I haven’t posted a Monday travel reflection in a while, but today I’m thinking I’d love to go back to the city of Budapest for another wander. Hungary is still a country I admit to knowing very little about – culture, history, food, people. But I truly loved spending a few days walking the streets of its capital city and getting just a tiny glimpse of some of those things.
One thing I’ve learned about myself through travel is that I make sense of a place by walking it. And walking helps me connect with its history too. Imagining those who have walked before, gaining insight into their lives and experiences, never fails to inspire, challenge, move and teach me.
What did I love about Budapest?
The Hungarian Parliament building on the Pest side of the Danube is stunning …
… as is the Castle on the Buda side.
Linking the two sides of the city are a number of bridges, including the impressive Széchenyi Chain Bridge.
There are beautiful churches …
… as well the lovingly restored Dohány Street Synagogue.
Nationalistic pride is on display in different ways from the military memorial at Heroes Square,
to the reliquary supposedly holding St Stephen’s right hand in the Basilica.
I’m a bibliophile, and Budapest had one of the best and most beautiful bookcafes I have ever been to, the Alexandra Bookcafe, although sadly it has apparently recently closed.
What did I learn from Budapest?
What you can’t miss wandering the streets of this city are the memorials everywhere. Testaments to not just life, but death and brutality. Those who were “disappeared” under the Soviet regime.
Those who were deliberately and publicly exterminated en masse.
Jews have a long history in Hungary, and made up almost a quarter of the population at the beginning of World War II. Up to three quarters of these people did not survive the war.
I’ve been to a number of Holocaust Museums around the world, but found Budapest’s one of the most moving, with its honest accounts of the harrowing story and lists of thousands upon thousands of names.
It is housed in a renovated synagogue, and at the back of the prayer hall there are ‘ghost seats’ for the members of the congregation who did not return.
In the Jewish cemetery, Imre Varga’s weeping willow statue bearing the family names of murdered Jews is hauntingly beautiful.
For me personally, perhaps most affecting was the memorial called “Shoes on the Danube River” which marks the spot where 3,500 people were ordered to take off their shoes before they were shot into the river by the Arrow Cross militia.
I’ve been similarly moved by piles of shoes at Auschwitz in Poland and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. There is something simply profound in imagining the lives of those who once walked in a pair that has been left behind.
How does that speak into how I think about where my shoes will be walking this day?