Last year, Columbia was lucky enough to have international students from Czech Republic and Hungary. As soon as Keith and I found out we were coming to Prague, we knew we wanted to take a trip to visit our friend Szabina in Budapest (in Hungarian, “s” is pronounced sh). It’s about a 7 hour train ride from Prague so on the way down we made a quick stop in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Bratislava wasn’t designed to be a capital city (back in the day when Czechoslovakia was one country, Prague was the only capital), so there isn’t much to do there. We found that 3 hours was exactly the right amount of time.
We started out with delicious crepes (for less than $3 each 🙌🏼) and then walked up to the castle for views of the city and the Danube. It was a crystal clear day and the view from the top was beautiful, which was especially appreciated because the castle looks more like a table flipped upside down! We walked through the old city, stopped for a quick bite to eat and then hopped on a bus headed to Budapest.
Szabina met us at the bus station and took us to her dorm. She is a seminary student and lives in a dorm for Christian Roma students in Budapest. The Roma (gypsy) people have lived in Hungary, and other parts of Central/Eastern Europe, for centuries and have faced persecution for much of that time. Throughout the weekend, Szabina shared with us about personal stories and communal challenges for the Roma community, which was all mostly new to me. The dorm is a fantastic place for students to live and we had a wonderful time getting to know Szabina’s friends.
Szabina had something to attend that night, so she and a friend dropped us off at the newly opened Christmas Market for the night. Major cities all across Europe have Christmas markets and they are truly magical. We walked around the markets with cups of mulled wine and the over to the Danube, which was more spectacular at night than I could have imagined!
On Saturday, we started off by going to the House of Terror Museum, which is a history of the two terror regimes that controlled Hungary— The Nazis (1944-45) and the Soviets (1945-56). I didn’t know much about Hungary’s history and surprisingly little about communism in general and the museum was very impactful. The museum is located where both regimes carried out torture of political prisoners and walking through those rooms felt like infamous “Cell Block 11” at Auschwitz where the Nazis tortured prisoners. It was a sobering experience to walk through, particularly at the very end. Before you exit, you walk through a hallway of pictures and names of the perpetrators of the torture, some of whom are still alive today. It’s known as the “Hall of Accountability” and it’s an important remember that these were not faceless actors who committed such atrocities- they were men and women with names and stories of their own and they must be held accountable, if only through history’s eyes.
After the museum, Szabina and her longtime friend Andras showed us around the “Pest” side of Budapest, including the beautiful parliament building. I’ve never seen such a beautiful government building before! We also spent much of our afternoon and evening experiencing some of the best that Hungary has to offer- food! We tried several kinds of delicious Hungarian cakes, the local liquor palinka, and ended the day with fried dough called langosh. It is exactly as greasy as you would imagine deep-fried dough would be and it was absolutely fantastic. Hungarians put sour cream on nearly everything and this was no exception. Don’t go to Budapest expecting to go on a diet!
On Sunday, Szabina needed to go out to her mom’s house for the morning, so Keith and I went to the Gellert Baths, which had been on my bucket list for a very long time. I love public baths/spas and this was definitely the most beautiful I’ve ever been to. Budapest is known as “the city of spas” which is reason enough for me to come back again! It was a cold day, so the pools felt fantastic.
Afterward, we walked up to the castle grounds. Oddly, Buda is very hilly but Pest is entirely flat, divided only by the Danube river. It makes for spectacular views and we were lucky to have a few hours of clear skies. We walked down to the river for more views of the Parliament building and a bite to eat.
On Monday, it was barely above freezing and raining, which made for less than ideal sightseeing. We went to the Hero’s Square, built to celebrate the millennium celebration of the Hungarian people in the region. We went to lunch at a wonderful cafe that hires men out of a drug rehabilitation program. After walking around in the freezing cold, the cafe was a perfect stop. They have board games to play, which made it automatically my favorite place in Budapest. We got to see Szabina’s seminary and then went back to her apartment to learn how to make Hungarian Goulash. There’s not exactly a recipe and it’s more about getting the feeling for it, so I’m not sure how good my recreation will be. I’ll let you know when I attempt it!
This was easily my favorite trip of the semester. I’ve been lucky enough to meet up with friends on every trip so far, but they’ve all been Americans. It was an entirely different experience to be with someone in her home country. As long as I can remember, my dad has intentionally made friends with people from around the world so that he can go visit them someday. It sounds like a crazy approach, but it means that our home has been filled with foreign visitors throughout my childhood and we’ve had the chance to see parts of the world we never would have been able to otherwise. This trip reminded me how lucky I am to have friends who make my life so rich, so wide, and so good. Budapest, I most definitely will be back!