Sunday, April 29, 2012

Budapest


We finally took a little extended weekend getaway to Budapest, something we'd been wanting to do for a dog's age. It only takes 2 hours and 40 minutes to get to Budapest from Bratislava by train, and with only a handful of stops, the ride is a breeze.

Neither of us had ever been to Budapest, so it was a totally new experience for both of us. Unfortunately, neither of us speak a word of Hungarian. What was interesting about that is that in the past we've traveled to countries where at least one of us knows the language. When I've been to Italy and France, I could get by okay, since I've studied those languages. Of course when we go to Prague, Terezia does most of the talking, as she was exposed to Czech growing up, and she knows enough German to get by in Vienna. Terezia can also skirt by in Poland, as Polish and Slovaks can kind of understand each other. But in Budapest, the language was truly foreign to both of us. I'll admit it's a slightly odd sounding language if you've never really heard it before. It bears no relation to slavic, germanic, or latin-based languages, and its closest linguistic relatives are Finnish and Estonian. It's somewhat monotone sounding, but also has this soft staccato quality.

Luckily, a lot of people in Budapest (particularly younger generations and restaurant waitstaff) speak English pretty well, and as soon as they could tell we didn't understand Hungarian, they would quickly switch to English. English really is becoming the lingua franca, since we heard Italian, French, and Scandinavian tourists speaking it with the locals. Furthermore, pretty much everyone we dealt with was friendly, so Budapest has got Bratislava beat in the customer service department.

The only language-related snafu occurred when we first got there. The guy we rented the apartment from asked us to text him when we got into town. After getting off the train, hunting for an ATM, then hunting for the nearby metro entrance (which had NO signage what so ever!), and purchasing our metro tickets, we tried texting the owner, only to find that the texts weren't going through. We had a bit of a "duh" moment when we realized that the texts might not have been going through because we were deep in the bowels of the metro system. So, we took the escalator back up, but an army of metro ticket checkers at the top asked for our tickets! The guy who approached us could say "ticket please!" but that was about the extent of his English. Long story short, there was no way in hell I could convey to him our reason for coming back up, so we had to buy new tickets to get back down. Oh well!

The apartment we rented may have been the nicest vacation apartment rental either of us have ever stayed in (and cheap to boot). It was also perfectly and fairly centrally located: a block behind the very cool Great Market (this massive food market housed in a sprawling, beautiful old building), a block from the Danube, and a couple blocks from the lively restaurant strip of Raday Utca. We were in the historical center on the Pest side of the Danube, but not in an overly touristy section of it.

The apartment building
The apartment
At any rate, how was Budapest? Apart from it being unseasonably hot (around 80 degrees fahrenheit during the day), I've been mulling this over, trying to come up with an apt way to describe the city. To me it feels a bit like a worn and gritty version of Vienna. It has all the grandeur, the massive and goopy art nouveau and liberty style buildings, the pomp, and elegance you'd have expected from a major city in the Austro-Hungarian empire, yet after 40 years of Communist rule (plus 22 years of navigating capitalism with considerable difficulty), there is a worn down patina, a faded splendor, with facades lined and pockmarked with cracks and missing chunks of plaster, and a general roughness around the edges. That dingy Communist-era buildings are interspersed into the urban fabric only adds to that roughness. I've whined about this before, but even though Vienna has loads to offer culturally, aesthetically, it's a little too clean, tidy, and genteel for my tastes, so naturally Budapest appeals more to me.



Not all of it is like that, though. Certain areas, particularly some of the touristy monuments and squares, have been spruced up a lot. But with Hungary being a relatively poor country, they've still got a long way to go before ever reaching the excessive neatness of Vienna.

But overall, the city has a nice feel. More energy than Bratislava or Vienna, yet still more laid-back than other cities. Not as beautiful (architecturally) as Prague, but its grittiness keeps things intriguing. (Also, Budapest appears to be devoid of the uber-tacky tourist shops that plague a couple of Prague's streets). A lot of the locals we encountered seemed to be very "with-it" people, quite in contrast to the extreme right-wing lurch the country's government has taken.

Budapest is a massive and sprawling city (pop. over 2 million), and quite decentralized, which meant that we had to get acquainted with its awesome public transit. There are three metro lines which run in meandering arcs across the city, and while the metro won't get you to every little corner like Paris' metro, it'll get you to most major sights, while the tram handily fills in the links. And like any great city transit system, we rarely had to wait more than four minutes for the next tram or metro to come along. Also, the metro cars are these cool old Soviet-designed clunkers, some of which have groovy, vintage interiors.


Heading down into the depths of the metro system
Budapest's three central bridges that cross the Danube, and the area around them, make for an incredibly scenic river setting. Gellert hill, on the Buda side (by the Liberty Bridge), rises dramatically on its craggy outcropping, covered in lush greenery, capped off with a Soviet monument, with weird, romanesque looking chapel-like structures at its base. The hill just to the south of it is made equally dramatic with the castle, Matyas cathedral, and Fisherman's bastion all clustered on top of it. Although it looks completely different, the overall effect is not unlike gazing at Prague's beautiful riverside setting from Charles Bridge. It's easy to see how the Magyars could've been so taken with the geography of the location that they decided to stop being nomadic and settle there.


Gellert Hill
Of course the views out over the city from the Fisherman's Bastion on the castle hill on the Buda side are incredible too.


The Pest side features lots of gently curving streets lined with the aforementioned goopy art nouveau, liberty, and/or historicist styles that were in vogue in the late 1800s/early 1900s. We wandered through these streets quite a bit, especially the atmospheric side streets around Vaci Utca. Vaci is kind of tacky and touristy and avoidable, and as soon as you turn off of it, the vibe does a total 180, and you're back in Budapest again. (We did find a yummy gelateria on Vaci, though).

One of the coolest things for me was the Parisi Udvar, an old Parisian styled shopping gallery, which is basically a mishmash of liberty style/neo-gothic porn. This is where the Budapest cafe scene from Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy was filmed. Sadly, all of the shop spaces are currently empty, and it's difficult to understand why. This would seem to be prime real-estate (why is it not filled with posh restaurants or swanky clothing boutiques?), but surely there's gotta be some hassle-filled bureaucratic explanation, or very possibly a financial one. Still, I'm glad it's open so that geeks like us can go in and wander around.


The Great Market Hall was incredibly vast, although I have to admit that much of the produce I saw on display was kind of pedestrian. Those mountains of red bell peppers looked nice, but I just didn't see the slightly more exotic things that you can find at Vienna's Naschmarkt (and back home in Oakland) like fresh medjool dates or wild mushrooms like morels or chanterelles (which are in season now). Still, the butcher stands were loaded with tasty-looking treats, and the cheap food-stands upstairs were hopping. We had langos for lunch one day (fried dough with sour cream, garlic, cheese, and whatever else you want), and while they weren't bad, nothing beats the fresh-off-the-skillet variety that we get in Terezia's mom's kitchen.

Speaking of food, Raday utca has about a 4-5 block stretch along which every inch seems to be occupied by restaurants. Raday is reportedly the "hip" restaurant area, where locals still outnumber the tourists (or so I'm told). All of the restaurants have outside patio seating lining both sides of the street, making this pedestrianized strip quite lively. On warm evenings, this feels like the place to be. That it was a mere two blocks away from our apartment was a major bonus. Two of the three dinners we ate here were quite good, featuring things like a rich goose leg confit or duck breast with a spicy Hungarian paprikash.


The Museum of Terror was something I'd been wanting to see for a while. Housed in the actual building used by Hungary's fascist Arrow Cross party's gestapo during WWII, and used by Hungary's secret police during Communism, this museum couldn't be more appropriately located. The most horrifying section of the museum was the basement, which contained actual prison cells. These were, of course, tiny, drab, and totally demoralizing. One cell was just large enough for one slender human to stand up in; I noticed the floor of this one was quite worn! There was also a torture room complete with a stool and a table full of sharp implements and electrodes. In the middle of the floor was a large drain (I read that the building's pipes once actually got clogged up with human blood). A room with a gallows was particularly disturbing.

Overall, it was nice to get out of Bratislava for a bit and experience a totally new (to us) city. Plus, Bratislava is so small that it's refreshing to explore a much larger city. We would definitely go back (next time I want to hike up to the top of Gellert Hill, explore the old Jewish neighborhood, and hell, maybe even check out one of the spas that the city is so famous for), as we both think Budapest is worth getting to know better.


Terka on the Liberty Bridge
The Chain Bridge

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Get with the program, Danubiana!

While there are many things about Slovakia that I love, there are sometimes things I stumble across that make me slap my forehead and cringe with disbelief.

So, I was checking out the website for the Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum, a modern art gallery located southeast of Bratislava, on a tiny peninsula in the Danube, by the village of Cunovo. While perusing the website, I noticed a page called "Visits," and clicked on it to find blurbs about four internationally known people who'd visited the place over the last few years. My jaw dropped when I noticed that one of the four visitors proudly displayed was none other than Asma al-Assad, the loving and supportive wife of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president whose regime is responsible for killing thousands of protesters, and imprisoning (and likely torturing) many others over the past year.

The al-Assad blurb, from 2009, simply states that she digs the museum's collection and would like for it to be displayed at an exhibition in Damascus someday. To be fair, back in 2009, two years before the mass protests and the bloody oppression, nobody really knew what the al-Assad regime was capable of, so her visit back then seemed relatively benign.

But now, the EU has deemed her bad (and complicit) enough to have frozen her assets and placed a travel ban on her (and her relatives as well). (This occurred after it was revealed that Ms. al-Assad was continuing to lead her lavish and decadent lifestyle as if nothing was happening, and voicing continued support for her husband). Need I remind the Danubiana that Slovakia is a member of the EU?

I don't know if this is a case of ignorance or apathy, but either way, it looks bad, and reflects kind of poorly on Slovakia. I can't help but think that most museums in other EU capitals wouldn't hesitate to remove her page from their websites, at least for the sake of the thousands of people who have been killed and imprisoned. I mean, this goes far beyond some local or national political issue. If a politically polarizing local figure visited the museum and had his/her little blurb on the website, that could open its own can of worms, but is ultimately a different story. However, Asma al-Assad is one of the faces of a regime that has been internationally condemned for doing some unspeakably terrible things to many innocent people. And like I mentioned, the EU already recognizes this, so in my view, keeping her page up is in poor taste.

Maybe I'm doing what Slovaks call making an elephant out of a flea? Well, Syria has been at the forefront of international news for over a year now, so I really don't think so. Therefore, I have a simple request: Danubiana - please get a clue!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Veľká noc - Easter in Slovakia

Slovakia has some rather peculiar traditions for Easter, which are definitely worthy of a blog post. For starters, Easter (Vel'ká noc - which means "great/big night") is a really important holiday here, perhaps the most important catholic holiday of the year. That they've managed to turn it into a 4-5 day weekend is proof of this. In the US, nobody really gives a shit about Easter. Once you're too old to go Easter egg hunting (i.e. 8 or 9), it's all over, and the only thing that matters is Spring Break. And of course, once you've grown up, graduated from university, and joined the workforce, Spring Break becomes a fading, distant memory. Or, if you are like me and worked for the University of California for 10 years, that meant that you got to have Caesar Chavez day off, which sometimes falls near Easter, thus making it infinitely more exciting than Easter because it was a day off! (Plus, Caesar Chavez was truly a cool guy, and quite worthy of a holiday, in my book). But I digress! Rooted in medieval folk ritual, Slovakia's quaint Easter traditions make Easter in America seem positively milquetoast.

According to tradition, packs of testosterone-fueled boys set out Monday morning and roam the town, going to the homes of all the girls they like or know. They barge into the house, locate the girl, and drag her out front where they dump a bucket of water over her, or drench her with a garden hose, clothes on and everything. Sometimes, they'll simply go inside and carry her into the shower or bathtub. Brothers and fathers will get involved too, and are likely to be the ones who let the other guys inside.


Then, while the girl is soaking wet, the boys will spray her with copious amounts of noxiously cheap perfume. The guys may also carry around a specially made willow stick, called a korbáč, which is used to whip the girl on the rear or the legsOnce the boys are done, they are invited by the girl's family to stay, where their efforts are rewarded with piles of food and alcohol. The family may also give them chocolate and/or money. The boys then move on to their next victim and repeat, until they're too drunk to stand up.

Of course, this tradition has waned quite considerably over the years, especially in more urban areas. In the old days, guys would have to chase the girls through the village and, once they caught them, submerge or toss them in the nearest creek. Today, a woman is much more likely to be awakened in the morning by a snickering brother or father pouring a glass of water in her ear, or perhaps spraying her with scented water from a flask. You're obviously not going to see women being chased through the streets of Bratislava. However, the drinking and eating remains integral to the holiday.

Naturally, women have become increasingly weary of this tradition. Being drenched and whipped all morning while men get to sit around eating and drinking gets old after a while. Terezia says that traditionally, women could exact revenge on the men the following day, but the chance to do so didn't always present itself, since by then everyone was back at work or school. But while many women claim to dread this tradition, Terezia says that for teenage girls it becomes something of a popularity contest. The more guys who come to a girl's house to drench her, the more popular she is, and she can come to school the next morning and brag about how many visitors she had.


But what the hell is the point of all this? This was believed to cleanse and purify the woman, preserve her beauty and vitality, while the whipping is somehow supposed to make her more fertile. According to custom, "Mid-April was celebrated as a time of rebirth: processions were used to drive away evil spirits, houses were decorated with vegetation (the egg survives today as a symbol of life), and whipping and water were employed to ensure a young woman's fertility and beauty. It was believed that the vitality from the young twigs entwined in the whip would flow into the woman's body." Never mind that this tradition sounds a bit like what you'd get if a bunch of monosyllabic, backwards baseball cap-wearing fratboys sat around thinking of ways to make Easter more exciting.

The miracles of medieval science: hitting a woman with a Korbáč to make her more fertile. 
The part where the family feeds the young men who just drenched their daughter(s) actually isn't so strange in the broader context of Slovak culture. Slovaks are pre-programmed to feed any guests who walk through their door. Whenever you're invited into the homes of family or close friends, they will instantly run off to the kitchen, fill up a platter with cold cuts, slices of sausage, or little sandwiches, and bring that out with some shot glasses and borovicka, or whatever booze they have lying around. It's futile to tell them not to, it's pointless to refuse; they will bring out some food, and you will eat and drink. This kind of hospitality is deeply embedded in Slovak culture. (Now, if only it could become a cultural norm here for restaurant waitstaff to act friendly and personable towards patrons!). So, even though the origins of this tradition may have dictated that the families of the women feed the unruly packs of young men, they would likely feel obligated to feed them anyway, regardless of what's going on.

At any rate, while kids in the US innocently hunt for pastel-dyed or candy-filled eggs that they've been told have been hidden by a creepy man-sized rabbit, in Slovakia, roving gangs of young men hunt for girls to whip and douce with water. And I have to emphasize, Easter really is an important holiday here. So important, in fact, that as I write on this Friday morning, Bratislava's streets are already deserted to the point where I think I just saw a tumbleweed blowing down the sidewalk. With everyone presumably having gone back home for the long weekend, it's like a ghost town here!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Palffy Palace and Picasso

There's a temporary exhibition going on right now at Bratislava's Palffy Palace (a grand, historical palace in the heart of the Old Town, on Panska ulica, that is now an art museum), entitled Homage to Picasso. I dig Picasso, particularly his earlier Cubist work, so for me this was a must-see. The exhibit featured 7-8 rooms filled with the work of various artists who were inspired by different phases in Picasso's career. There were several fabulous paintings by some of the Czech Cubist big-shots, like Emil Filla, Anton Prochazka, and Bohumil Kubista, along with many others, including, oddly enough, one minor work each by Joan Miro and Salvador Dali. We got to familiarize ourselves with Czech Cubism at the Cubist museum in Prague back in January, so it was nice to see more works by some of these guys, who were clearly quite talented. Of the paintings that appeared to take inspiration from Picasso's later, more simplistic and whimsical work, some of them actually looked a little more inspired than the source of their inspiration. Overall, it was a cool, varied, and well-curated exhibition.

Bohumil Kubista - The Hypnotist (aka "Argh! What are you doing to my head?")
Antonin Prochazka - Woman With a Cigarette
Emil Filla - Sculptor and Model
Another temporary exhibition featured the work of Milos Simurda. Several of his paintings portrayed totally naked people sitting in various positions of driving, yet without the car, but sometimes with an actual piece of car grill stuck on to the outer edge. One painting, called "Accident," simply had two naked people flying through the air with a broken piece of car window frame hovering near them.

The permanent collection, focusing on 20th century painting and a smattering of sculpture, was intermittently interesting. Particularly amusing is the Passage, which is literally a narrow walkway through what appears to be a wall of books. On both sides of the walkway are mirrors, which reflect the walls of books on either side into infinity. The effect is actually quite dizzying. It gives the illusion that you could step off the platform and fall forever, until you peer out over the edge enough to see your reflection in the mirror and see that it's not, in fact, an endless book-lined pit. Not recommended for people with vertigo!



The palace itself oozes history, which further enhances the experience. Apart from the stately, Classicist rooms, excavations have revealed that embedded within the walls of the palace are walls of what once was a gothic chapel. As you make your way up the stairway, the outlines of the gothic windows are now exposed in the wall.


In the dungeon-like basement is a pit with a half-buried skeleton curled up in fetal position. Apparently several graves with similarly positioned skeletal remains were found beneath the foundations. So, loads of history here. The price per ticket - 4 euros - is surprisingly generous. But given that museums in Bratislava are likely not attracting people by the butt-load like the big ones in Vienna, it's not surprising. Still, it's worth keeping an eye on this place for future exhibitions.