Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Budapest, Hungary

After a couple of days in Vienna, we decided to take advantage of the close proximity of Hungary and visit the eastern European city of Budapest. Budapest is only a three hour train ride away and we soon found ourselves in a completely different atmosphere. The name Budapest is a composition of the city names "Buda" and "Pest" and became one large capital city in 1873. As soon as we got there we noticed an eastern European feel to this city right away. I'm not sure if it was the Hungarian language, the communist influence of the buildings and statues, or the inexpensiveness of food and other items, but everything had a very authentic and genuine feel to it.

St. Stephen's Basilica

The Opera House
Unfortunately our weather was terrible the entire time we were in Budapest. Rain poured down on us as we walked through the streets and fog dominated the skyline instead of the beautiful views of the Parliament Building and Buda Castle. Of course, we didn't let this rain on our parade, but it was a little disappointing. Our first day there we walked along the Danube River to the Parliament Building. The building is very gothic in style and on the facade are statues of Hungarian leaders and famous soldiers.

As we walked along the Danube River towards the Chain Bridge we came across a World War II Jewish Memorial. The "Shoes on the Danube" memorial represents the Jews that were killed along the river by fascist militiamen between 1944-1945. They were ordered to take off their shoes and were shot at the edge of the water - the memorial represents the shoes left behind. The memorial is very simple, poignant and effective.

This was written in Hungarian and Hebrew as well
We then continued our walk over the Chain Bridge to the Buda side. We took the funicular up to Castle Hill in order to see Buda Castle and the spectacular views of the city from above. Buda Castle, finished in 1265, is the historical castle and palace complex of the Hungarian kings in Budapest.  Today, the grounds house museums, shops, hotels, restaurants and more -- a town within a city!

The Chain Bridge
Our spectacular view of Budapest from the castle :/

Matthias Church

After walking around the complex of Castle Hill, we attended a wine tasting at Faust Winery. We don't really know anything about Hungarian wines, but when do we ever pass up the opportunity to try some wine? The cellar was located in deep dark caves underneath the castle grounds. We tried a total of nine wines over the course of three hours, and afterwards we were very surprised at the sight that welcomed us when we walked (stumbled?) out of the caves.

Matthias Church at night

A very foggy night
Our tasting menu

The entrance to the caves

The next day we went to the Jewish area of the city and bought entrance tickets to the Dohany Synagogue (aka The Great Synagogue) and Memorial Park. The Dohany Street Synagogue is the second largest synagogue in the world (after Temple Emanu El in New York City) and was built in the 1850's. Right away we noticed that this beautiful synagogue was different from the rest. Aside from the lavishness of the outside facade, there was a huge organ in the front and two pulpits on the sides. According to one of the rabbis there, in order for the synagogue to be built it had to integrate into the non-Jewish community, thus making it more church-like. Furthermore, it was designed by a German architect who specialized in churches so he built what he knew!  It survived WWII because, as it has some of the tallest towers of the city, the Nazis used the synagogue for their radio transmitters. Very interesting stuff.

The synagogue

The Holocaust Memorial Park is located in the courtyard next to the synagogue and is named after Raoul Wallenberg who saved tens of thousands of Jewish Hungarians during World War II. He was serving as Sweden's special envoy in Budapest during the war and issued Jews protective passports and sheltered them in buildings designated as Swedish territory. In the courtyard stands The Tree of Life, a steel weeping willow tree with the names of about 5,000 victims buried nearby. The small park was a simple but moving memorial of the horrors of the Holocaust.

Budapest has such a rich history and you can see and feel it everywhere you turn. It is a city that treasures its old qualities, but embraces the new aspects that the world has to offer. Budapest is beautiful and we're so happy that we had this opportunity to visit it.  If only the weather had been nicer to see the (supposed) amazing views!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Vienna, Austria

Four days after coming back from Luxembourg we found ourselves on another flight to Munich for a connection to Vienna. I know... poor us, right? With less than seven months to go we are trying to scratch off all of the cities and countries on our original list, which we will have accomplished before we leave. The longer we are here the more places we add to the list, especially Italian areas that we didn't even know existed and probably won't get back to, at least not in the near future. We have committed ourselves to traveling every weekend that Jon isn't on call, which means that we are out of the area two weekends a month, and are using his on-call weekends to relax or check out local Naples area sights. We're not going to lie, traveling is very tiring (and money draining), but these opportunities cannot be wasted and we're so excited to be able to visit these cities located a stone's throw away from our home.

This past weekend we found ourselves in what felt like the cultural capital of the world, Vienna. Filled with opera houses, theaters, museums, and parks, it was named 2012's most livable city in the world by the Mercer Survey. Green parks take up almost half of the area and the public transportation system is convenient and reliable.

One of the things that we noticed right away about Vienna is that all of the buildings are very stately and imposing. Every building is grandiose in nature, with dramatic entrances, windows, and designs.

Parliament House

A large shopping street
VIenna Courthouse (with a Christmas market outside)
Votivkirche Church


Vienna State Opera House

We took our time looking through the city, coming across a variety of noteworthy buildings, including the Hoffburg Palace. The Hoffburg Palace started construction in the 13th century and is the former imperial residence. Now it serves as the official residence of the President of Austria.

We also walked to the numerous Christmas Markets that Vienna has at this time of year. We sipped on gluhwein and browsed the stands that sell everything from ornaments to wooden toys to local food. We also went to Vienna's famous year round market, Naschmarkt, which has a variety of different foods, spices, and cuisines to taste.

More gluhwein!

Nothing to see here. Just walking a llama through the market.

Vienna has more than 100 museums under its belt containing everything from very famous and important paintings, to museums that simply show furniture. We went to the Belvedere Museum (housed in Belvedere Castle), which holds paintings and art from Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and a few from Claude Monet. We mainly went here because we wanted to see Klimt's famous painting, "The Kiss".

The Belvedere Museum

No pictures were allowed in the museum. This was taken from ABC Gallery

Music is one of Vienna's legacies so we thought it would be the best place to see our first opera. The famous Vienna State Opera House was sold out of tickets when we first started looking two months ago, so we opted for the showing of the Italian opera Tosca at the Volksopera theater on Friday night. I'll start by saying that we didn't hate it, but we didn't love it either. We had read up on the opera before we left so we knew the storyline, but we were somewhat disappointed that it was sung in German and not in its native Italian. We know, we're in Austria and we shouldn't have expected anything but German, but not being able to understand the words, especially during the slower parts of the opera left us a little bored. The singing, the acting, and the lavish costumes were amazing, as well as the story of Tosca, and we did enjoy some of it... just not all of it. We're glad that we tried it though... how do you know something isn't really for you unless you try it out?

Volksoper theater

Before the show
A final bow
Overall we had a nice time in Vienna and enjoyed the different atmosphere that it provided us. We took pleasure in passing the large buildings, listening to the classical music being played on the streets, and browsing through the different Christmas markets. This is definitely a different kind of city!

Next stop... Budapest! Stay tuned!