Our full trip to Budapest and the rural areas of Hungary is a story for another time, but I wanted to share some images and thoughts from our trip through Memento Park.
My first recommendation is for you to pick up Rick Steves’ Budapest Guide Book. Steves is a wonderful writer and digs into such depth in his books that you can frequently skip the paid tours and self-guide. We decided to skip the guide and depend instead on Rick’s step-by-step instructions for getting the most from Memento Park.
When the Communist regime began to fall apart in 1989, Budapest officials immediately started to remove the statues and plaques that memorialized Communist leaders such as Lenin and Marx. I’m a bit surprised that the officials had enough foresight to hold on to many of these statues instead of destroying them. These mementos (see what I did there?) were moved to a park above Pest and organized into a moving, awe-inducing statement on communism. I would never do the full tour justice by trying to retell it here, so I won’t, but I will let you know that everything about the park is deliberate. Whatever you are looking at, even if it looks like an afterthought or a mistake, is designed to look exactly as it does and generally has a deeper meaning.
For example, when you arrive at the park, you’ll see a large beautiful entrance made of brick. However, the doors are locked and you must look around for a small side door. Once inside, you will notice that the beautiful entrance is just a facade. The message is that communism was simply a facade and, in spite of the beautiful appeal, the benefits of communism was mostly closed to the average person.
To get to Memento Park, you should take the Number 150 bus to Memento Park. The stop is labeled, but it’s always best to ask the bus driver or another passenger to make sure you don’t go on the Number 150 bus tour of the city. There are also private bus options, but public transit in Budapest is pretty solid, so we never saw the need to use anything else.
One of the first things we saw at the park was a striking example of communist art, a large statue of the idealized Soviet worker. Hindsight being 20/20, I think communist art is almost farcical, but can easily understand the power of these large, imposing statues, especially to a generation of people scarred by war and upheaval.
It is important to have some understanding of what these statues symbolize. If you look at these statues, you will easily understand the power of the art, but you will miss the beauty of the details. For example, the statue below, featuring Bela Kun, is full of motion and urgency. You can easily imagine a voice, calling out over the soldiers, the rattling of shield and sword, or the firm strike of boots on the ground.
Bela Kun was a Hungarian communist leader. This statue shows Kun overseeing the transition of the Magyar people through the decades. You see Kun standing in a podium speaking, but may not immediately notice the lightpost to his right. For many people, the lightpost might just seem like a detail, but in Hungarian symbolism the lightpost symbolizes execution, which was Kun’s fate in 1938.
There are so many intriguing statues that I simply cannot include them all here, but if you’re going to be in Budapest, you should make time to visit the park. Expect to take about 1.5 hours to fully view the entire park.
Other monuments and symbols
While Memento Park is large and moving, the most striking memorial I noticed in Budapest was “Shoes on the Danube Bank”, a memorial created to commemorate the death of Jews shot by the Arrow Cross, a fascist militia, in 1944. The story is as simple as it is horrifying. The Arrow Cross rounded up Jews, took them to the edge of the Danube River, and shot them, their bodies falling a few feet to the water below.
As we wandered around Buda before heading to the Hungarian parliament, we stumbled upon this statue:
Of course, the fall of communism and the retreat of Soviet forces from Hungary are recent and important memories for the average Hungarian, so it’s perhaps unsurprising to find the Reagan statue. Though, admittedly, a bit surreal to happen upon a lifesize statute in a nondescript park.
We also visited the House of Terror, a museum that commemorates the terror experienced by Hungarians during the fascist and communist governments. The museum was opened in 2000 and is housed in a building used by both fascists and communists to detain, interrogate, and kill opponents of the regimes. Outside the museum, you will find a number of pictures of the victims of each regime.
You could easily spend half a day inside the museum. The floors are well organized and should be visited in the order recommended by the tour booklet. The House of Terror is open everyday, except Monday, from 10am to 6pm and admission is 2000 HUF, or about $9.
All of this heavy history had us a bit depressed, or at least in a solemn mood, so we then headed over to the Great Market Hall to look around and grab a quick meal. In our experience, every country and every culture has a meal based on great fried dough, and the Magyars are no exception. Called langos, this meal is a plate sized portion of yeasty fried dough topped with anything you might imagine. In my case, I chose one with a thin layer of cream cheese and topped with almost every veggie you can imagine, including corn, peppers, onions, olives, and a feta-like cheese.