Embracing the Danube from the castle atop ‘the hills of Buda’ to the Jewish Quarter in the ‘plains of Pest’, you can feel the quiet grandeur and power of this former seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Having experienced the move to EU modernity in Poland and Vilna, I wondered if I’d recognize Budapest from my second visit ten years ago. While I spotted a Starbucks today, the city is still renovating and repairing buildings exhausted by the last seventy years, toilets require payment to the attendants , and tram/metro exits are secured by diligent employees checking tickets for validation. I haven’t noticed the hip fashionable vibe that filled Poland and even Vilna. Mostly my travel weary body hoped that one part of this city had kept its identity: the thermal baths.
Shortly after arriving, I grabbed my bathing suit which I brought for the pool you see , I walked past the Doheny Synagogue, past the fall tinged trees of Andrassey Street showing Budapest in all its glory till I arrived at the park hosting the bath house.
Bounding the steps to the front door I was stopped at the entrance by a crowd of women waiting to pay. Being an arrogant American, I couldn’t believe signs were not in English. Being an impatient New Yorker, I didn’t want to wait. I found another entrance that got me in quickly though a bit dazed as my memory failed me about where to go and what to do next. One bored woman pointed me down a flight of stairs.
Traveling light, a swimsuit is a minimalist’s ‘must have’ for the baths in fall. Once suited I delved into the sunshine of the outdoor pool. Heaven! Blending into the culture here means relaxing on the side and grabbing a bubbling burst of thermal water being released from the pool floor. Success was mine till it was time for me to try the other baths. Somehow that thick terry robe that others were tightly wrapped in didn’t quite make the cut into my suitcase. Let’s just say it was a cold run from the outdoor pool to the sauna and the indoor pools.
There is a lot to be said for a culture that makes a family outing to medicinal baths. It seems to be a time to be together and with little or no outside distractions or frills. I know my brother Owen said that the best part of going to Mexico was spending time with his wife and daughters and this might be a mini vacation for Budapesters. I met three sisters from London/Australia and they’ve been to the baths every day during their four-day visit. I’m going to shoot for two to three soaks.
This is one city I’ve had meetings arranged with ‘young jews’. It’s been maddening during the last two days I’ve been in the wrong place at the right time. For the first time I really missed my global cyber-space transit pass and my Purpleberry (as my niece Marissa calls it) to fix the gaffs in memory. This trip has reminded me that things happen in their own time and that everything works out. So missed meetings be damned, today I played tourist walking across the Danube – on the chain bridge – not the water and hiking up the hill to the castle and museums that capture attention from the Pest or plains side.
bowl of goulash soup which is always more fun to say than eat. I’d say I’m high on experiences right now, but I think it’s because of all the poppy seeds I’ve consumed. This town has pastries and bread mastered as coffee shops fill every street’s nooks and crannies replacing the never-ending amber shops that beckoned at every turn in Vilna and Krakow.
I caught up with a walking tour in front of the synagogue in the Jewish Quarter. Although there are 24 synagogues in this city of 80 – 90 thousand Jews according to the guide, when most of us foreigners think of a Budapest synagogue, it is this one the Dohany Synagogue built in 1850 for a congregation of some 3,000.
The synagogue survived as it served as a command post for the Gestapo thanks to the towers which held radio satellites for communicating with Berlin. Of course Hungary didn’t even enter the war till March 1944 after ‘switching sides’. In short order the Germans rounded up Jews throughout the country, some went into the ghetto, some were saved by Swedish dignitaries, and 600,00 were slaughtered (mostly) in Auschwitz within three – four months. There’s so much more to the story that I won’t go into right now. Amazingly though, not only are there 80,000 Jews here, but the Jewish Quarter still retains its identity as the home for many Jews complete with a mikva, several kosher restaurants, a yiddish-italian restaurant! and several Judaica book stores.
I’ve got some facts, a few pictures (so many more that will have to be put on a facebook page when I get home), but no stories. I don’t know where I’ll find them but I’m learning how to listen for them. Until then.