Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Budapest, Hungary: April 21-24, 2018

St. Stephen's Basilica, Budapest

The Airbnb apartment we had reserved was just two blocks from the Chain Bridge where the ship was docked so it was a very easy transition from ship's cabin to roomy apartment. Since we had three more nights in Budapest, the first thing we did was buy a 72-hour Budapest Card which gets you into most museums and almost all public transport without extra charge. Then, we began exploring.

St Stephen's Basilica was about two blocks on the other side of the Airbnb apartment. On one evening, we attended an organ concert with a vocalist. The sound of the organ was especially powerful with the acoustics in the basilica.

We headed back to Castle Hill on the Buda side to see Budapest views and visit the Hungarian National Gallery which is housed in the former castle. In the museum, you can climb a small stairway to the dome and look out over the city.

Budapest was two cities, Buda and Pest, that are now one. Budapest should be pronounced "Budapesht." Buda is the side with hills while Pest is flat land. They are joined by several bridges across the Danube.

Parliament with the Chain Bridge beyond
Parliament is neo-gothic with a romanesque dome. We passed by Parliament several times before I noticed that there sandstone cats sitting atop some of the lower gothic spires.

In the Hungarian National Gallery, my favorite sculpture was "Maya, 1978" a piece by Gyula Pauer (1941-2012). The woman's shape was sculpted in wood, wrapped in silk, and paint applied to create the woman's features. After completion, the wood sculpture naturally split down the middle of the torso and the creative process aided by nature was complete.

A memorial called "Shoes on the Danube Bank" was also sculpted by Gyula Pauer. The memorial was installed to honor the people who were killed by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest in 1944-1945. The victims, mostly Jews, were ordered to take off their shoes and were shot at the edge of the water so their bodies fell into the river and were carried away. 

According to the US Holocaust Museum, "most of the murders along the edge of the River Danube took place around December 1944 and January 1945, when the members of the Arrow Cross Party police (“Nyilas”) took as many as 20,000 Jews from the newly established Budapest ghetto and executed them along the river bank."

The Dohány Street Synagogue, also called the Great Synagogue, is the largest synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world with its ability to seat almost 3,000 people. It was built in the mid 19th century. The architectural style, Moorish Revival with Byzantine and Gothic elements, and its organ set it apart from most synagogues. The original 1859 organ with 5,000 pipes was played by Franz Liszt. The design of the Central Synagogue in Manhattan, New York City, is based upon the Dohány Street Synagogue.

This synagogue was bombed and later used as a stable by German soldiers. "In 1944, the Dohány Street Synagogue was part of the Jewish Ghetto for the city Jews and served as shelter for many hundreds. Over two thousand of those who died in the ghetto from hunger and cold during the winter 1944-1945 are buried in the courtyard of the synagogue" (Wikipedia and the tour guide at the synagogue).

The courtyard cemetery
About 200 bodies are buried in each garden bed. Ivy and mulberry trees were planted over the graves.

Near our Airbnb stay we came across another memorial of sorts. This one is a Memorial Tree in Honor of Michael Jackson. It is located in Erzsébet Square directly across from the room MJ stayed in 1994 and 1996 at the Kempinski Hotel. It is around this tree that fans would gather to watch for MJ. Both times we went past this tree, the same woman tidying up and adding decorations around the tree.

Some of the photos of MJ are quite high up the tree's trunk. MJ's fan said that she used two of the park's trash cans stacked on top of each other in order to reach that high. Each day she replaces the votive candles and adds plastic flowers around the trunk.

MJ Memorial Tree with Kempinski Hotel
The Great Market Hall is two levels of everything you might ever need from restaurant, food, souvenirs, and imported items. We had lunch and strolled around.

On Sunday afternoon we headed to a thermal bath on the Buda side, but we were distracted by the I 🚲 BP ride. The ride went on for hours up and down the Danube and over bridges. If it had wheels it was on the road. One of organizers told us there were about 10,000 riders. It was a good thing we were on foot because traffic on the roads/bridges stopped to allow the bikes to cross. It was cool to watch and then we went to the baths.

"Sightseeing on Land and Water" bus
We visited Budapest in 1994, and it wasn't so nice. All I can say now is what a change. We so enjoyed our few days exploring Budapest. It's very easy to get around using pubic transportation or just walking. Our last morning we were up early and took the subway to the train station to begin our journey to Romania.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Danube River Cruise - Budapest: April 20, 2018

Parliament and the Margaret Bridge
We arrived in Budapest around 10:00 pm last night. Both sides of the Danube were lit like the Electric parade at Disneyland. Our Viking longship gave us a waterside nighttime tour of all those lit buildings. It was quite a memorable entrance and truly glorious. We cruised past our dock and kept going under several more bridges before turning back to dock next to the Chain Bridge. Fabulous!

Parliament located on the Pest side
View of Matthias Church and Buda Castle on the Buda side
We began our first day in Budapest with Viking's "Panoramic Budapest" to some of the highlights like the Matthias Church.

Matthias Church was unlike any structure I'd ever seen. It's interior is painted with a myriad of patterns and jewel-like colors that combine into a warm harmonious vision.

The building was constructed in the 14th century and extensively restored in the 19th century. The church heavily damaged during WWII as it was used as a camp by first German and then Soviet soldiers. It was restored most recently during the years 2006-2013.

Flowering cherry trees were in full bloom along the walkways of Castle Hill.

Later that afternoon, we took one of Viking's optional excursions to see the "legendary Hungarian Puszta (cowboys). It was a fast-paced show with performers dressed as historic figures. After the show we were given a tour of the stables and the petting zoo.

We had one more night aboard our Viking longship and the next day we were on our own. 

After our one-week Viking River Cruise, we now know that at this point in our lives, it is not a good fit for our way of travel. We entered into this cruise with the idea that it was a appetizer for what the cities along the Danube had to offer. At some of the stops it was definitely less satisfying. 

The positive aspects were that the ship and our cabin were very comfortable. It was a low stress way to journey along the Danube. The meals were always good and there were many, many choices. The entire staff was exceedingly courteous and professional. 

The negative aspects (besides those I identified in earlier posts) probably relate to all cruise programs. There are a lot of people and the sights are experienced only in groups. Passengers were split into several groups for each excursion with a "gentle" group for those who preferred a slower pace. We found that the pace of the "normal" group was tediously slow. The walking excursions did not have much actual walking.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Danube River Cruise - Bratislava, Slovakia: April 19, 2018

We'd been looking forward to this stop because this was one of the places that we had not previously visited. Unfortunately, the Bratislava visit was allotted three hours--only. For the Bratislava "Walking" tour, we boarded a bus that took us up to the fort. After looking at the view, we got back onto the bus to return downhill to the central tourist district for the walk portion of the "walking" tour.

Our group as well as groups from other boats were funneled through the narrow pedestrian area and then turned loose for 15 minutes of souvenir shopping. Here are some photos:

Crowds watching the sculpture called "The Watcher" in Old Bratislava
Michael's Gate
Michael's Gate, with portions dating from the 1300s, is the only preserved city gate of the medieval fortifications. It is among the oldest buildings in Bratislava.

The Opera House
Instead of shopping, we explored more of Bratislava away from the crowds.

St. Martin's Cathedral
Construction of the St. Martin's Cathedral was completed in 1452. From 1563 to 1830 it was a coronation church for 11 kings and queens (including Maria Theresa of Austria) of the Kingdom of Hungary. In 1847 the spire of St. Martin's Cathedral was topped with a gold-plated replica of the Crown of St. Stephen. No additional coronations occurred after the spire was crowned.

While it's hard to tell from the distance I took the photos, the replica crown of St. Stephen sitting on the church spire weighs 330 lbs/150 kg and is 3.3 ft/1meter in diameter.

When built, the cathedral was built into the town's fortifications. With the wall mostly gone, the church now has an on/off ramp almost at its door that leads to the SNP bridge (Most SNP) over the Danube.

Most SNP is also called the UFO Bridge because of the UFO like round saucer shaped restaurant atop the bridge.

Bratislava Castle

Bratislava and greater Slovakia are places we hope to return to someday on our own when we can visit for more than 3 hours.

We left Bratislava around lunch time. The rest of the day was spent cruising down the Danube toward Budapest.
Gabčikovo Lock and Power Station
A couple of hours downriver from Bratislava, we reached Gabčikovo Lock and Power Station. Although it wasn't the first lock we'd passed through on the Danube, it was always interesting to watch the process of water leaving the channel to equalize with the level on the other side so the lock could open and the boat was allowed to continue its journey.

The name Gabčikovo was originally named for a semi-nomadic tribe from the Central Asian steppes that settled in this area. This was the word in Hungarian--who knows what name the tribe called itself. Now, it is one of the Danube's deepest locks with a lifting capacity of 60 feet.

After passing through the lock, as we cruise the next 62 miles downriver, Hungary will be on the right bank (so is our room) and Slovakia will be on the left bank.

One beautiful sight we passed on the way to Budapest was the Esztergom Basilica in Hungary. Impressively, it is the largest church and tallest building in Hungary, and it does have a stunning location sitting just above the Danube. There has been a church at this location since the year 1001, but this iteration of the Basilica dates to the 19th century.

Esztergom Basilica in Hungary

Next stop: later tonight Budapest