|View of Budapest from the Citadella|
Although I will be teaching 15 more days here in the UK than in the US, I do get some lovely weeks off during the year. For my mid-term break, I decided to head to Budapest, Bratislava and Prague. Each of these cities deserves a post of their own, but let’s begin where I started my trip, in Budapest. Last summer I joined an organization called Servas, which is an international association focused on building understanding, tolerance and world peace by bringing together hosts and travelers from different countries. My first Servas trip was to beautiful Budapest on the Danube River. On the Pest side of the river, I stayed with a Servas host named Erika Kissné Szabó. Erika not only offered her home to me for 3 days and nights, but on her day off, she took me everywhere I wanted to go and to places I didn't even know I wanted to see. First we crossed the Danube to the Buda side and headed up to the Citadella, for an amazing view of the city. Near the Citadella is Hungary’s “Statue of Liberty”, erected in 1945, “To the memory of the liberating Soviet heroes by the grateful Hungarian people.” Of course, that sentiment did not last for too long, and in 1989 the inscription was changed to “To the memory of those all who sacrificed their lives for the independence, freedom, and prosperity of Hungary.” Next we went to “Heroes Square” with statues of the leaders of the seven tribes that founded Hungary in the 9th century and other outstanding figures of Hungarian history. Then we zipped back to Erika’s apartment where she made fabulous Hungarian noodles for our lunch. She even gave me her noodle maker and emailed me the recipe so I can make them at home! What more can you ask from a host?!?
|Me at Heroes Square|
|Erika using her noodle maker|
|Statue of Liberty|
After lunch, we crossed the Danube again and went to Buda Castle, Matthias Church and Fishermen’s Bastion, where we had amazing views of the Saint Stephen’s Basilica and Parliament Building across the river. It was breathtaking, especially when all light up at night! We crossed the river again to visit St. Stephen’s up close. The church is named for Saint Stephen I, the first King of Hungary, whose incorruptible right hand is housed in the reliquary. It was Sunday night, so there was a service going on, but visitors were still allowed inside. Okay, I’m a church girl, I love a good Cathedral or Basilica or Synagogue or whatever, but St. Stephen’s is my new favorite. Not only does it have impressive neo-classical architecture, it has something most churches do not have: color. Rather than gray stones, it’s all red and green marble inside with detailed gilded images painted everywhere. And don’t even get me started on the dome!
|View from Fishermen's Bastion|
|Erika and Me at Fishermen's Bastion|
|St. Matthias Church|
|St. Stephen's Basilica|
The next morning, Erika had to go to work, but she left me the keys to her apartment and off I went to explore on my own. I started with the Parliament building, which is massive. From there I went on a trek to find something much smaller that I had read about in a guide book, the “Shoes on the Danube”. This memorial honors the Jews who were killed by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen during WWII. The Jews were ordered to take off their shoes and were shot at the edge of the water so that their bodies fell into the river to be carried away. The memorial, representing their shoes left on the bank is very touching. From there I continued my walk along the Danube, admiring all the fabulous public art along the way, until I came to the Great Market Hall for some souvenir shopping. I bought a few small gifts for some of my family members, but had to restrain myself, as I was traveling with only a small daypack to hold all my belongings for the entire week which couldn't be over 10 kilograms for my cheap flight home. Next I met up with another Servas host, Valéria Erdos. Valéria asked me what I would like to do, and I told her that although I’d been on both sides of the river, the one thing I hadn’t done yet was to go out to Margaret Island in the middle of the river, so off we went. Margaret Island is kind of the Central Park of Budapest. It has a zoo, medieval ruins, a chapel, a fancy hotel, and a musical well. While we walked, Valéria told me about her childhood and youth under communism. It was so interesting to hear not only the bad, but also the positive side of communism, such as no homelessness, not having to worry about losing your job, and holidays in lovely places for public workers, such as her parents who were teachers. Some of the downsides that she mentioned were travel restrictions, few choices of products in stores (although they could get everything they needed, there were not many brands to choose from) and no such thing as fashion for children, just practical clothing. She told me about being required to study in Russia when she was in University, but that she was with other Hungarians there, and they made the best of it. We walked around the entire island which was quite dark by the time we were half way around, so I was very glad to have a guide with me, as I had no idea where I was going. Valéria and I had a nice Italian dinner and then she escorted me back to Erika’s apartment, since I wasn't really sure how to get back from where we ended up after all our walking. Erika invited Valéria up to join us for drinks (I have never drank so much in my life as I did in Hungary! Erika insists that homemade schnapps is healthy morning noon and night, followed by several glasses of spiced wine.) I’m so glad I was able to bring these two wonderful women together, as they are now planning to meet on a regular basis. Although young people in Hungary all can speak English, those over 30 or so seldom do, as they were not allowed to study English while under communist rule. Erika is now working very hard to learn English (she even has diagrams of the human body with English labels posted inside her bathroom door so she can study in the loo!) and since Valéria is an English teacher, they have arranged to continue to get together for English lessons. And the mission of Servas continues!
|Valéria on Margaret Island|
|Shoes on the Danube|