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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.