Most evenings after coming home from university, Eldad would bury his head in readings for the next day’s classes and prepare for upcoming presentations. At about 8pm we would head out to meet friends for dinner or apertivo. Life had begun to settle into a nice routine.
We had also developed another routine – spending out weekends outside of Milano. The MBA classes were variable each week so it was my task to plan a weekend adventure around Eldad’s class times. Skyscanner became my new best friend.
Simply by entering the dates and departure destination, Skyscanner offered the option to select ‘anywhere’ as the arrival destination, and, based on the cheapest fare that weekend would determine our next destination. That was how we ended up planning a trip to Budapest, Hungary, Bratislava, Slovakia and Vienna, Austria – three countries all in the same [long] weekend!
So, on a Thursday afternoon, we headed to Bergamo airport for our Ryanair flight to Budapest. I didn’t really know much about the city beyond that it had been part of the Soviet empire, and that the cuisine probably included Hungarian Goulash. We stepped off the plane into the chilly air, jumped on the metro and checked into our hotel. Our first evening out, we explored the streets in the ‘down town’ and came across the Jewish quarter.
Here we discovered some very cool bars – nicknamed the ‘Ruin Bars.’ A number of abandoned communist buildings that were about to be knocked down were converted into multi-level bars. Making use of the central courtyard design, the bars often have different themes and mismatched furniture on the different levels. We enjoyed a drink at one such bar called Szimple. We were not only impressed by the setting, but by the low, low drinks prices as well!
The next day, keen to find out more about the history of the city, we visited a museum known as the ‘House of Terror.’ This was the Soviet HQ in Budapest and where many Hungarians went for interrogation. Being summoned to this building on Andrassy Avenue meant certain anguish. Some were tortured and imprisoned, some were sent to Gulags and some were not heard of again. It must have been a terrifying time for citizens. The museum was designed to take visitors on a thought provoking and emotional journey. At times, the exhibitions were uncomfortable to view and made your soul ache for humanity, but the overall theme was the resilience of the Hungarian people and a memorial to those who were lost or suffered under the Soviet regime particularly during the period after WW2. It was a heavy morning, but worth visiting this museum to get a sense of the history and experience of Budapest, Hungary and the Hungarian people under Soviet occupation.
In the afternoon, we joined a free walking tour of the Jewish quarter to find out more about the Great Synagogue in Budapest. We learned about the long history of Jews living in Budapest, times when they were respected and included members of society and times when they were persecuted and outcast. It was fascinating walking the almost unchanged streets within the Jewish quarter. It was especially heartbreaking to hear the stories during WW2, where Jewish people were forced to live in a ghetto. Several families were crammed together in small apartments, and then were eventually gathered by the Nazis to send to concentration camps. There was a memorial to the Jewish people in the garden of the synagogue. It was a silver weeping willow tree representing, and it also takes the form of an upside down hannukiah. The tree has 6000 leaves bearing the names of Hungarian Jews who were killed in the Holocaust during WW2. The inscription reads “Whose agony is greater than mine”
The stories we heard and the history we had learnt from our day had been a lot to take in. In the evening, we sat in one of the Ruin bars and wondered at the deep, and raw history that was absorbed into the walls and buildings of this city. We were intrigued and wanted to learn more so decided to join a walking tour the next morning that explored the whole city.
Taking a more light-hearted approach, our city guide was young and energetic, and keen to show us the best and brightest of Budapest. We learnt about the famous ruling family the Hapsburgs (who we would hear about again in our travels in Bratislava, Vienna and even Spain!) and explored the gorgeous palace area on the Buda side of the Danube River. The buildings were beautiful and certainly could compete with the architecture in Paris or Vienna, but sadly due to neglect under the Soviet era, many were only now just being restored to their former glory. We learnt a bit about how difficult Hungarian is to speak. For example try saying the word for ‘cheers’ correctly without hearing it.. ‘egészségedre’; and the many achievements of notable Hungarians including
Don Adams aka Maxwell Smart, William Fox, the founder of Fox studios, Erno Rubick, mathematician and inventor of the Rubicks cube and 17 Nobel prize winners!
The country and the city had been through so much, seen so many foreign rulers and seemed to have kept resilient throughout. To me, it felt like a city that was reclaiming its identity and proud and ready to share it with the world.
That evening, we had organised a wine tasting in a cave underneath the Hilton Hotel. It had not been easy to get into, but it was well worth it. Hungary produces some spectacular wines but not in large quantities, therefore it doesn’t really have a market outside of Hungary. We had a guide who told us about the wine regions and wineries where the wine we tasted came from. Some of the wines we tasted were only produced in a quantity of 2000 bottles – very special. Rosy cheeked, we headed back to our hotel having spent a fantastic day.