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Published: July 14th 2011
Hopefully, a few interesting facts about Hungary ( the 5th country on my itinerary) and the last on the river cruise. It is a small, about the size of Indiana, with a popuation of about 10 million. Magyars , another word for Hungarians, form the largest ethnic group (90%). 98 % speak hungarian ( this next part is for Linda, Eugene, Sharon, and Sheri- all language gurus). It's a fairiy exotic tongue based on the Uralic family which includes Finnish and Estonian. Vowels are marked by various accents and change to agree with other vowels in a word. Yikes! Accents or lack of them may completely change the meaning of a word. Double Yikes!! I was told a knowledge of German is useful ( where is my son, the German teacher when I need him?). English is not widely spoken, usually by those in the tourist industry, and possibly some high school and /or university students.
Quick history- The Romans were there in the 14th century BC but the eastern part was in the hands of Germanic tribes. The Magyars began to migrate in the 5-7th century AD. In the 15th century, you guessed it- those Ottoman Turks conquered. Budapest's 'Golden Age' was from 1867- 1916. By 1900 it was larger than Rome or Madrid. The rest, most of you probably remember from your World Civilization 101 course: 16-18th century were the Austrian Habsburgs. After WWI, Hungary became an independent republic but lost 2/3rds of its land and 3/5ths of its population to new neighbor states. This division contributed to the start of WWII. Hungary fought as a German ally through most of WWII hoping to regain some of its lost territory. But Germany invaded in 1944 after Hungary talked of declaring neutrality. Soviet Troops 'liberated the country' in 1945. The Communist party, under the influence of the then USSR, seized power and in 1947 declared Hungary part of their ' Eastern bloc'. Hungary withdrew from the 'Warsaw Pact' ( the USSR's answer to NATO) and declared themselves neutral in 1956. In response, the Soviet Union attacked Hungary. Many readers may remember the horror of seeing on TV the tanks rolling into Budapest and the people being murdered in the streets. In 1988, Janos Kadar, the leader of the Communist government, was forced to resign. By Oct. 1989 Hungary had changed to a Republic and their actions opened the floodgates that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the freeing of the rest of the Eastern bloc countries.
I know this is a very, very brief ' Cliff notes' version of historical events. But I truly believe that, as a traveler, it is important to understand the background of what has happened in the countries one visits to better understand the culture. So many of the places I have had the privilege of visiting have had recent changes in their governments ( Chile, El Salvador, Germany, Poland, Czech Republic), or have recently had wars ( Vietnam, Serbia, Croatia, Guatemala), or are still reeling from recent revolutions ( Egypt), that to go and simply view churches, museums, and buildings without having some empathy for what the people have lived through and endured, and in many cases the struggles they still live with, is, in my opinion, a bit insensitive.
Warning: rant ahead- the rest of the world is not an Epcot/ Disneyworld/Las Vegas setting that exists for our viewing pleasure. It is where many people have undergone terrible times of war, torture, deprivation, poverty, and starvation. Nothing annoys me more than hearing a fellow 'traveler' refuse to leave a small 'tip' ( about $1) for a maid or waiter ( even when breakfast is included in the tour or room rate). Worse is listening to someone boast about how much they have 'haggled' something down to the lowest amount. As if that .50 cents or $1 really mattered when the trip costs $3,000- 4,000 , while the seller might not be able to eat or feed their kids that day. Val and I both subscribe to the philosophy of nurturing the very bottom of the 'tourist food chain' as they are usually the poorest paid. We know that in So. East Asia and some Central and So. American countries our small 'tips' of $1 might be half a day's wage. Now back to Hungary....
Some interesting quirks and info:
-Business cards , etc. list a person's last name first and first name last. i.e - Liszt, Franz
-The English word 'hello' is used to say both 'hi' and good-by'
-Buses and trains play peppy music when they stop- not beeping or tooting.
-A waiter may say: " Please command, Sir" as those in the service industry take their jobs very seriously.
-They love wine, music (esp. classical), and meat! A vegetarian may look long and hard for a good salad.
- Bakeries and pastry shops are wonderful! Be sure and try the 'Dobos Torta'. It has replaced the 'Tres Leches' cake from So. Am. as my new favorite dessert.
We were surprised to learn about these famous Hungarians or of Hungarian descent;
- Rubik- he is the famous cube
- Laszlo biro- he gave his name to what we call the ball- point pen but the rest of the world simple calls 'a biro'. He is credited with hundreds of patents including: roll- on deoderant; steam- powered washing machine; and ,an automatic transmission device for cars.
-Andy Warhol's parents- artist
-Franz Lizst; Zoltan Kodaly- composers
-Edward Teller- scientist who worked on the Atomic bomb
-George Soros - really, really rich guy
- Andy Grove- founder of intel
- Tony Curtis, Harry Houdini, Joseph Pulitzer, Estee' Lauder, Peter Lorre, Goldie Hawn, and the Gabor sisters.
And now to Budapest! it was originally 3 cities: Buda. Pest, and Obuda. You can get dizzy from a guide telling you : "on your left" then " on your right" for miles as you tour this magnificient city. Val helped me to remember which side was which. 'Buda' is the one with hills ( look at a 'B' on its side ), and 'Pest' ( pronounced Pesch) is flat. The 3 cities united in 1873. There is so much to see here and I only had a couple of days. To really give the city justice it would take a week or more. First, it is stunningly beautiful. Our boat was docked on the Pest side about 100 yards from the famous Chain Bridge and 200 yards down from the spectacular Parliament building so that would be # 1 on my list to see (be sure to see them all lit at night). It is modeled after London's Parliament Building. A short walk down along the Danube from there, right on the edge of the river, is #2. a Holocaust Memorial. There are about 50 bronze shoes of different shapes and sizes. The Nazis, to save time and bullets, would tie two or three people together, shoot one and then they would all fall into the river and drown. Gruesome but nothing about the Nazis is pleasant or pretty. #3. The Great Synagogue - the biggest in Europe and the 2nd largest in the world ( after one in NYC). There is an attached museum and an evocative Memorial Garden with a Tree of Life sculpture. Each of the 4,000 leaves are etched with names of Holocaust victims. NOTE: In the synagogue, men need to cover their heads, and women their shoulders ( garments are provided). The building has a Moorish flavor to it evocative of the Shepardic Jews from Spain. It survived WWII but was neglected for 40 years. Beginning in 1990, it was painstakingly restored with financial support from Tony and Jamie Lee curtis. # 4- the Opera house which dates from 1890. Emperor Franz Josef provided most of the funds but stipulated that it should be smaller than HIS opera house in Vienna. The architect complied and designed it so it was smaller but made it way more opulent- excessively so. It was damaged in WWII but was restored in the 1980's. Go for a tour if you can't get a ticket ( try on line) for an opera. #.5 - Heroes Square - Rick Steves describes this place as 'dripping in history'. Built in 1896 to commemorate the 1,000 th Anniversary of the Magyar's arrival it teams with fierce warriors wielding massive swords while astride giant horses. Around the perimeter, atop tall pillars, there are statues of 14 leaders who span the country's entire history. I just heard that a statue of Ronald Reagan was installed the other day, on what would have been his 100th birthday. His PR machine is working overtime to perpetuate the myth that he was solely responsible for the fall of communism---ahh, but don't get me started. Surrounding the square are several art museums which we didn' t have time to see. #6 City Park- a fun place with a lake, paddle boats, canoes, picnic spots, a circus, lots of green space, and the famous Szechenji Baths, said to be the finest thermal spa in the world. If you have time and a teeny speedo or tiny bikini treat yourself to the 120 degree waters.
On the Buda side- cross the lovely Chain Bridge:
#1. Castle hill- fantastic views of the Pest side. Not much else is there but some tourist traps and bathrooms ( always important).
#2. The funicular- if you dare. It is a fun and cheap way to get up the hill. These wooden cars and tracks were built in 1870. Be sure your insurance is paid up!
#3. Mattias Church- fanciful architecture but if you've seen enough ABC"S ( another beautiful church) then enjoy the exterior and the 'ambiance ' of the place. Grab some gelato or a beer and people watch.
#4. Fishermen's Bastion- over the top turrets, nooks, crannies, and beautifully colored tile roofs. If you're lucky a gap toothed, long haired lad dressed in medieval garb will be standing near a wall. Next to him will be a HUGE hooded falcon. He'd be more than happy to put a leather glove on your arm and have the bird sit on you- for a fee, of course. Think of the photo possibilities! See above about insurance.
The BEST views of Pest are from this spot. Don't pay to walk up a few stairs. The views are just as good from the ground level.
I've rambled on much too long but I wanted to give Budapest its due. It rivals Prague for beauty and that is saying a whole lot!
Thanks to Grand Circle for the wonderful book 'European River Cruising' for most of the historical info I have given you. Next one will be a lot shorter, I promise.
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