- Days 1-5: Budapest
RTW Trip 2014: Peru→ Chile → Argentina → Antarctica → Argentina → Uruguay → Argentina→ Chile→ England → Morocco → Spain → France → Belgium → Netherlands → Germany → Czech Republic → Austria → Hungary → Croatia → Italy → Thailand → United States → Thailand → Laos → Vietnam → Cambodia → Australia → Taiwan
Dates: July 2-6, 2014
Budapest, Hungary was a bit of an accident. We were not originally, in the vision of our trip, planning to go there. It was only 2 months ago that we decided we would stop over there for a few days en route from Prague, Czech Republic down to Croatia, since it geographically made since, and we figured we could, you know, mayble sleep or something.
Now, for those “true” backpackers who fly by the seat of their pants and decide where to go as they go, I know you are probably thinking that this was not really an accident at all and that 2 months is actually a significant amount of prior planning. Okay, Tim and I are a little more regimented in our itinerary, but we are both highly organized people who are not too keen on not knowing where we are going to sleep each night.
I also know, now, that anyone who has traveled to central/eastern Europe, is probably thinking we are insane for not originally having this amazing city in our itinerary to begin with. And I agree with you. We had not really done much research about the city ahead of time, few of our friends (if any) recommended it to us, and it really is not a city you hear much about from a tourism perspective compared to Paris, Berlin or even Prague.
But it was an absolutely brilliant accident. Budapest surprised us in many ways. The city itself is set on a gorgeous, wide part of the Danube river; the architectural landmarks, from St Stephen’s Basilica, to the abandoned castle on the hill, to the massive parliament building that dominates the view of the river bank on the Pest side of the city, are breathtaking; the country’s history is eye-opening and complex; and the people and nightlife culture rival anything I have seen so far.
On our first full day in the city we did, per usual, a free walking tour of the city. We learned that the Hungarian people originally came from Asia and settled along the Danube River in 896. Originally, it was two cities divided by the river, Buda and Pest. Buda is set on rolling hills and is the wealthier and more elite area, and Pest is set on flat land on the other side of the river and is the area of the common people. Today, Buda is still fancy but less fun- there is not much to do there; and Pest is where the nightlife, restaurants and fun are. In Hungary’s history, they have been often oppressed and occupied by other cultures- the Austrian empire, the Ottoman empire, and more recently, German Nazis and Soviet Communists. Now, they are independent and have a form of democratic government that, according to locals, they are still figuring out.
Crossing the largest bridge spanning the river, the Chain Bridge, you can see magnificent views of both sides of the city. On the Buda side of the city, Matthias Church and a Hapsburg summer palace dominate the landscape. The palace was constructed before WWI, and was rarely used. Once the Austrian empire was broken up after the war, it was out of use and was later bombed substantially during WWII. Today it still looks nice from the outside, but is still in need of repairs inside, so it is not available to tourists and is more or less abandoned.
On the Pest side, you can see the dome of St. Stephen’s Basilica, named in honor of the first Hungarian King, and the parliament building, which is the second largest in Europe and third largest in the world.
On both sides, there are many bath houses and spas that are popular in the city due to the thermal waters running beneath the city. The spas have been in use for hundreds of years and remain a top tourist attraction today.
This same afternoon, after the general tour, we did another free tour, this one focusing on Communism in Budapest. This one was very fascinating, and dove into daily life under Communism as well as the background and history of it in Hungary. The country went through three phases with Communism- Stalinism, which was violent and scary (more on this later), happy Communism, which many people look at with nostalgia, and now, post-communism, which means the country is still trying to “catch up” with the development of the capitalist European economies.
During the Communist period, like in Czechoslovakia, there were no exotic fruits available, cars would take 10 years to receive once you ordered them, and the apartments, while cheap, were only designed to be used temporarliy (and they are still in use today). Religion was forbidden, and members of the secret police, which could be your neighbors or your friends, would inform on you for being a “bad” communist if they knew you were religious.
Healthcare was also a challenge- they had access to none of the technology being developed elsewhere in the world due to a trade agreement called the COCOM list. Basically, this is a list that several capitalist countries, including the United States, agreed upon to not conduct trade with (mostly Soviet nations or other socialist states).
Even so, during Communism, unemployment was 0%- everyone had a job, even if their job was not exactly necessary, and everyone had a basically good lifestyle. It was not elaborate by any means, but everyone was provided for. There was good, cheap public transportation, which is still in place today, and vacations, while limited to only a few permitted places, were also paid for. When the Soviet economy collapsed after 1979 due to their preoccupation with their war in Afghanistan, the economies of the nations in the Soviet Bloc also collapsed- meaning communism went bankrupt. When it collapsed in 1989, unemployment went from 0% to 30%, and inflation took a similar jump. Hungary took out a loan to make ends meet during this time and still owes 70% of its GDP towards paying back- this is actually why they are not able to use the Euro at this time.
Today, only one Soviet monument remains standing in the city. All of the others have been carted off to a monument park outside of the city center. The monument, when translated, reads “Glory to the liberating Soviet soldiers”, referring to the Soviet army liberating Hungary from Nazism at the end of WWII. It still remains as part of a pact with Russia to keep a monument standing in exchange for, according to our tour guide, cheaper gas.
Aside from the wealth of information, these tours also gave us some new friends in the city. We met Marcello, a Brazilian college student who just spent a semester studying in Lyon, France at the same university I attended, as well as Megan, a college student who is working in Belgium this summer, and made plans to all do the free organized bar crawl the next night operated by the same company as the walking tours.
The next evening we met up for the pub crawl, which ended up being one of the most fun nights we have had on this trip. We met back up with Marcello and Megan, and met many other amazing people in our group, including an Indian couple who knows a guy Tim used to work with in Madison (they grew up together in India- small world!), the most adorable and sweet couple living in London, and a sharp and kind girl named Arielle who graduated college last year. Everyone was a mix of ages and backgrounds, and in this setting the group chemistry was perfect.
The pubs in Budapest are unique because many of them are “ruins” pubs, meaning they are old apartments and courtyards that have been abandoned and later converted into bars. They are large, have many rooms to explore, and kitschy decor. The official pub crawl was to 4 bars, but many of us went out to a 5th afterwards, and enjoyed dancing and good conversation about travel and life.
Our evening was spent very differently from our day, and while valuable, I wouldn’t call it fun. Earlier that day we visited the very ominously-named House of Terror museum, which is a memorial to the victims of the Nazi and Communist dictatorships in Hungary. The museum is highly artistic- meaning each room is like a memorial to one piece of the history, and the audioguide explained the history behind it all.
This visit took us about four hours with the audio guide, so it was quite a lot to take in. It truly was eye-opening, as we learned so much about Hungarian 20th century history. Hungary was on the losing side of WWI and was left weak and poor, and sandwiched between two scary dictatorships- Nazis and Soviets. Hungary was occupied by Nazi Germany in 1944 and also actively supported the Nazis during the war. Later in 1944, the Soviets arrived and occupied Hungary until 1991. When the Soviets arrived, they abducted many Hungarians with German-sounding names and sent them to gulogs, or forced-labor camps. Eventually, they were abducting anyone they thought might not be a supporter of Stalin. Many died in these labor/concentration camps (300,000 Hungarians) and those who made it out alive were not allowed to talk about their experiences until after the regime fell in 1991.
The Communist party in Hungary started using terror and fear tactics in 1947 to establish support for their mission. They rigged voting in the elections to “win” and seize total power. Soon after, private property was abolished, and everything was nationalized. People were kept within the boundaries of the Iron Curtain by use of minefields, and daily life was militarized. Children were indoctrinated into Communist ideology at a young age, joining “Little Drummers” and later the “Pioneers”, which were like Boy and Girl Scouts focused on how to be good party members. People began to live in fear of each other as no one knew who might be a member of the secret police. Those who resisted communism (truly or just allegedly) were imprisoned until the end of the regime, and many were also executed (400 between 1945 and 1956).
The secret police were trained to arrest, torture, or even beat to death anyone who was a threat- whether it was a family member, lover, or even a member of the Communist party.
Today, this museum is a memorial to those who were victims of the violence. The last room of the museum is a hallway with pictures of the “victimizers”, those who worked in Communist leadership or secret police. Many of these individuals are still alive and living in Hungary, which really made us realize how very recent all of this history is. These individuals who committed or enabled the cruelty to take place are somebody’s grandparents today. This part of the museum is quite controversial, and understandably so, as both victims and victimizers still live among each other today in Hungary.
We were in a somber mood after this visit, which was compounded upon the realization we had visited this memorial on the 4th of July. What better way to appreciate our own freedoms and independence in the United States than by learning about the suffering that human beings have experienced when those freedoms have been denied?
We spent the rest of our time in Budapest enjoying good cheap beer and wine, delicious Hungarian pastries and exploring the city a bit more. In the short 5 days we were there, Budapest brought so much value to our trip as a whole- from the amazing people we met, to the history we learned, and to the gratitude we felt to be able to go out and live it up in this vibrant city.