|Atmospheric Budapest metro, world's second oldest (no prizes...)|
|Elegant Gellért Baths|
We had a slow morning to start. I spent some time uploading pictures after breakfast, and by the time were ready to go out it was already well into the morning. First we headed for the Great Synagogue, in Budapest’s Jewish Quarter. Lonely Planet tells us that it is “the largest Jewish house of worship in the world, outside of New York City”. First impressions were more of a Moorish palace. We bought tickets for a tour and waited at a café across the road for the start of the tour. First we visited the large and ornate synagogue. Inside it felt more like a Christian church, with pews and an “altar”. Our guide explained the differences, the main features, the form of worship, and so on. He seemed irritated at the questions from a black middle-aged American man, I’m not sure why, and on the tour around the outside to the back we noticed we was quite angry and upset, but we never found out the full story. At the back of the synagogue there were memorials, Holocaust memorials and tributes to the “righteous gentiles” – non-Jews who rescued Jews from being sent to the concentration camps, including one Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat.
Ness and I were the only ones who had opted for the additional tour of the museum, a small museum upstairs in two parts. The first room was full of Jewish religious objects, and the smaller second room was all about the Nazi history. Our elderly guide delivered his well-rehearsed narrative but was personable with it, and it was the best introduction to Jewish religion we have had, covering religious feast days and all the extensive symbolism. The holocaust memorial room featured black and white photographs and our guide, who had lived through the period and survived thanks to one of the safe houses provided by the “righteous gentiles”, spoke from personal experience.
Next we headed to Andrassy út, the main street running out towards the city park northeast. We visited the Hungarian State Opera House, an ornate “neo-renaissance” affair. We bought tickets for a tour, which didn’t quite wow us, although the opera house itself was certainly everything a traditional opera house should be, with grand staircases, ornate rooms and boxes, but our young guide didn’t quite have the delivery and punch so we left feeling a little underwhelmed. We took the Hungarian underground (first in Europe? first in the world?) which ran below Andrassy, the length of the long avenue to the city park. The oldest underground in continental Europe. It was a little gem, with atmospheric small stations and a Victorian train with little compartments, charming.
By now it was already late in the afternoon and time to visit the famous baths for a soak and whatever else. The park had seen better days. Despite still having the trappings of a big city park it was also dirty with litter and quite a few down-and-out characters occupied the benches or were rifling through the overflowing litter bins. The massive Széchenyi baths complex, erm… well, we took a look inside and we were able to see the open-air baths which were very busy with weekend bathers, too busy to be fun it looked like to us. The thermal baths part was just closing, so we just made do with a couple of pictures, and walked round to the main entrance hall for the swimming pools, trying to decipher the Hungarian price lists, with an arcane system of refunds and additional payments. A group of Brits on a stag weekend sauntered out and one of them clarified the system for us. We left it for now and went for a drink at the café by the little park lake, from where we could observe the folksy atmosphere in the park. A Lonely Planet-recommended restaurant, Gundel, was across the road but looked far too plush and pricey. We queued for the trolley bus – our Budapest cards have us free rides on all public transport. Ness had been itching to go on one of these for a while now.
We took the bus back to our hotel and from there walked several, actually quite a few, blocks north to find the Firkasz restaurant, another LP- and hotel recommendation. It was on a quiet, almost dark, street, a little beacon of light and convivial atmosphere. It looked good. Inside the clientele was mostly tourists but that didn’t really matter, and it still felt atmospheric and genuine. We enjoyed the tasty Hungarian food and vino, and then strolled back, making a detour to stick to the brighter main roads, avoiding the dark quiet streets lined with the tall crumbling once-smart blocks. A great day of sightseeing!