I am sitting on a train from Prague to Berlin as I catch up on journal entries.
I woke up at 8:00 or 9:00 on Saturday. My brand new alarm clock hadn’t worked, but I guess I needed the extra sleep. After a breakfast of toast and conversation with two other travelers-- Kara from Washington and Jessica from California, twenty-something year olds who had been teaching English in Spain on a two-year work visa-- I headed out for the day. I decided to take a free walking tour of Budapest, led by young volunteers from the city. As I walked to the meeting place at Vorosmarty Square, I saw many similarities to Vienna (where I spent a month with the Luther Symphony last January)-- the architecture, the street signs, the types of businesses, the general vibe.
When I got to the Square (a couple minutes late, because I had gotten lost), there was a huge group congregated around a statue for the tour. We split into two groups, and mine-- led by a cute young Hungarian woman-- headed towards the State Theatre (which is being reconstructed), St. Stephen’s Basilica, Academy of Science, the Danube river, the former royal palace and the president’s house, St. Matthias’s church, the fishers’ bastion, and many other sites around Budapest on both sides of the river. We stopped for some great views on the hillside where the palace and the president’s house are located!
For my own sake more than anything else, and in case you’re interested, here are some historical facts about Budapest. Scroll down if you couldn’t care less.
- Hungarians originated in east Asia, so the name “Hungarian” is thought to originate from the Mongolian group called the Huns.
- I’m not sure I have the details right here: Hungary was a nation of pagan religions until St. Stephen proclaimed it a Christian nation back in the day. For this reason, St. Stephen is almost as revered as Jesus in Hungary.
- I think the Ottoman Turks tried to take Budapest in 1683, just like Vienna. From their culture, Budapest got coffee and its famous thermal baths.
- Hungary became part of the Hapsburg Empire for a good long while. I think it was the Hapsburgs that gave them money to build things and stuff... wow, my memory has failed me.
- Hungary was on the losing side of both World Wars, I think. Then they were part of the Communist block until 1989.
- The man who designed the beautiful Parliament building in Budapest was inspired by Westminster Abbey in London.
- Many buildings of the Jewish District fell into ruins during the Communist era. Afterwards, the first businesses to move back in were bars-- they didn’t care that the buildings were too run down, and the thick walls would block loud noise! This neighborhood is now full of “ruin bars.”
- After St. Stephen died, he was buried. Later on, his casket was for some reason reopened and his right arm had somehow been naturally mummified. The Hungarians cut it off and put it in a display case, which can be viewed in St. Stephen’s Basilica. Gnarly, huh?
The walking tour was excellent. I learned a ton about the history, and got a better idea of things I wanted to see/do with the rest of my time. Along the way, I struck up conversation with a 23-year-old guy from Israel, named Aviv. We talked quite a bit about our travels and exchanged knowledge of other cultures, etc. After the tour ended, we grabbed lunch together and had a great long conversation, in which we shared deep concerns and exchanged advice.
The delicious and incredibly cheap food-- a sizable plate of goulash and noodles with a mug of beer for about $5 USD-- and an awesome chat made for a great afternoon well-spent. I felt as though Aviv and I became good friends in the couple of hours that our lives’ paths crossed, and that was a cool feeling.
I went back to the hostel around 4:30 and got ready to walk to Szechenyi baths. On the walk there from the hostel (it took me a half hour), I encountered a museum which was fenced off, with a mob holding signs in front of the building and a billow of smoke coming from the mob. I asked a nearby security guard what was going on. He simply said, “Shooting.” I was stunned. I asked him for more detail, but he said “I have to listen to my radio.” I asked another man, and he explained that it was a movie shooting-- “Die Hard Five.” I laughed and walked off to the baths. (When you see the movie, the scene set in Moscow is actually in Budapest.)