Sunday, January 17, 2016

A Brief Stay in Grand Vienna

Our record of our stay in Vienna is scant. Many of my photos didn't turn out, and the ones that did do not do justice to this city of grand buildings and monuments. What's more, we were there only a few days. We should have allowed more time.

It was cold in Vienna in November, and the city was just putting up its Christmas lights. Vienna has one of the largest Christmas markets in Europe, and the lighted venues added some holiday cheer.

We didn't get to the Schonbrunn Palace. Nor did we see the Lippizaner horses, though we did see their stables. I had hoped to at least catch one of their practice sessions, but the timing didn't work out.  We did, however, get to spend a lot of time in the Albertina Museum, which displayed works from Dürer to Monet and Picasso. (Dürer's "Young Hare," which I have always loved, was not on display. Because it is a fragile work on paper, it is only shown every 10 years or so.)

A highlight of our visit was a walking tour organized around the Vienna sites mentioned in The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, a book we discovered last year while in Paris. Although it is non-fiction, it is so engrossing, it reads like a novel. The book recounts the story of de Waal's relatives, the Ephrussis, a Jewish family from Vienna, and their collection of Japanese netsuke (net-ski). The story explains what happened to the family and the collection when the Nazis came to power. We were so fascinated with the book that we sought out the family tomb in Montmartre last year. So we had to take the tour in Vienna!

Among other places, we visited the building that was the Ephrussi home in Vienna. Another wealthy family occupied half of the building's lower floors, while renters inhabited the top floors. (This was in the days before elevators, so having the view from the top was not coveted!) 

The Ephrussis lived on the other side of the building, facing the street where the church is.
They occupied the lower floors, while renters lived on the top.
The tour guide pointed out a few errors that de Waal had made in writing the book. For example, he described the marble that adorned the walls of the entry. But the "marble" is actually wood painted to look like marble. The material was used not to save money, but because at the time, the faux marble was considered much more chic than real marble.

The faux marble in one entry.

People still live in half of the building, but the part where the Ephrussi family lived is now a commercial establishment. We took a look at the current lobby, which is still quite elegant.

The tour gave us an opportunity to explore much of central Vienna, and we even saw one of the last authentic coffee houses, where people can sit for hours undisturbed, huddled over coffee and a book.

By contrast, the Cafe Mozart, is a bit more touristy:

Finding the performances of the Vienna Opera sold out, we spent our last night at the Vienna Volksoper (people's opera). The Volksoper, a modern building, is where we saw Carmina Burana. We had never seen it before, and we enjoyed it immensely. It provided a fitting finale to our Vienna stay.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Dark Side of Budapest

Along the Danube on the Pest side of the river, is a memorial to the Jews of Budapest, who were killed by the Arrow Cross Militia, the police arm of the local fascist party that ruled Hungary under the Nazis. Before the Nazi era, the Jews of Budapest had been spared from being sent to camps, but that changed once the Germans were in control.  The Arrow Cross killed some 38,000 Hungarians in less than three months and helped Eichmann deport Jews to the death camps. 

Sixty iron shoes, from large boots to tiny slippers, stand on the riverbank in testament to the more than 200 people, including men, women, and children, who were marched to the river and forced to remove their footwear before being shot. Their bodies then fell into the river and floated away.

I don't think I have to tell you how heartbreaking this memorial is. Many visitors leave flowers, or put small rocks in the shoes, similar to the Jewish custom of leaving stones on grave markers.

Sadly, I'm not sure we learn lessons from history. Just a few weeks before we arrived--and at the same station we departed from--hundreds, maybe thousands, of Syrian refugees were detained at the railway station. The authorities would not let them leave, even after they purchased tickets. Many boarded trains when they were told they were departing for Germany. But instead, the refugees were shipped to nearby camps.  Later, Hungary closed its borders, and the refugees had to find new routes to the places they are seeking asylum.

I don't want this to sound like this approach is something confined to Hungary. It is a poor country that is struggling while other parts of Europe are doing relatively well, and Hungary did not destabilize the Middle East. But it does hurt that in many ways, the echoes of the past are not so distant.  Yes, there are concerns about radical Islamists infiltrating the refugees, but the humanitarian needs of the majority, who are ordinary people fleeing the very radicals the West fears most, are paying such a heavy price.  

Near the Parliament is another touching memorial. It marks the 1956 rebellion from Soviet rule that is often called "The Hungarian Uprising," a failed 12-day revolution. From October 23 on, there were demonstrations and armed revolts. The government collapsed, and a moderate, Imre Nagy, was appointed prime minister, because the Soviets thought he might be able to control the people. At his request, the Soviet tanks withdrew. But then Nagy announced Hungary was withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact, and that was more than the Soviets could abide.

 On November 4, the Soviets moved in again with tanks and firepower.  Rumors were that Nagy was going to speak, so the square in front of the Parliament was packed. It's still uncertain what happened, but shots rang out, and people began to fall.
Officially only 72 people were killed, but the photographs in the memorial show piles of bodies. It is estimated that 2,500 Hungarians were killed in the uprising across the country, and abut 200,000 fled as refugees. As we learned later, even today people are sometimes afraid to speak out, so the memorial has a sign asking that anyone with information on the event share their story.

Visiting the memorial, we entered a long, sloping passage that leads underground to the exhibit, across from a building where bullet holes from the massacre of November 10 are still preserved.

We appreciated the displays, which were linked by a symbolic pathway of blood.

On a walking tour we took with a guide who lived through the Soviet era, we were saddened to hear her say that although Hungary has now been a democracy for 25 years, she is not certain it will last another 25 years. "The older generation has selective memory," she said. "They say, 'but at least everyone had a job then,' and they forget that mostly the jobs weren't very good, and how everyone viewed each other with suspicion." 

One of the more chilling photos the guide displayed was of an old woman, a restroom attendant whose chest was adorned with medals. "She was a hero in Soviet times," the guide informed us. "And do you know how she, a restroom attendant, got those awards? She was an informer."

We can only hope that the young people, who seem filled with optimism and spirit will prevail and that Hungary's democracy will thrive.

Budapest's Thermal Baths

I'm sorry that I don't have a photo of our evening excursion at the Szechenyi Baths, the most popular of Budapest's thermal baths. Although I took my camera with me, I was much too self-conscious to snap photos of the thousands (?) of people in swimming attire who joined us there.  But you can take a look at the facility here.

No visit to Budapest would be complete without a dip in one of the hot pools, and the Szechnyi Baths at 100 years old is elegant, if crowded.  However, we did not find that any of the 18 pools there were quite hot enough for our taste. Still, it was fun, and I would be remiss if I did not mention it. Both residents and tourists participate with equal zeal

Sunday, January 10, 2016

A New Favorite: Budapest

View of the Hungarian Parliament Building from across the Danube, outside of our apartment.

We expected from what we'd heard about Budapest that we would like it. What we didn't expect was that it would earn a place in our minds as one of the world's great cities, in the company of London, Paris, or Rome.

Budapest is, of course, two cities, with Buda on the western bank of the Danube and Pest on the other. Our attractive Airbnb studio was on the hilly Buda side of the river near the Chain Bridge, which links it with Pest.  Every night when we walked out the courtyard of our building, we caught our breath, as the magical sight of the lighted Parliament building came into view.  (See above.) It was also lovely in the daylight. (Recognize it, from the Viking River Cruises commercial?)

At night the Chain Bridge created a lighted pathway across the river.

From Buda we could look back at Pest. The spire of the Matthias Catholic church with the Fisherman's Bastion below cast a golden glow.

The Fisherman's Bastion (where the fisherman used to sell the day's catch) offers a spectacular view from its ramparts.

Many buildings in Pest looked warm and welcoming in the evening, though this hotel was way beyond our budget. Budapest, as a whole though, was very inexpensive. Our lovely little studio with its brand-new separate kitchen and bath was only $47 per night. Sadly, that means the local economy is not doing well, so what is cheap for tourists is not for the residents. We ate out a lot in Budapest, everything from Turkish cuisine to goulash (not a stew in Hungary, but a delicious beef soup). We hope our tourist spending helped the economy. (The photo below is, I think, a chicken dish from our favorite restaurant with accompanying sauce.)

[Side note:  Kevin was getting confused about all the currency changes in Europe, going from the euro to the kuna (Croatia) to the forint (Hungary), so he turned to me one day and asked, "How many "kermits" is that? (Apologies to my cousin Kermit.) Of course, he never said that to the locals, but it became a running joke after that and thereafter every currency, besides euros, became kermits.)

The famous Hungarian ceramics of Zsolnay and Herend won respect from Kevin, who in general prefers Asian ceramics. The shops displayed their artistic creations.

Vilmos Zsolnay discovered a method for glazing tiles to withstand the weather, and many buildings in Budapest (and in Vienna) feature the bright tiles, as shown on the Matthias Church.

We liked Budapest even better than Vienna, for while Vienna has many grand buildings, Budapest also contains many beautiful buildings from the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, as well as some medieval ones, and the architecture seems more in human scale. Attractive, but functional, not seemingly designed just to impress, although the Budapest Opera House scores on both counts.

We took a tour and got to hear a short program by one of the company's sopranos, which included one of my favorites, Puccini's "O Mio Babbino Caro." That alone was worth the tour price.

Note: The opera house internal shots are courtesy of Kevin.

Other tours acquainted us with the pedestrian areas and alleyways of the both parts of the twinned city.

Possibly the biggest surprise was coming across this statue of Peter Falk as Columbo. His family in Budapest erected the statue. Yes Peter Falk was Hungarian!

There was so much to like about Budapest. The city has an excellent subway system, along with trams and buses. Public transportation is highly affordable.

We spent ten days in this fascinating city on the Danube, and we could easily have spent more. But Budapest has a dark side, too, which I will discuss in my next post.  Maybe that's another reason the city intrigues me so much.

Here are some final shots of sunset in Pest, again courtesy of Kevin:

Monday, January 4, 2016

Ljubljana, Slovenia's Stunning Capital

A relatively small, but charming city, Ljubljana (pronounced something like lyoo-BLAYH-nuh)  hardly seems like a national capital. Its population is only a little over 272,000. Of course, that's because Slovenia didn't become a country until the breakup of Yugoslavia. But while Ljubljana may not be large, it delivers great pleasure in walking its old town, exploring the heights of its castle, or simply sitting at a sidewalk cafe near the river.  

Another blogger called it "The Cutest Capital You Can't Pronounce," and it is, indeed, cute.

I fell in love with the dragons on Ljubljana's Dragon Bridge.  Isn't this guy magnificent?

The bridge was built at the beginning of the 20th Century, but the dragon legend extends back into the mists of history. The story is that Ljubljana was founded by Jason of the Argonauts, while he was searching for the golden fleece.  He reportedly killed a dragon in the vicinity, and the dragon has been associated with this picturesque city ever since.

We walked all over town, and soaked in the autumn sunshine.

Franciscan Church of the Annunciation
We spied a  beautiful hand-crafted wooden bicycle on the street...

...And satisfied our search for a good wine at a shop near our studio apartment. The owners were Italian, and they were very friendly. I like the photo Kevin took of us. (I call it "Men in Black with One Woman.")

We paid a visit to Ljubljana's cathedral, or the Church of St. Nicholas, constructed in the 18th Century on the site of an earlier church. It is, deservedly, a city landmark.

We did not sample the horse burger, however, which was down the street from us.

Ljubljana has a lot to offer, and it's easy to see in just a day or two, but a person could do worse than to linger a little longer. The beautiful buildings, the dragons, and the warm people make it a rewarding place to stay. I was more than a little sad to say goodbye.