Ah, yes, that air conditioner. They sent a pair of technicians up at ten o’clock at night to see it they could fix it for us. First problem: the panel that gave access to the inner workings of the machine was blocked by a protruding picture frame, so firmly attached to the wall that it took all of the technicians’ skills and perhaps a half hour of labor to get it off. Then, no luck. The telephone rang. The deputy manager for the night shift. Abject apologies. Our problem turned out to be a serious one, that might take days to fix. He would like to offer us an alternative room, and we could move there this very night, if we so chose.
Travel weary, exhausted from the day, and ready to believe that the heat would break for at least the duration of the night, we opted for an open window and a move tomorrow. And we received, this morning, another call, this time from the manager himself, with the renewed offer of a new room (we accepted, repacked with some disgruntlement) and begging us to accept a “gift” in compensation. We accepted… and left before the gift arrived.
A good breakfast, and a long consultation of the maps and tour books on Ellie’s part, whilst P hied himself to the business center to post yesterday’s handsome piece, with pictures! (The ethernet connection in the room is not functioning, and this is a holiday weekend: Whit Sunday, Pentecost, followed by a national holiday today) so it won’t be fixed before tomorrow at the earliest. We are learning quickly that there is a good deal of malfunction in Hungary.
Ellie’s research paid off handsomely. It’s good to have some sense of purpose in a foreign city—aside from wandering from tourist site to tourist site, and for us in Budapest the theme has definitely become the art nouveau and art deco architecture. First, though, a visit to the synagogue, the second largest in the world, which we had been warned would certainly be closed on a national holiday. Pentecost? I doubted it.
We found it open, and mobbed with tourists joining guided tours in English, Spanish, German, French, Japanese… Amazing. The building is clearly of great historical as well as architectural interest, having survived WWII virtually intact. At least the exterior. The interior was gutted, used as a stable and a barracks, with—irony of ironies!—the Gestapo headquartered in the capacious balcony. Left in a shambles after the defeat of the Germans in 1945, it regained its stature as a working synagogue even though the restoration process did not start until 1991, with funds from the Hungarian government aided by a foundation led by the actor Tony Curtis—originally a Hungarian Jew.
Today, it is splendidly restored to its original state, a glowing tribute to those who put so much time, love and money into the process. Our guide gave us an excellent history of the building, and much information about the Jewish quarter that surrounds it. She led us around the side of the building to a cemetery, where the date of death on every grave marker is 1945.
The fate of the Hungarian Jews is particularly poignant, since they were the last to have been subjected to the Nazi treatment, and only in the last days of the war. Walled into a ghetto around their synagogue, the Jews of Budapest died either by random execution or by starvation, and many were left lying in the streets—a health hazard the Germans resolved by allowing them all to be buried in this tiny cemetery, six thousand of them in the space of seven weeks.
We also visited the Holocaust Memorial Tree behind the synagogue,
along with a memorial to Raoul Wallenberg and numerous others, Hungarian and other Christians, who risked their very lives to save the lives of others. Upstairs, in the museum, we found an exhibit in memory of one resistant Jew, along with numerous large-scale photographs of that grim period in European history. All in all, a sobering and moving highlight of our trip.
Then we roamed the streets—first the old Jewish quarter—armed with maps to locate buildings of special interest. We found them for the most part, as usual, dingy and in sad disrepair.
The money is simply not available to restore them. Even in the richer area, up toward the city park, where many foreign embassies are located, walls seemed to be crumbling, details lost to the effects of pollution, paint peeling. We took a lot of pictures, and stopped for a very indifferent lunch at a restaurant in the lively Franz Liszt Square, where restaurants jostle with each other for space on the busy sidewalks under the shade of a multitude of umbrellas and trees. The adjacent
Franz Liszt music school is supposedly a remarkable example of nouveau architecture, but when we ventured in for a look inside (a rich, teasing glimpse) we were rudely expelled with the explanation “Closed building”—despite my indication of our interest in the architecture.
Further north, at the edge of the city part, a rather spectacular memorial
to those who lost their lives in the 1956 revolution against the Soviets—but sadly ill-kept, the purposefully claustrophobic spaces between its vertical steel beams filled with trash and, worse, human waste. You had the impression of people shitting and pissing callously on a heroic moment in their own history, as though despising the freedom it was intended to gain, and which they have now finally achieved.
A stop at the Kunsthalle, nearby, after admiring the “biggest hourglass in the world”
—a monumental sculptural piece that is supposed to keep time for centuries to come. P found a comfortable seat while Ellie perused the bookshop. We were grateful to have happened on this convenient and comfortable shelter when the rain started, minutes later, a veritable downpour that flooded the huge square outside. It lasted only a few minutes, so we were able to continue our architectural adventure
on the way back south towards the hotel, ending up with a long walk down Andrassy,
reputed to be the Champs Elysees of Budapest, where we passed a film crew busy making a period movie—shades of Hollywood, where massive movie trucks often impede your driving in familiar locations.
Back at the hotel, we found our “gift”—a small plate of fruit, to compensate us for out pain and suffering—and I luxuriated in a soak in the capacious bath. Then down to the lobby for our complimentary glass of Hungarian wine, before heading out to a restaurant we had spotted earlier in the Jewish quarter, the Spinoza. A very nice, very Hungarian meal—goulash for P, breast of goose for Ellie—with a glass or two of Tokay, served by a charming young waiter who forgot to bring one of our courses—but did not forget to charge us for it at the end! Very sweet about it, though. And when, on our return to the hotel, I discovered that I had left my sweater there, they gladly offered to drop it off at the hotel.