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. + Add New Category Both synagogues were recently renovated.

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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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*www.freetour.com

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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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Exploring Malta Island – Mdina & Rabat

My first view of the dramatic citadel of Mdina perched high on a hill in the middle of Malta Island took my breath away. At that moment I knew that I had to experience the wonder of the place by day and night, which could only be accomplished by staying overnight there, which I did. Little did I know at the time about some of the history that lurked behind its fortified walls for me to discover – such as the old Jewish Silk Road where the market is said to have taken place before the Inquisition, and the medieval museum houses of wealthy merchants filled with artifacts.

Mdina served as the island’s capital from antiquity to the medieval period. It was founded by the Phoenicians in 8th century BC and then later taken over by the Romans in 218BC. Mdina and part of the neighboring town of Rabat (derived from the Arabic word for “suburb”) were built on top of the ancient Roman city of Melete. A succession of rulers after the fall of the Roman Republic included the Arabs. The walled city with its narrow, maze-like streets, still has features of a medina which is a legacy of Arab rule.

By the 16th century the population of the suburb of Rabat outgrew that of Mdina, and has remained so to this day. The liveliness I felt as I walked around Rabat’s streets with its restaurants and cafes in full swing, inside and out, was in stark contrast to the quiet streets of Mdina which I felt compelled to leave at sunset because of a foreboding feeling of desolation that ensued when all the tourists left for the day.

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Mdina is magical.

Palazzo Falson was a beautifully preserved medieval mansion. Later, during some research of the place, I learned it is believed that the dining and kitchen area of the house were part of the synagogue structure where the Mdina jewish community worshipped (before the inquisition).

I climbed over, along, and around the wide fortified stone walls that encircled the town enjoying stunning views of the valley below, often getting lost along the way. Getting lost was a blessing because that is how I found the archaeological museum which was tucked away on a tiny street behind an imposing door. Once inside the museum I passed through inner passageways and hidden rooms while delving into the history of Mdina up to the time of the Phoenicians.

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My discoveries in Rabat, just outside Mdina’s fortified walls, were as fascinating as inside. 

St. Paul’s Catacombs, underground Roman cemeteries that were in use up to the 7th century AD, were located down the street from the Rabat’s central historic square, Plaza San Pawl. I prowled through interconnected passages and tombs and found drawings of (Jewish) menorahs etched into stone. The ruins of Domus Romana (Roman villa) near the entrance to Mdina revealed the remains of a well-preserved mosaic floor.

Life in Plaza San Pawl was interesting to observe. On one side of the square in front of a building with a huge sign directing tourists to St. Paul’s Catacombs, groups of men of all ages gathered. Some men stood and chatted; others rested on benches watching the world (of tourists) go by. On another side of the square an outdoor cafe was often packed with well-healed people taking in a bit of sun on a clear, seasonally- cool day.

One afternoon I stopped to eat Maltese cuisine at an unpretentious eating establishment owned by the Maltese Labour Party. It was full of local people. A double rainbow hovered over a lovely setting around an old stone church just outside its windows. I lingered longer than normal, soaking in the local atmosphere and the view. The food was exceptional; the price was right. I returned for more the following day.

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It took two days and one night to experience much of what Mdina and Rabat had to offer the tourist. What a treasured experience it was!

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Malta’s Grand Harbour & Three Cities

Three Cities is used to describe Malta’s three historical, fortified cities of Birgu (Virtiosia), Senglea and Cospicua. Birgu has existed since the Middle Ages. A friendly boat man aboard a sleek, traditional Maltese water taxi, called a “dghajsa”, was always quick to offer me a ride across the harbor. During these rides to and from the Three Cities across one of Europe’s grandest harbors, I often felt like I was traversing the Grand Canal in Venice on a gondola (see photo of the dghajsa) for the mere price of 5 Euros.

Fort St. Angelo, in Birgu, with its commanding position at the entrance to Grand Harbour, has a fascinating air raid shelter which was used during WWII to house and protect hundreds of people. Strategically placed directional arrows kept me from getting lost in the underground labyrinth. I passed through long tunnels of stone walls. Accommodations for people on bunks with ten to a room made the international hostels I stay in when traveling look like palaces.

Among the narrow, winding streets of Birgu stood the impressive, stone Inquisitor’s Palace, now a museum. It was the seat of the Maltese Inquisition from 1574 to 1798 with the center of power accountable directly to the Pope. Its purpose was to quell the dissidents of modern ‘heretical’ teachings.

Malta has had Jews on its shores since 9th century B.C. Jewish families arrived from Spain in the 15th century, fleeing the Inquisition. Eventually many were forced to convert to Christianity during the Maltese Inquisition.

The numerous interior passageways I explored were the result of centuries of renovations and additions. The opulent residence of the inquisitor and the tribunal court upstairs were in stark contrast to the tiny, cold basement cells where subjects under investigation were imprisoned. The Inquisitor’s Palace left me with a shiver and a heavy heart as I imagined what went on behind those walls over the centuries.

I finished the day with a visit to an outdoor cafe for some people watching in the charming Birgu Square near the Inquisitor’s Palace. The square was surrounded by an eclectic mix of lovely historic buildings. The city of Birgu was indeed fascinating, I thought.

 

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Introducing Malta, Valletta

The Maltese Islands are located in the central Mediterranean between Sicily, Italy, and the North African coast. The island nation is a *Commonwealth nation known for historic sites related to a succession of rulers over the centuries. It has numerous fortresses, megalithic temples, and ancient burial chambers. The Maltese language is a dialect of Arabic and includes a significant percentage of Italian and English vocabulary. All this, along with the use of Euro currency and the ubiquitous presence of water, were a continual reminder to me during my travels around the country that the Maltese Islands are strategically located at the crossroads of Europe and Africa.  

The teeming, picturesque port town of Sliema on Malta island, the main island of the Malta archipelago, was my jumping off point to explore the Capital city of Valletta, and the neighboring historic Three Cities in Grand Harbour (my next posting).

I made myself at home in a charming little hostel in Sliema located up a narrow street from the town’s lively waterfront where I ate out nightly.  At times I felt like I was in “Little Italy” (as in Boston and Providence) because of the ubiquitous presence of Sicilian bakeries and restaurants with a decided Italian flair.

It was a beautiful, balmy morning as I made my way to the deck of a small ferry for a short ride across Marsamxett Harbour to the historic city of Valletta. As Sliema’s wide waterfront boardwalk disappeared in the distance, the commanding bastion walls of Valletta came nearer, enticing me to explore the cultural treasurers within.  The walled city of Valletta is a UNESCO World Heritage site constructed almost five centuries ago by the **Order of St. John.  The grand Baroque architecture reflects the knights stature as aristocrats from noble European families. 

Upon disembarking the ferry, I fell into step with other passengers onto a steep, wide street and through an opening in the stone walls.  A grid-like plan of narrow streets where 16th century and *modernist architecture lined the streets, eventually opening to the heart of the old city at the ruins of the Royal Opera House with its monumental pillars. Left in ruins following WWII, it is now a popular open air theatre.

Nearby, just inside Valletta’s landmark City Gate, was the meeting point for a free walking tour. Our guide, Oliver, was a knowledgeable, young, Maltese man who works for tips.  He told us stories behind some of the old stone buildings with their traditional timber balconies, and related history of palaces and grand churches within the city walls.  Later I returned to a cozy seafood restaurant which Oliver had pointed out as a local favorite, and dined on savory local seafood at a bargain price. .

Fort Saint Elmo, built in the 16th century, is integrated into Valletta’s city wall. The fortress ramparts offered dramatic views of Three Cities, with their fortresses and miles of fortification walls and Grand Harbour.

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*Commonwealth – an intergovernmental organization of 53 member states that are mostly former territories of the British Empire

**Order of St. John – became known as the Knights of Malta

***Modernist architecture has little or no ornamentation, with clean lines and functionality

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Wroclaw, Poland: Exploring this Diverse City

Wroclaw’s (Breslau, Germany, before 1945) stunning medieval Market Square dates from the 13th century and is one of the largest in Europe. The commanding Gothic City Hall, which took over 200 years to build, is surrounded by exquisite period houses. By the end of World War II half the city was in ruins. Major reconstruction brought much of Old Town back to its glory days. I always made sure a daily stroll through the lively plaza was on my agenda.

Recent history of the Polish people in Wroclaw began in 1945.  As a result of the *Potsdam Conference, under pressure from Russia, it was agreed that the southern Polish-German boundary be moved west, putting Breslau within the borders of Poland instead of Germany.  The German population was subsequently evacuated.  Hundreds of thousands of Poles were evacuated from western Ukraine at the same time due to a similar border change.  A large portion settled in Wroclaw. This forced migration of both Germans and Poles happened during a brutal winter, resulting in misery and death to tens of thousands.

One afternoon my **Servas Host Joanna invited me to lunch at the home of her Mother Bogusia. With Joanna acting as interpreter, Bogusia related the heartbreaking story of her family being evacuated in a cattle car from the old Capital city of Lviv, Ukraine, following the war. New Polish arrivals in Warsaw occupied deserted flats furnished with items left behind by evacuated Germans. Her family was one of them.

The Legacy of the Communist Era

The legacy of the communist-era government is apparent around Wroclaw in different forms – especially in the form of bronze statues and architecture.

A Polish anti-communist group in the 80’s started what has become a trendy placement of bronze dwarfs around town. I often passed delighted children posing beside them while families took photos.

The rather austere New Market Square encircled with communist era block buildings at first appeared to me like an empty shell waiting to be filled in. I came to realize the current state of New Market Square was an excellent example of communist era architecture. One of my **Servas Host Tomasz told me the government is talking about making the square a historical site, to protect it as such. Near the end of World War II the square was a scene of heavy Russian bombardment because the Nazi’s had ammunition there which they used against the Russians. As a result the historic plaza and surrounding period buildings were totally destroyed.

The Monument Passage, an eye-catching piece of street art in Wroclaw, commemorates the 25th anniversary of the declaration of martial law during the Soviet era. Seven bronze life-size pedestrians appear to be swallowed into the pavement only to reemerge on the other side of the street. The artist’s work left me spellbound momentarily, as I felt the resilience and determination of the people who lived through this time.

It’s Market Time!

A popular Sunday flea market in Wroclaw surrounded the old train station among rusty hulks of derelict trains and along what appear to be unused train tracks. The second-hand items for sale in this setting created an atmosphere of old world, former East Bloc, activity.

In contrast, the lively indoor old Market Hall (Hala Targowa) which I visited regularly, seldom failed to entice me to buy something. While there I ate traditional food at a milk bar, bought fresh fruit, and sampled fresh baked goods at a bakery.

Whenever I wandered through an outdoor flea market, or through a colorful indoor market hall, I always found it to be an adventure and entertaining at the same time.

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*Potsdam Conference – Stalin, Churchill and Truman gathered in Potsdam, occupied Germany, in 1945, with the main goal of how to administer the defeated Nazi Germany .(as per Wikipedia)

**Servas is an International non-profit peace organization of hosts and travelers www.USServas.org

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