Polished up and perfect for a cultural break

Jewish history and culture abounds in beautifully renovated Budapest.

By Rebecca Raven, December 2, 2010
The imposing parliament building on Budapest’s magnificent Danube riverfront

The imposing parliament building on Budapest’s magnificent Danube riverfront

You would have little inkling of Hungary's turbulent history from its elegant, unhurried capital, Budapest, which bears a striking resemblance to Paris in the layout of its wide boulevards and Empire architecture, much ofit adorned with exuberant stone decoration.

Until the Chain Bridge was built in 1849, Pest was linked to historic Buda by ferry. When the unified city emerged as the capital in 1872, Jews were an integral part of it, having arrived during the Roman period, and forming a quarter of Budapest's population by 1939.

Modern Jews had their quarter in what is now Pest's Seventh district, a compact area of high walls, shielding life in the courtyards behind. By the mid-19th century, the 30,000-strong community felt confident enough to commission its own Neolog synagogue - Hungary's version of Reform - which opened in 1859. The vast and impressive Dohany Street Synagogue was built in an eclectically oriental style with two ladies' galleries and pulpits for a rabbi and a chazan. In 1944, after the Nazis marched in, the synagogue and its environs became a ghetto, packed with Jews from the countryside and small towns who were taken there before deportation to Auschwitz.

Budapest Jews, who knew their city well, largely melted into hiding places. In addition, the fact that Germany invaded Hungary so late in the war, meant that many Jews survived, though a shocking 500,000 still died.

The arrival of the Communists after the war meant that, by the end of the Soviet era, Dohany Street, though still in use, was completely dilapidated.

Getting there

The Four Seasons Budapest Gresham Palace (0036 1 268 6000) has double rooms from £350 per night, including breakfast. easyJet flies to Budapest from £29.99 one way

American Jews with Hungarian roots - notably Ronald Lauder of the cosmetics empire, and Hollywood star Tony Curtis - gave the first funds for its refurbishment, and with further large donations and encouragement from the Hungarian government, the building reopened in 1998.

There is much modern Jewish history close to the synagogue, too: an adjoining house, redeveloped as the Jewish Museum, was the birthplace of Theodor Herzl, father of Zionism. In a side garden, next to the handsome, 1931-built, smaller Heroes' Temple there are memorial tablets for Jews killed in action in the First World War. More extraordinary are graves in a front garden area. Against all Jewish tradition, which separates cemeteries and places of worship, they are the remains of 2,000 people who died in the ghetto from malnutrition and disease.

There are more recent memorials: the "weeping willow" with its thousands of silver "leaves" recording the thousands murdered, and an open air stained-glass panel.

With its impressive acres of dark woodwork set off by gold ornamentation, and its sonorous organ, the synagogue is a natural venue for Budapest's annual Jewish Summer Festival.

Originally aimed at the local Jewish community, the week-long festival starts on the last Sunday in August Director Dr Vera Vadas' aim is to bring the best of Jewish performance art to as wide an audience as possible, Jewish and non-Jewish, and, as word of the festival spreads, to an overseas audience.

Cantorial music and big names are central; this year's programme starred Shai Abramson, senior chazan of the Israel Defence Forces, and Orthodox rock star, Matisyahu. Past years have seen exhibitions by Hungarian-Jewish artists Bela Kadar and Lili Orszag, while the 2009 festival hosted the work of Hungarian-born war photographer Robert Capa. Next year, says, Dr Vadas, the focus will be on ballet, chamber music, klezmer and chazanut.

As well as bringing the Jewish area to life, the festival opens up Jewish culture to non-Jews and "is the best way to combat antisemitism", notes Dr Vadas. I attended a sublime concert in a packed Dohany Street Synagogue.

Entitled Hungary, Dazzling and Bejewelled, it contained a subtle political message, reminding a local audience that the song - which has been appropriated by the far Right as its hymn - had been written by Jews, Zsigmond Vincze and Erno Kulinyi.

Other festival events take place in the nearby Rumbach Synagogue, and the art deco Urania Cinema, Hungary's famous film school.

This is a city full of wartime reminders, including monuments to non-Jewish saviours - Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz, Italian churchmen and laymen and local Lutheran pastor, Gabor Sztehlo, who saved 1,600 children.

The Jewish quarter is a 15- to 20-minute walk from the riverfront where most of the hotels are located. While we were there, so many roads were under repair, it was often quicker to walk than take a taxi.

Bronze plaques in the pavement, known as "stumbling stones", recall deported Jewish residents. And try not to miss the restored Orthodox synagogue in Kazinczy Street, with its exuberant interior decoration.

If you venture further afield, to the Museum of Fine Arts with its world-class old master collection, for instance, you can take a taxi or, better still, use one of the excellent hop-on hop-off tourist buses, which cross the Danube to Buda's historic monuments and, of course, its spas, which geology has conspired to create.

Another unmissable tourist treat while in this city is a river cruise which takes in Margit Island, now a park, but once a harem when the country was under Turkish rule.

Our base was the glorious, historic Four Seasons Gresham Palace. Originally a complex of apartments and shops created by the London-based Gresham Insurance Company, only the best architects, designers, craftsmen and materials were used in its construction.

The result was a stunning art nouveau building which opened in 1906, with soaring curved glass ceilings, sprawling, uncluttered floor areas and elegant chandeliers. War and Communism left the building a complete wreck. Then, in 2000, the Four Seasons stepped in to pick up the pieces - often literally.

They spent millions basing the lavish restoration on the original plans, using top craftsmen. The hotel opened in 2004, successfully recreating the cool, stylish, sophisticated atmosphere of the original building.

Our river-facing bedroom had a breathtaking view of the Danube, the Chain Bridge and across to the 18th-century palace complex atop Buda's hills. The spacious room continued the art nouveau theme, with curved dark wood furniture and vast bathroom. A top-floor spa offers pampering treats.

Service is discreet and courteous, in keeping with the general tone. Breakfast, served in the Gresham Restaurant, which overlooks the Danube, was
delicious, and is served daily until 11.

Fresh, well-cooked food is widely available and, compared to much of Europe, is reasonably priced. As in many central European cities, menus are heavy on meat but it is getting easier to find fish and vegetarian dishes. The city also has several kosher restaurants.

Last updated: 11:42am, December 21 2010