As my friends and I went exploring one day during the first weekend in Budapest we decided to investigate the caves our tour guide Elizabeth told us about. She explained how inside the caves of Gellert Hill there was a Catholic church.
My group decided to take a look inside, but we had arrived too early and had about a 45-minute wait until it opened. In the hot sun, that is about 40 minutes too long. Instead, someone suggested we walk around and follow the steep path leading up the mountain. At first glance I didn’t look forward to trekking up in the dense heat.
As we started to walk, my friend Reagan and I noticed the group lagging behind us. With every set of steps or hills to ascend, we kept saying to ourselves, “one more, one more,” until we heard something off in the distance.
Starting softly, then picking up with a steady, pounding beat, we heard what sounded like dance music further up the hill. Curiosity overcame us, and while some of our group started to fall off, we kept inching further and further up, with the journey upward now turning into a mission to find the source of the interesting music.
Every few minutes the music would pound louder, and we would feel close to the sound’s source. But with each time we felt to the end, it would fade away, signaling that we had further to venture.
“I was so hot and humid that I didn’t think we were going to make it, but I was determined to find the source of the music we heard in the distance,” Reagan Ebb said.
Finally, after what felt like an hour, we started to see young people our age in Coachella-styled outfits as we approached some sort of outdoor concert party. By the time we finally reached our destination we were dripping in sweat and tired to exhaustion, yet feeling an insane amount of satisfaction from our accomplishment.
Exhausted, we figured we would walk down and meet the group but then we heard some of our other people chime at us that the Liberty Statue was right around the corner. As we climbed one further hill up and followed our sun-soaked friends, sure enough the monument with a view overlooking Budapest was there. We had walked to the peak of the mountain that watches over the entire city.
Initially thinking I was just walking a few extra minutes to find the source of the music, I ended up climbing a famous hill and peering up at the enormous sight, standing only inches from Hungary’s very representation of freedom.
The Liberty Statue is a 45-foot bronze memorial that sits on an 85-foot pedestal overlooking the picturesque city of Budapest. The bronze giant depicts a woman holding a palm leaf above her head.
Today, the statue stands as a memorial for all the Hungarian lives lost in Hungary’s fight for freedom and independence. The transcription on the pedestal reads, “To the memory of all those who sacrificed their lives for the independence, freedom and prosperity of Hungary.”
While a monument to the lives lost in the name of liberty is obviously a good one, the statue was originally built to represent something else: liberation.
During World War II, Nazi Germany occupied Hungary. When the Soviets liberated Hungary from the Nazis, the people of Hungary built this statue to thank the Soviets for rescuing them. The original name of the state was the Liberation Statue to represent the liberation of Hungary from the Germans.
The inscription originally read, “To the memory of the liberating Soviet heroes erected by the grateful Hungarian people in 1945.” It soon became clear that the Soviets were not a liberating force, but just a different kind of oppressor.
An image flashed in my head of 1956 when a student-led protest quickly turned into a full-fledged rebellion. More than 20,000 people were killed and thousands more died as Hungarians fought for independence. In 1988, after the Soviet grip was loosened, Hungarians quickly made alterations to the inscription and changed it to what it reads today.
As I stood at the base of the statue, I looked around and saw the area was crawling with tourists. Many who don’t know the history of the statue nor what it means. They are distracted by the panoramic views of Budapest that Gellert provides and many don’t even look at the statue.
I walked down that mountain feeling like I was a part of this patriotic passion for a country I am a stranger to. I have never been to Budapest, and before learning about this study abroad trip I had not even really thought about it.
But what started as passing time turned into exploring a foreign place and joining a community that believes in liberation and strength.
Climbing Gellert Hill is one of the moments I will remember about Budapest. Not that I showed up to a concert drenched in sweat or walked half a mile up a hill that drained me to my core, but how I found a treasure of a country I’m new to, one I wasn’t even searching for.
The beautiful thing about this city is that you can plan and search, but the true gems appear while wandering and exploring. Budapest is a city to get lost in, a place where you will always find something new and memorable.
In some ways, the statue represents what Budapest and Hungary as a whole is today –– a place that is almost deceiving in nature. The beautiful sights and amazing culture acts as a sort of Band-Aid to a country that is slowly recovering from years of oppression.