Sunday, October 18, 2015


Our tour group rolled into Budapest, Hungary, home of Erno Rubik (the cube guy) and Zsa Zsa Gabor, just in time to see thousands of Syrian refugees milling around the train station trying to get out of town.  Hungary had offered to put many of them up, but they were determined to get to Germany somehow because the Germans offered more free stuff.  The Hungarians weren't going to make it easy for them.  This situation didn't affect us much as tourists except that the police blocked off a road and a bridge across the Danube River.  At least they weren't blocking the entrance to the Las Vegas Casino with its four locations in Budapest. 

Hungarians like Americans in general, but make an exception for country music artist Kellie Pickler who once embarrassed herself on the TV show Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader when she was asked "Where is Budapest?".  Her reply was that she had never heard of it, and when questioned further, suggested it was in France, and then dug even deeper when she thought Europe was a country.  Its on You Tube

Budapest is actually two cities on opposite sides of the Danube River.  Think St. Louis and East St. Louis.  Well not really.  Buda and Pest merged in 1873 and became the capital, commercial and cultural center of Hungary.  Buda is hilly, and Pest is flat.  Buda is the older, Medieval section where the Royal Palace is located on Castle Hill, 600 feet above the river, accessible by a funicular.  The city was named after Attila the Hun's brother. 

Pest is more modern, at least since 1850 when the Habsburgs ordered massive job creating construction projects after the 1848 revolutions against their rule.  Hungarians used to call the city Pest Buda rather than the other way around.   In their language, a person's surname comes first and given name last.  For example, the great Hungarian composer Franz Liszt is identified at the Opera House as "Liszt Ferenc", (with no comma between the names).

The Hungarians speak a  language which is indecipherable to most other Europeans.  It is not related to Romance languages, German or even Russian.  Over 1000 years ago, Hungary was conquered by the Huns and Magyars who brought their languages from Central Asia,  Fortunately for us, most Hungarians also speak English.  They don't use Euros, so we had to change our money to Forints.  I walked out of the money exchange with over 50,000 Forints, mostly in 10,000 Forint notes.  I felt rich, but the exchange rate is 268 Forints to the dollar.  You can buy a lot of paprika with 50,000 Forints. 

Hungary has the second largest parliament building in Europe.  It also has the second largest subway system.  It has the largest synagogue in Europe, but second in the world to one in New York.  Do you see a pattern here?  As part of the  Austria-Hungary Empire, it came in second in World War I.  An ally of Germany, it came in second in World War II.  Not good.  Avis Rent a Car should move its headquarters to Hungary.  Indeed, Conde Nast Traveler ranks Budapest as "The World's Second best City".  Number One was Florence, Italy--I've been there twice and I'm not sure why.  Chicago ranked 23rd. 

People all over the world marvel at the beauty of Budapest, and indeed the architecture is awe inspiring.  We took a dinner cruise on the blue Danube River (which is black at night and gray the rest of the time).  It only looks blue when you're in love.  The magnificent Parliament Building and Habsburg Palace, located on opposite sides of the river are lit up brilliantly at night.  The many bridges are covered with lights from top to bottom.

Hungarian food is liberally spiced with paprika and fills you up very quickly.  Paprika is made from chili peppers originally imported from Mexico.  Now the Hungarians, through plant grafting, grow a less spicy kind locally.  Everything they serve looks like goulash and chicken paprikash.  Nobody walks away hungry in Hungary.  Contrary to what many Americans think, the Hungarian Diet was not created by Dr. Phil, but rather was the Hungarian legislature from 1527 to 1918, and it convened in the chambers at the Parliament Building.


We visited the famous State Opera House, the second largest, somewhere.  It was built in the late 1800's in Neo-Renaissance style with ornate gold leaf decorations and statues of Greek gods.  The horseshoe shaped auditorium seats over 1200 and is renowned for its acoustics.  The vaulted ceiling is covered with murals depicting the 9 Muses.  The hallway has a 3 ton bronze chandelier.   In a pleasant surprise, we were treated to an informal 15 minute opera performance in the hallway by one of the artists. 

The beautifully decorated, centrally located Royal Box was built for the Habsburgs who are now long gone.  Now the Hungarian president sits there.   Madonna sat there when she did the movie Evita.  Michael Jackson wanted to sit there, but was turned down. 

The front entrance is flanked with two statues, the great composer Franz Liszt and Franz Erkel who founded the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra and composed the Hungarian national anthem.  The hallways are lined with the busts of famous composers like Liszt, Gustav Mahler and Bartok. 


Heroes' Square was built for the 1896 World Expo to commemorate 1000 years since the founding of Hungary in 896 A.D.  In the center is the Millennium Column with the Angel Gabriel on the top, flanked by statues on horseback of the leaders of the 7 Magyar (Hungarian) tribes who conquered the country and the Carpathian Basin at that time.  Before that, Attila the Hun had conquered it.   Today, Attila is a common boy's name in Hungary. 

The monument was completed in 1900.  It has two matched colonnades, each with 7 more statues of the great figures in Hungarian history.  The 7 statues on the left side are long gone kings of Hungary, the first and most notable of which was Stephen I holding the double cross (yes, really) given him by the Pope's emissary.  The other kings did stuff like prohibit the burning of witches, lead a crusade, win a battle, etc.  The last 5 replaced members of the ruling Habsburg Dynasty after the monument was damaged in World War II.    Opposite the square is the Greek Classical Museum of Art which is closed for renovations. 


Heroes' Square stands at the beginning of Andrassy Street, modeled after the Champs Elysee in Paris.  Andrassy Street is lined with grand apartments and commercial buildings, built in the late 19th Century.  The buildings get progressively taller as you get closer to the Danube River where the street ends.  Some of the buildings are foreign embassies.  Others are museums.   The State Opera House is on Andrassy.  Shoppers can find high end fashion stores like Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Armani on Andrassy.

The street was named after Gyula Andrassy, the 19th Century prime minister who had promoted the plan for the boulevard.  Under the Communists, the street was renamed three times.  First, in 1950, it became Stalin Street.  Then, during the 1956 uprising, the rebellious Hungarians renamed it Avenue of Hungarian Youth.  After the revolution was put down by the Soviets in 1957, they renamed it People's Republic Street.  The city changed it back to Andrassy Street in 1990.

One evening, Dianne and I strolled down Andrassy Street looking for a restaurant near St. Stephen's Basilica and came upon a Re/Max real estate office.  Dianne had been a Re/Max agent for many years, so we dropped in to ask for directions.  The owner was an attractive, statuesque young lady who was warm and friendly.  It was early evening, and she had people with her in the conference room which turned out to be her husband and kids.  We didn't want to impose, but she spent time with us, offered us drinks and extolled the attractions and beauty of her native city.

Budapest has many museums.  At 60 Andrassy Street is the notorious House of Terror which was the headquarters of the Fascists in the 1940's and the Communists after that.   People still recoil when they walk past.  The Semmelweis Museum was the home of Ignac Semmelweis, the Hungarian doctor who taught his colleagues to wash their hands before treating patients.  Well, duh!   The museum displays exhibits on the history of Western medicine.   Budapest even has a pinball museum which we didn't visit.

The most famous restaurant in Budapest is the Gerbeaud Café, located about a block from our hotel.  We walked over for lunch and ate outside on a mild, sunny day. The restaurant is famous for its pastries and club sandwiches.  At the next table was an elderly French lady sitting by herself.  We struck up a conversation and learned much about her.  She had a French father and a Hungarian mother.  She lived in Paris but was visiting Budapest for an art show featuring some of her grandfather's works.  Her grandfather was a famous Hungarian painter--his name didn't ring a bell to us.  Her kids, one of whom lives in New York, are sculptors, and like most grown kids, don't call their mother enough.  We spent an hour in animated conversation, finished our meal and said our good byes.


As I alluded earlier, Dohany Street Synagogue is the largest in Europe.  Incidentally "dohany" means tobacco in Hungarian.  The synagogue could be mistaken for a church or cathedral except it has no crosses or statues of Jesus.  With its large organ, it sounds like a church.  The synagogue is built in Moorish Revival style.  the Viennese architect, Ludwig Forster apparently wasn't aware of Jewish architecture as such, so he ironically chose "architectural forms that have been used by oriental ethnic groups that are related to the Israelite people, and in particular the Arabs".   It was built in 1859 by Reform Jews shortly after the Jewish community had split into 3 groups--Orthodox and Conservative (who would not set foot in the building), and Reform.

It was the Age of Enlightenment when Jews were assimilating and were encouraged to act like Christians.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire had passed laws of religious tolerance. 

All worked out fine until 1944 when the German Nazis marched into Hungary.  They were being pushed back by the Allies, and there was talk Hungary would negotiate a separate peace and switch over to the Allied side.  The local Fascists rounded up 400,000 Hungarian Jews very quickly and sent them to concentration camps, mostly to be murdered.  Nobel laureate Elie Weisel and his family were among them.  Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg did his best to save lives by issuing literally tens of thousands of Swedish passports to Jews.  A monument to Wallenberg is located in a memorial garden next to the Dohany Street Synagogue.  No good deed goes unpunished, and Wallenberg disappeared into the Soviet gulag after World War II, and nobody is certain what happened to him. 

After World War II, the synagogue was in shambles.  It was damaged during the war, and years of neglect made things worse.  Hollywood actor Tony Curtis visited Budapest where his family was from.  He was dismayed to see it in that condition and vowed to restore it to its original glory, partly to honor his family.  He created the Emanuel Foundation in 1987 to raise money to purchase the structure and restore it.  Many of the funds came from small donations, but Curtis had the connections to attract big names.  For example, cosmetics icon Estee Lauder, also with Hungarian roots, gave $5 million toward the restoration.  The results were gratifying--the building is beautiful.

Next to the synagogue is a memorial garden honoring congregants who were deported and killed during World War II.  As many as 20,000 Jews sought refuge in the synagogue complex in 1944, and 7000 died there.  Many of them are buried in the courtyard and their names recorded there.  The Emanuel Foundation commissioned the famous sculptor Imre Varga to create a Tree of Life, a stainless steel stylized  weeping willow tree with 40,000 steel leaves, each containing the name (or names) of a Hungarian Jewish victim inscribed on it.  The Raoul Wallenberg Memory Park contains the memorial to Wallenberg and Other Righteous Among the Nations which inscribed the names of several non-Jews in diplomatic positions who were able to save thousands from certain death. One, Msgr. Angelo Rotta who represented the Vatican, issued protective sheets, misrepresentations of baptism and Vatican passports to 15,000 Jews.  A brand new memorial honors Sir Nicholas Winton, an Englishman who was responsible for delivering hundreds of Jewish children to England, thus saving them from the Nazi Germans.  Winton died a couple months ago, at age 106.    The Jewish Museum in the complex stands on the birthplace of Theodore Herzl, the father of modern Zionism. 


St. Stephen (Istvan in Hungarian) was the first Hungarian saint and a national icon.  In the year 1000, as King of Hungary, he signed on with Pope Sylvester II to convert the country to Christianity.  For him, it was a political decision because it brought peace with the Holy Roman Empire.  King Stephen died in 1038 and was canonized in 1083.  At the canonization ceremony, they opened his crypt, and according to legend, healing miracles started occurring.  Historians attribute it to mass psychosis or deception.  In any event, all they found in the crypt was his intact right hand, the Holy Dexter as it is now known.  The rest of the body was gone.  It was a miracle!

The Neo-Classical church was completed in 1905.  After a long 900+ year odyssey, the right hand was brought to the basilica in 1950, where you can view it today, with a large glove on it, in a glass case.  Like most cathedrals in Europe, this is an enormous and magnificent structure.  It is 315 feet high, the same height as the Hungarian Parliament, the two tallest buildings in Budapest.  The basilica is especially famous for the regular organ concerts which are performed by famous musicians.


All the buildings in Budapest are huge, and this is bigger than the rest.   This enormous Gothic structure, the largest building in Hungary, completed in 1904, is the seat of the unicameral National Assembly of Hungary.  It is located in Lajos Kossuth Square--more on him later.  The building has 691 rooms and 29 staircases.  The top of the huge dome is 96 meters high, the same height as St. Stephen's Basilica.  The number 96 is significant in that it commemorates the nation's millennium in 1896. 

After Buda and Pest were united in 1873, the Diet decided to construct a suitable building to express the sovereignty of the nation.  They held an international competition, and the winning architectural plans were drawn by Imre Steindl.  He began the building in 1885 and went blind before its completion. 

The Communists erected a red star on top of the dome, but it was removed in 1990.


Buda Castle, which is also known as the Royal Palace is not as fancy as one would expect, although it is immense.  The façade runs 1000 feet along the Danube River.

Kings' palaces have stood at this location since the 1300's although they have been destroyed and rebuilt at least 6 times, most recently after World War II when the Germans made their last stand there against the Red Army.  When it was reconstructed, the builders discovered the ruins of the 15th Century palace and integrated them into the new complex.  The result is this enormous structure, a mixture of many architectural styles. 

The structure has six wings arranged around a courtyard, guarded by four stone lions.  In these six wings are the National Library, the National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum.  It would take days to see the whole thing, and we saw only a small portion.

Castle Hill is recognized by the UN as a World Heritage Site, and many of the houses and buildings there are hundreds of years old with plaques on them. 

Next to the palace is the Neo-Gothic Matthias Church.  Its' official name is Church of Our Lady, but everyone calls it Matthias Church because King Matthias Corvinus was married there--twice, in the 1400's.  Like most churches and cathedrals in Europe, this one is magnificent.  From the diamond patterned roof tiles and Gothic spires to the stained glass windows and wall paintings of events from Hungarian history, this church is certainly worth the trip.  When the Turks captured Buda in 1541, they turned it into a mosque and held their victory celebration there.  Fortunately for the locals, the ecclesiastical treasures had been moved to Pressburg (now Bratislava).  The last two Habsburg kings held their coronations in the church.  The church suffered much damage during World War II, but within the last 10 years, the government has restored it to its former glory.

Next to the church is the Fisherman's Bastion, built in 1905, a terrace overlooking the Danube with seven turrets (for each of the Hungarian tribes).  It looks like the fairy castle at Disneyland and is jammed with tourists taking photos. 

We ate our Hungarian diet lunch at the Pest Buda restaurant on Castle Hill.


Many from our tour group visited the Imre Nagy house in Budapest, a popular tourist attraction.  There is much Cold War history in the house.  Nagy, a renowned icon of Hungary today, was executed by the Russians in 1958 for his role in the failed 1956 revolution.  He was a dedicated Communist who rose through the ranks to become the Premier of Hungary.  He was deposed by the Russians in 1955 for being too independent.  He espoused political and economic reforms which made him a little too popular for the Kremlin's liking.  To the Russians, he was setting a bad example for other Eastern Bloc countries. 

The Hungarians brought him back in 1956 when the Revolution broke out.  The Revolution was anti-Soviet, but not necessarily anti-Communist.  Without  consulting the Russians, Nagy withdrew Hungary from the Warsaw Pact, promoted free and open multi-party elections and declared Hungary a neutral country.  Hungarians were free to travel to the West.  These actions were intolerable to the Russians who, under Nikita Khrushchev, sent in troops and tanks to crush the Revolution.  Nagy appealed  to the United Nations and the West for assistance but received none.   Western countries were not going to war for Hungary.

Nagy was officially rehabilitated in 1989, and his statues are all over Hungary today.


During the anti-Habsburg revolutions of 1848-49 which spread through central Europe, Kossuth, a young Hungarian lawyer led the Hungarians as they declared their independence from Austria.  He became president but was forced to abdicate the next year when the Austrians, with significant assistance from Czarist Russia defeated the revolutionaries.  He escaped as a fugitive, eventually winding up in the United States where he was a revolutionary hero.  Kossuth mania reigned in the U.S, when he arrived in 1851.   It was the precursor to Elvis or the Beatles.  They called him the George Washington of Hungary.  Restaurants began serving goulash.  People started wearing Kossuth ties, Kossuth coats, Kossuth t-shirts.

He was entertained twice at the White House by President Fillmore, and even met with Abraham Lincoln in Springfield.  Lincoln called him "most worthy and distinguished representative of the cause of civil and religious liberty on the continent of Europe". 

Kossuth's welcome wore thin when U.S. officials feared he was stirring up fervor among immigrants.  He made political statements like urging German-Americans to support Franklin Pierce for president. He refused to denounce slavery or stand up for the Catholic Church.  He even tried to organize mercenaries to overthrow the Haitian government.

Today, Kossuth is considered a national hero in Hungary as a freedom fighter and bellwether of democracy. He was renowned for promulgating a constitution which guaranteed rights for minorities.   Streets and squares were named for him not only in Hungary but also in the U.S., and his statues are all over Hungary. 


Finally, what could be more Hungarian than Zsa Zsa Gabor and her sisters!  To most Americans, Hungary was just a backwater until the beautiful Gabor sisters came into town, stirring up things in Hollywood.  They were the 1950's version of the Kardashians.  Zsa Zsa (born Sari Gabor) had been crowned Miss Hungary in 1936.  Today, she is 98 years old.  The Gabors were of Jewish descent and had to leave Hungary for the U.S. in 1941 although they had apparently converted to Roman Catholicism.  That was not unusual--it was often done for career advancement. 

The three Gabor sisters, Magda, Zsa Zsa and Eva were all actresses.  They were notable for their continuing support of the matrimonial lawyers bar--they were married 20 times between them.  Zsa Zsa is now married to her 9th husband, Prince von Anhalt, 30 years younger.  She has been divorced 7 times and annulled once.  The annulment occurred because she was still married to her previous husband who had been her divorce attorney.  Von Anhalt himself made news (while married to Zsa Zsa) when he claimed to be the biological father of the late Anna Nicole Smith's child (he wasn't, according to DNA). 

In 1989, Zsa Zsa got in trouble for slapping a Beverly Hills police officer who stopped her for speeding.  Maybe there's a movie plot in that story--Beverly Hills Cop 3?

Zsa Zsa was known for witty one-liners.  She described herself as a fine housekeeper--she kept the house after each divorce.  She had one child, Constance Hilton by her second husband, Conrad, the hotel guy.  Constance died earlier this year at age 67.  Zsa Zsa's house was once owned by Elvis Presley. 

Her first husband, back in the 1930's, was a Turkish diplomat.  Soon after arriving in Turkey, she was noticed by President Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern day Turkey.  Her rumored affair with Ataturk probably didn't much help her marriage. 

Her older sister Magda was married 6 times, and younger sister Eva 5 times.  British actor George Sanders, who once won an Oscar, was married to both Zsa Zsa.and Magda, but not at the same time.   Sanders later committed suicide. 

The Gabors were glamorous, famous for being famous and always newsworthy.

NEXT:  Seeking Kangaroos in Austria or Everyone is a Wiener in Vienna     


Anonymous Inchirieri auto Bucuresti said...

A very good article.

August 10, 2016 at 3:08 AM  

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