Central Europe Discovery 1: Update #2

Hi again from Central Europe #1!

Thursday is coming to an end and so is our time in Budapest. Most of us are sad to see our time here end, as we all had so much fun and learned so much from our local guide Esther.  But allow me to start from the beginning….

Our long bus ride from Prague to Budapest wound up being a little longer than many of us expected. We got stuck in some rather heavy traffic, had to make a few restroom stops, and then went for a late lunch when we crossed into Hungary from Slovakia. All of us enjoyed some of the bus ride, watching the animated movie “Sing” and completing a variety of Mad-Libs. The bus roared with laughter as many of the crazy stories were read aloud! By the time we arrived into the city, we met Esther and began a walking tour of Fisherman’s Bastion. This is located at the top of Castle Hill, allowing us an amazing view of the city. Here we began to learn about the history of Budapest and that the Danube River divides the two cities of Buda and Pest (pronounced like Pescht).

On top of the hill, St Matthew’s Church dominates one side with beautiful spires, arches, and a colorful tiled roof. The other end is occupied by the Castle – now a museum of Hungarian history and a national library. These structures were started back in the 13th century and provided us with a wonderful images of what must have been like to live within the walls during the mid evil period. Esther also taught us that Budapest is built on top of an elaborate system of caves and tunnels. This excited many of us, especially when we discovered we were going to explore some of these in the labyrinth beneath the Castle!So

We were then driven to the Jewish quarter, where we saw our first glimpse of the Dohany Synagogue and proceeded to our dinner stop. After our meal, we arrived at the Park Inn hotel and settled in with new roommates to help us get to know everyone.

Thursday was amazing! We met Esther for an early start walking around the Buda side of the city. We went to several memorials and statues, one even had “magic” fountains that descended, allowing us to run quickly into the center before the water sprang up again! This particular memorial was commissioned by the government to remember the German invasion and occupancy of the Nazis during World War II, but many citizens did not feel it adequately memorialized what happened in the city, so an addition was added in front of the sculpture featuring suitcases, photographs and other memorabilia of the Hungarian Jews that were rounded up and sent to the camps.

The bus then drove us across the Chain Bridge to the Pest side for a closer look at the Parliament Building.  It is spectacular and was the first government building to have air conditioning and steam heating in Europe! From here we walked down to the Danube to the “Shoes on the Danube Bank” memorial. Several of our participants honored the Jewish victims by leading us in a memorial service with prayers and readings that expanded our understanding of the Hungarian Jews persecution and ultimate murder of more than 700,000 people.

“One of the best parts of this trip,” according to Caitlyn M. “is that your are surrounded by Jewish people who provide a mutual understanding of what we are experiencing.”

Lunch allowed everyone some free time to explore an indoor market place where we could choose from a variety of foods, as well as shop for souvenirs.  There were butchers, bakers, and vendors of all kinds. Brooke even tried a cherry for the first time and actually liked it!

After lunch, we made our way to the Szechenyl thermal spa. A favorite part of the day for most. The time was spent jumping from warm pools, to hot pools, cooler pools, saunas, and even a center area that moved you through the water without effort in circles! Once our time was up we changed clothes and prepared for our official visit to Dohany Synagogue. We learned that it is Europe’s largest active synagogue and Esther became a Bat Mitzvah there!

Evening came upon us quickly, bringing us dinner within the grounds of one of the Orthodox Synagogues, followed by an evening cruise on the Danube. Again, we all were delighted by the views of the bridges and building lit up against the night sky. Just wait until you look at our pictures.

Today’s blog will conclude with a quote from Luis F., who summed up the last several days perfectly:

“The beautiful view of the cities (both Prague and Budapest) have opened up my views of the world and the Shoe Memorial was extremely powerful and made me connect to my Jewish ancestors.”

Thank you to the several participants who contributed to the writing of this blog and just wait until our next update from Poland… !

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