As winter chill gives way to spring sun, it's not too early to start planning a summer trip to Budapest.
Budapest, Hungary's capital, straddles the Danube, with historic old Buda on the hill, and Pest with its atmospheric 19th century and Art Nouveau architecture. In recent years, many of the Budapest's historic sites have been restored, such as the Parliament building and St. Stephen's Church, and their interiors are breathtaking.
Part of Budapest's appeal is that it is very much a city. There's a beat, a pulse. You can head out the door; down the streets. On every corner there's something to see: There's the pedestrian mall of Vaci Utca and the enclosed Central Market with its busy stalls of foods and handicrafts. You can hop on the subway, which is easy to use and get just about anywhere. Anywhere that the trains don't go, there's a tramway waiting to take you there. Taxis abound and they are reasonable (by American standards). Budapest is small enough to get around but large enough to feel like a metropolitan cosmopolis. Many people speak English and the chirping sound of Hungarian will tickle your ears.
Budapest is also famous for its thermal hot springs and its spas, some dating back to the Roman and Ottoman empires. The Gellert Hotel, with its renowned Turkish bath, is a delightful way to spend an afternoon and a perfect way to get over jet lag. The outdoor pool of the Gellert is also famous for its artificial waves that cascade through the pool for 10 minutes every hour and delight adults and children of all ages.
Easy walking distance from the city center is what tour books refer to as "the Jewish triangle," an area that comprises many sites of Jewish interest. There is the magnificent Dohany Synagogue, with its neo-Moorish architecture, restored to its former glory by funds from the Hungarian government and American charities. Next door is a Jewish museum housed on the site where Theodore Herzl once lived. Behind the synagogue is a Holocaust memorial sculpture. The old Jewish Quarter, where the ghetto existed under the Nazis, is there in addition to the Rumbach and Kazinczy synagogues, which are currently being renovated. A Holocaust museum is being dedicated this April, on the 50th anniversary of the Nazi's entering Budapest. Not far away is "The Terror House," a former prison that is now a museum devoted to the history and crimes of the Hungarian fascist and communist totalitarian regimes.
A visit to Budapest is also a great way to explore one's roots. The Budapest Jewish Community Center at 12 Sip Utca (street) houses record offices of the Jewish community where it is possible to locate birth, marriage and death certificates of relatives. And, if you have a date of death, you may also be able to find the graves of your relatives. In my own case I was also able to find and visit the graves of my great-uncle Hugo Hatschek (my grandmother's older brother), as well as the grave of my great-great-grandmother, Jeannette Back, who was born in 1849 and died in Budapest in 1891.
Relatives or not, I can say that one of the highlights of my trip was the almost three hours I spent early one Monday morning wandering around the Salgotarjani Utca cemetery. Opened in 1874, this is the cemetery of the Hungarian Jewish bourgeoisie. As a place to wander, this cemetery is comparable to Pere-Lachaise in Paris or Hillside in Los Angeles, for that matter.
In Salgotarjani, the walls closest to the entrance and next to the cemetery walls house the vast mausoleums of the wealthy families. They are elaborate architectural statements. In keeping with ancient Jewish tradition, the brush there grows wild. Hiking through the brambles it is possible to leave the path behind and feel lost in the necropolis. A haunting feeling: lost in the lost world of Hungarian Jewry.
As I wandered around, it was fascinating to see the names on the gravestones, itself a chronicle of assimilation. There was a vogue, apparently, for French names, as witnessed by graves of women with such unlikely Jewish names as Nannette and Babbette. Other popular Jewish names included Jospehina, Antonia and Terez (as in the empress Marie-Therese). Men's names such as Mor (Maurice) Sandor (Alexander), Vilmos, Lipot, Fulop (Phillip) are not names we think of today as Jewish but they were common then.
Budapest boasts many summer festivals, including an opera and ballet festival (Aug. 1-19), as well as a Jewish arts festival, now in its seventh year, which will be held Aug. 29-Sept. 4.
Having attended last year's Jewish arts festival as a guest of the Hungarian Tourist Board, I can give you some idea of what to expect.
During the day, one is free to explore Budapest and its environs. A Jewish book festival takes place that same week -- this is a festival of books in Hungarian of Jewish interest, not books in English. However it is worth stopping by, not only because they have various klezmer bands playing, but it is fascinating to see and meet young Jewish book editors, magazine owners and see the crowds of young Hungarians there for whom being Jewish is not a political act, but rather just a fact of their being -- which to most Hungarians is progress.
In the evenings, there were concerts of classical music, opera, operetta as well as jazz and klezmer. There were also dance performances, even Israeli film screenings. While I was there I attended an evening of Hungarian operetta. (I have always had a weakness for Lehar's "Merry Widow.") There was a classical music concert in the Dohany, and a performance in the State Opera House by David D'or (whom I was assured is the Israeli John Mellencamp but who seemed more like Billy Joel to me), and Dudu Fisher .
As for lodging, we were put up at the Hotel Mercur-Korona, which was located within walking distance of the Central Market, the Vaci Utca pedestrian mall and the Dohany Synagogue. The rooms were somewhat dorm-room/Ikea but I would not complain (if my wife were there, she might have). The staff were extremely helpful and the breakfasts excellent (a buffet of Hungarian cheeses, meats, vegetables, along with the usual eggs, etc.). The chain is owned by Accor, who own Motel Six in the States, and I would say it's better than that. As for other hotels, if you want the high-end, there is the Kempinski Hotel in the center of town, and the Hilton, which sits atop Buda near the old castle hill. For many years the favorite for businessmen was the Forum but it seems in need of renovation. There are also several boutique hotels that have opened in the last few years worth exploring.
But all that running around is just an excuse to kill time between meals. Leave Dr. Atkins and your diet back home. In Budapest there is not just foie gras (cold), or foie gras (hot) for which the Hungarians are justifiably famous, but let's talk goose fat, or worse yet, goose cracklings. But those were just the appetizers. By the time dessert rolled around, chestnut puree seemed like just another several-thousand calories to charm the palate with. Although I didn't make it on this trip to the tourist mecca Gundel's or to any of the classic restaurants like Apostolok (though I visited it and it looks great), Szas Eves or Matyas Pince -- which I have visited on past trips. Several hip restaurants have opened such as Spoon on a barge on the Danube and the romantic Robinson's.
On my last trip, we went to a good assortment of restaurants: Jiraffe where, as an aficionado of cold cherry soup, I had a delicious cold raspberry soup; Karpathia where I gnawed on the roast goose as the zymbalom player performed my request: "The Third Man" theme. There's now a high-end restaurant at Gerbeaud's, probably the best cooking we had, but at lunch we were the only patrons (the dessert -- a somloy galuska, a pound cake with cream and chocolate sauce -- was off the charts). Strangely enough, one of the best meals we had was at a restaurant called Shakespeare -- not the most Hungarian-sounding -- but then again, Budapest boasts a statue to Shakespeare. (In fact, my grandmother's claim to fame was playing Puck in "A Midsummer's Night Dream" in Hungarian.) So despite the name, I recommend the food at Shakespeare as delicious.
I'm getting hungry again. I may just have to go over to the Csardas restaurant on Melrose for a little a wiener schnitzel and some cucumber salad to hold me until I can get back to Budapest. Or maybe some dumpling soup and the roast duck. A little Tokay wine would be nice....
For more information on Hungary, visit www.gotohungary.com .
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column on art and culture will appear every two weeks in The Jewish Journal.
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