Monday, January 19, 2009

Hungary Adventure, Part 1: A Day Off

In 2001, Erik and Lea visited Hungary as part of a three-country tour in Eastern and Central Europe. Erik had a conference in Romania's Transylvania region, and they also traveled to Hungary and Slovakia. Lea's parents joined them for a special journey to Drahovce, Slovakia (the ancestral home of Lea's paternal grandfather and his side of the family).

At the time, Budapest easily ranked among the top cities that Erik ever visited. When Erik was invited to return to Budapest to participate in the orientation program for scholars from the South Caucasus and Central Asia who are visiting the US under the auspices of the Open Society Institute, he was more than happy to accept.

The trip to Hungary was relatively smooth, although Erik came down with an unpleasant bug just before departing. The cold, fatigue from the journey, and winter chill on Sunday afternoon wiped him out. After a long sleep, he awoke on Monday ready for some adventures prior to the orientation program's opening.

Erik is staying in Pest, on the eastern side of the Danube River. Pest is home to many notable landmarks, and Erik visited several on Monday. He strolled down the nicely renovated pedestrian areas, where streets have been narrowed or closed to encourage walkers, to St. Istvan's (Stephen's) Basilica. Stephen was the first Apostolic King of Hungary, supposedly given his crown by Pope Sylvestver II in 1001 A.D. [Side note: The veracity of this statement is not confirmed. It was reported by the tour guide at parliament who also laid out Hungary's claim to Transylvania and Slovakia by indicating that they were Hungarian lands. Indeed, the Hungarians had possession of these territories, but the current inhabitants - especially in Slovakia - might dispute the history.] The Basilica is lovely, as you can see from the exterior and interior shots below.

The next stop was Hungary's ornate, Gothic parliament building. It is a secular cathedral, with design elements that celebrate the Hungarian people, but also pay homage to the Catholic Church. The large dome is 96 meters tall, matching the height of St. Istvan's Basilica. According to the tour guide, the parity in height was intended to show the equal power and importance of the church and state.

Parliament was originally bicameral (it is now unicameral); the tour passed through one of the meeting halls that is now used for conferences and special meetings (the main parliamentary plenary sessions are held in the other wing of the building). Outside of the meeting hall was an interesting relic of the past. Members of parliament often smoked cigars during breaks, but did not take them into meetings. Numbered cigar holders were installed so that an MP could leave his cigar, note the number, and return to it when the next break came (see the photo below).

Outside parliament, Erik came upon a monument to the 1956 uprising which was violently repressed by the Soviets. The only other reminder of Soviet times that he encountered on his walk today was a Soviet memorial to the liberators of Budapest (carefully encircled by metal barriers to prevent vandals from defacing it).

Erik visited the Chain Bridge, the first bridge connecting Buda and Pest. He came upon a homeless encampment under the bridge, one of many he encountered on his walk. Back in 2001, Lea and Erik also noted that Budapest had a large homeless population, seemingly larger (or at least more visible) than other cities in Central or Eastern Europe.

After the tour of parliament, Erik stopped by the OSI offices to check in. He confirmed the schedule, and then headed back into the streets, bound for the Grand Market. While Budapest's Grand Market is not as large as the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, it is Erik's favorite. The first floor hosts vendors of food products: produce, meats, and paprika. The second floor has a wonderful "food court" and souvenir vendors. While it is a tourist attraction, the market also serves local residents. Erik and Lea always visit local markets to get a peek into daily life wherever they travel.

St. Istvan's Basilica.

Interior of St. Istvan's Basilica.




Parliament entryway.

Decorations in parliamentary room, representing various professions.

Parliamentary meeting hall.

Cigar holders outside parliamentary meeting hall. MPs would place their cigars in these numbered holders and claim them during breaks.

Grand Market.

Grand Market.

Homeless in Budapest.

Chain Bridge.

Bank with Art Deco design.

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