Budapest Bound

Shop Around the Corner
I’ll admit that our first exposure to Budapest came from one of our favorite Christmas films, “The Shop Around the Corner.” The story was relocated to New York for its 1998 remake as “You’ve Got Mail,” starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

August 8, 2016.  I’m guessing that if most of you were asked to rank your top-ten ideal European destinations, Budapest probably wouldn’t be in the lineup.  Maybe it’s the lingering impressions of Iron Curtain countries as dismal.  Or maybe it’s Hollywood portrayals of Hungarians as blood-sucking vampires, devious gypsies and petty criminals, or brainless beauties.  (I’m thinking here of Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula; Peter Lorre in Casablanca and most every other movie he was in; and Eva and Zsa Zsa Gabor from T.V. classics like Green Acres and Gilligan’s Island.)  But whatever the reason, Budapest has had a bit of an undeserved bad rep, at least in the U.S.

Can you tell Matthew and his cousin Dave have common ancestral roots? Here, they're posing like the proud Hungarian lions they imagine themselves to be, in front of Parliament.
Can you tell Matthew and his cousin Dave have common ancestral roots? Here, they’re in front of Parliament, posing like the proud Hungarian lions they imagine themselves to be.

We ourselves hadn’t originally considered it one of our must-see spots during our overseas sojourn … except for one little thing:  curiosity about Matthew’s family roots.  His Romanian grandmother came from a small town theoretically located about 90 miles outside the city.  So when Matthew’s cousin, who shares the same grandma, came to visit us in Norway, it seemed like the perfect time to plan a side trip and check out some family genealogy together.

Gerlóczy Café Hungarian Omelette
My grumpy expression hints at my discontent at being interrupted for a photo while indulging in my favorite breakfast at the Gerlóczy Café — the Hungarian Omelette. Embedded with sausage, onions, peppers, potatoes, and sprinkled with paprika (of course), it’s OMG good!

We launched our brief, four-day Hungarian excursion from our home base at the Gerlóczy Café & Rooms — perfectly central to all the sights, and with wonderful staff and fabulous food, just as our travel guru Rick Steves had promised.  Our mornings began with breakfasting and people-watching while seated street-side in front of the restaurant’s open French doors.  But the AC in our rooms proved to be a real godsend, as the first couple of days soared well over 90 degrees — uber hot for two folks who’ve acclimated to cool Norwegian summers.

Hold Utca Market Hall, Budapest
Although smaller and slightly less grand than Budapest’s Great Market, the Hold Utca Market Hall offers both eye-popping architecture and cheap-but-fabulous food at the many little stalls housed under its gorgeous roofline.

Our first order of business involved getting a feel for the city’s layout by cramming in as many Rick Steves’s walking tours as possible — and by sampling as many Hungarian delicacies as could be stuffed in our stomachs.  (We decided to translate the country’s name as “Hungry,” since we spent a lot of time snacking our way through its streets.)  Luckily, fantastic food and great architecture seem to go hand-in-hand in Budapest; a stroll through each of the city’s many districts offers a feast for the eyes as well as the belly.

Secessionist / Art Nouveau Architecture, Budapest
Budapest is famous for its Secessionist architecture, a style known as “Art Nouveau” in the U.S. You’ll spot many examples throughout the city, although to my eye, their complex geometric ornamentation makes them look almost Art Deco.

We repeatedly found ourselves getting cricks in our necks and tripping over curbs while craning up for a look at all the whiplash curves of buildings from the Art Nouveau era.  The style became popular just in time for the country’s blowout birthday bash in 1896, when much of the city was rebuilt to celebrate the 1,000-year anniversary of the Magyars’ arrival in Hungary.  (Nomads from Central Asia, the Magyar are considered to be the ancestors of modern Hungarians.)

Paris Department Store, Budapest, Hungary
On the outside, the Paris Department Store appears to be a spare and simple temple to Art Nouveau style. But on the inside, its fanciful café looks like it borrowed its riotously extravagant design inspiration from Versailles.

The city is so immense that with our short stay, we decided to concentrate our explorations on the older bits of Budapest and save most of the Communist-era sites for another trip.  Below I’ve sketched brief overviews of our favorite moments and monuments, beginning with sights and ending with experiences.  But, it’s still a long post, so I’ve broken it up with some big ol’ photo galleries to give you a feel for the beauties of Budapest.  (Be sure to click on the images for bigger views and more fun facts.)

 Lotz Hall, Károly Lotz
The Versailles-ish café inside the Paris Department store is named Lotz Hall, after Károly Lotz, the famous Hungarian artist who painted its ceiling murals.

Elegant Andrássy Boulevard
Promenading along this Champs Elysées-like street makes you feel as if you should be carrying a parasol.  Considered Budapest’s grandest boulevard, Andrássy is lined with ornate Art Nouveau buildings, many of which house cafés featuring desserts as elaborate as their façades.  For the best of all possible worlds, visit the regal Paris Department Store (Párizsi Nagyáruház), now a bookstore and café with jaw-dropping architecture and mouthwatering desserts.  While it might appear like a “pinkie’s up” kinda place,  the welcoming staff gives the café a down-to-earth flavor.

Empress Elizabeth of Austria-Hungary, painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter
As painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter in 1865, this portrait of Empress Elizabeth (“Sisi” for short), shows off the tiny waist and flowing locks that made her a famed beauty.

And now, a bit of gossip.  The boulevard itself bears the name of the Hungarian count who helped Emperor Franz Joseph I turn the Austrian Empire into the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Incidentally, Andrássy also helped himself to the Emperor’s wife, “Sisi,” and their affair probably produced the third princess in the royal family.  I mention these folks only because their names crop up at virtually every site we visited.  So I figured I’d get the introductions out of the way.

If the Hungarian State Opera looks a bit familiar, it's because it was designed to rival that of Vienna's State Opera. Emperor Franz Josef agreed to the construction only on the condition that Hungary's Opera was smaller than Austria's.
If the Hungarian State Opera House looks a bit familiar, it’s because it was designed to rival that of Vienna’s. Emperor Franz Josef agreed to the construction only on the condition that Hungary’s Opera House was smaller than Austria’s.

But back to the boulevard.  After indulging in a piece of Opera cake at the Paris Department Store, we naturally followed up with a visit to the Hungarian State Opera House (Magyar Állami Operaház), a Neo-Renaissance building positively dripping with gilded décor.  The tour included a peek into the lavish bar occupied by the upper classes during intermission, as well as the ornate Emperor’s box, which can now be used by only two men — the President of the Republic of Hungary and the Prime Minister.  Also on the tour:  Empress Sisi’s favorite mirror.  Famously vain for her 16-inch waist, she thought the looking glass at the top of the Grand Staircase made her appear even slimmer.

Budapest's Chain Bridge
Built between 1842-49, the Chain Bridge formed the first permanent link from Pest to Buda. Previously, folks crossed the Danube via temporary pontoon bridges, ferries, or by treading over the ice in winter.

Historic Leopold Town
So now is probably a good time to mention an orienteering basic about Budapest:  it’s actually two cities.  Buda sits on one side of the Danube, while Pest claims the opposite bank.  They each have their own flavor, Buda being sleepier, hillier, and home to the huge Royal Palace, while Pest is livelier, flatter, and popping at the seams with historic sites, statues, and stately buildings.

Three architects specializing in different periods (Classical, Renaissance, and Baroque) designed St. István. Its architecture reflects a smattering of all three eras on the outside and inside.
Three architects specializing in different periods (Classical, Renaissance, and Baroque) designed St. István. Its architecture reflects a smattering of all three eras on the outside and inside.

Many of these can be found in Leopold Town, the center of city life and arguably Pest’s most august district.  You could easily spend a whole day in just this one little neighborhood and still encounter practically every political period, formative event, and decorative style in the country’s colorful past.  For a panoramic view out over it all, be sure to stop in the stunning St. István’s Basilica and climb up its tower.  And don’t miss the church’s gruesome relic — St. István’s righteous right hand, severed, mummified, and potentially still performing miracles.

Hungarian Parliament Building, Budapest
Another familiar-looking building, the Hungarian Parliament takes its design inspiration from Westminster Palace, Britain’s Parliament Building. Both are in the Neo-Gothic style, were built in the late 1800s, and sit facing riverbanks.

Probably Pest’s biggest claim to fame is the unbelievably huge Hungarian Parliament building.  The thing is enormous, with two majestic wings that identically mirror one another as an advertisement for the power of the “Dual Monarchy” — the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Today,  visitors can tour one half, while Hungary’s National Assembly occupies the other.

Changing of the Guards, Hungarian Parliament, Budapest
For the changing of the guards, an officer plugged in his boom box and began broadcasting a jaunty military march. His men then swung their swords around in a heavily choreographed dance routine that lasted all of 15 minutes. Thankfully, nobody lost an eye.

The interior is blindingly opulent and includes a quick peek at the supposedly 1,016-year-old Hungarian crown.  But beware of the guards, whose intermittent swordplay might leave you with some new piercings if you venture too close to the case.  Should you enjoy their military maneuvers, you’ll really love the snappy little dance number they put on outside the palace, when it’s time for the changing of the guards.

Royal Palace in Buda, Hungary
The reconstructed Royal Palace contains two museums — the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum — neither of which we got to visit, as our timing was a little off.

Regal Castle Hill
Looking across the Danube River from Parliament, you can’t miss Castle Hill –it’s dominated by the sprawling, blue-domed Royal Palace that looms over Buda’s side of the city.  The old palace that once stood here was the largest in Europe, but the Habsburgs accidentally blew it to smithereens in 1686, when they laid siege to the hill in a successful attempt to free Buda from the Ottoman Turks.  A big-but-badly-conceived, post-WWII reconstruction sits on the same spot today.

Matthias Church (Mátyás Templom) and fountain
While the inner core of Matthias Church (Mátyás Templom) is truly Medieval, the frilly Neo-Gothic exterior owes its existence to a 19th-century “sprucing up.”

From the palace, a short stroll takes you through the winding streets of the old town, where several homes boast Gothic arches, and many walls are studded with decorative fragments from the Middle Ages.  Altogether, the place has a distinctly Medieval feel that’s quite different from the predominantly Art Nouveau elegance found elsewhere in Budapest.

Some of the most spectacular architectural standouts from the Middle Ages — such as Matthias Church and the Disney-esque Fisherman’s Bastion — owe their “authentic” appearance to renovations carried out as part of the 1896 millennium celebration.  (Yep, it’s hard to get away from the effects of that pivotal date.)  But at least the views across to Pest’s side of the river are genuinely breathtaking and worth the hike.

Sculptor Imre Varga, Tree of Life, commemorating Holocaust victims, Great Synagogue, Budapest
Sculptor Imre Varga created this stainless steel willow, called the Tree of Life, in 1990 — right after the fall of communism made it possible to acknowledge for the first time the Holocaust in Hungary. Each of the 4,000 leaves on the tree has been etched with the name of a Holocaust victim.

The Poignant Jewish Quarter
Practically every major city in Europe has a Jewish quarter and a heartrending tale to go along with it.  You’d think with so many reminders of where anti-immigration sentiments and religious intolerance can lead, we’d be in a different political place today.  Guess not, considering the rising popularity of nationalistic, right-wing platforms everywhere.  Seems like everyone is looking for outsider “fall guys” — foreigners that can be held responsible for the world’s financial problems and the growth pains that come with globalization.

Carl Lutz Sculpture, Budapest, Hungary
Not everyone gave into hate and prejudice. This sculpture honors Carl Lutz, Swiss vice-consul to Hungary, who is shown tossing a lifeline to a Jewish man. By setting up safe houses and creating safe-conduct documents that allowed 10,000 Hungarian-Jewish children to leave the country and tens of thousands of Magyar Jews to immigrate to Palestine, he saved 62,000 people from the Holocaust.

That’s essentially how the story started for Budapest’s Jews.  After losing two-thirds of their territory during WWI and suffering economic hardships, Hungarians looked for someone to blame, and Jews became a convenient scapegoat.  The country instituted the first Anti-semitic laws in Europe and allied with Hitler early on.  But after Germany’s invasion of Hungary, it was the Nazi-installed Arrow Cross regime that soon began mass executions and deportations to death camps.

Rumbach Street Synagogue, Budapest, Hungary
Today, the synagogue at Rumbach street stands almost in ruins and is no longer used for services, but its remnants hint to what was once a thriving and elegant Jewish Quarter.

At that time, around 25 percent of Budapest’s population was Jewish (the city’s nickname was “Judapest.”)  Today, that number has dropped to less than five percent.  The number of Jews actually practicing Judaism is even smaller still. Why?  Understandably, many Europeans of every religious persuasion lost their faith after enduring unspeakable devastations daily throughout WWII.  (I often wonder how “devout” America would have remained had we experienced such constant atrocities on our home soil.)  Taking a tour through Budapest’s Jewish Quarter will make the costs of indulging in hatred, prejudice, and the blame game painfully clear.

Gozsdu Courtyard & Artisan Market
During the day, Gozsdu Courtyard turns into an artisan’s market, but at night, it’s home to great restaurants and the occasional fashion show. One night, while trying to get back to our hotel, we inadvertently joined the lineup of sauntering models who were showing off purses made from recycled materials.

Night Life
And speaking of the Jewish Quarter, its rundown streets hold some of the best entertainment in the city.  Lots of hipster bars — called “ruin pubs” because they squat in derelict buildings awaiting demolition or renovation — offer creative drink menus and a funky atmosphere.  One of our favorite haunts became Gozsdu Courtyard, where you can check out local artisan handiworks, catch an impromptu fashion show, or get a great meal (we liked DiVino for its local dishes and selection of Tokaji wines.)

Hungarian Parliament, Danube River
The Hungarian Parliament building is beautifully lit at night and best seen from the deck of a boat. The two-hour cocktail cruise is well worth the $25 per person price tag for the fabulous views and music.

Of course, we’re never one to look askance at typical “tourist traps” like evening boat rides and folk-dance performances.  I often find these still have merit in that they offer an opportunity to dip your toe into cultural history … while taking a momentary load off your weary feet.  One night, we hopped aboard a sunset Danube River Cruise and sat sipping wine on deck, where we got to admire breathtaking views of the riverfront and listen to the musical stylings of a lively Gypsy Jazz Band.

Hungarian Folk Ensemble & Orchestra
Dancers from the Hungarian Folk Ensemble perform the “Women’s Bottle Dance.” I’m not sure whether they were celebrating new wine or showing how sober they still were after drinking half a bottle.

On another evening, we enjoyed a performance of the Hungarian Folk Ensemble Orchestra.  Not only does the show give you a wide sampling of costumes and exhaustingly energetic dances from various regions of the country, but you’ll also get a Cliff Notes version of famous songs and composers you’ve heard before but never realized were Hungarian.  Plus, the musicians are top notch — I don’t think I’ve ever heard such amazing violin improvisations, even in the many Django Reinhardt Gypsy Jazz festivals we’ve attended in Chicago.  Bonus: your $50 ticket also nets you a peek inside a beautiful Belle Epoque theater.

 Szécheyni Baths
The various bathhouses mix cool water with the hot springs to make the temperatures more bearable, from a comfy 36° C/97°F) to a scalding 42° C/108°F.

Popular Public Bathhouses
You might be surprised to find out that Budapest’s number one tourist attraction is a collection of grand public bathhouses.  The city sits atop a “hotspot” in Earth’s crust (kinda like Yellowstone), where lava-heated water percolates up to the surface through 123 hot springs that get channeled into two dozen thermal baths.  In fact, the name Pest comes from a Slavic word for “furnace,” and I’m here to tell you that partaking in some of the hottest pools definitely feels like sitting in a lobster pot.

Szécheyni Baths, Budapest, Hungary
Think of the Szécheyni Baths as your basic public swimming pool — but about ten times as big and beautiful. You’ll meet Budapest’s regular folk here, not hoity-toity tourists.

We tried two different bathhouses, the first being the Szécheyni Fürdö (meaning “Szécheyni Baths”), which is a great place to go for nervous newbies.  There’s no nudity, and the local crowd is mixed — from grandkids to golden-agers, and from the fit-and-trim to the not-so-much — so it’s easy to blend in without feeling like a fish out of water.  Plus, the various outdoor pools are huge and can accommodate the dense crowds that seem to accumulate by noon.

Szécheyni Bath, Budapest, Hungary
Look closely at Szécheyni’s interactive pool and you’ll see the jacuzzi in the inner circle, wrapped by the mildly nauseating current pool (at least for seasick-prone people like me).

The Szécheyni’s most interactive pool (and most tolerable temperature-wise) contains a series of bubbling floor jets that switch on and off randomly, meaning that a sudden hot-water enema might be in your future.   Two concentric rings within the center of this pool offer additionally entertaining moments.  The innermost is a true hot-tub experience, while the outermost is a vertigo-inducing whirlpool that usually elicits more than one cry for help to escape its current.  We spent an entire morning here and left wishing we had a whole day to just pool hop, challenge the locals to a game of chess (boards are built into the poolsides), and try out some of the stinkier therapeutic pools indoors.  (These supposedly contain various mineral mixes that can make the water smell a bit more like rotten eggs, ).

Gellért Bath Wave Pool, Budapest, Hungary
Matthew and Dave prepare to catch a wave at the Gellért outdoor pool, which is open only in summer. Watch out at the shallow end — the waves can toss you right into the stone stairs.

Our other bathhouse selection, the Gellért Fürdö, is a bit more upscale in atmosphere, being as it’s part of the posh Gellért Hotel.  However, its outdoor wave pool seems like something from a raucous waterpark.  Matthew and his cousin Dave bodysurfed until they felt they’d sustained sufficient bruises, then we all retired to the nearby smallish cauldron until we couldn’t take the heat any longer.  Not surprisingly, despite our pain, we all declined a dip in the adjacent antidote — a frigid plunge pool consisting of an oversized barrel filled with ice water.

The Gellért's colonnaded, cool-water lap pool looks like an ancient Roman bath.
The Gellért’s colonnaded, cool-water lap pool looks like an ancient Roman bath.

Then with only a few minutes left before closing time, we checked out the gorgeous Greco-Roman-ish indoor pools:  one that’s small, steamy, and bedecked with spouting fountains, the other that’s much larger, chillier, and designed for swimming laps.  (Since this last one required purchasing a bathing cap, we skipped it.)  Even though we didn’t have the time or cash to indulge in any of the many spa or medical treatments available at both facilities, we all unanimously decided that Budapest’s baths were the highlight of our trip.  Don’t let the idea of bathing in a public bathhouse scare you off — they’re a clean, family friendly, inexpensive, and not-to-be-missed experience!

Doll Vendor, Budapest, Hungary
This lady wears a costume much like those I’ve seen in family photos of Matthew’s Romanian great-grandparents. Two of the three Toma brothers and their families left the Kingdom of Hungary in 1913 to avoid being conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian Army. The brother that stayed behind tried to keep the family flour mill going, but he was forced to join the military and was never heard from again.

Tracing the Family Tree
Since I started out this story by mentioning Matthew’s Hungarian roots, I’ll finish up with a report on our genealogical progress.   Throughout our journey, Dave’s mom supplied us with immigration papers, family records, and newspaper clippings to try and help us locate Grandma Rose’s (née Rosa Toma) hometown of Bel-Bihar.  But no luck, we couldn’t find the place on any map.  Part of the confusion is that we know she was Romanian but spoke Hungarian and was reported to be from Transylvania, although her family home was in a town supposedly located only 90 miles outside Budapest. All seemingly contradictory bits of info.

Balázs Folk Art Gallery Pottery, Budapest, Hungary
Pictured are two of the pieces that I picked up at the Balázs Folk Art Gallery. You’ll see how much their shapes resemble that of Neolithic pottery from the Hungarian Great Plain if you check out the photo galleries on Bill Parkinson’s website.

One day by chance, we passed by Balázs Folk Art Gallery, a small store with gorgeous and faintly familiar ceramics that caught my eye.  We stepped inside, and the shopkeeper came forward to tell us about the pieces, which were made by her archaeologist brother, who was inspired by Neolithic pottery.  My ears pricked up, as I worked for several years with Bill Parkinson, a Chicago Field Museum archaeologist who studies Neolithic settlements on the Great Hungarian Plain.  (For more info, check out the Neolithic Archaeology website I developed for Bill at, an online program that I wrote and managed for the museum, before I moved to Norway.)

Biharia Region of Transylvania
Matthew’s grandmother came from the Biharia Region of Transylvania, which was once part of the Kingdom of Hungary. As a consequence for its role in WWI, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved, and 75% of the Kingdom of Hungary became Romania, with Biharia straddling the border. On the Hungarian side, the bright red half is called Hajdú-Bihar County (the two counties merged after WWII), and on the Romanian side the dark red half is called Bihor County. Confused yet? We sure were.

Unbelievably, the shopkeeper knew Bill, and we chatted about what a small world it was.  Eventually the topic of family connections to Hungary came up, and Matthew and I explained our conundrum of locating the city of Bel-Bihar.  The woman piped up, “I’m from Bihar! It’s a county in Transylvania that was divided in half after the war, so part of it is now in Hungary, while the other part is in Romania.”  Who would have thought that out of all the shops to pop into in Budapest, we would have found the one with an owner who was both from Matthew’s grandmother’s neck of the woods and who knew an archaeologist I worked with?

While the shopkeeper had never heard of Bel (presumably a small town), at least for our next trip to Budapest, we’ll have a better idea of where to begin our wanderings.  And on that note, I’ll sign off by hoping that everyone gets a chance to pay the gorgeous city a visit someday — we can’t wait to go back!

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