Budapest – Liberty Square and the Quest for Local Flavor

I explored the Left Bank of The River Danube (Pest) by foot, by trolley, and by subway. The hilly Buda district contrasts sharply with the easier-to-navigate flat plain where Pest is located.

My constant quest for public markets, street promenades, and festivals in order to better grasp the local flavor of a place when I travel, usually leads me down interesting, diverse paths. In the process I usually find good local food, live traditional or classic music, hand crafts, and a local crowd.  I usually learn more about local history in the process.  Such was the case in Budapest.


During a *free “Red” walking tour (Budapest under the rule of the Soviet regime), we visited Liberty Square (Szabadsag ter), one of the largest squares in Budapest. It is across from the hundred-year-old Hungarian Parliament Building, the seat of the National Assembly of Hungary, on the bank of the Danube. The square is home to the U.S. Embassy, the Soviet War Memorial, and the controversial “Memorial to the Victims of the German Invasion” (1941 – 1943).

The Soviet War Memorial, commemorating Russian military who served in WWII, is flanked on one side by the U.S. Embassy, and on the other by a bronze statue of Ronald Reagan walking toward the memorial. The international people on our English-speaking walking tour chuckled when our guide pointed out the irony of Russia being sandwiched in by the U.S. on both sides of their monument.

I was particularly moved by the “Memorial to the Victims of the German Invasion.” What at first appeared to be only a monument, was in reality a living memorial by friends and descendents of the Jews who perished in the hands of Hungarian Facists. The site is a protest by the Jews who left photos and sayings there, with the express purpose of pointing out that this monument is falsifying history. I noticed that tourists lingered a long time here – reading, contemplating. I returned alone another day and did the same.


During the time we were in the square, it was bustling with activity due to an upcoming event. Various sizes of stalls were being erected and a small stage was being put together. Upon inquiry, I was invited to come back on the weekend to enjoy an arts and crafts fair with lots of food, crafts, and live music.

I returned over the weekend to find enticing dishes of hot Hungarian specialty foods being served to eager customers. A Bulgarian band was entertaining an appreciative crowd with their traditional music. Children were dancing. Colorful handcrafts and accessory stalls were sandwiched between the food stalls. I sampled various fresh local cheeses and bought some home made apple strudel. Everyone seemed oblivious to the near freezing temperatures that day.

There were long lines where traditional Kürtőskalács (chimney cakes) were being prepared. Dough was cooked on a revolving spit over an open fire and then rolled in a sugary mixture of cocoa and spices. Each chimney cake was served piping hot.



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Exploring The Castle District of Budapest

A visit to Budapest is not complete without spending some time exploring the historic Castle District in Buda along the left bank of the mighty Danube River, overlooking Pest. The plateau of Castle Hill is divided into two parts, the Old Town and The Royal Palace.

Buda Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was first completed in 1265. It is the historic castle and palace complex of the Hungarian kings of Budapest. The dramatic Baroque palace complex today was built in the middle 18th century and currently houses the Hungarian National Gallery, the Budapest History Museum, and the National Szechenyi Library.

For two days while exploring the Castle District, I stayed with Servas hosts Miklos and Agnes, in their lovely apartment at the foot of Castle Hill. My first meeting with Miklos was on his riverboat where he keeps an office for his book publishing business. Some of the books he recently translated from German into Hungarian and then published, were written by Hungarians during communist times. They had been published outside the country, and could only be published in Hungary after the yoke of communism was lifted in 1991.

One afternoon we met at the National Szechenyi Library, his (alternate) place of employment where he is a full-time IT director. After showing me around the impressive library with thousands of muli-lingual books and historic manuscripts, Miklos and I had an informal, cafeteria-style lunch with employees deep inside the palace complex. Upon departure I caught the changing of the guard at nearby Sandor Palace, which takes place hourly.

During my stroll along the narrow, winding streets of Old Town on Castle Hill, I visited the 14th century medieval Jewish House of Prayer, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Abandoned for 350 years, it is now an active synagogue. I passed through the Vienna Gate, the port which connected the castle to the highway to Vienna, making a steep descent to the more residential area where Miklos and Agnes live.

Agnes, a successful artist, invited me to walk with her up a few steep hills to her art studio one morning. It was located in an area of the Castle District where many stately homes had been converted to apartments. Natural light flooded the apartment where she worked in one of these houses.

Miklos and I spent our last morning together at the local farmer’s market which he goes to each Saturday morning to get fresh produce for the following week. Agnes had gone overnight to Vienna, Austria, to do some business so she wasn’t able to join us.

Agnes’ overnight visit to Vienna, and the short walk to Miklos’ and her flat via the Vienna Gate on Castle Hill, brought home to me how close the two great capital cities of Vienna and Budapest are. They both straddle the mighty Danube and are approximately 100 nautical miles apart.


*Servas is non-profit international organization of hosts and travelers.

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Soaking in the Thermal Baths of Budapest

The famous mineral-rich medicinal baths of Budapest mostly lie on the Buda side of the city along the Danube River in the shadow of the Buda Hills. The waters come from two major systems of thermal springs.

Finding two of the historic Turkish baths was an interesting challenge. It was the distinctive Turkish dome rising slightly above the rooftop of a picturesque old building that helped me find the Kiraly Baths. The discovery of several domes of various sizes buried among old trees behind a building revealed the location of the Ruhas Baths to me.

I found the 500 year old Turkish hamams with their distinctive octagonal pools intriguing. While soaking under the steamy domes with their tiny skylights, it felt like the Turks had just left.


The first baths in Budapest date from the Roman era. The Turkish baths were constructed during the Ottoman Turkish occupation in the 16th century. Public baths became the mainstream of Buda life in the 18th century. At the turn of the 20th century there was another wave of bathhouse construction. Grand, classical revival buildings were built around baths and swimming pools during this time. This is when the monumental, ornate baths of Gellert and Szechenyi were constructed. Bathhouses in Budapest have always served as a place for communal gathering and information exchange. This was especially true during the repressive years of communism in the 1950’s.


The two largest spas in Budapest, Gellert and Szechenyi, had outdoor pools which were open this time of the year. Watching the sheer number of people walking around outside in their bathing suits between dips in the pool made me shiver, given the outside temperature was around 35 degrees Fahrenheit.

While soaking in the thermal waters, the sound of rushing water which surrounded me was hypnotic. It came from the pipes which fed the pools, the small waterfalls that cascaded into the pools, and the taps and basins along the walls.

Maneuvering throughout the various thermal baths was not without its challenges.  One challenge was getting a space under the waterfalls or fountains in each pool in order to enjoy the refreshing waters plunging over my body at different temperatures. Understandably, these were favorite place for bathers to congregate. I learned to perch myself nearby and make a quick move when someone left the spot I wanted.

Getting lost in the labyrinth of the pools, saunas, steam chambers, showers, toilets, changing rooms, lockers, and restaurants or cafes, was part of the experience, especially in the larger spas. Fortunately an English-speaking, friendly attendant always seemed to appear at the opportune moment, just when I was feeling lost and frustrated.

In the un-restored Kiraly Baths, everything was written in Russian, German, and Hungarian (no English). The other baths I visited had everything written in Hungarian and English. It appears the Russian legacy hasn’t been completely eliminated from Budapest yet!


My experience with the thermal baths of Budapest brought to mind a very different experience I had in the hammams of Morocco several years ago. Since the Ottoman-Turks never reached there, the public baths of Morocco are of Arab origin and design, not Turkish. The main difference is that the Turkish baths focus on water to achieve various temperatures, whereas the Arab baths focus on steam.

You can read my blog about my adventure in the world of Morocco’s hammams on the following link:  It’s a Man’s World, Except in a Hammam in Morocco


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Servas in Hungary Revisited

I spent a lovely couple of days with *Servas Hosts Emese, Tomas, and their 12 year old daughter Tanka, while staying in their small, efficient flat which is tucked away in the rolling hills of Buda. 

One evening we dined on some of Emese’s delicious Hungarian cooking followed by tea and some traditional treats in front of a crackling fire. All the wood they use in their fireplace is found on the ground in the nearby forest or at the home of Tomas’ Mother who lives in the countryside.

This special Servas visit I had with Emese and Tomas brought to mind the stark contrast of experience I had in Hungary with Servas several decades ago when the country was under communist rule. The organization was banned during that time in Hungary. It operated underground. I had been instructed by Servas International never to mention the word “Servas” in writing or in person to any Hungarian Servas Host.

A Servas couple I visited during that time was very careful about not letting anyone know they had a foreign visitor. We never socialized beyond the walls of their small rented flat. Each night I stayed with them they closed all the windows, pulled the blinds down, and then tuned into Voice of America on their radio.

Soon after the Soviet forces withdrew from Hungary, Servas became legal. When I discussed this experience I had with Tomas, he chuckled and said that everything in Hungary was underground then. He proceeded to tell me of the numerous clandestine meetings around town that he knew about when Hungary was a communist state.

Tomas and Emese are happy with many of the changes brought about by the end of the communist state. They are especially pleased that they can now own their own flat, that they can travel freely overseas when the opportunity arises, and that their daughter is able to attend a semi-private alternative middle school.


One morning Emese and I took a walk in the forest near her flat. She pointed out a few things along the dirt path which were the direct result of WWII. A small stone bunker which had been constructed to hide Hungarian soldiers from the enemy was camouflaged among the trees. There was a huge stone in the shape of a lion’s head that used to stick out in the path. The Germans broke off the front part of the head so they could get their vehicles through the path.

Just before the end of our walk where the forest suddenly gave way to the endless grass-covered rolling hills of Buda, we came upon a pile of stones with a cross on top. A fresh rose was jutting out from the stones. Emese said this grave was a tribute to the unknown soldier during WWII. She said it is constantly attended to by local people because they realize the person buried there might be one of their own family members.


Tamas and Emese invited me to join them on an afternoon excursion to visit Tamas’ Mother in Martonvasari, a small town about 30 kilometers outside of Budapest. Tomas spent his childhood there.

Martonvasari is a popular tourist destination for Hungarians because of the Brunszvik Palace, built in 1785, where Beethoven often stayed and composed music. Every summer concerts in his honor are held on the castle grounds on the island in the middle of the lake.

Tomas shared some of his fond childhood memories as we walked around the picturesque, historic town. Tanka loved climbing on the huge branches of centuries-old trees. We enjoyed a traditional Hungarian meal at his Mother’s home before heading back to Budapest.


The country’s politics have changed drastically since the Soviet era, but the spirit of Servas in Hungary, as I experienced it, has not changed. It’s members are still welcoming international Servas travelers with open arms and open hearts – but now without fear.


*Servas is non-profit international organization of hosts and travelers.

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Budapest – Making Myself at Home in the Old Jewish Quarter

The multicultural gastronomic scene in the Jewish Quarter fits well into my budget of $30US per day for food and accommodations. Occasionally I visit the nearby historic, covered market to dine with the locals for breakfast or lunch, that is if the aroma of fresh baked goods coming out of the bakeries on the way don’t distract me from this goal.

A cacophony of voices that came from small open windows of the Orthodox synagogue across the street one Saturday morning reminded me that it was Shabbat (Sabbath). A significant selection of eating establishments and cafes in the neighborhood, especially the kosher ones, would probably be closed most of the day. It turned out to be a day of eating Turkish kebabs and Hungarian goulash soup for me.

The ubiquitous presence of Turkish cafes and restaurants in the Jewish Quarter and around town continually remind me of Hungary’s colorful and tumultuous history, which includes 150 years of the country being part of the Ottoman Empire (1541-1699).

I was treated to dinner in a lovely old Hungarian restaurant in my neighborhood one evening by two charming Hungarian young professional men, Attila and Gyorgy. Both of them spoke impeccable English. We had been introduced by email through a mutual friend in my hometown of Newport, Rhode Island.

One afternoon I met Emese, an acquaintance of Gyorgy’s, who is in charge of the external visitor relations at the Balint Huz, an active Jewish Community Center. One popular program they offer the community is a panel of Hungarian Jews who each tell their story. They bring in a Rabbi and a converted Jew, among others. Each Jew has a special story to tell, especially in this part of the world, Emese commented. In her case, she found out recently that she is of Jewish heritage, much to her surprise. Jews have had to adapt over the centuries to survive, which is why so many converted to Christianity, she explained.

Emese invited me to Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner which the Balint Haz will be hosting for the community in a couple of weeks. I had yummy matzo ball soup in their popular cafe before I left.

When I returned to my hostel that evening and headed for my dorm room, I passed two Hasidic Jewish couples who were checking into private rooms there.

I am starting to feel at home in the old Jewish Quarter. Making the time and effort to get to know this dynamic neighborhood has been well worth it.


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Budapest – Getting Acquainted with the Old Jewish Quarter on Arrival

I have made the charming old Jewish Quarter in Pest my home during my two-week stay in Budapest. It is truly a place of resilience and vitality, given its recent dark history. The streets around the lovely Mavrick Hostel where I am staying in this fast-gentrifying district is dotted with cafes, international restaurants, bakeries, old synagogues, and “ruin bars” (abandoned buildings turned into pop-up bars).

During the winter of 1944 the Jewish ghetto was formed in this area which enclosed 200,000 Jews in a space less than a square mile. This part of the old Jewish Quarter which is full of narrow, winding streets, is where I am staying.

Budapest’s Jewish population today is estimated to be around 100,000. More than a half million of Hungary’s Jews perished in WWII.

Budapest has a rich, complex Jewish culture and history. The area known as the Jewish Quarter today developed outside of Pest’s city walls in the 18th century. The various synagogues in this district reflect different aspects of Budapest’s Jewry. The beautiful Orthodox Synagogue with its opulent interior was built in 1913 and houses the Jewish Orthodox community. It is in stark contrast to the nearby Great Synagogue with its distinctive Moorish Revival style of architecture. It was built in 1859 for Nealog Jews, a Hungarian branch of Judaism that wanted to modernize the religion with the intention of integrating into Hungarian society. It is the largest synagogue in Europe.

During World War II, the Nazis used the Great Synagogue as a radio communication center. The Great Orthodox Synagogue was used as a stable by the Nazis and the Arrow Cross Party, a far-right Hungarian fascist party.  Both synagogues were recently renovated.


My goal when I anchor myself in a place for a while, as I am currently doing in Budapest, is to feel at home as soon as possible in my newly adopted neighborhood. A walking tour is often the key to this, as it was here. I wear several layers that keep me warm on these cold winter days while spending hours in a walking tour.

Shortly after my arrival in Budapest I went on three *free walking tours that are offered to the public in various languages – a tour of the old Jewish Quarter, the City tour, and the “Red” tour (Budapest under the rule of the Soviet regime). These insightful tours, offered in many major cities around the world, are led by young, enthusiastic well-educated locals who work for tips. I have always found them very informative, and at times entertaining, as they were here.

The stark contrasts in the old Jewish Quarter of conservative Jewish life and new life which has recently been brought to many old buildings, are at first glance lost to the visitor. During a walking tour I learned of the presence of a mikva, a Jewish ritual bath, near the hostel where I am staying. It’s located in an old two story, drab building which shares a common wall with the wildly popular “ruin bar”, Szimpla Kert, which contains no less than eight bars inside.

We passed stately old row four-story houses which were generally in good condition. Occasionally we saw Stolpersteine (“stumbling stone”), a tiny Holocaust memorial laid in the pavements where a Jewish citizen had lived. We pondered a monument in memory of Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz (1985-1975), who was responsible for saving thousands of Jews in Hungary during WWII.



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My Arrival in Hungary

I have safely arrived in Budapest, Hungary. It is deep in the winter of 2019 now. Days are cold, but clear. I spend my time bundled up in layers while exploring this dynamic, beautiful city.

Some of my adventures will follow shortly.


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