Friday 23 March 2018

Danube - the Cruise Finalé

It was after dark and the Captain called us up on deck. We were moored in Budapest on our last night on board and we’d been expecting this. The engines started as we climbed the stairs and the ship pulled out into the river. It was to be a moonlight cruise through the centre of Budapest – waiters circulated with glasses of champagne. Finally, the temperature had dropped to comfortable, from the almost 40°C (105°F) that had hobbled us all afternoon. Once again, the Hungarian Parliament building was the most anticipated, but there was a lot more to see as we took the opportunity to share memories with our cruise-mates.

Matthias Church with Crows
Earlier in the day we’d visited Castle Hill and the Roman Catholic Matthias Church. Originally built as the Church of Our Lady, when Buda was captured by the Ottoman Empire in 1541 it became the main mosque; all Christian images were covered over and replaced with arabesque patterns. The superstitious Turks couldn’t remove the Virgin Mary’s statue though, so they walled it in. 
Mary with arabesque
In a subsequent battle, the Holy League shelled the church during prayers and a wall collapsed to reveal her statue; the breakdown of Turkish resistance and their withdrawal is credited to this ‘Mary-wonder’, as it came to be known. The church was rededicated to the beloved King Matthias in 19th Century. His emblem, a crow, can be seen above the church. Years ago, when we’d visited St Peter’s in Rome, I’d had to rush from the entrance to buy some ‘J-Cloth’ Vatican pants and shroud my bare legs before they’d allow me in. Here, bare legs weren’t a problem; it was women’s bare shoulders that were at issue. Volunteers stood with paper shawls ready to wrap the offending flesh.

Gellert Hill Cave facade
On the way we’d passed a unique church, sitting right below the Liberty Statue. Known as the Gellért Hill Cave, monks of the Pauline order constructed this stone façade in the 1920’s and operated the caves behind it as a Catholic Chapel and monastery; in WWII the Nazis used it as a hospital. Services were held here until 1951, when the Soviets walled it up as part of their campaign against Catholicism, and sentenced the abbot to death. 40 years later the concrete was removed and the church reopened; now it forms a popular tourist attraction.    

Once we’d returned from the city and freshened up, a local music and dance group entertained us. Hungarian music filled the small dance floor in the lounge. The star of the show was a cimbalom (or hammered dulcimer), a Hungarian instrument resembling a small piano with the top removed, and no keys. The dazzling medley, commencing with the Third Man Theme, rang through my head for days afterwards. Have a listen to the Antal Szalai Gypsy Band & Georgio. Amazingly, there’s a cimbalom in the Calgary Bell Music Centre. Their performance continued with Brahms dances and more, before we had to leave for our last delicious supper below in the dining room, where we sat with friends from Chicago and Bexhill on Sea.

The Chain Bridge
Then it was up to the deck in the moonlight. It was the end of a lovely evening, and a lovely week, as the ship slowly passed through the city on our farewell journey, and we picked out the sights for one last time. Next day we were whisked to the airport and sent on our way – the Captain stood on the dock and thanked every passenger as we departed. But the memory of a wonderful voyage, and the new friends we made along the way, will stay with us for a long time.

The Hungarian Parliament building from the Emerald Sky
If you are interested in following in our wake, we sailed on the ‘Danube Delights’ Cruise with Emerald Waterways.

Thursday 15 March 2018

Budapest and the Field of Misfit Statues

It was early and I climbed up to the top deck as we sailed towards Budapest. I didn’t want to miss shooting the Budapest Parliament building – you know the one – it’s featured in every TV ad for European River Cruises, and with good reason; it’s gorgeous. We sailed into the city and I wasn’t disappointed but as I stood there, taking photos and chatting, another cruise ship passed going the other way. I estimated 50 passengers on the top deck and they were waving to us, all three of us!

We disembarked after breakfast and headed into town on a tour; it was our last full day of the cruise. Nora, our guide, explained that Budapest (bood-a-pesht) was two cities, the hilly Buda, where we were to start, and the flat ‘big city,’ Pest. “Hungary is a term applied to us by Westerners,” she said, after Attila the Hun; “but… we call ourselves Magyars.”

We started high on a hill overlooking the city at the Liberty Statue, a favourite communist icon. She’s the most prominent sight as you cruise through the city. Why is a Soviet era monument still on place? Well, says Nora, we’d grown so used to her we just couldn’t imagine her not there. But, her inscription has changed; the words used to be written in Russian and Hungarian and praise the liberating communist forces, now the text is in Hungarian only, and is an anthem to freedom from oppression.

Soviet Statue - Memento Park
Originally there were two statues at Liberty’s base, one held a hammer and sickle. But, he’s been sent to the island of misfit toys (actually, the Communist Era Statues ‘museum’, Memento Park, several miles south of Budapest) – and, he’s got lots of company, the communists loved their statues.

For the city, World War II ended with the 50-day Siege of Budapest. Stalin’s forces surrounded the city and Hitler insisted that the German/Hungarian population trapped inside fight to the last man. Much of the city was destroyed; each one of the bridges was breached or destroyed. As we walked back to the bus, photos showing the destruction of that period were displayed on a wall.

Budapest 1945
We drove to Heroes Square, passing along Andrássy Avenue, one of Pest’s main Boulevards. This street houses the Liszt Museum and also Kodaly’s House. ‘Everyone knows Liszt,’ Nora said, ‘but few people know of Kodaly. Yet, he devised the method we use to teach music (Kodaly Method), popularizing Do, Re, Mi’. Also on this boulevard is the House of Terror, the headquarters of the Secret Police in communist times. It’s now a museum and a testament to the hundreds detained, tortured, and murdered there. As Nora pointed it out she said, ‘I used to be a tour guide there. It’s relentless; there are no shortcuts, you have to move through each grim exhibit on each of the floors. It’s like shopping at IKEA!’
Original Tribes - Heroes Square
We park and walk out into Heroes’ Square. It’s 38°C and the sun threatens to fry the sunscreen oil on our skin. There’s no shade. The colonnade of former leaders looks down on us – the square was built in 1896 to celebrate a thousand years since the seven tribes rode down from the north to form this country. Those seven join Hungary’s beloved King Matthias, among the many depicted here. All, except the Hapsburgs, removed and replaced during the communist regime. From here you can see the old Yugoslav Embassy building where the organizers of the 1956 Uprising were given safe haven… …and were never seen alive again. In secret, their head Imre Nagy was taken, tried, convicted, hanged and buried face down, with his hands and feet bound in barbed wire. In 1989, he was reinterred in a ceremony in this square, attended by more than 250,000 people.
Comrade Stalin before the fall

We hurry back to our air-conditioned bus. It’s time to return to the cool shade of the boat for lunch. On the way, we pass Boots Square. This square once contained a pretty little church. In 1951, the Soviet government tore it down and installed a huge statue of Comrade Stalin, a gift from him, so that he could smile down on all their good work. Less than a 5 years later, during the Uprising, angry crowds tore it down. But, he’d been well planted and they couldn’t topple him, so they cut it through below the knees, leaving only his boots – hence the square’s name. The statue was cut into small pieces – anyone that owns one is very proud of it, Nora tells us. The square now holds a memorial to victims of oppression. There’s a reimagined pair of Stalin’s Boots at Memento Park; but no-one's removing chunks, this time!

Hungarian Parliament Building, Budapest - at Dawn

Friday 9 March 2018

Bratislava - Baba's Story

Right after lunch, we headed through Bratislava and out into the countryside. We’d signed up the day before with a few others; the promise was that we’d meet a Slovakian family and taste their wares, to get a local flavour not often seen by tourists. As we boarded the bus, I have to admit to nagging doubts – were we to be trapped in a village hall, feeling compelled to buy wine and produce? But, the other side of me knew that this was a unique opportunity, no matter how it turned out.
Communist Farmer

We were divided into groups of 8 to 10, each with a local guide/translator. We had Andrea, our guide from the morning, and we drove for an hour or so to the town of Senkvicé (Shenk-vee-chay), passing a mixture of Tesco supermarkets, Ford Dealerships, Soviet-style apartment blocks, and farmland. As we reached the town, we passed a 12th Century church. In local lore, this church saved the population during the Ottoman Empire’s invasion. The priest gathered the flock inside and locked the door, and then climbed the spire to replace the cross atop with a crescent. As the Muslim army swept through, they saw the crescent and, assuming the village had already been conquered, kept on going. The crescent is still there.
Senkvice Church with Crescent
We pulled up at a house and walked around the back where Andrea introduced us to an older woman who said we should call her Baba (Bubbles). We met her standing at the door to an old, small building, tacked onto the back of the main house. Baba then took us into her backyard amongst her apple trees, chickens, and vines and told us her story. She was very animated; Andrea had trouble keeping up, at times, as she translated. She’d grown up in the small building, married and had two children. The land back almost as far as we could see, going up the opposite hill, had been their farm, she said, with a vineyard running down the hill towards it; it was hard work but they had a good business. Then the communists collectivised the farm, leaving them with just the vineyard. They still had to work the farm, though, she said, but now for the common good.
Meeting Baba with Andrea
Then the local Communist Party leaders came by and told her she could no longer live in the little, old house. “It’s not suitable for humans,” they said, “you must build a modern building on your lot.” So, Baba and her husband built the house onto the front of the old building, as they stayed in the old one. They had no help and it took them four years. The Party checked on their progress regularly, pushing them to complete. Still, her husband produced many bottles of wine from the vineyard every season – his vintage was well respected in the town.
The House that Baba Built
Then her husband died, leaving her with two small children. It takes a lot of work to maintain a vineyard, 12 months of the year; “I just couldn’t manage,” she said, “so I cut more than half of it down – it would have broken my husband’s heart.” She planted an orchard in its place – fruit trees require much less work. But, she still produces wine, and it’s still admired.
She took us into the old house, then down into the basement, explaining her wine making process as she went. After that, it was up to the main room in the old building; it has been left as it looked more than 50 years ago and is more or less a museum now. We all sat around the large table that almost fills the room and she poured a glass with her white wine for each of us, asking where we were from and what we’d seen, as she went. One of her freshly baked cakes sat, sliced, on the table and she gestured for us to each take a piece. It was moist, chocolatey and not too sweet – the perfect complement to her wine. “We lived in this room; cooking meals over the wood stove and sleeping over to the side.” As she spoke, she pointed to pictures of her relatives, on the wall. Andrea told us: “Baba’s still an active member of the community and has published a book explaining the local, Slovakian dialect. She's even more proud of her prize-winning Ceresnovica (Cherry Kirsch).
Carol in the Wine Cellar
Then, with our snack over, we were on our feet as she invited us, no insisted, that we enter her ‘new’ house. She took us into each room: the lounge, the kitchen, with dinner on the stove, then the bedroom. “No, that’s OK,” I baulked at this last room, but she physically pushed us into the room. We all laughed.

And, then it was time to leave. We thanked her warmly for inviting us into her home and giving us insight into a life that few of us could imagine. There’d been no wine for sale, nor any delicious cakes: I felt ashamed, and even disappointed, as I quickly realized that this had been a highlight of our cruise.
Inside the Old House

Wednesday 28 February 2018

Bratislava - Europe’s Cinderella

Charming Wall
I was up on deck early as we sailed into Bratislava, you could see the city for some distance – high on a hill to the north, the Castle guards the city, like the perfect gleaming wedding cake. A newer shape, the ‘UFO’ Observation Tower, dominates the river skyline atop the New Bridge, the world’s largest single-pylon suspension bridge. Bratislava sits on the Danube and has been fought over by its neighbours through the centuries. But this city has risen from the 20th Century, as capital of Slovakia since the Velvet Divorce when Czechoslovakia overthrew the Communist regime and peacefully split in two.

Castle on the Hill
We dock and head into the city with our local guide, Andrea. As we step onto land we cannot avoid the large Soviet style statue. When the Communists seized Slovakia in 1948 they decreed that all monuments celebrating religion (Virgin Mary) or imperialism (the Hapsburgs) be removed and replaced with celebrations of workers or culture. Thus, this monument that honours Ludovit Stur, a 19th Century leader of the Slovak language revival, overpowers this small square.
Ludovit Stur

Most of the old town is pedestrian only; this allows you to walk calmly through the city and we move on to Hviezdoslav Square, named for the famed Slovak poet. This is a large historic square bordered by trees and features restaurant patios, hotels, fountains, and the Old Slovak National Theatre. Off to one side is a small church – the focal point of the 25 March 1988 Candle Demonstration. 5,000 people gathered in front of this building holding candles to peacefully press the Communist government for more religious freedom. They were brutally repressed by police using batons and water cannon while Czechoslovakian leaders watched from the adjacent Carlton Hotel. A small semi-spherical memorial commemorates this event, standing modestly in the shadow of the ‘Statue of Liberty’ a monument to the 1948 Soviet Army invasion that annexed the country. The demonstration, a pivotal point in the overthrow of communism 18 months later, is still observed every 25 March.
Candle Semi-sphere bottom left

There are a lot of small statues in the old town. We encountered Man At Work just north of the Square; ‘Cumil (the Watcher)’ in Slovak, is positioned in a manhole where he looks into the street. Under the Austro-Hungarian Empire only the rich could promenade around the town idly, and observing them was a local fascination. But under the Soviets, everyone kept on the move, with their heads down – attracting attention would risk arrest. He was installed in 1997 as part of Bratislava’s old town renovation, attempting to recapture its spirit and whimsy. Other statues from the renovation include an old man with a top hat (Schone Naci), a Napoleon soldier leaning on a street bench, and a Paparazzi.
Cumil 'The Watcher'
Like its sister city Prague, Bratislava has managed to conserve its pre WWI Art Nouveau heritage, despite a series of invasions, with a number of richly adorned buildings – making me wonder why don’t we make buildings like this anymore.

Art Nouveau Front Surface
Nazi Germany created the Slovak Free state at the commencement of WWII and most of its significant Jewish population perished in Nazi concentration camps. Those that survived returned to find they were not welcome and by the time the Communists came to power in 1949 most had emigrated. A monument depicting Open Doors, on the site of the old synagogue, commemorates those that never returned. It stands just below St Martin’s Cathedral and it was while here that a curious coincidence occurred – I saw graffiti of a bear on a bike and took a shot, but a cyclist crossed my vision, so I reshot it. Only later did I see what had happened – I couldn’t have captured that shot in a million years.
We walked up to 15th Century St Martin’s Cathedral, known as the Coronation Church; for almost 300 years the Kings of Hungary were crowned here. As well the Hapsburgs, including Maria Theresa, came to this cathedral for their coronations, even though their residence remained in Vienna.

But, it was another hot day and time for a cool one as we sat at a sidewalk café in the shade, right beside the Keglevitch Palace where Beethoven gave piano lessons to ‘Babetta’ Kegelvich – he also dedicated several pieces, that he composed here, to her. We didn’t have much time; we were taking a trip out into the Slovak countryside right after lunch. So, we drank up and strolled back to the ship taking in some live music as we walked. Sadly, we didn’t get to St Elizabeth’s Church, an art nouveau gem known as the Little BlueChurch, but that gives us reason to come back.

Old Slovak National Theatre in Hviezdoslav Square

Medieval Michael’s Gate

Danube - the Cruise Finalé

It was after dark and the Captain called us up on deck. We were moored in Budapest on our last night on board and we’d been expecting this....