Neighborhoods: Exploring Budapest’s gritty 8th District

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — A gritty Budapest neighborhood that’s been compared to parts of New York City is hoping to attract visitors with a new tour about its history and unique ethnic mix.

Known as Jozsefvaros (Joseph Town), Budapest’s central 8th district is not typically featured in guidebooks. The far side of the neighborhood has been called the Bronx or Harlem of Budapest, its ethnic mix dominated by Roma — as Gypsies are often called — but also featuring Turks, Chinese, Arabs, Africans and others in an ever-richer blend.

Gypsy musician Zoltan Farkas plays a violin in his workshop in Budapest’s gritty 8th district on May 18, 2015 in ...
Gypsy musician Zoltan Farkas plays a violin in his workshop in Budapest’s gritty 8th district on May 18, 2015

Aiming to break down prejudices and stereotypes, Roma volunteers from the Uccu Foundation provide tours not just for foreigners but also for Hungarians, especially students who may not know this part of the city.

“We just wanted to show the people how Roma people are living here, the everyday life,” said tour guide Andrea Ignacz, a student at the Central European University who also spoke of how some Hungarians avoid the area because “they are really afraid to come here.”

The 90-minute tour starts at the beginning of Nepszinhaz utca (street) and its stops include a visit with a Gypsy violinist, a pawn shop, an art gallery and the recently restored Matyas Square.

A memorial to Jewish residents killed in the Holocaust is an opportunity to discuss the Roma genocide during World War II and the fact that the European Parliament recently voted to name Aug. 2 as the European Roma Holocaust Day.

Also on the itinerary is the former warehouse of the Dreher beer factory, now a residential building with a magnificent mosaic high on its facade depicting an old-fashioned beer festival.

“The best thing about this tour is that it’s given by Roma to non-Roma,” said Kaity O’Reilly, a student from Richmond, Virginia. “I think it’s very important for a group to own their identity and spread their stories as their stories and not have someone who doesn’t have that history or that background try and show it.”

The neighborhood hopes to benefit from Budapest’s tourism boom. Hungary’s capital city is now regularly featured among top 10 places to visit in the region after years of playing second fiddle to Prague as the key destination in post-communist Central Europe. Budapest’s must-see attractions include the neo-Gothic Parliament, the Castle District, St. Stephen’s Basilica, the Dohany Street Synagogue and Heroes’ Square area.

Like Budapest, which has two sides, hilly Buda and flat Pest, straddling the Danube River, Jozsefvaros has two distinct areas as well. The dividing line here is the Jozsef (Joseph) Ring Road. Closer to the Danube are the Palace Quarter and the grand, neo-Classical National Museum, while the section of the neighborhood where the tour takes place is on the “wrong side” of the tracks of the No. 4 and No. 6 trams — the “korut,” as the ring road is called.

The palaces found in Jozsefvaros are not yet fully renovated and the art galleries are just a couple of rooms big — but no less interesting than what you might find elsewhere in Budapest. And the area’s development has improved noticeably over the past decade, helped by the opening of a few stations on the M4, a new subway line that cuts across the district.

Independent of the Roma tour, Jozsefvaros has several other places worth seeing, including the abandoned but imposing Salgotarjani Street Jewish Cemetery, the market hall at Rakoczi Square, the Orczy-kert park with the nearby Natural History Museum and Fuveszkert (Botanical Gardens) and the Baroque Jozsefvaros Parish Church.

Restaurants and bars on that side of the district include the Csiga Cafe (Vasar utca 2), the vegetarian Macska Cafe and Gallery (Berkocsis utca 23, opens at 4 p.m.), the Mirage (Nap utca 23), Rosenstein Restaurant (Mosonyi utca 3) and the hip bar Hintallo Iszoda (Bacso Bela utca 15).

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If You Go…

JOZSEFVAROS: Tours of Jozsefvaros, a Budapest neighborhood with a unique history and ethnic mix, are offered by the Uccu Foundation, uccualapitvany@gmail.com. Tours can be arranged in English. There is no fee but donations welcome.

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