Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Going to Extremes (July 7)

Today really has been a day of extremes for me.

I decided to spend the morning on the top of Buda Hill. It was bright and partly cloudy, and I took the bus across the Chain Bridge to the foot of the Castle Hill. From there it was one short funicular ride to the top and some amazing views. The Danube is really high. Because of all the rain, the water is lapping over the top onto the street that runs along its Buda bank. There are bits of wood and branches floating in it as well.

The view from the Castle is gorgeous. I had plenty of time to enjoy it since I got there at 9 and the National Art Gallery didn't open until 10. I wandered about the Castle, enjoying the various views of Pest, the Danube, the Citadella (which I thought by the look of it from a distance was some socialist-realist sculpture but apparently is of St. Gellert - I hope to get a closer look at tomorrow when I go to the Gellert Spa). Eventually I wandered towards Matthias Church and the Fisherman's Bastion. I have no idea what a "bastion" is or why it's dedicated to fishermen, but it really looks like someone lifted it from an idea Walt Disney had for Sleeping Beauty's Castle.

Next to is the oldest church in Buda. It' s supposed to be a historical landmark, but I wasn't particularly impressed. The church was restored in the 19th century to full Victorian-era (I suppose I should call it Franz-Josef era) glory. I did, however, spot a place for dessert just around the corner that I decided to visit later.

Anyway, I went back to the National Gallery to see their special exhibit on Hungarian fauvists. These works have never been exhibited before as a group and it was a real treat to see them. I've always like fauvist art and they had many interesting pieces. I really enjoyed it. I skipped past the Baroque section and the 19th century stuff was mostly pieces that would fit right in at the Getty (not a compliment). They had some nice 20th century Expressionists pieces, however, as well as some Secessionist-influenced works as well.

I decided to have a light lunch in the museum café since I was planning a heavy dessert. For that I went back up to Matthias Church to go to Ruszwurm Cukrászda, the oldest pastry shop in Budapest (you can see pictures of the café and of their wares at ). They don't show, however, the dessert I ordered: I got the rigo janscí along with the Ruszwurm Kavé. I should describe both.

The rigo janscí is a chocolate dessert that is made of layers. Going from top to bottom: light chocolate ganache, dark chocolate ganache, a thin (think 1 cm) layer of chocolate cake, a thick (think 2 inches) layer of chocolate mousse, and one more thin layer of chocolate cake on the bottom. It was terrific.

The Ruszwurm Kavé, is of course coffee, but with cherry brandy, cream, chocolate, schlagobers (whipped cream), and finally chocolate sauce. I didn't bother to add any sugar, and it's (relatively slight) bitterness made a nice contrast with the rigo janscí.

When I walked out of the cafe, however, I was surprised how quickly the weather had changed. Instead of sun, it had started to rain. I caught a bus down the hill and went to the Holocaust museum. This was a radical change in mood. Nonetheless, it was an extraordinary museum and I strongly recommend it.

The entrance is stone and glass walls, but the walls are askew, as if to imply a world not right, not well ordered. The museum is laid out over a series of rooms, not so much in chronological order as in order of intensifying persecution. The primary subjects of the persecution described in the museum are those of the Jews and the Roma (known colloquially as "gypsies").

The first room is dedicated to showing Jewish and Roma life before the war. The music in the background is from a Jewish wedding and we are introduced to several families, mostly Jewish, but one Roma), which we follow from room to room.

As we walk from the introduction room to the room describing the loss of rights, the floor suddenly slopes down with no warning. The visitor is thrown off balance and has trouble regaining it as the entire room is on a slope, heading down hill as more and more rights are taken away. The entire effect is to disorient the visitor, to make him/her feel unsure, unsteady, not knowing what to expect.

From there, the course of rooms is what you would expect: expropriation of property, loss of freedoms, loss of dignity, deportions, and finally death. The displays are tasteful, though still shocking, and I found myself close to tears on several occasions. The museum also clarified for me the confusing course of events in Hungary from March 1944, when the Germans occupied the country until January 1945 when the Russians liberated it.

In the last primary room of the exhibit, the visitor is again disturbed by the surroundings. This is the room dealing with survivors and one hears three sets of conflicting sounds. First, there are the sounds coming from the video on the liberation of the camps; then there are the sounds from the first room, the sounds of the Jewish wedding, which we hear as an echo of what was lost and destroyed; finally we hear sounds coming from the memorial room, a prayer melody. All three of these clash, yet combine into a disjointed experience of loss, pain, and mourning.

From the exhibit the visitor proceeds to the synagogue. Built in the 1920s for the local community, it was recently and beautifuly restored. Above the ark, the words (in Hebrew) read: "You will hear the plea from servant and your people Israel." Such words in this context (which I assume were original) ring hollow and accusatory. The room is filled with a wordless singing of a Jewish melody.

All in all, I have to say this was one of the better Holocaust museums I've been to, and of course the so-called "Museum of Tolerance" in LA looks even more pathetic in contrast.

From there I made my way back to my hotel to get my umbrella and do some browsing. But no sooner that I come of a store and it's back to being sunny again. I took the tram across town and when I got off, the sky began to cloud up again and threaten rain. It certainly has been a day of extremes.

I think tonight I will go to a restaurant that claims to have been the one where the song "Gloomy Sunday" was composed. Actually two restaurants make that claim. Both are in Pest (though in the film loosely based on the actual events, the restaurant was in Buda).

One last word about Hungarians. I know that Paris has the reputation of the city of lovers, but I don't think they can hold a candle to the people of Budapest when it comes to public displays of affection. Not even in Paris would couples make out on crowded rush-hour trams, but that happens all the time here.

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