30.06.2013 - 30.06.2013 23 °C
Our host recommends that unless we feel like spending the bulk of our week waiting in traffic jams with frustrated, beefy Hungarians, we should leave our car parked where it is and see Budapest using some other means of transportation. He indicated Budapest public transit is stellar. And is it ever cheap too: we can buy a family pass that will cover three of us for unlimited use of the trams, buses, metros, trains, etc. within Budapest for 48 hours for only ten dollars. If Hannah had been under 15, we could have included her travel in that too. I did my best to try to get her to wear pigtails and a cutesy dress (like Abby) so that she looked younger but she was having none of that. So, I have to pony up for her tickets; since her travel for the two days will cost another 14 dollars, I am still considering having her walk while we ride. For now, all of us will leave the public transit for sights farther afield. Today, as the apartment appears to be in a good location, only about twenty minutes walking distance to the centre of the Pest side (take a wild guess as to what the other side is called...), we elected to use our feet.
We have heard Budapest described as the “Paris of the East,” a title which has liberally been applied to many cities in Europe and Asia, but it does indeed remind one of the French city: they both have exceptionally wide boulevards, some very grand buildings, a beautiful river, and a heightened pitch in the air. The only thing is that, in Budapest, everything is just a bit grittier, a bit more on edge, and less sophisticated. Also, I have yet to see a single boulangerie. And I was so looking forward to a Hungarian baquette too. Their alternative is the langos, just as ubiquitous in Budapest as the baquette is in Paris. It is a fried bread simply made with garlic and salt or, alternatively, with sugar and cinnamon and eaten as a sweet. Restaurants also prepare more complex versions, with sour cream, meat and cheese. I immediately added it to my ‘must try’ list.
For the morning, we walked and walked, taking in the feel of the place and meandering until we reached the Danube. It is a fast, wide river, crossed by several fine bridges. River traffic is heavy, with both commercial and private boats. We would like to take a boat trip down the river as it affords some fantastic views of the city. Ever helpful, our host also suggested we forgo the expensive tourist cruises in favour of the public ferry. Apparently, the ferry is included in the family pass as well. Fortunately, Hannah knows how to swim.
We made our way for the Great Synagogue, the largest in Europe, but were stymied a bit by the prices, as well as by the line up which seemed to be getting bogged down by one man trying to line up several tickets for his group and yet insisting they all pay separately. Regardless, his efforts allowed us time to discuss the matter and, for today, we opted out, possibly to return another day. Ben had seen many signs for gyros and the like so was on the lookout for a cheap bite to eat. Our stomachs lead us to a storefront peppered with dozens of pictures of cooked foodstuffs. Usually, these types of places indicate tourist haunts but we elected to have a look at the options nonetheless. The menu came in a two inch ring binder. It looked daunting, even with each page offering only 2-3 foods, complete with pictures. We committed ourselves and, after successfully paging through War and Peace, we chose the following: creamy mushroom cheese soup for Abby and myself, Hungarian goulash soup for Hannah, and beef goulash on pasta for Ben. And since those famous langos were available, the girls and I each ordered one as a soup chaser. We were more than pleasantly surprised with the offerings. The soup was absolutely delicious and while the langos were greasy, they were quite yummy. The food, together with the freshly squeezed lemonade and the cranberry beer, came to a reasonable thirty dollars so we may just come back. Ben even tried to tip the guy and he refused – that’s the first time THAT has ever happened to us!
We went on to view St Stephen’s basilica, a beautifully restored church with gilt ceilings and marble throughout; it was named after the first king of Hungary, crowned during the tenth century. Having seen a number of cathedrals, churches, and basilicas, the kids (and perhaps even Ben and I) may be becoming a bit jaded. Even the viewing of the local relic, Saint Stephen’s right hand, didn’t seem to stir them. But then, I had forgotten that they had already seen Brother Andre’s heart in Montreal’s Saint Joseph's Oratory and Saint Catherine’s head in Sienna. A hand, while notable, perhaps doesn’t compare. Ben let fly some awful puns along the likes of “At least it didn’t cost him an arm and a leg...” and “Who was his right-hand man, do you suppose?”
In our apartment, I had come across a brochure on the House of Terror. I at first thought it might be a medieval torture chamber sort of idea but, upon taking a closer look, discovered it was a museum devoted to educating people about the horrors the Hungarians experienced under the fascist and communist regimes, the fascists for 1944-45 and the communists, for the next forty years. Each had chosen to use the same location for their headquarters and interrogations; it is this building that now houses the museum. We spent some two hours touring the rooms, but while it was interesting and captivating, there were drawbacks for us. Unfortunately, our language skills held us back as there was little translation of the explanations for the displays. Instead, what each room did have was a long-winded, hard-to-read English treatise on certain aspects of the regimes throughout the years. We all found they could have used a good editor to be more useful. Pithy they were not. At any rate, much effort was expended on the actual displays to give one the feeling of control, fear and despair that must have existed during those decades. The originators also wanted to make the whole building a memorial to the thousands who perished under the regimes so there were some notable poetic arrangements to the fallen. Surprisingly, we also found one area dedicated to identifying those they claim were responsible for assisting in the crimes; the rows of pictures were tersely labelled ‘Victimizers’ and listed names, birth and death dates. We had never seen a section like this before. I’m sure it is controversial in Hungary. Also controversial is the fact that some feel the museum does not attribute any blame to Hungary itself and only puts emphasis on foreign occupiers. I got that sense myself as I walked through it, thinking that there must have been Hungarians who participated in the atrocities. I would have liked to be able to understand more about this history but this has piqued my interest so I may go on to do other reading.
The day ended with a reasonably-timed homecoming and eagerness for tomorrow’s sightseeing.