Late train to Budapest

The 1626h fast train to from Bratislava to Budapest was the last of my Interrail journeys on this trip as my ticket expired at midnight on Tuesday. There were a few delays and by the time I got to my destination a thunderstorm was threatening to flood out all the subterranean areas of one of the grandest stations along the former route of the Orient Express. An army of staff and cafe owners struggled valiantly to block the entrance to the Metro but it appears to have been too late for the toilets. I hurriedly took to the streets, accepting that even a drenching would be better than remaining down here for a moment longer.

I was unable to telephone the hostel to say I would be late as I clutched the soaking remains of my list of directions and sketch map. At least I’d been here before so I’d have some idea of where I was going. More or less. Budapest hasn’t changed much in the last five years except perhaps to have become a little more run down. I was amused to see that the display in the wonderfully over-the-top gilt and crystal furniture emporium had hardly changed and even more amused by an example of interior decoration when I ventured down into one of the (mercifully still un-flooded) underpasses to get across a main road.

As in so many capital cities these days, a number of people have made these passages their homes; piling blankets and sleeping bags onto their makeshift cardboard flooring with greater or lesser attention to detail. Presumably according to how much substance abuse has dulled their awareness of their surroundings. However, one middle aged couple had set themselves up with a barrier of boxes and suitcases and reclined under a blue satin counterpane, regally propped up on a pile of pillows. They could have been in their very own bedroom with the bustle of shops, news-sellers and by-passers all substituting for a TV set at the end of the bed. I’d have loved to speak to them but I was already late and, anyway, what sort of conversation opener could you use in a situation like that?

I got quite a telling off when I arrived, soaked to the skin, at the only “non-party” hostel I had been able to find in downtown Budapest. It may have been difficult to locate and situated up several flights of stairs but it offered a quiet atmosphere and female-only dormitories in a city which is fast becoming legendary for its all-night drinking culture. The youngsters who flock here from other parts of Europe and the rest of the world seem to like nothing so much as to booze all night and sleep away most of the day engulfed in a miasma of stale beer and unwashed socks. Perhaps that’s a bit overcritical but I have probably had my fill of hostel life by this stage and am looking forward to meeting Grahame at the airport this afternoon for the next stage of my travels.

Yesterday I visited the Dohany Street Synagogue, largest in Europe, which I’d passed but not entered on my last trip here in 2012. I found out at last why I’d been so taken with its decorated red brick architecture: it was built in the 1880’s in the Moorish revival style inspired by the monuments of Southern Spain. This reference to a Muslim influence is not so incongruous if you know a little bit of the history of medieval Andalusia: for an all too brief, golden period Christian, Muslim and Jew all mingled freely: trading, discoursing and intermarrying without judgement or regret. I was reminded of just how long it was since I’d been in Granada or Cordoba and found myself aching to return.

Anyway, enough of that irrelevant nostalgia and back to the prosperity and influence of Jewish people in nineteenth century Central Europe. The percentage of Jews in the overall population tended to increase (more or less) the further East you travelled, with much higher concentrations in certain cities such as Vienna, Prague and Budapest and, although many restrictions had been lifted by this time, most lived in clearly defined districts. The word “ghetto” may nowadays have pejorative connotations but it originates from a particular district of medieval Venice. The contributions made by the Jewish peoples to the scholarship of Europe; in science, literature, the arts and other disciplines too numerous to mention are a cornerstone of our history. Even after more than seventy years it is still almost impossible to quantify the seismic shift in society that was engineered by the architects of the Holocaust.

It’s a sobering thought that, while 50% of the Jews who perished in the death camps were Polish, a high proportion of the remainder were Hungarian but this is not a place where one is invited to contemplate only the worst of humanity. The museum displays ┬ásome wonderful art treasures, restoration and re-building are proudly explained and non-Jewish heroes of the Resistance are commemorated. There are monuments to Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who issued thousands of exit permits at great personal risk and to Sir Nicholas Winton who was responsible for the the formation of the Kindertransport which rescued hundreds of children. Unfortunately, while the latter lived to be 105 and much respected for his work, Mr Wallenberg perished in a Russian prisoner of war camp sometime in the 1950s. I was reminded of the story of the Jesuit priest who carried out emergency conversions in pre-war Vienna. Fifteen minutes for a Jewish couple to absorb and accept the tenets of Roman Catholicism? Was he making a mockery of his faith (and theirs) or simply trying to offer them a lifeline in such terrible times?

Sometimes during my trip I have been overwhelmed by the extent of my ignorance of the history of Europe but if any patterns are emerging then they are telling me that all that pomp: the castles, the art collections and the bottomless treasuries, was bought at someone else’s expense. It’s going to take me a long time to process and, even if I’ve suffered no ill-effects from yesterday’s soaking, I’m going to need a good long rest.

Categories: Europe

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