Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Budapest, Hungary: The Capstone

I end my trip to Budapest with a visit to Heroes' Square at the nothern end of Andrássy út.

As is evident from the name, this square is a momument to all the great heroes of Hungarian history:

Mostly, now, it serves as a convenient hard, flat surface for skateboards, bicycle-tricksters, and rollerbladers. Oh, and kids playing bicycle polo?

Not far from Heroes' Square, I saw this post-modern looking building. I can't decide if I love it or hate it, but I'm leaning towards liking it, but thinking it's in wrong neighborhood, sandwiched near the classical Heroes' Square and the greenery of the City Park:

I think it would look better in a more urban setting. Anyway, I walk into the City Park (Városliget).

I see the Vajdahunyad Castle, built for the 1896 Budapest millennial celebration, and which was such a hit that they couldn't tear it down afterwards.

I spy the notorious eyesore "Time Wheel":

This was built in 2004 to honor Hungary's admittance into the European community. It's supposed to be some some of extremely slow-emptying hourglass, except because of the local humidity, the works got gummed up. An eyesore to eyesore comparison?:

Anyway, I continue walking through the City Park and who do I see? Looking great. Looking larger than life. Looking, ummm, out of place:

That is George Washington. The Father of Our Country!

And with that, my tour of Budapest came to a conclusion. My tour of Central Europe has ended. I went to dinner at a place called Menza, nearby at Franz Liszt Square off Andrássy út. I ordered the "traditional Hungarian turkey ragout," which was turkey meat, a brownish gravy, served over steak fries. It was Hungarian poutine! Which, apparently, must be the traditional Hungarian way of eating turkey. It was delicious, I must say. And so was the Raspberry Soup. I love these Hungarian fruit soups. It's like having dessert as your appetizer course.

Anyway, good-bye George. And good-bye Budapest.

Budapest, Hungary: Recovering from the Tour of the House of Terror

I needed something to recover from the emotionally-draining tour of the House of Terror. So I went for a soak at the Széchenyi thermal bath (Széchenyi fürdő).

This is the most popular and prominent of the bath houses in Budapest. It's where the locals recommend you go when in Budapest, more than any other site. And, notwithstanding that frequent recommendation, this also is where the locals go to soak. The Gellert in Buda, which is just as large, is more tourist-oriented, as it is connected to a hotel. This is the outdoor pool area:

This is the signature shot of Széchenyi baths: people in the pool playing chess, enjoying a soak.

The exteriors of the outdoor pool look great:

Me, I'm used to the Las Vegas heat. So the upper 60s/low 70s temperatures were a little chilly for me to hang outside. I much preferred the indoor thermal pools, of which there were more than a dozen, each a different temperature.

Earlier in the week I visited the Rudas Baths, which did not allow photography inside. The Rudas looked like perfect traditional Turkish bath, in the octagon shape, under a dome, with shafts of light shining through. If I had treated myself to a massage there, I would've felt like a sultan back in the Ottoman Era. The Széchenyi had the bigger, and probably would be great to visit on a warmer day when the outdoor pool would've been more usable, but I preferred the Ottoman atmosphere of the much-smaller Rudas.

Budapest, Hungary: Chilling Tour of the House of Terror

Next was the notorious "House of Terror." This is a museum devoted to memorializing the terrors and tortures perpetrated on the people of Hungary during the twin occupations: first by the native-gorwn fascist "Arrow Cross"; the second by the Soviet-led Communist Party.

This is where political prisoners were interrogated, imprisoned, tortured and often executed. In this very building, located on the most beuatiful boulevard in all of Budapest, Andrássy út. The rooflines have the word "TERROR" carved backwards into the eaves, so that on a sunny day (and Sunday decidedly was not), the word "TERROR" is projected onto the sidewalks outside this building. Small cameos of the victims are inlaid into the building facade:

Parts of the museum are somewhat whimsical, but overall the experience is horrific. In fact, it is rather jarring how the curator switches back and forth from comical to chilling. Lost of videos of people recounting their torture (helpfully subtitled in English).

The most bonechilling part of the tour was the basement. The elevator ride down includes a video of an executioner relating matter-of-factly how the prisoners were executed. You can see the actual cells. Some are wet; some are dry. Some have an unnaturally low ceiling. Some are ridiculously tiny.

The tour ends in a room called the "Hall of Tears." There are candle-lit memorials (electric candles, probably) to each of the dead. Although it never says so on the otherwise greatly detailed tour, my impression is that this is the room where the executions occurred. I am dead serious when I say that I could literally feel the presence of evil in that room.

You leave this building with a deep hatred of fascism and communism. Which is the point.

Budapest, Hungary: Last Day Begins with a Castle Hill walk

I'm safely (kinda sorta) back in the U.S. of A. now, stranded at LAX because of the volcano ash plume mucked up trans-Atlantic flights, so I have time to post the pictures from my last day in Budapest!

My final day day of tourism in Budapest began with a walk about Castle Hill. Castle Hill is heart and soul of Buda. It's on a hill, and it's got a castle. Hence the name. It also has truckloads, busloads, and boatloads of tourists. Such as myself, although most are organized into groups with guides jabbering in multiple languages. Thus, this also may be called "Tourist Hill."

The walk began at the "Vienna Gate," so named because, eventually, the road leading out of here would lead to Vienna. (ASIDE: doesn't the English name "Vienna" sound so much more elegant and sophisticated than the harsh-sounding "Wein," as it is called in the Austrian? Vienna is a much more marketable name than Wein.)

Beautiful old building. This is what us Americans think Europe should look like. Magnificent old buildings, narrow, car-hostile cobblestone streets.

And nothing screams "tourist district" better than a hansom cab! I had to doublecheck the spelling because, as I wanted to spell the name of these horse-drawn conveyance devices "handsome cab." Yes, they are attractive, but nevertheless, the correct spelling is "hansom." Look it up.

Walking westward, away from the river, was the "Remains of St. Mary Magdalene Church," which was first built in 1456. THe church was destroyed in the Ottoman wars and rebuilt. You can see the blend of the old and somewhat newer reconstruction. The church originally bore the name Kapisztrán Templom.

Off to the side of the Remains of St. Mary Magdalene Church, is a statue honoring the gentleman for whom the church was first name: Kapisztrán János. You've heard of him, I guarantee it. But you probably know Kapisztrán János by the Spanish version of his name: San Juan Capistrano. He is the patron saint of military chaplains. And that is fitting, given that the building behind him is the Hungarian Museum of Military History.

Still in the upper part of Castle Hill, here is the "Turkish grave," probably the only Ottoman grave within the Castle Hill walls, honoring a pasha who rules Hungary during the Ottoman occupation.

We now move into the midsection of Castle Hill. And who do we meet? Why, that's Pope Innocent XI! Pope Innocent XI was an important figure, as he was important to fighting the war effort to end the Turkish siege of Vienna and the Ottoman occupation of Hungary. As such, he is not popular in Islamic circles.

But the literal and figurative centerpiece of Castle Hill is tghe beuatifully ornate Matthias Church.

This is the tourist magnet, even more so that the Royal Palace.

And this is the big giant saint-infested obelisk thing in front of the church.

A short walk down a cobblestone street is this (in)famous statue of a mounted András Hadik. What makes this statue so infamous? You can't really tell all that well from this picture, although you kinda can, but while the rest of the statue hs the green appearance of well-weathered bronze, one particular part of the horse's anatomy is polished to a golden sheen. Apparently, over the years, for some reason, I don't know why and I don't want to know the answer or how this even got started, but apparently, over the years, it has been considered good luck to rub the horse's bronze testicles right before a big exam. And students will do what it takes to get good grades. When you're there, this color differential (and hence the particular aspect of the horse's anatomy) is highly noticeable.

The view of Pest (Parliament, Chain Bridge) from behind Matthias Church atop Castle Hill.

The war-scarred former Ministry of War building, marking the divide behind the Matthias Church section of Castle Hill, and the Royal Palace section.

Rear view of the Turul Bird, which is perched on Castle Hill and looks down upon the Chain Bridge and Pest. Only rear views possible from up here, as it the sword-bearing mythical Turul Bird is perched cliff-side. The founding mythology of the Hungarian nation is that the Turul Bird led the Magyars -- with their incomprehensible language -- out of Central Asia and to the plains of Central Europe.

Another river view! As you can surmise, I can't get enough of these. Chain Bridge in the foreground, with St. Stephen's Basilica (Szent István-bazilika) immediately behind. Parliament to the left. (NOTE: "Parliament to the left" is decidedly not a political comment, as is there is some concern in the "international community" about the number of votes recently received by a far-right nationalist party.)

Here is a dapper gentleman enjoying a leisurely repose outside the Royal Palace.

There is no royal family in Hungary -- Hungary being superior to Great Britain in that regard -- so the Royal Palace is now a museum complex. I visited the Hungarian National Gallery (Magyar Nemzeti Galéria), which houses the great masterpieces of Hungarian art. No snickering! Yes, there may be no such thing as the Hungarian masters, but the museum is nice to get a sense of the national character, and what scenes from history are most valued. It also has a terrific collection of carved wooden altars, generally from the more heavily forested Slovakia (once referred to as "Upper Hungary"). This is one of the more prominent works in the museum, The Bewailing of László Hunyadi.

I pass through the Palace Gate and my dogs are barking.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Budapest, Hungary: Cute Kitty-Cat Pics for Mothers' Day

In honor of Mothers' Day, here are two cute kitty-cat pictures. I pass these two cats everytime I walk from my hotel to the Batthyány tér Metro stop. They live in the window, apparently, between the glass and the grate.

Blondie was camera shy. Gray was more intp modeling.

Budapest, Hungary: City of Good Food

Budapest is a city of good food. I am eating well here even though I have to avoid the delicious-smelling baked goods.

Friday night I ate at the Dunaparti Matróz Kocsma, which translates to the "Sailor Inn." It's two doors down from my hotel in the Víziváros section of town. I had a delicious catfish served over a potato pancake in an onion sour cream sauce. And delicious cherry tomatoes. I hate tomatoes, but these things (like the tomatoes in Croatia were crispy, crunchy and fruity, as well as vegetably. The dish was reputedly trez Hungarian. Don't care. It was completely delicious.

Saturday night's dinner at the Szent Jupát Étterem , off Moszkva tér (Moscow Square), not too far from the hotel. I had a beef tenderloin dish served "Budapest" style, which meant vegetable-laden rice, pearl onions, tomatoes, and a delicious brown sauce. To. Die. For. (As you can see me enjoying it, above.) I washed it down with a glass of Hungarian red and, for dessert, an Unicum, since I can't eat the cakes.

Unicum is the interesting-tasting herbal liqueur that Hungarians love and everyone else loathes.

Budapest, Hungary: A Trip into Commie Nostalgia (the Prequel)

While waiting for the bus on Saturday to take me to Memento Park, I wandered the environs of Deák tér, a central square in Budapest where all three lines of the underground metro converge, as do a number of surface transportation.

First of let me say that Budapest is a very simple city in which to master the mass transit. Case in point: suburbanite me figured it out in no time. Subways, trams, buses. I am riding them all on my 72-hour pass.

First stop on my wandering-around-waiting-for-the-11:00AM-bus was St. Stephen's Basilica, Szent István-bazilika, an enormous cathedral in the heart of Pest:

The outside is spectacular:

But the inside more so:

I snapped those two pictures before I saw the sign that said "no flash photography." (Other kids were doing it, so I thought I could.) Anyway, I had a previous bad experience with using flash photography inside a church when there was a sign that said not to -- I had a roll of film that ended up getting ruined in development back in the old days -- so I immediately put away the camera until I was back outside.

Note the attention to detail in the Basilica:

They've got saints carved into the doors!

Next, I wandered to some public park because I heard some interesting music. It sounded like Eastern European instruments playing a melody over top of a throbbing modern bass line and beat. It sounded "intriguing":

It was Deladap! They advertise themselves as having an "urban gypsy" sound. They were headlining some sort of Pan European cultural festival Saturday night and this appeared to be their soundcheck. I want to check out more of their sound.

I listened for awhile longer, but soundcheck was winding down and it was getting close to the time to catch my bus.

Budapest, Hungary: A Trip into Commie Nostalgia

Saturday's field trip was trip to the western outskirts of Budapest, to a place now called "Memento Park." It is an outdoor sculpture garden, of sorts, of Socialist Realism statutory that was once the only acceptable public art in the former People's Republic of Hungary.

Hungary opted to retain its communist-era statuary, while many other former eastern bloc countries destroyed theirs. Here, the communist past is given a more whimsical treatment. The above statue shows the Hungarian workers greeting (stiffly) the Soviet soldier.

This one shows the glorious Hungarian worker breaking through a wall:
I'm not sure why that was an image that the Soviets wanted proliferating in the Berlin Wall era, but I wasn't the Chief Interior Decorator for ComIntern.

As you can see, the statuary is not tightly packed in. I was hoping they would have more, as this sort of stuff was everywhere during the People's Republic years, but this is good. (For example, it seems that all of the Stalin statuary got destroyed at some point.)

This is one of the larger, more interesting pieces:Again, it is the Hungarian worker and his friend, the Soviet soldier. As Rick Steves describes it, they appear to be doing calisthenics, but one of the hallmarks of Socialist Realism is the stiffness of the figures, even when they are meant to be in an action pose.

I think this woman is supposed to be holding an olive branch, symbolizing how much the Soviet communists want peace.It looks to me like she's weilding a cross between an ostrich feather and a club.

Two Lenins. First is the simple bust:

Second is one of the more prominent works in the park, a more active Lenin in what Rick Steves's describes as his "hailing a cab" pose:

Next, this Hungarian communist party functionary (who, unfortunately for him, got cut off at the kneecaps in some de-communizing accident) is pointing out my favorite piece in the park:

It is also one piece by a legitimate, respected artist. Imre Varga.

It is supposed to show how the decadent Habsburg bourgeoise were being transformed into hard-working soldiers of communism under the watchful eye of Hungarian communist leader Bela Kun. Yet the piece is far more subversive. The Habsburgs in the back look like they're having fun, in contrast to the grim soldiers in the front. Plus, the lamppost in the center is a metaphor in Hungarian literature for the gallows. Kun was eventually executed during one of Stalin's purges.

Next up is probably the largest piece in the park, an enormous statue of the glorious communist worker charging into the future (?) waving perhaps a Terrible Towel:

Finally this one is supposed to remind you of the glories of communism. Instead, it reminds me of Allstate insurance:

You're in good hands with socialism?

The park is whimsical toward the communist past, but there are exhibits and a film inside that evoke a little less whimsy. One interesting black and white film strip discusses the spy network, and how agents would exchange information.

Still, I couldn't help enjoying the whimsical side of communism. Should I take my place in this workers' struggle. I see this:

And it makes me want to take my place in the workers' glorious struggle:

On a second thought, maybe not.