The three days Mandy and I spent in Budapest gave us an interesting exposure to a country and city pulled in many different directions over its history by various cultures. Budapest has been formed and influenced by Middle Eastern, Jewish, Austrian, Russian, and local cultures. It has been a crossroads for hundreds of years and is a testament to the achievements of many different empires. In many ways, these various cultures have stood on the shoulders of the great city of Budapest to advance their own stature in the world, not the other way around.
Hungary is now a medium sized member of the European Union at a population of 10 million but it is well regarded for its high standard of living and economic stature. It was at one point, part of the Habsburg Dynasty but later fell under Ottoman rule for over 150 years. It eventually combined with Austria to form the Austro-Hungarian empire which was a preeminent power in the beginning of the 20th century only to be broken up after WWI. Hungary was an axis power in World War II and Budapest was largely destroyed by British and American bombing during the war. It was eventually taken over by the Soviet Union and was a closely controlled communist republic under the Soviets until 1991.
Budapest remains the capital of Hungary and its largest city at a population of 3.3mm. It is one of the largest cities in the EU and one of its preeminent economic centers. The impressive Danube River bisects Budapest into two sides, Buda and Pest which at one point were neighboring and rival cities who chose to combine into the city we know today. Budapest has been around since the time of Christ, and nowadays the central area of the city is preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its well-preserved architecture. It is widely considered one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.
We spent our time in Budapest walking its streets and visiting its main architectural attractions. Our first day was spent getting to know the center of the city and touring the synagogue. The main synagogue in Budapest is the second largest in the world and is a reminder of the considerable influence the Jewish population made on the city leading up to WWII. The city held one of the largest and most powerful Jewish communities in Europe and was largely wiped out due to the atrocities committed by the Nazis and Hungarian Nazi sympathizers during the Holocaust. The synagogue and many Jewish restaurants stand as reminders of its past. On our second and last full day in town, we walked across the iconic chain bridge which was the first to connect the cities of Buda and Pest. While much of the city was destroyed by British and American bombing in WWII, the impressive lion statues sitting at the end of the bridge were unharmed and stand as icons of the city. We made our way up the cable car to the Buda castle which offered sweeping views of the city and Danube river below. We later walked down to the Hungarian Parliament and cooled off in some of the mist systems cleverly installed in the area in front of the impressive buildings.
The city possesses an edge and grunginess that is made elegant by the late 19th and early 20th century architecture dominating the scene. Gargoyles and intricately carved statues populate most façades and a myriad of buildings are covered by graffiti and street art that betray another era in time. These two themes combine to create a feeling of modern beauty that embraces the themes of today with the preeminence of the past. The Middle Eastern influences are also unmistakable and the constant reminder of Eastern Europe, and the Jewish culture provide an example at every turn of the city’s diverse and tumultuous history. Budapest presents a canvas that has been painted by many different eras and cultures over an immense history. The resulting work of art created by these influences is a prerequisite to understanding the true nature of the European identity. // Jeff