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Sunday, September 18, 2016

Riviera: September 2016

We’ve been coming to South of France for over twenty years. In fact, this was our twentieth consecutive September staying at La Réserve de Beaulieu, in Beaulieu-sur-Mer. Judging by our photographs over the years, we have aged more poorly than the property – still “we fight the good fight.”

Since our first visit along the Côte d’Azur and more particularly the Alpes-Maritimes, we have seen the tragedy of 9/11 unfold and increasingly are witness to retirements of staff that had become good friends. Such is life. Roget, maître’d  hôtel at La Réserve has retired to Mougins and his antique cars; Jean-Louis, the wonderful sommelier, to his cigars; and Gerard, pool manager extraordinaire, to dote on his granddaughters. Come to think of it, I have also become “retraité.”
Promanade Rouvier - walking to La Civette
This last trip, from September 1 – 10, was both familiar and new. Our morning walks to St. Jean Cap Ferrat and breakfast at Café La Civette, my cappuccino at poolside, swims before lunch, afternoon meals at our table on the hotel’s jetty, reading, snoozing, a bit more swimming; perhaps a Bellini with the sun’s last rays; these replay year on year. So too our aperitifs in the garden served by the always superb Alexandre; the Michelin-starred meal on the glorious terrace sometimes with the moon bubbling out of the sea; and a final Muscat in the garden before dropping off to sleep in our room, #43.
But there is renewal. The very young Michael now ably controls the pool even if Judith mothers him a bit. Guillaume has seamlessly taken charge of the restaurants and added his more modern and relaxed touches. Daniel watches over the wine cellar. The deck of the pool area has been resurfaced, new sun beds; everything painted, polished, buffed for the upcoming season.
Adjectives are continuity, elegance, luxury, refinement, uniqueness, charm, comfort – all orchestrated by La Réserve’s long-term proprietors, the Delion family.
We wandered out a bit this year with dinners at La Mère Germaine in Villefranche (wonderful Sole Meniere) and the casual port restaurant African Queen for pizza (Elton John was a no-show this year). Marylène stopped for lunch with us at the hotel. We also visited with the Alan’s at their villa overlooking Villefranche and Cap Ferrat; and dined with them in Monaco at Quai des Artistes.

The weather was perfect; in all a delightful ten days.

We’ve spent much less time in the Var, but were in St.Tropez with friends this June. We enjoyed ourselves; the place has “calmed down” since it’s heady days of the 1970s. On that trip we had a dinner at “la Voile” at Hôtel la Rèserve Ramatuelle. The meal was excellent and we looked at rooms afterward and were impressed. Thus we booked for five days following our stay in Beaulieu-sur-Mer.
La Réserve Ramatuelle

The property is sleek and minimalist, beige washed render, glass expanses, yellowed stone walkways, flowers all around, many burbling water features. It is outside of St. Tropez in Ramatuelle, near the Pampelonne Beaches. The hotel tranquilly fits into its surroundings of stone pine, overlooking the sea. Stretching over many acres, it is still intimate - only 9 rooms, 19 suites and 14 detached villas dotting the hillsides. The staff are all young, smartly dressed, thin and beautiful; annoying actually.

After the two hour something drive from Beaulieu,
View from Suite 23
we settled into suite 23. It was a very chic space; three equally sized modules: bedroom, sitting area and bath; with a large terrace facing the sea. The lighting, the large closets and the desk space were all quirky and maddening counterintuitive.
Dinner was at “la Voile” and as good as we had remembered. The head waiter, Csaba, was Hungarian, so Judith was immediately “in.”

Over our five days here many hours were spent by the pool; long and narrow, set on a hillside overlooking the sea. The chairs were pleasantly spaced and comfortable; the guests all well behaved. It was more peaceful than Beaulieu. Lunches were also good; served by the pool under an umbrella of stone pine.

We also had a few excursions. The longest was north to Grand Canyon du Verdon, a
Gorge du Verdon
magnificent gorge extending 26 kilometers from the meeting point of the Verdon and Jabron Rivers, eventually joining the Artuby River, then flowing west into Ste-Croix Lake. The forever twisting D71, La Corniche Sublime, runs above the sheer drops to the riverbed, through the Tunnel du Fayat and finally reaching Les Salles-sur-Verdon and the Ste-Croix. We experienced miles of beauty; with several lookout areas to stop and take in the panorama.
In addition, there was also a small shopping trip into St. Tropez, and short visits to the hill villages of Ramatuelle and Gassin.

There were also some food adventures. We had aperitifs and a wonderful meal at Le Hôtel Byblos’ Alain Ducasse’s “Rivea.” And a people watching feast at the portside fixture of “Le Grieler” on Quai Jean Jaurès.
Best of all was our impromptu lunch at the iconic Club 55 on Pampelonne Beach. A jet set
Club 55
hangout for over 50 years, original proprietors
Geneviève and Bernard de Colmont welcomed avant-garde artists, film stars and of course Brigit Bardot to their sundrenched hedonistic playground. Their children, Véronique and Patrice, have taken over, but it is now closer to “Planet Hollywood,” a counterfeit of what once was. Still it was a gas to see some old, now prune shriveled ghosts of themselves chomping on some crustacean and trying not to get something caught under their dentures.  I’m sure we were being looked at through a similar lens.

In all, it was a wonderful 15 days; happy now to be back in London.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Fear and Uncertainty

The circus of the Republican National Convention is now over; not a picture perfect example for the man that purports to know how to manage things and that says confidently “I’m, like, a really smart person.”
It is perplexing that America is in pretty good shape relative to the rest of the world; yet there is so much angst. Many explanations are out there: globalization, income inequality, lack of mobility, family breakdown, terrorism, moral relativism; the list goes on. This blog is not meant to get into this very important “why.” Rather it is to look to the future with a large degree of fear and uncertainty.

I have written in an earlier blog about “Dangerous Times.” All over the world, inexperienced populists with illiberal inclinations have been elected as “saviors” against some villainous “other.” But in the United States, we seem have taken things one step further. I am distressed for our future.

So using more of Mr. Trump’s words: “Let me dumb this down for you so much that it no longer makes sense.”  Two big perils have been occupying my mind.

First, there is possibility that for the first time since 1825, no candidate will receive the now needed 270 electoral votes to become president. Both Hillary and Donald are not well liked. Pew’s latest poll has only 43% of Democrats “very or fairly happy” with their candidate; the Republican number is lower at 40%. The majority of Republicans, 50%, are voting for Trump “as a vote against” Clinton; the Democratic number “as a vote against” Trump is 55%. The last time these numbers were in this range was in 1992; think Ross Perot getting 19% of the popular vote.
The Libertarian Party is fielding credible candidates in Gary Johnson and Bill Weld. With the Green Party, these alternates are already polling as high as 15%. If Johnson manages to get into the televised debates, this number may go up further. Remember that Ralph Nader most likely lost the election for Gore in 2000 with just 3% of the popular vote.
If we have no winner in the electoral college; the House votes among the top three candidates; each state getting one vote. But since many sparsely populated states in the West are conservative and Republican, it is likely that a close election would go to Trump. This might happen even if Hillary Clinton got the highest popular vote by some nontrivial margin. How would this play out with a disgruntled Democratic plurality? What would our streets look like on Inauguration Day 2017? We might look back to the turmoil of Bush-Gore “hanging chads” with nostalgia.

Second, Trump may win and what kind of government transition might we see. In “the Donald” we have a toxic mix of ego and amateur. Trump has never held a public office, has never been a serious student of public governance, has shown an astounding ignorance of public policy detail, jokes about his lack of knowledge of foreign affairs and has probably insulted more heads of state than Boris Johnson. Many experienced public figures have already rebuffed his advances; just look at how far down the roster he had to go to field a vice-presidential running mate. Many of the brightest will not participate in his administration.

Brexit has given us a taste of unintended consequences; and its current honeymoon period is a calm before the storm. The “Economist” has published a slightly tongue in cheek fictional account of Trump’s “First Hundred Days." 
Here is a link to this piece:

I urge you to take the time and read it.

As with the United Kingdom, we have enough problems without self-inflicted wounds. I hope America can come to its senses and pick the less damaging, less risky candidate, Hillary Clinton. But I am saddened that this is the dearth of our choice. For me, Hillary is at worst lacking authenticity and a deeply ingrained moral compass; and at best, fails by not being able to exhibit them to the voters.

Fear and uncertainty lie ahead of us, which in and of itself will make things worse.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Wörthersee & Lake Bled

From our base in Budapest we took another short three-day trip; this one taking us first to Austria’s Carinthia region and Töschling, a small village 20 kilometers west of Klagenfurt. It’s a
Hotel Schloss Seefels
pleasant five hours drive; we took the southern route on the M7 along the Balaton shore and through Slovenia. Our lodgings, the Hotel Schloss Seefels, sits on the northern shore of Wörthersee, the warmest lake in Austria. It is a peaceful Relais and Chateaux property, we visited here in May 2014.
View from Bar "Porto Bello"
We had a relaxing afternoon lakeside, swimming and lounging in this bucolic setting. Dinner was at the gourmet restaurant, “La Terrasse.” There is a beautiful view of the lake and the imposing backdrop of the Karawanken Alps; the food and service were not as good as we remembered.

On Wednesday July 13 weather turned against us; colder and rain threatening cloud. We made the best of things by two worthwhile excursions.
St. Primus - Maria Wörth
Cemetery View
The first was to the small town of Maria Wörth on the southern shore of the lake. It sits on a promontory jutting into Wörthsee, a church standing here since 875. The current parish of St. Primus is a small but stunning 12th century Romanesque building featuring some wonderful frescos; adjacent is a peaceful cemetery.
Altar of "Madonna"
Then we were off to the second, Maria Saal, about ten kilometers north of the lake. This village also has had a house of worship since the 8th century; the
Maria Saal Church
present one is a pilgrimage church dating to 1450 and a delight to the eye. Inside there are fine ceiling frescos, a baroque high altar with a cast stone Madonna, an exquisitely carved pulpit as well as side chapels so well done as to deserve their own chancels. On the exterior there are two well restored Roman reliefs. Opposite the church is a late gothic octagonal
Maria Saal - Pulpit
mortuary, a 15th century vault and a Saxon chapel dedicated to St. Modestus, founder of the church.
We had a rather hardy (too hardy actually) lunch at the nearby Gasthof Sandwirt; the proprietor juggling roles of host, waiter and chef.

We returned to the hotel late afternoon and rewarded ourselves with a glass of wine at the lakeside bar. Dinner was at the hotel’s casual restaurant, the “Porto Bello,” a nice tart flambé as starter and sea bass to share as a main – more Austrian Riesling flowed. The evening finished with a very strong and long lasting thunderstorm.  

We were due to leave on the 14th but decided to stay another day and tackle another sight that had long been on our list, Lake Bled in Slovenia. Just over the border and through the 8 kilometer Predor Karavanke (tunnel) it is less than an hour south of the Wörthersee.
Lake Bled - Church
Lake Bled is circular, two kilometers in diameter, and fills a hollow gouged out by the retreating glaciers of the last Ice Age. With its aquamarine placid water, fairy tale island church and imposing hilltop castle; Bled has all the boxes checked for a tourist paradise. Unfortunately, the town itself, sitting on the eastern bank, is a bit tacky and overbuilt. This does not, however, impose itself on the natural beauty of the rest of the spot. We found parking and took a slowly rowed skiff to the island and visited the church. The vistas were more impressive than the structures, including a small museum. Afterward, we were
Bled Castle
back to the car for a climb to Bled Castle, an 11th century fortress, one of the oldest in Slovenia.
Finally, we stopped at Vila Bled, originally an aristocratic country house built in 1883. In the 1920s the original building was torn down for a new design, but this was a casualty of the world wars and not completed until 1947, a summer residence for President Josip Tito. In 1984 it was converted into a hotel. We had a light snack at the Belvedere Pavilion that sits precariously on stilts and clings to the cliff face – magnificent views!
Lake Bled Panorama

We were back to the hotel late afternoon, dinner was at the lakeside and very pleasant, but a bit cool. A nightcap in the bar and it was off to sleep. Up early on Friday, we checked out and drove back to Budapest, taking the northern route past Graz and then the M1. In all, a very nice little break.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Austria+ ~ May 2016

On May 3rd we left from Budapest to Szombathely, 2 ½ hours west on the M1 and M86. We arrived a bit after one to the Park Hotel Pelikán. It is quirky property, a modern glass entrance stuck onto a 1900’s building; the rooms were in need of refurbishment.
We had been to this north-western city in the past. It has a Roman history from 43 CE as an important staging area for the amber trade from the Baltics to Italy. After World War I and the Treaty of Trianon, Hungary lost much of its western territories to Austria. This placed Szombathely only ten kilometers from the new state border, so it ceased to be the center of Western Hungary. To make matters worse, during World War II, the city had strategic value because of its rail infrastructure and aerodrome. It was thus bombed heavily by the Allied forces, seriously damaged and slow to recover.

Still, we visited the very picturesque Szombathely Cathedral and Fó ter, the main square of the city. But our main reason for this re-visit was to further investigate my wife Judith’s short history
St Márton's Cemetery
with this place – she lived here when she was two years old, perhaps for a year or a bit more. Judith also returned for a month after the Hungarian Revolution in the summer of 1957.
Our scouting found the house that she lived in on Hunyadi János ut. Miraculously, we also discovered the grave site of her grandfather and grandmother on her father’s side, as well as a great uncle and an aunt in the historic St. Márton’s Cemetery. These were emotional days to say the least; many more mysteries remain in her intricate family puzzle.

So it was a productive two days, and after breakfast we checked out of the Park Hotel Pelikán and were off to Graz.

Graz, the capital of the Styria region, is two hours and 125 kilometers west of Szombathely. We checked into Hotel Schlossberg, a well situated, nice property facing the River Mur which bisects the city on a north-south axis.  Like most European cities with roots in the Middle Ages, Graz is dominated by an easily defended promontory. Known here as the Schlossburg; its steep hillsides rise 400 meters above the Mur and the old town, the Altstadt.

After unpacking we took the modern funicular, the Schlossbergbahn, to the leafy Schlossberg, with its pleasant pathways and wonderful views. A nice lunch was had at Restaurant Schlossberg – tuna carpaccio with Asian spiced vegetable rolls. It was then off to explore; visiting the 1588 Bell
Clock Tower
Tower, the Hacker Lion and Graz’s traditional landmark, it’s Clock Tower, constructed in the 1500’s. We walked back to Altstadt down the Schlossbergstiege, 260 steps traversing the hillside to the Schlossbergplatz. As you may have noticed, there are many places and things named Schlossberg plus “something or other.”

Dinner was at Gasthhaus Stainzerbauer on Bürgergasse, 4; well prepared veal with white asparagus – perfectly in season. A leisurely stroll home, a nightcap at the bar and we were to sleep.

Up to a sunny morning, it was out to see the rest of the city. Graz’s old town spreads south
Graz's Town Hall
from the Schlossberg on the east site of the Mur. It is an impressively clean, regal and lively city. Slackstraße brings you to the main square, the triangular Hauptplatz. Wonderful buildings ring its periphery including the dominating 1850 neo-Renaissance town hall, the beautiful Baroque façade of the Haus am Luegg, Graz’s oldest pharmacy; and in the centre, the fountain of Archduke Johann – its four main female figures represent Styria’s four main rivers: the Mur, Enns, Drau and Sann.
Hauptplatz empties south onto the wide boulevard of Herrengasse. Turning right one enters Landhausgasse and the Landhaus, a masterpiece Italian Renaissance building that hosts the regional parliament. The inner courtyards, open to the public, are a tranquil oasis of round arches and arcades. Lunch was here at the Café Sacher Graz – very relaxed.

After lunch we continued touring by backtracking through Hauptplatz and heading uphill on Sporgasse to another wide pedestrian street, Hofgasse. Right at its entrance there is a splendid wooden shop façade housing a delicious confectionary, Hofbäkerei Edegger-Tax. Further on is the
Cathedral, a former castle church constructed between 1439 – 64. Although some older architecture is visible, including one gothic fresco, most decoration is an explosion of baroque. Adjacent is the Mausoleum of Ferdinand II (1587 – 1637) in the Austrian Mannerist style; another eruption of sculpture and color – cherubs falling all over each other.

Double Spiral Staircase

We continued on to see the impressive engineering of a stone double spiral staircase, built in 1499 in Gothic style, for Maximilian I. Further along is the peaceful Stadpark and Burggarten. Finally, we sat for a drink in Glockenspeilplatz, with Graz’s famous glockenspiel; a sweet maiden and hearty lad clad in traditional costume pirouette three times a day up in a gable of a building on this namesake square - 24 bells play three pleasant tunes.

The timeless beauty of the eastern bank of the Mur is starkly in contrast to the west. Two postmodern structures, in my opinion, jolt the cityscape. I’m sure city planners and their architects had the best intensions. The first, Murinsel, installed in the river in 2003, is the work of New Yorker Vito Acconci. It is like a
floating shell of steel with footbridges to the riverbanks that lead to an amphitheatre and café. It hasn’t aged well to say the least.  The second is the Kunsthaus, also installed in 2003, which houses temporary exhibitions and a restaurant. To me it looks like a dead blue beetle rolled on its back. Some say the contrast between tradition and avant-garde is exhilarating – I do not share this view.  To add to the chaos of the senses, a half new age, half grunge band was playing outside in the Mariahilferplatz; conjuring up the disorder, smells and rubbish of a Euro-Woodstock. We soon escaped back to the peace of the Altstadt.
Dinner was at Welscher Stubn, Schmiedgasse, 5-7; good food but so-so service. We strolled back to the hotel on the now quiet streets, had a quick glass of wine at the bar and were off to bed.

We were up to a pleasant morning for our 2 ½ hours’ drive northwest to the Salzkammergut Lakes region, about 20 kilometres east of Salzberg. It is a picturesque area with over 70 lakes, quaint

Terrace - Schloss Fuschl
villages and breath taking scenery.  Our home for the next few days is at Schloss Fuschl on the southern shore of Fuschlsee. This hotel castle is an exquisite property consisting of 110 rooms, suites and guest cottages with a full range of amenities, including an excellent spa. The walls are adorned with old masters that would make any museum jealous. We settled into our room, number 111, and afterwards had a relaxing lunch on the terrace.
After lunch we were back in the car to explore along route 158; our first stop was St. Gilgen on the south eastern shore of the St. Wolfgangsee. A quick visit and we were off to the northern shore and St. Wolfgang. This village is known for its beautiful 15th century pilgrimage church of its
Michael Pacher's Altar - St. Wolfgang 
namesake St. Wolfgang. Michael Pacher’s high altar is acclaimed as one of the most stunning works of the late Gothic era. The town is delightful.
We were back to the hotel late afternoon and settled on the courtyard terrace for a glass of wine. As we were finishing, a fast moving storm barrelled through; typical of this area. Dinner was in the inside restaurant but still facing the lake. The food was typically Austrian and not too inspiring; we were annoyed by a very spoiled and misbehaved Russian girl a nearby table; grumbling parents oblivious. After a nightcap in the bar, we were off to sleep.

On our second day we drove again on Route 158 south and then east on 145 to reach the village of Hallstätt on Hallstättersee; the Dashstein massif providing a beautiful backdrop. The blue sky and cumulus
clouds presented us a postcard view. Our first stop was to the funicular that travels up over 500 meters to perhaps the oldest known salt mine in the world, dating to 3000 BCE. There have been many Iron Age finds here, so much so that this Celtic period (800 – 400 BCE) is sometimes referred to as the Hallstatt civilization.
The town below grips tenuously to the cliff side, some streets are only accessible from the lakeside. We walked the pretty web of lanes, visiting the Pfarrkirchea 15th century church with a wonderful altarpiece sometimes compared to Pacher’s in St. Wolfgang. After a quick break, we were off to Bad Ischl.

Pfarrkirche -  Hallstätt 

Bad Ischl is known for its saltwater springs. The rivers Traun and Ischl come together here; the riverbanks blend seamlessly into the town. In the 1800s Archduchess Sophie seemingly cured her infertility because of the treatments at Bad Ischl; her most famous offspring was Franz Joseph I. He spent holidays with this wife Elizabeth at their residence here, Kaiservilla, now a museum.
Juxtaposed against the healing powers of its spas, Bad Ischl is also where the declaration of war against Serbia was signed on August 1, 1914 – thus unleashing the death and destruction of World War One; a strange historical footnote.

After some cakes at Café Pfarrgrasse we were back off to Schloss Fuschl, arriving late afternoon. We reviewed our day over a bottle of wine on the sunny courtyard terrace. Dinner was at the hotel; tonight largely abandoned except for ourselves.

We were up to a nice day and got an early start to Linz, 1 ½ hours northeast of Fuschlsee, and checked into Park Inn – Radisson. After a quick unpack, we were out to explore. In a few words, Linz isn’t worth the trip. We were a short walk to Landstrasse and the city’s main square, Hauptplatz. Everything here seemed bland and tired; the churches, monuments; even the city hall. The Baroque Plague Column center stage in the Hautplatz was an appropriate image for the state of Linz.
We had a nondescript lunch and continued our walk to the Danube, and then returned to the hotel late afternoon. Dinner was at the Radisson.

Český Krumlov Castle

The following morning after a proletariat breakfast of which Lenin would be pround, were out and on our way to Český Krumlov, a short hour’s drive north into the Czech Republic. This well preserved Medieval town was founded in the 13th century under the Rožmberk Dynasty, which ruled here until the 1600s.
A UNESCO site since 1992, the town is knotted inside the snaking path of the Vltava River, with the castle set upon the promitory. The second largest in the Republic
Český Krumlov
after Prague, it consists of five main complexes that tier upward from the main gate to the castle gardens. The architecture veers between flashy and gloomy, etched in typical Bohemian sgraffito, but the overall effect is pleasing. There are even bears wandering in the moat. Unfortunately, many of the rooms were closed for a film shoot. Leaving the castle, we stopped at the nearby Latrán area and the Minorite Monastery.
It was then over one of the many wooden bridges to the old town, Vnitřni Mĕsto, and its
Námĕsti Svornosti
immense market square, Námĕsti Svornosti. It is ringed with Gothic and Renaissance façades and in its the center, the “mandatory” plague column with fountain. Neighboring the square is the Church of St. Vitus, whose lofty towers seem to counterbalance the Krumlov Castle above. A triple-aisled Gothic edifice of imposing height, it is one of the oldest examples of net vaulting in Europe.
After a late lunch on the balcony of Hotel Ruže, originally a 16th century Jesuit college, we dragged ourselves back to the car and to Linz. At dinner we decided to cut our stay in Linz by a day and head back to Budapest.

We checked out early from the Radisson and resolved to make one more stop on the way home. St. Florian is only 30 minutes south of Linz and not much out of our way. A magnificent
Augustine abbey and church were built on this site in the 11th century to honor the martyrdom of St. Florian in 304. A complex of buildings, each a Baroque masterpiece, surround a large courtyard. Highlights of our well-presented tour were the library, with its collection of 140,000 volumes; designed by the renowned Jakob Prandtauer, the Marble Hall, and the abbey church with its Anton Bruckner organ and airy stained glass. Words cannot begin to describe the beauty here.
Anton Bruckner Organ
Marble Hall Ceiling

By early afternoon we were back to the car. It was an uneventful four hour drive back to Budapest as we savored our week of memories.

Monday, May 2, 2016

April 2016: Pécs Plus

We are in Budapest for most of April and May. Mid-month we took a three-day trip south to Pécs with plans for a few outings from there. The city is the fifth largest in Hungary with a population of about 150,000. The Romans pushed out the Celts in the 3rd century and set up a provincial capital here, then called Sopianae. The Magyars arrived and developed Pécs into a regional diocese in 1009; Hungary’s first university was started here in 1367.
The invading Ottoman’s turned things upside down in the 1500’s. Most Christian inhabitants were driven from the city, the churches transformed into mosques. In 1686 Louis of Baden liberated Pécs from the Turks and it was slowly repopulated with immigrants from Germany and Bohemia. There was a cultural renaissance in the 18th century; Hungary’s first public library was established here in 1774. Pécs continues to be a centre of learning.

It is an easy 2 ½ hour drive south from Budapest down the well maintained M6, we arrived just after noon. Our base here is a very nice, recently refurbished boutique hotel, the Adele, at Mária utca, 15.

One enters the old town from the north, along the well restored walls, down Hunyadi ut to the
Prayer Niche
largely pedestrian Széchenyi ter. The northern anchor is the circular Gazi Kasim Paha Mosque. Built in 1579 on the site of a Gothic church, it is the largest mosque in Hungary and a key Turkish monument. After the occupation it was converted into the Inner City Parish Church, but with the calligraphy at the entrance, the painted archways and the tucked away prayer niche there remains an Islamic patina.
Széchenyi ter

We were last in Pécs in the 1990s when the area around the mosque was still a haphazard roundabout. It has since been replaced by the very pleasant traffic free square and the promenade of Irgalmasok, which flows southward. We stopped for lunch at the much raved about Hotel Platatinus on Király utca. If one squints, you can see the beauty of this art deco edifice, but it is rather shabby on inspection – the scruffy food and service in perfect harmony.
Afterward, we viewed the exquisite Holy Trinity and János Hunydai Monuments that share pride of place with the mosque in Széchenyi ter; and further down Irgalmasok, the Secessionist 1853
Zsolnay Fountain with this renowned factory’s trademark blue-green porcelain glazing.
Zsolnay Fountain

The neo-Renaissance synagogue, constructed in the 1860s stands in Kossuth Ter as a sad memorial; 5,000 were herded from here in 1944 by the Arrow Cross government and went to their deaths in Auschwitz.  West from here, we also saw the 16th century Jakovali Hassan Mosque, converted into a Catholic Church in 1714, but the original minaret still stands in silent defiance. In 1975 it was transformed into a museum documenting the Turkish occupation.

St. Peter's Cathedral
Heading back to Széchenyi ter it was then to the northwest corner of the old town wall and Dóm tér. St. Peter’s Cathedral stands majestically centre stage. A church has been on this site since 1009, and through fires, looting by the Mongols and other catastrophes has morphed from Romanesque to Baroque to its now Gothic appearance; four corner towers reach for the sky. The interior has elegant chapels in each tower, and wonderful frescos along the ambulatory walls
St. Peter's - Interior

The adjacent Szent István tér is another peaceful square, with two tranquil fountains and a wonderful tree shaded walk.

Dinner was simple and adequate at Jókai Bisztró in Jókai ter. After one more stroll in the in Széchenyi ter’s antique street lamp lit twilight, it was off to bed.

We were up to a nice day and a good buffet breakfast. Our first stop was outside of Siklós, which is the southernmost town in Hungary and a half hour further south of Pécs. The Siklós Castle is the best preserved medieval fortress in the country, dating to 1294. Miraculously it survived without destruction by the Turks or the Habsburgs. There is a small Gothic chapel with two impressive frescos from the late 15tth century, and a compact museum housing a medieval collection of Battthyány family heirlooms.
15th C Fresco

It was then east to the pretty village of Villány, another famous wine region in Hungary; we visited producers Gere, Bock and Malatinszky.

Our final stop was to the battle memorial of Mohács. On August 29, 1526 over 14,000 Hungarian fighters were annihilated by the Turks, lead by Sultan Suleiman I. This site was finally   commemorated in 1976, sixteen years after the ancient mass graves were first discovered.
We arrived to an empty parking lot and met the curator outside tending some flowers. This lovely and educated woman gave us a small private tour of the museum and walked with us around the grounds, which are punctuated with strange carved totems, and mounds marking mass internment sites.
The history here was that the barons had been revolting from the king’s rule; which eventually had these same landed elites fighting among themselves for power and plunder. For much of the beginning of the 16th century there was little focus on the defence of Hungary and its common interest; taxes fell and the army and its infrastructure deteriorated. Thus the army was understaffed and poorly equipped against the onslaught of the well compensated, well supplied Turkish forces – and all paid the ultimate price. Hungary sank into a long period of decline and the defeat, even today, haunts the Hungarian psyche.
Mohács Memorial

Every time I visit one of these memorials, like our visit to Normandy, I’m filled with the sadness of ghosts. So much waste and sacrifice.

After this visit we returned to Pécs and took in two disappointing museums: the Csontváry and the Vasarely. I have come to appreciate both these Hungarian masters, but the exhibits were sparse, gloomy and very lightly attended. Public museums in lesser cities struggle under financial pressure because they lack the mass audiences and big benefactors that the key global art venues enjoy. Who knows if these smaller institutions will survive in the future.

We had early evening drinks at the Fötér Bár overlooking Széchenyi ter and then dinner, again at Jókai Bisztró. We were quickly to sleep.

Hertelendy Kastély
After breakfast we decided to take one more excursion instead of going directly back to Budapest. We had read about a Relais & Chateaux property in Kutas-Kozmapuszta that we were curious about; it was less than 100 kilometres northwest of Pécs; just south of Lake Balaton. Hertelendy Kastély has only 14 rooms and offers a complete array of luxury amenities in the heart of the Somogy hills: a wonderful pool, a spa and wellness centre with medicinal thermal waters, horse stables, a grass airstrip, an Olympic quality skeet field, tennis courts and more. Unfortunately, we learned from the general manager that it no longer is a hotel or within the Relais & Chateaux brand; it now only hosts banquets, weddings and other larger private parties. Too bad, it would have provided a great weekend break.

Lake Balaton
After the visit, we continued north to Szántód on the south shore of the Balaton and took the car ferry across to the picturesque town of Tihany. The town sits on an elevated peninsula jutting into the lake, it forms its narrowest point and provides postcard panoramic views.  The site dates to 1060 and King András. The current Abbey Church, built in the middle of the 18th century, still holds his tomb; the interior is laid out in the Baroque and Rococo styles and is exquisite. The adjacent museum is also worth a visit.
Abbey Church - Tihany

We drove along the northern shore until we reached the M7 and were back to Budapest by the early evening – in all a wonderful trip.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Dangerous Times

My life straddles the Atlantic, one foot in America and the other in Britain and Europe. Because of this, I get to see politics unfold at close range in each spot. Although on the surface there seems to be no theme; actually I think there is a disturbing one.

In a recent piece in the New York Times, David Brooks talked of a widespread “anxiety of impotence.” A large majority of people feel they are powerless. As Brooks writes: “The Republican establishment thinks the grass roots have the power but the grass roots think the reverse…The unions think the corporations have the power but the corporations think the start-ups do. Regulators think Wall Street has the power but Wall Street thinks the regulators do.”

This feeling of helplessness is creating dangerous political trends among the opposition parties, and those former opposition parties that have now come to power. In America, the opposition Republican Party is splintering into the “Trump/Cruz” crazies and the increasingly defensive traditionalists. It is hard to see a reconciliation happening in the next few months. Similarly in the United Kingdom where the Labor Party is in opposition, the far left “Corbynistas,” lead by Jeremy Corbyn; is alienating the party’s more mainstream New Labor “Blairites.” Even parties in power are having insurrections. Bernie Sanders is sniping from the far left in the Democratic Party in the United States; Nigel Farage’s far right UKIP haranguing the Conservatives in Britain.

 This “anxiety of impotence” creates a desire for a “savior,” and there are many firebrands lining up for the job. Their strategies have one common thread; create a villain. For Trump it is the incompetence of the political elite, or alternately Muslims. For Cruz it’s Washington insiders. Bernie blames Wall Street; Corbyn, capitalism. The targets around the world include many minorities: Blacks, gays, apostates, crusaders, the “West”, or the “one percent.” Any “other” that taps into the underlying alienation will do. Institutions are also in the frame: the EU, the UN, or the Supreme Court.

Saviors promise quick solutions to simple problems. Unfortunately our current challenges are not simple problems caused by some bogyman; they are a function of displacement by technology, globalization and poor education. Quick fixes are therefore an illusion, albeit alluring to a disgruntled populace.     

Europe may give us some insight as to what might be heading our way in America and Britain: Hungary’s Victor Orban, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; Russia’s Vladimir Putin and most recently Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński. These leaders are elected saviors – all very popular and each has told their people who is the bogyman and that the solutions are simple. These regimes have given rise to a new term: “illiberal democracy,” coined by Fareed Zakaria in 1997.

Princeton’s Jan-Werner Mueller insightfully challenges this label in a recent blog on “Project Syndicate.” There is no place for the word “democracy” in the description of these governments. A more descriptive phase would be “illiberal authoritarian.” In every case, under the cover of some vague populist rhetoric, national courts have been packed or muted, the media muzzled and minority opposition squashed.   

In early 1918, Mussolini called for the emergence of a man "ruthless and energetic enough to make a clean sweep" to revive the Italian nation. Fascism was born and plagued the world until after World War II.  I am very worried that our “anxiety of impotence” might usher in some form of populist neo-Fascism for much of the world. This will not solve our problems, merely complicate them. And in the process cause untold misery on many a minority - careful, you might be one of them. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Kraków: December 2015

Right before the New Year, we took a three day trip to Kraków. From our base in Budapest, it’s a 400 kilometer trip, mostly non-motorway; so the journey takes about six hours each way. The route is almost due north following Route E77 most of the way, bisecting Slovakia en route. The countryside is not very scenic; much less so than Croatia; we passed through innumerable hardscrabble small towns and villages. It really didn’t matter; we were enveloped by fog and mist most of the way there so our visibility was shrouded. We had booked the Sheraton Kraków for our stay, contemporary, sleek and soulless; but it was convenient for sightseeing and had onsite parking.

Before Warsaw became Poland’s capital city in 1596, Kraków was the seat of power for the previous six centuries – and most believe it is still this nation’s spiritual heart. Today the city has 750,000 residents and a well preserved historic center. Kraków, like most European cities, suffered dramatically during World War II, but endured much less infrastructure damage – more on this later.
The Wisła River forms a winding southern border for the Stare Miasto, or old city, and sightseeing is centered on three areas. The anchor is clearly the Wawal Castle, positioned at a sharp bend in the river – a strategic vantage point for millennia. Heading north from the castle, the pedestrianized Grodzka forms the spine of the old city, leading to the Market Square, or Rynek Glówny. Finally, south of the Wawal Castle is the historic Jewish quarter.

Since 1038 this plateau has been a citadel of sorts and a seat of power. In the 16th century rulers transformed the Gothic fortress into a magnificent Renaissance palace, hosting coronations and royal burials over the ages.
Kraków Cathedral Exterior
Kraków Cathedral
The highlight of the castle complex is the Kraków Cathedral. Even before the present cathedral was built (1320 – 1364), two earlier churches stood on the site. The current Gothic structure was built in the form of a triple-aisled basilica with a transept and a chancel, built on a rectangular plan, with an ambulatory. The exterior seems pasted together from several competing plans, but somehow pleasingly comes together.

Shrine of St. Stanislaw
The interior is awash in beauty beyond the soaring columns: the Shrine of St. Stanislaw, a silver coffin containing his relics; theZygmunt Chapel, a masterpiece of 16th century Italian craftsmanship; and the ornately carved baroque stalls in the chancel.

MARKET SQUARE (Rynek Glówny)
From the castle, one moves north along the Grodzka. About half way or so, there is a smaller square housing the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, twin domed and one of the most beautiful examples of early Baroque in Poland.
St.Adalbert's Church
Continuing, the pedestrianized boulevard opens to one of the largest squares in Europe: Rynek Glówny. In its center stands Cloth Hall, an ornate market hall dating to the 14th century, restored in the Romantic style in 1879. Toward the southwest corner, the Gothic City Hall Clock Tower is all that remains of the old municipal building; and in the southeast, the small and now out of place St. Adalbert’s Church, which predates the current square’s massive proportions. Still, it is a Romanesque jewel.
The Christmas markets interrupted the square’s natural lines of sight, but the façades were all pleasant; many restaurants and shops dotting the ground floors. Leading out of the northwest; there is a fashionable street, Ulica Floriańka, which ends at the medieval royal gate and the old “king’s road” to Warsaw.

Church of St. Mary
All these interesting sites circling Rynek Glówny are dwarfed in size and beauty by the Church of St. Mary; its brick Gothic exterior majestically rising 260 feet to Hejnal Tower and its ancient trumpet call to arms (made famous by Eric P Kelley’s 1929 children’s book, “The Trumpeter of Kraków”).  The church was started in the mid thirteen hundreds, its main patron Casimir III the Great; but building and renovation continued to transform it well into the 16th. The Baroque entrance is a grand pentagonal porch from the 18th century. Neo-gothic paintings cover the walls among the many side chapels. All this is capped by the Altar of the Virgin, a great three meter carved polyptych completed in 1489. We visited twice.
Altar of the Virgin

THE JEWISH QUARTER (Kazimierz District)
Kazimierz was founded in 1335 and soon developed into a thriving Jewish neighborhood. Czech and German Jewish refugees joined the community in the 15th century; the area bears witness to centuries of co-existence with Polish Christians. The Jewish population centered on Szeroka ulica, later known as New Square; a hub of Judaic culture and learning. Synagogues dot the surroundings. We only visited the Temple Synogogue, but walked the streets to see many others including the Old Synagogue and the adjacent Synagogue on the Hill; and the High Synagogue, unfortunately in much distress. There is also a large walled cemetery on Jakuba ulica.
Much of this area suffered greatly in the early months of Nazi occupation, but it has recovered somewhat, even if more slowly than the other areas of the old city. Galleries, cafés and bars are numerous.

Early on in the war, Kraków became the capital of a Nazi pseudo-state, which included the southeastern half of present-day Poland, and southern Ukraine. Overseeing it all was the infamous Hans Frank, who took Wawel Castle as his base. The Nazis under Frank’s leadership delivered a reign of terror on the populace, but infrastructure was preserved. The Jews suffered most; in 1941 the Kraków Ghetto was established in the Podgorze district south of the Wisła River.
The ultimate horror that followed is well known. At the nearby Auschwitz and Birkenau, just 70 kilometers west of Kraków,  one and a half million people were murdered, a quarter of those who died in the Holocaust. Unfortunately, time didn’t allow us a visit here.

But we did visit a death camp in 2004. On May 2 of that year, we travelled to Buchenwald, 8 kilometers northwest of Weimar in Germany. The day fit the visit - dark, cold and drizzling; as we remembered where 250,000 passed through and 50,000 perished. The memorial, including the crematorium, barbed wire, foundations of prisoner barracks and the museum were a moving experience that still sticks with us.
These were not mankind’s best moments; nor are the present barbarities of ISIL. But we also can take some hope from the past; Oskar Schindler saved hundreds of his workers at his Kraków enamelware factory from extermination. The Schindler Museum is now located in the sprawling administration building of the defunct plant at Lipowa ulica, 4; in the city’s grim industrial district of Zabłocie on the right bank of Wisła River. It seeks to retell his story against the backdrop of such horror.

We saw a lot in what amounted to just one full day of sightseeing. The drive was long, but our memories will be longer. The city has an upbeat vibe; people seemed to walk the streets with purpose. Capping things off, we had a few good meals. A nice dinner on our first night at “Szara Kamienica” in Rynek Glówny; and even better, dinner on the second evening at the Relais & Chateaux’s “Restauracja Copericu”. Nicolaus Copernicus, the renowned Polish mathematician and astronomer lodged in this residence during his stays in Kraków in the 16th century.  The food was “heavenly.”
Kraków at Night