- Budapest, Hungary
- 25,107 miles flown + 775 miles driven
- 47°29′N 19°03′E
- Temp: 32 deg
- 5 books read, 9 massages + 2 hot stone + 1 thermal baths in the books
- Day 33-36
I don’t know what’s more quintessential Budapest, Hungarian Parliament or the Szechenyi Thermal Baths, but I went to see Parliament both during the day and night and only wished I had done the same at the spectacular baths.
Budapest won me over rather quickly. Here, again, is a country, city, culture that has a long, complicated and rather tortured history. The Hungarian empire was once a prosperous and controlling nation, but also lived through Nazi and Russian control during and post-WWII. The effects of all can be seen as you stroll through the imposing squares and narrow run-down Jewish Quarter streets, coming upon hundreds of statues commemorating great Magyar rulers, as well as those lost to the atrocities of its more recent past.
The architecture of Leopold Town is big, impressive and reminds you of being in any major Western European city. Except, of course, when you come upon a bronze statue of Ronald Reagan.
But none can be outdone by the spectacular Parliament building. Inside and outside is dripping with lavish details you can’t quite capture effectively in photos. As always, I tried. I might actually consider a career in politics if I could work in a place like this.
Even the schnitzel is imposing in Budapest.
Fun fact: continental Europe’s first subway originated in Budapest and was operated by horse-drawn carriages. Destination? Szechenyi Thermal Baths. Seeing as how this subway was right near our hotel, the only logical thing to do was to pay the baths a visit. More on that later.
But first, an important walk through Budapest’s Jewish Quarter. 600,000 Hungarian Jews were killed in concentration camps during WWII, nearly half of all Jews who died. 600,000. I would capitalize that number if it was possible to capitalize numbers. How did anyone let this happen?
The Jewish Quarter once served as a walled-in Ghetto, stripping Hungarian Jews in Budapest of all their belongings before also taking their lives. Many of the historical buildings and Synagogues were destroyed and have only recently been rebuilt to preserve this heritage. It’s a sobering walk through this neighborhood as the sheer magnitude of hatred and suffering sinks in. A walk through the Great Synagogue takes you through a memorial garden with eerie trees that branch toward the sky like arms reaching for help and is partially walled-in by remains of the ghetto wall. At the end of the garden is a beautiful silver memorial tree with the names of those who were killed on each leaf.
I hadn’t planned it this way, but visiting Budapest before I go to Auschwitz I imagine will make that visit even more impactful after understanding what happened here. Being here also makes you acutely aware of things that really matter each day — it’s not Facebook updates or CNN headlines (unless, of course, those indicate we’re heading down similar path of hatred and racism. Then yes, those things matter.)
And if that wasn’t enough torment, let’s talk about post-WWII. I had basically zero understanding of what happened in this part of the world after the Eastern European countries were liberated from the Nazis…by the communist Russians. To add insult to injury, free from the Nazis, the Hungarians then had to live under communist rule until 1991. There is actually a place called the House of Terror (it’s real name, though now a museum) where the Red Army rolled on up in their tanks and began 50 more years of torture. What happened in this place? Interrogations, torture and more murder of thousands of innocent Hungarians. The museum is disturbing, but sheds light on what it was like to live as a Russian communist-occupied nation, where propaganda, big brother-like spying, and survival-paranoia led people to turn in their own innocent family and friends to “authorities” to increase the likelihood of their own survival. It’s like a George Orwell novel, but real.
Who’s ready for a restorative thermal bath? [raises hand]. All this glorious water is naturally heated by the thermal springs under the baths and continually piped into the pools, lest you freak out that you’re swimming in a tub with A LOT of strangers. There are 15 separate pools, mostly indoors, but the outdoor pool is by far the most fun. Not only because you’re staring at the clear blue COLD sky as you wade around the pool, but because every 10 minutes or so massive jets of water come rushing in through spouts that create enough pressure you can sit suspended on it like a cartoon character being suspended on a whale’s spout of water. And if that isn’t enough to entice you, the center circle is like a miniature lazy river with water thrusting in horizontally, creating a centrifuge propulsion that pushes full-grown adults in a circle laughing with 12-year old giddiness. It’s ridiculous, it’s relaxing, it’s rejuvenating, it’s an absolute MUST if you come to Budapest.
This was some heavy, but important, stuff. Spending two weeks in Eastern/Central Europe, getting a better understanding of the long, complicated history of these countries — once rulers, turned ruled. Years of prosperity, followed by years of despair. The loss, followed by renewal. It’s hard to believe, after soaking in all this history, that Budapest now feels like any other happy, beautiful, touristy city laden with souvenir shops. It was not that long ago that the last Russian tank rolled out of Budapest, yet here it stands, as lovely and welcoming as any other place. If you haven’t been, come. It’s an important place to visit. And when the important history tips your exhaustion scales, just hop on the yellow subway and head to the baths!