A new day brought us to Budapest’s famed Jewish district, located in the city centre in a compact and sprawling neighbourhood. While the district is undergoing rapid gentrification, with novel coffee shops and bars taking the place of local grocery shops, it still retains much of its messy charm. The Jewish have settled in modern-day Hungary since the 13th century, but have endured centuries of persecution. In 1944, the Jewish district was declared Budapest’s ghetto, segregating thousands of Jews from the rest of the population and forcing many wealthier families away from their homes.
Today, the district is home to the Dohány Street Synagogue, the largest of its kind in Europe, as well as other synagogues dotted around the region. Also of note in the area is the Holocaust Memorial Centre and a Jewish Cemetery, similar to its Prague counterpart. In addition to traditional Jewish buildings and monuments, the Jewish quarter is home to street art, with abandoning home being adorned with vibrant and surreal murals. Of course, we had the foresight to visit on the Sabbath, thereby making most of our planned sightseeing a moot point.
What did remain open, however, was the bustling Goszdu street market, a series of interconnected courtyards where restaurants and small shops are tucked away. Lining the darkened alleyway are street vendors touting various hand-made souvenirs. The neighbourhood has a distinct bohemian atmosphere, and we were not surprised to find designers and artists hidden away behind unassuming facades. Nonetheless, given the unceasing gentrification of the neighbourhood, traditional homes and shops are increasingly replaced by luxury apartment complexes and clubhouses, presumably to take advantage of the tourist influx into this district. That is not to say that the district has become unauthentic; turn the corner, and you might find yourself in a dilapidated and concrete alleyway, posters and graffiti plastered across the walls.
A brief walk under the gruelling midday sun brought us to 60 Andrássy Avenue, a house on one of Budapest’s main avenues. This was an address which, not too long ago, would strike fear into many citizens. This erstwhile headquarters of the Hungarian secret police has been converted into a museum, Terror Háza, its façade dominated by the brusque angular roof ornament, with the unavoidable letters “TERROR” casting a menacing shadow onto the pavement below.
The house of terror documents a tragic story. It tells the story of how Budapest and Hungary was terrorised and brutalised, first by the Nazis during World War II and their supporting Arrow Cross Party, and subsequently by the Soviet secret police during the Cold War. During World War II, the Nazi-backed Arrow Cross Party murdered thousands of Jews and Romani, and people were deported to concentration camps across central Europe. The party effectively fell with the end of the Second World War and the takeover of Budapest by Soviet forces.
You’d think the end of the war also spelled the end of atrocity in Budapest. Not so. The rise of Soviet power coincided with the utmost paranoia and surveillance from the Soviet secret police. Hundreds of thousands who were suspected to be enemies of the state were kidnapped and trafficked to labour camps, where the majority would die from malnutrition and starvation. With the rise of communism, other institutions such as popular culture and religion were tyrannised. The atrocities of Soviet rule was none the more evident in the basement prison, reached via a slow-moving lift, during which an interview of an ex-prisoner was broadcast. In the basement, torture cells and the most inhumane of living conditions have been preserved. These included standing cells where prisoners would be forced to crouch in a minuscule cell, cells which would prevent prisoners from ever fully stand up, and primitive hole-in-the-floor toilets. To think that people were suffering here not even 40 years ago is truly mind-boggling.
The terrible conditions of the Andrássy Avenue prison were punctuated by perhaps the most moving exhibition of all. The final exhibition of the House of Terror contains the testimony of the ultimately fruitless 1956 Budapest revolution, lasting a brief 3 weeks before all efforts were ruthlessly quashed by the Soviet army. The uprising began as a student demonstration, resulting in widespread violence. The government collapsed and students self-organised into an impromptu militia. Despite an agreed negotiation between the USSR and the student body, the Politburo moved swiftly to crush the rebellion, killing thousands of revolutionaries and exiling even more. By early 1957, the new Soviet government had annihilated all public opposition by means of mass arrests. The exhibit was bookended by a moving tribute to the students, a backlit room with wiry metal crosses, simulating a grave, or perhaps a candlelight vigil, commemorating all those who had lost their lives during the uprising.
Háza Terror boils down to the purpose of museums. On one hand, museums must collect and preserve notable items and ideas which mark particular anthropological waypoints, so that we do not forget; on the other, museums must also become institutions which promote progress by way of education and enrichment, promoting unity and transparency, to give voice and agency.
The rousing visit to the museum almost demanded a physical and spiritual cleansing. We turned to one of Budapest’s oldest and best-known institutions: the baths. Budapest sits on top of a hotspot of geothermal activity, and people have been bathing in the resulting thermal baths since the pre-Roman times. The Celts, Romans, and Turks all relished their opportunity to soak in the sulphurous springs. The influence of the Turks are particularly striking, constructing numerous bathhouses around the city, some of which are still operational today.
The bathhouses are steeped in tradition. Many baths are open only to either gender on alternate days, and while the requirement for nudity is less stringent than their Japanese counterparts, many go naked. Each bathhouse is a separate territory and holds their unique, often unwritten, rules: some will implore you to use a towel or bathmat in the sauna, while others are much more lax in that regard.
Rudas Baths offer an authentic bathhouse experience. Rudas, at the foot of Gellért Hill, overlooks the Danube and has been in use since the 16th century, built during the Turks’ occupation of Budapest. While traditionally open only to men, the baths are today open to women on Tuesdays and are mixed on weekends. A thorough renovation has reinvented the baths, with a panoramic rooftop jacuzzi now giving unbeatable views of the Danube, and a drinking hall for those who wish to taste the natural spring waters.
I took the plunge amid the gorgeous mid-afternoon sunshine, streaming through Rudas’ glorious panes into the bathhouses. The baths – save the packed rooftop panoramic pool – were tranquil, with many merely wishing to escape the traffic and stress beyond the jaundiced walls. I start with the saunas – an entirely steam-filled sauna coaxes a year’s worth of sweat out of my body, and I can only stand a few minutes of self-drenching before rinsing off. The eucalyptus-scented 55oC sauna was in comparison much more sedate, the only noise coming from the barely perceptible ticktockticktock from the wooden clock. Then came the warm baths, where swirling eddies popped up from jacuzzi spouts, and an overhead shower blasted warm water onto fatigued shoulders. Baths are truly the great equalisers in Budapest: there is a sort of intimacy to seeing people of different generations and social standings submerged within the same pools. Bathhouses are truly the place where everything can truly be left outside the institution’s doors.
We returned to the Jewish District as night fell.The serene and artsy bohemian district had been transformed, with the onset of darkness, into an unbridled district of nightlife. The derelict, graffiti-laden buildings had been completely transformed into another Budapest institution –the romkocsma, the ruin bar. Push past the front door and the bouncer, and you will find a different world: a sweaty and packed open-air courtyard, adorned with bits of scrap metal and street art. The thumping bass and swaying party-goers make the floors of the ruin bars practically shake. All senses are overwhelmed in the ruin bar.
But that is the Budapest way. The trend of ruin pubs began with the turn of the millennium, as a cheap way for young locals to gather. Unrenovated and thus cheap buildings with courtyards and parking lots were converted into clubs by adding a few beer taps and thrift-shop picnic tables. Much more than rowdy clubs, however, some ruin bars hold film nights, art exhibitions, and even farmer markets, becoming hubs of activity within the Jewish Quarter.
The best way to get a feeling of a ruin bar is to simply go to one. Any discussion of ruin bars begins and ends with Szimpla Kert, the oldest and most popular ruin bar in Budapest. Szimpla has several rooms as well as an open-air courtyard, filled to the edges with locals and tourists alike. Decidedly counter-culture, the design (or lack thereof) seems to go against all aesthetic rules: nothing matches, there are no exact themes, even within the same room, and the ruin bar is a mish-mash of sound and colour. Ornaments hang precariously off the walls. And the haphazard and spontaneous nature of the bar is exactly what makes Szimpla work as a venue.
Our last day in Budapest brought us again to the foot of Gellért Hill. We hiked the winding path up to Citadella beneath the unrelenting midsummer sun, starting our climb from Elizabeth Bridge. The towering hill was named after St. Gerard, who was killed during the pagan rebellion and his body rolled down the hill overlooking Budapest. Once covered with vineyards, the hill watches over the Taban region, which was an important wine-making district. We took to the snaking hiking trail, first reaching the St. Gellért Monument, a sacrosanct figure clutching a golden cross towards the morning sun.
Continuing to climb, we eventually reached the Liberty Monument, Budapest’s Statue of Liberty. The statue was erected during Budapest’s tumultuous communist era, during which sculptures were constructed around the city to remind the citizens of the regime’s supremacy. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, most monuments were removed from the city. The Statue of Liberty, however, remained; its hopeful gesture and inscription reminding Budapest not of the dismal days of the Iron Fist, but instead commemorating those who gave themselves for the prosperity and freedom of Hungary.
Also atop Gellért Hill is Citadella, a fortress constructed in the 1840s when the strategic position of the hilltop was recognised by the Habsburgs. Throughout the years, this complex has served as a military checkpoint and prison. Today, anti-aircraft weapons, tanks, and other weaponry of the Red Army are on display alongside the fortress’s walls. The Citadella holds a symbolic place in the attempted 1956 Revolution, during which Soviet forces occupied the complex and fired down at revolutionaries.
More strikingly, Citadella offers an unbeatable view of the Budapest skyline, particularly of the Danube which meanders its way around the Pest embankment. An occasional cruise ship would emerge from the horizon and continue steaming along, following the curvature of the river. The Chain Bridge, the undulating Buda Hill – all of Budapest was within view. Making our way past the throng of tourists, we found a charming garden behind Citadella. An old Hungarian couple were perched on a park bench, thumbing through the day’s newspaper. The gravelled paths were a charred orange, contrasting with the reds and whites of nearby flowerbeds.
We made our way back down the hill, passing through an affluent hillside neighbourhood and the classical Roman-pillared Gellért Baths. On this Sunday, the roads were noticeably emptier. Following the crowds, we reached Budapest’s verdant teardrop-shaped island in the middle of the Danube – Margaret Island. Once the hunting ground of royals, the island now consists of well-groomed parkland, populated by families and couples, rolling by in tandem bicycles or soaking in the summer sun on a picnic blanket. We were also surprised to come across what appeared to be a sunbathing nudist colony, whose exact nature we declined to further investigate. The south side of the island, closest to the Budapest city centre, has a musical fountain which comes to life to the tune of classical and pop music, an eclectic mix of Chopin and Taylor Swift. Further north, the ruins of a medieval church and 13th-century nunnery stand, crumbling, amid a rocky field. At the northernmost tip of the island is a rather untamed Japanese garden and a rose garden. Offering a peaceful escape from city life. Margaret Island offers a glimpse into the day-to-day life of the people of Budapest.