Monday, April 29, 2013

Budapest Part 2: For all you know, these pictures could be from 2008!

When I went to Hungary with Walter Payton College Prep's math team in 2008, it never occurred to me that I'd be back so soon. But, just over 5 years later (wow!) that's exactly what happened. It turned out to be a good combination of revisiting the sites I wanted to see again, but also getting a chance to see the parts of the city that are Off Limits to a high school trip. 

After a bit of a rough start (I'd intended to get up at 5:15 am to shower before leaving at 6:10am for the bus station, only to be shaken awake by my roommate Tess at 6:02am. Oops) we got to Budapest mid-afternoon on Thursday, which left plenty of time for exploring before dinner. I'd checked the weather beforehand and it was supposed to be sunny with blue skies and temperatures in the mid-high 70s the entire time, and it was true--we had gorgeous weather the whole time we were there!

A few of us took a walk from our hotel, located right near the famous Oktogon intersection, to the river and around through town and came upon Ronald Reagan strolling by with the Parliament in the background. (Actually, I'd been warned by Benj that we'd find Reagan, because he'd sent me a fantastic description of what to see and how to get there. I saw almost everything on his list!)

As soon as we rounded the corner and saw the Dohány Utca Synagogue, I started getting déjà vu. When we came to Hungary in high school, we spent only about 3 days in Budapest total. Each person was allowed to give one suggestion of something they really wanted to see; mine, of course, was the synagogue. Apparently, it's the second-largest in the world. This time, we did a tour and came back for services on Friday night--they were really strange, and I wasn't really a fan: despite the separate seating for men and women, and the meticulous covering of women's shoulders with scarves, there was an organ accompanying the cantor, and his selection of tunes seemed unfamiliar to everyone there, so no one sang along. It was more of a performance than a service. Oh well--a few of us went to Chabad for dinner, and somehow were there in time for all of Kabbalat Shabbat, too, so we got to sing in the end anyway. 

Here's a look at the interior of the synagogue. It's enormous, with two levels of balconies for women, and enough seats to fit almost 3000 people. They don't use it in the winter because it's not worth the money it would cost to heat the whole thing; usually services are in the Heroes' Synagogue, which is right next door. Fun fact: the synagogue is also adjacent to the apartment where Theodore Herzl was born.

This is the painted ceiling of the Rumbach Street Synagogue, one of the 18 synagogues still standing in Budapest. Though it doesn't hold services--the interior is currently being restored--there are occasionally events held there. 

Yet another shul, though this one is functional. It's on Kazinczy street, and it's used by a very small Orthodox community. 

After hanging out for a while at Akvarium--an outdoor bar/park fusion where Budapest's young people apparently sit and drink the night away--a few of us went to check out Szimpla, Benj's recommendation for the most popular of Budapest's "ruin bars." It's a very cool  collection of pubs and rooms for hanging out set up in an abandoned warehouse right in the old Jewish quarter. There's not really an overall style for the place; the decorations are a hodge-podge of random things like you can see here: disco balls, Christmas lights, hubcaps from cars, bike wheels, neon lights, etc. There's also an outdoor area, and it's just a very relaxed environment where you could sit with friends for hours and not feel like you have to keep buying drinks. Although I will say that I got a honey pálinka, a traditional Hungarian brandy, because I remember that my dad told me I was supposed to try that when I came in 2008.

Full moon! Or at least, mostly full. This is the view from my hotel window, overlooking Liszt Ferenc tér (Franz Liszt Square). 

The Central Market was filled with clothes and tapestries decorated in traditional Hungarian embroidery.  I didn't get one, but I did find a lovely teacup to add to my collection! Actually, the teacup is made out of wood, so I'm going to have to figure out how to coat it with lacquer so it's usable.

I think our tour guide told us that this little girl in front of Buda Castle--she's a princess--doesn't actually have a lot of significance but, in the past couple of years, she's become an icon in tourist's pictures. 

We crossed the Chain Bridge to get from Pest to Buda, and from there climbed up to Fisherman's Bastion on the Buda side (Pest is as flat as Chicago; Buda's got hills). In the background of this picture you can see the Parliament building which, according to Benj, is "literally always under construction because it is ornamented with actual gold leaf"--good thing we did a tour in 2008! Once we made it to the top, we only had a bit of free time to wander.

Although going inside the Matthias Church sounded appealing (the stained glass and frescoes are supposed to be incredible) I've seen a lot of churches in the past few months, and  the cakes and pastries at Ruszworm--"run by the last, still active Hungarian confectionery dynasty," whatever that means--sounded irresistible. Sara and I split a dobos torta, which was absolutely delicious, and exactly what I wanted to be eating while looking over the Danube.

Sitting in one of the window alcoves of Fisherman's bastion with the Parliament, and the Danube, behind me. For comparison with 5 years ago at pretty much the same spot (although probably about 30 degrees cooler), see the picture below.

March 2008.

A view of the Parliament, etc. from the Chain Bridge.

On Saturday night, I took a three-hour walk alone along the river before circling back through town . Everything was so pretty with the lights and, while the streets and bars were full of people, not many were walking down by the Danube, so it was nice and quiet. 

A bit south of the Parliament building I came upon these cast iron shoes on the promenade. It's a memorial to the Jews who were shot into the river by the Arrow Cross party in 1944-1945.

If ever there was a perfect day for going to an island where cars are forbidden, Sunday was the day. We had a few hours of free time before loading up on he bus back to Prague, and a group of us headed to Margaret Island, where we lay in the sun, played Frisbee, made friends with three-year-olds, and wore flowers in our hair. The day before, we'd gotten to spend a lot of time outside too; after our walking tour of the city, we went to the Széchenyi thermal baths, lazing away the evening in lots of mineral pools ranging in temperature from 65 degrees (so cold!) to about 120. There were also saunas and steam rooms, but I had trouble breathing in such hot air so I mostly stuck to the pools.

How I know summer is upon us: my feet enter a perpetual state of dirtiness because of running around barefoot!

This is my favorite mural that I've ever seen. The color of the painted sky was an exact match with the color of the real sky, and the real trees blended in perfectly with the painted ones. And with that lovely picture, I'll leave you until next time (which will probably be about the upcoming weekend in Berlin, with Michèle and Anna!)

Monday, April 22, 2013

Vienna: art, music, books, palaces, and delicious dessert!

At 6 on Thursday evening, Gaby and I pulled out of the bus station at Florenc, in Prague. The ride was four hours, and we hopped on the Ubahn (subway) and found out hostel--a really funky, "eco-friendly" hostel with musical instruments out and gardens with huge backgammon and chess boards--really easily. 

On Friday we started by attempting to do a self-built walking tour of the Innerestadt based off of one we'd found online, but didn't really end up sticking to it. Instead, after seeing (the outside of) the famous Wiener Staatsoper (State Opera House), we went to see the galleries at the Albertina, where we saw Monet, Matisse, Picasso, Chagall, Rembrandt, and some of the work of the surrealist Max Ernst...and more. Here's Monet's signature!
After lunch (I found myself staring face to face with an entire trout...), we headed  to Cafe Sacher, home of the original Sacher-torte. It was delicious, though definitely not the best chocolate cake I've had. DD, you've still got them beat with some of your creations, I think. 
Stephansdom at night. St. Stephen's Cathedral is the seat of the archbishop of  Vienna. We kind of stumbled upon it by accident; earlier in the day we'd seen the two towers poking through the sky and assumed it must be something significant. When we were walking around all of a sudden we found ourselves in Stephansplatz, the courtyard that surrounds the church. 
The roof of St. Stephen's Cathedral, during the day.
Inside St. Stephen's Cathedral; the stained glass was very bizarre here. It seemed like it wasn't actually stained glass, and instead the windows were clear glass covered in huge sheets of colored cellophane. The colored light coming through and bouncing off various surfaces was still beautiful, though!
On Friday night, Gaby and I went to services at the Stadttempel, the Central Synagogue in Vienna. We got there a bit late, unfortunately, but it was still enough time to enjoy the voice of Cantor Shmuel Barzilai. This photo is from the second-tier of the women's section. It makes a complete ellipse, and I walked around to behind the Ark, where you can neither see anyone else nor be seen by anyone, and just listened. I think it must be one of the focii of the ellipse, because from there it sounded as if the choir was right next to me.
We went to the home of one of the Chabad families for Shabbat dinner, which was wonderful. We got to see an entirely different neighborhood of Vienna, and to enjoy delicious food with a really nice family! On our way back to our hostel, we hopped on a tram and were pleased to find out that it dropped us off at the subway station we wanted to get on at.
This is the painted domed ceiling of the State Hall of the National Library. If the ceiling alone looks like this, just imagine the rest of the library! (I know, that's probably difficult, which is why I'm including the photo below).
The center "room" of the library. It's the largest one in Austria, and contains some 7.1 million volumes.  Princeton's Firestone Library has got it beat, though: 7.3 million volumes.
Yum, cheese spätzle with fried onions for lunch! I figured since I couldn't (wouldn't) eat the wienerschnitzel (who knew that "real" schnitzel is made with veal, not with chicken like it is in Israel!), I should ad least have something representative of typical Austrian cuisine. It was delicious, though a bit heavy.
The Imperial Silver Collection (Silberkammer) at the Hofburg Palace is impressive. I have never seen so many different sets of dishes or cutlery, even on the Crate & Barrel website! There are everyday silver place settings and dishes, pretty porcelain ones used by various monarchs on individual (or very infrequent) occasions, gilted the large numbers of beautifully-embellished chamber pots. 
I'm assuming that this is where the guards of the Hofburg Palace used to stand, but now they're mostly for tourists who want to take pictures (ie: me and Gaby). Upon trying to get down from my perched position, I realized that my shoes were stuck in the teeth! 

As we left the complex of the Hofburg Palace, we saw these guys doing some incredible Rollerbade tricks.

When we left Peterskirche (St. Peter's Church) on Friday afternoon, we saw a sign advertising a free organ concert on Saturday night, so we made note and came back for it. The concert was for organ (obviously) played by Christopher Klöckl and french horn, played by R. Horvath.
If you look closely, at the center of the painting in the middle of the photo (which is above the altar at the front of the church), you can see the Tetragrammaton painted. Really not sure what it's doing there. (One of the other altars, in the smaller side chapels, also had Hebrew calligraphy painted, though neither Gaby nor I could figure out what it was [supposed to be] written.)

A video clip I took during Vivaldi's Four Seasons.

Our day on Sunday started with a leisurely walk around the border of the Ringstraße (that funny ß-thing is a double "s"), which I learned about in one of my classes in Prague. It turned out to be a good decision to save the Ringstraße, garden, and Schönbrunn palace tours for Sunday, because the weather was gorgeous! Our first stop was at the Burggarten imperial gardens. That's where the famous statue of Mozart is--he played for the court at age 6, and quickly became a celebrity--but also where this beautiful, blooming magnolia tree is. I was getting a bit jealous looking at everyone's pictures of campus in the springtime, so climbing this tree made me especially happy!
On Saturday we'd seen the top of the Rathaus (City Hall) from the Hofburg Palace, but didn't make it over there, so this was our first view of the immense building structure. I do have a picture of the entire building (ie: without it's noggin cut off), but this one is of me and Gaby together, and I figure you can imagine what the top part of the tower looks like. You never get a perfect shot when you ask strangers to take pictures, but that's okay. 
It was such a beautiful day out! For the first time the whole weekend, there was no threat of rain, and I was wishing I'd kept my Chacos on instead of chickening out and wearing sneakers in the morning. 
Looking down one of the hallways on the porch (for lack of a better word) of the Rathaus is kind of like looking down a hall of Holder Courtyard, no?
Hundertwasserhaus is a bit far from the rest of the things that one generally sees in Vienna, but it was definitely worth  going. It's a regular old apartment building where normal people live, except that it's designed by the funky painter-turned-architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser. There's apparently a "Modern Art Toilet," but neither of us wanted to pay .6 euros to use it.
Johann Strauss, immortalized in the form of this kitschy statue in Stadtpark. There's also a statue of Schubert, among others, but we wanted to make sure we spent enough time at Schönbrunn Palace, so we walked quickly.  
We were impressed by the expanse of the Schönbrunn Palace when we approached it from the front, until we went around back and saw this view. Huge, beautiful (though without their usual spring flowers yet, apparently) laws leading up to a hill scattered with picnickers and sunbathers, atop of which stands the Gloriette.  Though it was a bit of a hike to get to the top, the view we got while picnicking (last picture in this post) was well worth it. 
Our lunch, mostly scavenged and saved from our huge breakfasts that we got at our hostel. Delicious chive bread, blueberry and apricot jam, Nutella, cream cheese, butter, and apples! Yum. It was hard to make ourselves get up from the sunny lawn and go inside to do the tour of the palace (essentially a sequel to Saturday's tour of the Hofburg Palace, complete with very similar audio guides, it turns out) because it was so beautiful out!
Before we went back down to the palace, I went all the way up to the Gloriette.  On my way down, I saw this woman teaching a bunch of kids how to make bubbles! (There's a whole series of these photos, which will appear on Facebook when I finally post pictures from the semester.)
The funny faces are because we're staring directly into the sun. But this is what we got to look down on while we were eating our lunch: the palace with the whole city behind it! We had just enough time after finishing our tour to get apfelstrudel (yum!) before heading to pick up our bags at the hostel and (barely) making our bus back to Prague.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Field Trips in the Czech Republic: Kutná Hora and Český Kras/Hrad Karlštejn

Although this was one of the few weekends I have left in Prague (don't get too jealous when I tell you that next weekend I'll be in Vienna, the following one in Budapest, and the one after that in Berlin!), I spent it mostly exploring some of the non-metropolitan towns of this country. 

KUTNÁ HORA (Friday): 
On Friday, we went to Kutná Hora which, among other things, is famous for the Sedlec ossuary (bone temple).  When I first heard that we were going to a "bone temple," I pictured something in line with tooth fairy castles made of teeth. Obviously I was wrong--the temple is not made out of bones. But it is decorated with bones. Skulls, ulnas, radii, pelvi (pelvises?), etc. Here you can see the "chandelier" and the surrounding chains of skulls.... Post jokes in the comments, or, if you're uncomfortable putting them out for the public to read, send me a personal message. 

Crest made out of, what else, bones. Look, there's a pelvis!

Didn't expect to find a Blues Cafe in Kutná Hora, but we were so happy that we did! I wish I knew about a place like this in Prague--there's a cafe set up, but also crates upon crates of records of all kinds of genres (Muddy WatersMiddle BrotherPete Seeger, and more). Unlike most of the places I've been to while in Europe, the owner let us look around and browse for 30 minutes, and didn't once come over to ask if we wanted to order anything. Plus, he let us use the bathroom.

Looking over from the Italian Court (formerly the HQ of the central mint) towards the St. Barbara Cathedral and the Jesuit College, which now houses the GASK gallery of modern art

In terms of world history, Kutná Hora is probably most significant for its role as a medieval silver mining town that was one of the wealthiest cities in Europe and minted silver groschen for all of Bohemia. We took a tour of the mines--hard had, white coat, lamp and all, which reminded me a lot of the Mining Museum I went to when I went on a "math team exchange" junior year of high school with a school in Salgótarján, Hungary. At one point, our guide had us turn off our lamps to simulate the limited amount of light the miners would have had; answer: minimal (they identified silver ore by smell and sound). Then she turned off her lamp, too, to show us what would have happened if the miner ran out of fuel (ie: animal fat) for his candle--a darkness so black that we couldn't even see our hands in front of our eyes! Photo by Larissa Szyszka.
Looking out at the Italian Court from the courtyard outside of St. Barbara's Cathedral. The Italian Court  is designed in "old gothic" style architecture, in contrast to... 

St. Barbara's Cathedral, which is "new gothic"--it has many more frills, and huge flying buttresses.
All of the pews in St. Barbara's Cathedral are bookended with handcarved designs/images, none of which is identical to any of the others. This guy was one of my favorites. It took more than 5 centuries (yes, 500 years!) to build this church--they started in 1388, and didn't put on the final touches until 1905. Thanks, Wikipedia.

Although the stained glass was bright and beautiful from the inside, I found it much more interesting from the outside. What was cool from the inside was being able to walk in the "attic," above the vaulted chapels, and to see how those were constructed. 

Some of the gargoyles on the sides of the St. Barbara Cathedral. When I see things like this, I forget that I'm not actually back at school, though Princeton's gargoyles are much funnier than these.

With the Jesuit College and the Italian Court in the background. (Lisa, I use your Cookiehead Cookies tote bag all the time.) Photo by Tyler Jacobs.
Last Saturday, a group from my program went on a hike to the Karlštejn Castle, only a short train ride outside of the city. I couldn't go (thanks, JP!), but the pictures that friends put up looked beautiful. So when I saw that the International Club at Charles University was organizing a 12 mile hike culminating at the castle for this weekend, I signed up immediately. It was a little intimidating to decide to go on a trip with a club at a university I'm not actually part of, but I was sure I'd meet some great new people and it had been way too long since I'd gone hiking. When I got to the train station there were lots of people hanging out in groups of twos and threes; luckily, three girls in the film studies track of my program had seen my post in our group and decided to come along, too, so we gravitated towards each other.

As soon as we set out on the trail, I knew that I'd made a good decision. All over the place was proof that spring is (finally) upon us!

Some pretty vines crawling across the wall. 

I think my favorite thing about the route of our hike was that there was a great balance of walking through forests and walking in or near villages and towns. It's nice to see what non-Prague Czech Republic looks like, and this town seems to be a pretty good representation, based on my small sample size of Zuzana's village and...well, nothing else, really. 
I really know nothing about this canyon/gorge (name, location, etc.) except that it's beautiful. After we left the gorge, we continued in the direction we had been going, but every few minutes our leaders stopped and pulled out their maps. As an OA leader--and just in general as a person with common sense--I had a feeling we were a little lost. A few miles back we'd seen a sign with "Karlštejn" written on it, pointing the other direction, and sure enough when we turned around we headed almost right back to where the sign had been. Turns out we weren't really lost, though--going to the gorge had been an intentional loop in the trail, but we'd gotten a bit turned around finding the correct path back after the view.

I met some lovely people! Sophia (left), Nicole ("BADD" hat), and Kacey (sunglasses in the back) are students in the film (Sophia and Kacey) and photography (Nicole) tracks of my program. Here we're with two of our new friends, from Portugal (next to me) and Hungary (in the front). Photo courtesy of Nicole Lewis.
There it is: the Karlštejn Castle! Named for King Charles IV, obviously, and built in 1348. We didn't do a tour of the inside, but I hear there's not much there, anyway. On the final stretch of the hike leading up to the castle, I ended up walking with a French medical student who I gave a Judaism 101 Crash Course too. She was very curious and, having grown up in a very agnostic family, knew very little about Christianity, too. It was really interesting to try to explain things to someone without even a basic knowledge of terminology (although she did know "kippah"--watch at least a few seconds of that one, you won't be disappointed). I had to explain the Rabbi as "sort of our version of a priest, but not." I think it's the first time that I've been the first Jew a person has met, and although I was often looked to in high school to explain the wierd things we sometimes do, it was strange to be someone's sole source of information on Judaism. I hope I managed to present Judaism positively while also giving honest explanations...and hopefully not making up too many things. I really enjoyed talking with her, and we had a really honest conversation about spirituality, which was wonderful--hiking is the best time for those conversations, I think.
Me with the castle, and so happy that the weather was so beautiful :) Photo by Nicole Lewis, a photography student at the San Francisco  Art Institute who is studying in Prague this semester. You can see more of her work on her website:
Here's the whole group of hikers. It's easy to spot me--I'm next to the woman in the bright blue pullover (she's from Finland, and does capoeira). Photo courtesy of Nicole Lewis
Kacey, Nicole, Sophia and I headed back to the train a bit early and had the chance to walk through the  town which was only a little too touristy. We walked into a couple great bazaars, and drooled over all the food stands. When we passed this guy, making sweet crepes, we couldn't resist. The flavors looked incredible, but I was mostly intrigued by his impressively meticulous gestures for making the crepes. Look, he's using a squeegee to spread the batter over the perfectly circular griddle! We got strawberry and nutella filling in ours.

Once the blue decided to poke through the clouds, the river made for a pretty mirror. It was a great final view of the town before we got on the train back to Prague.
Although it's not related to Kutná Hora or Karlštejn, I tell you a little about my day yesterday, since it was the first time the weather was really perfect. I woke up to a blue sky, put on my brand new leather "Jesus sandals" I got in Israel, had a couple hours of class, met up with a friend to work on our JPs, listening to a street musician play hard, played nerf-ball catch in the park at sunset. On my walk home I happened upon the most incredible, Joshua Bell-esque "street pianist" (later found out it's Peter Mešo, apparently a huge Michael Jackson junkie) playing "anything you wish" pieces on the piano just outside the entrance to Old Town--after 10 minutes of listening I asked him to play Smetana's "Vltava" so that I could sort of hear a live version of Hatikva on Yom HaAtzmaut and then stayed for another 30 minutes just listening. When I continued walking, I ran into a woman who looked lost; after passing her I turned around, asked if she needed help, and ended up walking her all the way back to her hostel because it was sort of in the same direction as my apartment--and found out that there are two great flea markets/bazaars right near where she's staying! Good weather clearly has such an impact on peoples' actions. Serendipity :)

As a final note: When I came home from yesterday's events, I was shocked to hear about the two bombs that exploded at the finish-line of the Boston Marathon. Thanks to the efforts of runners, volunteers, EMTs, firefighters, policemen, Twitter, Google, and many individual people, help and information were dispensed efficiently. I don't think this is the right forum to make any commentary on the attack, so I'll just leave this at hoping to contribute to creating a world where things like this don't happen.