Above Ground, a Party; Below Ground, a Memorial


Sixth in a series

August 20, Budapest — Food + people = festival atmosphere. After packing up, we walked over the Chain Bridge to see what had been set up along the river. The night before we’d noticed dozens, maybe hundreds, of booths lining the promenade. Some, we could tell, would be devoted to food. But, man. Local barbeque (heavy on pork and kilbasz, or sausage), huge vats of goulash, beverages and sweet treats. I walked past one food venue where two men and a woman were cooking dozens of containers of stew over small wood fires. The men added the meat and liquid; the woman, dressed in a traditional folk costume, sprinkled in paprika and other spices. One booth was frying up what must be the Hungarian version of a funnel cake: a six-inch-wide branding iron contraption was dipped in batter and then dunked in boiling oil for less than a minute; when released from the iron, the crispy confection was doused with powdered sugar. Beer stations, lots of beer stations, and lemonade stands — it’s popular with and without alcohol — and everywhere, families.



Things were just warming up, literally and figuratively. In front of the tunnel that cuts through the hill on the Buda side, a sound stage had been erected. The Chain Bridge was closed to vehicular traffic and thronged with pedestrians. Two days prior, we’d noticed that one side of the bridge had been closed off and guys with yellow “Pyro I” jackets were busily unloading boxes. Now we could see the giant fireworks emplacements along that side of the bridge.


But it was back on the Tauck bus for us. We took a circuitous route since the Chain Bridge was closed, past the covered market, where we had a good view of Budapest’s version of the Statue of Liberty — a woman holding an olive branch over her head. The locals call it the world’s biggest bottle opener.

While the city revved up, we stepped back in history by touring Sziklakorhaz Hospital, the “Hospital in the Rock.”

The hill under Buda Castle is a natural labyrinth created by underground springs, and in the lead up to WWII, the caverns were improved as a bomb shelter. Too soon they were pressed into action as a hospital that treated both German and Allied soldiers. After Hungary switched sides in WWII, it stood alone against the Nazis in this part of Europe. The country paid dearly for it. The hospital, which had a bed capacity of 400 or so, served thousands, so that doctors had to step over wounded men on stretchers laid everywhere, including hallways.

What survivors remembered most was the stench — the smell of blood and shit and the dead. In the close quarters of the tunnels, I could only imagine.

The hospital was again pressed into service during the two week uprising against the Communists. From 1945 on, Moscow gripped Hungary like a dog with lockjaw. In 1956, after promises of better treatment following the death of Stalin, the situation worsened after food and fuel shortages became dire. On October 23, a huge student protest quickly turned into a revolt. On November 4, Soviet tanks rolled through Budapest. By November 10, it was all over.

The tour continued on Buda Hill. At least ten times as many people were packed into the narrow streets that Todd and I had visited a couple of days before. We used some free time to visit St. Matthias Church. The interior was like nothing we’d ever seen.

Every inch of the walls is painted in repeating geometric patterns in complementary colors — as varied as the gorgeous tiles of the Ottomans. The association is not accidental. According to an interpretive sign, the paintings reflect the “cultural interchange of East and West.”

It’s the patterns’ simplicity and adjacency that make them so powerful. For example, one rib of a pillar might be painted in thin diamonds, with another rib in diagonal stripes, next to a wall painted in clovers. The bigness of it all, the boldness of the graphic patterns, the bravery of setting these patterns next to one another — I couldn’t stop myself from going wall to wall, pillar to pillar, to photograph what had been created by Bertalan Székely, the leading painter of the 19th century.

And then we were off to board the MS Treasures, sailing with around 90 on board (given singles and a few cancellations). Our cabin was small but comfortable, with enough room to move easily around the queen bed, and an efficient little bathroom, that I would get to know all too well in a couple of days.


Next: In Memory of Imre Racz

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