This is my first foray into Central/Eastern Europe and I must say I am not the least disappointed. Budapest is fantastic! As we went walking through the streets it struck me how asymmetrical Budapest is. The streets seem to go every which way, the city has layers and two sides separated by these massive, beautiful bridges each as eclectic as the city itself. In the architecture and styling you can see so many influences: Gothic, Baroque, Neo-Classic, Turkish, Islamic, Neo-Gothic, Socialist, and Byzantine–all meshed together into something that I guess can only be called “Hungarian.”
The history of Hungary is long and complicated, and after splurging on a tour guide, reading before-hand, and hearing about it several times from many different angles as we toured Budapest, I am starting to feel I know more about this fascinating country. I know that they love St. Stephen, who helped the tribes convert to Christianity, Mattias was their favorite Renaissance King who ushered in a love of learning and the ideals of humanism, and although they are not fond of the Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef, they absolutely adore his wife Elisabeth (known lovingly as “Sissy”), who bothered to learn the Hungarian language, visited as often as she could, and counted many Hungarians as her closest friends.
The 20th Century history of Budapest is equally fascinating and after learning more about Central Europe I am appalled that we don’t learn more about this area of the world in our history lessons. I don’t understand it at all. I don’t know if we just dismiss these “communist bloc” countries without really considering what was going on, or even thinking about how perhaps they didn’t want to be seen as part of the USSR. I think in the west we just push these countries aside as behind the “Iron Curtain” without considering their unique history and ethnicity.
After WWI, Hungary was forcibly reduced both in land and population because of the Treaty of Trianon. Consequently, during the Interwar Years, with Germany and the USSR gaining power literally on both sides of the Hungarian border, Hungary knew she must choose an ally. Since Hitler promised the people of Hungary their lost lands, they decided that Nazi Germany would be the lesser of two evils, and would help them stand up the the threat of the USSR. Unfortunately for Hungary, they realized their mistake too late to extricate themselves from the Nazis, and by the time the Nazis used Budapest as a literal “sacrifice” to make their last stand against the approaching Soviets, bombing out the beautiful bridges that unite Buda and Pest, the Hungarians welcomed the Soviets as their liberators. Budapest had unimaginable destruction; the people were starving and desperate to not be living in a war zone. Unfortunately, in the words of our tour guide, the Soviets turned out “to not be a liberation, but another occupation.” In 1956 young people protested the USSR totalitarian dictatorship, and yet another bloody and destructive altercation, which eventually ended once Soviet tanks rolled down the streets of this beautiful city, was unsuccessful, and they were left with massive destruction, loss of life, and a Soviet presence in their country until 1991. This whole subject of 20th C. complexities really deserves a post of its own, so that is all I will say for now, but essentially–the history of Hungary seems to be of a fierce and nationalistic people who wanted to govern themselves but were constantly buffeted around by invading outsiders from the very beginning of their history–the Turks, the Habsburgs, the Soviets…….
I found Budapest to be very charming and I would be happy to visit again. It is very affordable to visit here (not including airfare) so I think if you are contemplating a European visit with kids this would be a great place to start. Lots more about Budapest to come!