Budapest & Prague: Day Two (Budapest)

Today we spent over 5 hours on a private tour of Budapest. Our guide, Karyn, and driver were excellent, making for a spectacular experience. Here’s just a bit…

The Jewish Ghetto

I think one of the most powerful things that will remain with me from today was hearing about and seeing the Jewish history in the Jewish Ghetto–the area where the Jews were basically imprisoned in Budapest during the Nazi occupation. You could still see a small area of the Nazi wall that once forced over a million Jewish people to live and die in such a small confined area. And these were the Jewish people that were spared death in the concentration camps. The Jewish people in the Hungarian countryside were all sent to the gas chambers.

Shoes Memorial

The Shoe Memorial was very powerful and horrifically disturbing. Along the edge of the riverwalk of the Danube, near the Parliament, is a small area of bronzed shoes. This memorial honors the memory of the men, women, and children that the Nazis marched to the river’s edge in 1944 and 1945, made them take off their shoes and coats, and then shot them so their bodies would fall into the Danube to be washed away by the swift currents.

I have such a hard time understanding how things could ever get like that. Then I remember that genocide still takes place today. What of humanity?

St. Stephen’s Basilica

When I arrived at the hotel last night, I went walking briefly, on a quest for dinner. (By the way, the Goulash Soup and Hungarian Pancakes at the Bazilika restaurant at St. Stephen’s square are to die for!!) I stumbled onto St. Stephen’s Basilica and a violinist performing in the square. Today, I went inside the basilica. To say it is gorgeous is a huge understatement!

St. Stephen was the countries first king. He was given his crown by the Pope de jour and was canonized. Basically, he was the head of the Catholic church and the state. His crown, handed down to every subsequent king, was smuggled to US forces during the conquest of Hungary during the World War in an effort to save it from looting and was actually stored at Fort Knox. President Jimmy Carter returned it, amid great fanfare, to the Hungarian people during his presidency.

The Citadel & the Nearby Baths

The Citadel, once a fort that was used by Hungarian enemies to shell the city (some of the soviet guns are still on display there) is a popular park in Hungary that overlooks the Pesh side of the river. The views from here are spectacular.

Near the Citadel is one of the area’s several baths. Intensely hot water naturally comes from deep in the earth and is channeled into baths in several parts of the city. (The Hungarians also use it for heating.) In one area, the water comes up from the ground at an astounding 181º! Doctors frequently write prescriptions for treatments at the baths, and many people go to them for day spa treatments. The baths are frequented by those seeking relief from rheumatoid arthritis.

The Old Palace

Atop the hills of Buda sits the 1,400 room Royal Palace. It, like so much of the city, was once occupied by the Nazis. Outside it appears grand and spectacular. Now an art gallery, inside, it is anything but. On the other side of the old city center is the impressive cathedral, the Matthias Church, and the Fisherman’s Bastion with 7 turrets, one for each of the founding tribes. The pictures of Pesh from up here, across the Danube, are remarkable.


According to our guide, the Hungarian people feel they are better off today, even with the global recssion, than they were during communism. When the communist ruled Hungary, they could not travel freely. They could only eat Hungarian food (International foods were banned; so, they didn’t have Chinese or Mexican restaurants and didn’t even know what those foods tasted like. Two Mexican restaurants now thrive in Budapest.)

The communists strongly discouraged the arts, but today the artistic community once again thrives. Perhaps the arts are now seen as a statement of freedom and self expression against so many years of oppression. Extremely talented musicians of all ages were frequently seen and heard playing their instruments on the streets–the great classic literature as well as beautiful ethnic musical styles I had never heard (or instruments I had never seen) before.

The National Opera House, partially owned at one time by Franz Liszt who happened to live just a block or two down the street in an extremely gorgeous and large home, is heavily subsidized by the government. Tickets are between 2 and 35 euro, making attending the opera less expensive than going to a movie. As a result, performances at the Opera House are always sold out.

Bullet Holes and Bombed Buildings

The city is undergoing a great transformation. Many of the old and spectacularly gorgeous buildings, once nationalized, fell into a horrid state of disrepair but are being privatized and restored today. The New York Building is an example, as well as the hotel in which I am staying, The Four Seasons, formerly The Gresham Building. The architectural styles of their history are nothing short of stunning. Many of the buildings are completely redone on the inside and look new on the outside, having been cleaned of a century or more of dirt.

Some of these buildings still have large bullet holes in them from the world war. And in between some of these stunningly gorgeous buildings, many of which are old mansions from wealthy eras gone by, you can find hideous (typical soviet styled) buildings built by the communists to replace the buildings that were completely bombed out during the World War. Soviet architecture was all about utility and function, not form.

From the moment I arrived, I often felt as though I were in Paris. Karyn said that the influence of the French baroque architectural style has been significant here. In fact, Budapest, on the Pesh side, is commonly referred to as the Hungarian Paris. Several Hollywood movies have been filmed here when the story is said to be in Paris, because the city is virtually indistinguishable from Paris and the cost of filming, and living, here is so affordable–by comparison, it’s still astoundingly cheap! A 2 bedroom, 1 bath apartment in the prime city center near the Opera House would sell for only about 250,000 euro, even today!

Gruesome History

This small nation has lost over half of its population and land size “by being on the wrong side of just about every war in history.” I wassurprised to learn that it originally was not land locked! The reminders of their history are everywhere, from the bullet riddled buildings, the old soviet styled architecture that replaced the buildings bombed out by the Nazis, the “graveyard of old soviet statues” (now on the outskirts of town) that once littered the city, to the ancient walled old palace center in Buda.

These people have a broader historical perspective we in the US would do well to understand.

Cleveland, Yes: Ohio

Interestingly, Budapest, the capitol city of Hungary, is by far the largest city in the country of Hungary. The second largest Hungarian community lives in Cleveland, Ohio, the result of two enormous waves of immigration into the United States, making the size of the Hungarian community in Cleveland almost as large as their nation’s capitol. I was unaware of how many Hungarian people have been assimilated in the US entertainment industry: Tony Curtis (who recently passed away), Liberace, and Zsa Zsa Gabor. One of my mother’s favorite perfumes (Estée Lauder) is made by the Lauder family, a prominent, wealthy Hungarian family.

Nobel Prizes

The Hungarians take great pride in and place significant emphasis on education. Even though Hungary is a relatively small country, they are delighted to claim the greatest number of Nobel Prizes per capita of any nation in the world.


I found the temperament of the Hungarian people to be delightful. Here in Budapest, many people now speak English fluently. They are friendly and well aware, for better or worse, of American culture. (For example: The hotel desk clerk made frequent jokes about me being Mike Tyson and said he was going to spread the rumor that Mike Tyson was in the building.)

The people seemed to enjoy being outside (The weather today was utterly flawless!) and appear to be in no hurry at all. Many people were strolling about downtown, in the parks, and along the River Danube. The people at the hotel have gone out of their way to be helpful and accommodating. Despite the horror of their history, maybe even because of it, they seem happier and more optimistic than people in the US.

Nightfall on the Danube

The city is beautifully lit at night. However, the lighting source, unlike any I’ve ever encountered before, casts an unusual and intense orange tint to all of the images I shot. I had to color correct them all for tungsten lighting to get the correct color balance. None the less, the city view is gorgeous along the river.