A Bit 'o Random Musings on Politics, Religion, and Anything Else That Passes Through My Crazy Head

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Continent

If I've learned anything about myself over the past few years of blogging, it's if I don't blog about something soon after it happens, it will not get blogged about (see: my Ireland trip a few years ago). Thus, here is a blog post about my epic trip to Budapest and Prague, organized thematically.

As I flew over the Atlantic, I realized it's been about 15 years since I visited continental Europe. This is tragic because, as a history nerd, I love Europe.

Sunrise on the plane - on our way!
Budapest and Prague were both unique - I felt like Prague had more of an classical European "old world" feel, while Budapest was more funky and eclectic.
Hanging out with my fellow American, Ronald Reagan, in Budapest
Budapest has lots of random statutes - we saw Imre Nagy, Ronald Reagan, Attila Jozsef, Lajos Kossuth, the Magyar kings, St. Gellert, Queen Elisabeth (of Austria-Hungary, not the one you're thinking of), along with anonymous statutes of 19th century policemen and 20th century guitar players. Lady Liberty of Budapest graces the city and is visible almost everywhere. Prague had Kafka randomness, St. John of Nepomak, Tycho Brache and Johannes Kepler, and a bridge full of statues that I wish I knew more about.

Dohany Street Synagogue, Budapest
Each city had some beautiful cathedrals, churches, and synagogues. I love the feel of cathedrals - awe-inspiring and huge, with beautiful art reminding us of divine truths. In Budapest, we saw St. Stephen's Cathedral, and marveled at the scenes of the city from the top of its dome. The Rock Church was a small chapel built into the hillside on the "Buda" side of the river. Budapest had the beautiful Dohany Street Synagogue, ornate in its decorations and even boasting an organ (Orthodox synagogues don't have organs, as this would require someone to "work" on the Sabbath by playing the organ). Budapest's Rumbach Street Synagogue was a beautiful example of Moorish architecture, but sadly, much in need of repair. I loved the multi-colored tiles of the Matthais Church high on Buda hill, which also boasted a very colorful (painted) interior.
Matthais Church, Budapest - love the gingerbread multi-colored roof tiles!

St. Vitus Cathedral. Just, you know, AMAZING.
In Prague, St. Vitus Cathedral was massive, mighty, and magnificent. I especially loved a stained glass window done by Alphonse Mucha. St. Nicholas Church in Prague was way too much Baroque (I can only take that style in small doses). We also took a day trip to Kutna Hora outside Prague to see the Bone Church Ossuary (CREEPY - just really really really CREEPY) and St. Barbara's Cathedral. I liked that St. Barbara's was not very crowded and had some interesting history, being in a former silver mining town. Prague's Jewish quarter held a very simple and very old synagogue built in the 13th century (!), along with the beautiful moorish designed Spanish Synagogue. Tyn Church was old and stately, with great accoustics.
Budapest Opera House - Grandiose and AWESOME! 
This trip was filled with lots of great music in great venues. We attended an Opera in Budapest's Opera House. The Grand Staircase reminds me of the staircase in the Titantic movie (my reference points are super classy like that). The opera was in French with Hungarian/English surtitles and it was Werther, based on a German novel - how's that for multi-cultural! We went to a charity concert performance of Mozart's Requiem at St. Matthais in Budapest - the music just seemed to expand and fill every nook and cranny of the cathedral. In Prague, we went to a concert in the Tyn church, which was basically the "greatest hits" of classical music and totally geared towards tourists like me, but it was still amazing to hear "Ave Maria" belted out in a cathedral that's stood for hundreds of years. Our last night in Prague, we hit a high note by attending a concert which was part of the "Strings of Autumn" series. The concert featured songs in french with absolutely perfect and amazing piano accompaniment (the one song I recognized was Claire De Lune, which I only recognized because it's in Ocean's Eleven...like I said, classy). The best part, however, was the venue - an opulent and absolutely perfect hall in Prague castle.
Spanish Hall, Prague Castle
Speaking of amazing spaces, we toured the Budapest Parliament building, which was stunningly gorgeous and super interesting. In Prague, we visited two gorgeous libraries at the Strahov Monastery and Klementium. We also wandered along Charles Bridge several times, which may have been my favorite place in Prague - stunning views of the Prague skyline and lots of people enjoying the scene, selling artwork and crafts, and looking at the statutes.

Strahov Monastery Library, aka my personal reading room if I was a Billionaire
In Budapest we visited the House of Terror, used by the secret police under both the Nazi and Soviet regimes. It is a reminder of the pain and suffering that too many still face at the hands of political oppression. Much as I don't like some of the presidential nominees this election season, I don't think any of them would go that far (hopefully we all won't have to find out).
Budapest Holocaust Memorial
Both cities had sobering reminders of the tragedies of the Holocaust. In Budapest, we saw the Holocaust memorial on the side of the Danube. This memorial was fashioned out of cast iron shoes, to remember those who lost their lives at the hands of the Arrow Cross militia.  Jews were ordered to take off their shoes before being shot and having their bodies carried away by the river. On Budapest synagogue grounds, there was also a metal tree with leaves holding the names of those lost in the Holocaust. In Prague, the Pinkas synagogue has the names of all the Jewish victims of the Holocaust from Bohemia and Moravia - it was sobering and terrifying to think that human beings could do that to other human beings. Budapest and Prague both had Jewish Ghettos where Jews were essentially imprisoned even before being shipped off to work camps or concentration camps in other locations.
Pinkas Synagogue
Along with the Holocaust memorials, there were reminders that some people tried to help. We saw monuments to Carl Lutz and Raoul Wallenburg, European diplomats who helped save thousands of Jews in Budapest. One of the things I love about traveling is learning about historical figures. I was really impressed with the story of Jan Hus, a Czech reformationist pastor who was killed at the hands of the Catholic Church for standing up for his beliefs, which included arguing for the right of all people to take communion and hear church services in their native tongue.

Jan Hus, one of my new heroes
Of course, we ate lots of yummy and varied food - I tried to be adventurous, but I probably didn't try anything too exotic because I fear sickness and I'm a wimp. Lantos, or fried bread, was a delicious and filling meal in Budapest. Pinterest clued us in to Gelato Rosa in Budapest, a gelato place with ice cream cones shaped like roses (for the record, the gelato was scrumptious as well as visually stunning). A Jewish bakery in Budapest had lots of pastries. Our best meal was undoubtedly at Strudel House in Budapest, where we had goulash, savory and sweet strudel, raspberry soup, and fresh bread. Also had a delicious meal at Cafe Louve in Prague, complete with bread dumplings. We ate lots of snack and street food - Turo Rudi (sweet cottage cheese covered in chocolate), potato chips on a stick, Kurtoskalacs (a spiral hollow bread originally from Hungary - in Prague we had some filled with ice cream that were DIVINE). Filed under random: pizza with duck!
Lantos with sour cream, ham, lettuce, and cheese - YUM!
The guidebooks all said that one of the "must" experiences in Budapest was the public baths. We visited the Szechenyi Baths, where we enjoyed warm mineral water along with water jets, a circular lazy river, old guys playing chess, and of course, men wearing speedos. We also rode the funicular in Budapest, a little jaunt up the hill, and climbed all over the Buda side of the river, enjoying the Changing of the Guard, the art museum, and great views of the flat "Pest" side of the city.
Why yes, that is a man playing chess at the Public Baths in Budapest!
Another "must" was the Astronomical Clock in Prague - it's a beautiful marvel of medieval engineering with lots of moving figures. Some think it's over-rated, but I enjoyed watching the figures move and being part of the tourist crowd. We also did a night-time cruise along the Vltava river in Prague, and it was lovely to see the city at night. In Prague we got our fill of art by seeing both the Slav Epic and the Mucha Museum. The Slav Epic is a collection of massive (and I do mean HUGE) canvases completed by Alphonse Mucha to celebrate Slavic history. I loved the ones showing preaching by Jan Hus and also a Russian scene of St. Basil's cathedral. 
Pretty Cool Clock, eh?
We walked everywhere, and enjoyed some crisp fall weather and only a bit of rain. It was wonderful to be outside, away from work, and enjoying the delights of two classic European cities. Extra wonderful was sharing the experience with two good friends! A line from the opera we saw has stuck with me: "God wants us to be happy!" (sung at the end, and if you know how Werther ends, you'll appreciate how ironic that is). I really do believe that God wants happiness for all of us, and I hope that 2016 brings all of you much happiness and joy!  Happy New Year!