Budapest beyond the guidebooks

Writer Monica Porter offers a very personal view of the Hungarian capital


By Monica Porter, September 17, 2009
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Budapest’s magnificent Parliament Building, overlooking the wide expanse of Danube riverfront

Budapest’s magnificent Parliament Building, overlooking the wide expanse of Danube riverfront

Some people love Paris in the springtime. But I’ll take Budapest in the autumn, the perfect time to go. Especially this year: Hungary was named best-value country in the Post Office’s Holiday Costs Barometer for 2009. With its recession-hit economy and devalued forint, the country is keen to attract visitors and prices have fallen accordingly.

Of course, for me Budapest is much more than an affordable holiday destination — it is where I was born, four years before the 1956 Uprising which led to my family’s flight to the West.

I’ve been back many times in the last four decades; almost every part of this scenic, soulful capital is invested with echoes of my family’s past, which is intertwined with the history of the city itself.

I inherited my love of city life from my father, the writer Peter Halász. He was born and raised in Budapest, the only child of ill-matched Jewish parents. His businessman father was a dapper man-about-town and thoroughly secular, while his observant mother ran a dairy shop near the Great Synagogue on Dohány Street.

A tour of the beautiful synagogue is the must-do for any Jewish visitor to Budapest. The largest in Europe, it was built in the 1850s in the Romantic style — with Byzantine and Moorish influences — and seats over 3,000. Its restoration a few years ago was partly funded by Hollywood star Tony Curtis, who has Hungarian roots. During the Nazi occupation the building marked the edge of the ghetto, which is commemorated by the Holocaust Memorial in the synagogue’s grounds. The National Jewish Museum is next door.

District VII is the Jewish Quarter, bordered by Király Street, where my father’s cousin Gyuri lived with his family. This quarter is a favourite area of mine. Its melancholy, crumbling, but wonderfully intricate buildings are redolent of a vanished era. During the property boom a few years ago developers started tearing down the evocative old houses and erecting trendy apartment blocks. Luckily the recession has put the brakes on that. You can still spot the signs of a continued Jewish presence on these quiet side-streets: a sheitl shop, a kosher bakery, the venerable Frolich cake shop which still makes old favourites such as flódni, a layer cake with apple, walnut and poppy-seed. At the heart of the quarter is Klauzál Square, a park where the locals come to relax with their children and dogs. Along one side is the handsome 19th-century market hall, which retains its original architectural features, although it now houses a supermarket. There are small Jewish eateries around the square, and during the summer months open-air pubs in the courtyards of endearingly ramshackle buildings.

My father lived for a while with his mother on Páva Street, to the southeast in District VIII. Their flat was next to a synagogue and occasionally he accompanied my grandmother there, although by then — like many Jews who converted during the 1930s as anti-Jewish laws were passed — he was a Christian convert.

On my last trip to Budapest I went to the Páva Street Synagogue. It’s been extended and now houses the Holocaust Documentation Centre and exhibition. My grandmother never knew about the Holocaust. She fell ill and died in 1942, two years before the Nazis began deportations. As for my grandfather, he was rescued by his gentile business partner, who hid him. Cousin Gyuri and his family survived in the ghetto, which was famously saved from liquidation by Raoul Wallenberg.

A visit to Budapest must include a stroll along the city’s premier boulevard, Andrássy Avenue, lined with the neo-Renaissance mansions of former aristocrats and industrialists. Just off the avenue is the renowned Ferenc Liszt Music Academy, where my mother Vali Rácz studied and later gave concerts as a celebrated chanteuse. It’s still a great place to go for a concert and to admire the Art Nouveau interior. The avenue is also home to the House of Terror, a museum about Hungary’s communist and fascist eras.

The highbrow Írók Boltja (Writers’ Bookshop) is at 45 Andrássy Avenue, which once housed the Japan Coffee House, a fashionable hangout for writers and artists, above which were the offices of the weekly arts magazine where my father was a staff writer from 1942 until 1943.

A walk along the Danube embankment between the Elizabeth Bridge and iconic Chain Bridge is another must. There are swish modern hotels, pavement cafés and restaurants where you can take in the splendid view of Buda’s hill-top Castle. Also along this embankment is the Vigadó concert hall where my mother was due to sing on March 19 1944, the day the Nazis entered Hungary.

Walk further up the riverfront and you reach another great landmark, the neo-Gothic Parliament, which offers fascinating guided tours. In the square behind it hundreds of peaceful demonstrators were massacred by Soviet tanks in 1956. My father was caught up in it, and it was what made him decide to leave his homeland.

True, much of my personal Budapest is linked to tragic events. But there are warm and happy memories, too, including a visit with my father in 1990, just after the fall of communism. After decades he was again being published in his homeland and his publisher took us for a smart lunch in a restaurant by the river, the sun shone and the air was alive with promise.

More than anything, Budapest is about the will to survive, and that’s a powerful message to natives and visitors.

Travel facts

Malév Hungarian Airlines (www.malev.com; 0870 909 0577) has five daily direct flights from London to Budapest, from £89 return. The airline also offers the option to arrange accommodation and car hire. The Le Méridien Budapest (www.lemeridienbudapest.com; 00361 429 5500) has doubles from £98 per night. Short-break packages with www.mybudapest.co.uk from £270 per person based on two sharing, including flights, 3 nights B&B at the 4-star Novotel Budapest Congress. Hungarian National Tourist Office: 020 7823 0411; www.gotohungary.co.uk.

Jewish Budapest

● Budapest had its first Jewish community in the 12th century, and its first synagogue in 1307.
● The following 500 years was a turbulent period of expulsions and returns, until 1830 when King Karl II granted privileges to Jews which led to a flourishing community. By 1837 the Jewish population was 200,000,.
● 600,000Hungarian Jews died in the Holocaust.
● Today’s community is 110,000 with 12 shuls, kosher restaurants, a kosher grocery store, mikveh and community centre Info at: www.budapest.com (click City Guide then Culture)

An updated edition of Monica Porter’s book The Paper Bridge: A Return to Budapest, is published by Quartet at £12 in October

    Last updated: 12:06pm, September 17 2009