Category Archives: architecture
Jesse and I have been longing to go to Romania for months. What looks deceptively close on the map, however, is in reality a huge trek. Getting to the heart of Dracula’s territory would’ve taken at least twelve hours by train. Instead, this weekend we went to Oradea, a city that is just across the Hungarian border.
According to The Debrecen Sun, there hasn’t been a direct railroad line between Debrecen and Oradea since WWI. (Prior to The Treaty of Trianon, Oradea/Nagyvárad belonged to Hungary. It was briefly part of Hungary once again during WWII.)
Logistically, this meant that we had to travel southwest from Debrecen to the tiny town of Püspökladány, change trains, and then head back east.
Although Oradea has some interesting sights, it is not a big tourist destination, and this was fine with us. We spent the weekend walking around the town, enjoying the architecture and the sunny skies.
The main attraction of the city is the Citadel. Oradea gained importance when it became the seat of a Catholic bishopric in the 11th century, and a fortress and Gothic cathedral was built soon after. The cathedral is long gone, and most of the citadel that remains today was designed by an Italian architect and constructed at the end of the 16th century.
The building that will remain most clearly in my memory is the decrepit, abandoned synagogue down the street from our hotel. Seeing the broken windows and overgrown trees sent a shiver up my spine. It is a reminder of the Holocaust, sitting forgotten in plain sight. According to the Oradea Jewish Community website, approximately 1/3 of Oradea’s population was Jewish before WWII. Only a few hundred Jews remain today.
During WWII, the Jewish men were forced into slave labor for the Hungarian army. In 1944 the remaining men, women, and children were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The beautiful if dilapidated synagogues in Oradea chilled me. While we walked around a fascinating city, the empty buildings were quiet reminders of the absence of thousands of Oradea’s citizens.
One of the most interesting parts of traveling is stumbling across groups of locals gathered for some purpose that is not immediately clear. This has happened to us a lot in Hungary, and it happened in Oradea. While looking for the citadel, we came across a large number of people clustered in front of an ugly building. After spending a few minutes trying to decipher the banner, we decided that it was a Roma political party meeting. Google Translate tells me it means something about turning the wheels of fortune.
Because there weren’t many touristy things to do, I couldn’t resist posing with this cow in front of the Lactobar, the most “American” restaurant I’ve encountered in Europe.
Oradea is certainly an interesting mixture of old and new!
We only traveled 12 km beyond the Hungarian border, but we encountered a new language, a new currency, and we got a new stamp in our passports.
I have now visited Canada, India, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Italy, and Romania. Next up: France!
Three years ago, Jesse and I got married. We wanted to go to Europe on our honeymoon, to a romantic destination that was less expensive and less cliché than Paris. We decided on Budapest . . .
. . . but we never bought plane tickets. We thought of a million practical reasons why we shouldn’t go to Europe that summer, and we were filled with quite a bit of anxiety about moving to Michigan, Jesse starting grad school, and me finding a job.
In the end, our honeymoon was a spur-of-the-moment camping trip on the beach in the state of Delaware. We had a great time. I will always remember watching dolphins leaping in the waves while the sun rose over the Atlantic ocean.
Yet I did have a lesson to learn about not waiting to do things that I am really passionate about. There will never be enough money or enough time. There will always be a really good reason to not take a risk. Sometimes you should do things anyways. (You wouldn’t think I have a problem with being overly cautious, given that Jesse and I got engaged after dating for only three months and married three months after that.)
But this year we spent our anniversary in Budapest. The same excuse of not having enough money would have applied–but I want to get the most out of Europe before I go home, even if this means we are reduced to eating raman noodles when we move to back to the States.
So, we took the train to the capital on Saturday morning. We went to the Museum of Applied Arts and got in for free with our teacher cards. The special exhibit was on Hungarian Art Deco, which seems as unique as Czech Cubism. I love how Hungarian Deco was inspired by traditional folk designs.
The building that houses the museum is as amazing as any of the furniture it contains.
That evening, we took a cruise on the Danube. Unfortunately, the sun sets so late now that we didn’t really get to see the city lit up at night. But in the last five minutes of the cruise, the Chain Bridge was illuminated.
On Sunday, we went to the Hungarian National Museum. Once again we got free admission with our teacher cards! Jesse and I were in history geek heaven looking at medieval tomb stones and paleolithic artifacts. Too soon we had to catch the train back to Debrecen.
I guess we were right to choose Budapest as our honeymoon destination. It is a city we could visit over and over again.
On our last day in Prague, we went to the castle. It was crowded and expensive, but I saw some things that made it worth it.
Inside St. Vitus’s Cathedral was a magnificent stained glass window designed by Mucha. I had never seen Art Nouveau stained glass in a Gothic cathedral before. Pretty cool.
Inside the Old Royal Palace was the window from which the Second Defenestration of Prague occurred.
“Defenestrate” means to “throw a person or thing out of a window.” I think it’s funny that such a word even exists, let alone that it is in the name of not one but two historical events. In 1618, a group of Protestants got really angry at some Catholic officials and threw three of them out of the palace window. Surprisingly, the men survived, but this action started the Thirty Years War. Don’t ask me anything else about the war (except how long it was).
The Royal Gardens were a tranquil refuge after the intensity of the Castle. We spent quite a bit of time relaxing in the shade.
Prague has a lot of green space, so after lunch, we visited the Wallenstein Gardens and Palace. Designed in the seventeenth-century by a wealthy nobleman, they are presently occupied by the Czech Senate. I took far too many photos of the peacock family that roamed the gardens, but they were a great source of free entertainment.
We finished our day by walking across Charles Bridge.
My advice? If you get the chance, Go. To. Prague.
As my dedicated readers know, I am a museum addict.
One of the museums that I knew I wanted to visit in Prague was the Museum of Czech Cubism, which is located in the House of the Black Madonna. I must say, I was hoping for something a little more exotic than this building:
The cubist architecture in Prague is unique. Before WWI, nationalist Czech artists wanted to create pieces that were distinctly Czech. So it has an interesting historical legacy. However, applying the cubist style to a building is challenging. I thought some of the geometric shapes were interesting, but overall I wasn’t impressed. I much prefer the art deco style that came after WWI.
The building that I really fell in love with is Frank Gehry and Vlado Milunić’s Dancing House. Adding modern architecture to any European city is always controversial, but I think the Dancing House compliments its surroundings.
It was built on an empty lot that had been bombed in WWII (like I said, only about two bombs landed on Prague). The lot was also next door to President Václav Havel’s house. He was both a poet and a politician, and he supported the project, which was inspired by the dancing duo Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Gehry is most famous for his Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, which I haven’t visited, but I’ve seen his building on the Case Western campus in Cleveland and his pavilion at Millennium Park in Chicago. His style is very distinct, and is always interesting to look at–if you’re not blinded by the sun reflecting off his shiny metal surfaces.
I am never content with just one museum, so we also went to the Alfons Mucha museum. Mucha’s poster for Sarah Bernhardt’s “Gismonda” launched both his career and the Art Nouveau movement. I love the way curves, plants, and flowers are incorporated into his motifs. Art Nouveau was less about painting and more about applied arts: posters, textiles, buildings, and even mass-produced products.
Like the cubists, Mucha was a Czech nationalist. In the 1930s, he ran afoul of the Nazis and contracted pneumonia while being held for interrogation by the Gestapo. He died in 1939.
After seeing cubist paintings and Mucha’s posters, we couldn’t resist a little more art. The Municipal House had an exhibit called Tauromaquia, which included bullfighting paintings and sketches by Picasso, Dalí, and Goya. Although I am opposed to bullfighting, I really enjoyed seeing the same theme depicted by radically different artists. They also had a full-size cartoon sketch for Picasso’s Guernica.
With just a few brushstrokes, Picasso captured the violent energy of bullfighting:
Ironically, after seeing the Fred and Ginger building, my feet were too tired to walk, let alone dance. We took the tram back to our hotel, heads spinning with all the beautiful sites we’d seen.
Since the fall of Communism, Prague has regained the sophistication and the splendor of its glory days. Unfortunately, this also means that it is now swarming with tourists. Perhaps because it was a holiday weekend, there were so many tourists that at times I felt like I was at Disney World. I guess I’ve been fortunate that my experiences in Europe so far have mostly been during the off-season or at slightly off-the-beaten-path locations. Witnessing the tourist mania in Prague has prepared me for true insanity in Paris and Rome in the coming weeks.
That said, Prague is amazing.
It escaped from WWII virtually unscathed. Two bombs were accidentally dropped on the city, and the locals were actually glad to be rid of one of the buildings that was destroyed. So, whereas Budapest’s crumbling Art Nouveau buildings stand next to communist era construction, there are almost no signs of communism in the streets of Prague. Both cities are captivating in their own way.
The seven hour train ride between the two European capitals sped by. We
were tricked into buying accidentally-on-purpose bought first class tickets, so we had the six-seat compartment all to ourselves.
The countryside outside our window was glorious.
Friday night, we headed to a nearby restaurant for dinner. Unfortunately, they weren’t serving food after 10:00 PM, so we had to get our calories from delicious Czech beer. On Saturday morning, we gorged ourselves on the bountiful free breakfast then hopped on the tram to the city center.
Then we wandered.
I knew some buildings/sites that I wanted to see, but we veered down side streets whenever we spotted something interesting. We spent little time in the popular Old Town Square. Although it was beautiful, the tourists made me feel claustrophobic. What I most enjoyed about Prague was gazing at all the details on the buildings. I could have walked and stared for many more days.
At the end of the day, my feet were sore, but my soul was content. Losing myself in a new city is actually a way to learn more about myself. As a traveler, I am curious about every aspect of the place that I visit. When I open my mind to new experiences, I gain new insights about who I am and how I fit into the world. I keep hoping that one of these days all of these experiences will connect to form a coherent picture.
Next post: An art tangent about Czech cubism, Alfons Mucha, a dancing house, and the beauty of bull fighting.
Tuesday morning got off to a bumpy start: We got stuck in an elevator.
I have never been stuck in an elevator before. I did not suspect that I would have this experience in a car park in Monreale, a hilltop town 15 minutes outside of Palermo. I mean, the elevator only had two levels. But when we got to the top, the door wouldn’t open. We went back down. The door still didn’t open. I got a thrill out of pressing the alarm button. The elevator was glass, so we watched the car park employees scurrying around trying to figure out how to liberate us. We didn’t know if we would be stuck for a few minutes or hours, but in the end they pried open the doors after about five minutes.
They still charged us full price for parking our car.
We climbed up the hill on foot and visited Monreale Cathedral, one of the most important landmarks in Sicily.
Did I mention that the Norman kings had big egos? In 1174 King William II decided that he wanted to outdo his grandfather Roger’s chapel and advertise the political and religious power of Norman Sicily, so he built the Monreale Cathedral. (Although according to William, the Virgin Mary came to him in a dream and told him to build a church.)
Like the Palatine Chapel, nearly every surface is covered in golden mosaics depicting stories from both the Old and New Testaments. It is a breathtaking place, but the lighting made it difficult for me to take many good pictures.
This man was meticulously restoring part of the floor:
He seemed like he should be well past the age of retirement, but there he was, hunched on the ground, tools spread around him. I believe that his cap indicates that he is Muslim. I would have liked to know his story. I’m guessing that he comes from a family of skilled tile workers. He had a younger assistant working with him, possibly a son or grandson whom he was training.
Although I thought I’d learned my lesson about climbing stairs in churches, we accidentally bought a ticket to see the cathedral “terrace” instead of the cloister. This involved many steps, but at least we got to see the cloister from above.
Before we walked back downhill, I bought gelato from a friendly old man. His presentation was very artistic: he added a dab of green pistachio ice cream on top of my cup of hazlenut and pressed a cookie into the frozen treat. I love how most Sicilians really want you to be satisfied with their product and to enjoy your time on their island.
Next Post: After marveling at a medieval church, we headed to the Riserva Naturale dello Zingaro to admire Sicily’s natural beauty.
Hungary Update: For some pictures of the Mangalica (Curly-haired Pig) Festival I went to last Friday in Debrecen, please visit my friend Dianna’s blog.