Friday, November 01, 2013

Bewildered in Budapest

You won't be totally lost in a Spanish-speaking country if you know some French, and you won't be totally lost in a German-speaking country if you know some English. You can be perfectly fluent in several dozen languages, however, and still be totally lost in Hungary. The languages most closely related to Hungarian are Ostyak and Vogul, both of which originated in Siberia, almost 2,000 miles away.

Neither the Parentals nor I have any working knowledge of Ostyak or Vogul. And I only know three words in Hungarian: Buda, Pest, and Visegrád. We were totally lost in Hungary. Mostly, we referred to streets and subway stops by the first few letters of their names.

"Turn left on S-Z-E-K."

"The next stop is B-A-T-T." 

Despite the language difficulties, we managed to make great tracks with Dad in charge of the map, Mom in charge of the guide book, and me in charge of being cheerful and eating pastries whenever I was told to. Budapest is partly magnificent, partly grown from a fairytale book, and partly in desperate need of repairs. It appealed to me because I like places with history, especially if you can see the history instead of just reading about it in a museum display.

The first afternoon, we visited the Great Synagogue. I've been to synagogues before, but this one was interesting because it was designed by leading architects who had no idea what a synagogue was supposed to look like. The sanctuary is beautiful, but minus the Stars of David and Hebrew writing could pass fairly easily for a Catholic cathedral. The tour guide pointed out a balcony area that Nazi officers used as their headquarters, which is just so wrong it hardly bares thinking about. Outside, a cemetery holds the bodies of more than 2000 people who died in the Jewish ghetto in 1945 and had to be buried in mass graves, as there was nowhere else to put them within the ghetto boundaries.

We spent the entire next day at Castle Hill. This is the area that mostly appears to have sprung from the pages of a fairytale book, with the exception of St. Mattias Church and the Fishermen's Bastion, which look like they belong in Minas Tirith. A particular highlight was our visit to the music museum, where they had dozens of instruments traditionally used in Hungarian folk music on display. The curators didn't speak a word of English, but they were delighted to have three interested visitors and played sound clips featuring the various instruments for us as we went through the exhibits. I even got to try a few, including a zither and an early piano.

On the third day, we went to Aquincum to explore the Roman ruins. Anybody who likes Roman ruins or thinks they might like Roman ruins or has ever heard of Rome should visit Aquincum. We all agreed that it was one of the best displays of ruins we had ever seen. Enough of the structures have been preserved that you can see how they all fit together and imagine how the community would have looked. You can even see how cleverly they worked out things like water drains and bath house heating. There was also a brilliant exhibit in the museum - a bunch of archeologists had picked out their favourite find from the field and provided an explanation of what it was, why it was important, and why it was their favourite.

Budapest is one of those multilayer history cake cities. Baking is still in progress, but the flavour is fantastic! For our last night of the trip, it was on to Visegrád. But that will have to be its own post...

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