We arrived in Budapest, Hungary on this sweltering day. We had slept… sort of… on an overnight train, wearing the clothes we had on the day before, so I’m sure we were a sight to see….and smell. We met our tour guide, Julia, who expertly opened the world of Budapest and the history book of Hungary to us. Again, we used Tours by Locals. These are always our favorite tours, but especially when we have the whole family. They tend to be more expensive guides to hire, but they charge per tour, not per person. Consequently, the more people in your group (within limits), the less expensive it is per person. There is also no tour bus to load onto. Sometimes it’s a van, but usually it’s just public transportation and walking. The bonus here is that by the time the tour is over, we’re also comfortable finding our way around the city alone.
Julia gave us a Hungarian quote to remember during the tour: “We Hungarians are happiest when we cry.” Then she proceeded to show us why this quote is appropriate. The land that is now Hungary was part of the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago. In 896, Hungarians arrived, probably from what is now Siberia. The Mongols attacked them in the 12th century, and they moved their capital city because they were afraid the Mongols would be back. They called the new capital city Buda, but there was also a city on the opposite side of the river called Pest (pronounced Pesht). It wasn’t the Mongols that attacked next, but the Turks. And then the Russians. It seemed their ancient history was one of constant victimhood that they wear like a badge of honor. Victimhood. Did I just make up that word? It should be in the dictionary because I know some people like that too.
Even with their sad history, however, the Hungarians survived and thrived. In 1840, construction began on the historic Chain Bridge over the Danube River. It took almost ten years to build but resulted in connecting the two cities. In 1873, it was decided they should merge. There was an argument over Pestbuda or Budapest, but the name they landed on was the one that was easiest to roll off the tongue. In 1896, the city of Budapest was such a modern city that they built Europe’s first ever metropolitan rail line, or metro. It took them only twenty months to complete. Interestingly enough, their newest line, built in the twentieth century, took 16 years. How times have changed.
Julia finally admitted to us that it was time to come clean about the dates she was sharing with us. It wasn’t 896 but 895 that Hungarians came. “Why the discrepancy?” We asked. Sheepishly, she answered that in the 1800s the country began preparing for a celebration that would help them remember with great pride their thousand years of settlement. They wanted monuments built in a huge public square, the metro line built, in short, a no-holds-barred festival of history. The problem was it took longer than they thought to get ready for this celebration. A whole year longer. The government did not want to celebrate their 1,001st anniversary, and they didn’t want to admit how late they were for their 1,000th anniversary, so they convinced the people that their descendants’ arrival wasn’t actually until 896. To this day, the students learn in school that their country goes back to 896! At first, she said, “Don’t tell anyone because it’s kind of embarrassing.” But when I told her I wrote a blog and loved interesting tidbits like that, she said, “Okay, you can write it then. Your readers will think it’s funny.”
Julia showed us several landmarks and monuments in the city park, some of which Hungarians are proud of, and some of which they protest as inaccurate. One that they are proud of is a huge fairy-tale looking castle. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Almost like Disney?”
“Yes,” we answered in awe.
“It’s fake. It’s all fake,” she added. “There is nothing inside, except maybe a museum here and a coffee shop there.” This was one of the things that had been built for the 1896 celebration. They wanted all of the eras of their history and all areas of their country proudly displayed, so they picked excellent examples of architecture from all over Hungary. The castle is made up of twenty buildings, each one an exact copy of a building somewhere else in the beautiful country of Hungary. We saw Roman, gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and more. It really was their crowning achievement, maybe even worth changing a country’s history for. Besides, what’s one year, right?
She also showed us their famous Heroes’ Monument. It had seven beautiful statues on each side of a semi circle. Between these sets of statues is a falcon and a large sword. Legend has it that when the people decided to migrate, they sent a falcon ahead of them with a sword. He flew, and they followed. They continued to migrate until they found the sword the falcon had dropped, stuck in the ground. It took them 1,400 years. There they began to build their settlement. The seven statues on the left side, according to Julia, every student in Hungary could rattle off their names in order. These were the seven ancient Hungarian chieftains that had migrated from Western Siberia and formed the foundation of their beloved country. The seven on the right side, not so much. Before World War II, they had been heroes of the Austrian dynasty of the Hapsburgs. During World War II, the statues were damaged, and the people were happy to tear them down. The monument had to be rebuilt in some way, so they looked around the city for statues that were the same size as the first seven and had not been defaced or protested. These, they installed in place of the seven original statues to make the Heroes’ Monument complete. Were these people heroes? I guess Hungarian children, who aren’t required to learn about their heroism, have to research and decide for themselves.
One of the Hungarian kings was St. Stephen of Hungary, who was coronated king in 1000, adopted Christianity in order to help his country fit in with western culture, and was canonized by the Catholic Church as a saint because he was such a great evangelist. In 1400, Hungary was conquered and occupied by Turks. It was a good thing Stephen had chosen Catholicism because in 1500, it was determined that a huge army should be amassed to liberate Catholic countries that were being dominated. Hungary was liberated by this army but soon fell under its country’s control. The country? Austria. See what I mean? Victims once again.
In World War I, Hungary chose to side with the Germans, and when the war was over, it was one of several countries who were affected by the Treaty of Versailles, which was a punishment of sorts for being on the wrong side of the war. Hungary ended up losing two thirds of its territory. In 1920, Hungary passed anti-semitism legislation on its own, and in World War II joined the Germans once again because they promised they’d help get their territories back. In 1944-5, 8,000 Jews were lined up on the Danube River, stripped of their shoes, and shot in the back so they would fall in the river and wash away. Julia made it clear that this was not done by Nazi Germany, but by Nazi Hungarians. We saw a moving memorial of this event. In 1944, when the Russian Army came in and ended the war in this region, it was celebrated widely.
Hungary was occupied by the Russians until 1959, when the people rose up against communism. They got the Soviet troops to leave their beautiful city, but only for three days. The Red Army returned with a vengeance…and 4,000 more troops. 22,000 people 16 years old and older were killed. Then they opened the borders and invited anyone who didn’t like it to leave. 200,000 Hungarians left.
In 1989, the Soviets finally gave Budapest up. Monuments were built making Germans out to be bad guys for the Nazi era and Russians to be bad guys of the communist era. Those same statues are being protested today, not because the people of Hungary don’t think the victims of these eras should be honored, but because they want the Hungarian government to admit that It was Hungarian Nazis and Hungarian communists, not some outside enemy, that hurt them. This time, they seem to be victims of their own choices. Complicated!
When we had finished exploring all of the important monuments on both sides of the River Danube, including the president’s palace, Parliament building, the Great Market Hall, St. Stephen’s Church, Matias Church, and more, we asked Julia which side of Budapest is best. Her answer was simple: “There are two kinds of people in Budapest: Those who live in Buda and those who wish they lived in Buda.” With that information, we ended our two day exploration relaxing in the thermal baths and sauna of Gallert (in Buda, rather than Szechenyi in Pest). Budapest is home to 126 hot springs, the water from which has to be cooled down for soaking and swimming. It was wonderful to soak, especially our feet, and even more so after having to wander the maze of stairs and slick hallways to get to the pools!
During our tour through Budapest, I couldn’t help but remember my mom’s repeated warning when I was a child: “Quit crying, or I’ll give you something to cry about.” I remembered this quote when I was crying about the fact that my phone had died and I had only gotten a few pictures of this great city. Budapest is a beautiful place to live. Perhaps its inhabitants can now celebrate that and move on to their next era, whatever it brings, in strength and hope that isn’t found in the government of a nation.