06/18/2014 - 06/18/2014 65 °F
Well, today is my last day in Budapest so I wanted to make it count. I got up around 8:30, booked the Hotel Meninger in Vienna for the next 3 days, then hit the grocery store to stock up on eggs, peppers and onions. While I made my omelet, Chris woke up and we planned to meet at the Baths at 2:30 for a second try. He had to do some work in the morning and wanted to climb Gellert Hill and I had some other things I wanted to fit into the day, mostly touring Parliament. I hit the street and went just a little out of the way to get back to Central Market. It was my last day and I hadn’t really seen anywhere else to buy little souvenirs to add a piece of Budapest to my collection. I settled on a model of Fisherman’s Bastion, since that had so captured my imagination. Then I headed north along the river toward parliament, but got distracted again because just across the bridge and up the hill was Mathias Church which I had never got to see inside because it was too late in the day both times that I went. With its multicolored walls and generous gold accents, it didn’t disappoint.
I also got to go up in Fisherman’s bastion since it had been closed off for the wedding last time I was up. I got a good picture in front of Parliament then decided that it was finally time to go see it up close.
Heading back down the hill, I saw this wonderful accordion player and was compelled to give him a Euro and change.
The parliament building was even more incredible up close. I even got to try out the little mini tripod for my camera.
Were these the “real” guards Aggie was talking about?
Aggie had said that tours take place every 15 minutes, so I hadn’t put much thought into it when I showed up. While she was technically right, the tours rotated between 7 different languages so English tours only went off every 2 hours. The next tour wasn't until 1:45, which would make me miss the baths. 0 for 2, Aggie! I wish I knew this before I tipped you! I was pretty frustrated because I had really been looking forward to it, but with sudden hour and a half of free time before the baths, I decided to go to the House of Terror, which commemorated the two times that Hungarians were persecuted, both under Nazis and under the Soviet Union. Since I never got to do the Free Walking Tour on communism, I figured this was the next best thing.
Both the Nazi and Communist executioners had set up their headquarters at 60 Andrassy Avenue. During WWII, Hungary was in the crossfire of the Nazi and Communist dictatorships. After WWI, Hungary lost 1/3 of it’s territory and 2 million of its people were place in the jurisdiction of neighboring countries. They were disarmed, isolated politically and weakened economically, all while being surrounded by hostile countries. It was essentially in the buffer zone between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Hungarians regard it as a great victory that they were able to avoid German occupation until the 5th year of the war in 1944. But then, the Hungarian government basically became a pawn of Hitler’s, so they made Hungarian Jews wear the yellow star and rounded them up to deport them to German concentration camps…437,402 of them. Hilter occupied Hungary to “secure absolute control over the countries natural and human resources.” The Hungarian Regent Miklos Horthy made a feeble attempt to get Hungary out of the war, but it failed and he was forced by the Nazis to resign. In his place, the Nazis put the Arrow Cross Party in power. 60 Andrassy Blvd. (the site of the museum) became the “House of Loyalty” and the members of the Arrow Cross killed and tortured hundreds of people in its basement. The only thing that saved them from this reign of terror was Soviet liberation (and subsequent occupation) in 1945. One of the first things the Hungarian communists that arrived with the Soviet tanks did was to take over 60 Andrassy. The Department for Political Police took over the former Arrow Cross HQ.
They killed without hesitation when ordered to do so, while many of their “confessions” were extorted only after brutal interrogations. They had a shadow army of informers that watched people on factory floors, in offices and at universities. This tyrannical regime seized, tortured or killed one person from every third family in Hungary. Nobody was safe. They even had a quota of Germans to round up and send to the Soviets. Undesirable citizens, those who were religious or were political opponents were labeled “Kulaks.” The term had no real criteria and became ambiguous. It was a label slapped on anyone that they wanted to get rid of. When quotas couldn’t be filled, they started taking people simply if they had a last name that sounded German. Thousands of people were abducted and sent to prison camps in this way. In this and other deportations, 130,000 civilians and another 500,000 soldiers ended up in Soviet captivity, where they were sent to camps that were part of the Soviet “gulag.” Equality under the law was officially abolished and replaced with “class-justice,” where the accused persons social origins or class affiliation were to be taken into consideration either as a mitigating or aggravating circumstance. I’m sort of astounded that I never learned about this in school, when it sounds so similar in scope and horror to the Nazi’s concentration camps. Several million died from executions and inhumane conditions.
It is hard to imagine, but from when the Nazi’s came in 1944 until the last Soviet soldiers left in 1991, almost a 50 year span, Hungary was never under its own control. Even after the Soviets left, the rebuilding has only just begun. Not just the buildings either, but perhaps more importantly in terms of culture and values. For example, the one party system the Soviets had put in place had begun ideological training at the Kindergarten level. How do you start to undo that cultural programming?
The beginning of the shift in a more positive direction occurred in 1956, when Khrushchev uncovered the crimes of the Stalinist era (after Stalin’s death in 1953). In October of that year, demonstrations broke out in Budapest, lead by students and later joined by vast crowds. When the secret police opened lethal fire on unarmed people in the crowd, the protest became a revolution. Its mission was to create a democratic, free and independent Hungary. They disbanded several state and local communist institutions. In just 5 days, Soviet political leadership was forced to give up ground. While Aggie called it a failure, I suppose since they didn’t achieve their aim of a free Hungary for another 35 years, it did seem like a victory in that troops were withdrawn from Budapest and negotiations began for withdrawal from the country as a whole. The feared State Security Department on Andrassy Blvd. was disbanded, as was the one party system.
The penultimate stop on the tour was some pretty intense prison cells in the basement. Hard to imagine the horror that happened here.
They were given a cup of bean soup and 150 grams of bread (under 500 calories for the whole day) and weren’t given blankets. The guy with the cell with the bed was actually lucky…many had to sleep on the cold floor. The final stop was very interesting. It was a room filled with the pictures of the “terrorizers.” They definitely wanted to make sure that none of them could hide from their past.
After the museum I was starving and I had a few hours of bathing ahead of me. I was also running out of chances for an authentic Hungarian meal, so as I walked toward the baths I got some Goulash. Its pretty much just a beef stew. I’ll admit that with a pound of paprika and whatever other spices they put in there, they made a pretty bland dish at least tolerable. However, in a sad twist of fate, I somehow forgot to take a picture of this interesting culinary creation. Perhaps its better that way. I’m not sure any picture could have made it look appetizing, but I assure you that while it was nothing to write home about (I realize that currently I’m technically writing home about it), it was certainly better than it looked. On to the baths!
I found Chris on the steps of the bathhouse, reading what looked like a really old book, but when I got up close I saw that it was actually a Kindle. Turns out it's a homemade Kindle cover. He basically cut out the center of the pages so that his Kindle would fit in. It’s perfect for traveling because nobody would ever want to steal this old ratty book. Neat idea. I told him he should sell it on eBay…or Shark Tank!
Anyways, here’s the enormous bath house.
And that’s just the half I could fit into the picture!
Inside, there were over 15 pools, a few saunas and a steam room. The pools had a range of temperatures, from 60ish degrees (which actually feels great after a brutal sauna) to 110ish degrees, one sauna that was normal sauna temperature and another that was 10 degrees hotter and was definitely an exercise in mental toughness. The steam room had what felt like peppermint. When I stepped inside, I was not expecting that at all. It stings your eyes and skin. Some guy said it was eucalyptus, which sounds more credible than peppermint, but all I could think of was the tea factory I went to in Denver with Jocelyn where there was a similar smell and stinging sensation in the peppermint room.
Some of the pools had high concentrations of different minerals. Out in the courtyard of this enormous building there were also 2 giant half-circle pools on either side of an Olympic-sized lap pool. I was bummed that swim caps were required in the lap pool, but at the same time I was here to relax.
They even had this sweet little circular piece inside the pool with jets that made a crazy whirlpool.
There is supposed to be a formula for tackling all of these different relaxation stations: Warm pool, cold pool, sauna, cold shower, steam bath, cold showers, mineral pools, rest and relax wrapped in a warm beach towel. That was wayyy too much to remember, so we pretty much just did a lot of hot/cold/hot/cold. The hotter sauna to the freezing pool was definitely an experience. Other than that, not much to report. For a couple hours we just sat around dazed and confused. Very enjoyable at almost the halfway point of my trip that is otherwise filled with 20 miles of walking every day. They also had this sweet technology where your “ticket” was a wristband that looked like a watch and if you pressed the watch on your locker it would lock or unlock your locker.
By this point, it was almost 6pm and by the time I went home and ate, I was looking at catching the 10pm bus and not getting in until 1am, so it was unfortunately time to go. A few things we noticed on the way home. First, we could have just walked down the street and never missed a goal for a world cup game. There was a bar showing the game literally every 50 feet. If a crowd cheered, we would be able to get to a TV in time for the replay. All this and the Hungarian team isn’t even in the World Cup! Also, whereas I noticed in Germany last year that you have to pay per plastic grocery bag, in Hungary they don’t even give you that option. You’re basically expected to just bring your own. I wonder what would happen if we did that in the US. When I bought my groceries the other day, I luckily had my backpack with me. Here, all of your groceries get put back in your container (there are no carts-the aisles are far too narrow) and then they provide you a little shelf to go figure out how to carry all of your stuff home.
I quickly cooked up some chicken, then threw it in a container to eat on the road. I packed up my backpack, then headed for the train station. There was a train pretty much every hour until 11pm. I got there around 9:30 expecting to get on the 10 o’clock train. However, the kiosks to buy tickets were only for local trains. To get an international ticket, you had to go to the ticket office. That late at night, there was only one person working at the ticket office and about 30 that wanted to buy tickets, so I had to pick a number to get in the queue. I ended up missing the 10pm train, but wasn’t all that worried about it because I knew there was another one coming. When I finally got up to the ticket window, it was almost 10:45. I told the woman my destination and she asked when I wanted to go. As soon as possible! So she promptly printed me out a ticket for 5am the next morning. What I hadn’t known to pay attention to online was that the trains that left hourly alternated between leaving from the main station and a second major station. It was 10 minutes to 11 and I never would have made it across town in time. A bit perplexed, I decided to test out the limits of that “no checkout time” policy at Mandala Hostel. When I got back, everyone was asleep. I checked my bed and nobody was in there, so I just threw down my bag and fell asleep in all of my clothes since there weren’t any sheets to be had and since I had to wake up in barely 5 hours to catch my train. When I woke up in the morning, there still wasn’t anybody awake at the hostel, so I just left some cash and a note to cover my unintended stay. Now I’m headed to Vienna (for real this time!)