Saturday, February 20, 2010

Budapest: Baths, Danube, and Goulash

Buda and Pest is divided by the River Danube, one of the longest rivers in Europe stretching from the Black Forest in Germany to the Black Sea. The former, Buda, is home to the famous Castle Hill, and the ladder, Pest, is the commercial heart of Budapest filled with smoky bars, cafes, and restaurants.

We based ourselves near Deak Ter metro station, right in the middle of Central Pest. From here, we visited The Great Synagogue (aka Dohány Street Synagogue) built between 1854 and 1859 in a Moorish Revival, the same style of the famous Alhambra in Granada, Spain. Adjacent to the synagogue is the Jewish cemetery, Hero's Temple, and Jewish Museum set inside the birth house of Theodore Herzl, also known as the "Father of Zionism." Unfortunately, we arrived to Budapest after sundown on Friday evening, the start of Sabbath, so we only admired this beautiful synagogue from the outside.

St. Stephen's was next on our itinerary; a neoclassical Roman Catholic church built in 1904, just half mile down the road from The Great Synagogue. If you are interested, you can also visit the nearby Lutheran Church on Deak Square.

Budapest is a lively city -- much bigger than Prague and just as beautiful. Joining the EU in 2004, along with 9 other nations, prices in Hungary remain affordable even on the American dollar, but I am willing to bet the favorable exchange rate won't last long, so if you get an opportunity to visit Budapest in the near future, I highly recommend it. It's an interesting city, or as my English colleagues would say "wicked!"

We spent Friday evening strolling along World Heritage designated Andrassy Avenue, Pest's main commercial artery linking Elizabeth Square to City Park, Budapest's answer to Hyde Park.

After dinner, we enjoyed local brews and local Hungarian wine at Ring Cafe, a sleek and trendy bar near the Opera House...well we enjoyed the quiet atmosphere until the music turned from mellow jazz to quasi-techno/house and a huge group of people walked in for a "fancy dress" party (read: costume party). We saw everyone from the Blue Man group, to trampy French maid, to Genie in the Bottle; to a Jailhouse rocker. If you didn't know better, you'd think it was Halloween weekend here in Budapest, not Valentine's Day weekend. Anyways, we left just as the waiter was passing out tacky party hats and
party blowers...wait, was this also an English-style "Christmas Do" (Do = party; or a social gathering)? If we missed the topic of office Christmas parties in the U.K., we promise to write about it next year -- quite amusing!

Saturday we spent the morning soaking in the outdoor thermal baths at Szechenyi Baths; an elaborate complex with some 15 indoor thermal pools, saunas, steam rooms, and one large outdoor pool set in a beautiful surrounding in City Park. Along the way to the famous bathhouse, we got a few photos of Heroes' Square and the sights inside the park. As you can see, Budapest was still covered in snow, but by no means was it was thick as St. Petersburg.

s' Square:

City Park covered in snow:

Szechenyi is well-organised and not too touristy, which is great as you can really get a glimpse of the Hungarian way of life and the Hungarians sure love a good soak, and so did we as evident with our pruney fingers and toes after three hours of thermal pool-hopping.
Relaxing way to start off Saturday morning.

Szechenyi Exterior:

Outdoor thermal pool:

We had lunch of Hungarian home-made specialties of goulash and paprika-covered pork chops at Fakanal Etterem inside the Great Market Hall. Also, a great place to get souvenirs, Tokaji wines, and Hungarian tapestry.

The Great Market Hall is located at the base of the Szabadag Bridge on the Pest side, a great place to start your stroll along the Danube Embankment. It's a lovely walk along the scenic riverfront to the famous Szechenyi Bridge.

You can't miss the impressive Buda Castle, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was destroyed several times over throughout history, and each time was meticulously restored to the architectural style of choice.

Beautiful Sczechenyi Bridge -- I think it is better than the Charles Bridge in Prague:

View overlooking Pest from Buda Hill:

The Fisherman's Bastion and Mattias Church:

Beautiful Views from Fisherman's Bastion:

After a long productive day of relaxation and sightseeing, we enjoyed a long and cosy dinner in the Jewish Quarter called Koleves (Stone Soup) -- great artsy atmosphere, friendly staff, and good food. As we recently went to the ballet and the symphony, we opt for a jazz concert that evening. Great music, great wine, and great vibe.

The next day we woke up to beautiful sunny blue skies, but cold!! Nonetheless sunny -- time to get our biweekly dose of vitamin D. A walk along the Danube past the Szechenyi Bridge takes you the gorgeous Parliament building. Take a good look at the architectural design; probably reminds you of Westminster in London as it is built in the same Gothic Revival style.

Szabadsag Ter (Freedom Square):

A different view of St. Stephens's against the blue skies:

A Lesson in History by K.V:

If you follow this blog then you’ll know that one of my favorite parts of travel is viewing the place I’m visiting within the context of its history. You can’t visit a city or a country without a view to the events and experiences that shaped what it is you’re seeing. Like most of Europe Hungary is a country with a long history, but to fully appreciate the beauty and splendor of its capital Budapest, you must have a basic grasp of the country’s recent past over the last century. For me, the twentieth century is the most fascinating period of history to study; two world wars, a great depression, industrialization and decolonization, numerous revolutions, and a global cold war together complete a dramatic and compelling story that is still being played out in our present. Hungary, like many of the countries we have visited over the last few years, was yet another nation at the center of these events as they unfolded.

Part of the dual-monarchy of Austria-Hungary, after 1918 and its defeat in World War I, Hungary became free of Hapsburg rule and struggled during the inter-war years to maintain a stable and consistent form of government. The Hungarian Democratic Republic was short-lived and lasted only one year until a revolution in 1919 installed the Hungarian Soviet Republic which also lasted only one year, ending in a violent anti-communist counter-revolution that restored the monarchy and set the stage for the Kingdom of Hungary. Throughout the twenties and thirties Hungary began a slow, but steady shift to the right and had become a full member of the Axis by 1941. The fascist Arrow Cross Party, the Hungarian national socialist partner organization to the Nazi party, had by now usurped complete control over the country and Hungary had been thrust into yet another world war and was a vassal state of Nazi Germany. Towards the end of the war, Churchill and Roosevelt had given Stalin carte blanche to do as he wished in Hungary, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, in exchange for his assurance of non-interference in Greece or Austria, as well as other areas liberated by the Western Allies. By 1945 and the defeat of the Axis powers, the Soviet Union had invaded and occupied Hungary. However, along with the other Eastern European countries to fall under Soviet occupation, to call it liberation would be an ignorant misunderstanding at best and outright denial and historic revisionism at worst. Tragically, Hungary was essentially just another bargaining chip in the Allies’ post-war plans and the result was that it ended up exchanging one repressive regime for another. It lasted as a communist Soviet satellite state until 1989. My writing in this post cannot due any justice to describing the horrors set upon the Hungarian people during Nazi and then Soviet occupation, but Budapest’s “House of Terror” which is housed in the former prison of both regimes reveals atrocities that conjured up images of our visit to the notorious S-21 Prison of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

Victims of occupation:

When considering the history, it was only the final decade of the twentieth century that the Hungarian people experienced any genuine freedom. Even amidst the new found liberty, the nineties were defined by difficult efforts to rebuild a sincerely damaged national psyche and attempts to establish a functional governmental infrastructure comprised of a legitimate and democratic framework.

This is why the vibrant and bustling Budapest of 2010 was such an impressive sight to see. Having joined the European Union in 2004 the Hungarian capital boasts a swagger and cosmopolitanism that would have seemed impossible just over twenty years ago. The ingenuity and resolve of the Hungarian people have allowed this grand city to rediscover itself and as a result, Budapest is in the midst of a cultural Renaissance. Given its relatively rapid progress against the odds, this country has a lot to be proud of and much to be excited about.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Wien: Waltz, Mozart, and Coffeehouses

Since moving across the pond, Keenan and I have been diligent about working through our list of European capital cities; so far we've visited Paris, Madrid, Rome, and Moscow, to name a few. To add to the list, last week we took two days off to visit the graceful Austrian capital of Vienna and Budapest, the cosmopolitan Hungarian capital. Two cities, some 3 hours away by train, have a shared history under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, yet a world apart (we’ll write more on that later). 

Vienna, also known as Wien, is one of Europe’s grandest capital cities and the former stomping ground of the Habsburg dynasty. Grandeur is what I would use to describe this beautiful, bright, and orderly city. There’s plenty to do in Vienna, especially for art and classical music lovers. Surely, the former Hofburg Palace, now home to the National Library and six other museusms, could keep you busy for days!

Braving the cold (and snow!), we bundled up to start exploring Innere Stadt, or 1st District, encompassed by the famous Ringstrasse built to replace the city wall erected during the 13th century. The city centre (1st District) is compact, so you can easily see the sights on foot, or take the tram No. 1 or No. 2, which takes you around Ringstrasse.

Here's a little architectural tour:

Starting from St. Stephen's Cathedral, its famous cathedral in the middle of town, we walked along the pedestrianized shopping street Karntnerstrasse to the Vienna State Opera House.

Around 2PM, we took refugee in this West Coast-style brew house, the 1516 Brewery, for pints and lunch of traditional Austrian food:

Back along Philihamonikerstr., we walked towards the Hofburg Palace, first stop the beautiful Albertina Museum, then through the Burggarten to the Burgkapelle, and Kaiserappartements. Wow, this palace is impressive!

I love this photo and the contrast of the red bug and the white snow:
Beautiful Vienna:

They say that Austiran have always been born with a coffee spoon in their mouth; drinking coffee is a central part of everyday Viennese culture. We spent the afternoon at Cafe Central, a Viennese institution where Herrs, Trotsky, Freud, and Beethoven used to write and compose music. Along with their coffee, the Vienesse are well-known for their pastries; we couldn't refuse the wonderfully yummy toffeetorte when it arrived to our table. Ummm...


Darkness was upon us when we made our way to see the Rathaus (City Hall) and Parliament:

We happened to visit Vienna during the Vienna Opera Ball, an annual Austrian society event, which takes place on the Thursday preceding Ash Wednesday. Keenan and I happened to walk by on our way to the Musikverein. We got a few glimpse of ladies in their floor length ballgowns and men in dapper suits -- regal and opulent, just like the city itself.

Our last stop before our evening concert was the St. Charles Church (Karlskirche in German), just across from Musikverein. The church itself is an example of outstanding baroque churches boasting a dome and elongated ellipsoid.


One of the highlights of our trip was attending a concert at Musikverein. We saw a string quartet playing highlights from Schumann, Hayden, and Beethoven, unfortunately, Mozart was on strike that night. The acoustic in this building is amazing! This is the only place where it is acceptable to close your eyes with your hands covering your face. Go ahead, it is a sign that you are thoroughly enjoying the music, just refrain from breathing loudly like the gentleman who was sitting next to me.


We spent the second day in Vienna walking around Fleichmarkt, Judenplatz, Pestaule (another church) to Kolhmarkt where I found a cute wine bar on Graben, but it would be wrong to have wine before noon.


Our time in Vienna was brief, but we enjoyed every moment of it, and looking forward to another trip to Vienna during the summer months. Later in the day, we board a fast train to Budapest where we spent the remainder of our weekend.


By the way, Happy Lunar New Year! Wishing you much prosperity and happiness for the Year of the Tiger.