Tag Archives: Architecture

A Weekend in Romania

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.

Black Eagle Shopping Center

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!

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Art and Architecture in 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:

House of the Black Madonna

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.

Cubist Chair

Cubist Furniture

Cubist Staircase

Cubist Lamp Post

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.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

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.

Bullfighting Sketch by Goya (Source: Wikipedia)

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.

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Playing Tour Guide

This weekend our friend Wendy came to visit us, so we had a chance to play tour guide.  We ended up exploring some areas of Debrecen that I hadn’t seen before.

The Nagytemplom (Great Church) is Debrecen’s most iconic landmark.  Back in October, Jesse and I climbed to the top of the clock tower, but couldn’t go inside the church because a ribbon pinning ceremony was going on.

This weekend, we finally got a peek inside.  Except for the organ, the interior was dominated by crisp white curves and lines.  It was simple but beautiful.  Probably the exact effect that the Calvinists were hoping to achieve.

The Nagytemplom is famous because Kossuth Lajos read Hungary’s Declaration of Independence from Austria here in 1849.  This was his chair.  (Unfortunately, the revolution was squashed, Hungarian generals were executed, and the Hapsburgs went around smashing Hungarian castles.)

From the clock tower, we could see one of Debrecen’s other great churches, the Catholic Saint Anne’s.  I took this picture in October, but never bothered to see the church up close.

The Baroque church was completed in 1746, but the towers were not added until the early 1800s.  As we looked around, three elderly people kept an eye on us, and one lady was praying.  Although it isn’t featured in my Lonely Planet guidebook, I think that this church is one of Debrecen’s treasures.

Showing the city to a friend helped me appreciate how much Debrecen has to offer.

Also, it’s always good to chat with a teacher stationed in a different part of Hungary.  The weekend was full of laughter, too much good food, and a lesson plan exchange.  Now I’m rejuvenated and ready for another week of teaching.

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Florence Day 4: Fiesole

For anyone wanting to escape the swarming hordes of tourists in Florence’s city center, relief is a short bus ride away.  That is, once you find the bus.  According to the internet and a guide book, City Bus #7 picked up outside Santa Maria Novella train station.  Turns out, the stop had been relocated months or even years ago.  Sometimes being a tourist is more like being a detective.

Thanks to Bobby, we found the stop, and soon we were on the bus, zipping up the hills to Fiesole.

We spent the day looking at churches and walking around the hills of Tuscany.  The weather was splendid.  At lunchtime, we sat outside and I was comfortable in just my turtleneck.

We had the chance to inspect olive trees up close.  This was the first time I’d seen olives growing on a tree.  Jesse persuaded me to taste one, even though I knew they wouldn’t taste good before being cured.  It was disgusting, but at least now I know.

This nun reclining on the wall and taking in the view seemed to capture the essence of Tuscany.  She was radiating peace and serenity.

She also sensed that Jesse was taking her picture and smiled obligingly.

Kellie set up her camera to take a picture of all four of us:

We spent quite a bit of time at the Convent of San Francesco.  The interior of the church was tranquil, small, and relatively plain.

We could peek into the monks’ cells, including San Bernardino of Siena’s.  One of his miracles was prematurely aging because he was so devout.  According to Wikipedia, he caught the plague but survived, which may also have affected his aging.

I could imagine the monks walking through the cloisters and sitting in their cells praying.

The convent also housed a small museum that included Etruscan and Roman artifacts found in Fiesole, an Egyptian mummy, and objects from China.  (The mummy and the Chinese pieces were brought back from missions by the Franciscans.)

We passed more churches tucked away in the hills.

The silvery leaves of the trees in an olive grove were breathtaking.

I really should just let the pictures speak for themselves: a day full of sunshine, nature, and historic churches is hard to top.

Fore more pictures of Fiesole, please check out these blogs:

Kellie’s Blog

Bobby’s Blog

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A Firenzeben: Day Three

On December 26th, I saw Michelangelo’s David.

My palms were sweating as we went through security at the Academy.  Not because I was trying to sneak any prohibited items into the museum, but because I felt like I was about to meet a celebrity.

As soon as we were in the museum, I couldn’t resist going straight to David.  After seeing so many images of him in pop culture, I was worried that I wouldn’t be impressed by the real thing.  As I approached this famous statue, all my anxiety dissipated.

I couldn’t believe that something so beautiful was carved out of a piece of marble.  The pose is so perfect and natural.  He is calmly assessing his enemy, prepared to use his intellect to take out the giant Goliath.  (Jesse and I had a debate about whether the statue is showing Daivd before or after killing Goliath, and I maintain that it is before.)

He is frozen in one pose for eternity, but I could imagine him coming to life and slinging his stone at any moment.

The details on his hands and his muscles are just amazing.  The veins on his arms and hands seem as if they really have blood flowing through them.

Michelangelo's David (Wikipedia)

The years in which Michelangelo carved David were turbulent ones for the city.  When he was unveiled, Florentines immediately recognized David as a symbol of their republic.  He has been an honored citizen of Florence ever since.  The Accademy was built in the nineteenth century solely to house this treasured sculpture.

We paid €50 each for the Florence card, a three day pass giving us free admission to almost every museum in the city as well as unlimited use of public transportation.  I felt like I got my money’s worth after seeing just one sculpture.

After gawking at David for fifteen or twenty minutes, Jesse and I did view the rest of the art in the museum.

Next, we climbed Giotto’s bell tower at Santa Maria del Fiore.  The bell tower has more steps than the Leaning Tower of Pisa, so it was quite a climb.  Also, no one monitored when you could go up or down, so there were traffic jams on the narrow staircase.  This definitely pushed the limits of my tolerance for confined spaces, and I am in no hurry to do it again any time soon, although the view at the top was great.

After that, we went to the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s town hall.  Cosimo I, Grand Duke of Tuscany, decided to move in for awhile in the 1500s, before the Medicis built the Pitti Palace on the other side of the Arno.  The museum shows the various apartments that were designed for his family.

From the Palazzo Vecchio, we headed to the Strozzi, another museum housed in the former palace of a powerful Florentine family.  The exhibit was about the relationship between banking, politics, and art in Renaissance Florence.  It was designed to tell a story, and it succeeded in placing the great pieces of art in the context of the time in which they were created.

When we finished with our third museum of the day, the sun was setting, and we snapped several pictures by the Arno.  The white shapes seem to be a protective covering for the olive trees in the street.

The Ponte Vecchio at dusk

We met our friends/fellow CETP teachers for dinner that evening.  For some beautiful pictures of Florence, please peruse their blogs:

Bobby’s Blog

Kellie’s Blog

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A Firenzeben: Christmas Day

I woke up on Christmas morning to the sound of children laughing and dice hitting the floor in the apartment above our Bed and Breakfast.  It was comforting to hear the sounds of a family enjoying Christmas together.  My Christmas was certainly unconventional.

Virtually all the tourist attractions in Florence were closed on Christmas day–except the synagogue and Jewish museum.  The synagogue was built in the nineteenth century in the Moorish style.  It was very beautiful, but the overall experience was bizarre.  A soldier stood in the compound observing the street.  We had to walk through a metal detector to enter.  Inside, we were not unable to wander freely, and we had to wait for a guide to open the museum section.  The guide was giving a tour in Italian and Hebrew, which didn’t help me at all.  We trailed along behind a group of people from Israel.  Still, the visit gave me a different perspective on the city’s history.

For the rest of the day, Jesse and I wandered around the city, enjoying the sunshine and the architecture.  I was glad that we could stroll along the relatively quiet streets without any agenda or time constraints.

Although it was not a white Christmas, we could see patches of snow on the mountains in the distance.

Jesse and I asked some strangers to take our picture by the river.  You can see Brunelleschi’s dome in the background.

The dome is the most impressive landmark of the city.  It is an engineering marvel, and the ribbing on the red brick is striking.

The cathedral is actually called Santa Maria del Fiore, but it is nearly always referred to as the Duomo.

We spent quite awhile looking at two medieval towers that are still standing by the Arno River.  The city used to be enclosed by walls, but they were torn down in the nineteenth century.  This is the Porto San Niccoló, a watch tower built in the 1300s.  Behind it is a path that leads up to the Piazzale Michelangelo.   Jesse and I accepted that we would once again be climbing hundreds of stairs, and we headed to the top of the hill, pausing to take in the view several times along the way.

It seemed that all the tourists in Florence had the same idea as us, and the Piazzele was filled with people snapping photos, dogs in sweaters tugging on their leashes, and African vendors selling leather bags and prints of paintings.

The churches on top of the hill were open.  We peeked into at least two dozen churches during our trip.  Although they quickly blur together, stepping off the street and into a peaceful church is like opening a surprise.  You never know what beautiful frescoes or treasured altar piece might be hiding inside.  I particularly enjoyed San Miniato al Monte:

Construction was begun on this church one thousand years ago.  There was a beautiful Byzantine style mosaic inside.

The sunlight was fading fast when Jesse took one last photo of me.  I was so happy that we got the chance to spend Christmas day together in one of the most amazing cities in Europe.

Our feet were tired as we headed down the hill.  We were looking forward to riding the bus back to our hotel, but to our dismay the buses stopped running at 1:30 on Christmas day.  It was okay, though, because at least I walked off a few of the thousands of calories that I consumed in gelato!

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A Firenzeben: Day One

Like Pisa, my first glimpse of Florence was at night.  The city was aglow with Christmas lights,  including this department store that was draped in a curtain of light:

After devouring dinner at an Indian restaurant, Jesse led me on a walking tour of the city.  We walked past the Duomo, the Palazzo Vecchio, and the Uffizi.  Walking down quiet side streets, I could almost pretend I was back in the Renaissance.  But on the main thoroughfares, the store windows were filled with Gucci, Pucci, Valentino, and Ferragamo.  I prefer Renaissance masters to modern fashion designers any day, but window shopping was fun.

On December 24th, Jesse and I made an aborted attempt to go to the grocery store.  We were lucky to get out alive.  After dodging carts for twenty minutes and standing in line for ten minutes without moving an inch, we abandoned our desired purchases and fled.

We began sight-seeing by visiting Santa Maria Novella, a Gothic church next to the train station.  Construction began in the mid-1200s and was completed in the mid-1300s.

To stand in such a basilica is humbling.  Marble columns support two-toned pointed arches that soar overhead.  Light filters through stained glass windows.  Gold glitters on many surfaces.  Frescoes depicting the lives of saints cover chapel walls.   Tourists move through the cavernous space talking in hushed voices.  The setting definitely inspires thoughts of the divine.   I just basked in the beauty of it all.

Interior of Santa Maria Novella (From Wikipedia)

Next we walked across the river and had lunch at a restaurant recommended by the B&B we were staying at.  Afterwards we continued to meander through the city.  I enjoyed these church doors.

We had just enough time left in the day to walk through the Boboli Gardens.  Although the gardens are part of the Pitti Palace (domicile of the Medicis), admission was separate.  Because the day was chilly and damp, we had the gardens virtually to ourselves.  Statues were tucked in every part of the garden, their creamy marble standing out against the green vegetation.  Some were rather battered, many missing arms or noses, and in places there were pedestals without any sculptures at all.

It all seemed rather magical, as if a statue would come to life, tap me on the shoulder, and invite me on an amazing adventure.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, but I did pet some very pampered cats who lived on the palace grounds.

Exhausted from walking all over the city, we stopped at a little grocery store across from the Pitti Palace and went back to our hotel to make dinner.

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