In every city we visit, we try to start our first few days by joining a “free walking tour” of the city to familiarize ourselves with a succinct history lesson, areas of town, and a local’s perspective on places to see and where to eat.
The history in Budapest is hard to summarize in just a few minutes and this blog post will tap into just a few key points of a complicated and difficult past for Hungarians.
During our tour, we stopped outside of St. Stephen’s Basilica, a mammoth building that dominates the Pest skyline (aside from Parliament of course) standing at the maximum allowed height of 96 meters. As a tribute to the first settlers in the area from 896 A.D., no building was to be built taller than 96 meters. In addition, the Hungarian Parliament and St. Stephen’s were built to the exact same height to symbolize that community goals and spiritual goals are equally important.
Our guide continued the history lesson in front of the Basilica and told us a story that left our jaws on the ground. As the story goes, the people loved Stephen I (former King of Hungary) and the church did too. Everyone wanted Stephen to be sainted, but alas, he hadn’t performed a miracle during his lifetime, which was one of the requirements.
Fast forward 50 years. The current king, and the people of Hungary, still wish they could have sainted Stephen. SO what do they do? Exhume the body of course! When they dug him up, they noticed his right arm (specifically his fist) had been naturally mummified and THIS qualified as a miracle! The Basilica has the right fist, dubbed the “Holy Dexter” or “Holy Right”, on display in the chapel and visitors can insert coins to turn on a light so they can view it. Then, once a year, the fist is paraded around town where all the cardinals and townspeople can see it and follow it through the squares.
We saw the fist. It was…. as odd and gross as you would expect. Taking a picture of it was near impossible, but here are some pictures on a bulletin board from when they originally cut the fist off the body…. Ohhhhh traditions!
Budapest, as a centrally located city, has always been leveraged as a strong hold for expanding empires in both directions. As we shared in other posts, it’s changed hands numerous times. A running theme in most every major European city is the persecution of the Jewish people. I know your mind jumps to World War II, but almost everywhere, including Hungary, their persecution started long before WWII. Of course when Hitler came to power, the division became magnified.
One of the most impactful things we did during our visit was spend a day in “The House of Terror” Museum. This ominous, grey building is on a major thoroughfare through Pest and does an excellent job of demanding attention and serving as a reminder of their troubled past. On a sunny day, the word “TERROR” is projected onto the side of the building by it’s own shadow. Even with no sun at all, the building stands out for blocks.
Surprisingly, the museum dedicates only a few rooms to WWII history but instead focuses on a much more recent terror, an era of Communist Rule that was in place until 1989 (some of the laws still being enforced as late as 2001.) While other monuments and memorials capture the impact of Nazi rule prolifically, the Terror Museum aims to capture the true effect of Communist Soviet Rule. The stories of how the Soviets came into power were terrifying and fascinating. They also have many interviews you can watch of Hungarian natives, many of whom are still alive today, that have lived through numerous massacres.
As you exit the terror museum, the last exhibit drives home how recent these events were. A room known as “the wall of shame” displays photographs and names of known communist enforcers that were behind murders and massacres. This wall of shame reminds you that the men and women were committing these heinous crimes are very likely alive today and walking through town…
As a juxtaposition, Budapest is also home to the largest Synagogue in Europe and second largest in the world! The Dohany Street Synagogue is a beautiful place to visit to see incredibly ornate architecture and craftsmanship. It is also home to some humbling displays of Jewish persecution throughout the ages – both pre and post WWII.
One of the memorials here is “The Tree of Life” where each leaf displays etched names of Holocaust victims. Many records of victims were lost or destroyed during Communist occupation so it is still an ongoing effort to identify/re-document thousands and thousands of victims.
On the surface, you might not notice how recently this beautiful city was tormented. In such a short time, the people of Budapest have reclaimed their city and created a thriving culture of insanely polite people who care deeply about their country and are proud to share it with the world.
Budapest was one of our favorite places to visit. Although the winter was harsh, visiting in the cold allowed us to experience the sparkling Christmas markets, enjoy the heat of the thermal spas, and be warmed by the welcoming, kind nature of the Hungarian people – a group that has been through so much horror but now thrives and opens their arms to visitors, despite what foreign governments have done to them in the past. We could all learn a thing or two from their perseverance and their unwavering ability to welcome strangers, share a glass of palinka, and show them around town!