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Monday, December 29, 2014

Vienna & Andau

We are having a lovely time in Budapest. Our wedding anniversary was on December 24, and Judith’s birthday on the 26. With an approved serendipity, I decided that we would go to Vienna to
Palais Coburg
celebrate the birthday and booked an overnight stay at Palais Coburg. It is just a short 2 ½ hour drive to Vienna, and we arrived mid afternoon. Although here many times, we walked the inner city, Stephensplatz, the Kärntner Strasse; and then out to the Ring and had cappuccinos at the Imperial hotel before returning to the Coburg.
The added treat of this visit was dinner at Silvio Nickol’s 2-starred Michelin restaurant. The five course set menu was wonderful, as well as the perfect wine pairings. This restaurant is clearly a “chef’s restaurant;” food and flavor are everything. Therefore, one must discount the lackluster decor and the youthful front of house staff. To be sure, they are well educated to a fault, from the best schools and
Menu - Silvio Nickol
all possessing impeccable CVs. But their adolescence lacked a certain gray-haired gravitas and the worry lines of experience I’ve come to enjoy in my maître d’. But only a fool would comment or complain about these things.

After a restful night we spent the brisk morning visiting the iconic Karkskirche and the Secession Building, Olbrich’s 1897 architectural manifesto for the Vienna Secession movement. The Klimt friezes remain magnificent. It was then on to the lively
Jugendstil Apartment detail
Naschmarkt and the few remaining Otto Wagner Jugendstil apartments. We were back to the hotel by noon and checked out.

We had one more stop to make on our way back.

While in Budapest, a friend lent me his copy of “The Bridge at Andau” by the Pulitzer Prize winning James Michener. One of this prolific writer’s lesser know works of non-fiction, it is a vivid account of the horrors of Hungary’s 1956 Revolution. In the late autumn of 1956 Michener found himself in the Austrian border village of Andau, as nearly 70,000 Hungarians escaped to the west over this rickety conduit crossing the Einser Canal, a few miles north of Kapuvár in Hungary. Through many hundreds of interviews, Michener stitched together composites to narrate this tragic story that started on Tuesday evening, October 23, 1956. It is a tail of frustration, bravery, betrayal, terror, barbarity – ending weeks later on November 11.
Michener’s style is almost journalistic, an account that is “in the moment”; and he is prescient in some of his conclusions. He writes: “In this book I propose to tell the story of a terror so complete as to be deadening to the senses…I am absolutely convinced that the yearning for freedom which motivates the Hungarians will operate elsewhere within the Soviet orbit with results that we cannot now foresee.” Michener saw the brutal crushing of the Hungarian uprising by the Russians to have forever pulled back the curtain from the false promise of communism. He knew then that November 9, 1989 was coming, he just didn’t know exactly when, or exactly where. I recommend this short work in spite of the rather longwinded philosophizing of the last two chapters.

After reading it, Judith and I visited some of the battle sites within Budapest including the Radio Station off Bródy Sándor utca, scene of the first shootings; Corvin ter, with its circular theatre; and
Corvin Ter
across Űllöi ut to the Kilian Barracks where the freedom fighters staged their last stand. I was very surprised by how modest the memorials to this horrific event were.

Our trip home from Vienna east on the A4 allowed us to detour about a half hour south to the town of
Brücke von Andau - 1956
Andau, and then another nine miles further south to the marshy fields near the bridge and canal. The original bridge was blown up by the Russians after their discovery of the escape route, but it was restored close to its original design in 1996.
The site dripped with memory; hopes both fulfilled and extinguished. It was well worth the diversion, as I was reminded
Brücke von Andau 
once again how lucky I was to be born when and where I was.

Friday, December 19, 2014


From our base in Budapest, we took an overnight trip to Bratislava, capital city of Slovakia. It’s surrounding  geography has been added to or carved up by empires since Austro-Hungarian times; after WW I the Slovak and the Czech republics’ were combined into the victorious Allies muddled construction of Czechoslovakia. 
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, and mostly through the efforts of Václav Klaus, in January 1993 these two culturally autonomous regions were formally split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. This “Velvet Revolution” should stand as a model for currently contentious independence and separatist movements in both Europe and Africa; it was a peaceful and collaborative endeavor.

Slovak National Uprising Bridge
We entered the city from the south, over the 1970’s iconic Slovak National Uprising Bridge, with its asymmetric cable-stayed construction and strangely perched UFO restaurant, shaped as a Soviet inspired flying saucer, at the pinnacle.

Our hotel, Radisson Blu, was well located on Hviezdoslavovo Námestie (“square” in Slovak), although the hotel itself was a bit tired and dated.  We were quickly out to the old town.

Old Town Hall
First stop was the Hlavné Námestie, centered on the 1572 Maximilian Fountain. Unfortunately, the Christmas Market cluttered things, the haphazard wooden huts huddled together with their seasonal trinkets, sausages and other not so culinary delights. Surrounding the square was the 17th century Jesuit Church and the 15th century Old Town Hall, with its tall Baroque tower – a long climb of stairs is rewarded with an excellent view of the city. Klostolná Street leads off this square to Primaciálne Námestie and to the Primatial Palace; one of the city’s finest Neo-classical buildings, its pink and gold façade is crowned with the bishop’s coat of arms and topped with a giant-sized cardinal’s hat.

St. Martin's Cathedral
Moving further north we took in the Franciscan Church and the 14th century Michael’s Gate, the only surviving gateway to the medieval city. Turning south again, we walked through the Františkánske Námestie with its Marian Column and then west toward St. Martin’s Cathedral. It is an imposing Gothic edifice, completed in 1452 and host to coronations of eleven Hungarian kings and eight queens.
We returned to the hotel looking for the Esterházy Palace; unfortunately some misguided architect had grafted on a hideously contemporary dark stone boil of a structure, totally annihilating the esthetic of this classical building – thankfully it was closed for renovation (hopefully demolition).

The hotel’s restaurant was inexplicably completely closed for a private function (to hell with its guests, comrade!).Trip Advisor gave La Monde Restaurant a good review, so I booked there. It was close to the hotel, the décor a bit odd, but the food and wine didn’t disappoint. A short walk after dinner, we crashed to bed.

Up early the next morning, we visited the Bratislava Castle, first foundations dating to 907. History
Bratislava Castle
took it though the competing architectural styles, but in 1811 it burnt down, reconstruction not beginning until the 1950s and still ongoing. Eventually its Baroque splendor will be restored; there is a pleasant new picture gallery on the second floor. Afterward, we returned to the Old Town Hall to visit the City Museum, well worth the time. By noon we had checked out and were on our way back to Budapest.

Bratislava is still finding its way from a provincial administrative center of Czechoslovakia to the capital city of Slovakia within the European Union. Its geography pins it to the western boarder of this new country of 5.4 million and awkwardly, it is more closely in tune with Vienna than its eastern citizens. An old civilization trying on a new skin and political reality – I will be curious as to the future.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Eger in December

Since November of last year, we have been spending more time in Hungary and Budapest. While here, we decided to stay in a spacious flat in the V District, close to Vörösmarty tér, instead of our longtime haunt of the Four Seasons Gresham Palace.
I have been remiss in my writing from here; this blog will start to correct this.

Dan & Judith - Castle Wall
Travelling by car, Eger is two hours east of Budapest. I found it an optimistic and young town compared to the more traditional Magyar state of melancholy; fresh student faces and an upbeat mood pervaded. The town is bursting with history; the Eger Castle was the country’s defender in the six week 1522 siege by the Turks; Hungarians outnumbered five to one. The ten foot outer walls would be menacing to even the most fearsome foe and the Turks retreated, but were back 44 years later to eventually claim this prize. In 1702 the Habsburgs completed the destruction – the castle now mostly ruins – slowly being restored.
Still, the Bishop’s Palace has been redone and houses a very nice historical museum. Also, there is a very nice café, the “Teto Centrum” where we warmed up over cappuccinos.

Cathedral Fresco
Walking down from the castle’s plateau, we crossed the Eger and travelled along Kossuth Lajos utca, a wide boulevard studded with 18th century Rococo mansions. The nicest is #4, the Vice-Provost’s Palace dated from 1758. Further along, the Eger Cathedral, second largest in Hungary, anchors two other buildings in a pleasant square.  Unique, its cupola is shorter than its two western towers, the east displaying an impressive colonnaded façade with figures representing Faith, Hope and Charity.  The interior is a bit somber, with the exception of the ceiling fresco adorning the central cupola. The remaining two buildings are the Lyceum, demoted from university status only because of its connection to the church, and the grand Bishop’s Palace, unfortunately closed for renovation.
17th C. Minaret

Moving north, there is the second main square of Eger, Dobó István ter. Pleasant in spite of the Christmas Market chaos, the Minorite Church of Saint Anthony dominates. The rounded, tiered façade with its twin towers is much richer and ornate than that of the Eger Cathedral. After visiting, we stopped for a so-so lunch at Főtér Kávézó.
We finished our tour seeing a 17th century minaret, the northernmost Ottoman relic in Europe. The mosque next door was demolished in 1841, but the minaret stubbornly stands, its sleek 131 foot, fourteen sided symmetry withstanding the storms of this town’s history.

All in all, a good day trip; we were back to Budapest for dinner. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Bully in Chief

In conversations lately, many friends and acquaintances have voiced “disappointment” in President Obama. Most voted for him twice, so these thoughts aren't from some Tea Party fringe. A recurring theme is that Obama doesn't exhibit enough “strong will” and “single-minded purpose.” This crops up in some discussions of domestic policy, but much more often the topic is foreign policy. My friends, and many international ones, point to “red lines” crossed and ignored, disrespect from other heads-of-state and a general dissipation of American power.

I can’t agree with most of this. America and the world should not push Obama to take “macho lessons” from Putin or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. For that matter, also not from McCain or other of our own government types that present things in oh so clear “black and white.”

Two points form the basis of my thoughts on this matter.

First, we shouldn't be surprised (nor should Obama) that we have bad actors and awful conflicts being inflicted on our world. In 3,400 years of documented history, most of the time humans have been at war, not peace – its how we have settled things since we started walking upright. It is hard to pin down with any accuracy, but some historians write that of those 3,400 years, perhaps 200 – 300 could be considered globally peaceful – ten percent.

Second, at present the United States military is without equal. We seem to forget that in the spring of 2003 we demonstrated this to the world. In six weeks America, with little real help, defeated the 375,000 troops of Saddam Hussein with a loss of 138 American lives. I am in no way defending this disastrous foreign policy or diminishing the sacrifices made, but merely pointing out how easily the third most highly regarded military machine at that time was crushed by ours. The United States spends over $600 billion on defense, 36% of the world’s total, and more than the next 15 top spenders combined.

I think Obama’s slow, non-confrontational and stoic approach will prove to be less dangerous, less deadly and more effective than if we had a Putin-like pugilist in the White House. The world doesn’t need a yet another trigger happy demagogic bully. But we cannot look like we have no policy or a policy of weakness. We must communicate and telegraph to the world and to the bullies what we plan to do and how we will react. This Obama has done poorly.

His communication must become simple, direct, unambiguous and totally lacking “footnotes.”

President Obama should tell America and the world:

·         Humans are a warring bunch, so we shouldn't be surprised and should prepare to have conflicts that destroy life and infrastructure. Innocent people will be hurt the world over, even in America. Saying otherwise is a cruel fiction.
·         America remains the most dominant military the world has ever experienced, stronger than any other by a large measure.
·         The pure military threat is the least of our concern. We can be late to the game, very late, and still have an assured victory if the political world stage is properly set and nations agree to the course of action.
·         America has a responsibility to the rest of the world because of our wealth and strength. This includes when we are directly threatened, but also if others are threatened. We have a big stake in not letting any part of the world sink into chaos because left unchecked it will destabilize and spread. At its heart this is a moral position that Americans can respect and the world can admire. Isolation is a naive mirage in the world we now live in.
·         America will support an economic or military response to aggression only in coordination with and the approval of the United Nations, not unilaterally. Two exceptions will apply: first, to an attack on America or Americans; second, in response to a lawful invitation from an allied country for help that is urgent to their survival.
·         America will demand little, but will be firm that our approval and participation requires directly affected nation neighbors to the conflict to have “skin in the game” in proportion to the threat against them. We will never again be seen as a solitary mercenary force fighting someone else’s battles.
·         If America responds, we will be all in. This means that our decision will not be limited, sequential, stepped or measured; we will specifically announce that our response will be what is appropriate and proportional to the size and capability of our forces, agreed among the UN nations participating. It is self defeating to limit our action to air support or other limited tactics; we must, up front, fully commit to the endeavor – or not commit at all. Mixed messages are always taken as a sign of weakness by a bully
·         America will make solving the Israeli and Palestinian crisis within three years a top priority and no longer allow either party’s brinkmanship of the process. Until this is believed by the Arab world, America realizes that our standing and influence in this region of high conflict is diminished.

Even our military says the “military” part is easy if the mission is clearly stated and the commitment is “all in.” Obama, and many presidents before him, have not taken this message fully to heart. It will take some time for the world to know that we have “put money where our mouth is.” This will be tough for awhile; America will be tested and pulled into some conflicts where a bully has over played his hand. But at some point, future bullies will understand consequences and therefore be smart enough not to overplay.

And America will wake up to a new found respect and stature in the world; and American’s will feel better about themselves, their leadership and their military.

Case in point to my argument about going slow is the current campaign in Syria and Iraq against IS. The effort underway is now supported by Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This would not have been the case if we acted more unilaterally nine months ago against Assad.

We and the world do not need more bluster; we need a calm and steely strong reserve and clearly communicated, simple foreign policy principles. And if the UN and EU finally realize that they cannot just wait for America to run out of patience; then they too will perhaps face their responsibilities more forthrightly.

The military dimension is not the critical item here; it is the hearts and minds aspects of the world community. Luckily, our military might allows the international organizations to muddle along a bit as they create a consensus for appropriate action.

I like that Obama isn't a hot headed, testosterone fueled leader. We have enough of those, and our country is powerful enough not to need one.  We need more Gary Cooper, less James Cagney.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia | July 2014

July 6, 2014; Sunday
We left Budapest for Zagreb after lunch; a three and a half hour, 210 mile trip. Checking into Hotel Esplanade Zagreb, it was out to their terrace for a relaxing late afternoon, followed by dinner at the hotel’s restaurant, “Zinfandels.” We had stayed here overnight on our May trip to Istra; it’s a bit dated but comfortable and well located.

July 7, 2014; Monday
Awoken by our 6:00 am call we had a quick breakfast and were off to Plitvice Lakes National Park on a beautiful sunny morning. Although it’s only 85 miles south of Zagreb, it’s still a two hour drive. After a short stretch on the E65 to Karlovac, the balance of the trip is on the twisting single lane D1.

Galovac Jezero
Plitvice Lakes is the largest and oldest of Croatia’s eight national parks, opened in 1949 and placed on UNESCO’s heritage listing in 1979. The 115 square mile park consists of 16 lakes; cascading waterfalls and breath taking scenery at every turn. Trails and wooden footbridges connect everything, as well as an electric boat to move visitors along the largest lake, Jezero Kozjak. The pools of water are exquisite hues of azure, blue and turquoise; impossible to describe in word. The local geology over the millennia has created a world of beauty and a unique biodiversity. This place should not be missed, in spite of the sometimes crowded pathways and mostly unhelpful staff.
Judith and Dan
We spend four hours on the trails, lastly taking the difficult “K” route to the panoramic view of the big waterfall - the Veliki Slap. On this trail we met a lone woman who looked a bit lost. We asked her if she needed some help, and subsequently she tagged along with us as we attempted to discern the very poorly marked route. But our fortitude paid off as we stumbled upon the vista looking out to the Veliki Slap and the whole of the lake system – wow, one of the most beautiful views of my life!
We climbed down the steep and winding steps to the base of the waterfall, and then back up the other side of the ravine to the parking lot
Plitvice Panorama
and our car. Our trail companion, Angie, who turned out to be a botanist from Munich, hitched a ride with us to Zagreb; so we had some pleasant conversation to pass the time on our journey back.

We arrived at the Esplanade by 5:30 exhausted. After a cleanup we had some drinks on the terrace, and afterward a pleasant dinner in the relaxed café amid a threatening thunderstorm. Obviously sleep came quickly and easily.

July 8, 2014; Tuesday
We slept soundly. The morning was unlike yesterday; dark, dreary and drizzling. After breakfast we started our return to Budapest, but with a stop in Varaždin. This city is first documented in the late 10th century, but came into prominence in the 16th as a border fortress defending the Habsburg territories from the Ottomans.

Dodging the rain, we visited the Varaždin Castle and Civic Museum, a most down in the mouth monument and exhibit. That finished, we hopped back in the car and finished the drive, arriving in Budapest early afternoon. It was a wonderful trip, but we are glad to be back.