Back to Budapest — Monday, October 24 (Day Four)

Having taken a break from prodding my memory for most of the various other kinds of posts I like to feature here, letʼs return to the travelogue, to last year, 2011, to Monday, October 24, in Budapest. You will find it was still rainy…

Places of Worship (a Day or Two Late?)

Monday was our church-visit* day. I had vaguely considered a museum (and there are many of them, several tempting to me but one I knew would also inspire Janet — the National Art Museum, farther off than several history and a cultural and an agricultural, but particularly with the language barrier possible, the only serious choice) for a Sunday pastime “out of downtown,” but it was closed. As was the Great Synagogue, as I noted earlier. So we went on Monday, when it actually, definitely rained. 

looking from our hotel room down Mérleg utca toward the Danube and the palace across the river

No mere mist on Monday — from before we arose, about 8:00, there was steady precipitation. No downpour but nothing to ignore. We both took umbrellas along (again, although I donʼt believe we opened either on Sunday) as we left the room to descend the stairs to the lobby and be on our way. And outside, in the noticeable precipitation, we hurried along Mérleg utca to turn left onto Október 6 utca and then right to follow Zríny utca to our initial destination.

Szent István Bazilika and its square in the rain

The first stop was a place we had been at and by many times already (with several more to come, including two bypasses this Monday evening), Szent István Bazilika. This time we were going inside, so we climbed the big steps out front, forked over our coins to the priest at the doorway (where I really didnʼt pay sufficient attention to the carved portrayals of the Twelve Apostles on that portal) and went inside…

Dark and huge. What else can you expect in a cathedral? (Okay, basilica.) Big columns, domed glitter overhead, not many people, statues, niches, side chapels — lots of red, gold, blue. But mostly it just seemed hugely dark. The floor was interestingly ornate but also somehow not as finished-feeling as other churches we had visited elsewhere. We wandered to our right first, passing St. Gellért in statuary around to the main altar with a big white statue of St. István. We wended back down the nave and around to the left by the altar to enter the little set of rooms that led to our sighting of the fair-sized shrine for the forearm of St. István himself, with helpful information sheets (in several languages but mostly Hungarian) on the building and its restoration. We looked and departed, back into less rain outdoors.

We made our way next southwards along Bajcsy-Zsilnszky Út, Erzsébet tér and Károly Körút to the Synagogue, where we stood patiently in line (me desperately reading travel books I had brought along and the various signs for information on how much we were to pay and what we had to do to gain entrance). We had seen this place, of course, yesterday, its two great Moorish-domed steeples piercing the gray sky, appearing as imposing and dramatic as the books had suggested (and as churchlike, too — Steves quotes an early, sardonic observer decreeing it “the most beautiful Catholic synagogue in the world”).

It seemed, although the books indicated otherwise, that all visitors stood in line at the tour counter (a small shed built outside the great fence) but we distinguished ourselves from the tour group tourists by telling the guys inside that we wanted not to take the tour but just purchase admittance (cheapskates, us, and maybe we missed some information, but both Mr. Steves and Frommer seemed to have lots of information from which I could, and I did, read while inside, as I had at St. István). Then we went to a different line to pass security (quite reminiscent of TSA at airports, except we got to retain our shoes) and finally, presenting our tickets, pass inside.

One of the great chandeliers and the view toward the front within the Great Synagogue

looking to the left inside the Great Synagogue — notice the womenʼs gallery above the nave

Gloriosity of gold within. Huge, but unlike the basilica, bright (sufficiently so to permit photographs, so we have some here). We wandered around, dodging groups (and eavesdropping sometimes) to examine the gilded decor, making our way up front along the left side first (I think) and then back along the right (or maybe vice versa). This place was definitely big and splendiferous (largest synagogue in Europe, second in the world) — all gold, red, wood and wonderfulness. Very Oriental, too — the Moorish inspirations being very evident (although I felt more of that in one of the five we toured in Prague, which was even more gilded and ornate but of course not as large). After a while and many attempts at natural-lighting photos, we went to the door to the museum, leading into a lobby with a staircase and elevator.

the Holocaust sculpture and the back of the Great Synagogue

Being us, we headed for the steps only to be stopped and signaled to the elevator by a woman in the coat-check/ticket area. So we entered and ascended several floors to come out into a display covering four or five rooms (and steps up to modern artistic interpretations of antisemitism on the floor above). We patiently examined the many items on display — siddurs, prayer shawls, cups, Torah cases and crowns… a massive plenitude (and also the exhibits one flight up), learning and reviewing about Jewish festivals, imagery and symbolism and daily life.

When we finally returned to ground level and passed outdoors (shielded by the porch) to look at the mass graves on the northern side of the synagogue, quietly grim, and then pass into the weather to visit the silvery Holocaust Memorial sculpture and garden, the rain had set in for real. By now it was past 11:30, and the morning damp had become the midday downpour.

With the definite wet, the day seemed palpably colder, too. I got us (even after the previous dayʼs mild disaster) onto a tram to head around to Oktagon, from which we wandered Liszt tér, noticing mostly restaurants and cafés…

Monument topped by symbolic abstract sculpture denoting the dead, engraved with the names of the slain — click for a really big picture

However, I approach a thousand words, which is more than I intended for today, so the rest of Monday, October 24, will have to wait.

* Is there an appropriate word for “place of worship” that doesnʼt seem particularly Christian-centric?

©2012 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Budapest, Day 3 (part 2) — digressive

Budapest reminiscences continue (more or less) today. I left off yesterday with us at the Deák Ferenc tér Metro stop, having purchased our seven-day travel passes (even though we had just five days left on our trip, counting this national holiday on Sunday, October 23, 2011). So we continue…

The Number 2 tram, whizzing by this befuddled photographer by night — taken a few days after Sunday, October 23

Then it was time to reascend to the surface and visit (Janetʼs wish) the cheese festival, which in the drizzle of early afternoon was closing up. So all we did was wander among the booths, smelling food, watching people, perusing some Hungarian handicrafts, and making silly Wallace-and-Gromit “cheese” gestures at each other. Perhaps another half hour passed. Then we crossed our busy avenue over to the big synagogue (using my map, I had figured out what it was), but it was closed for the holiday (we had vaguely hoped it was open, having been closed as usual for the Sabbath the day before).* We decided to return there tomorrow, probably. So we wandered off on side streets, desultorily visiting the Jewish Quarter in the slightly increasing drizzle/mist/haze of moisture. 

Holiday (or demonstrating) crowd on October 23, 2011

The thing I havenʼt sufficiently emphasized about our Sunday/national holiday experience was the slightly (very) menacing fact of growing crowds, police presence — tape, military-like cops, vehicles — and physical preparations for rallies. The vague menace arose from our hotel desk staffʼs apparent concern about the then-upcoming “demonstrations” about which we were not supposed to worry, but from which their list of alternative activities was designed to keep us away. Elizabeth Square, a very nice block-long and block-wide park, had actual construction ongoing (carpenters pounding and powered saws squealing — building a platform, possibly a stage), and there was a steady flow of hundreds (and hundreds) of people down one or two (relatively minor) streets toward the river. We could tell that something was going to happen — actually, as it turned out, several somethings. But we didnʼt learn that until later. We didnʼt personally experience anything about demonstrations or rallies until later. 

Once we finished our tour of rundown grey buildings on curving, narrow trafficless streets, nonetheless parked with Euro cars from end to end, both sides, driverʼs side wheels up on the sidewalk (which turned out once we consulted a map later on, to be the Jewish Quarter), we wandered southwards, eventually arriving by the Great Market Hall — a location we ended up at often over our week in town. My ignorant semi-study of guidebook transit maps (and reading) indicated that the Number 2 Tram along the Pest side of the Danube was scenic, so we hopped aboard a northbound one at Liberty Bridge. 

I rather enjoy public transit. Janet is less sure about buses and now, after Budapest, trams. Admittedly, I have a record of getting us… not exactly lost but far from known regions, a history extending back to the end-of-the-line debacle in Amsterdam in 1983 (we did get back; we just had to get off and wait for the tram to turn around and the driver to take a break), through an extended bus ride into the wilds of East London, possibly beyond the zones permitted on our TravelCards (but we did hop off after questioning the conductor and did get on a returning bus right back to Oxford Street; and the areas we were “lost” in were really just working class, not slums at all — regardless how paranoid we were feeling or oddly other passengers were eyeing us), through the incident I am about to relate in Budapest, to an extensive bus ride, intended as a brief escape from the rain, in Chicago over New Years (which also involved reaching the turnaround point on the loop, where the driver parked and took a fifteen-minute — Janet says half-hour — break). The problem is that bus and tram routes are generally shown only partially on maps, particularly in tourist guidebooks, but even on some official transit maps (not that we had any in Budapest and only Michigan Avenue tourista ones at New Years), so figuring where a particular bus or tram might go can become an issue of mere guesswork.

My beloved does, on the other hand, like subways, in general. And I think the London Underground and its much imitated schematic colored map is one reason. For most subways, Metros, the Underground, the Tube you can figure pretty easily where your line is going and even pretty exactly what stops to expect (Chicagoʼs Red Line proved at New Years to be a partial exception to my rule — no posted route map in the car, just advertising). 

The number 2 tram — shot, as the blue sky should reveal, a few days later

But Budapest is our topic. We got aboard the #2 heading (if I can even remember at this remove, nearly three full months after the fact) north toward Parliament. Our vehicle/car was fairly crowded (I know we had to stand — we invariably did on trams), and the view was not very impressive, especially out over the gray river on this gray and drizzly day. We could easily see Buda over there, but rushing by as we moved along. The Pest side was mostly just walls and barriers between us and stuff (like Parliament), although we did get a good, quick glimpse of the Gresham Palace and Roosevelt tér race past. I donʼt remember how far north we went, maybe to Margit híd (bridge by Margaret Island), maybe farther, then back to the south.

This southward trip was the first taste of misadventure, as somewhere south of Szabadság híd,** at what must be the Közvágóhíd terminus, in territory that seemed unfriendly beyond unfamiliar (our typical tourist paranoia arising from going beyond the regular tourist regions, just the same as the uncomfortable London double-decker tour to East London in 2001 and just the same as our worst moments later in that holiday Sunday afternoon), having to wait and catch a different set of cars to go back northwards, we both started getting nervous. Reaching the end of the line was surprising.

Possibly, the gloomy overcast and pall of threatened “demonstrations” infected our moods, but we both felt out of place. Honestly, a (very) little scared.

We got off our dead-ended tram and wandered across tracks to two other trams that seemed to be headed, eventually, back to the north and the city center. But we couldn’t easily decide which one to get on. Hesitation and fretting led to us following a few other travelers (local citizens) onto one of the cars, which after another five or ten minutes did start back up the same way we had come down. Janet wanted off once we reached Elizabeth Bridge/Vörosmarty tér, and with my now aged notion of visiting outside one of the baths, I said we should catch a 47 or 49 tram across the Danube to Buda and see the Gellért Baths.

We caught the tram easily enough, but baths we did not see, although we got to see what The Lovely One considered altogether too much of the city/suburbs south of Buda. Probably ten or twelve stops too much.

But that will have to be tomorrowʼs tale (or sometime). Weʼre well over a thousand words today.

* (Perhaps, knowing something about the paired left- and [more importantly, probably] right-wing demonstrations scheduled for the holiday, and the proximity — of the just-then-arriving right-wingers in Erszébet tér — to the synagogue, they had wisely shut up shop this Sunday. Some security was still in evidence, too.)

** (Freedom Bridge on Vámház körút, which led around through Kálvin tér becoming first Múzeum körút, then Károly körút — the big, wide street we had encountered looking for Deák tér and the metro ticket booth — the route I think we had followed more or less until we picked up the northbound No. 2)

©2012 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.