If we had been shown the building in person, we would never have stayed there. But then we would have missed a remarkable setting which transports us to a different age. Our apartment for the next two weeks is on Rakoczi Ter, named for Ferenc Rakoczi, a Transylvanian count who was a leader in the failed revolt of 1703-1711.
We enter at street level through a heavy metal gate. The elevator is dark and out of order; we will never use it. We carry our luggage up three flights and pass through another locked iron gate leading to a passageway and finally, to our apartment door. Our enormous bedroom is connected to an equally large living room with French doors opening onto a small balcony, the two rooms 100 feet from end to end. We gaze open-mouthed at the twenty foot ceilings, chandeliers and numerous wall sconces, oriental carpets, antique wooden armoires, plush velour sofas, chairs and benches, all slightly worn.
The most amazing feature is an entire wall of stained glass windows created by the same artist whose work is a centerpiece in the magnificent Hungarian Parliament building. We are immersed in 19th century opulence, updated with a modern kitchen and curved bathtub.
The seven story building was constructed in 1896 by a wealthy Jewish family. Our rooms appear to have been sections of the original apartment which would have been used for entertaining. It is impossible not to wonder what happened to the family that lived in these rooms. Did they escape before the Nazis started rounding up Jews or were they shipped off to Auschwitz?
These questions haunt many buildings in Budapest.
freedom isn’t easy
Outside, the trams and subways work, there are tourists, modern shopping streets and even malls. But always look up. The architecture of Budapest repeatedly evokes its distinguished, artistic and wealthy past. My camera is busy.
There is also in the city the free expression of discontent. Our taxi driver is upset with his wages. What good are the modern hotels, free-spending tourists, and democratic institutions, if the common people are still poor? There is a sense of uncertainty. Are we going in the right direction? Do we really want the euro, scheduled for 2008? Does democracy produce the benefits which its proponents tout?
For all of its 1000 year history, Hungary has been battered by the conflicts of the European behemoths, Habsburg Austria, Germany, and Russia. It has fought, and lost, many wars of independence, and was on the wrong side of both 2oth century world wars. Although its history includes brief and tenuous periods of freedom, it is only since the departure of its Soviet rulers in 1991 that the country has been truly independent.
The struggle to define and articulate Hungary’s unique nature and its place in the world is quite visible, even to a visitor.
Some months after we left Budapest, this tension led to large and unruly gatherings protesting economic policies tilted to favor the rich. There were allegations of corruption at the highest levels.
Bonfires were lit. A palpable yearning for more powerful leadership at both city and national levels could be felt.
Is this a residual yearning for more effective democracy or for the totalitarian past where the pressure of individual decision-making did not impinge so incessantly on everyday life? If the latter, will such longings threaten the stability of the still new and perhaps fragile democratic government?
The gatherings produce violence, although no lives are lost.
concert celebrates Soviet departure
The Budapest Festival Orchestra, conducted by Ivan Fischer, performs an outdoor concert at Heroes Square, a monumental open space flanked by glorious museums on either side. There is a sense that this space has been the scene of many events central to Hungarian history, often tragic.
At the center stands a 120 foot high Corinthian column, topped by the Archangel Gabriel. At the base of the column are six ancient Magyar warriors, fierce even as statues. But on this night, there is joy instead of tragedy. Swarms of happy young people are precariously perched on each available ledge of the soaring column.
We had wondered where we would sit on this great open space. The solution to the problem is ingenious. Cardboard seats, sponsored by local businesses, are free for the taking, and they are remarkably comfortable.
Before the concert, Budapest Mayor Demszky Gabor speaks movingly of the departure of the last Soviet soldiers from Hungarian soil on June 19, 1991. Most of those attending have personal memories of the Soviet era. Some still look over their shoulders. The mayor presents a sober but reassuring presence. We are ok. We will succeed.
The concert begins with a selection of delightful sketches by the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, and the pride of his countrymen is seen in their smiles. The main selection, Beethoven’s Seventh, one of the most exultant of all symphonies, is played with soaring enthusiasm. The Maestro and orchestra appear to enjoy every note. The featured flutist sways her entire body as she plays.
The night has reached full darkness before Fischer brings Beethoven to his thunderous conclusion. We feel the exultation of Hungarian freedom in the wild joy of the final movement, understand why it was chosen. The audience cheers on and on, and the flutist, in appreciation perhaps of the feelings she has shared with us, as well as her fine performance, receives a standing ovation.
Everyone is permitted to take the cardboard chairs with them. One family unfolds their chairs and makes a pile of what seems to be a dining room set for fourteen people.
the New York Cafe … three for three
“May I take a picture?”
“But you must,” says the tuxedoed headwaiter with an appreciative smile.
We are generally satisfied with two out of three when we dine: ambience, quality of food, reasonable price. The ambience is clearly extraordinary.
The New York Café originally opened in October of 1894. It was described at the time as the most beautiful café in the world, and soon became the literary center of Budapest, home to writers and journalists, and later, film people.
World War One interfered, but the café rebounded into its second life between the world wars, adding food and becoming one of the city’s most elegant restaurants. During the Second World War, the café and restaurant were closed and the building became, under Nazi rule, the most beautiful warehouse in Europe. It reopened in 1954 but suffered under Soviet rule and eventually declined to a barely recognizable shell of its former glorious self.
Two weeks before our arrival, after five years of loving restoration at the hands of the Italian Boscolo Group, the Café re-opened within the similarly restored and renamed Boscolo Hotel, a golden fantasy of marble floors, curved columns, and statues. We gazed with open mouths.
The menu featured a wide selection of foods not typical of Budapest. The promise of delicate fish and sauces. A choice of fine wines. The lobster and pasta entrée, with a light cream sauce, was exquisite. My favorite in any country, pea soup, did not disappoint, and the medallions of sole, set among lightly sautéed potatoes, was a visual as well as culinary delight. For dessert, we shared a sinful hot chocolate pastry smothered in thick chocolate sauce.
The bill, presented in Hungarian forints, translated to $80.00.
Three for three.
the Szechenyi baths
Located in the middle of City Park, the Szechenyi Baths are powered by underground thermal springs, and enhanced by palatial Habsburg architecture, a huge dome and numerous Baroque statues.
Although easy to find, actually getting into the baths is complicated. There are separate entrances for those who want lockers and those who want changing cabins. At yet another location, towels are rented, with a hefty deposit to assure return. It’s been 15 years since the Soviet Union left, but vestiges remain, reminiscent of the key ladies who used to rule each floor of Russian hotels.
There are three outdoor baths within an expansive ornate structure. In the center is a lap pool. There are no Olympic aspirants doing laps this morning, where doggy paddle is the main stroke and the pace ranges from leisurely to dawdling.
Flanking the lap pool on the far side is the family area. From time to time, Jacuzzi like flows emerge unexpectedly and joyously from the floor and the walls. In a circular section of the pool, the water flows fast and pulls you around, running and laughing in the swirling tide. The waist high water is deliciously warm, refreshing even on a hot summer day.
The third pool is much hotter. The crowd here is older; there are no families with children, no swimming, only standing. Serious men play chess on stone tables while the hot water eases their elderly muscles and joints.
I’m tempted, but I don’t dare ask to play.
Jewish Budapest – Raoul Wallenberg
Before World War II, a quarter of Budapest’s population was Jewish, but then 600,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered by the Germans. Adolph Eichmann personally supervised the extermination of what was by then the only significant Jewish community left in Europe.
Raoul Wallenberg also came to Budapest.
I had brought Kati Marton’s Wallenberg: Missing Hero to Budapest with me and read it in the days before we visited the synagogue.
Wallenberg’s story is extraordinary. A member of a leading family in Sweden, and possessing diplomatic status, Wallenberg injected himself into one dangerous situation after another, literally pulling Jews out of the assembly squares and transport trains that would have sealed their doom.
When the Russian army laid siege to Budapest, Eichmann fled westward towards Vienna. Wallenberg presented himself to the Russians, expecting his diplomatic credentials to protect him. Instead, he was arrested and transported to Moscow, and never heard from again.
After the war, the Jews of Budapest prepared a statue to express their gratitude for what Wallenberg had done for them. The statue was destroyed by the occupying Russians before it was unveiled.
But, if you take the 4-6 tram to the end of the line, a stop ironically named Moskva (Moscow) ter, and then take a second tram another four stops into the residential Buda side of the city, there is a small grassy space containing a remarkable piece of sculpture, completed in 1987 but not erected until after the Soviets left.
Wallenberg is dressed in his long winter overcoat, his right arm extended slightly forward as if blocking some Nazi from murdering yet another Jew. He is flanked by sections of wall, which are much higher than his own figure, but which he has figuratively split, providing a way out for the otherwise condemned. Before him is a carpet of blue and yellow flowers, the colors of the Swedish flag. Small stones have been placed at Wallenberg’s feet, as would be done at a Jewish cemetery.
I say kaddish before his statue and pray that somewhere, Raoul Wallenberg has found justice.
Constructed in the 1850s, the Great Synagogue of Budapest is one of the largest synagogues in the world, a Moorish building with seating for 1,500 men downstairs and 1,500 women in the balconies. The synagogue was of course taken over by the Nazis, who used the basement for a horse stable and the courtyard as an assembly point for the Jews’ final trip.
Here, Raoul Wallenberg confronted the Nazi thugs, including Eichmann himself. We can feel his powerful presence as we stand where he has been.