Buda (And a Bit More Pest)

Trip Start Jun 08, 2010
Trip End Aug 26, 2010

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Flag of Hungary  ,
Sunday, July 18, 2010

The morning started gray with evidence of over-night rain. Fortunately, the first thing on my agenda was a tour of the Hungarian Parliament, so the weather wasn't a big deal. The clouds did cool things off a bit, which was nice.

It turned out I was correct to compare the Hungarian Parliament to the one in London. The Hungarian parliament building was the fourth largest in the world, after Romania, England and another country that I can't remember. D'oh. It had wings for both a "House of Commons" and a "House of Lords", but the upper house was dissolved when the Communists took over and was never reconvened, so the chamber in one wing was not in use. Although the Hungarian parliament only meets on Monday and Tuesday, so we could have seen the active side, we were shown the unused portion and told both sides were identical, except for the color of the carpet.

Inside the chamber, the seats were arranged in a horse-shoe, with seats for the ministers in the middle and the speaker at the front. Traditionally, the parties took their seats from right to left with their seating reflecting their position on political spectrum. In the current parliament, however, the far-right party refuses to sit next to the leading center-right party, so instead they're seated next to the socialists.

The room was ornate, but a little small compared to the space in the US government buildings that I've seen. In fact, the entire building appeared much smaller on the inside than it had been on the outside. Probably a lot of the space was given to offices for the 386 members of the parliament, which we didn't get to see (either the offices or the members). A law had been recently passed to reduce their number to something more appropriate for a country of Hungary's size.

There were holes both in the ceiling and floor of the chamber for heating and cooling. Until fairly recently, two to three tons of ice were placed above the ceiling vents each day and the cold air they created would sink down to the politicians below. In winter, hot air would rise up from the floor. (Feel free to insert your own joke about politicians and hot air.)

The central portion of the parliament, connecting the two wings, appeared to exist mainly to make visitors walk up a massive staircase and to display the crown jewels. The crown jewels of Hungary consisted of a scepter, a sword, an orb, and a crown. According to the internet, they were stolen after WWII and recovered by the US, which stored them until Jimmy Carter ordered them returned at the end of 1977.

The Hungarian crown was very interesting. Legend says it was given to the first Hungarian king, St. Stephen, by the pope to acknowledge him as King of Hungary. Our guide said it was composed of two styles, with the bottom portion reflecting Byzantine influences and the upper part in Western style. Oddly, there was a cross on the top of the crown leaning slightly, but noticeably, to the left. Apparently, there was evidence the cross was straight originally, but historians have no record of when it was bent or why they didn't fix it. In modern times, they've avoided fixing it because of the large number of paintings and sculptures depicting the bent version.

After parliament, the sky was still gray, so I decided to head over to the Dohány Street Synagogue (Dohány utcai zsinagóga) and get a peak at the interior. Unlike the small synagogue in Dubrovnik, which had a simple one-room layout with a circle of benches facing a central platform, the Dohány Street Synagogue was surprisingly similar to a Christian cathedral. The decorations were definitely Jewish, but the structure was basically that of a medieval church. It had a central hall-type structure that could be called a nave, two aisles running along the sides of that, an altar-type area with stained glass at the front, and, although not at the back of the building, it even an organ. I sprung for a picture taking ticket, so you can see what I mean. The upstairs seats were for the women.

I picked up a booklet on the church, and it turned out the difference in layouts between the Dubrovnik and Budapest Synagogues was likely because Dubrovnik was Orthodox, while the Dohány Street Synagogue was Neolog. Also according to the booklet, the part I refered to as the "altar", was called the almemar with the "ark" in the position of the choir in a Christian church. The Dohány Street Synagogue happend to be the largest Neolog synagogue in the world.

Like most of the buildings in Budapest, the synagogue was begun in the 1800s with an eye towards outdoing a similar building in Vienna. A competition was held to create the design and the one chosen was in the Moorish style, which explains why the building was also externally reminiscent of a mosque.

So all of that was still in Pest, but I wanted to see some of Buda since it was my last day in Budapest. Just after lunch, I hopped on the metro, rode across the river and climbed a small hill to check Buda out. I found Budapest's old town behind some old walls in a place called Castle Hill. While Pest was more of a regular city downtown, Buda taken by itself looked like one of the small towns I'd been to. There was a neo-classical palace, large but otherwise unremarkable, and the eclectic Matthais Church (Mátyás templom), combining a neo-Gothic spire with a colorful tile roof and a Hungarian Art Nouveau interior. The area seemed to be mostly populated with tourists.

There were also quite a few street entertainers. Most of them played the usual (or unusual) musical instruments, but one stood around shaking noise-makers with a koala bear doll tied to his belt and had no actual talent that I could discern. I couldn't help but wonder where the koala came from. I suspected one day he was standing there thinking, "Hmm. Half-heartedly shaking potato-shaped maracas at random intervals isn't getting me as much money as I thought it would. What am I missing? ... I know, a koala wrapped around my waist!" I gave him some money, most people gave him a wide berth. I suspect he was secretly a professor at Budapest's Academy of Fine Arts trying out a new performance piece.

Note to street performers, ply your craft in a country that uses euros. People tend to throw coins in your hat rather than paper money. A 2 euro coin, and even a 1 euro coin, was worth so much more than the coins of any other country I've been in, including the US. The biggest Hungarian coin is the 200 forint, equivalent to just under a dollar, and in Croatia it was a measely two kuna, worth less than 50 US cents.

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