48 Hours in Budapest

A nation long under the control of others, Hungary didn’t have its first public election until the late 1980s after the fall of the Soviet Union (although, as a local confided to me, the democracy part is just nominal). Nowhere are these myriad influences more evident than in the eclectic array of architectural styles in the capital, Budapest. Roman! Ottoman! Gothic! Renaissance! Baroque! Budapest has it all, and then some, which is why (aside from relatively low costs) it’s a popular destination for film productions; the city is easily adaptable to stand in for other European destinations throughout history.

View of Pest and the Chain Bridge.

Bisected by the Danube River, austere and gentrified Buda was unified with the more bohemian Pest in 1873, becoming the economic, political and cultural capital that it is today. The city is divided into numbered districts, bringing to mind the Hunger Games when people refer to different neighborhoods. The main exception is the Jewish Quarter, which everyone calls just that. Like Poland, Hungary has a fraught history when it comes to World War II and the Holocaust - both nations were occupied by Nazis, saw the destruction of their Jewish communities and still experience tension over how much the locals aided the Germans. And, just as in Krakow, Budapest’s Jewish Quarter is now one of the main nightlife centers.

Being my first visit to Budapest, I started off with a free three hour walking tour that began in Vörösmarty Square, wound past the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and Saint Stephen’s Basilica, through Elizabeth Square, across the Chain Bridge, up Castle Hill and finished at Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion. It was the perfect introduction to a new city, allowing me to decide which sites I wanted to revisit and spend more time at. Lunch was spent at Magyar Qtr, a Hungarian bistro along the river that showcases local wines. (If you are unfamiliar with Hungarian wine, according to our tour guide it’s because they only export the very cheapest and the most expensive; in reality there are quite a few that are friendly to both the palate and the wallet). 

Intrigued by the storied ruin bars of the Jewish Quarter, I made my way to Szimpla next. The government used to own many of the buildings in the area but, lacking the funds to renovate them, they sold the properties for cheap. Enterprising young people swooped them up and, rather than fixing them up, decided to embrace the shabby chic vibe and turn them into hubs for drinking and socializing, and thus the ruin bar was born. Think dive bar but with more history. Feeling ready to take on more intellectual stimulation, I rounded the corner and entered the Dohány Street Synagogue, the second-largest of its kind in the world. Built in the mid-nineteenth century, its Moorish style brings to mind grand palaces in the south of Spain. The complex also houses memorials for Holocaust victims and those who died in the ghetto, and a museum. Just next door to the courtyard exit, the Shoah Cellar museum honors Holocaust victims inside an actual former Nazi bunker.

Inside Szimpla.

Inside the Great Synagogue.

Following a brief respite at my Airbnb a short walk away, I sought to relax my legs from a full day of walking at one of Budapest’s famous baths. The capital sits atop over 100 natural thermal springs and, thanks to the Ottomans, makes use of them with bath houses. They differ slightly in admission price and additional spa services available, but the baths all consist of multiple pools (indoor, but some outdoor as well) ranging in temperature from 20-40C. I chose the elegant Széchenyi located in Városliget park. On a weekday evening it wasn’t overly crowded, and held a nice mix of tourists and locals. For dinner I treated myself at KönyvBár and Restaurant, which specializes in crafting tasting menus inspired by literature and whose bookshelf-lined dining room creates a swanky library atmosphere. March happens to be Lord of the Rings month, so my five course meal included “Gollum’s Catch” (sea bass with chives, taters and shallots), “Sam Cooks Coney” (rabbit prepared three ways) and “Mount Doom” for dessert (a chocolate dome with hot blood orange ‘lava’ sauce poured over table-side).

The sun from the first day was nowhere to be found the following morning, instead replaced by drizzly gray skies that reminiscent of my hometown, Seattle, which meant a leisurely brunch at Stika, a cozy coffee shop whose main menu highlight is variations on Eggs Benedict. I returned to St. Stephen’s Basilica, paid the modest entry fee, and was completely blown away by all the ornate gilded details and the impossibly high and beautifully painted dome. Saint Stephen is credited for bringing Christianity to Hungary, and allegedly his preserved right hand is in the reliquary. For an additional fee, visitors can go up to the top of the dome for panoramic views. 

Making my way toward the river again, I hopped on tram line 2 - a great and affordable way to see the city’s main sites for those who don’t wish to walk, up to the Hungarian Parliament Building. The Gothic Revival design borrows heavily from London’s Palace of Westminster, but that doesn’t make Hungary’s version any less spectacular. Participation in a guided tour is required to enter the building, but for me admiring the exterior was more than enough. Several statues and memorials stand near the building, my favorite being the large seated figure of poet Attila Jozsef facing the river.

Hopping on the subway this time, I headed west toward Castle Hill for another look at Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion. The church looks like any other you’d encounter in Paris, except for its brightly colored tiled roof, whose pattern brings to mind iconic Missoni prints. Nearby Fisherman’s Bastion, whose seven towers represent the tribes that settled the region that became modern-day Hungary in the first century, evoked Minas Tirith, the White City in J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy. Or perhaps I was simply still thinking about the previous night’s dinner.

View of the parliament building from Fisherman's Bastion.

South of Buda Castle sits Gellért Hill, named for a bishop whose large likeness poses in a colonnade facing the river partway up. The hill is accessible from almost all sides, with many trails winding up toward the citadel at the top, and countless scenic viewpoints. I began the climb from the Danube side, admiring the hill’s namesake before continuing to the summit and taking many panorama photos. Thankfully many of the clouds had cleared up, so views of Castle Hill and Pest were spectacular. Finally, I descended the south side and crossed Liberty Bridge back to Pest.

The Great Market Hall awaited at the other end, a vast three-story Neo-Gothic structure from 1897 that boasts fresh produce, baked goods, meat cuts, preserves, souvenirs and more. It’s an ideal place for both snacking and picking up last-minute gifts. Across the street is the popular tourist watering hole For Sale Pub. I poked my head in, noted the large crowd still waiting to be seated, and remembered that the building next-door to my Airbnb contained a bottle shop aptly named Beerselection, where you can sit and enjoy your purchase or take a case to go. Craft beers are a big thing now in Hungary, and this shop offers over 150.

Unlike other European destinations like London and Paris, which take days to explore properly, Budapest is perfect for a quick jaunt. Sure, there will always be more bath houses to visit and ruin bars to drink in, but even just scratching the surface, as I did, provides a detailed cross-section of what the city is all about. In two days I experienced the city’s history, culture, dining scene and quirks, enough to feel satiated but also excited at the prospect of a return visit.

See more of Budapest here.

Different Forms of Remembrance in Krakow

By pure coincidence, I happened to be in Poland the week when temperatures in Europe were far below that of the North Pole. For Krakow this meant daytime highs of 15F and below, not factoring in wind chill. My Airbnb hosts frequently asked if I was warm enough. Yes, with the radiator in my room cranked all the way up I was quite toasty up in the lofted bed. When it came to spending time outside, though, it was a different matter entirely.

View of Saint Mary's Basilica from the Cloth Hall in Krakow's historical town square.

I’d reserved a spot on a free walking tour for the first afternoon after I arrived from Berlin. I found the group near St. Mary’s Basilica in Rynek Glowny, the historical town square, but after several minutes I dipped and took shelter in a coffee shop. (It if hadn’t also been snowing I might’ve stayed, but as it were I didn’t want to get my camera wet). For the duration of my stay, I willed myself to go out and explore between mid morning and late afternoon, but generally after six or seven in the evening did not leave the refuge of my cozy room.

Part of me felt like I should have pushed myself to go out more, but then my hosts told me about a recent guest of theirs from the Netherlands, who spent pretty much all four days of her visit cooped up inside. Instantly, I felt better about myself. All told, I took day trips to Auschwitz and the Wieliczka salt mine, and spent time exploring the Wawel Castle complex, old town and the Jewish Quarter. I even experienced the local post office (to buy postcard stamps and attempt to ship home an awesome movie poster I purchased; she didn’t have me fill out a customs form so I’m not entirely confident I’ll ever see it again).

I pre-booked my Auschwitz tour far in advance, only realizing the week of that it was slated for the coldest day that week (10F)! In a way it made the visit more atmospheric, as the guide related anecdotes such as the prisoners only having one uniform and that on the monthly washing day they had to go naked. What I wore that day: thermal tights, thermal leggings, jeans, wool socks, insulated waterproof hiking boots, three long sleeve thermal tops, a down quilted jacket, a hoodie, a waterproof parka, hat, scarf, and gloves. I was still cold, though, and intermittently losing sensation in my extremities, which made it slightly hard to focus, as though my brain were operating at half-speed. 

The iconic gate at Auschwitz.

Fences around the perimeter.

Auschwitz is a place of unfathomable cruelty. Upon arriving at the visitor’s center, I was surprised at how much Auschwitz 1 felt like being on a movie set. Passing under the infamous sign bearing "Arbeit macht frei" (work makes you free), which is actually a reproduction as the original was stolen (and later recovered, though not re-installed), this part of the complex is populated by orderly brick buildings from the pre-Nazi days, when the site was a Polish military base. The ambiance is almost quaint, until you start to think about what happened inside these buildings. 

The tour guide was all about the numbers and statistics, which she repeated quite frequently, but even so it was difficult to comprehend the sheer scale and inhumanity of the atrocities committed there. Perhaps most poignant in that part of the visit was seeing the vestiges of the victims - the infamous locks of hair (almost 2000 kg) shorn from the deceased before their bodies were sent to the crematorium, the suitcases and personal effects never to be reclaimed by their owners. 

A short bus ride away, at Auschwitz-Birkenau, we trotted across the barren, frozen ground to see the remains of the main crematoriums, the wooden barracks that served as latrines, and the brick structures were prisoners were crammed into triple-decker bunks. We stood at the junction where a commander decided the fates of the newly arrived - to work in the camp or to go straight to the gas chamber. Only those deemed young and fit enough for labor were allowed to live, at least a little longer.

View of Auschwitz-Birkenau from the guard tower.

Isaak Synagogue in the Jewish quarter.

A couple days later I found myself wandering around Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter, home to several remarkable synagogues and now one of Krakow’s nightlife centers. The Galicia Jewish Museum provided the counterpoint I needed. As significant as Auschwitz is as a memorial and a reminder, it’s also become the poster child for a period that, in reality, encompasses a diverse array of experiences. Primarily a photography museum, although there is an excellent exhibit on Rywka Lipszyc, a teenager whose diary documenting everyday life in the ghetto was found by a Soviet doctor at Auschwitz and became the focus of a multinational collaboration to solve the mystery of her fate after the war (for more information refer to Diary from the Ashes), the collection emphasizes the extent to which the Jewish community was obliterated by World War II. All the photos of synagogues from around the region of Galicia, crumbling and in disrepair, broken tombstones in overgrown patches that used to be Jewish cemeteries, add another dimension to the already profound loss that is the Holocaust. 

See more of Krakow, Auschwitz and Wieliczka on Flickr.

Berlin Is a City for Lost Souls

I had never been to Berlin, or Germany for that matter, prior to covering the 68th Berlin International Film Festival (better known as the Berlinale; my reviews can be found on the writing page). But I had a strong impression of it thanks to last year's Charlize Theron action vehicle Atomic Blonde. Set in the German capital during the Cold War, the film presents a gritty, industrial city full of graffiti and a sort of rugged, crumbling beauty. Despite being a period piece, the depiction is not far removed from reality.

Prenzlauer Berg, near my Airbnb.

An acquaintance who lives there now remarked that she liked the sense of freedom one has to pursue whatever one desires; unlike the more rigid career path aspirations that tend to dominate young people in other major cities. I suppose this is a euphemistic echo of what another friend said about the time she lived in Berlin for an internship - that it always felt like many of her peers simply didn't work or have meaningful jobs. There's a much more relaxed vibe than other European capitals, like London and Paris, perhaps fueled by the relatively lower cost of living. Rent is more affordable, and good, cheap eats abound. It's a seductive lifestyle for the aimless and the nomadic, particularly when you factor in the notorious party scene.  

View of the city from near the central train station.

A college friend who works in the city's burgeoning tech scene commented that Berlin makes it easy to fall down a rabbit hole. People show up without a plan, only to get sucked in and wake up years later without having accomplished anything, except maybe to develop a drug and alcohol addiction. It's simultaneously hedonistic and bohemian. People drink openly on pubic transit (which I think is technically not allowed?), behavior that is at odds with a society that in other regards is very much about following rules. Another friend likened the Germans to the Japanese due to their propensity for waiting in lines, even outside of clubs that - at the most extreme - play host to drug-fueled orgies. (I opted not to go clubbing so this information is purely second-hand and anecdotal).

See more photos here.

You Get What You Pay For

It began with a couple of email alerts, informing me that I would be flying on a different aircraft than originally planned, and thus my flight from San Francisco to Reykjavik would depart earlier than normal; this, in contrast with what SFO's website said. That was the first warning.

Ultimately the scheduled departure time was irrelevant, because the crew inexplicably rolled up an hour late, and without them we couldn't board. Once seated, however, we had to queue on the runway before taking off. I was due to catch a connecting flight to Berlin at 6am local time (at that point our estimated arrival was 5am). The other two passengers in my row had connections to Amsterdam and Paris, all slated for about the same time as mine.

I asked a crew member partway through the eight-hour flight whether those of us needing to make connections could disembark first. He claimed that it wouldn't make a difference (false) because Keflavik Airport is small and only takes "10 minutes" to pass through security and passport control to get to the other gates (also false), and since the flights were operated by the same airline (Wow Air, a misnomer if I've ever heard one), they ought to wait for us (true for some passengers but not me).

In Keflavik, a former US military base.

Shit really hit the fan, though, when the captain announced that we would need to stop to refuel, adding another forty or so minutes to the delay. I didn't catch the name of the airport, but it was somewhere in Canada so remote that I didn't have the cellphone service required to confirm our location.

We finally landed in Keflavik, strong winds gently rocking the plane like a boat while we anxiously waited to disembark and learn our fate. I'm fairly certain my seatmates made their flights. The unlucky ones, myself included, were treated to a series of conflicting instructions from the airline staff. First we went to the service counter inside security, as per the cabin crew's advice. There, they told us to head to baggage claim, where the staff said to head out through customs, where a staff member would meet us.

Eventually an agent arrived with a stack of vouchers for us to spend the night at a nearby hotel and have a few meals, as the next available flight out was the following morning. It took the taxi driver a solid five minutes to get the barrier to raise allowing us to exit onto the main road (picture the car approaching and reversing repeatedly like in a Looney Tunes cartoon). 

Near the hotel we stayed at for the night.

By the time we reached the hotel, nestled within what used to be an active US military base, it was 8am. Check-in was not officially for another six hours, but the receptionist took pity on us and gave us rooms as they were cleared by housekeeping.

I've often said that while my anger passes quickly, my disappointment can last forever. So, yes, this morning I was absolutely prepared to curse people out (which is embarrassing and shameful because I also work in the service industry), but ultimately resigned myself to the new circumstances beyond my control. It was my choice, after all, to book through a budget airline, and when you skimp on cost like that you welcome unreliability. 



Dearly Beloved

Three years ago, today, my grandmother passed away. Of course she lives on in our hearts and memories, but in terms of the tangible - evidence of a life well-lived, there isn't very much left.

For Christmas we gave my grandfather a collage frame that holds seven photos, and only when we were trying to fill it with pictures of her did we realize just how scarce they are. Oh, we had photos from her youth, and when my brother and I were children, but none from the last five years of her life.

I'll never forget her soft wrinkly skin, bright lipsticked smile, and snowy white hair, but I wish that I had something to hold and to look at instead of closing my eyes and willing my brain to conjure a likeness that inevitably becomes less accurate as time goes on.

Junior or senior year of high school my best friend and I went to California to visit Stanford's campus. I had recently purchased my very first DSLR - the Canon Rebel XTi, whose myriad megapixels I quickly discovered was able to elevate even the most uninspired scenes into something passably interesting. Consequently, I shot everything and anything. 

Here we are in the dining room of my grandparents' house. The fluorescent lighting was - and still is - shit. But she was laughing, demure as always, asking me why I was photographing her. I remember the entire incident and the resulting picture so vividly. And yet, my mind is the only place in which it exists now.

I fired up my old Macbook, hoping against hope, that the hard drive held a copy of the photo that Facebook and Flickr did not. But, no, clearly I must have deleted it at some point.

I would gladly give up the hundreds of photos from my travels around the world just to have that one back; to be able to print it out and place it in the collage frame.

We take so much for granted these days - that everything is automatically backed up, fail safe and fool proof but, most of all, that there will be more time. So even though my brother and I are on a campaign for our parents to reduce the amount of things in their house, I made a photo book of our Europe trip for my dad.

Because at some point there won't be any more tomorrows. Tomorrow is today, and today is for holding your loved ones close and telling them how much they mean to you.

The 3 C's

1. Caernarfon, the first stop after leaving Holyhead Port in northern Wales. 

Of the many castles built in the late 1200s by the English, Caernarfon's is the most impressive. Most of the towers are accessible via tightly spiraling stairs with tiny steps and a rope to hold onto, as are the ramparts around the perimeter.

View of Caernarfon Castle.

View of Caernarfon from the castle.

2. Conwy, the walled market town near our accommodation.

Most of the wall remains and is accessible. Fun fact: it was built by the English to protect themselves from the locals (i.e. the Welsh lived outside the wall). Conwy Castle is more well-preserved (archways and windows remain) than the others, but smaller than Caernarfon's. Other places of interest within the old town include the smallest house in Great Britain and St. Mary and All Saints' Church.

We also spent a lovely afternoon strolling around Bodnant Garden, an 80-acre property founded in 1874.

Portion of the wall surrounding Conwy.

Manor (still privately owned) and pool at Bodnant Garden.

3. Caer Rhun Hall, the Grade II-listed manor that was home base for this portion of the trip.

We originally booked two separate singles, but dad got upgraded to what we surmise was the honeymoon suite replete with bay window with love seat overlooking the gardens. (I let him have that one because he took the foldout couch at our Dublin Airbnb). At this time of year there weren't many other guests, though at breakfast we met a long-term resident - a local woman who was staying there while her house was being repaired.

It's also a popular wedding venue.

Lobby near the entrance.

See more photos of Conwy and Caernarfon here.