So, on to Central Europe. To Budapest.
Just so you know, Hungarians hate it when you refer to Hungary as being in Eastern Europe. They are in C-E-N-T-R-A-L-E-U-R-O-P-E!
My train from Munich to Budapest was the Euronight sleeper train Kalman Imre. It left Munich Hbf at 23:00pm and arrived Budapest Keleti station at about 8:00 am. I’d booked a berth in a 4-bed couchette for a comfortable night sleep. A pleasant Swiss guy and I turned out to be the only occupants of the cabin.
The train conductor came to our cabin as we left Munich. He advised we bolt our door throughout the journey. I found that an unnerving piece of advice. What did he mean bolt our door? I asked him if there was a possibility of theft or robbery. He shrugged and smiled.
My mind went to Murder on the Orient Express. I bolted the door after him.
It was an uneventful journey. It was dark. We went through sleeping villages and towns. Nothing of interest. There was a full moon out and my mind began to entertain ludicrous thoughts. What if a lycan suddenly jumped on the train with Van Helsin in pursuit? After all, Transylvania was not far off. I thought I even saw what looked like Dracula perched on a church spire regarding our train as it sped along.
At some point during the journey, I woke up to the sounds of loud conversations on the corridor. Must have been around 2 am. Soon there was a loud knock on our door. We didn’t open it. I wasn’t going to open my door in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere when I’d been advised to bolt it.
After a few seconds the knock was repeated. This time heavier. It was accompanied by a deep-throated announcement “border officer” or something to that effect. Only then did we open the door.
At the door were three well-built men in plain clothes, accompanied by the conductor. They were dressed in mufti but had police-type vests over their clothes. They had side arms. One of them had some sort of scanning device in his hand.
They introduced themselves. We had crossed into Austria. They asked to see our passports. The guy with the scanner scanned my Schengen visa with the device. He got on a mobile phone and read something out on my visa. He wasn’t speaking English so I couldn’t tell what he was saying. Soon after he gave me back my passport and bade me goodnight. They were professional and courteous, if stern-looking.
Alas, my Swiss mate took leave of me at Vienna. I now had the cabin to myself. There was still about three hours left till we get to Budapest.
Finally, Budapest Keleti Station!
Imposing, classic and dated. I’m certain it looked grand in 1884 when it was opened. To me however, it looked like a train station in a communist country where Russian and American spooks arrive in trench coats and fedoras. Maybe I’ve watched too much Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Red Sparrow.
I attracted some curious glances as I got down from my coach and headed out the station. I took it that Budapest doesn’t see too many black dudes. Especially portly handsome blokes like me. Well, here I am fellas! Free hugs for the first ten adorers!
Budapest, I am here!
Cleft in two by the mighty Danube River. Hilly and imperial Buda to the west and flat, buzzing and bourgeois Pest to the east. The two cities came together in 1873 to form Budapest.
Can you believe one of the names for consideration for the city was Pestbuda? Luckily, the politicians didn’t have the final say.
So, why am I in Budapest?
You mean apart from the fact that the name sounds romantic? Well, if there was a single country that experienced the double whammy of both Nazism and Communism within a short period, it was Hungary.
During WWII, the Nazi proxy party in Hungary, the Arrow Cross party, a fascist organisation, unleashed total terror on the people of Budapest. Thousands of Hungarian Jews were rounded up and deported to extermination camps all over Europe. Some were executed in the city and dumped into the Danube.
Then came the Soviets after Hitler lost the war. They imposed their own brand of terror on Hungary and Budapest. Citizens were reduced to subjects and killed on the flimsiest reason.
Consequently, I was in Budapest to learn more about Jewish subjugation and communist oppression. To that end, I was very keen to visit the Dohany Street Synagogue – the largest Jewish synagogue in Europe, Memento Park, with its giant sculptures venerating communism, the Arrow Cross Party torture chamber – House of Terror and Shoes on the Danube Promenade memorial.
But first, what were my first impressions of Budapest?
At times, I thought it was a city suspicious of black people. I did not experience any overt racist incidence. But it’s all in the simple things: the stares, the looking-over-shoulders and deliberate attempt to avoid hand contact. In Budapest, I was conscious that I was black. But I sensed no aggression or resentment. More like indifference. I can live with that. I’m gonna be out of your lives in two days.
There is no Uber in Budapest, only Taxify (now Bolt). I can’t explain it but I found all the Taxify drivers in Budapest most amiable. Almost all of them thought I was American. And trust me, I didn’t feign a foreign accent. One of the drivers put on a hip-hop track as I got into the car. He was bobbing his head enthusiastically and smiling at me. I rated him 5 stars for effort.
But it irks me at the supposition that any touristy black man in Europe was not African. My wife and I had encountered this perception on an earlier visits to Paris and Rome. Some white hucksters in those cities had tried to sell us on some over-priced memento, taking us for gullible Americans. The one in Rome kept saying “American, buy. Only $20.” In Paris, the huckster was around the Louvre. He accused me of denying to be American because I did not want to buy from him. Only when I began to speak Yoruba to him did he leave me alone.
I had such a cramped itinerary so I wasted no time in getting started. I checked into my hostel, showered and hit the town. First stop, the Dohány Street Synagogue. I have never been inside a Jewish synagogue and I couldn’t be presented with a more fitting synagogue. The Dohány Street Synagogue is the largest Jewish synagogue in Europe.
You have to go through some serious security checks before you get in. Pat downs, body scanners and luggage scanners by eagle-eyed and steely-faced security personnel. One time, I put my camera backpack on the ground and took a few steps away from it to take pictures. Two security men were instantly on to me telling me to pick the bag up.
I am not going to fart in this place without clearance.
But once inside, the splendour and glitz is impressive. Seated in the pew, a rabbi talked us through Judaism, its different sects and history of the synagogue. With the Nazis penchant for confining Jews to a single location before transportation to concentration camps, the synagogue found itself within the borders of the Jewish Ghetto in Budapest created by the Nazis. The synagogue consequently housed several hundred Jews. However over two thousand Jews who died within the ghetto from starvation and the cold were uncustomarily buried within the premises of the synagogue. The tombs remain till date. At the back of the synagogue is the Memorial of the Hungarian Jewish Martyrs, a metallic willow tree whose leaves bear names and tattoo numbers of the dead and those who had disappeared. I was moved to tears.
Done with the Dohaney Street Synagogue, I hailed a Taxify to St Matthias Cathedral and the Fisherman’s Bastion on the Buda side. The latter is perhaps the most visited tourist attraction in Budapest on account of its panoramic view of the city.
In the evening, it was time for some chow. And what better place to eat than the Szazeves Restaurant, the oldest restaurant in Budapest. A Taxify driver had recommended the restaurant for an authentic Hungarian experience. I checked the review online and knew I had to pay them a visit
Meet my dinner.
Magyaros gulyasleves or Goulash soup Hungarian style. And Belszingulyas galuskaval aka Sirloin goulash with dumplings. I tell you people, a person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil.
I didn’t dream that up. Crack open the good book and see for yourself. Eccl 2:24.
The next day, it was time to hit the House of Terror and the Shoes on the Danube Promenade.
The House of Terror is a museum on the popular Andrassy Avenue in Budapest. The museum contained artefacts and exhibits related to the fascist and communist era in Hungary. Citizens were interrogated , tortured or killed in the building by both the Arrow Cross Party – and the AVH, the puppet but no less mean state security apparatus of the occupying Soviets.
Ominous soundtrack accompanied you throughout the building as you walked from exhibit to exhibit. It was dimly lit, adding to the sense of dread. The dungeons below were particularly unnerving. You feel someone might come out from nowhere and do you in. Painfully, we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the building.
Shoes on the Danube Promenade is perhaps the most touching and poignant reminder of the atrocities of the Nazis against Hungarian Jews in Budapest during World War II.
Installed along the bank of the Danube were 60 pairs of shoes, sculpted out of iron and true to life in size and detail. The shoes were in the fashion of the 40s. They are a memorial to the over 20,000 Jews shot on the bank of the Danube by the Arrow Cross Party.
Fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, friends and children were rounded up and lined up on the bank of the Danube. They were asked to remove their shoes and face their executioners (shoes were valuable during the war). They were then shot in cold blood, their bodies falling into the freezing Danube.
It was a haunting memory. I imagined children holding tight onto the hands of their parents cold and crying and being told by their parents that everything was going to be all right, when in fact they knew it wasn’t.
The Shoes on the Danube Promenade was the highlight of my trip to Budapest. I tossed and turned in my bed that night. I wasn’t prepared for the emotions of the memorial.
Well, if I was this torn by the shoes, what emotions will I experience when I get to Auschwitz-Birkenau?
One day at a time, Jide. One day at a time.
Right. To my last European city – Krakow.
Please click here for the Krakow account.