Tag Archives: Europe

EUROPE 2011: Danube Bend, Hungary

Szentendre on the DanubeDuring our 1994 trip to Europe, we had reserved a day cruise down the Danube River from Vienna to Budapest, but due to a misunderstanding with the hotel concierge, the trip never occurred. Ever since, I had had Budapest and a Danube River cruise on my wish list. Now that I had seen Budapest, I was looking forward to today’s river voyage, despite the grey, chilly, misty morning. And according to the weather report, no improvement was in sight.

Esztergom Basilica, Hungary on this side and Slovakia across the Danube Bend We met our tour guide at the Intercontinental Hotel, next door to the Sofitel, and were immediately informed that the river cruise had been canceled. Evidently, the water level on the river was too low. Instead, we boarded a bus for a full-day excursion of the Danube Bend.

Esztergom Basilica Our first destination was the artist city of Szentendre, home to Caprice International, a diamond exchange factory that opened about fourteen years ago. We watched a film on jewelry design and viewed an exhibition of Hungarian jewelry, giving us an insight into the history of Hungary’s one-thousand-year-long culture of jewelry making. Next, we visited the showroom where thousands of jewels were on display; diamonds as well as other precious stones, and most offered for sale at special manufacturer’s prices.

Crypt in the Esztergom Basilica on the DanubeOur next stop was Esztergom, the former capital of Hungary from the tenth until the middle of the thirteenth century. Esztergom is the seat of the Hungarian Catholic Church and home to the Basilica of Esztergom, a masterpiece of classicism, and the third largest church in Europe. The cathedral sits on the right bank of the Danube, which forms the border with Slovakia.

Spires of Esztergom Basilica on the Danube The grey, neoclassical basilica is colossal in size and has a central dome that is over two-hundred-and-thirty-feet high. Construction began in 1822 on the site of its destroyed counterpart, another casualty of the Turks. Such destruction is also evident in the smashed faces of the statue Gabriel, and the missing heads on the angels above the altar in the Bakócz Chapel.

The red-and-white marble Bakócz Chapel is a splendid example of Italian Renaissance stone carving and sculpture. The copy of Titian’s Assumption over the church’s main altar is said to be the world’s largest painting on a single canvas. But I was more interested in seeing the crypt, a series of tombs guarded by monoliths representing mourning and eternity. From the depths of the cellar, we climbed to the cupola for the outstanding views of the city: a four-hundred-step hike.

Vadaszcsarda RestaurantBy the time we completed our tour of the basilica and the neighboring grounds, the noon hour was near so we boarded the bus for lunch at Vadaszcsarda Restaurant. On the drive, I spotted what looked like castle ruins on a hill. Intrigued, I asked our guide about them. She seemed quite disinterested in the castle and said she would give me a brief history after lunch. As far as I was concerned, I would have traded our time at Caprice International for the opportunity to explore the ruins. Our restaurant, I discovered, sat on a rise, affording an ideal vantage point for snapping photos of the castle, but this was the extent of my exploration—through a zoom lens.

According to our guide, the castle ruins were actually the ruins of a military camp built on Sibrik Hill, which overlooks the Danube, in the town of Visegrád. The camp had a triangular ground plan and was built in the first half of the fourth century as one of the important fortifications along the limes: a border defense system of Ancient Rome. In the early fifth century, the Roman army abandoned the military camp. She also informed me that there is an upper castle, lower castle, and a royal palace, but I had to Google “Visegrád Castle” for the history, as the time had come to depart for the artist town of Szentendre, our final destination of the day.

Visegrad castle ruins by the DanubeNo sooner had we entered the riverside town and parked, it began to drizzle. In minutes, the drizzle turned to rain, sheeting down steady and fast. Those of us intent on shopping ran down the cobblestoned streets and dashed from store to store. My plans to stroll this charming town with its Mediterranean atmosphere never happened, as the rain showed no signs of easing. Disappointed, we camped out in the Dorothea Bistro Café for the two-hour duration and became better acquainted with Brad and Kat, a Canadian couple who were our bus companions.

I had read that after the Turks left Szentendre, mostly Serbian refugees had settled here, followed by Hungarians, Slovaks, Germans, Greeks, and Romanians; each ethnic group establishing its own section of the town, thereby creating a versatile townscape. After scrolling through pictures of Szentendre on the Internet, and seeing the well-maintained merchant houses that encircled the main square, I had hoped to photograph a good portion of the town, in addition to some impressive riverscapes, but it was not to be.

Precisely two hours later, our guide ushered everyone toward the bus and we piled on, all of us damp to dripping wet, for the drive back to Budapest. At our hotel, we changed into dry clothes and braved the pouring rain for dinner at an Italian restaurant located near the Sofitel. We retired early, for tomorrow we had a long train trip from Budapest to Prague, in the Czech Republic.

Next week: “Europe 2011:,Prague, Czech Republic.”

EUROPE 2011: Budapest, Hungary


Author Pat Krapf in Budapest HungarySplit Airport TerminalThe following morning we arrived at the bus station to catch a ride to the Split Airport. The day started on an amusing note. When we handed our bus tickets to the driver, I was surprised to see the same man who had taken us on a detour to somewhere in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I didn’t think to ask him, “Where were we in Herzegovina?” However, I did ask about our route to the airport, and he laughed. Nonstop, he assured me: bus station directly to the airport. But it proved only a partial truth; we made two stops to pick up some associates of his, but other than that, the trip was uneventful.

Giant apple in split airportI’ve been in my share of airports, and while some can be interesting and/or fun for one reason or another (the food or shops, for example), I was literally blown away by the modern architecture of the Split Airport. And never while waiting for a flight to depart have I felt the compunction to wander an airport to snap pictures, but that’s precisely what I did. Modern and stunning can’t even capture its originality, so I’ve posted photos of the airport in this blog. The giant bronze apple was in the upstairs restaurant. The photo of the airport entrance was taken by Ballota, a local photographer.

Split AirportBefore we boarded our flight from Split to Munich, I spent my remaining kunas, the currency of Croatia, on chocolates, then settled into my seat onboard the commuter jet for the fifty-five-minute flight. We had a rather lengthy layover in Munich, so we ate a late lunch at the airport, a surprisingly good meal of filet, roasted potatoes, grilled vegetables, and strudel for dessert.

We arrived late in Budapest, 10:30 p.m., but had prearranged transportation from the airport directly to the Sofitel Hotel. The Parliament buildings on the hill and the bridges aglow in yellow light was a magnificent scene, picture perfect. Only a light dusting of snow would have made the setting more magical, and coming from someone who detests the cold like me, that’s admitting a lot. I couldn’t wait for morning and the chance to explore. To say I fell immediately in love with Budapest was an understatement.

Hero's SquareOur first order of business on our first full day was to tackle the lavish buffet breakfast set out by the hotel. During our meal, we mapped out our ambitious plans for the day. Walking was high on the agenda, so we followed our familiar regimen of collecting water bottles, sunscreen, cameras, and anything else we thought we might want or need for the morning’s excursion.

First on our sightseeing list was Heroes Square, which was quite a hike from our hotel, but the warm yet overcast day proved ideal for working off the big breakfast we had just consumed. Once we were on Andrássy Avenue, the main boulevard, it was a straight walk to the square.

Budapest Hungary Terror MuseumAs we drew near a stark blue-gray building, we were drawn to it out of curiosity. Standing in front of the structure, we noticed its black awning with cutout letters that formed the word “TERROR.” Almost ominously, the sun peeked out, and the word was projected on the walls of the building, which turned out to be Budapest’s House of Terror. During World War II, after Hungary allied itself with Germany, it was overtaken by Hungary’s Arrow Cross Nazi party. The members practically exterminated Budapest’s Jews. Countless victims were interrogated, imprisoned, and tortured in the basement cells of the building, which is why it has such significance as a site of terror and is now a museum. On the exterior of the building at street level is a long line of plaques commemorating the victims. Seeing photos of the dead was powerfully moving, disturbing, and sobering. We continued on in silence.

Heroes Square, Budapest’s largest public square, was created in 1896 to mark the one thousandth anniversary of the country’s birth. The main attraction is the Millennium Monument, completed in 1929. It honors the Magyar tribes that founded the country. The tall central column is topped with a statue of Archangel Gabriel holding a crown and the double cross of Christianity. Behind the monument on both sides are two curved colonnades, each with six pillars. Between the pillars are statues of famous Hungarian kings and important Hungarian historic figures. Constructed during the reign of the Habsburgs, the spaces between the colonnades were intended for statues of royals but were used instead for statues of freedom fighters following World War II. On top of the colonnades were statues symbolic of knowledge, glory, war, peace, work, and welfare.

Budapest Hungary Vajdahunyad Castle FrontFrom Heroes Square we proceeded on to Vajdahunyad Castle, also built in 1896 as part of the Millennial Exhibition. The castle’s design incorporates several architectural styles copied from landmark buildings from across the Kingdom of Hungary, especially the Hunyadi Castle in Transylvania, (now in Romania). Depicted are the styles of the Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque periods. Originally built of cardboard and wood, because of its popularity it was rebuilt in stone and brick from 1904–1908. Today the castle houses the Museum of Hungarian Agriculture.

Budapest Hungary Vajdahunyad Castle SideI snapped quite a few photos of the castle, because it will be featured in a future Darcy McClain thriller. After my short photo shoot, we paused in the courtyard to photograph the statue of Anonymous, the nameless medieval chronicler to King Béla. Which King Béla is uncertain, as there were four with this name.

The castle is surrounded by Városligeti Lake, a man-made lake used for boating in the summer and ice skating in the winter. Skating was once a favorite winter sport of the elite and is now a favorite pastime for all.

Budapest Hungary Robinson's RestaurantA little before noon, we wandered past the entrance to the Budapest Zoo but unfortunately did not have the time to stop in, as we had lunch reservations at Robinson Restaurant. The restaurant is on a small island on Városligeti Lake, a pleasant, relaxing setting. All of these sights, Heroes Square, Vajdahunyad Castle, Robinson Restaurant, the zoo, as well as other landmarks, are located in the city park area and are within easy walking distance of each other. Service at the restaurant was slower than anticipated, so when we finished our meal we wanted to return to the hotel as quickly as possible. On our way to the Robinson, I had spotted a sign for a subway and suggested we check this out.

In the midst of a language problem with the woman at the subway’s ticket office, and growing more frustrated every time she refused our money, we were approached by a young woman who asked if she could be of assistance. We explained our dilemma, as we saw it, and the young woman said something to the ticket taker. The older woman gave our Good Samaritan an exasperated look, snatched our forints from the young woman’s hand, and handed over two tickets along with some change. We thanked her and asked what had we done wrong. “Nothing. She wanted the exact price for the tickets because she is short on change. Stay on the train until the line terminates,” said our Good Samaritan as she boarded the subway. Next week, we explore more of Budapest’s greatest landmarks.

Next week: “Europe 2011: Budapest, Hungary – Part 2.”

EUROPE 2011: Dubrovnik, Croatia – Part 2

Dubrovnik city wallWe woke to a warm, sunny October day and prepared for our morning trek on the walls of Dubrovnik. We’d heard that on top of the fortifications the sun can be intense and there were few shady places, so we slathered on sunscreen, donned baseball caps, and stuffed water bottles into our daypacks. Then we headed in the direction of the Stradun, the streets deserted at six-thirty on a Sunday morning. Or so we thought.

Dubrovnik jam festival As we turned the corner, the hum of excited voices filled the air. Unbeknownst to us, we were in for a sweet treat. Today was the last day of the Croatian festival of jams and jellies. The event is held in front of the Church of St. Blaise, and over thirty small producers exhibit more than a hundred types of jams, jellies, and marmalades: orange, fig, plum, lemon, cherry, strawberry, and other fruits, and in all possible combinations. And to add to the festive mood, all exhibitors dress in the costumes of their regions.

As enticing as it was to linger at the jam and jelly displays, we wanted to beat the tourist crowds, so we continued on to the nearest ticket office at the Ploče Gate. There, we stopped briefly to photograph the dozens of cats and kittens waiting patiently for a woman to feed them.Women at Dubrovnik jam festival

A few minutes later, we began our mile-and-a-quarter trek atop the massive stone fortifications that encircle the city. For almost as long as Dubrovnik has existed, so have the walls, which were beefed up during the fifteenth century because of threats from the Ottoman Empire.

If you are interested only in speed-walking the wall, it can be done in an hour, or so we were told. However, we devoted the entire morning to the walk, interested in capturing all of the views and taking our share of photos. The day before, we had purchased a guidebook and therefore had a general understanding of the history of the City—with a capital C according to the inhabitants—and the construction of its walls.

From our lofty perch atop the ramparts, there were magnificent vistas in all directions, and we paused to photograph every one. The first thing that captured my attention was the sea of reddish-orange roofs that stretched to the cobalt-blue Adriatic—a captivating visual. Upon closer examination, I noticed the difference in color between the older tiles and the newer bright orange tiles, replaced after the recent siege of 1991-1992. Although I saw a few damaged structures from the bombings and signs of buildings under repair, the City has made remarkable progress in restoring Dubrovnik to its original state.

Dubrovnik Minceta Fortress wall Engrossed in what it must have been like to man the city walls during a siege, I walked slowly along the narrow stone passage to the Towers of St. Lucy and St. Barbara, and then climbed to the top of the Minčeta Fortress for a panoramic picture of the Adriatic.

At the Bokar Fortress, Dave stopped to consult the guidebook on the history of the walls, while I snapped photos of everything from the rooftops, to the sea, to arrow slits cut into the bulwarks, to cannons, and even the moat below the defensive walls—a total of over a hundred pictures on this morning alone.

During one of these history interludes, I meandered to the outer edge of a wall and peered over the side into what looked like someone’s private garden; a peaceful, sun-dappled yard. Three walls framed the stone patio where a table and two chairs sat. On one wall, bridal wreath bushes in bloom hugged the crumbling stone. On the other a fuchsia bougainvillea sprawled across the enclosure, and on the wall closest to me thrived glossy-green trees. Of what kind I had no idea, until a soft breeze kicked up the clean, inviting scent of lemon. Then I saw the fading blossoms on the citrus trees.Dubrovnik city walls

At the Tower of St. Mary, we took a water break. Here, on the highest point of the peninsula, was the site of the original settlement. As we closed in on the noon hour, the number of tourists had increased, and despite the posted signs telling wall-walkers to proceed counterclockwise, not everyone heeded the rule. However, a couple ahead of us sent a group of ten packing in the right direction, so we could make our way to the bastion of St. Margaret, then the Fortress of St. John, without dodging oncoming tourists.

After our hike along the wall, which reminded me of my backpacking days but without the heavy pack, we had worked up quite an appetite. So back at street level, we cut through the Stradun from the Ploče Gate to the Pile Gate, on the lookout for a lunch place.

At the gate, we had a rather lengthy delay as we waited for the cast of Game of Thrones to conclude shooting a scene. Finally, we crossed the Pile Bridge and immediately spotted Restaurant Dubravka 1836. More interested in giving our feet a short break than anything, we each relaxed with a glass of a local wine, ordered seafood salads, and ate our meals with four friends—pigeons—looking on.

Dubrovnik Fort LawrenceWe worked off lunch with a trek up the hill to Louvrjenac, the Fort of St. Lawrence, an impressive limestone fort that gave us a stunning vista back across the water to the walls of Dubrovnik. Engraved on the lintel above the fort’s gates is a message for the world: “Freedom cannot be sold for any gold.”

We returned to the Stradun at a slow gait, taking in the sights and the sounds of the jam and jelly festival as it wound down. On the steps of the Church of St. Blaise, a group of men appeared and serenaded the crowds, singing a cappella. Then church bells resounded throughout the City, an uplifting and moving experience.

That night, we ate dinner at Restaurant Gallus, and the owner engaged us in a lengthy and informative conversation regarding the 1991-1992 siege. He apologized for interrupting our meal with his musings. We quickly responded by thanking him for this personal perspective on the harsh realities of war. He left us with these words: “There is nothing more precious in the world than freedom.” Next week, we board a bus for Split, Croatia.

Next week: “Europe 2011: Dubrovnik to Split, Croatia.”