We crossed the border into Hungary at Mohacs at 4:00 AM on June 4. I can be that precise because at 4:20 AM, we were peacefully sleeping in our comfortable bed when the voice of Marina, our Dutch hotel manager, came over the intercom in our room. Very apologetically, she asked everyone to please present his or her face to the Hungarian immigration authorities at the reception desk — immediately. So we sleepily put on robes and slippers and padded down the passageway to pick up our passports, show our bare faces to a pleasant young woman and a grumpy young man in Hungarian uniform, and obtain a stamp in our passports allowing us to continue up the Danube. Apparently, the crew never knows whether or not the local authorities will require us to make a personal appearance, but we always sail overnight in order to keep to our schedule, so middle-of-the-night arousals might occur without notice.
The scenery continues to change as we move west and north. Along the lower reaches of the river, the land is level or gently rolling, and the river is thickly bordered with trees, mainly deciduous. Very little evidence of human habitation is seen near the river, only the occasional small village or town, and there are no roads or highways directly on the water. As you sail to the west and north, more hills and cliffs appear, and the towns and cities come along more frequently, some with signs of industrial development. As we discussed with some of our fellow passengers, it’s good that we took the westbound rather than the eastbound itinerary, as we are moving from the less developed (and perhaps less westernized) part of the world to the more sophisticated regions from Budapest and Vienna to Amsterdam. We were able to look at Romania and Bulgaria and Serbia and Croatia with fresh eyes and without making any unfavorable comparisons with more highly developed countries.
Our first port in Hungary was Kalocsa, which isn’t actually on the river any more, since the Danube has gradually shifted its course away from the town. But Kalocsa is a quiet, charming village in the heart of the paprika growing country, with a lovely Baroque cathedral and a fabulous library (housed in the archbishop’s palace), as well as the world’s only paprika museum. The library, which dates back to the early middle ages, contains more than 150,000 volumes, most of them bound in dark leather trimmed with gold, as well as a Gutenberg Bible, beautifully illuminated medieval manuscripts, a Bible that belonged to Martin Luther, and one of the four existing copies of the 11th century crown of St. Stephen, the first king of Hungary.
In a little gift shop across from the cathedral, two women shopkeepers displayed intricately embroidered clothing, tablecloths, and table runners, most in bright floral patterns. One typical type of work is done on wide mesh lace, and the flowers appear the same on the reverse of the fabric as on the front. As everyone marveled at the skill of the embroiderers, the two shopkeepers confessed that they had done all the work by hand, using a treadle.
One of the features of a Tauck tour is the occasional private performance or event exclusively for us. Here in Kalocsa, we were treated to a superb pipe organ concert in the lovely village church, where the sun, filtered through stained glass windows, bathed the sanctuary in soft golden light.
But the first thing everyone thinks of when you say “Hungary” is of course Budapest. Nestled on both sides of the Danube, this loveliest of cities was originally three towns: Buda, Old Buda, and Pest (pronounced “Pesht” in Hungarian), united as one city only in 1873. Buda is set high on rocky hills, while Pest is, as they say, as flat as Kansas. The city lies above a vast thermal lake, resulting in more than a hundred thermal and mineral springs and giving rise to Budapest’s reputation as a spa city. Some of the baths date back to the 15th century and the era of Turkish occupation.
Budapest has been occupied by foreigners almost continuously since the 9th century, which gives it a sort of cheerful resilience and the ability to absorb the best of all the cultures that have passed through it. The first conquerors were the Magyars in 896, followed by Attila and his Mongol hordes in the 13thcentury. The Turks arrived in 1541 and stayed for 150 years, until the Austrian Habsburgs defeated them, eventually resulting in the formation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the end of World War I, the Empire collapsed, and Hungary (having been on the wrong side) lost two-thirds of its territory. After World War II, Hungary (on the wrong side once again) came under Soviet control and only gained its independence when worldwide communism began to unravel in the late 1980’s.
But during the days of Habsburg rule, many of the buildings that give Budapest its unique character were constructed: the stunning Parliament building that stretches along the river like a fairytale castle, with turrets and columns and spires all crowned by a huge green-roofed dome; the perfect jewel box Opera House, which Emperor Franz Josef permitted to be constructed as long as it was smaller than the one in Vienna; the Royal Palace on Castle Hill, planned by Empress Maria Theresa in grand style, with a thousand rooms so that each of her sixteen children could have his or her own suite and servants; a still-operating funicular up the steep cliff from the river to the top of Castle Hill; and Fisherman’s Bastion, high above the river, with seven whimsical towers shaped like upside-down ice cream cones – actually meant to look like the conical roofs of Hungarian peasants’ huts – representing the seven Magyar tribes.
- Fishermen’s Bastion
The Opera House, with its col;umns and wide staircases and elegant “cafeterias,” where the wealthy and cultured residents of Budapest drank and gossipped during the four or five (!!) long intermissions, is as beautiful as it is impressive. We were treated to a performance of opera arias by two professional singers on the landing of one of the marble staircases, as if we were attending a special musical event in the 1890’s as guests of the Emperor.
Performance hall, Opera House
Budapest Opera House
But perhaps the most impressive building in Budapest is its great synagogue, the largest in Europe and the second-largest in the world, the largest being in New York City. Built in the late 1800’s of warm red and yellow brick, it stands in what was the Jewish quarter of the city before World War II. Inside, it is laid out somewhat like a Catholic church, with two pulpits and a pipe organ, which isn’t surprising since the architect was Christian. Its majestic proportions and the fact that it still stands at all are amazing. During World War II, the synagogue was used as a German command headquarters, with a yellow cross painted on the roof to tell the Nazi bombers that it was in effect a German building. When the Germans abandoned Budapest toward the end of the war, they took everything of value from the synagogue, but they left the yellow cross on the roof. So the building was bombed by British, American, and other Allied planes in error. It has only been reopened to the public, following its restoration, since shortly after the turn of the 21stcentury, but many of its original treasures survived the war and are back in place.
The sanctuary of the Budapest synagogue
All the stained glass windows were removed before the Nazis took control of Budapest, as were the synagogue’s seventeen Torahs; all of these priceless things, together with anything else that could be hidden, were wrapped and buried in sand underneath the Hungarian National Museum, where they remained until it was safe to bring them out of hiding.
In the garden of the synagogue, there is a stainless steel sculpture that at first looks like a grove of weeping willows. On closer inspection, though, the trunks and limbs represent the branches of a menorah, and the leaves are individually inscribed with the names of Hungarian victims of the Holocaust. It is an intensely moving reminder of what happened in Europe in those terrible years.
Many prominent Jews from around the world contributed funds for the restoration of the synagogue, most notably Tony Curtis, born Bernard Schwartz to Hungarian Jewish immigrants in New York. This was his favorite charitable project, and he was extremely generous with his support for its rebirth.
Until the Nazis arrived, the Jews of Budapest had lived fairly normal lives under Swiss, Swedish, or Vatican protection. But after 1944, all the Jews were forced into a ghetto surrounding the synagogue, where many died of hunger and disease. Since the Jews in the ghetto could no longer reach their traditional cemetery, those who died during the Nazi occupation were buried in mass graves just outside the synagogue. Later, after the war, family members had small memorials stones laid on the site to commemorate their dead. Only about 200 stones rest in the graveyard; it is estimated that more than 2500 Jews are buried there, never identified.
Worst of all, though, were the actions of the fascist gangs of the Hungarian Arrow Cross party, the Nyilas: hundreds of Jewish men, women, and children were marched to the bank of the Danube in the bitter cold, where they were forced to undress and were tied together in threes. One of the victims was killed with a single bullet, causing all three to fall into the river and drown. The most poignant memorial in Budapest is a line of metal shoes, large and small, fixed to the Danube embankment, memorializing the Jewish victims of the fascists.
One particular hero came out of the persecution of the Hungarian Jews: Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish national attached to the Swiss foreign office, saved untold numbers of Jews by giving them Swedish papers and hiding them in safe houses until they could escape or until the war was over. Our guide at the synagogue, a Budapest-born, Brooklyn-raised Jewish man named Reuben, said that Wallenburg socialized with Adolph Eichmann in Budapest in order to persuade the Nazi to let him carry out his rescue efforts. After the Soviet invasion in 1945, Wallenberg was arrested by the Russians and charged with espionage; he disappeared into a Siberian gulag and was never heard from again. There is a memorial to him in the garden of the synagogue, as well as another in a public park.
On a more cheerful note, we visited – twice – the famous Central Market Hall, built in Art Nouveau style in the 1890’s and still in daily use by locals and tourists alike. The ground floor is packed with individual stalls selling fresh vegetables and fruits, paprika in all its incarnations, jams and honey and fruit brandy, acres of Hungarian sausages, dried mushrooms, and incredibly beautiful pastries.
Central Market Hall
Upstairs are tiny food vendors’ stands, selling salads and goulash and sandwiches and soups of every description, all smelling wonderful; as well as handmade embroidered clothing and tablecloths, leather gloves trimmed with fur, beautiful china and pottery, and a dizzying array of souvenirs like nesting wooden dolls, metal key rings, soccer uniforms, T-shirts, tote bags, perfume, and small wooden puzzle boxes that lock with a hidden key.
I can’t leave this country, though, without a comment about the Hungarian language. One well-known scientist said, “I believe in extraterrestrials. In fact, I’ve met some of them. They are Hungarians.” Hungarian is almost impossible for a non-native to learn to speak. It isn’t related to any other language, not even Finnish, although I’ve heard that comparison. Its letters are neither fish nor fowl, neither Latin nor Cyrillic, and consequently its signage is incomprehensible. Even if we could read the letters, the words bear no resemblance to words in any other known language. In my opinion, instead of using Navajo code talkers in World War II to confound the enemy, the US Army could have hired Hungarians.
We loved Budapest and would have been glad to spend more than two days discovering its secrets. We think it’s the most beautiful city we’ve ever seen (admittedly, we’ve never been to Prague, which claims the title according to many people), and despite its size, it seems to embrace the traveler with warm and welcoming arms.
To see a photo gallery of Budapest scenes, click here.