulture. In actuality, the bird is a Turul, a mythological bird of prey in Hungarian tradition and a national symbol of modern Hungary. It was said that when the soaring bird dropped the sword, there the Hungarians would settle. I would say a sword drop was extremely fortunate.
I regret our group did not tour the magnificent palace rooms, nor the Budapest History Museum located in the southern wing of Buda Castle or the Hungarian National Gallery. The Habsburgs were not known for restraint when it came to décor and I would have loved to be impressed.
Instead, we strolled the complex of buildings, learned of the 31 times the castle was under siege, and told of the miles of Labyrinth cave system that has been used for everything since before the Ottomans from a hospital to a bomb shelter. (During the Ottoman era, the caves were used by hunters to store tigers and Hungarian mountain bears.)
The beautiful white spire dominating the skyline over Castle Hill is that of Matthias Church. A church has stood on this site since Saint Stephen, King of Hungary in 1015, built the first chapel, which was destroyed by Mongols in 1241. This current church, built in the late 1300s, was created in a late Gothic style and has been the scene of several coronations, royal weddings, and royal burials over the centuries. Ornate frescoes were whitewashed over when the Ottomans converted the church to a mosque in 1541, and precious icons were shipped to Bratislava for safety. Unfortunately, the giant chandelier from the church was shipped to the Hague Sophia in Istanbul where it still hangs today.
Following the Turks expulsion in 1686, some of the church was poorly restored but it was in the 1870s that Matthias Church came close to its former glory. Not without controversy however, as the addition of the shiny diamond-patterned ceramic tile roof and gargoyles to the soaring spire and bell tower were not appreciated. The interior frescoes, pulpit, ribbed ceilings and ornate pillars and arches are stunning. There is also a nice statue in one of the alcoves of Empress Elizabeth of Austria, “Sissi,” wife of Franz Josef I. In a side chapel is the tomb of King Béla III and his wife, compliments of Franz Josef. The entire church is amazing.
I walk by the House of Houdini, famous illusionist and escape artist who died in the U.S. in 1926. His parents immigrated to America in 1878 when Harry was four. The family never lived in The House of Houdini but that did not prevent an entrepreneurial Hungarian from making the place into a museum about a Budapest favorite son. Or was Béla Lugosi the favorite son?
Dracula’s Chamber is a schmaltzy attempt at the tourist dollar. Though King Matthias did detain Vlad Tepes in the prison of the Labyrinth during the late 15th century, Vlad could hardly call it home. Nor was he known as yet as Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula. Béla, on the other hand, was a native son and deserves his bust in City Park.
Commanding views from Castle Hill are from the white marble neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque style Fisherman’s Bastion. The views of Pest and the Danube are wonderful. Its seven slender, pointed towers represent the seven Magyar tribes who settled in the Carpathian Basin in 895. The bronze statue, if one can tear your eyes off the views, is of Stephen I of Hungary mounted on his horse.
I am pleased we spend some time in Memento Park, which was created after the 1989 revolution. Like most of the post-Soviet countries who won their independence in the 1989-1991 era, Budapest knew not what to do with all those monumental, clunky Soviet statues dedicated to the Russian soldier and great socialist worker. The best use of this “art” came when citizens created open-air parks in which one could wander amongst the communist statues which commemorate the arrival of the “heroic soviet liberators.” It is typical, gigantic propaganda art and the explanation of the stories behind the sculptures help in understanding the symbolism meant to stir passion in the hearts of the Soviet’s lucky peasantry.
It is also in this park that the Boots of Stalin remain. Stalin’s Boots are a symbol of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. The clunky black boots are all that remain of a much taller 82-foot statue of Stalin that was destroyed during the revolt. Since then, little bits of Stalin have been found, an eye here, an ear there. The boots stand in the park, empty.
The Dohány Street Synagogue is the 2nd largest in the world and the largest of the European continent. The exterior ornamentation, lovely onion domes atop twin octagonal 141-foot towers, and intricate tile designs are superb details. I am told that the building is a near-duplicate of the Central Synagogue in New York City. The interior is awesome.
The Synagogue was consecrated in 1859 and has a capacity of 2,964 seats (1,492 for men and 1,472 in the women’s galleries), making it one of the largest working synagogues in the world. Though bombed in 1939, used as a base for German Radio and a stable in WW2, and generally rotting away during the communist era, the building is now restored to its former greatness. I read that the Hungarian government donated a large sum, but Jewish Americans Estée Lauder and actor Tony Curtis, both of Hungarian descent, contributed an addition $20 million to complete the restoration.
The interior is perhaps one of the most beautiful of any synagogue I have seen. If not for the Star of David and Ark, one could mistake it for an ornate Christian church. This, we learn, is on purpose. At the time of building, the local Jewish community wanted to “blend” as much as possible with fellow Hungarians and Christians. So many Christian elements were adapted, as long as not forbidden by Shulchan Aruch which guides Jewish religious practice. Thus, not only is the ornate decor unique but the church proudly has a 5,000-pipe organ. Franz Liszt played the original 5,000-pipe organ which was built in 1859. The more modern, and mechanical, organ was built in 1996.
The soaring ceilings, wood-carved upper balconies with a slight Moorish design (for the women), stained-glass, chandeliers, and frescoes made of colored and golden geometric shapes are works of art. The Ark for the Torah Scrolls is stunning.
The synagogue also has a cemetery in its gardens, which is not common. Being part of the Jewish Ghetto during WW2, many Jews sought shelter here. Over 2,000, all unidentified, who died in the ghetto from cold and hunger are buried in the courtyard. Also in the gardens is the Raoul Wallenberg Memorial commemorating the 400,000 Hungarian Jews murdered by the Nazis. The unusual metal sculpture is in the shape of a weeping willow, each leaf with the name of a murdered Jew. Most of Hungary’s Jews were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau – 1 in 3 who died there were Hungarians.
Beneath the synagogue there is a museum on the Dohány ghetto and beside the synagogue is an excellent Jewish Museum of religions artifacts donated by the community. The collection of menorahs are especially interesting. The Jewish Museum is the birthplace and former home of Theodor Herzl, 1860-1904, who was a journalist, playwright and political activist. He is considered the father of modern political Zionism and ardently promoted immigration to Palestine and the formation of a Jewish State.
Following dinner, I complete my 1995 promise of crossing the bridge and standing atop Citadel Hill. From the Parliament to the City Park, south down the Danube to the bend, four magnificent bridges can be seen spanning its muddy waters. The cast-iron Széchenyi Chain Bridge is prominent. The views over this marvelous city of light and illumination are a sight to behold.
What do Harry Houdini, Tony Curtis, Estée Lauder, and Béla Lugosi have in common? All are favorite children of Hungary. They did not forget Budapest and Budapest surely never forgot them.