Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia

28 August 2011


The original plan was to fly an American Airlines flight from Los Angeles to New York, then change planes for a flight from New York to Budapest. Hurricane Irene came along and changed all that. American canceled my flight to New York since all New York area airports were closed. That’s far better than getting stuck in some airport between LA and New York, but it would have been nice if they’d bothered to let me know.

If I hadn’t been checking online I would have traveled to LAX and discovered the cancellation there. Oh well. I did discover it and called American. They were able to get me on a British Airways flight from LAX to London, Heathrow with a connecting flight from London to Budapest. The only disadvantage was that the British Airways flight would land in Budapest about 8 hours after the original American flight, but they did get me there the same day.

No trip ever goes completely as planned. It’s against the rules. And this is the first time I’ve had a hurricane interefere so I guess I should consider myself fortunate.

29 August 2011


I have no clue why an airport would take people off an airplane who’ve already passed through security to get into the secure area they’re in and make them go through security again. That’s what Heathrow required though so I went through the whole process all over again.

Since, in addition to my digital camera, I always bring a film camera with slide film I ask airport security to hand check my film. Otherwise, with multiple x-ray exposures it fogs the film. I bring more film than I need and that results in the same roll of film making multiple trips through the x-ray machine if I don’t ask for it to be hand checked. All those x-ray exposures add up.

Every airport I’ve been in has complied with my request and hand checked my film. Every airport except Heathrow, that is. At Heathrow I was passed from one individual to another to explain my request. The last person I talked to told me that they don’t have the technology at Heathrow to hand check film and it had to go through the x-ray machine.

Since I had a plane to Budapest to catch and feeling I’d come to the end of the road I let them run it through the x-ray machine. Tiredness fogs your brain. As soon as I was at the gate for my flight to Budapest I realized he’d been lying to me.

I have a hard time believing that Great Britain is really more technologically backward than Costa Rica, Guatemala, or any other place I’ve been. I usually think of the right thing to say after the right time to say it is past. If I’d thought of it in time I would have asked if Great Britain is really that technologically backward.

The flights from Los Angeles to Budapest were pretty uneventful. No missed flights, no more hurricane induced cancellations (or cancellations for any other reasons). My friend Bruxi was waiting for me at the airport and took me to his home where I was warmly welcomed with open arms.Laci, Erika, Bruxi

Bruxi and I met online in a motorcycle forum and have corresponded by email for years. It’s amazing just how much about a person comes across in their emails and we discovered that we share much more than just our common interest in motorcycles. We have many interests and personality characteristics in common and we became friends, not just acquaintances.

A year or so ago Bruxi surprised me with an invitation to his home and, after I got over the surprise we began making plans. Today it all came to fruition. His family was all waiting at home when we got back from the airport and his wife, Erika, had prepared a delicious traditional Hungarian meal for me – goulash and stuffed cabbage.

While we were arranging details by email we discussed the issue of food and I let them know I’m not allergic or sensitive to anything so I need no special arrangements. My only request was no traditionally American food. I cannot fathom why anybody would want to travel to a country with a different culture (and food is part of culture) but choose to eat the same foods they can get at home. I don’t need to travel to Hungary to eat a hamburger and I do not understand choosing hamburgers over, for instance, a traditional Hungarian meal.

Bruxi translated as necessary. His English is outstanding, which is good because my Hungarian is non-existent. We visited until the American traveler had to crash. Tomorrow Bruxi and I leave for a week-and-a-half tour north through Slovakia, the Czech Republic and a little of southern Poland.

30 August 2011

Gyomro to Cesky KrumlovIt was pretty much an all-day drive from Budapest to Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic. It had been so long since I’ve been to Europe, prior to the existence of the European Union, that I was surprised by the ease of travel through EU countries now. The only way to know when you’re crossing from one country to another is by the signs that welcome you to the new country and the abandoned checkpoints between countries.

We passed through Austria to get to our destination and a patient gas station attendant endured my rusty and inadequate German when we filled up the car’s tank where I ordered a couple of cappuccinos for the two of us.

Upon arrival in Český Krumlov we quickly found a pension with a vacancy, established ourselves in our room and made a preliminary exploration of the town which has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its historical importance and beauty. It turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip with beautifully maintained/restored Renaissance buildings set along winding narrow cobblestone streets next to the lazy, winding Moldova river.

The central feature of the town is the chateau which dominates the town and was constructed in the 13th century as part of a private estate. In this view the chateau is in the background, as seen from Old Town across the river.Cesk˝KrumlovThey say it’s one of the largest castles in the Bohemia area of the Czech Republic, second only to the Prague Castle. It’s difficult for me to wrap my head around something like that being a private estate.Cesk˝ Krumlov

Since it was evening, we just wandered around the town, took a few pictures, found a restaurant advertising Czech cuisine for dinner then returned to our pension.  This narrow alley led down to the river.  The chateau tower on the other side of the river is in the background.Cesk˝ Krumlov

Part of the town of Český Krumlov.Cesk˝ Krumlov

31 August 2011

Cesky Krumlov to Ceske Budejovice

This morning we resumed our exploration of Český Krumlov.  This is the view from our pension.  Not shabby.image70We crossed the river toward the chateau.  Of course it’s on the high point.  Cesk˝ KrumlovAfter crossing the river and climbing the hill this was the street scene just outside the chateau.  Cesk˝ KrumlovEntering the chateau, we are taken by its beauty with lots of painting on the outside walls of buildings.  Frequently the appearance of block construction is actually painted on a smooth surface.  They aren’t real blocks.Cesk˝ KrumlovCesk˝ KrumlovCesk˝ KrumlovCesk˝ KrumlovAnd we admire the view of the town below.Cesk˝ KrumlovCesk˝ KrumlovCesk˝ Krumlov We then make the short drive to České Budĕjovice. It would be very easy to spend more time in Český Krumlov, it’s so beautiful, but we have other places we want to see, too so in the afternoon we were back on the road.

The primary reason for visiting České Budĕjovice was just outside town, about 8 kilometers away – a 13th century 141 room castle modeled after England’s Windsor Castle but first we stopped at the town itself..

České Budĕjovice was built in 1265 and is famous primarily as the hometown of Budweiser Beer. (Budweiser…. Budĕjovice… it’s kinda close…) The primary architectural symbol of the town is the Black Tower. A 236 foot (70 meter) tower built as the belfry for the church next to it. CeskÈ BudÈjovice  Black TowerBruxi and I climbed all 360 steps to the top of the tower. On the way up we admired the five bells each of which has its own name and tone. The Bumerin, cast in 1723, weighs 3,429 kg (7,560 lbs) and is tuned to an A. The Marta, also cast in 1723, weighs 1,742 kg (3799 lbs) plays a C#. The Budvar, cast in 1995, weighs 1,100 kg (2,425 lbs) plays an F. The Oktáva, cast in 1723, weighs 434 kg (957 lbs) plays an A. And the baby, the Maria cast in 1684, weighs “only” 163 kg (359 lbs) and plays an E. There’s your useless trivia for the day.

This is the České Budĕjovice Town Square, as seen from the top of the tower.CeskÈ BudÈjovice

One of the buildings on the square is the České Budĕjovice Town Hall.CeskÈ BudÈjovice

After visiting the town we drove out to Hluboká nad Vltavou to see the castle. Unfortunately my digital camera’s battery ran out of juice so I have no digital photos of the castle which was impressive. All those photos are on slide film which isn’t developed so I can’t share those photos. You’ll just have to take my word for it that it was impressive.

We then started looking for a place to spend the night. Every pension we tried was full except one that was charging more than we wanted to pay so we kept looking. At the last pension we tried, the owner asked if we spoke German (and he asked in German) because he didn’t speak English. (Up to this point our English had gotten us by quite nicely since neither Bruxi nor I speak any Czech.) I started exercising my poor German with him and it turned out that his pension was full, too, but he had a friend in the area who had a room he rented out. He called his friend for us who came to lead us to his house. In spite of the poor quality of my German we were able to use it to accomplish what we needed.

While we were waiting the owner of the pension tried to interest us in various items he had for sale in his antique store next door to the pension but we weren’t buying. Eventually his friend arrived and led us to his home where he showed us an entirely adequate room at a reasonable price that even included a small kitchen. The only drawback was that they did not include breakfast. Under the circumstances it was not a big deal. We went back into town to find a restaurant for dinner and stopped at a grocery store where we bought some food that would serve as breakfast for us in the morning.

1 September 2011

Ceske Budejovice to Prague

The drive to Prague and our hotel took most of the day. Negotiating big city traffic is not my idea of a good time and Prague is not a car-friendly town. The task was made much easier by the fact that Bruxi brought a GPS into which we could enter our destination address and it took us right there. GPS makes traveling so much easier.

We had stopped just outside Prague and called one of the likely looking recommendations in my guidebook for a place to stay to see if they had a vacancy. They did and offered us a great rate. It was an apartment hotel so our “room” had a fully furnished kitchen, living area and separate bedroom. All for the price of a hotel room. We were close to a metro stop and it was an easy task to take the metro to the castle and old town area, which was exactly what we did.

Our first stop was the Prague Castle, which like castles everywhere, was built on the top of the hill. The metro deposited us near the base and we climbed to the top. This is the east entrance.Prague Castle Guards Entrances are guarded by guards at sentry posts holding bayoneted rifles whose principle duty appears to be serving as a backdrop for tourists who want pictures of themselves standing next to a uniformed poker-faced guard. Prague Castle GuardWhile we were in the castle a contingent of three soldiers, presumably two soldiers being led by an officer, marched through the castle; I assume to the entrance for the changing of the guard.Prague Castle Guards

The castle is more small city than just a castle with lots of narrow, winding cobble stoned streets, houses, businesses, cafes, churches, monuments, and, of course, squares. The castle is really a small city within the city.  This is one of the streets inside the castle.Inside Prague CastleAnd one of the fancy buildings inside the castle.Inside Prague CastleA couple was using one of the squares behind the St. Vitus Cathedral as a backdrop to what I’m guessing will be fairly unique wedding photos. I’m not sure if they were in the photographer’s tow or the photographer was in their tow. Probably the former because the photographer, as they usually are in such situations, appeared to be the one in charge. The couple was dressed as king and queen and, what better place to be king and queen (even if only for a day) than a castle.Wedding Couple

This is the back of the St. Vitus Cathedral.St. Vitus Cathedral inside Prague CastleAnd this is a side view, taken across a square.St. Vitus Cathedral inside Prague CastleThis is one of the doors at the front.St. Vitus Cathedral inside Prague CastleThe gargoyles were all different.St. Vitus Cathedral GargoyleSt. Vitus Cathedral GargoylesAnd the stained glass windows were rich in color and intricately detailed.St. Vitus Cathedral WindowSt. Vitus Cathedral WindowLooking out from the castle toward Prague was a beautiful view.Prague from the CastleThe Prague Castle has been used by Bohemian kings since about the 9th century, though, of course it’s seen a few architectural changes since then. It’s still used as the location for special official occasions (not that a wedding isn’t special… it just isn’t official…) such as the inaugurations of presidents.

We had entered the castle via the east gate, walked through the whole castle and left the castle by the west gate,West Entrance Prague Castle

West Entrance Prague Castle
West Entrance Prague Castle

following part of the Royal Route: the traditional path along which medieval Bohemian kings paraded on their way to being crowned in the St. Vitus Cathedral. This street was part of the Royal Route.Royal Route from Prague to CastleWhile on the route our attention was called by a mannequin reaching out of a basement window from a very dark basement level pub with long well worn wooden tables and benches that claimed to have been in business as a pub consistently since 1475.Prage Medieval Pub since 1475

I loved the small side streetsPrague street

and alleys.Prague Alley

We walked across the Charles Bridge over the Vltava River and, as much as I wanted to take pictures both to share and for my own memories the pictures wouldn’t have been of the bridge, even though we were walking across it. All you would have seen would have been hoards of tourists and lines of vendors and entertainers selling souvenirs, caricatures, paintings, photographs, books, postcards, clothing, food, playing various instruments or even giving a marionette show. This little girl wasn’t quite sure what to make of a skeleton marionette that was talking to her.

Charles Bridge Entertainment
Charles Bridge Entertainment

It’s a huge and beautiful bridge, lined along both sides with large statues

Charles Bridge sculpture
Charles Bridge sculpture

and guarded at either end by large and historic towers.

Charles Bridge Gate
Charles Bridge Gate

The view of the river from the bridge was senic.

Vltava River from Charles Bridge
Vltava River from Charles Bridge
Vltava River from Charles Bridge
Vltava River from Charles Bridge

I never did quite figure out the young people, with faces to the ground, holding out a hat or some container… presumably for money.


Even though I never saw anybody put money in their containers they had to be collecting something. There were a number of these kids scattered around.

2 September 2011


Our second day in Prague took us to Old Town (Staré Mĕsto) and Josefov, the old Jewish quarter.

One of the highlights of Old Town is the Astronomical Clock on the side of the old town hall. Old Town Hall Astronomical ClockThe clock was built in 1410. There’s a legend that the municipal council, upon seeing the end result and being very impressed, wanted to be sure the masterpiece they’d commissioned would be totally unique. To ensure that the artist who created it would never create a rival piece elsewhere the council had him blinded. In retribution Master Hanuš, the clock artist, threw himself into the clock mechanism, killing himself and putting the clock out of commission. The clock remained out of commission for about a century.

The clock performs it’s own mechanical parade every hour and a lone costumed trumpeter plays from the top of the tower on the hour.

Not far from Old Town is the old Powder Tower. Powder TowerPart of Old Town’s fortification system. The tower was built in 1475 as a gateway to the city. This tower marks the beginning of the Royal Route; the end of which we saw yesterday.

Next to the Powder Tower is the Municipal House, an elaborate Art Nouveau building where the document granting Czechoslovakia independence was signed in 1918. Municipal HouseNow, of course, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are two separate countries. Although we didn’t go inside, the Prague Symphony performs in this building in the Smetana Hall which (I’m told) has an impressive stained glass ceiling.

Old Town’s square is, in many ways a typical town square which has seen it’s fair share of local commerce and occasional political theater. Protestant Hussites rioted here in the 1400’s and in the 1620’s the Catholic Habsburg rulers beheaded 27 Protestants in the square, hanging their heads in baskets over the Charles bridge.

A statue in the middle of the square is of Jan Hus, Jan Husa 15th century preacher who challenged the Roman Catholic hierarchy.  They didn’t take kindly to his sharing his opinions and expressed their displeasure by burning him at the stake. Today people with a point to make use the statue’s pedestal as a soapbox, maybe hoping to gain points by associating themselves with Hus. (Though I doubt they want to share his fate.)

Also on the square is the Kinský Palace. Kinsk˝ PalaceIt was from the rococo balcony at the front of this palace that Klement Gottwald declared the proletariat takeover of the Czechoslovak government in 1945.

The Old Town area has a number of interesting buildings some of which boast artwork painted on the outside building walls.Prague Old Town Building

And, of course, there are plenty of old churches.  I was very surprised to see almost the entire front of this church on the Old Town Square had been built over with modern store fronts so there’s no obvious, direct way into the church. The only way to the front door of the church is through a passage built into the store fronts through one of the archways in the picture.Church of Our Lady Before T˝n

This shows the proximity of the church to the stores.  You can’t take a picture of the old church without simultaneously photographing the modern stores.Church of Our Lady Before T˝n

The House at the Stone Bell is a Gothic tower built in the 14th century for John of Luxembourg.Bell Tower

From here we went to the old Jewish quarter. About 118,000 Jews lived here in 1939. Somewhat surprisingly 30,000 actually survived until Hitler was driven out of Prague. Today the Jewish population of the entire country numbers approximately 3,000.

There are 5 synagogues in Josefov, including the so called Old-New Synagogue. Old-New Synagogue

This is a back door.Old-New Synagogue Side EntranceIt used to be called the New Synagogue when it was built in the year 1270 because it replaced an even older synagogue (which no longer exists). It’s old enough now that it can’t very well keep the name New Synagogue so it’s the Old-New Synagogue. It’s the oldest synagogue in Europe. Jews have worshiped here continuously since then with the only exception being the Nazi era, 1941 – 1945. The synagogue even continued in use during a pogrom in 1389 that killed over 3,000 Jews.

This is an old Jewish Ceremonial house.Ceremonial Hall

The Jewish cemetery is one of the world’s most crowded cemeteries because the local government in the mid 15th century didn’t allow Jews to bury their dead anywhere else. It’s only about one square block in size but holds about 20,000 graves. The solution was to dig graves deep enough that 12 bodies could be stacked vertically in one grave site with each tombstone placed in front of the last.Jewish Cemetary

This marked the end of our time in Prague. We returned to our apartment to rest, shower and find a quiet local restaurant for dinner. Tomorrow morning we leave Prague for Sedlec.

3 September 2011Prague to Sedlec to Zamberk

I was frustrated with myself today. When I was mapping out the route for this trip I made plans to visit the Ossuary at Sedlec. I put Sedlec, Czech Republic into Google maps which promptly stuck a pin in the town of Sedlec just south of Brno. That worked for me (or so I thought).

It would have been more polite of Google Maps to have asked me which Sedlec I was interested in. It turns out there are several towns named Sedlec in the the Czech Republic and the one Google chose for me wasn’t the one I wanted. We didn’t discover the error until we’d driven several hours toward the wrong Sedlec. We’d stopped at a business with Wi-Fi to check our plans and discovered my error.  Mapping this after the fact, I don’t remember exactly where we turned around, so the map above shows the Sedlec to which Google sent us originally at the bottom right, even though we didn’t go all the way there.  The red pin is at the Sedlec we wanted to go to.

We decided we weren’t so far away that we’d have to cancel that plan so we mapped a new route and headed for the Sedlec with the Ossuary. It was small enough that it was easier to set the GPS to take us to Kutná Hora. We arrived in Kutná Hora, had lunch and asked at a town information center for directions to the chapel in Sedlec, which, it turned out was only about 3 kilometers away.

The ossuary is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. In the year 1278, the abbot of the Roman Catholic Cistercian Monastery went to the Holy Land and returned to Sedlec with a jar of dirt he’d gathered on Golgotha Hill where Jesus was crucified. He scattered the dirt around the cemetery at Sedlec and, suddenly, that cemetery became a very popular place to be buried. According to signs at the chapel, the belief was that, because of the Golgotha dirt a body buried there would decompose completely in only 3 days time leaving only bleached bones. For reasons I don’t understand people thought that would be a great thing to have happen to their bodies so lots of people wanted to be buried in this particular little cemetery.

With the Black Death in the 14th century and the Hussite Wars in the 15th century thousands of people were buried here. Around 1400 somebody decided the cemetery was a really good place to build a Gothic church and thousands of skeletons were exhumed in the process. More skeletons were exhumed over the years and in 1511 the task of organizing the collection of bones was given to a half-blind monk.

New construction was done on the church in the 1700’s and, in 1870 a woodcarver was hired by the Schwartzenberg family to create some order out of the heaps of bones and what we see today is the result of his efforts. It’s estimated the ossuary contains the bones of 40,000 to 70,000 individuals.

This is the church with the current cemetery in the foreground.  Even with so many previous occupants moved out it’s still a pretty crowded cemetery.image2This is the entrance to the ossuary.  The decoration over the entry door is a cross in a shield all made, of course, with human bones.image12To one side of the entry is a “basket” on a pedestal all made with human bones filled with human skulls with strings of skulls and crossbones on the sides.image9Human remains are used in an amazing variety of decorative motifs.  Here are skulls and crossbones arranged vertically along a tall, free-standing structure with a cherub on top.image47image19This is a representation of the family shield of the Schwartzenberg family who funded the work to organize the bones. Of course it’s made entirely of human bones.image55A “chandelier” hanging from the ceiling, made completely of bones, with candles atop the skulls. It’s said to contain at least one of every bone in the human body.  In the background you can see decorative “garlands” of skulls and crossbones strung across the ceiling.image58Even with all these creative decorations using human remains, all the remains couldn’t be used so there are 4 very large mounds, or piles, of bones.  The bones in these mounds were not just thrown there haphazardly but were arranged so the pile clearly has some order to it.  I tried to capture the entire mound so you get some idea of its size, though the top, bottom and sides all fade into the darkness.image22

These are close-ups to show some of the organization of the different piles.image83image69image66

And this was the “decoration” set out in front of one of the piles.image61Of course no doorway or window should be left without a decorative border.image93

After some time here Bruxi and I headed for Poland, our next destination. Because of the time lost in heading to the wrong Sedlec we made one more stop in the Czech Republic at a small family-run pension.

After stopping at a number of Pensions along the way we finally found one that wasn’t full. Once again, to my great surprise, my German came in handy. We tried speaking with the owner in English and his immediate response was to ask if we spoke German. German speakers clearly form a major portion of the Czech Republic’s tourists. I was able to make all our arrangements in German and we spent the night in the little town of Žamberk.

This area of the Czech Republic is beautiful and I thoroughly enjoyed the drive. It was somewhat surprising that they lined the road with producing apple trees. It wasn’t as if they were just the last trees of nearby apple orchards. They were just lining the road with other agricultural products or pasture growing behind them. Although major freeways are nice for getting you somewhere quickly I really like the little two-lane roads that wind through the countryside. The picture in this entry, taken from the pension where we stayed, shows the road and the countryside typical for this area.Czech Countryside, éamberk

The next problem was dinner and the pension owner was able to give us directions to a restaurant that would still be open. We found it and it was clearly intended only for locals. Nobody spoke English (or German) and we ordered blindly off a Czech menu. It was clearly a family affair with the father drinking beer with friends at the table next to us and the mother and kids preparing and serving the meal. The girl who served me was able to respond “You’re Velcome” to my “thank you” and “yes” when asked if she was studying English in school.

4 September 2011

Zamberk to Krakow

Although we tried calling to ensure there was a vacancy before we arrived, for some reason we couldn’t get through on the number listed for the hotel in my guidebook. So we decided to just input the address into the GPS and let it take us there. The hotel we chose was reasonably priced, in part, I think, because it wasn’t located in the center of everything but just outside the main tourist attractions. It’s a renovated villa complex set back a little from the side street on which it’s located. We drove right by it without seeing it and had to turn around to make a second pass before we found it.U Pana Cognito Hotel

They had a vacancy and we settled in quickly then set out walking for the Old Town. We found our way into the square where the dominating feature is the 70 meter (230 foot) high Town Hall Tower. Town Hall Tower, Old TownBuilt in the 13th century, ot’s the last surviving piece of the original town hall which was demolished in 1820; apparently to “clean up” the appearance of the square. The original town hall’s cellar had a prison that included a medieval torture chamber.

Another imposing feature of the square is St. Mary’s Cathedral. St. Mary's, Old TownA lone trumpeter plays every hour from the top of the higher tower and he cuts off the last note before finishing it. That’s done to recall a legend regarding an assault on the city by the Tartars in the 13th century. According to the legend, a trumpeter was sounding a call to arms from the tower when a Tartar marksman shot an arrow that hit the trumpeter in the throat, cutting off his call to arms.

This is a church in Old Town.image116

Part of the old town wall remains, including the Floriańska gate which dates back to the early 14th century. Florianska GateThis gate was once the main entryway to the Old Town and part of the original medieval fortification system.

Vendors are set up everywhere in Old Town (tourists are well known for wanting to spend money) and a couple of painters have set up shop at the old town wall, using its broad expanse to display their paintings. image143I was more than a little surprised to see in Old Town a “librería” Spanish for “bookstore”. I took a look, thinking I might check it out but it was closed. I wouldn’t have expected to see a Spanish language bookstore in Poland. They can’t get many Spanish speaking tourists, I wouldn’t think.

Just up from the old fortifications was a scenic Old Town street.image146

As we walked back to our hotel we looked across the Wisla River to the Wawel Castle Wawel CastleWawel Castleand made plans to visit the castle tomorrow. We left camera gear at the hotel and walked to the Kazimierz district for dinner. Kazimierz is the former Jewish quarter of town and isn’t easy to describe.

It also dates back to the 14th century so its streets are narrow, winding and cobblestoned; typical for all medieval streets. Jews first began gathering in Kazimierz by choice and then the town issued an edict that forced them to stay, turning the area into a walled ghetto. In the early 19th century Jews were given the right of abode and the walls were torn down. Nazi occupation of Poland resulted in the death of almost all of Kazimierz’ 60,000 Jews.

Today the area is simultaneously trendy with fancy restaurants, cocktail bars and shops and dirty with graffitti’d walls. We found a nice cafe that featured Polish food that had outdoor seating on a small alleyway. After dinner we wandered back to the hotel to call it a night.

5 September 2011


Today we walked over to the Wawel Castle, exploring that and returning to Old Town. The castle is an impressive complex, dating from the 10th century. Wawel CastleLike all the other old castles, it’s seen its fair share of remodeling and additions. Those who know about these things (that would NOT be me) say it’s a combination of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles.Wawel Castle

The Kraków castle started out as the seat of Polish royalty but fell into disrepair when the capital was moved to Warsaw in the 1609. Over the years since then various foreign nations conquered the area variously stealing things from the castle and taking it over as their own, making improvements. After returning to Polish control it rose in importance until in 1921 it became the residence of the Polish president. It is now a national museum.

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The cathedral inside the castle is, as you would expect, an impressive and beautiful church. Wawel CathedralWawel CathedralTo me, however, it seemed strange to have the interior filled with amazingly ornate tombs. They were scattered all over the interior of the church. The combination of the main portion of the cathedral where masses are held and the royal tombs below, hold the remains of all but four of Poland’s 45 rulers. One tomb, in red marble, belongs to King Kazimierz the Great and is located to the right of the main altar. In my mind graveyards (no matter how ornate) and places of worship are in two completely separate categories. But, then, nobody asked me for my opinion.

From the Wawel Castle we returned to continue exploring old town. Krakow Sidewalk

The outside wall of one of the buildings we walked by had a sculpture of books on bookshelves on the wall outside the building.  I don’t remember ever seeing a sculpture built into the outside wall of a building.  I thought it looked really cool.Wall SculptureThis is Stawkowska Street with St. Mary’s church in the background.Slawkowska Street and St. Mary'sWe returned to the same area of Old Town we’d visited yesterday and I got more pictures of the Floriańska Gate,Florianska Gatethe medieval towerimage228and the passageway over one of the Old Town streets.image222While walking along one of the side streets I saw a large building that advertised it was the Instituto Cervantes and they taught Spanish classes. Yesterday it was the librería, today it’s the Instituto Cervantes. I drug Bruxi inside with me to check it out. This wasn’t a little storefront with one or two classrooms. It was a large modern building. I went past the guard who motioned me inside and the receptionist greeted me in Spanish.

I explained (in Spanish) that I was just curious because yesterday I’d seen the librería and today this large institute. I was curious as to why there was such a Spanish language presence in Poland. She explained that Spanish has become a very popular language to learn among Poles and there’s lots of interest in the Spanish language and culture. I never would have guessed. I thanked her and we went on our way. I’m still a little amazed. I haven’t run into evidence of any particular interest in Spanish anywhere else we’ve been. Go figure.

One of the stops this time was the Church of Saints peter and Paul with statues of all twelve of the disciples lining the front entrance. Church of Saints Peter and Paul, Old TownIt’s said that the Jesuits spent so much money bulding the front and facade that they ran out of money to finish the rest of the building and had to complete it with ordinary brick instead of stone block.  You can see the brick behind the stone facade.

This is St. Andrew’s Church, which dates from the 11th century.Saint Andrew's Church

The Cloth Hall, in the center of the town square is a long building that was built to house the stalls of the town’s merchants in the 14th century and it still serves that purpose, though rather than serving the needs of the town’s residents the merchant’s stalls sell souvenirs and trinkets to tourists.  This is the Cloth Hall exteriorCloth Hall, Old TownCloth Hall, Exterior

and this is the interior.Cloth Hall InteriorI suspect the only language not heard in the hall is Polish.

We returned to Kazimierz for dinner again tonight, wandering around the area for a while before stopping at a restaurant to eat.

6 September 2011

Krakow to Oswiecim

About 80 kilometers (50 miles) west of Kraków is the Polish city of Oświęcim. During World War II the Germans declared the entire area a military zone and built several concentration camps here. Auschwitz I was the first and it was built in 1940 to hold Polish prisoners. In 1941 near the town of Brzezinka about 3 kilometers away, the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex (Auschwitz II) was built. In 1942 Auschwitz III was built on the grounds of a German chemical plant. Between 1942 and 1944 about 40 smaller camps were built, usually in the vicinity of steelworks, mines and factories where prisoners could be exploited as slave labor.

Auschwitz-Birkenau became the primary death camp with four separate buildings used as gas chambers and crematoria. Although when it became obvious that they could not win the war and the Soviet army was approaching the SS attempted to destroy all evidence of their activities there, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (Auschwitz-Birkenau) have been preserved and are open for visitors.  This is looking in at Auschwitz through the fence from the outside.Perimeter FenceThe ceramic posts that served as stand-offs for the electrified wire are still present, but, for obvious safety reasons the wire is now barbed rather than electrified.Perimiter FenceThis is looking in at Birkenau through the fence,image20And the guard towers spaced along the perimeter.image57Kind of mind-boggling that, in a place like this where people were brutalized and murdered, flowers now grow.

Bruxi and I spent the better part of the day at Auschwitz-Birkenau and the experience simply isn’t capable of being captured in words. Bruxi came as close as anything when he described the place as “sinister.” Tears were rarely far from the surface as we explored what’s left of the camp and considered what transpired there.These are the tracks on which the cattle cars would bring those to be slaughtered. The selection area is just to the side of the tracks where most were sent to their immediate deaths and those who could work were sent to die a slower death.image14And this was the transportation in which they arrived.RailcarThis is looking at the main entrance from the inside.  The large open area in the foreground is the selection area where new arrivals were assigned their fate.Main SS Guard House, ìDeath Gateî

Part of the overwhelming nature of the experience is simply the physical act of moving around in the immensity of the space that was dedicated to the murder of so many. Auschwitz II covered about 425 acres of ground with over 300 buildings. It was a small city. In one of the surviving wooden barracks there was a sign that said the barracks were modeled after a German stable built to house 52 horses. At Auschwitz they held up to 1000 inmates.  This is the interior of one of the barracks with the frames of the beds.image32And this was a latrine barracks.image29

It’s impossible to know how many were murdered here. Rudolf Höss, the captured camp commandant testified that 70 – 75% of all arriving people were immediately gassed and cremated without being registered but estimates hover around 1.5 million deaths. The vast majority of those murdered were Jews but Gypsies (Roma), homosexuals, prisoners of war, political opponents and other “undesirables” were also killed here.  These are the steps victims walked down to the “dressing room” where they’d undress before entering the “showers”. These steps were the very last steps trod by untold numbers of men, women and children.Entrance Stairs to Underground ìShowersî

Each of the four crematoria were capable of “processing” up to 2,000 victims at a time. Told they were being showered people would be herded into a changing room where they undressed before being herded into a 210 square meter (235 square yard) “shower” room, the doors closed and sealed and Cyclon B poured into the chamber through openings in the ceiling. According to Rudolf Höss approximately 5 – 7 kilograms (about 11 – 15.5 lbs) of Cyclon B were required to kill about 1,500 people and in Oświęcim alone approximately 20,000 kilograms (about 20 tons) of Cyclon B was used. This is the roof of the incinerator portion of a dynamited crematorium.Incinerator RoofThe incinerator and chimney portion of the crematorium.Incinerators and Chimney

Everybody was dead after 15 – 20 minutes and the bodies were processed. Rings, earrings, teeth with gold fillings and hair would be removed before the bodies were taken to the incinerators.  These are pictures of Crematoria III.Crematorium IIIimage87A memorial was built in the middle of the four crematoria. In this picture you can see the remains of Crematorium IV on the left and the steps up to the memorial on the right. The middle of the site of the slaughter seems an appropriate place for the memorial.Crematorium IV and Memorial StairsThis is a portion of the memorial.MemorialThe memorial at the site has plaques in multiple languages. This is the English language plaque. The pebbles at the lower left corner are a Jewish tradition of leaving small rocks or pebbles on a grave site in memoriam rather than flowers.Memorial

The victims personal property that wouldn’t fit on the trainloads shipped back to Germany was stored in warehouses and, when the warehouses were full, unsorted luggage was allowed to pile up between the warehouses. Before the arrival of Soviet troops, the SS, in their attempt to hide the purpose of the camp burned down thirty warehouses full of goods. However, in addition to thousands of pairs of shoes, glasses, shaving brushes and other personal items, the Soviet army found approximately 7,000 kilograms (7 tons) of human hair that had not yet been sold and sent to factories in Germany.

Although I knew very well before I came what occurred here, I cannot walk these grounds, see these buildings, and remember the countless number of men, women and children gassed to death, starved to death, beaten to death, worked to death, shot to death, hanged to death and tortured to death on the very grounds over which I’m walking without feeling totally, totally, totally overwhelmed.

The tears seem never to end.

7 September 2011

Oswiecim to Trencin

We made the drive from Auschwitz to Trenčin in Slovakia last night. Our original plan for a place to stay didn’t work out because it was full but they gave us the name and location of another pension to try. It turned out that they had a couple of vacancies. We arrived too late last night to do anything but eat and turn in but it’s a small town and we knew we’d have all day the next day (today) to explore.

One of the entertaining parts of driving in this part of the world is figuring out whether, when, where and how to pay the toll to drive on the motorway. Bruxi has driven in Austria before so he knew to stop at a gas station before we entered Austria to buy a 10 day permit to drive on the motorway. That buys you a sticker that has to be displayed on your windshield. If it isn’t displayed, cameras along the motorway take a picture of your car and the owner gets a ticket in the mail. A rather expensive ticket I might add.

We also bought a sticker in the Czech Republic. In Poland you can drive on parts of the motorway for free and there’s a manned toll booth that collects the toll from you at points where there’s a charge. No need to buy a sticker ahead of time. In Slovakia, where we are now, Bruxi was on alert for signs but saw none when the road we were on suddenly became a motorway. On our map that section of motorway was shown as under construction. Obviously they’d finished the construction but there were no signs indicating whether you needed a sticker.

Looking at the other cars driving next to us I could see a sticker on the windshield so it appeared one was necessary but without having spotted any warning signs or gas stations where we might buy one, we just nervously continued driving down the motorway until we got close to the section on the map that was clearly marked as motorway (not under construction). There we got off and followed local roads to Trenčín.

We later learned that Slovakia requires a sticker but doesn’t advertise that fact. I guess you’re supposed to learn it by osmosis or something. Maybe because it helps their revenue stream when unsuspecting tourists enter the country. The good news was that the section of the motorway that’s new (marked as under construction on the map) does not yet have cameras installed. So we escaped detection.  (Probably)

After breakfast at the pension our first goal was to hike up the hill to the castle that looms over the town. As you can see from the pictures, it’s a bit of a climb. But then that’s been true this whole trip. After breakfast at the pension we began the trek up the hill.  This gives you an idea of what the climb was like.  That’s the castle at the top.TrencÌnAnd here’s a picture of the town looking toward the castle.  It dominates the skyline.TrencÌn

One of the famous objects in the town I was looking forward to seeing (and photographing) was a Roman inscription carved in the rock below the castle. The inscription is dated 179 AD and documents a Roman victory over Germanic barbarians. It’s the most northern evidence of the presence of Roman soldiers. A hotel was built over that section of the mountain and, under normal circumstances you can enter the hotel to view the rock and inscription. Unfortunately I picked a time to go when the hotel was completely closed for renovation and there was no way to gain access to the inscription.

Oh well. We made the trek up the hill to the castle which is thought to have been started around the 10th or 11th century. This was the entry path into the castle grounds.

In 1017 King Stephen I (no relation) of Hungary conquered the area which remained Hungarian territory until 1918. The castle was modified and improved many times over the centuries. We signed up for a tour which was a mixed bag. On the positive side it provided us access to areas of the castle and displays that we otherwise would have been locked out of. On the negative side, tours of the castle are conducted only in the Slovak language so nothing the guide said did either one of us much good.

Stairs inside the castle were made intentionally narrow so if invaders did get into the castle they’d have great difficulty getting past the narrow stairs to mount an attack against any defenders on the upper level.TrencÌn Castle StairsThis staircase was so narrow I opted to just take the picture from the top then descend the (slightly) wider stairs. Multiple staircases were another technique to stall an attack by confusing the attackers who would be unfamiliar with the layout of the castle.TrencÌn Castle Stairs

The guide did give us some English language printed material that helped provide some information. The castle is the third largest in Slovakia and is in excellent condition. The castle’s strategic value was to guard the spot on the Váh River where fords were located making it an important trading route linking the Baltic and Mediterranean seas.

These are remains of the original rotunda dating from approximately the 9th century.TrencÌn Castle, Original Rotunda from 9th Century

The portion of the Castle called the Barbara Palace was built in about 1430 in the time of Queen Barbara of Celje, wife of emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg.  This was the queen’s bedroom.TrencÌn Castle Barbara PalaceThe view of Trenčín as seen from the Castle.TrencÌnTrencÌnTrencÌnTo keep the grass trimmed the castle keeps three goats to serve as the official castle lawnmowers.  This one appears to be on a work break.Castle LawnmowerMore views from inside the castle grounds.

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Old Town is fairly small and has two adjoining squares separated by the last remaining medieval Old Town gate, the Dolná brána. TrencÌn Old Town Gate Doln· Br·naOne of the town squares had a rather whimsical fountain.TrencÌn Town Square Fountain

A couple more pictures from Old Town.

As the sun got lower in the sky it gave a warm glow to the castle over the town.TrencÌn Castle

We explored the Old Town, had dinner and returned to our room. Tomorrow we return to Bruxi’s home in Hungary.

8/9 September 2011Trencin to Gyomro

Bruxi had a late afternoon appointment on the 8th so we drove home from Trenĉín. This marks the apporximate half-way point of my trip. The first half of the trip we spent traveling and the second half we’ll just take day-trips from Bruxi’s home. The 8th was just a travel day with no sightseeing.

On the 9th Bruxi and I went to some sites in Budapest.  The Gellért Hill, is a cliff just south of Castle Hill that rises 130 meters (about 425 feet) above the Danube River. It’s primary purpose today is to give tourists a beautiful panorama of Budapest and to offer them numerous opportunities to spend money on souvenirs being offered at any of the several booths set up around the Citadella — the citadel that served the original defensive purpose for the city.

In addition to souvenirs, there’s a Gypsy offering tourists yet another way to leave money behind with a confidence game. We pass all the souvenir stands (and the confidence game) to take in the view, the citadella and the liberation monument.

The liberation monument has an interesting history. It’s a female figure holding aloft a palm branch intended to symbolize victory. Liberation MonumentIt was originally commissioned by an admiral to be sculpted in honor of his son who was killed in a plane crash and, what is now a palm branch was originally intended to be an airplane propeller.

The sculptor substitued the the palm branch for the propeller, added a Red Army soldier at the base of the monument and dedicated it to the Soviet troops who died liberating Budapest from the Nazis in order to win approval as a “proletarian artist”.

After the end of communism in Hungary the inscription was rewritten to honor all those who died for Hungary’s prosperity and the Soviet soldier was removed. This soldier has joined all the other statues and monuments that were installed in Budapest during the communist era to glorify communism.

There’s a park, known as memento or statue park, where some 42 of the monuments glorifying communism have been collected as a celebration of its demise. The park has all things communist. In addition to the large collection of monuments that used to be installed in the city it has a replica of the reviewing stand communist leaders used to review parades, shows a montage of secret police training videos on how to bug an apartment or recruit informers, sells Lenin or Stalin candles and other communist themed items while you listen to revolutionary songs playing from a 1950’s era radio.

I just admire the view, the monument and the citadella. This is the view along the Danube River from the Citadella. Budapest is a unification of what were originally two separate cities on opposite sides of the Danube River, Buda on the west bank and Pest on the east.  In these pictures Buda is on the left and Pest on the right. The bridge is the Chain Bridge.View from the CitadellaChain BridgeThis is the back of the Liberation monument rising above the citadella.Citadella with Liberation MonumentAnd this is a portion of the round citadella.CitadellaWe return home so I can begin working on this blog. Bruxi and I are very much alike, have very similar interests and share the same sense of humor. It’s been really great traveling with him but the consequence of that is we spend our free time talking and I don’t have several free hours every evening to work on organizing, labeling and uploading photos as well as writing the narrative portion of the blog. So now I’m going to play catch-up.

10 September 2011Gyomro to Budapest

Today is one of the days of an annual wine festival held on the Buda Castle grounds. Bruxi and Erika had their own plans for today so I’ll be on my own. Erika very generously offered to go with me into Budapest to show me how to manage the trip.

First I learn the walking route from their home to the train station in Gyömrő. We buy our tickets and catch the train to Budapest. After arriving at the East Station in Budapest, Erika shows me which platform the train to Gyömrő leaves from (so I can get back home) and then we navigate our way out of the train station and into the nearby metro. All three of Budapest’s central subways meet at this particular metro station so we buy a ticket that will be good for both the subway and the bus for the entire day. We then find the right subway (number 2, the red line in case you’re interested) and get on heading in the direction of the Deak tér where we get off the subway and head for the street.

Here we find the stop for the bus that will take me to the Dísz tér (number 16 in case you’re interested) on the castle grounds where I have to get off. Erika and I part company here as she has other things to do and I squeeze onto the crowded bus when it arrives. I feel more than a little out of place; obviously a tourist with tons of camera gear hanging off me squeezed in with locals on a local bus.  Oh well.

I arrive at the Dísz tér where I disembark into a crowd of tourists, most of whom I assume are here for the wine festival, though many are probably just the normal tourist load that floods the castle grounds.  Although I normally like to keep tourists out of my pictures I though you might like a visual of what I mean when I talk about hordes of tourists. In addition to the tourists, this is a picture of a monument to King Stephen and a turret of the Fisherman’s Bastion.Fisherman's BastionThe combination of the wine festival crowd plus all the tourists here on a sunny weekend day make the castle grounds extremely crowded. I take pictures, but resolve to return another day when I can get the pictures I want without hordes of tourists all posing for photographs in front of every photogenic spot around.

King István (Stephen) was an extremely important figure in Hungarian history and I’ll talk more about him in a different entry.StephanFisherman’s bastion is so named because supposedly fishermen from the Víziváros defended this part of Castle Hill in the middle ages. What’s here today is purely architectural decoration but I found it visually fascinating and will have more of it in another blog entry.Fisherman's Bastion

Since it’s still early I head away from the wine festival and toward the Mátyás Church. Mitthias ChurchMatthias ChurchThe church we see today was built in the late 1800’s on what was left of a church built on the same site in the 1200’s. The original church was severely damaged in 1686. It was seriously damaged again in World War II but the communist government went to great lengths to restore it. They did a good job. It is, indeed, an impressive structure.

I noticed, though, a statue of a raven atop one of the spires that had something in its beak and another raven over the entry gate to the Royal Palace area. Budapest Wine Festival EntranceThat piqued my curiosity and I had to do some research to discover the significance. Apparently that comes from King Mátyás’ family crest. The animal on his crest is a raven with a gold ring in it’s beak. There’s a long story behind that but the Cliff’s Notes version is that Mátyás was in Prague when he was selected to become the next Hungarian king and his mother sent for him using a raven with a gold ring. The raven is supposed to have flown non-stop from Budapest to Prague (about 500 km or 310 miles as the crow… or the raven… flies) to retrieve Mátyás so he could be crowned and thereby earned his place on the Mátyás crest.

A band gave a outdoor concert on the palace grounds.Budapest Wine FestivalThe views of the Danube from the castle were wonderful.  This is the view from the Royal Palace area of the castle of the Chain Bridge across the Danube looking from Buda to Pest.Chain BridgeThe Danube

The entire Royal Palace area was filled with dozens of booths like these. Each booth belonged to a different vintner and each vintner offered samples of a dozen or so of their wines.Budapest Wine FestivalBooths in the courtyard of the Royal Palace.Budapest Wine Festival, Royal PalaceBudapest Royal Palace  Courtyard

Part of the wine festival included craft booths with demonstrations of (among other things) making cane products including flask covers. Budapest Wine Festival, Cane Flask Cover DemonstrationThe man in front is stripping the outer covering off the cane while the others use what he produces into useful products, samples of which can be seen around the area.Budapest Wine Festival Cane Flask Cover DemonstrationAnd making wine barrels out of staves.  The barrel maker had a fire going in the middle of the barrel to heat the staves. Looking at the bottom of the barrel you can see the staves are still separate. Here he’s fitting a new hoop.Budapest Wine Festival Cask Making DemonstrationHere he’s tightening a chain around the bottom of the barrel to pull the individual staves together.Budapest Wine Festival Cask Making DemonstrationHere a new hoop is hammered into position.Budapest Wine Festival Cask Making Demonstration

This was a peaceful corner of the castle.Budapest Castle Hill

The big reason I had chosen today to come out of all the days of the festival was a scheduled parade. I owe the fact that I saw it to Bruxi. I had looked it up on the internet and the site I found (obviously in English) described the parade and said it would be Sunday, Sept. 11, so that was the day I planned to go. Bruxi, however, did some of his own research and found another site (in Hungarian) that said the day of the parade was Saturday, Sept. 10. He made a phone call to settle the discrepancy and discovered the festival authorities were aware of the discrepancy and attributed it to a typographical error.

That “typo” would have meant my missing the parade entirely if Bruxi hadn’t discovered it. I wanted to see it because it was a parade of traditionally costumed Hungarian wine making guilds and folk dancers I wouldn’t be able to see anywhere else. So… in addition to everything else I owe Bruxi for this trip, I owe him a big thank you for his diligence in discovering the fact that the website I was relying on for information wasn’t accurate.

That turned out not to be the only inaccuracy. At the festival I stopped at an information booth to find the route of the parade. They didn’t know but were able to find in a printed brochure a map with the parade route and schedule in it. That was helpful and using it I was able to be present as the people in the parade gathered for the blessing and wine presentation, then station myself at a good point along the route.

First there was the gathering for the wine presentation and blessing.

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I left the blessing and presentation early to find a spot along the listed parade route where I could easily get pictures. I was surprised there was almost nobody along the route and not only did I find a good spot but there was an empty bench were I could sit while I was waiting and stand on for a good vantage point when taking pictures. The perfect spot.

Perfect except the parade didn’t follow the printed route. When nobody came by at the designated time I initially suspected some of the speakers at the presentation had become long-winded but after a while I was suspicious something was wrong and ran back to the meeting place to see the last of the parade moving out along a different route. I had to run (OK… with all my camera equipment I didn’t run but I moved as fast as I could) along a parallel street to catch up with as much of the parade as I could.

Fortunately for me they had stopped so the folk dancers could perform and I was able to get some pictures, though I had to work around crowds of people and didn’t have the vantage point I would have liked.

At the front of the parade was a whimsical musical group playing the accordian, guitar, drums, sousaphone and two inflated pigskins. I don’t know how else to describe them. They were pigs that had been emptied of their contents and musical parts stuck in them so they functioned like pigskin bagpipes. It was a totally unique-sounding group.  Also a pretty unique-looking group.  Those hats could have been inspired by Dr. Seuss.Budapest Wine FestivalBudapest Wine Festival

Following this group were different vintners wearing traditional dress, sometimes carrying awards or wearing medals their wines had won, folk dance groups in traditional costumes, and musicians.

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All-in-all it was a very enjoyable day and I had no trouble following Bruxi and Erika’s instructions to take the bus/metro/train home. The only mistake I made was after I gotten off the train at Gyömrő I wasn’t sure which direction to take. There are two sets of stairs at the station that lead to a tunnel that runs under the tracks. The stairs deposit you into the middle of the tunnel and whether you turn left or right depends on which set of stairs you descend.

With a 50/50 chance I pick the wrong direction and walked for a while before deciding I was not where I needed to be so I returned to the train station and by going the other way I made it home. It turned out that Bruxi had come to meet me at the Gyömrő station but when I didn’t show up with the crowd getting off the train he figured I’d taken a later train and went back home with the intention of returning an hour later to meet the next train from Budapest. I showed up at the front gate before it was time for him to leave.

It was a tiring but an excellent day. I should sleep well tonight.

12 September 2011Gyomro to Budapest

Yesterday was an “at home” day to do laundry, rest, and try to do some catching up on blog entries.

Today Bruxi and I head back into Budapest to see the Hősök tere — Hero’s Square. It is suitably impressive for a collection of Hungary’s greatest heroes. The front 2/3 of the square is open with geometric patterns in the pavement. The back 1/3 is filled with impressive monuments. Hero's SquareAt the center is a 36 meter (about 120 foot) column with the archangel Gabriel at the top.Hero's Square Gabriel is said to have appeared to Stephen in a dream and offered him the crown of Hungary.

It was Stephen (István in Hungarian) who brought together the tribal Magyar into a single nation and brought that nation into Catholicism. As a reward Pope Sylvester II crowned him king on Christmas Day, 1000 AD. On that day he took the name István. Prior to that his name was Vajk, son of Prince Géza.

He’s noted for his enlightened rule, embracing the need for tolerance and the desirability of multi-racial nations. Those enlightened and tolerant views, however, did not extend to the inheritance of the throne. After his only son died in an accident, when it appeared that a pagan would inherit the throne, he had the man blinded and molten lead poured into his ears.

He was canonized after his death in 1038 and is now Saint Stephen (Szent István) and if you look at monuments of him you’ll usually see a halo because of his sainthood. His mummified right hand is still on display in the church bearing his name in Budapest and it is considered a holy relic. (I did not make a pilgrimage to see it so, sorry, no photos.) I have to admit that I really don’t understand the holiness of some other human being’s skeletal or mummified remains.

Gabriel is holding the Hungarian coronation crown or St. Stephen’s crown in his right hand and the patriarchal double cross. This crown, although it’s had various disasters befall it over the last 1,000 years has been used to crown almost every Hungarian king beginning with King Stephen and is still in existence in the Hungarian Parliament. It even resided in Fort Knox from the end of World War II until it was returned to the Hungarian people by Jimmy Carter in 1978. The double cross is thought to have been given to King Stephen by the pope and is a symbol of Hungary.

Behind the column are statues depicting 14 Hungarian heros, beginning with King Stephen on the far left. Hero's SquareHero's SquareAt the base of the column are statues of the 7 Magyar tribal leaders who conquered the land of Hungary.Hero's SquareHero's Square

Across the street is the Városliget, the large city park, with the Vajdahunyad Castle. This is the entrance.Vajdahunyad CastleThe castle and the park were created for the millennial Anniversary celebrations in 1896 (the Magyar tribes conquered Hungary in 896 AD) so it exists for decorative rather than military purposes.

Every castle has to have a chapel on the grounds.Vajdahunyad CastleThe main castle building.Vajdahunyad Castle

The castle is surrounded by an artificial lake that’s used for boating in the summer and ice skating in the winter. On the day I was here half of it was drained and workers were cleaning up the summer’s accumulation of algae to prepare it for winter — a smelly activity.  This part of the lake wasn’t drained yet so this is where I took my pictures.Vajdahunyad CastleVajdahunyad Castle

Inside the castle is a large statue of Anonymous – a famous (though anonymous) chronichler of King Bella III in the late 12th century. He never gives his name but only says he’s the anonymous notary of King Bella. He’s depicted in the statue as wearing a hooded robe with the hood hiding his face. The pen he holds in his right hand is shiny because people stand in line to have their picture taken standing next to the statue holding the tip of his pen.Anonymous

Across the street are the Széchenyi Baths. SzÈchenyi BathsSzÈchenyi BathsThe Carpathian Basin where Hungary is located is covered with hot springs that have been used for spas and baths for about the last two thousand years. The spa culture really took off with the Turkish occupation in the 16th and 17th centuries and today in Budapest there are massive structures to house the baths. Just looking at the building you could easiy believe the Széchenyl Baths were a palace of some sort.

We then walked up and down the Andrássy út Budapest’s grandest avenue inaugurated in 1884. This is a side street off the Andrássy út I thought was pretty.  Off Andr·ssy ˙tIt’s lined with exclusive shops but big streets and expensive shops don’t do much for me. I was, however, impressed with the opera house.State Opera House

13 September 2011

Gyomro to Szentendre

Today we drove to Szentendre, a picturesque town on the Danube Bend that’s said to get more hours of sunlight than any other town in Hungary. Because of that it’s become an artist’s colony. The town’s character was formed by Serb refugees fleeing Serbia following their defeat at Kosovo in 1389.  This is the Danube at Szentendre.The Danube by Szentendre

Another wave of exiled Serbs (some 6,000 of them) fled to Szentendre in 1690 and the town became the seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church in exile. Over the years the Serbs have drifted away from Szentendre and today there are only a few dozen families left of Serb descent. The character of the town remains, however, and it’s a popular tourist destination for both Hungarian and foreign tourists.

For a small town there are a lot of churches.  The Blagovestenška Orthodox ChurchBlagovestenska Greek Orthodox ChurchAnd the 13th Century Roman Catholic Church at the top of a hill.Roman Catholic Church (13th Century)

This is the Serbian Orthodox Church SpireSzentendre Serbian Orthodox ChurchAnd some scenes from around the picturesque little town that show why it’s become a tourist draw.

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14 September 2011Gyomro to Holloko

Bruxi, his son Lacika and I drove to Hollókő today, another popular tourist destination for both Hungarian and foreign tourists and a World Heritage Site. The name translates as “Raven Rock” and the town was originally built by the Palóc minority group. Though few still live there, the current residents have kept up the original Palóc look.

It’s such a popular tourist destination that they have a large parking area suitable for large tourist buses just outside town. We parked and walked into town and found we were following a woman in traditional Palóc dress. Traditional PalÛc DressShe didn’t appear to be trying to be part of the tourist attraction because she was just coming back from the store carrying a plastic bag of purchases. I took a picture of her from the back to show the back of her dress and Bruxi asked her if we could take her picture from the front. She was totally obliging, putting her plastic bag off to one side and standing still so we could take her picture. Traditional PalÛc DressEach Palóc village had it’s own style of dress. I don’t know if this was necessarily Hollókő’s style but it was certainly interesting.and unique.

This woman was very friendly, sitting in a niche in front of her home with embroidered items she was selling. Bruxi said good morning to her and I followed suit. After I said good morning (Jó napot) she looked at Bruxi and said he isn’t Hungarian, is he? My accent must be pretty bad. I can’t even say two words correctly.  I did buy an embroidered bookmark.HollÛko

We wandered through town taking pictures of the narrow cobblestone streets and architecture then climbed the hill to what’s left of the castle that guards the town. The view of the surrounding area from the castle is outstanding.  This is the castle as seen from the town.HollÛko

And here it is after you climb the hill.

The view from the castle.HollÛko LandscapeHollÛko LandscapeYou saw the castle from the town.  This is how the little town looks from the castle.HollÛko

And here’s Bruxi on the left and his son Lacika on the right.

I had never thought much about the origin of paprika, but it’s a dried and ground pepper.  Here are the peppers hanging in a window to dry.HollÛkoAnd a selection of Hollókő architecture and street scenes.

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15 September 2011Gyomro to Visegrad to Esztergom

Today’s trip was first to a town rich in Hungarian history. King Mátyás ruled from a citadel in Visegrád set high on a cliff that rises steeply from the Danube River and was described in 1488 as being a “terrestrial paradise” whose upper walls reached up to the clouds and lower bastions reached down to the river. Visegrád in Slavic means “High Castle”.This is the castle gate.image18

It actually dates back to the 13th century when King Béla IV began fortifying the north as protection against a recurrence of a Mongol invasion.  Amazing that the Mongols made it all the way out here from Mongolia, north of China.

The crown jewels were kept here until a “maid of honor” (not a very honorable one) stole them and spirited them out of the country. Hungary was eventually able to locate and retrieve them but at a very high price.

The castle was occupied by first the Turks, then the Habsburgs, after which it was allowed to fall into decay. Restoration began in 1870. Today, the best part of the castle (in my humble opinion) is the magnificent view of the Danube. The castle itself is moderately interesting and has a couple of depictions of medieval life at the castle using wax models, and displays of weapons but the view is outstanding and worth the trip.

A couple of the wax displays of medieval life in the castle.

Pictures of the castle interior.

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And pictures of the views from the castle looking toward the Danube.

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Close to Visegrád, Esztergom is also on the Danube, just across the border from Slovakia. This is the site of Hungary’s first Roman Catholic cathedral and the location from which St. Stephen brought Hungary into the Roman Catholic fold rather than the Orthodox fold and where he was crowned King.

Today there’s a basilica on the site of the original cathedral where Stephen was crowned, and an impressive basilica it is. image62It dominates the town from it’s hilltop site with a 100 meter (328 foot) high dome image155on a building 118 meters (387 feet) by 47 meter (154 feet). This basilica was built beginning in 1822 and completed in 1869. It is an amazing edifice; the tallest building in Hungary and the 18th largest church in the world. image158image161It’s official name is pretty impressive, too — The Primatial Basilica of the Blessed Virgin Mary Assumed into Heaven and St. Adalbert. I’ll just call it the basilica. (The legend is that it was St. Adalbert who baptised Stephen.)

I was more than a little surprised, right after we’d arrived and I was standing outside the basilica to have a man walk up to me and ask me, in Spanish, about getting to his car. He described where he had parked and asked about whether some stairs I’d just come up might give him access to his parking spot. I have no clue what prompted him to start speaking to me in Spanish (not exactly a commonly spoken language in Hungary). He didn’t appear that surprised or make any comment when I replied in Spanish. I answered, giving him my best guess and stating what had to be obvious — that I wasn’t from around there and he thanked me and went on his way, leaving me shaking my head.

I don’t know just what the odds would be that a Spanish-speaker could randomly pick out another Spanish-speaker in a small Hungarian town but they can’t be very good odds.

I was aware of the scripture about the assumption of Jesus, when he was taken up to heaven from the disciples’ sight.  I didn’t know Catholicism believes in the assumption of Mary, too. This altarpiece is “The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary” by Venetian painter Michelangelo Grigoletti and is the largest painting in the world on a single piece of canvas. It measures 13.5 meters (44 feet) tall by 6.6 meters (21.6 feet) wide.image109One of the things that I’m aware of, though I really don’t understand it, is the veneration of relics — bodily remains or items used by a person, now deceased, who is deemed to be a saint.  These relics were on proud display in the sanctuary.image95The organ is being renovated and enlarged and, when completed, it will be the third largest organ in all of Europe.image101The interior of the Basilica is so huge and has so much open space with nothing to absorb sound that they said the official reverberation time of a sound is more than nine seconds. Everybody was pretty hushed when I was there but I can imagine that trying to actually understand a sermon preached there through a 9 second reverb would drive me nuts. It’s definitely impressive, though, and very effectively communicates grandeur.

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Although we did not descent to the crypt (or ascend to the cupola) the basilica has a crypt used to entomb archbishops and, because it has to support the weight of the basilica itself the crypt has walls 17 meters (56 feet) thick. There’s nothing about this basilica that isn’t impressive.

Stephen (István) was crowned King in Esztergom by a papal envoy on Christmas Day 1000 AD. This statue on the grounds outside commemorates the event.image149image146The view from the grounds wasn’t too shabby.  This is the town of Esztergom From Basilica Hill.image154And this is the Mária Valéria Bridge.  This bridge over the Danube River connects the Hungarian town of Esztergom on the left with the Slovakian town of Ştúrovo on the right.image125

16 September 2011Gyomro to Budapest

When I was first at the Buda Castle it was during the Wine Festival and I saw areas of the complex that I wanted to take pictures of but couldn’t because of the crush of tourists there on what was both the day of a major festival and a weekend day so I wanted to return on a weekday to see if I could get the pictures I wanted.

Bruxi and Erika had other things to do in Budapest so they gave me a ride right up to the Castle and dropped me off. Last time I was here Erika bought me a round trip train ticket and an all day pass that was good for both the subway and the bus. This time I’d have to buy my own tickets. Bruxi schooled me on the pronumciation of his town: Gyömrő. The problem was that my tongue doesn’t wrap easily around the sounds of that name and my accent, in spite of my best efforts was bad enough that Bruxi was concerned a ticket agent might think I was saying the name of a different town and give me a ticket to somewhere else.

After a number of repetitions Bruxi pronounced my approximation close enough and off we went. We were concerned that traffic leading up to the castle would be so bad they’d have to drop me off before we actually reached the castle area and that fear seemed to be coming true as we got stuck in traffic that was almost at a standstill. Bruxi made a U-turn and, following prompts from the GPS, tried a different route. This time it was clear sailing and they were able to drop me off right at the castle and still have enough time to get to their obligation.

I was able to wander around the castle area and take the pictures I wanted. The legend is that when Mátyás was to be crowned king of Hungary he was in Prague. His mother sent for him by sending a raven with a gold ring in its beak, thereby earning a spot on the Mátyás family crest. This raven sculpture is on a spire of the Mátyás Cathedral.Raven with Gold Ring on M·ty·s ChurchM·ty·s ChurchI even bumped into a changing of the guard ceremony at the Office of the President of Hungary.

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This is the Presidential Palace, the area where the changing of the guard ceremony took place. They come out for the ceremony then go back into the Presidential Palace.Presidential  Palace

I was able to take a ton of pictures I wanted, a selection of which are a part of this entry.

Szent István Statue.  The founder and first king of the nation of Hungary.St. Istv·n (Stephen)St. Istv·n

I particularly wanted to get pictures of the fisherman’s bastion area which i found visually fascinating. It’s primarily just interesting architecture with no great historical significance but the look really caught my attention.

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This is the view From Fisherman’s Bastion.  Through the archway you can see Buda, and Parliament across the Danube River in Pest.Parliment Through Fisherman's Bastion Collonades

This is Parliament.  My guide book says that the Hungarian Parliament makes the British Houses of Parliament look humble. Work began on it in 1885 and it’s 268 meters long (879 feet – almost three football fields end to end).Parliament

The Chain Bridge was the first permanent bridge over the Danube between Buda and Pest, replacing ferries and seasonal pontoon bridges. It was completed in 1849 and survived until the Germans blew it up in 1945 along with all of Budapest’s bridges to try to slow down the Red Army. The reconstructed bridge opened in 1949, exactly 100 years after the opening of the original.Chain Bridge

Škoda Cars at Presidential Palace.  Škoda is a Czech made car now a wholly owned subsidiary of Volkswagen that is very popular here. One of the running jokes that Bruxi and I have is that as we are driving somewhere he will point out to me every Škoda he sees.  And that’s pretty much constantly.  Since they’d been pointed out to me so often I recognized them when I saw these uniformly black Škodas lined up beside the Presidential Palace… obviously having ferried an official delegation there.Skodas in Front of Presidential PalaceThe entry to Royal Palace Courtyard.Royal Palace CourtyardPart of the Royal Palace Courtyard.Royal Palace CourtyardThe front of the Royal Palace.Royal Palace Courtyard
More of the Royal Palace.

Royal Palace CourtyardRoyal Palace CourtyardNational Museum Entrance

This is the Mátyás Fountain inside the Royal Palace area.  King Mátyás is famous for wearing the clothing of commoners and traveling incognito among the people. This fountain commemorates a tale of one such incident. The king was hunting incognito when a beautiful peasant girl, Szép Ilonka met him and fell in love with him. When she discovered who he really was and, therefore, as a peasant, the futility of her hopes to marry him, she died of a broken heart.

King M·ty·s Sculpture in Royal Palace CourtyardAnd this is the exit From Royal Palace Courtyard.Royal Palace Courtyard Entrance

Although I can’t pronounce Gyömrő so it’s readily understandable by a Hungarian speaker, everybody seemed to be able to understand me when I said “kösönöm” (thank you) and that word stood me in good stead as I fended for myself. My first significant quandary was buying a bus ticket. Here you don’t pay the driver. You have to have a ticket when you board.

Bruxi had said they’re available at news stands. OK… but I didn’t see any news stands in the castle area. I asked at a couple of souvenier stands (lots of those…) but got negative replies. Eventually i discovered that the post office on castle hill sells them. OK… makes sense to me… post office… bus tickets… where else would I go? The postal worker spoke no English but the Hungarian for bus (busz) was close enough to the English that with that one word and sign language we got the job done.

The next stop was the subway and the automated ticket machine made that easy. From there I went to the East Train Station. East Train StationI stood in line to buy a local ticket (there’s a different line to buy tickets for trains going outside Hungary) and told the ticket sales person “Gyömrő”. She looked at me, cocked her head and asked “Gyömrő?” (Sounded pretty much the same to me!) I nodded and said again “Gyömrő.” She screwed up her face and this time said it not as a question but as a statement: “Gyömrő.” This time I didn’t say anything. I just nodded.

Bruxi and Erika had prepped me that the one-way ticket to Gyömrő was exactly 550 Ft. So if they charged me something different I’d just bought a ticket to the wrong place. I put exactly 550 Ft. down for her. She counted it, smiled and nodded and I looked at my ticket relieved to see Gyömrő printed on it. I may not be able to pronounce it correctly but I can recognize it when I see it.

I went to the platform for the train and boarded when it arrived. Although I was determined not to let it happen to me I fell asleep not long after we’d started. Not a good idea unless you’re riding with somebody who knows where you want to get off, will stay awake themselves and awaken you as you approach your stop. I did, however, wake up at the stop before Gyömrő without realizing I’d actually dozed off and was more than a little surprised to see where I was.

Bruxi had driven down to the train station to see if I was arriving on this train and gave me a ride home.

17 September 2011

This weekend I’m doing some shopping for gifts, working on this blog and getting ready to fly back home on Monday, so really not a lot to write about. There are a few everyday kinds of things that I haven’t talked about before (I don’t think) that I’ll include here, though, really, they occurred throughout this trip.

I mentioned at the beginning how Bruxi and I had discussed my desire to avoid American food and eat Hungarian food. Erika has been wonderful at making that happen. She started my first night here with a goulash soup and stuffed cabbage and every meal has been a different Hungarian dish. I don’t know the names of most of them and some wouldn’t have English names anyway because I’m sure they’re unknown outside Hungary. For every meal Erika had some new wonderful Hungarian dish for me; many of which I’m guessing aren’t available in restaurants and those that are wouldn’t be half as good as what I got.

Laci, Bruxi’s son likes working in the kitchen and contributed with the most amazing scrambled eggs I’ve ever had. When I teased him that I thought he need more practice making them and I’d volunteer to taste-test them he actually made them a second time for me. He also made a chocolate and banana dessert that I had three helpings of. And Bruxi’s mother made a Hungarian dish for me, too, unlike anything I’ve had before. Bruxi described for me what that dish would be like served in a restaurant and it bore little resemblance to the wonderful dish I got.

In every way and at every turn Bruxi and his family have been over-the-top generous, giving, open and caring. They really went out of their way to make sure this American whom they had never met was cared for and catered to.

Part of their openness involved including me in their family and one family activity is boxing. Both Bruxi and Laci box. They even have an area in the backyard that can be used as a boxing ring (without ropes) where they can hang a heavy bag or spar with each other. They had a sparing match while I was there and Bruxi demonstrated his skill with both hands and feet.image10image23image156

I was able to buy some of what I wanted today and Bruxi’s mother helped tremendously by talking to some of her friends who embroider and bringing me some of thier embroidery that i could buy at a much better price than I’d pay at tourist sites.

The entire family did everything imaginable to make my stay a pleasure and they succeeded beyond anything I could have asked for or dreamed of. Although we’d never met and only “talked” by email, Bruxi and I turned out to be amazingly similar in many ways and we enjoyed each other’s company, discussions and humor. We talked and laughed a lot. In large measure because of everything they did, Bruxi and his family made my stay here an amazing and memorable trip with not just wonderful travel experiences and pictures, but wonderful personal experiences, and memories too. I am deeply indebted to them.

19 September 2011BUD to JFK

When I arrived in New York I was met coming off the plane with the news that American Airlines had cancelled my flight home sometime while I was in the air between Budapest and New York. I was met as I exited the plane and given a boarding pass for the next American flight to Los Angeles; the last flight of the day. Unfortunately that meant a delay of a couple of hours.

I went up to the Admiral’s Club, American’s exclusive lounge for members (and I’m not a member). I explained the situation and asked the receptionist if I could use their Wi-Fi to notify people of the delay and, without hesitation she allowed me to use one of their business computers to access my email account to let a few people know I’d be delayed

Hat’s off to American’s Admiral’s Club for being understanding and bending the rules for me. An admirable Admiral’s Club. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)

Aside from a little excitement at the gate when 12 – 14 uniformed police showed up to arrest a couple of guys who were creating a disturbance the wait was uneventful.

20 September 2011JFK to LAX

I got home later than anticipated; about 24 hours after starting my journey in Budapest. I loaded up the motorcycle with my luggage and arrived home at about 3:00 am, local time. Exhausted but with once-in-a-lifetime memories.





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