Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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My friend, Ambrus, pointed out the black flag hanging just outside the church door. Someone has died in Panyola. Later, I mentioned this to his wife, Zsuzsa. “Yes, I know, they rang the bells,” she said. Curious, I asked if the bells had been rung once for each year of age of the deceased, as they used to do in some smaller parishes in England. “No, here the bells tell us if it was a man, woman, or child.”

This tiny village in Hungary’s far eastern Szatmar County has changed little since I last visited, nearly two years ago. It’s half-dozen streets are home to about 500 people, and aside from a small grocery store the only other commercial enterprise is the Panyolai Palinka Distillery, which produces some of the country’s finest fruit brandies from the Nemtudom (“I don’t know”) plums that grow only in this part of Hungary. The trees are heavy laden this year. “Even trees that have never produced are full,” Ambrus says. No one knows why. It is not related to rainfall or cold or heat; it’s just the natural cycle of things.

Residents of Panyola gather at the town hall for a wedding

Residents of Panyola gather at the town hall for a wedding

This is good news for the new owners of the distillery, who recently purchased it from the three local men who brought it back to life after it was abandoned following the collapse of the Soviet Union. According to Zsuzsa, the three men had a vision but lacked the necessary management skills. Sadly, the plant is not a source of employment for the town, as the new owner has brought in outside workers, with the exception of the brewmaster. Read More

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Perhaps it was the fairytale I’d heard earlier in the day that put me in mind of ogres. Approaching Holloko Castle I felt like Jack, the steep path to the top of the hill serving as my beanstalk. The crenelated walls seemed more prison than castle and inside, as I descended into the bowels of the castle, I conjured a giant lying in wait around every turn, sharp teeth poised to make a meal of me.

Legend of Holloko Castle says that a beautiful young maiden from the neighboring village was once imprisoned within its cold, stone walls

Legend of Holloko Castle says that a beautiful young maiden from the neighboring village was once imprisoned within its cold, stone walls

My vivid imagination aside, it is said that while the castle was still being constructed a member of the Kacsics noble family kidnapped a beautiful maiden from a neighboring village and imprisoned her within one of its cold stone cells. Unfortunately for the nobleman, the girl’s nanny was a witch, and she made a pact with the devil to free her mistress. The devil commanded his sons to assume the form of ravens each night and steal stones from the castle until the girl was set free. Today the town of Holloko echoes this fairy tale; its Hungarian name translates to “raven stone” and the road leading to the village is marked with a bronze statue of a raven perched on a rock outcropping. Read More

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Budapest is one of those places that I hadn’t gotten enough of the first time around, so I was delighted that my Viking River Cruises Grand European Tour would end in the city that is often described as the Paris of the East. There was much I hadn’t seen two years earlier, but my most glaring omission had been not visiting any of the famous thermal baths in Budapest, and I was determined to rectify that situation.

Time would not allow me to visit all seven of the facilities in the city, so I focused on the three most famous: Rudas, Széchenyi, and Gellért, all of which have thermal baths and swimming pools. Thousands of articles have been written on Budapest’s thermal spas, so there is little I can add to the conversation, except to describe my personal experience at each and provide my opinion as to which is best.

Enjoying the day at Szechenyi Baths, one of the most famous thermal baths in Budapest, with my friends, Agi and Dessy

Enjoying the day at Szechenyi Baths, one of the most famous thermal baths in Budapest, with my friends, Agi and Dessy. Photo courtesy of Agnes Lovas.

For my visit to the Széchenyi Thermal Baths, I joined friends Agi and Dessy. Initially I had suggested we just meet at the bath, but Agi, who used to live in Budapest, advised otherwise. “I tried that once with other friends and spent the entire day looking for them.” Instead, we met at the Metro station and went as a group. Once inside, I understood what Agi meant. The facility is immense. After hours of snooping around, I still hadn’t seen everything Széchenyi had to offer. Read More

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The English historian, Edward Gibbon, once remarked that, “According to the law of custom, and perhaps of reason, foreign travel completes the education of an English gentleman.” Gibbon might well be considered an authority on the issue. In 1763, he embarked on a tour of continental Europe. A year later, while sitting amid the ruins of Rome, he conceived the idea for a book which later became The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: 1776–1788. Gibbon was following in the footsteps of aristocratic young European men, for whom education was not complete without a Grand Tour of the capitols and cultural centers of Europe. Though the Grand Tour ceased to be an element of the educational landscape in the mid-1800’s, the tradition is still alive and well, as I discovered on my recent Viking River Grand European Tour.

For hundreds of years, these windmills in Kinderdijk, Holland drained lands that lie more than 20 feet below the water level

For hundreds of years, these windmills in Kinderdijk, Holland drained lands that lie more than 20 feet below the water level

My cruise began at the waterfront in Amsterdam, where Viking Skadi was docked. We sailed just before midnight, heading south to Kinderdijk, the largest remaining collection of windmills in Holland. By morning, we were anchored on the shores of the Lek River, looking down upon a landscape where 19 historic windmills stood more than 20 feet below water level. It was easy to imagine that this area had once been an uninhabitable swamp. The ingenious Dutch, however, made these low-lying lands safe for human habitation through the use of windmills. Read More

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The phrase “last but not least” comes to mind when I think of Passau. My Viking River ship had sailed down the Rhine, turned left onto the Main River near Frankfort, and finally, merged with the Danube just west of Regensburg. Just three miles from the border with Austria, we docked for one last stop in Germany, at the tiny town of Passau, which squats on a narrow peninsula at the confluence of the Danube, Inn, and Ilz Rivers.

Uninspiring exterior of St. Stephen's Cathedral in Passau

Uninspiring exterior of St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Passau

From the waterfront, we climbed to St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the cultural and geographic center of the village. Even with twin towers topped by onion domes, the church’s unadorned white exterior was uninspiring. The interior, however, was a much different story. Corinthian columns soared to a ceiling where superb frescoes were surrounded by lavish baroque decorations. Above the main door stood the great organ, which, along with four other organs positioned around the nave, forms largest cathedral organ in the world. Featuring 17,774 pipes and 233 registers, it is played from one central console. This is the reason I had come, to listen to the famous organ concert in Passau, conducted Monday through Saturday at high noon.

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Cruises are not a great way to get to know places in any depth. At most, guests have a few hours in each destination. But they are a good way to sample a variety of destinations, in order to know which places might be worth a return visit, and this is exactly what happened in Germany during my Grand European Tour with Viking River. I liked Miltenberg, Rothenburg, Bamberg, Nuremberg, and Passau, but I loved Regensburg.

It’s hard to say exactly why Regensburg made such an impression on me. The woman who conducted our walking tour was an impressive guide – among the best so far on our cruise. Certainly, the extra free time we had in this town had a lot to do with my experience. But I think the fact that the new Auxiliary Bishop for the region, Josef Graf, was being installed at the St. Peter Cathedral that very morning, had much to do with my experience in Regensburg.

My favorite medieval tower in Regensburg, Germany

My favorite medieval tower in Regensburg, Germany

The cathedral was off limits to tourists during the ceremony, so I used the extra free time to wander around town, poking into narrow cobblestone alleyways and wandering through archways that framed colorful streetscapes. I concentrated on the Old Town area, which UNESCO describes as “the only authentically preserved large medieval city in Germany.” Since it escaped unscathed during World War II, its medieval structures are original rather than reproductions, including numerous square towers built by wealthy merchants who competed to see who could build the tallest. Several of them punctuated the city landscape: a serious looking gray tower, the lavish banana-colored Town Hall, the peach-toned tower that tops the city’s entrance arch, and my particular favorite, a salmon tower tucked into the corner of an L-shaped cobblestone lane. Read More