It was drizzling by the time I arrived at Vintgar Gorge, but not enough to discourage me from making the hike. Truthfully, the gorge had not even been on my radar. I had taken the bus to Lake Bohinj in Slovenia‘s Triglav National Park the day before, intending to work my way back to Ljubljana via Lake Bled, stopping for a few hours in each place. But one look at Lake Bohinj, with its encircling Karst limestone towers, emerald water, and pocket beaches, and knew I had to hike around it.
I asked how long it would take to make the hike and was told two hours, three at the most. I made a quick calculation. Three hours to circle Lake Bohinj and a 20-minute bus ride back to Lake Bled would give me three or so hours to see Bled and perhaps climb to the castle before I had to catch the last bus back to Ljubljana. It was doable, if I didn’t dilly-dally. Read More
The man behind the counter at Ptuj Castle suggested I begin my tour at a display of costumes and masks from Slovenian folk traditions and tales. “But I have to warn you,” he said. “Just the other day a man told me it was the scariest thing he’d ever seen.” He shook his head when I laughed. “I’m not kidding. The guy was practically shaking when he left.”
Curious, I wandered among abominable snowman-like creatures with feathered headdresses, devils with long red tongues, headless hens, and old women carrying old men in baskets strapped to their backs. Believed to assure good luck and productive crops, for centuries these scary looking magical beings were known only to rural villagers in the northeast corner of the country, especially around Ptuj, the oldest city in Slovenia. Each spring, they would make their appearance during a three-day carnival, or Kurentovanje, which commenced exactly 46 days before Easter. Read More
Perhaps it was my imagination. The lavender harvest had been completed two weeks earlier, but as I trudged up the hill in temperatures hovering near the century mark, the air still seemed redolent with the herb’s rich, musky fragrance. At the top, I swiped rivulets of sweat out of my eyes and gazed out over Hungary’s Pannonian Plain, a view that has been enjoyed by the monastic community at Pannonhalma Benedictine Abbey for more than a thousand years.
In AD 529, sickened by the immorality of Roman society, Saint Benedict withdrew to the countryside to live as a hermit. Several years later, with the aid of a few disciples, he built a small monastery in Monte Cassino, Italy, where he wrote the rules for his community: monks must keep a docile heart, be obedient, desire a simple life, and practice chastity. Their lives would be based on prayer, spiritual reading, and labor. Read More
Kiraly Street is the new mecca for the younger generation in Budapest. By day shoppers frequent its upscale boutiques, coffee shops, and designer outlets. After dark it hops with nightlife, offering restaurants with multi-ethnic cuisine, ruin pubs, and entertainment venues. It is the new place to see and be seen. But few realize that the glitz and glamour of Kiraly Street rose from a monstrous darkness. Not so many years ago it was the ghetto of Budapest, where Jews were separated from the population at large as they awaited deportation to Nazi concentration camps during World War II.
My Hungarian friend, Zsuzsa Mehez, related this to me when she picked me up at my vacation rental apartment on Kiraly Street. “Very few people know or remember the history of this street,” she said. “In fact, until a few years ago, no one would have dared utter the term “Jewish neighborhood.” Like an ostrich with its head in the sand, for the most part, the government of Hungary seems incapable of acknowledging their willing collaboration with the Nazis during World War II.
There have been a few notable exceptions, including the Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial, which was dedicated in 2005. On the spot in front of the Hungarian Parliament building, where fascist Hungarian militiamen made Jews strip naked and face the river before shooting them, 60 pair of rusting iron shoes line the shore, a poignant reminder of the brutality and inhumanity of the Nazis.
More recently, the proposed installation of a statue dubbed “Memorial to the Victims of the German Invasion,” seemed aimed at rewriting the World War 2 history of Hungary. The design was anticipated to feature a bronze eagle, a well-known symbol of the Nazi Party, swooping down with talons extended over the angel Gabriel, representing Hungary. An inscription would read, “German occupation of Hungary, March 19, 1944.” Read More
The young man in the dirty jeans and faded navy T-shirt wouldn’t tell me his name. I’d asked the group of refugees hanging around the park in front of the Belgrade bus station if any one spoke English and they’d pushed him forward. He was willing to speak to me on condition of anonymity, so I’ll call him David.
David is from Syria, one of thousands of refugees who are currently making their way through the Balkans in search of a better life. When I asked him why he left Syria he grinned, revealing one dimple and crooked, tobacco stained teeth. “There is nothing in Syria. No water, no electricity, no food.” Though he couldn’t have been older than 20, his story is already four years in the making. He fled to Turkey, where he spent two years working at any job he could get, in order to save enough money to get to Europe. Over the last two years, he traversed Greece and Macedonia, arriving in Serbia just a couple of weeks earlier. Read More
On a visit to Hungary two years ago, I struggled to find vegetarian food of any quality, much less good quality, but on my most recent visit I discovered that the country once known for uninteresting meat and potatoes dishes is fast becoming a food mecca.
I began my review of the top new Hungarian restaurants at the Michelin star Borkonyha Restaurant, which the owners describe as “a blend between a French-style bistro and a contemporary family restaurant offering the best of Hungarian cuisine.” Tucked into a small storefront near Deak Ferenc Square in central Budapest, this restaurant does big things, as I discovered during a three-hour culinary romp that included an appetizer, soup, main course, and a dessert.
My meal began with a braised scallop on a bed of mango, over which cold Vichyssoise was poured. This was followed by an inspired appetizer of Sea Bream on a bed of risotto and beet root; topped with mussels, shaved truffle slices, pearl onion segments, and edible flowers; finished with a rich butter sauce. To my surprise, a second starter appeared: medallions of tuna resting on a bed of soured strawberries. Read More