It’s been a few days since I’ve posted and I apologize. Midterms crept up and pushed out any chance of writing, and I took off for a new destination to celebrate my birthday with a friend- and sans-computer. Since I began planning this abroad trip, Budapest was on the list of places to visit, and I was fortunate enough to be able to go there for the big 2-1.
What they say about Budapest is true: it’s a stunning city. The Danube cuts it in half, and on the banks of Buda, the castle and church tower above the skyline. In Pest, the amazing Parliament building overlooks the city center. And on the river itself, bridge after bridge form graceful connections between the opposite shores, with cruise ships, barges, and smaller boats passing beneath.
We started our explorations with the Buda Castle, which is probably the most noticeable thing in the city. It looks like the US Congressional building on top of a giant hill. While the insides have largely been converted into museums (that I’ll see on a future visit), the outside offers breathtaking views of the city below. You can see up and down the river for miles each direction- and it’s completely free!
Just next door is St. Mathias Church and its world-famous ceramic roof. I have to count it among the most beautiful house of worships I’ve ever seen (although the Blue Mosque still beats it). Aside from its patterned-tile roof, the church features painted walls on the inside that must have taken months to complete. The entire building is decorated from roof to floor- although shamefully not much light is let in to really let you (and your camera) take it in.
If you descend down the back side of the hill, you can visit the Hospital in the Rock, a former top-secret facility buried underneath the castle in a cave system. Our guide explained that it was used during both World War Two and the Hungarian revolt against the Soviets to treat civilians and soldiers from both sides. It was a very modern facility for its time, but extremely overcrowded, making conditions miserable for its patients. During WW2, the water pipe was exploded in an accident, depriving the hospital of water and its steam-sanitizing machine for weeks until repairs were made. The site was only declassified a few years ago and totally worth a visit.
My friend chose the next site (although he was the one with a global data plan) and it turned out to be my favorite: the House of Terror. No, not a haunted house, but a memorial to the victims of the Nazi/Soviet occupation of Hungary. The country had a much darker history than I ever imagined, and this building used to house the prison where the police would torture and kill its enemies. As you pass through the rooms, you are given handouts to read, each describing horrifying acts and moments during the occupations. It’s a really well put-together museum and everything was given thought, from decorations, to videos, to the mood music and lighting. Most haunting of all is the basement cells where people were kept without beds, toilets, or- well- anything. Some weren’t allowed to stand up, others were continually blinded. In one of the cells is a photo of a former occupant, just 16 years old at the time, and 18 at death.
The final two sites we paid a visit to were a little more joyful. We bought tickets to an early morning Parliament tour, which was interesting, if a little short. We also visited the Miniversum museum, a very cute miniature Hungary/Germany/Austria, complete with an incredibly intricate model train set running around, under, and through it (and moving cars/buses!). I really appreciated the sense of humor that went into the works- Star Wars made an appearance, as did a UFO and multiple car crashes. That was courtesy of the two luckiest guys on the planet, who get to sit at a wall of computer monitors every day and control the trains- every kid’s dream come true.
A final thought: one thing that took a while to get adjusted to was the fact that Budapest is a former soviet city, which I’ve never experienced before. Soviet-style buildings dot the streets, and the city’s metro system is absolutely awful, with 40-year old cars on tiny tracks. One of the lines stopped working while we were on it, forcing us to get off halfway through our trip. I figured the city has had time to get it fixed, but it looks like the situation is only going to get worse before it gets better.