I slept until almost 07.00 that morning! The spread at breakfast wasn’t bad. Not as good as breakfast in Warsaw, but not bad. With 21 now in tow, we boarded the bus for our morning city tour. We began at Heroes’ Square, notable for its large Millenium Memorial and Seven Chieftains of the Magyars (Magyars are what the Hungarians call themselves). Construction began in 1896 with the foundation of the Hungarian state, and was finished in 1900. When first constructed, the Habsburg family was included in the statues to the left of the square. After sustaining damage in WWII, and with the absence of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the statues were replaced with the Hungarian heroes that still stand today. The Seven Chieftains of the Magyars refers to the very tall statue in the center of the left and right colonnades. The chieftains were the leaders of the seven tribes of Hungarians during the time of their arrival to the Carpathian basin in the late 9th century. And at the top of this statue is the archangel Gabriel. On the opposite side of the square is a large sculpture reading “BUDAPEST” made of many curved strips of wood. It’s a common place for tourists to get photos, or just kind of camp out. Many people seemed to just be sitting around on it watching others. We all snapped our tourist shots and got back on the bus to drive to the other end of Andrassy, where we passed the opera house and a large synagogue before stopping at St. Stephen’s Basilica. One nice thing about this tour was that we started our morning tours early and got ahead of the crowds. We were the second group at Heroes’ Square that morning, and as we left only a half hour later, it was quickly filling up.
Fairly young for a church, completed in 1905, St. Stephen’s is named for the alleged (mummified) right hand of Stephen, the first King of Hungary (~975 – 1038), which is housed in the reliquary. It is fairly standard cathedral fare when viewed from the square to the west, other than the fact that it’s quite tall at over 300’. On the inside, though, I thought it was very beautifully done. Deep red marble made the columns, and a jadish green marble was interspersed here and there. Obviously, there was a lot of gold since it was a church, but not nearly as ostentatious as I’ve seen in some. It was a little more tasteful use of gold. I was fascinated with the central dome, and I must say I am quite happy with how some of the photos I took of it turned out.
We snaked through the main chapel and entered the reliquary to see the relic. It did resemble a right hand, as they claimed it was, but obviously, there is no way to verify that it is what they say it is. Exiting the church, we made a quick restroom break and had time to get coffee and look for some souvenirs. We then walked west toward the river, but stopped short at a nearby hotel to wait for Pawel to pick us up and take us to the Buda side via the Chain Bridge.
We were dropped off just down the hill and around the corner from Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion, and guided by Renata, we made a short walk up the street to the square that joined the two. The bus was going to be back at the dropoff point in about an hour, so sadly, we did not have a chance to enter yet another church. We did, however, get to check out the view from Fisherman’s Bastion, which was absolutely gorgeous. The sky was a barren blue, the only blemish a streak of white from a lone jet’s contrail. From the Bastion on that day, I could see for miles from the northern to the southern boundaries of the city, far to the east, and beyond. Looking down on the rooftops of the trademark European squat, old style homes and buildings was like stepping back in time. That’s something I am just infatuated with about Europe. I love it. The dome of St. Stephen’s stood a head taller than all the surrounding buildings to the east, and the Parliament building took up an enormous piece of river side real estate a bit further to the north.
Walking around to the north end of the Bastion, I circled back around to the rear of Matthias Church and got a better look at its deeply Gothic style. It’s missing the huge flying buttresses of Notre Dame, but it’s nonetheless magnificent in its own way. The roof is as unique as they come, and it’s the first thing I noticed. It would be easy to miss the rest of the church for it. As with nearly everything in Europe, it too was badly damaged through hundreds of years of invasions and sieges and nonsense. Restorations in the late 19th century brought it back to its 13th century plan, but changed a few things, including the roof. It was altered to a tile pattern, which varies depending on the roof section. It has a sort of Bavarian vibe to it with the color patterns, consisting of a sky blue / aqua, green, white, brown, light brown, and goldenrod. I was mesmerized if only temporarily. Looking back through my photos, I don’t know that I remember appreciating the Gothic stylings of the exterior, though. It really was outstanding. I should add that it’s really old, I guess. Allegedly, a church was originally constructed on its foundations in the early 11th century, though apparently, no archaeological remains exist. As for the Bastion itself, it is a fairly more recent addition on Castle Hill, constructed between 1895 – 1902 to celebrate the 1,000th birthday of the Hungarian state. There are seven towers across it, representing the seven chieftains / tribes who founded the state in 895. Prior to its construction, the castle walls stood here.
There was a bit of time to kill yet, so we found a café near the bus stop and grabbed a quick beer, a Hofbräu Münchner Weisse, to be exact. I quite enjoyed it. My beer bud Debby helped me split a pint while my granpda chowed on some ice cream, then we caught up with a few others from the group and headed back to the bus stop. Just a few short minutes later, most of the group hopped off to do some shopping, while the rest of us continued on back to the hotel where we quickly freshened up and rejoined in the lobby to grab some lunch. I ran with the OG’s (how I will now be referring to myself, my grandpa, and Debby) down the street to a pub, where I was delighted to find a thick stout on a menu filled mainly by assorted pizza options. I went with a large spicy, meaty pizza of some sort and enjoyed my Sherwood stout, which was quite delicious. Not quite as good as the hefeweizen I’d just enjoyed, but quite good. I scarfed most of my pizza, had a house lager, stopping just short of miserable, we settled up, and headed out. I should add that there were two tip jars at the bar, one sith, and one jedi. I felt the hate run through me as I dropped a few hundred forints in my jar of choice. Speaking of the forint, it was the weakest of any currency we used while we were there, which made it a little difficult to calculate exchange rates on the fly. It was something like 275 forints to 1 USD. The Czech crown was the next at 23:1, then the Polish złoty around 3.70:1. We only used the euro in Austria.
The afternoon was at leisure, so the OG’s walked a few short blocks to House of Terror, a museum and memorial dedicated to the victims of the fascist / communist regimes of the mid-20th century. It’s in the same building which served as an interrogation / detention / torture / murder facility of this regime. The tour is self-guided and begins on the top floor, and as you descend to the basement level, it seems to get a little darker and darker, and to feel a little heavier and heavier. The tour covers the periods of Nazi / Soviet occupation, Hungarian fascist / communist party oppression, and during those times, some truly horrific things took place in not only this building, but the country (and Soviet Bloc) as well. I would like to think everyone is at least familiar with what the Nazis and the Soviets were like, but I was not at all familiar with two extreme Hungarian parties – the first of which is the Arrow Cross Party, which was in power for about six months between 1944-45. During that time over 100,000 people were murdered or shipped off to Austrian camps. To sum up their political philosophy, consult Nazism 101.
The AVH, or Államvédelmi Hatóság (State Protection Authority), was the Hungarian extension of the Soviet secret police, which occupied Hungary from the end of WWII in 1945 until 1956. The AVH had a vast network of informants throughout the country, and essentially, they were tasked with tracking down political dissidents and anyone whose ideals did not parallel that of the regime, arresting them (most of the time illegally), detaining them indefinitely, torturing them until they confessed under duress to vague and hollow crimes, or worse, died. Some prisoners were victim to the latter for periods of 18 months or longer. When the state had its confession, the case would go to trial, and they needed not fear retraction, as the prisoner was too fearful of the consequences he’d have suffered.
Among the enemies of the state was the Catholic Church, which it deemed a reactionary force in Hungary that supported monarchy and fascism (irony much?) and owned far too much land. Probably the most famous case of this idealogical hatred being demonstrated (very publicly) was the arrest and subsequent torture of Cardinal József Mindszenty. The Cardinal was arrested for treason and conspiracy for being outspoken against the regime. The AVH had fabricated the story that he had stolen the crown of St. Stephen with the intent to crown a Habsburg King of Hungary, overthrowing the current government and resurrecting capitalism, planning WWIII with the expectation that the Americans would win, liberating Hungary, and that he himself would then rise to power. Pretty elaborate conspiracy. But there was no evidence that he had ever done any of those things. Nonetheless, the torture resulted in his confessing to the crimes and being held prisoner by the AVH until 1956 during the Hungarian Revolution. Within a few days of his release, he made a radio broadcast in support of the uprising and anti-Communist developments which had recently begun, and whose force had been great enough to free him from a fearful regime. Things looked alright for a bit, but when the new leader, Imre Nagy, announced that Hungary would break from the Warsaw Pact, the Soviets rolled into town in their tanks and started blasting, killing upwards of 2,000 Hungarians. Cardinal Mindszenty would then be confined to the US Embassy in Budapest until 1971. He lived out his days in Vienna, never seeing the liberation of his country, which wouldn’t come until 14 years after his death, in 1989. An interesting side note on the Cardinal – Sir Alec Guiness of Star Wars fame portrayed him in the 1955 film The Prisoner.
The tour ends in the basement of 60 Andrassy, and it is almost as unnerving as some of the cellars in the Auschwitz buildings. Here, prisoners were treated very similarly, if not as equally inhumanely as at certain Nazi camps. They weren’t worked to death here, but rather subjected to various sadistic methods of extracting false confessions used to create a disgusting amalgamation of attacks on the state, which it then used to justify its existence. The energy in the basement is very dark and at some points overwhelming. I wasn’t able to enter several of the rooms just because it felt so spooky and sad and horrifying to think of what had happened where I was standing. One or two of the rooms down there had such an ominous feeling to them that I couldn’t even peer inside. I remember two rooms vividly.
The first cannot really be described as a room. A large steel door with a small sliding door at face height opens to a concrete wall almost immediately. There is enough for one slender person to stand completely flat, nose-to-wall with feet pointed outwards, and the door to close behind them. That is it. And they’d be left in there for days, only to be released to be subjected to some other type of torture.
The second was a simple padded room, where sane people would be put in straight jackets and left for days. Something about that has always been very unsettling to me. Being that confined would drive me insane instantly. I just couldn’t do it.
People were definitely killed in this basement. The most horrific events took place in the rooms I chose not to enter. It was a very dark end to the tour, which ended up taking us about two and a half hours to complete. I finished last and met the OG’s in the café on the main level, we had some caffeine and talked about the tour a bit. Then we headed back to the hotel to get some rest.
I got cleaned up and met my grandpa down in the hotel bar, and we just chilled there. It was very quiet and loungey. There was a violin / piano pair playing, and very few guests were around. We ate finger foods and drank booze. I got to try this Hungarian liqueur called Unicum that I’d been seeing around the city all day. It has a very distinctive bottle that resembles a palm sized cannon ball with a huge fuse shoved in the top. It’s green and has a red label with a big “+” on it. Needless to say I was intrigued by it. Lo! And Behold! There it was upon thine shelf, beckoning to me like a shadowy siren. It was very close to Jägermeister, but I’d have to say better. I can’t stomach that stuff anymore at all, but I made it through a small glass of the Unicum and felt very relaxed. As my grandpa worked his Sudoku puzzles, I studied up on my German since we’d be in Vienna in a little over 36 hours. But I heard the desserts whispering to me from the bar. They were sweet and inviting, a little naughty, and very cute. And they had friends. Friends whom I could imbibe. One of them was a guy, but do not be alarmed, for his name was Glenlivet 12. And even the manliest of men have imbibed upon him. He and the orange and chocolate cake paired nicely, and they helped to lull me into a relaxing slumber once I made it back to the room.