I did something Thursday afternoon that I rarely do on business trips, I toured around the city (and, no, it wasn’t a Dilbert moment. I will be logging “vacation hours” for the afternoon ;-).
Through a friend, I had an awesome tour guide I highly recommend. Jeff Taylor (along with his wife who wasn’t there, though) runs Pal Street Tours and is a professor of art management who stumbled into the tour business when friends saw/heard how fantastic he was at providing insights and information as they went around the city. Not only was I able to learn more than I imagined about the traditional tourist stops, but I also saw and learned about seemingly obscure gems that were hiding in plain sight.
Here’s a view of our touring
We started out going through the Jewish area of Budapest – little did I know that it was about a block from my hotel. We walked through the area where the Jews had set up their homes (they huddled in one little area just outside of the former city walls because they were not initially allowed inside – before the mid-1800s) and went to the fabled Great Synagogue. If I were to design the antithesis of what I want out of Jewish community, I would have designed this place. I totally get how people would be wowed by it – it’s enormous and ornate. It basically looked like a mosque on the outside and a church on the inside. We didn’t go inside at that point – as Jeff thought that it would consume a lot of time that could be more effectively used checking out other, less expensive, spots. Later on, however, I came back and saw the inside. It was very frontal – with the bimah at the front completing the baroque style church look. Even the gold leaf was the same. Fortunately, I came out and went to the gardens and saw the Raoul Wallenberg memorial garden. I had forgotten that it was in Budapest where he saved thousands of Jews by passing off false Swedish documents during WWII
Wandering through streets and courtyards, I learned more about the history of the Hungarian Jewish community including their support of Franz Joseph, the story of the revolution, and of their immense contributions to science, art, the economy and architecture. I also learned about the tragedy of the Hungarian Jews at the end WWII. Because Hungary was an ally, but not a part of the Third Reich, they didn’t have to deport their Jews. Toward the end of the war, the Germans did take over and Eichmann worked as hard as he could to kill as many Jews as he could. He decimated the Jews in the countryside, but because of their volume (400,000), their acceptance, their assimilation into the general community and the difficulties of getting the railcars there and ready, he wasn’t able to fully exterminate the Jews in Budapest. But it’s not for lack of trying. He brought many of them to the Danube’s edge and shot them into the river. A statue by the river of the remaining shoes memorializes his depraved actions.
We finished out the tour of the Jewish quarter by going through courtyards where there had been a thriving merchant community and found a gym where we could make our own delicious salads. Interestingly, it was in the heart of an area that just 3 years ago was run down and housed outdoor summertime parties in the crumbling courtyards.
After going through the Jewish quarter we were just walking through what seemed like a construction-filled intersection when he stopped me and had me look all around. We went building by building and talked about the architecture – identifying several as “secessionist”. Right behind us was a bland, crumbly and seemingly innocuous, scaffold-covered church. However, I felt like I was experiencing the equivalent of walking into the inside of a fig when we opened the door and were blinded by the brilliance of the gold leaf, marble, fanciful dioramas and more. But then I learned that I had fallen prey to the exact affect the artists hoped to achieve. The “crown molding” was an optical illusion and the marble columns were all painted plaster. The only thing real going on was the gold leaf. Quite a show!
As we came out of that church and then as we walked another couple of blocks, he directed my attention to a stunning building with ceramic people poking out between the 2nd & 3rd floors. He had shown me some examples of this ceramic tile usage, but this was the most dramatic of the day. Turns out that the elaborate ceramic roof tiles throughout the city, these poking out people, and many of the buildings with colorful facades have ceramic tiles from a manufacturer named Joel Nye (not sure of the spelling). These very light and very energy efficient tiles were made using a very special process up through the communist era. Unfortunately, during that time, they were forced to focus on making toilets and the craftsmanship that had gone into the tiles atrophied. Now, while there are certainly people there trying to replicate their former quality artisanship, their product is just not the same as before.
When we went into the building, it was even more beautiful than the outside – and we were the only ones there. Because of an unfortunate location decision, this building was off the main drag and near traffic. Thus – the boutiques in the arcade of the building never really thrived and the first floor that was immaculately designed to accommodate the flow of tons of people, is virtually untread. From the elevators to the banisters to the telephone booths to the floor to the ceiling – this building was truly fancy everywhere. I could easily imagine a small and elegant party there – complete with billowing ball gowns and tuxedos.
After that I essentially wended my way back to the hotel where I did a little work and then went for another walk and a dinner with a friend of a friend.
All in all – I can’t recommend Budapest enough! I saw but a fraction of the city and was blown away. I ….hey, wait, I didn’t talk about Prince Charles.
Well – it turns out that he was there in Budapest starting on Wednesday through Friday and that he was heading to some of the same places where I was going. In fact, you can see him even wearing a kipah here (looks pretty funny on him). I suspect they’re referencing the Wallenberg statue, but who knows.
I hope that you have a chance to see/experience Budapest and, if you do, be sure to get Jeff to take you on an amazing tour.