Castles and Communism: A Trip To Budapest
Last summer, I landed what may truly have been the best job ever. I spent a month traversing Europe with my close family friends, babysitting and helping out with two kids, Henry and Clara, as their mother taught international law classes to a group of American students. After a week in Paris, the family and I boarded a plane and two hours later, arrived in Budapest, one of the strangest and most interesting places I’ve ever been.
Perhaps it was Magyar, the unusual Hungarian language, or the Forint, the currency not even worth one US cent, that intrigued me. Perhaps it was the formality of the place, or the remnants of Communist rule that were occasionally still visible. Whatever it was, Hungary was fascinatingly different from my native San Francisco.
Budapest is actually two cities; West of the Danube River is Buda and East of the river is Pest. Right between the two, in the center of the river, lies Margaret Island. The island is closed to motor vehicles and is a beautiful green space within a crowded city. We rented a four-seater tourist bike and cycled around the island.
The kids’ favorite part of the island—and of the whole trip—was the Palatinus Strand, a large water park complete with water slides, a wave pool, a giant hot tub, a circular current pool, and, or course, ice cream. However, the European indifference toward exposing themselves repulsed Henry and Clara and they expressed their disgust audibly, while I prayed these thong-wearing Hungarians did not speak English.
On the other hand, the highlight of the trip for me was walking across the Chain Bridge to visit Castle Hill in Buda. When we arrived at the bridge, we discovered that it was closed to cars and a summer crafts festival was taking place. We strolled along the beautiful bridge and spoke to locals selling jewelry, wooden toys, honey, Hungarian paprika, and a variety of other products. When we arrived in Buda, we hiked to the top of Castle Hill. The breathtaking view allowed us to see for miles down the Danube as we explored the castle and learned about the rich history of this part of Budapest.
Another opportunity I enjoyed was my visit to the Szent IstvÃ¡n Bazilika, or St. Stephen’s Basilica, a beautiful church whose walls were covered with colorful paintings and statues, and whose large domed roof provided a magnificent view of the city. For me, the most interesting part of this visit was seeing the mummified hand of St. Stephen placed on display inside the basilica. Again, Henry and Clara found this revolting.
Other attractions that we visited were Heroes’ Square, a large plaza filled with large sculptures of past Hungarian leaders, including an imposing model of the same Svent IstvÃ¡n, complete with a stone halo. Once, this square had included figures of Communist leaders, but these had been destroyed when Hungary gained freedom from Soviet control.
Our trip to Hungary ended with a goulash party with all of Maria’s students from the University of San Francisco. I don’t know what I had expected, but when we arrived at the garden where the party was to take place, I realized that I certainly hadn’t anticipated a large cauldron of slowly cooking stew resting over a primitive-looking outdoor wooden fire, yet another surprising detail of Hungarian culture.
Budapest was full of surprises. Although I was glad to return home, I do not regret my trip at all and it taught me about the unusual, history-filled culture that exists in Eastern Europe.
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