RS7_PHOTOGRAPHY

Budapest, Hungary, September 2019

31st October 2019
Written by: Rob Slusar

It feels like its been ages since I did one of these reports. Don’t worry, this one is not about aircraft.

After a long and mainly wet summer of airshows, it came to the holiday season.

Last year the wife and I did a 2 week holiday starting in Turkey before finishing up in Berlin. We decided this year that we would do something similar.

We would go to our normal Turkish chill-out spot, but beforehand we would travel to Budapest and then stop for a couple of nights in Istanbul before getting to our final destination.

The last week in August took forever to end, but eventually, we were able to finish work and drive to our airport hotel, ready for an early start the next day.

With a good night sleep and a good breakfast in our bellies, we walked the short distance from our hotel to the airport. Our Ryanair flight was on time and despite a really bad landing (the pilot seemed to miss the slip and had to slam his brakes on… hard), we were safely in Hungary.

The Trip

As with other holidays in Europe, we had booked an Air BnB. Our lovely host had arranged for a taxi to meet us at the airport. We jumped in and took a drive through the outskirts of the city, before arriving at our lodging in the heart of the Jewish District (District VII).

We chose this district partly due to its historical interest, and secondly due to its nightlife. As it turns out, the building we were in would have been in one of the ghettos set up during the war years.

We were surrounded by great restaurants(I will elaborate more on these later), and some of the larger Ruin Bars in the city, so we spent a lot of our time wandering in and out of the city centre, enjoying the bar scene and eating the wonderful local foods.

Budapest

Budapest is fairly centrally located within Hungary and is the designated the nations capital city. Located on the River Danube, it is historically two separate towns (Buda and Pest) which were linked by the first chain link bridge in around 1849.

The history of the region dates back many hundreds of years. The earliest history suggests it was land controlled by the Celts, before being held by the Romans, Ottomans, and more recently the Nazis and the Soviets. Hungary like many other former Soviet Union nations was only given its independence after the fall of the Iron Curtain some 30 years ago.

As you would expect, I took a bunch of photos while I was out there, and I will endeavour to tell some more of the history of the city with the images within this post.

The City

We spent a lot of the time wandering around the city and enjoying its architecture, it’s history and it’s culture. This included some of the positive history as well as some of the negative history. Here are a number of shots from in and around the city.

Parts of the city have maintained its historical style. Lots of the buildings, especially the one we stayed in felt very similar to the buildings of the same age in Berlin. Many consist of apartments built around a central courtyard. This is a build style the can be seen more openly in the ruin bars that are built in the disused buildings in the Jewish District.

As with a lot of cities of this age, the side streets are some of the best to photography. I like how these cities don’t have lamp posts a lot of the time. lights tend to be suspended above the road with cables linked between the buildings.

It has a very modern transport system, and with a travel card, you can get around to must of the city fairly cheaply. I believe for a 3-day travel ticket it was around 18 Euro.

This also included travelling on the trams and the trolleybus system which crisscrosses the city. I don’t have a trolleybus picture, but it is effectively a bus which is powered from overhead lines similar to a tram but without the rails.

Much like post-unification Berlin, there has been a lot of effort to make the street scenes look nice.

This can include artwork, sculptures as well as redecorated building facades. It really did feel at times like I was in East Berlin.

St Stephen’s Basilica is one of the most imposing buildings in the city, with some of the streets giving you a straight and clear view of the building.

The Hungarian Parliament building is another one of those imposing buildings. This grand structure was inspired by our very own Palace of Westminster. From what I could tell, their political system is not as chaotic as ours currently is.

St Stephen’s Basilica

Owing to its location in Europe and various occupations, there has been a wide variety of religions represented within Budapest.

St Stephen’s Basilica was constructed as a Roman Catholic church with its roots dating back to around 1810. The site where it is located was originally the site of a theatre before a temporary church was built.

It is named after St Stephen, the first king of Hungary. As is often common, a body part of his is retained within the church, his hand to be exact.

The Neo-Classical building is one of the two largest buildings in the city, equal with the parliament building (historic laws currently state no building can be taller).

Today, as well as a fully functional church it is a thriving tourist spot. Complete with fine arts, the internals are a grand reflection of the importance of religion in some cases.

The front facade of the building from one of the cobbled side streets. A number of the streets around it are pedestrianised.

The grand building is laid out in the form of a Greek cross with the main dome at the centre. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the dome took on a different use during the war owing to its 360 degrees view of the city.

The front of the building has two large bell towers.

The art at the centre of the dome with some of the ornate fixtures around it.

Another view of the very impressive dome. Even at 18mm, it was hard to get it all in.

Catholicism and other forms of Christianity are not the only major religion in the city. For a long part of its history, Budapest had a sizeable Jewish population. Alongside its plethora of churches, there are also a number of synagogues. One of which was the Dohány Street Synagogue.

Dohány Street Synagogue

Located in district VII, the Dohány Street Synagogue (also known as the Great Synagogue) is supposedly the largest in Europe seating up to 3000 people.

Built between 1854 and 1859, the Synagogue was built in a Moorish style. It was built by non-Jewish architects and as such it’s internal designs and fittings taking more from Christian churches than other Synagogues. Nowhere is it more evident than in the pipe organ (originally a 5,000 pipe organ). This is the only one to have this feature, and also the only one to have an attached graveyard.

The tallest part of the Synagogue is 75m high, somewhat lower than the 96m of St Stephen’s Basilica. It is still a very prominent building.

I didn’t take many pictures inside as they were setting up for a show and our time was short.

But as you can see, it is fairly church like inside.

Like most of Europe, the Jewish population of Budapest was deeply impacted during the war. The Synagogue became a base for German radio operations as well as stabling for their horses.

Around November 1944, the area around the site was turned into a ghetto during WW2, with all Jewish residents being moved into the streets and buildings around it.

During the 8 months it was active it was subject to overcrowding, with residents being denied even the basics of food and fuel.

Whilst many Jews were deported or sent to death camps, it is believed somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 people died in this ghetto alone.

The Ghetto was liberated by the Soviets in 1945, but large parts of it remained for a number of years. The last section of ghetto wall was not demolished until 2006.

You may remember these plaques from my reports from Berlin last year. These plaques have been placed throughout Europe at the former homes (or sites of homes) where displaced people lived during the war. This is the first I have seen outside of Germany, but it is a poignant reminder of how far the holocaust spread. This plaque remembers Kemény Móritz, who was deported and killed in 1944.

Through the course of the war years, the Jewish population was decimated from around 200,000 to somewhere below 70,000. Even now, the population hasn’t recovered.

Approximately 2000 who died in the ghetto are buried in mass graves around the Synagogue. This installation, The Holocaust Tree of Life Memorial was erected in the early 90s to remember the affected Jews of WW2.

Each leaf on the tree has been inscribed with the names of just some of the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews murdered in WW2.

Despite the extensive damage from bombing raids in later stages of the war, the site was returned to a place of worship during the Soviet era, albeit to a much smaller congregation.

It was refurbished in 1991 over a 5 year period and is now both a place of worship and a memorial to those lost at the hands of the Nazis and their supporters.

We didn’t get as much time to here as we would have liked owing to the setting up and closing early for a concert, but it is full of history and worth a look.

The House of Terror

The House of Terror is a museum in the city. It is based in the original building which housed the Arrow Cross Party (essentially Nazis in Hungary), and later the soviet formed AVH.

Whilst the Arrow Cross Party were a Nazi sympathising political party, the AVH was a secret police force much in the style of the Gestapo in Germany. Both of these organisations were involved in rounding up the Jews in WW2, and later those who opposed the Soviet Union.

The upper areas of the building are largely museum space, but when you descend into the basement, the cells, torture and execution spaces still remain largely intact. It is a sobering and harrowing place.

Although it has been refurbished for the purpose of the museum, a lot of it still remains as it did before.

The outside of the building adorned with the faces and names of the many victims of the torture and killing which took place inside the walls.

It was not possible to take pictures inside, nor did I want to. It is not the place for selfies and such like. It is a place of learning.

The museum is set up to chronicle the events that occurred in this building throughout the period of WW2 and Soviet rule. It is oppressive in places and makes you feel incredibly uncomfortable, which in my eyes it should do. I came out of the building deeply affected by it.

Like the concentration camps in Germany and Poland, this is another important site that should be visited if you are in the city. It is all to easy with the mists of time to forget the atrocities that happen. Hopefully, with places like this teaching us, we won’t let them happen again.

Shoes on the Danube Bank

The Shows on the Danube Bank installation is another well-known memorial in the city.

Conceived by film director Can Togay, it’s intention is to remember the Jews killed by the Arrow Cross militia.

They were ordered to remove their shoes before being shot at the edge of the river, their bodies falling into the water.

It is believed as many as 20,000 men, women and children would have suffered this fate.

The brass memorial is designed to represent the shoes left behind by those shot into the Danube.

The killings were indiscriminate. They included men, women and children (yes there are child-sized shoes, but I chose not to photograph them).

Families and partners were killed together.

Today it represents both a memorial and an art installation. Some people still leave flowers, burn candles and leave pebbles (a Jewish tradition) to remember.

I’ll leave you with this one. I felt the black and white made the shoes look more real, and a more stark reminder of the atrocities suffered by people at the hands of evil.

Final Thoughts

Phew, that was a long one. Congratulations if you made it this far.

I never intended for the blog to be this long, but I thought it was important to not just talk about my holiday, but to remember some of the very recent history that has befallen the city and its people.

I am not a historian, I am not a teacher, but this era of history is something that interests me and impacts me to a point that I feel it is my mission to tell these stories. I hope that what I have written here stays with you.

To end on a more positive note, the city is amazing. The food is great, the people are great and there are so many quirky locations I can see myself going back.

I don’t usually do this, but as I have made you sit through this, I thought I would share some recommendations of places to eat and drink.

Recommendations

Hungarikum Bisztro – This fantastic restaurant serves only traditional Hungarian food. It is a favourite of locals and world travellers alike, so much in fact that booking months in advance is required. The food is amazing and the staff are excellent in helping you chose your meal and giving you the best experience in Hungarian cuisine that you can find. It’s not expensive but the portions are nice and I couldn’t recommend this place more highly. Try the Hungarian Goulash.

Spinoza Cafe & Restaurant – This little restaurant based in the Jewish district is a traditional place selling simple and traditional Hungarian Jewish food. Whilst eating your meal, you are treated to a guy playing music on a piano which really adds to the ambience. We didn’t need to book here, but it was popular. Having tasted the food I can understand why.

Cat Cafe – One day it was raining, so alongside an escape room, we went to a Cat Cafe. If you haven’t done this before, it is your average cafe, only resident cats are allowed to roam free. These cats may come and sit with you, or just chill out around you, but it has a real homely feel about. Its a nice place to enjoy some coffee and cake for a couple of hours, and something different.

The End

After a whirlwind few days in Budapest, we finally boarded our plane to Turkey, stopping first in Istanbul for 2 nights before reaching Kusadasi for a further and more relaxing 8. We did some stuff whilst there which I will share in another report.

Hope you enjoyed this, and as always, thanks for looking.

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