S: Hungary, Austria & Czech Republic - 2011
FC: Hungary, Austria & Czech Republic Summer, 2011
1: Budapest August 23, 2011 - August 28, 2011
2: Heroes' Square
3: When I first stepped off of the plane in Budapest, it had been over 5 days since Erik and I had seen each other. Erik had arrived earlier to attend a conference, and I had just completed my first solo overseas flight (one that had necessitated purchasing a Kindle). My first introduction to Hungary came in the form of a shuttle driver, who took me to Erik's hotel, playing poker on his cell phone while he drove. Needless to say, Erik and I were happy to see each other and happier still that we had both arrived safely. From Erik's previous hotel we took the Millennium Underground, the oldest subway in continental Europe. The metro stops were reminiscent of Disneyland, with cute white, green and red tiled walls, carved dark wood, and folksy music that played when the train arrived. Ultimately, we arrived at Hero's Square. Our guidebook indicated that this would be a good place to start, as it provides an overview of Hungarian history in statue form. With the aid of the guidebook, we gathered that the seven horseman perched around the center post represented the seven founding tribes of Hungary, while the statutes in the outer half circle represented other important Hungarian historical figures. I won't say that we learned a lot of history from this display, but the statues were intricate (complete with equine facial expressions). We took the obligatory picture in front of the obelisk, and departed to find some lunch. Lunch marked the beginning of three ongoing sagas: (1) Erik's love of goulash (2) our eternal struggle for hydration and (3) Lexi vs. Bees. Erik's first goulash was so superb that we were halfway through eating it before we remembered to take a picture. Unfortunately, we were only given about 8 oz of bottled water each to wash it down. Thus began what would be our biggest complaint about Europe: it was nearly impossible to get water! At that point it was over 100 degrees F outside, so extra water would have been much appreciated. We left quickly after our water supply was depleted and a couple of stray bees had taken an interest in my chicken and face. Bees: 1. Lexi: 0.
5: After checking into the hotel, cooling down a bit and breaking down and drinking loads of tap water in hopes that the Hungarian equivalent of Montezuma's revenge would be less unpleasant than constant dehydration, Erik and I meandered our way over the river and into the Castle District in Buda. This district contained many beautiful buildings, although we did not spend long exploring any one. Most of the buildings had seen a very turbulent past, as this particular part of Buda had been center stage of many international wars, most recently WWII. The neighborhood, which sits atop a plateau overlooking the Danube river, is segregated from the rest of utilitarian Buda both geographically and stylistically. The houses were small with varying architecture, and there were a few small shops selling handicrafts. The weather had gotten a lot cooler by this point, so we had much more energy for silliness.
6: This was the best place we ate in all of Budapest - or perhaps more accurately, the best place we drank in all of Budapest. The guidebook specifically recommended this place for its coffee and over-the-top ornate decor. We would recommend it for its lemonade. As there was no air conditioning, we elected to sit outside in the shade and were serenaded by one of Budapest's many street musicians. This musician in particular only knew one song on his clarinet, which he repeated throughout our meal, and was accompanied by a friend who pretended to play the violin, but did not actually touch the strings with his bow. Without delicious lemonade, this could have been annoying. With lemonade, it was simply hilarious. | Food | in Budapest
7: Later, we returned to the main street just outside of the Great Hall for dinner. The hosts for each restaurant competed with one another to attract passing tourists. We watched two hosts fight over a group of male tourists. The female host tried to convince them to come to her restaurant because her boobs were bigger. The male host simply said "Oh yeah?" and began unzipping his pants. The group of tourists quickly went with the male host, although we were unsure if this to reward him for his audacity or to prevent further exposure. We went to the restaurant with the female hostess. When we told her we were from the US, she said, "You're American? That is so cool! I am so jealous of ALL the Americans!" Whether this was an indication of the political climate in Hungary or a cheap ploy to get us to eat at her restaurant, it felt good to us Americans, who are used to being internationally criticized. The food offered a nice sampling of Hungarian cuisine, and we learned that no matter what you order in Hungary, it will almost always come with a hot dog on top.
9: After passing once again over the Danube into Buda, we decided to hike up Gellert Hill. The hill was named after Saint Gerard, who in the early 1000's angered Buda's pagan inhabitants with his teachings of Catholicism. The pagan rebels stuffed Saint Gerard's live body in a barrel, hammered spikes into the barrel and pushed him down the hill. Our ascent and descent of Gellert Hill was much more pleasant. The area was shaded and pretty, and we remembered to bring about a gallon of bottled water with us along the way. At the top, we found a number of memorials to modern history, such as the Freedom Statue, which originally commemorated the Soviet liberation of Hungary from German occupation, but now simply commemorates "All those who sacrificed their lives for the independence, freedom, and success of Hungary." The hill also contained a preserved bunker from WW2, when Soviet and German forces collided in Budapest in 1944. The bunker contained somber wax depictions of some of the activities that had occurred in the bunker, including interrogations and the healing of severe injuries. Perhaps most of all, this museum taught us that we needed to learn more about Hungarian history especially because at the time we couldn't figure out if Hungary had been on the Axis or Allied side. We later discovered the source of our confusion: Hungary's participation in the war was not so clear cut. After getting sufficiently dusty climbing up and down Gellert Hill, Erik and I attempted to relax our tired muscles in the correspondingly named Gellert spa. This is apparently one of the most famous spas in Budapest, a city known internationally for its thermal spas, so our expectations were admittedly quite high. The water prevented us from visually documenting our experiences there, but suffice it to say that these expectations were not met. After the very clean, friendly and peaceful experience with spas in Japan, we found this spa and its foot cleaning baths (complete with toe fuzz floating on the top) unpleasant.
10: The next morning, we tried to beat the sun by leaving early for Vajdahunyad Castle. We observed the strange artwork installed in the lake (see the drowning house to the left), then made our way to the castle gates. As luck would have it, there was a festival happening at the castle that day, featuring traditional Hungarian food and music. We walked around sampling all of the delicious foods, trying to decide upon the perfect lunch. This is where we first met what we would later call "Cone." It was love at first sight. "Cone" is essentially a slightly sweet bread dough that had been wrapped around a cylinder and baked, then rolled in sugar. We would spend the rest of our trip chasing after cone. (Erik would like it to be known that he called "Cone" by its proper geometric shape, "Cylinder.")
11: The House of Terror gave us our first glimpse into Hungary's historical struggles for autonomy. The museum is housed in a building that was first used as a torture facility by the Nazi Arrow Cross party, and then as a center of espionage and (more) torture by the Communist party during the Cold War. The exhibit began by describing Hungary's tenuous position in WWII. Despite being almost a geographical midpoint between the Soviets and the Germans, Hungary held off German occupation until 1944. The atrocities committed by Germany at this time are widely known; however, after the Soviet "liberation", a second wave of atrocities occurred. The Soviets deported the entire ethnic German population of Hungary, largely to concentration camps, regardless of their political leanings. The Soviets quickly undermined any attempts at Hungarian self-rule and by 1949 had established a totalitarian puppet government, based largely on censorship and the threat of deportation to work camps. The museum chronicled the Revolution of 1956, ultimately a failure and the impetus for harsher Communist crackdown, but an extremely well-loved symbol of Hungarian pride (the number 1956 could be found all over in Budapest: from large monuments to unassuming carvings on the sides of buildings). The museum tour ended in the basement, where we were allowed to explore the underground holding, torture, and execution chambers used by the Communist regime. Rooms ranged from simple holding cells to torture chambers, such as a room with no room to fully stand up. Each room had pictures on the wall of the individuals who had resided there. | House of Terror
12: St. Stephen's Basilica
13: Parliament | The longest line we waited in in Budapest was to get tickets for a tour of parliament. We got there at 9am to buy tickets for the 10am show but didn't even get to buy tickets until 11am. After bonding for several hours with bored and frustrated tourists from many nations, we obtained our tickets and went to kill time at St. Stephen's Basilica while we waited for our 12pm tour. It was a beautiful building. Interestingly, it also contained the mummified fist of the first king of Hungary, Stephen himself. Sadly, it was hoarded away in the reliquary and off-limits to the likes of Erik and me. Thus began yet another trend of our Central European vacation: the unavailable nature of cool, old, dead things. ~~~~~~~~~~~~ The Parliamentary tour was both shorter and less notable than the preceding line. The tour guide did tell some interesting stories. For example, smoking has never been allowed in the Assembly hall. As such, the courteous creators of the Parliament building installed cigar holders, with each Parliament member assigned their own slot. This way, members could retire to the hallway to smoke, and return to Assembly room when needed without extinguishing or disposing of their half-smoked cigars.
14: Budapest's statues form an interesting commentary on the political climate there. The most unexpected was a nearly life-sized statue of Ronald Reagan, complete with a video display chronicling his life. The display was titled "Ronald Reagan, Our Hero," and expressed Hungarian gratitude towards the United States for its assistance at the end of the Cold War. On the flip side, we also saw a monument thanking the Soviets for ending the German occupation in 1944. However, the Budapest local government found it necessary to place gates around the monument, as it was frequently defaced. We later travelled to the outskirts of Budapest to visit Memento Park, where the rest of the Communist-era statues reside. The park was an interesting glimpse of Communist-era Budapest, as one could easily feel the intimidation of staring up at such blatant, forceful, and just plain large images of intended indoctrination.
16: We ended our tour of Budapest at Marxim, a satirical homage to Communist-era Hungary. | The restaurant was complete with Communist memorabilia and menu items such as Vivaldijevits (Four Seasons vegetables), Papa Marx's favorite, and Snow White & the 7 small proletarians. | MARXIM
17: Vienna August 28, 2011- September 1, 2011
18: Within Hofburg and Mozarthaus lies everything that the city of Vienna would like you to know about Austrian history. Hofburg was the official residence of the Hapsburg monarchs and various Austrian rulers dating from the 15th century. Currently, it is theoretically the residence of the President of Austria. In actuality, it is a shrine to a very particular era in Austrian history, the second half of the 19th century. We were initially struck by the opulence of the building and furnishings therein. We toured the imperial living quarters, complete with a several hours long tour of the silverware and china collections. After becoming desensitized to the sheer wealth, thoughts began to nag at the corners of our minds: "What happens next? What came before Maria Theresa, and - more mysteriously - what came after Sisi?" We quickly reassured ourselves: "Surely this era of history is omitted simply because the Hapsburgs were the last monarchs to reside in Hofburg. We will find out more about other aspects of Austrian history later." Satisfied with our rationalization, we entered the Sisi museum. Sisi, wife to Franz Joseph I, hated the life of an empress and tried to escape through travel, poetry and cultivating her own beauty. The idea of a reluctant monarch is a romantic idea. After all, someone who shrugs off the comfort of obscene wealth must have higher ideals, like love or freedom, that they wish to devote their time to instead, right? Well, in the case of Sisi, it seems this was not really the case. In fact, we found her cult of beauty and lack of devotion to her husband to be quite distasteful and selfish; by the end of the tour, we favored the stubbornly hard-working, devoted Franz Joseph over his wife. Seeing Sisi's face plastered all over Vienna brought about a second wave of discomfort. "Who was it that started WWI again? Why is Sisi so darn popular?" Hofburg has an impressive collection of horses, and this distracted us from our queries for a while. The video outside the "Spanish Riding School" showed the horses dancing in lines, weaving through each other sideways like Rockettes. Unfortunately, we were only there for practice, so the horses mostly just trotted around in circles, with the occasional side step. It was worth it, though, even if only to see horses trot to Mozart's waltzes underneath a chandelier. | Hofburg
19: Mozarthaus | Mozarthaus is a museum dedicated to Mozart that is situated in one of Mozart's Vienna apartments. Having recently sung Mozart's requiem at the De Anza Chorale, Erik and I were excited to see where he lived. The building itself was very neat. The museum itself could have used some work. It seemed overly protective of its historical accuracy, choosing to only use a few props that were actually a part of Mozart's apartment, rather than using many to create a more immersive atmosphere. They were also perhaps too quick to point out their own conjectures ("We think Mozart might have slept in here but uh, we dunno, he could have slept in other rooms too possibly").
20: Our Vienna guidebook placed a lot of emphasis on the Art Nouveau movement in Austria, the "Vienna Secessation." The style can be seen in many areas of Vienna, including a number of U-Bahn stations. One such station has been repurposed and now houses a cafe. Art Nouveau is awesome. This was not. Not only was the service the worst we had ever experienced (after 30 minutes of waiting, Erik had to go into the cafe to find the waitress, who was on the phone, and then ask her to come take our order), the bees were out in full force. I'll bet you forgot all about the bees, didn't you? Multiple bees were extremely interested in my Croque Madame, and were not dissuaded by arm flailing or strategically placed decoy squirts of ketchup. The standoff ended with me storming out of the restaurant, throwing my egg on the ground in the process. I'd like to think that taught those bees a lesson. Lexi: 1 Bees: 1
21: The bees sought out their revenge at Naschmarkt. I had looked forward to this part of our journey in particular. Naschmarkt is an outdoor market almost a mile long. It was established in the 16th century, and today hundreds of vendors sell everything from fruits and vegetables, fish, baked goods, cured meets, traditional Viennese food, and international foods, as well. Much to our dismay, approximately 40% of the food in the market was literally COVERED with bees. Cases of colorful dried fruit were almost completely obscured by swarming, stinging insects. For this reason, we have substituted our pictures from Naschmarkt with some pretty pictures from the internet. If you'd like a more authentic version, feel free to take a Sharpie and draw dots all over the four pictures shown here. While Erik and I were able to purchase and thoroughly enjoy some baklava and gyros, we quickly had to move out of the area. Bees: 2 Lexi: 1
22: St. Stephen's Cathedral
23: St. Stephen's cathedral is, to my knowledge, the oldest building Erik and I have ever set foot in. It might not seem like a big deal. It is. This cathedral was built in the 1100s. Although it has been refinished several times, simply standing on stone and looking at the same walls that were in existence when the plague hit Europe, when Europeans were first discovering other continents, during countless wars, etc was perhaps one of the most humanizing things I have experienced. The architecture was, of course, stunning. But the tangible connection to humans who had lived almost 1000 years prior, people who had until this point seemed so far removed as to appear fictional, shed light on the continuity of human existence and was truly life altering.
24: Prater has been the prime site of relaxation in Vienna since the 1700s. We weren't so much interested in the historical context, however, as we were the rides :). I was experiencing some eye problems at the time that precluded us from riding many of the scariest rides but frankly, this was probably ok. There were some VERY scary rides at this park, including a terrifyingly high swing, where riders are held up only by small metal chains.
25: Prater | We mostly walked around and laughed at the various copyright infringements and controversial attractions, such as the Indiana Jones ride where riders drive the Nazi's truck, complete with the Ark of the Covenant in the trunk. We rented a couple of bikes, and rode up and down the main tree-lined pathway, and then rode a long an intersecting river for a while. It was definitely a nice change of pace.
27: We wrapped up our day of relaxation by kicking back like a monarch at the Schonbrunn summer palace. The palace was beautiful, but the backyard was more beautiful still. There were miles and miles of walking trails, hedge mazes, and gardens.
28: We spent our last day in Vienna trying to track down the answers to our as yet unanswered questions. For a nation that had been so complicit with Nazi Germany, we found very little to memorialize the atrocities of WWII. Rather, the Vienna we experienced tried to bury its darker past under palaces and unequivocal praise of Franz Joseph I (a major initiator of WWI, in case you were curious). The memorial shown above, hidden in a tangle of buildings, was the only memorial to the Holocaust we saw during our stay. It was nearly impossible to locate the Documentation of Austrian Resistance Museum. We had to take a leap of faith, entering an unmarked business office and passing through to the inner courtyard before we even saw a sign for the museum. The Austrian resistance seemed so few that resistors could each be named in this small museum. Every effort made by rebellious Austrians was reported by neighbors and quickly stamped out before they really had a chance to make much of a difference. It was almost eerie to walk out of the building, knowing that this dark history was buried so far away from the eyes of prying tourists.
29: Prague | September 1, 2011 - September 5, 2011
30: We were pretty tired by this point, so mostly all we could muster for Prague was "Wuuuuhhhh there's pretty stuff." After several nerve-wracking wrong turns down less than savory streets, we were relieved to stumble onto Old Town Square, the tourist central of Prague. This area was filled to the brim with tourists, most of them much more interested in partying in an environment reminiscent of fairy tales than in actually seeing many sites. On our quest to see pretty things, we first stopped to watch the Prague Astronomical clock. Legend has it that upon the clock's completion, the clockmaker was blinded, so that he could not repeat his work. The clock is, for lack of a better word, rather creepy. There are four figures flanking the sides of the clock, which represent four evils: vanity, greed, death and idleness.
31: The skeleton representing death strikes the hour, while additional figures, representing the 12 apostles, circle the clock. We're not quite sure what kind of statement the clock maker was trying to make, but we're fairly sure it was a dark one. There WAS a skeleton, after all. After watching the clock strike the hour, we climbed the clock tour itself to get a nice view of the city. This was a popular place to take pictures, and we had to wait for others to move out of the good spots to take pictures. The combination of the crowded environment, along with the high elevation as a bit nerve-wracking, but it was really a very good view.
32: The Art Nouveau movement is apparently connected to Czech nationalism around the turn of the 20th century. We peeked inside the Municipal House to get a taste. As this building is a functioning concert venue, rather than a museum, we couldn't stay long, so we basically ran around oohing and ahhing at the architecture and decor. We found the art style to be very pleasing, fresh-seeming, and, well, pretty.
33: As we ventured across Charles bridge, hoping to find dinner awaiting us on the other side, we found the bridge itself was an adventure. The bridge, connecting Prague Castle to the Old Town, was constructed during the 14th-16th Centuries. It is lined with 30 different statues of saints, many of which have spots that have been rubbed shiny by tourists in search of good luck. The whole bridge is essentially a street festival, complete with performers, artists and craftspeople. Despite the crowds, the bridges location over the water gives it a refreshing and romantic feel.
34: Prague Castle
35: The number one warning I received when leaving for Prague was that I would need to bring good walking shoes. I blatantly disregarded that advice and paid dearly for it in Budapest, as my raw feet struggled to form callouses. As we walked up the many steps to Prague castle, I understood their warnings, and felt grateful that my feet had already grown accustomed to days of walking. Unfortunately, audioguides were unavailable on the day we visited, and the written explanations within the Castle itself were woefully incomplete. We walked away from the experience of visiting the castle and accompanying St. Vitus cathedral with the impression that we had just seen things that were very old, and -- you guessed it -- pretty.
36: Erik had only a few requests during our stay in prague. One of these requests was to visit the Zizkov Television Tower in Prague. This structure was erected during the Communist Era in Prague, and was almost universally hated by Prague's inhabitants. The tower was built as a TV transmitter, but many suspected that its intent was to jam signals from the other side of the Iron Curtain. The sleek, space age architecture dominates Prague's skyline, standing in stark contrast to the older historical buildings. In 2000, absurdist artist David Cerny carved and attached sculptures of babies to the tower. The result? Babies climbing a rocketship. Awesome.
37: Our last day in Prague was a challenge: we had to check out of our hotel in the morning, and somehow drag our exhausted selves around until 11pm, when our sleeper train would come and whisk us back to Budapest. The day started with a causal stroll to Vysehrad Castle. We mostly meandered around the green landscape and neighboring graveyard, acknowledging that by this point in our trip, our worldly maturity had given way to thoughts of zombies.
38: Erik's last request during our visit to Prague was to see the world's largest metronome. We had previously visited Prague's museum of communism, which had featured one of the most cogent arguments against Communism (even decoupled from the Totalitarian political climate) that I had heard, as well as a powerful video about the Velvet Revolution. We came away with the museum with a deep respect for those who grew up in this side of the Iron Curtain. Those who we saw risking their safety and lives protesting against Communism in the video were not born that long before we were. Would we have had the bravery to fight back if we had been born on the other side? | The other thing we came away with was a strong desire to see the world's largest metronome. This metronome sits at the top of a tall mountain and overlooks the city. The site used to be home to a giant, intimidating statue of Lenin. However, soon after the statue was completed, it was destroyed using 800 kg of explosives. The city didn't know what to do with the space, and so placed a giant metronome there.
39: We spent the rest of our last day in Europe walking around Petrin hill, meandering through an Apple orchard and several cobblestone streets, eating at a delicious cafe, and, in a final act of desperate tiredness, retreating to a movie theater to watch Cowboys and Aliens. We had an amazing experience traveling in Central Europe, but we were ready to come home. Traveling to nations that have almost constantly been at war over the course of their history really made us appreciate the relative peaceful history (and large beverages) of the United States.