While in Atlanta’s art museum, we saw a number of photos of Jewish life in Eastern and Central Europe. As my father’s parents were from Budapest (my grandmother lived with the family while I was growing up), I took an interest in visiting Hungary. We decided to add Prague based on Susan’s visit there 15 years ago.
Before Susan and I left for our trip, we resolved to NOT make this a “Holocaust Tour.” I wanted to see the *current* Hungary and Prague. But we did take every opportunity to visit the (former) shuls in the towns we passed thru.
Hungary and Czech Republic are not the same countries Susan visited 15 years ago. Capitalism has gripped these countries with a vengeance. But despite the mad rush to wear Nikes and eat at McDonalds, the Hungarians seem to be committed to preserving their culture. We were delighted to stumble across a small village’s harvest festival where the town fountain pumped white wine and the residents dressed in traditional attire. We saw countless horse-drawn wagons and ploughs. We were made to feel welcome everywhere we traveled, despite our complete inability to speak more than a few words of Hungarian.
We spend a few days in Budapest before renting a car and driving through the countryside. Budapest is a vibrant city filled with “Euro-Goods”, fantastic and cheap restaurants, and gypsy violinists. There is also a sizable Jewish community centered in the area where the Ghetto was located. We visited the huge (and perfectly restored) main synagogue for Shabbat (after having to pass thru metal detectors!). The Jewish museum was one of the best I’ve been to. As it was Sukkot during our stay in Budapest, many Jewish-owned shops were closed.
We did the obligatory Budapest baths (a leftover from the days of the Turkish occupation), visited museums, and walked every corner of the city. When we got out to the countryside, we were treated to beautiful rolling hills, pastoral scenes, and thatched buildings. Despite Hungary’s “habit” of being invaded by every country (even Luxembourg, I think), the villages still retain their medieval appearance.
In many of the towns we passed thru, we visited the old synagogues. Some were in ruins; some were converted to other uses. In some cases, the new users kept the original ornamentation, the Aron HaKodesh (where the Torah is kept), and Hebrew lettering. In some shuls, particularly those changed to retail users (like furniture stores); the interiors were mostly gutted. It was difficult to determine which was more upsetting – the ones in ruins or the furniture stores. It wasn’t like seeing the former shul on Columbia Street (Cambridge) which has been remodeled into condos. Those Jews moved to the suburbs. The Jews who built these beautiful shuls had high hopes for the future.
In Pecs (pronounced like “kvetch”), we went to view an old synagogue mentioned in Ruth Ellen Gruber’s book, “Jewish Heritage Travel”. The building was under reconstruction to become part of an adjacent public school. With a bit of pleading, the foreman allowed us inside. It felt like we were perhaps the last Jews to see the inside of this extraordinary building. The delicate frescoes were somewhat intact. The Aron HaKodesh looked as if the ark were removed yesterday. The plaques commemorating the donors’ generosity was covered with dust, but carefully protected by the work crew. It looked like the workers were being meticulously respectful. But nevertheless, it was no longer a synagogue. It was being turned into a monument.
Returning to Budapest, we got tickets for the Budapest Opera’s Cosi Fan Tutti (Mozart). (I have to remember to read the story, as it made no sense in German.) The Budapest Opera is subsidized by the government – our middle orchestra seats cost US$7.50 each. Balcony seats cost under $2. The Budapest Opera perhaps has the grandest interior of any building I’ve ever seen. Every inch (or centimeter) is lavishly decorated with gold leaf – not paint.
Other highlights of Hungary included the fantastic pastries (many as good as my Hungarian grandmother used to make) and the delicious food – I don’t think we had a bad meal. But we probably tripled our cholesterol count and consumed more meat in that week than we do in a normal year. The Hungarian beaux-arts architecture is reminiscent of Portugal’s Manueline combined with Italian rococo. In other words, the buildings are laden with stone cherubs, angels, saints, gods, goddesses, flowers, ribbons, doodads, widgets, and curlicues. And all on each building!
We traveled to Prague by rail. Like a Peter Sellers movie, we were asked for our passports every hour as we crossed borders.
Prague is much more “westernized” than Budapest. There were throngs of tourists – and this was low season. But this didn’t impair our enjoyment of the city. Prague is historically an artists’ city (it sure isn’t known for its food!). The architecture is more subdued than Hungary, more baroque, and the beaux-arts buildings (of which there are many) are generally neo-classicals with muscular Atlas-type giants supporting the porticos. At the cornices, there are saints and angels, making an extraordinary skyline. There are no skyscrapers, and the uniformity in height creates a wonderful open feeling, even on narrow lanes. Houses typically have paintings to identify them (like three ostriches, two bears) and were know by their name, not a street address. These old paintings and bas-reliefs were beautifully preserved throughout the city.
Paris is not in danger of being replaced by Prague as the world’s culinary capital. Although inexpensive and simple, the food was heavy. The restaurants also have this obnoxious anti-tourist policy of adding little extras to the bill and inflating the prices above what’s printed. We wound up eating 2 meals a day in our hotel room.
Prague’s Jewish Museum is phenomenal. The source of the collection came from the Nazis and their desire to establish a museum of an extinct race. Knowing the source is sobering, but seeing the beautiful art was uplifting. The Old-New Synagogue, which dates from the 1200s, is still a working shul. The cemetery is as amazing as all the photos. The Old Town Square is alone worth a trip to Prague. It looks as if not much has changed there in 200 years – except the presence of many tourists. Other highlights of Prague included a huge number of Art Nouveau buildings and décor, as well as 20th century cubist buildings. The Charles Bridge, one of Prague’s most famous landmarks, was extraordinarily beautiful. On our last day there, we awoke before dawn and walked the length of the bridge and back, avoiding the throngs of tourists.
This is the first trip where we made our reservations via the internet. We also found a Budapest city guidebook online which was significantly better for describing sites than the one in our guidebook (Lonely Planet). This was the first trip where we found that the Lonely Planet guide was inadequate. For Prague, we used the Eyewitness Guide that, as always, was excellent for the type of city touring we enjoy.