A Travellerspoint blog

Cruising the Danube

BY ABBY AND MURIEL

sunny 28 °C
View Koning/Zemliak Family Europe 2012/2013 on KZFamily's travel map.

Budapest fountain break

Budapest fountain break

Today we decided to have a go at the public transport in Budapest. We walked down to the metro station in the morning to purchase a ticket for the day. From here we went to the river where we were able to take a boat down the water. The weather today hit a high of 28 degrees, so we knew that it was going to be a little uncomfortable. But it wasn't too bad if you were in the shade and we were able to battle through it somehow. We ended up going the opposite way that we wanted, but we just rode the boat back after it had finished it's route. My dad said that he didn't get why people pay so much money for river cruises when the public transport here is exactly the same. I didn't find it quite so comfortable. When we got to our destination we got off and walked around the town for a little, stopping at a fountain on our search for lunch. The large fountain was surrounded by people, as when the water spilled over the edge it fell into a moat that people were able to cool their feet in. We sat there for a while, enjoying the shade and coolness of the water before continuing our walk. We stopped at a food cart for lunch, as it had some tables in the shade. Three of us got hotdogs (which weren't so much hotdogs as sausages with a piece of bread on the side) and my mom got a dish of tomatoes, onions and red peppers (called letcho). Her meal had cooled down quite a bit by the time we started to eat which was unfortunate, but she enjoyed it all the same... I think.

After lunch we took a tram to the Castle District to see the view of the city. It was extremely hot but we were able to get free water from the public fountains located around the area, which was a plus. Most of the stores we went to had very high prices, most of them two or three times more then the shops outside of the district. My mom saw that street vendors were selling lemonade for $10 each.

The trip up to the castle wall was my dad's idea of heaven as he travels for the views and the ability to take pictures of them. After he was satisfied we walked back down the hill and took a tram back to our own apartment to rest for a while. We took showers and relaxed for a few hours before eating dinner and going to bed with a few West Wings.

From Muriel:

Memento Park: typical proletariat statue

Memento Park: typical proletariat statue

This evening, Ben and I went to see a one-of-a-kind place, for us at least. It is called Memento Park and is a place they built to store many of the Soviet-era statues that were placed around Budapest during Communist rule. They obviously didn’t want them staying in their parks and along their boulevards but felt they were too important a symbol to eradicate. Therefore, they have isolated them to a spot outside Budapest and now welcome tourists to visit. Looking at the oversized figures of Lenin, Marx and anonymous proletariat workers stirs conflicting feelings of amazement, amusement and soberness. It reminds me of the time when we in the west would watch TV news casts of the Soviet bloc countries and parades of the Red Army before the Berlin wall came down. The gargantuan statues seemed then and now to epitomize dictatorship rule. The leaders always seemed to be overcompensating for being an atheistic government, needing to replace the concept of a higher being with that of a larger-than-life ruler. So glad we don’t have an eight metre tall statue of Stephen Harper anywhere. We were also treated to a 1950s-era film montage of actual Soviet training films on 'how to be a spy': they outlined how to break into someone's place, how to build a network, how to search a suspect's place, etc. They are only funny when you forget that they were actually used in the Soviet campaign.

Posted by KZFamily 13:51 Archived in Hungary Tagged budapest hungary hot tram castle_district Comments (1)

A Synagogue and an Opera House

by Ben

sunny 28 °C
View Koning/Zemliak Family Europe 2012/2013 on KZFamily's travel map.

Dohány Street Synagogue

Dohány Street Synagogue

It is hard to give each country we visit equal consideration. Our impressions of each country are not only subject to the amount of time we have available, but also to the weather conditions when we visit, the status of our health, our mental stamina for that day and perhaps most importantly, what we have seen in the weeks and months previous. A country could have some spectacular castles or art galleries that are worth visiting but we may have overdosed on such venues in the several weeks before so we will pass over these gems. If anyone is reading our blog for travel ideas we are humbled that you value our opinion and taste, but just be warned, our choices are not always decided by what the travel literature and websites say are most visit worthy; it may be just as dependent on whether it affords the opportunity of heading home for an afternoon nap or doesn’t again require one to decipher and memorize the family tree of several monarchs to understand.

Today we chose to visit the Great Synagogue of Budapest and the Opera House because they were different from anything else we have seen so far on this trip. As it turns out, they were also on most tour guide’s lists as significant venues to take in.

Memorial of the Hungarian Jewish Martyrs

Memorial of the Hungarian Jewish Martyrs

The Dohany Street Synagogue is the fifth largest synagogue in the world and the largest in Europe. It was constructed in 1859 and completely restored in the late 1990s. The fact that this structure and some of its religious community survives is a wonder. It was hit by nearly 30 bombs during WW II and was the scene of countless Nazi atrocities. The Jewish population in Hungary at the beginning of the 1900s was nearly a million and today it is just a little over a 100,000 with a little more than a tenth of that number describing themselves as religious. Over 400,000 Hungarian Jews perished under a Nazi occupation that lasted less than two years.

The synagogue is unusual and striking in a variety of ways. It is indeed large, seating nearly 3000 people comfortably, and has been known to have 7000 people packed in it on a few occasions. Perhaps much more notable is the architectural footprint of the synagogue. The layout parallels that of a Christian church, with the bema for the Torah reading being where a church altar is typically located and the ark for the Torah located where a church’s sacristy would be. The pews are strikingly church-like and one is taken aback by the presence of an enormous pipe organ (over 4000 pipes). There are two pulpits that look exactly like they come from a Catholic cathedral; it is just the star of David on the ceiling of each box that sets it apart from its Christian counterpart. The architectural finish is where similarities to a Christian church end and resemblance to a mosque begins. A Moorish motif is present in all the interior finishing and decoration. It is a truly unique blend of religious architecture.

Raoul Wallenberg Memorial grave

Raoul Wallenberg Memorial grave

We learned that in the 1800s, services were in both Hungarian and German rather than Yiddish and this necessitated the construction of two identical pulpits which were placed on either side of the synagogue so the rabbi’s message could be given simultaneously in both languages. In many ways the religious community that worshipped in the common language, embraced new architecture and even incorporated a pipe organ to make worship more attractive for its congregants seemed quite modern. We were told that this middle of the road approach of the Neolog Jews in the mid 1800s is nowadays considered a fairly conservative tradition which is closer to Orthodox Judaism than any of the more liberal branches of today’s Judaism. The present congregation is so diminished in size that in the winter months they use a much smaller synagogue on the same grounds that seats a little over 100 people. Despite this decline, it doesn’t sound like they will be joining forces with any Orthodox Jews anytime soon, since their counterparts still think the presence of a pipe organ makes worship into a circus show.

Behind the synagogue is the Memorial of the Hungarian Jewish Martyrs which is a stainless steel sculpture in the shape of weeping willow. Each leaf is engraved with the name of a Hungarian Jew that died during the Holocaust. This memorial overwhelms the viewer with the scale of human suffering and loss under the Nazis. Next to this weeping willow is a monument with a contrasting message. The Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park pays tribute to the Righteous Among the Nations (gentiles) who acted heroically and sacrificially in saving the lives of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews. Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat, for whom the memorial is named, is counted among one of the Righteous for his self-sacrificing efforts. A memorial grave that is bordered with stones in the fashion dramatized at the end of the movie Schindler’s List is poignant and hopeful.

After our synagogue tour we needed some time to recuperate. We found ourselves close to the Hungarian restaurant we visited the day before last so headed there for sustenance. We were not disappointed and each enjoyed our hearty lunches which featured variations of cheese, mushroom and garlic soup followed with beef goulash wrapped in pancakes for Muriel and me, chicken goulash with langos balls for Hannah, and paprika beef goulash with a Hungarian form of gnocchi for Abby. We found that our high opinion of this restaurant was shared by a couple of other Canadians we met at the restaurant the day before. We were only part way through our meal when they also showed up for a second try of the restaurant. Talk about coincidences.

After lunch we headed to the opulent Budapest Opera House. There are only two tours a day of this facility which makes it a bit of a production since they offer each in six languages. We are subdivided according to language, each troop with their own guide, and set off on a tour at the same time as all the other language groups which results in a ballet of sorts with groups crossing paths on stairways and balconies at frequent intervals. The competing babble of the guides was a bit comical if not distracting at first.

Opera House

Opera House

The building is a real architectural gem and we are happy we got to see its opulence. We just found the admission price, as with that of the synagogue, quite expensive. A tour that lasted less than an hour cost $50.00 for our family and a few dollars was charged on top of that for the privilege of taking pictures. We thought twice about whether to tour either edifice. We truly hope that all these funds go towards supporting the preservation and maintenance of these wonderful structures. We know that the average Hungarian would find these prices prohibitive. It is unconscionable that here, as elsewhere in the world, the local population is not cut a special rate to give them access to their own cultural heritage.

We walked home feeling culturally enriched, if not a little tired mentally. We attended to our laundry without needing to resort to a Swiss army knife (see our Ljubljana blog) although the machine did create a puddle on the bathroom floor. All in all, a pretty good day!

Posted by KZFamily 14:01 Archived in Hungary Tagged budapest opera hungary synagogue Comments (2)

Pretty Things

By Hannah

sunny
View Koning/Zemliak Family Europe 2012/2013 on KZFamily's travel map.

Royal Palace in Godollo

Royal Palace in Godollo

Today we visited the Palace of Gödöllö, the largest baroque palace in Hungary. It is over 250 years old, and its most famous resident was Elisabeth, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary. She was and still is venerated today. She was married to Franz Joseph I, whose 68-year long reign is the third longest in Europe. Known for her beauty, she had elaborate routines that she went through to maintain it, and spent two or three hours a day having her floor-length hair cared for and styled. She used this time to study languages, and became fluent in English and French. After the age of 32, she would not allow any more portraits or photos of herself to be captured, in order to keep up the idea of her perpetual beauty. She was murdered by an Italian anarchist at the age of 60. Her story is very interesting, and I recommend reading more about her here.

The rooms were grand and impressive, filled with various antiques of the age. There was a gorgeous blue and silver gown worn by many of the castle's female residents, numerous swords, guns, and battle axes, and even what was said to be a piece of the holy cross, complete with certification. Many portraits lined the walls, mostly of Elisabeth and Franz Joseph. Unlike Versailles, where red and gold are the predominant colours, these rooms were cooler shades of blue and purple, which I preferred. The silk wallpaper and velvet drapery were very tempting to touch. Luckily, their appeal had been noticed by the curators, and some samples of the cloth were given in order to pacify people like my mom, who feel the compulsion to act on such temptations.

The final room was a small exhibit documenting the renovation and restoration of the palace, and we found out that nearly all the decor was much newer than we had thought. Everything looked very authentic, but I thought that they had made the right choice putting that information at the end of the tour, as it might've taken away from the effect.

Szentendre shopping

Szentendre shopping

We took a short walk around the grounds, which were pretty and well kept, and had a picnic lunch in a park near the castle. We then drove to Szentendre, a little tourist trap of a town comprised almost solely of souvenir shops. The draw of the town was the microminiature museum, a collection of miniscule works of art by Ukrainian artist Mykola Syadristy. All of the pieces needed to be looked at through a microscope in order to appreciate their intricacy. Among the tiny masterpieces was a twelve page book of poems by Taras Shevchenko, another Ukrainian, which had pages made of petals that were bound together with spider silk. There was also a delightful piece composed of a pyramid, a palm tree, and a procession of camels all set in the eye of a needle. This was my dad's favourite, partially because of the exquisiteness and precision and partially because of the play on the Bible verse. Another impressive set of statuettes was a pitcher and two wine glasses made of solid gold balanced on a sugar granule. Each could hold an infinitesimal amount of liquid.

The gallery was mind bending and beautiful. I know I've said this before, but I'm still amazed that even after eight months on the road, we're continuing to see things unlike anything we've seen before. Just like the microscopic works of art, the amount of substance there is in this world in nearly impossible to wrap your head around.

Unfortunately, the awe that these places inspired was deemed impossible for any mere tourist's camera to handle, and we were not permitted to take pictures. You'll just have to go see them for yourselves. In the meantime, I hope that you will enjoy this illustration of my impressions.

Posted by KZFamily 12:56 Archived in Hungary Tagged palace hungary elisabeth mykola syndristy godollo Comments (3)

Relics of Kings and Regimes

BY MURIEL

sunny 23 °C
View Koning/Zemliak Family Europe 2012/2013 on KZFamily's travel map.

Hungarian goulash soup

Hungarian goulash soup

Our host recommends that unless we feel like spending the bulk of our week waiting in traffic jams with frustrated, beefy Hungarians, we should leave our car parked where it is and see Budapest using some other means of transportation. He indicated Budapest public transit is stellar. And is it ever cheap too: we can buy a family pass that will cover three of us for unlimited use of the trams, buses, metros, trains, etc. within Budapest for 48 hours for only ten dollars. If Hannah had been under 15, we could have included her travel in that too. I did my best to try to get her to wear pigtails and a cutesy dress (like Abby) so that she looked younger but she was having none of that. So, I have to pony up for her tickets; since her travel for the two days will cost another 14 dollars, I am still considering having her walk while we ride. For now, all of us will leave the public transit for sights farther afield. Today, as the apartment appears to be in a good location, only about twenty minutes walking distance to the centre of the Pest side (take a wild guess as to what the other side is called...), we elected to use our feet.
We have heard Budapest described as the “Paris of the East,” a title which has liberally been applied to many cities in Europe and Asia, but it does indeed remind one of the French city: they both have exceptionally wide boulevards, some very grand buildings, a beautiful river, and a heightened pitch in the air. The only thing is that, in Budapest, everything is just a bit grittier, a bit more on edge, and less sophisticated. Also, I have yet to see a single boulangerie. And I was so looking forward to a Hungarian baquette too. Their alternative is the langos, just as ubiquitous in Budapest as the baquette is in Paris. It is a fried bread simply made with garlic and salt or, alternatively, with sugar and cinnamon and eaten as a sweet. Restaurants also prepare more complex versions, with sour cream, meat and cheese. I immediately added it to my ‘must try’ list.
For the morning, we walked and walked, taking in the feel of the place and meandering until we reached the Danube. It is a fast, wide river, crossed by several fine bridges. River traffic is heavy, with both commercial and private boats. We would like to take a boat trip down the river as it affords some fantastic views of the city. Ever helpful, our host also suggested we forgo the expensive tourist cruises in favour of the public ferry. Apparently, the ferry is included in the family pass as well. Fortunately, Hannah knows how to swim.

St Stephen's Church

St Stephen's Church

We made our way for the Great Synagogue, the largest in Europe, but were stymied a bit by the prices, as well as by the line up which seemed to be getting bogged down by one man trying to line up several tickets for his group and yet insisting they all pay separately. Regardless, his efforts allowed us time to discuss the matter and, for today, we opted out, possibly to return another day. Ben had seen many signs for gyros and the like so was on the lookout for a cheap bite to eat. Our stomachs lead us to a storefront peppered with dozens of pictures of cooked foodstuffs. Usually, these types of places indicate tourist haunts but we elected to have a look at the options nonetheless. The menu came in a two inch ring binder. It looked daunting, even with each page offering only 2-3 foods, complete with pictures. We committed ourselves and, after successfully paging through War and Peace, we chose the following: creamy mushroom cheese soup for Abby and myself, Hungarian goulash soup for Hannah, and beef goulash on pasta for Ben. And since those famous langos were available, the girls and I each ordered one as a soup chaser. We were more than pleasantly surprised with the offerings. The soup was absolutely delicious and while the langos were greasy, they were quite yummy. The food, together with the freshly squeezed lemonade and the cranberry beer, came to a reasonable thirty dollars so we may just come back. Ben even tried to tip the guy and he refused – that’s the first time THAT has ever happened to us!
We went on to view St Stephen’s basilica, a beautifully restored church with gilt ceilings and marble throughout; it was named after the first king of Hungary, crowned during the tenth century. Having seen a number of cathedrals, churches, and basilicas, the kids (and perhaps even Ben and I) may be becoming a bit jaded. Even the viewing of the local relic, Saint Stephen’s right hand, didn’t seem to stir them. But then, I had forgotten that they had already seen Brother Andre’s heart in Montreal’s Saint Joseph's Oratory and Saint Catherine’s head in Sienna. A hand, while notable, perhaps doesn’t compare. Ben let fly some awful puns along the likes of “At least it didn’t cost him an arm and a leg...” and “Who was his right-hand man, do you suppose?”

House of Terror: Soviet tank

House of Terror: Soviet tank

In our apartment, I had come across a brochure on the House of Terror. I at first thought it might be a medieval torture chamber sort of idea but, upon taking a closer look, discovered it was a museum devoted to educating people about the horrors the Hungarians experienced under the fascist and communist regimes, the fascists for 1944-45 and the communists, for the next forty years. Each had chosen to use the same location for their headquarters and interrogations; it is this building that now houses the museum. We spent some two hours touring the rooms, but while it was interesting and captivating, there were drawbacks for us. Unfortunately, our language skills held us back as there was little translation of the explanations for the displays. Instead, what each room did have was a long-winded, hard-to-read English treatise on certain aspects of the regimes throughout the years. We all found they could have used a good editor to be more useful. Pithy they were not. At any rate, much effort was expended on the actual displays to give one the feeling of control, fear and despair that must have existed during those decades. The originators also wanted to make the whole building a memorial to the thousands who perished under the regimes so there were some notable poetic arrangements to the fallen. Surprisingly, we also found one area dedicated to identifying those they claim were responsible for assisting in the crimes; the rows of pictures were tersely labelled ‘Victimizers’ and listed names, birth and death dates. We had never seen a section like this before. I’m sure it is controversial in Hungary. Also controversial is the fact that some feel the museum does not attribute any blame to Hungary itself and only puts emphasis on foreign occupiers. I got that sense myself as I walked through it, thinking that there must have been Hungarians who participated in the atrocities. I would have liked to be able to understand more about this history but this has piqued my interest so I may go on to do other reading.
The day ended with a reasonably-timed homecoming and eagerness for tomorrow’s sightseeing.

Posted by KZFamily 12:24 Archived in Hungary Tagged food budapest church hungary house_of_terror Comments (4)

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