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Budapest delights

by: Marcus J Freed - Last updated: 2007-06-20

Budapest

Budapest

Budapest has a long Jewish history and Marcus J Freed goes there to find out more about what the city has to offer. He's impressed with what he finds especially the Great Synagogue.

It's a good thing for the Hungarian tourist board that we don’t judge the quality of their county based on the volatile temperament of airport taxi drivers, or by their choice nomenclature for local beers.

My Elvis-lookalike cabbie had all the driving acumen of a joyrider, haring around the mid-town dual carriage and getting embroiled in a mini road-race when another car committed the sin of overtaking. My nerves were so strained by the time I reached the hotel that I was almost tempted to order a pint of Hungary 's local bitter -  the unappetisingly named ‘Unicum’ – but I settled for a cup of tea instead.
 
Jewish Architecture has never really enjoyed the reputation of the great buildings erected by other cultures. We have no obvious equivalent to St Paul's Cathedral, the Taj Mahal or the Sistine chapel, but this is largely a consequence of centuries’ worth of travelling from one land to the next, often due to some pogrom or other.
 
Budapest’s Dohány Street Synagogue, or Great Synagogue, is a refreshing change from regular shuls, with its stunning twin towers and elegantly designed interior. Built in 1859 when the local community numbered 30,000 people, it was built in the Romantic style and is Europe’s largest synagogue.

There are tens of beautiful wrought- iron chandeliers, stained-glass windows in the roof that allow light to permeate the sanctuary in a variety of hues, and 90 rows of wooden benches that make you question whether this is really a shul at all as it is reminiscent of a gothic Cathedral. Either way, it was clearly built in a time of communal prosperity and with hundreds rows of mahogany seats, there is no shortage of space to sit down. Sadly, it’s hard to imagine that it is ever used to its full capacity beyond a particularly penitent Yom Kippur or the occasional civic service. 
 
The Jewish Heroes' Mausoleum and Temple is next to the main building, and incorporates the national Jewish museum. The Holocaust exhibit pays touching tribute to the pain suffered by the local community. A particularly chilling example of the Germans’ depravity is on view for all to see; a dress that was stitched out of a stolen tallit [Jewish prayer shawl] and three drums that the Nazis had made from the torn parchment of Torah scrolls.
 
Behind the synagogue is a Holocaust memorial that pays tribute to the 600,000 Hungarian Jews who perished. Despite the overwhelming tragedy, Budapest is home to a story of hope amidst the German-induced destruction. It was Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat during WW2, who was responsible for saving tens of thousands of Jews. Yad Vashem named Wallenberg as Righteous Among the Nations, and any trip to Hungary is incomplete without a visit to see the Jewish culture he helped to preserve.
 
Gellert Hill overlooks the Danube, where a majestic statue of a gigantic lady watches over the city and also marks the location of the city’s most famous spa, the Gellert Baths. The Art Nouveau furnishings of the thermal spa provides an atmosphere that is both opulent and decadent.
 
It was on a trip to Gellert 10 years ago that I discovered the meaning of the word 'loincloth’. The day was marked for separate swimming, and the 37° chamomile baths were opened exclusively to men. I should have been suspicious from there on in. As a relatively self- conscious 20 year old, it wasn't my idea of fun to wander around the artistically-designed cavern wearing nothing but a piece of string around my waist with a small tea towel attached at the front. Everybody else seemed quite happy with  their loincloths, but I spent most of that day with my back to the wall. Fortunately, this visit fell on a day of mixed swimming and the place seemed to be full of pensioners and honeymooners.
 
It's a great feeling to swim in the main pool as the fine architecture looms above and the huge outdoor pool is equally beautiful, and the powerful wave machine makes the experience that much more fun. With the entrance fee at the equivalent of £8.82, a visit to the invigorating Gellert Spa is a bargain day out and cheaper than buying two packets of cigarettes.
 
Lake Balaton is the closest thing a landlocked European country
has to a seaside resort. It’s a two-hour drive from Budapest and provides a relaxing contrast to the city sightseeing.
 
We stayed at the Hotel Maria, a modest three-star hotel with friendly staff and basic facilities. Don’t expect any more and you won't get disappointed. Also, don't expect any food that is vaguely kosher, or staff who speak English, and you'll be well prepared. The hotel is located in Balatonmáriafürdõ, a small tourist town that hosts a range of activities to while away the hours. Although our bathrooms were rather utilitarian, the beds were fine and the views were great. Single rooms start at 45 Euros (approximately £30), providing excellent value for money.
 
The jewel in the visit is hare Lake Balaton itself, a 77-km expanse of water that is batheable in the summer and ice-skateable in the winter. At sunset, the lake itself turns an astonishing shade of fluorescent emerald green, which is all the more powerful if you are swimming in the lake at the time. The huge expanse of riverbank means that you can have a good stretch of the river for private bathing. Grab your swimming costume and get over to Lake Balaton. Loincloths are also allowed, just make sure you know who’s standing behind.