Budapest

Budapest is far and away the largest city (by population) that we've seen in Europe, so I suppose it makes sense that it was our longest stay thus far and that we left feeling like we still didn't see quite everything we would have liked. We spent 4 nights there, our longest stay in one place since leaving Austin almost 6 weeks ago! In fact, we are now at the halfway point in our trip, which is an exciting milestone for us. I wouldn't say we're over-eager to return home, but I think we are all excited to be on the downhill leg of the trip.

But let's get back to Budapest. Unfortuately, the weather in Budapest didn't fully cooperate as it rained off and on much of the time we were there. We would have loved to spend time in several of the really large parks within the city (and Walter would have enjoyed the playgrounds) but it never seemed to stop raining long enough to do so. In fact, the night we arrived they had a torrential downpour that actually resulted in flooding and power losses in the city. Even on our second day in the city we still found stores and restaurants closed due to lack of power.

So with umbrellas in hand we spent our first day in the city exploring the Pest side of the city (for those who aren't familiar, Budapest is actually two cities on opposite sides of the Danube that decided to join up in 1873: Buda on the western side and Pest on the eastern side). We started off with a tour of Parliament, which was grand and impressive even though the tour only covered 4 rooms of the building. After that we walked over and saw St Stephen's Cathedral, a very impressive Catholic church dedicated to the King who converted Hungary to Christianity about a thousand years ago. He apparently did so in order to stop fighting so many wars with Hungary's Christian neighbors. Interestingly, where you would normally expect to find Jesus above the alter here you find St Stephen instead.

In order to avoid a torrential downpour we killed a few hours walking through the Great Market Hall. The Hall itself was not nearly so impressive as the 15 foot sinkhole that had opened up in the road outside, apparently also due to all the rain. We then headed up to see the Jewish Synagogue, the largest by square footage in the world. It's a strange synagogue, though, as it more resembles a Catholic church in design. It even has an organ. Apparently this was done intentionally by the Jewish community that built the synagogue in order to better fit in with their Christian neighbors (are you detecting a theme in Hungarian history yet?). Regardless, it was an impressive building with an unfortunately depressing garden on the site of a mass grave of Jews who perished in the Budapest Jewish Ghetto during the Nazi occupation.

On a more upbeat note, we spent our 2nd and 3rd days in Budapest largely on the Buda side of the river. Only one day was strictly necessary, but the third day of our stay was St Stephen's Day, celebrating the aforementioned King as well as the founding of the country in 896. There was a massive outdoor celebration complete with craft fair and food stalls (and about a million people walking around). We sampled some fine Hungarian wine and gasoline, er, brandy. Fortunately, Budapest was crazy cheap when it came to food so we spent less than $10 total at the stalls (for two glasses of wine, two brandy samples, and a lollipop for Walter).

The primary Buda sights (the castle and church) were nice, but the real attraction was something called The Hospital in the Rock. It's a hospital/bomb shelter that was originally built in preparation for World War 2 but then extended and enhanced for the Cold War. It saw action primarily during the siege of Budapest by the Soviets in 1945 and during the Hungarian uprising against the Soviets in 1956. In both cases the stories of the activities of the hospital were both heroic and tragic. During 1945 the hospital had patients doubled-up in beds, some rooms reached temperatures over 100 degrees due to poor ventilation and overcrowding, and the hospital ran out of water, medicines, and bandages. The Cold War preparations were less depressing, as it was almost comical to learn that the official Soviet procedures stated that after 72 hours most of the fallout should have subsided and so they only stockpiled 72 hours of water and fuel in the event of nuclear war. Unfortunately they were strict in not allowing photos, which is a real shame as it's a fantastic historical site.

Finally, we finished up our stay in Budapest with a dinner cruise along the Danube to watch the fireworks for St Stephens day. The dinner cruise went as you might expect these things to go. The sunset was really pretty, framed with the Buda Castle and Matthias Church. The food was good enough but they ran out a little too quickly. And there was a relatively obnoxious group of sales people from an American company, BorgWarner, on board, who's background commentary during the fireworks was really irritating. Fortunately, you can't hear them in video below covering the final two minutes of the fireworks extravaganza: