This seems like a good space to lodge a not-so-formal complaint about history curriculum in the American education system. Although I’m an American Studies major, I’m not ashamed to admit that I know far less than I should about 20th century American and world history.
In the primary grades, my history classes usually made it through the Industrial Revolution. In a year, covering the Gilded Age was a stretch. We’d usually skip ahead to the Great Depression, and we’d talk about the Holocaust and World War II during the last weeks of May. I never had any sort of education about World War I until my junior year of high school. Even then, the Great War got maybe two days of attention in my AP U.S. History class. We crammed everything from Hiroshima onwards into a review day before the big standardized exam. I never learned about Korea or Vietnam, JFK or Reagan. I also never learned about the Cold War or Communism.
As it turns out, those would have been good things to know about before going to Hungary, a country which figured very prominently in those periods of history that were blatantly and unapologetically overlooked in my primary and secondary history curricula.
This weekend I was able to pick up bits and pieces of Hungarian history to fill in the gaps in my mental timeline. Hungary used to be a huge power – the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Then after WWI, Hungary lost 70% of its land when it was carved up to make countries like Romania. At a wine tasting, our sommelier joked, “Hungary is the only country in the world that is surrounded by its own land.” When his joke fell flat, he explained to us that Hungary is now just one-third of its original size. The House of Terror Museum chronicled politics and daily life during the back-to-back Nazi and Soviet occupations. Basically, Hungary was a pretty terrible place to be for about 50 years. At the Dohany Street Synagogue, our tour guide informed us that more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Before the Holocaust, Hungary had 5,000 synagogues. Today there are just 50 in the entire country.
My trip to Budapest was a fascinating look at Eastern Europe, an area of the world about which I know very little.
Some highlights of the trip:
–Great Market: An excellent stop for photographers, hungry tourists, and souvenir shoppers. The Great Market is exactly what the name indicates – a large, indoor marketplace. The ground floor has meat, cheese, bread, and produce stalls, while the upper floor is replete with textile booths and cheap lunch food.
–Citadella: The Citadella, a medium-sized fortress, isn’t really worth the climb, but the view from the top of the hill is magnificent. Although I almost had a heart attack climbing up the steep slopes, I was glad to be able to rest at the top of the hill and take pictures. The Citadella provides an excellent view of Pest and the Danube River from the Buda side of the city. Budapest is actually two cities, Buda and Pest. The cities are separated by the Danube, and they were united in 1873 with the construction of the Chain Bridge.
–Matthias Church & Fisherman’s Bastion: The Fisherman’s Bastion is another great spot for panoramic views on the Buda side of town. We didn’t go inside the Matthias Church, but got some cool pictures of the colorful exterior roof tiles. These two attractions are in the Castle District, a bit north of the Citadella. The hill isn’t as high, but visitors can reach the Castle District by both bus and funicular. Of course, Cate and I walked up – it was a much more manageable walk than the Citadella hike. We didn’t visit the museum inside the Buda Castle, but we had fun taking pictures at the spot where Katy Perry filmed the “Firework” music video.
–Wine Tasting at Royal Cellars: Cate and I tasted three types of Hungarian wines in what used to be the Royal Cellars in the Castle District. We felt very fancy and grown-up as we learned how to sniff, swirl and swish. Neither of us cared for the red that we sampled. I had always kind of thought that people were making stuff up when they said wines had “woody” tones, but the pinot noir that we tried actually tasted earthy. We both enjoyed the sauvignon blanc, and we were pleasantly surprised with the famously-sweet Hungarian Tokaj.
–Dohany Street Synagogue: After trying valiantly to attend Mass at St. Stephen’s Basilica and finding that the schedule online was incorrect, we decided to check out the Jewish Quarter. The Dohany Street Synagogue is the largest synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world. We joined an English-language tour and quickly learned that Joseph Pulitzer (as in Pulitzer Prize) was Hungarian, as was makeup magnate Estee Lauder. The synagogue is decorated with 45 kilograms of 23 karat gold – five kilograms more than the Hungarian Parliament. Prince Charles and Camilla visited the synagogue last year. It was used as a Nazi and Gestapo radio station early in WWII, and then the building was bombed 27 times in 1944.
–House of Terror: This museum, as I mentioned before, stands as a monument to all those who died under the Nazi and Soviet regimes in Hungary. The House of Terror encompasses an entire city block – the building at 60 Andrassy Street was the headquarters of both the Nazi and Soviet police. The content was heavy, but for what it is, the museum is really very well done. Exhibits use striking video footage to great effect. The film clips are much more effective than still photographs would be. I collected the English information sheets from each room of the three-story museum and read along through the history of the Hungarian occupations. By the time we left, I had a solid packet of information. Although the House of Terror is serious and sad, it is definitely a must-do attraction for any visitor to Budapest.
–Szechenyi Baths: Perhaps my favorite part of the weekend was the afternoon we spent at one of Budapest’s famous thermal bath complexes. Szechenyi Baths is one of the largest spas in Europe – it has more than 30 pools and baths as well as a number of saunas and steamrooms. We paid an afternoon admission fee, changed into our swimsuits, and splashed around with the locals for a few relaxing hours. It was interesting to experience the way Europeans view their bodies – it’s a much more relaxed sort of acceptance. There was no self-conscious swimsuit adjusting or awkward covering-up. People just walked around flaunting what they had, even if they had a little extra here and there.
I chose to travel to Budapest in lieu of visiting Prague – I’ve heard that the cities are similar but that Budapest is less touristy. I’m very happy with my decision to visit Hungary, and I’m glad that I was able to begin filling in the gaps in my historical education.