Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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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.

Pannonhalma Monastery, a Benedictine Abbey that is currently home to 50 monks

Pannonhalma Monastery, a Benedictine Abbey that is currently home to 50 monks

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

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Library of the Benedictine Abbey of Pannonhalma in northern Hungary

Click on above photo to view it in large format: The library at the Benedictine Pannonhalma Abbey, founded in 996. The library holds more than 360,000 volumes, and the ceiling of its oval hall is painted with allegories of the four medieval university faculties: Law, Theology, Medicine and the Arts.

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Wine casks in the cellars beneath the Benedictine Abbey of Pannonhalma, in northern Hungary

Click on above photo to view it in large format: Wine casks in the cellars beneath the Benedictine Abbey of Pannonhalma, in northern Hungary.

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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.

Opponents to the "Memorial to the Victims of the German Invasion" memorial say it is akin to rewriting the World War 2 history of Hungary

Opponents to the “Memorial to the Victims of the German Invasion” memorial say it is akin to rewriting the World War 2 history of Hungary

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

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Street leading to St. Stephen's Basilica and Square, considered the heart of Budapest, Hungary

Click on above photo to view it in large format: Street leading to St. Stephen’s Basilica and Square, considered the heart of Budapest, Hungary

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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.

Syrian refugees in Serbia chat on a bench in a park near the bus station as they await their chance to move deeper into Europe

Syrian refugees in Serbia chat on a bench in a park near the bus station as they await their chance to move deeper into Europe

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