Sunday, October 18, 2015

Budapest - Exploring Buda

We started our exploration of "Buda" via tram to the other side of the Chain Bridge where we boarded a funicular for the climb to the top of Castle Hill.

Castle Hill was once the seat of Hungarian Royalty and while there are only a few grand sites to visit, it does offer a wondeful view of the Danube and a panoramic view of Pest across the river.  The present castle is an historically inaccurate post WWII construction that barely hints at the real history of this place.  We didn't visit the Hungarian National Gallery which is housed there but it is an art museum of some note. 

The Turul Bird, depicted in this statue is the mythical bird of Magyar that according to legend led the Hungarian migration from the steppes of Central Asia in the 9th Century.  According to RS today the bird is invoked by right-wing nationalist politicians.

Next we visited the Roman Catholic Matthias Church considered to be Budapest's finest church inside and out.  Against the bright blue sky, it is hard to disagree.  This church, named for King Matthias Corvinus has been destroyed and rebuilt several times in the 800 years it has been around.  It is elaborate in decor  incorporating a number of different architectural design periods. One of my favorite spots in the church is the Loreto Chapel which holds a Baroque statue of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child. According to a legend when the Turks put the Buda Castle under seige people walled the statue inside the niche to save it from destruction.  In 1686 an explosion demolished the walls around the statue revealing the Virgin's smiling face.  The Turks took this as a bad omen so they gave up this part of the castle without a fight.

The Fishermen's Bastian is adjacent to the Matthias Church and is one of the most picturesque places in Buda.  We climbed the winding steps to the top hoping for a view of the Danube and Pest across the river and discovered a nearly empty outdoor restaurant where we claimed a table along the edge and enjoyed one of the best views of the trip. 

Budapest - Exploring Pest

The locals say "Boo-daw-pesht" and that's about the only word we mastered of the notoriously difficult Hungarian language. At first glance it seemed like we were in just another big city but after settling in to Hotel Erzsebet and an orientation on our walk to dinner we could see we were in for a surprise.  We had driven in on Andrassy ut - Pest's Grand Boulevard, past Heroes' Square which is lined with statues of Hungary's historic figures but soon we were in a modern commercial city center. At the same time we were just blocks from the historic buildings and bridges crossing the Danube.

The next morning started our  walking tour of "Pest" by riding the Metro which was the first subway line on the Continent, dating to 1896.  We rode it to Heroes Square and then walked to the nearby traditional baths, Szechenyl.  (Several of our group returned there later in the day to sample this popular Hungarian thermal bath experience.) 
Heroes Monument

Gelato - a work of art!

Our walking tour took us past many of the finest buildings, most dating from the late 19th century when Budapest was the shared capital of the vast Habsburg Empire.  Most impressive is the Hungarian Parliament which is one of the city's most noted landmarks.
From the sublime to the ridiculous, we also stopped to wonder at a statue of Ronald Reagan which was erected in 2010 to appease American opinion that the current Hungarian government was rolling back previous democratic reforms.  It was even stranger to learn that then  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was invited to unveil the statue!  We ended our tour at the Great Market Hall, a tri-level marketplace that showcases foods of Hungary as well as souvenirs of all kinds. Having been told that Hungarians pickle just about anything, we headed for the basement level lined with stalls selling pickles of all kinds - peppers, cucumbers, cauliflower, cabbage, beets, garlic etc. We visited a grocery store also on that level and enjoyed a picnic on a nearby bench as we sampled the goodies. Shopping netted us a few Christmas tree ornaments and a lovely table runner. Our day ended with a night time boat trip on the Danube where we experienced the iconic views of Budapest - the Parliament Building aglow and the lighted bridges across the Danube.  We truly felt as if we were on a postcard!

Lunch sampling many pickled vegetables

Great Market Hall from the upper level

Danube by Night River Cruise

Iconic Parliament Building at night

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Happy 47th Anniversary

I'm not sure that I ever imagined spending our 47th anniversary in Hungary!  We left Eger in the late morning on June 1 and drove to Recsk where we visited an elementary school and had lunch with the children.  Several tour members are educators and it was interesting to contrast and compare school facilities.  The students were quite interested in our visit and they were anxious to practice their English with us.  After lunch we spent some time on the playground and immediately knew that children of this age are pretty much the same the world over.

Continuing on to Budapest we made another stop near Egerszalok at a winery.The views were spectacular and seated on the porch of the winery we sampled a variety of local wines while we were entertained by the violin of Toni Varadi.  When he learned it was our 47th anniversary he serenaded us with a lovely string arrangement of "Moon River."  It was an afternoon to remember!

Monday, September 7, 2015

Rolling Along in Eastern Europe

One of the appealing things about the Rick Steve's tour we took to Eastern  Europe was that it offered a nice mix of well known big cities and smaller less touristy  places.  Leaving Kraków we travelled 2 hours by bus through the High Tatra Mountains and the Spis region of the Slovakian countryside on our way to the town of Levoca.

Our large bus windows allowed us to view the rollong  landscape and periodically small enclaves of people came into view.  These are obviously  isolated villages where we saw women and children washing clothes in streams and others lounging around in the summer sun.  There seemed to be a huge disconnect between what we saw here and what we had been observing elswhere on this trip. Turning to Katka for an explantion she talked to us about  The "Gypsy" Question explaining that Eastern Europe is home to a silent population mostly in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia - of millions of dark skinned people who speak a unique language and follow their own culture. (information quoted from RS travel guide to Eastern Europe)  The preferred name for these people is "Roma" and estimates of their number in Europe is between 6 and 12 million.  They have a long and troubled history in this part of the world ranging from times when their skills and talents were sought out, to the times when they were treated with suspician and widespread bigotry.  Over a quarter of a million of the Roma were exterminated in the Nazi Holocaust.  Following World War II the Communists attempted forced assimilation of the Roma but this too failed and severely disrupted their communities and culture. Today many Roma continue to resist assimilation and they suffer poverty, living in segregation.  Many Roma children drop out of school at a young age and in the face of the added problems this part of the world is experiencing with refugees fleeing war torn countries the Roma problem is likely to remain so for some time.

Arriving in Levoca we settled into the town square for our our picnic lunch. This was a booming spot in the Middle Ages when Levoca was on a trade route between Hungary and Poland  and today it is quieter but still Slovakia's finest small town.  We enjoyed a few hours in the town square where families has gathered to enjoy a variety of foods, craft demonstrations and musical entertainment.  It gave us an opportunity to glimpse how the average Slovakian family might spend a beautiful spring Sunday afternoon.  The town is also known for its mostly intact medieval wall and the greatest Gothic altarpiece in all of Europe. (which unfortunately I didn't see)

Leaving Levoca we continued on to Eger,Hungary  another smaller destination on our itinerary best known in history as the town that successfully held off the Ottoman advance into Europe in 1552.  It is also well know among wine enthusiasts for its surrounding area which produces a well known red wine "Bull's Blood."  Our overnight stay here was in probably the best room of the tour.  It was in a building separate from the rest of the group and it looked out on a quiet courtyard decked out with beautiful flowering plants hanging and in pots.
It was the perfect spot to enjoy a basket of strawberriies from the local market

Our group dined together at Bajor Sorhaz (known as HBH to the locals because of the kind of beer they serve) and I remember the evening best because the waiter used his considerable skills to do the first pour of wine directly into the mouth of anyone brave enough to receive!  He stood some distance away - enough to make me a non-participant!  After dinner our group did the buddy introductions, a mandatory rite of a Rick Steve's tour.
In this picture the waiter poured the wine into the glass from some distance!

My tour buddy was Tina - a social worker from New York

The next morning we enjoyed a leisurely stroll around Dobo Square which is the heart of Eger and is remarkably free of the usual town square tourist traps hawking cheap souvenirs and postcards.  The Minorite Church dominates the square and is said to be the most beautiful Baroque church in Hungary.  We also visited Egers local market where stalls were piled high with the first bounty of summer.  And we purchased our first bag of paprika.  Later we walked to the Eger Cathedral which is the second largest church in Hungary and also has the second largest organ in the country.  Other town sites seen but not explored - the northernmost Ottoman minaret in Europe and the Eger Castle.  Our visit to Eger was brief but I sensed that I had seen an authentic Hungarian town, full of Egerites  going about their business.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Here Come the Bride- and Groom

What appears to matter most these days is the wedding!  After a long engagement due to her CRNA graduate program, Claire and Derek will be married in just one week.  They have been "showered," fitted and groomed, have tasted appetizers, entries and cupcakes.  They have auditioned bands and listened to strings. They have  been dance coached and ceremony counseled.  She has pondered hairstyles, make up and nail polish, earrings, hair ornaments, jewelry and shoes.  He has anguished over ties.  They spent cold winter Sundays with a "gun" at Bed  Bath and Beyond and Crate and Barrel.

But as I reflect on these activities of the past eighteen months I am reminded that none of this is what really matters.  It is about the marriage, not the wedding.  And what pleases me most is that I know Claire and Derek know it too. I have seen it in the ways their love has grown in the five years they have been together.  They have supported each other through a grueling school program, job loss and some significant health issues.  We have admired their patience with each other and their communication skills. They are loving and generous with family, faithful to friends, and kind to everyone.  They rescued Fancy Pants and are devoted to giving this sweet dog a happy life.  They have plans and dreams for their life together.  And the will to make them come true.

Their parents have combined, over 75 years experience in marriage and have survived things they are yet to face - and some of these things we hope they never have to face.  But I am encouraged by what I see in them now and confident that they are ready for whatever life will bring.   I am certain that they know the ceremony on September 12 and the promises they will make to each other that day are what really matter.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Remembering Krakow

One of the highlights of any European city is the great market square and Kraków does not disappoint.  After the Tatars destroyed the city in 1241 it was rebuilt in a near perfect grid and with a square that is one of the city's best attractions.  Our hotel was just steps from this square and we enjoyed sitting there waiting for the "Trumpeter of Krakow" to play the hourly "bejnal" song from the tower of St. Mary's Church. According to legend, during the first Tartar invasion a young boy was attempting to warn the townspeople by playing his bugle from the tower but an enemy arrow pierced his throat, stopping him in mid song and that is why he still does so today.  ( Today there are 12 firemen who serve as the trumpeters, each one working  24 hour shift, keeping this legend alive.) Note that this legend is recounted in the Newberry Award winning book (1929) "Trumpeter of Kraków" by Eric P. Kelly

St. Mary's Church has stood on this spot for 800 years and I will remember it best for the amazing three part altarpiece,  which RS calls one of the best medieval woodcarvings in existence.  Other artwork in the church is equally impressive, making it one of the most beautiful churches of this trip. We have a "one church a day" rule but we broke it on the day we attended a concert at the Church of St. Adalbert which also sits on the main square.  Built in the 10th century, it is the oldest church in Kraków.  It is very small and since only 40 people could attend the concert this was as close as I'll ever sit to the performers!

Another major site near the square is the Cloth House a place where cloth sellers had their market stalls in the Middle Ages and a market still exists today.  I spent a considerable amount of time puruseing  the many stalls looking for what I thought would be the perfect Kraków souvenir - a trumpet Christmas tree ornament!  I was astonished that not a single vendor had such an item! A serious marketing failure in my opinion. 

Wawel Cathedral was completed over centuries and it's eclectic exterior reflects this
Kraków was one of my favorite stops on this trip. It has all the charm and history of Prague but doesn't seem as touristy.  It is easy to find your way around this very walkable city and on our free day we enjoyed a stroll along Planty, a scenic park like path along a former moat and later a walk along the Vistula River where we stumbled upon a street festival populated by young families enjoying the beautiful day.  On another day we made our way up the hill to Wawel Cathedral, Poland's national church and the Wawel Castle grounds where the flowers were in bloom and the views worth the climb.
Wawel Castle Grounds
On the Castle grounds
Street Festival Foods

On one of our walks we searched out the Bishop's Palace the second largest palace in Kraków (after Wawel) which has been the residence of Kraków's bishops since it was first built in the 14th century. Today the Palace is most famous for having been the residence of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla from 1958 to 1978, before he became Pope John Paul II. During his visits to Kraków as Pope he would often make appearances in the 'papal window' to address the crowds of his followers below; an image of the Pope now fills the window (making it easy for tourists to identify) and during anniversaries you can be sure the area will be festooned with flowers and candles. The building itself is off-limits, but the courtyard is open to tourists where you'll find an exhibit on the life of the Pope and the first monument of the former pontiff, erected in 1980.  I scoured the postcard displays all over Kraków until I finally found a postcard of the beloved Pontiff which I mailed to my 94 year old father who much loved this pope. 

On our last day in Kraków we visited the Jewish quarter (Kazimierz) and later Schindler's Factory. Unfortunately this was the only rainy day of our tour and a cloudburst drenched our group and cut short the time we had to really explore the Jewish quarter.  Before the rain we did learn about the history of the area, how Jews had lived here since the 15th century and this became a flourishing community in the 1800s.  At the start of World War II, 65,000 Jews lived in Kraków but only a few thousand survived the Nazi control. Today only a few hundred Jews live here but our guide explained that this number is growing and there is a renaissance  of Jewish culture happening.
The popularity of the movie "Schindler's  List," which was partially filmed here  may play a part in this and a visit to Schindler's Factory Musuem was the second part of our day in this part of Kraków. 
We took a tram across the Vistula River to the neighborhood called Podgorze where the Nazis forced Krakow's Jews into a ghetto in early 1941.  Our first stop was Ghetto Heroes Square where empty metal chairs sit as a reminders of the how the Jews were forced to this place, along with all their furniture and possessions. The empty chairs are a somber reminder of what happened to the people who lived here.

Thomas Keneally's 1982 book "Schindler's Ark" first brought the story of German industrialist  Oskar Schindler to the world's attention.  When the Nazis first  invaded Poland Schindler was very much a sympathizer who  saw business potential in acquiring a pots and pans factory staffed by over 1000 Jewish workers.  At some point however his allegiance changed and he secretly became an advocate for his Jewish workers using any means possible to ease their miserable living conditions and save them from probable death.  When the factory was ordered moved and directed to begin manufacturing war materials he argued for the necessity of keeping his workers and it is said that the items produced for the war effort were largely sabotaged to fail.  The museum tells Schindler's story but also depicts the World War II experience of all of Kraków.  

Leaving the museum we got caught in the second big downpour of the day.  This time it came with a very big wind which turned my umbrella inside out and that was the end of my Paris umbrella. .  Another reason why I need to go back to Paris! 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Some things I like about travel in Europe and some  things I don't

No sheets, no blankets only comforters in crisp duvets

Expandable mirrors in the bathroom

Fleece blankets on all outside dining chairs

The little "trash containers" on the table at most meals.  So handy for neatly disposing of fruit peels and scraps, wrappers, bones etc

Tankless toilets -when you flush, it's flushed !

Hand held shower heads

Soap dispensers in showers and at sinks

Bounteous breakfast  buffets - but maybe not the hot dogs or spam slices

Pay public toilets at tourist sites - attendants keep them clean and well supplied

Heated towel racks

Public transportation

And not so much...

Extremely slow working toasters - never had a real piece of toast on this trip

Very undercooked bacon

No washcloths

Small elevators, or maybe none and all

No tissues in most hotels

Great bread but where's the butter?