Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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Turning my back on the tiny settlement, I walked into brittle yellow grasslands that swept to the horizon. An occasional cluster of trees broke the otherwise unrelieved flatness of the endless Puszta, the Great Hungarian Plain. The sound of vendors hawking fur hats and cracking leather whips faded, replaced by burbling water rushing beneath the historic Nine-Arched Bridge and a symphony from some of the 340 species of birds that inhabit Hortobágy National Park.

Nora Erdei, my host at the Debrecen Tourism had suggested this side trip as part of my visit to the intriguing town of Debrecen. Perhaps I was a bit too enthusiastic, for just prior to boarding the bus she remarked, “I hope you don’t expect too much. It’s just a huge plain.”

Infinite grasslands of Hortobagy National Park in eastern Hungary

Infinite grasslands of Hortobagy National Park in eastern Hungary

She couldn’t have realized that too many big cities, filled with too many tourists, had left me exhausted. I closed my eyes, breathed in the sweet fragrance of dank earth mingled with manure and wildflowers. I spread my arms wide to embrace it, trying to burn the feeling of infinite space and serenity into my memory. Read More

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Unprepared for the purposely darkened exhibit room, I groped my way down the gentle ramp and settled into a chair to view the Christ Trilogy, three floor-to-ceiling oil paintings by Mihály Munkácsy. Initially impressed by their sheer size, my reaction turned to awe as the spotlit canvases gradually emerged from the surrounding blackness. Christ Before Pilate, Ecce Homo, and Golgotha are the artist’s interpretation of the Passion of Christ from the 18th chapter of the Bible in the Gospel according to John. Painted in rich, almost lurid colors, the works are nothing less than mesmerizing.

It took Munkácsy nearly two decades to complete the series, as he conducted extensive research and made dozens of preparatory sketches for each painting prior to beginning work on the final canvases. He read the Bible several times, studied the clothing worn in the time of Christ, and took photographs of Jewish immigrants in traditional garb. Munkácsy even photographed himself bound with rope and hanging in order to accurately illustrate the musculature of a crucified body.

The Christ Trilogy by Hungarian artist Mihály Munkácsy, on display at the Déri Museum in Debrecen, Hungary. Photo courtesy of the Déri Museum.

The Christ Trilogy by Hungarian artist Mihály Munkácsy, on display at the Déri Museum in Debrecen, Hungary. Photo courtesy of the Déri Museum.

I made a slow circuit of the room, examining minute details of each painting. Expressions of love conflicted with pure hatred. Grief with joy. Dispassionate scholars debated points of law as Mother Mary collapsed into the arms of St. John. The guilty shrank before watchful soldiers and mothers held their children up to witness the judgment. The techniques utilized by Munkácsy: juxtaposition of dark and light, attention to dramatic facial expressions, and amplification of body language; exposed the spectrum of naked human emotions. I have never felt anything so powerful in the realm of religious art. Read More

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The lake appeared outside the window of my rickety old train much sooner than I had expected. We chugged to a slow stop with brakes protesting and my anxiety rose when I spotted a sign for Balatonalmádi. I was on my way to Lake Balaton in western Hungary but it was just 2.5 hours into the four-hour trip; surely this could not be my stop already. Frantically, I questioned fellow passengers, looking for someone who spoke English. “Is this Lake Balaton?” I asked, time and again. Heads nodded. Yes, yes, and yes. Just as I was about to jump off the train a young man stopped me. “This is Lake Balaton, but what town are you going to?” I suddenly remembered that I had booked passage to the town of Révfülöp, though the name of the lake is what had stuck in my head. Relieved, I returned to my seat and, lacking announcements in the carriage, watched for town names each time we squealed into another station. We rattled slowly down the northern shore past Alsóörs, Csopak, Balatonarács, Balatonfüred, Tihany, Balatonudvari, Balatonakali, and several unidentified stops. An hour and a half after I had first spotted the lake, a conductor appeared to alert me that Révfülöp was the next stop. The entire time, the seafoam green lake had rippled peacefully just beyond the tracks.

Révfülöp pier and gardens at Lake Balaton, Hungary

Révfülöp pier and gardens at Lake Balaton, Hungary

I later learned that Lake Balaton, 48 miles in length and nearly nine miles wide in places, is the largest lake in Central Europe, however I was more astounded by its color than its size. Balaton shimmers a soft seafoam green at its edges, morphs to an exquisite turquoise a short distance offshore, and stretches toward the horizon in bands of aqua, jade, and ultramarine. The lake we know today as Balaton was formed when the large inland sea that once covered this area of western Hungary receded, leaving an arid plain that was eroded by strong northern winds. Subsequent faulting caused the land to subside even more and by the Pleistocene era the Zala River had flooded the shallow depression, creating a fresh water lake that averages less than 20 feet deep. The color of the water, and the silky feel of it on the skin, is due to this shallow depth and the thick layer of calcium and magnesium rich sediments that lies at its bottom. Read More

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As a travel writer specializing in culture, I’m often asked how I tap into the culture of the destinations I visit. I must admit to having a secret weapon – well maybe two secret weapons. First, I will talk to anyone. But I have to find an opportunity to open a conversation, which leads me to tactic number two. I literally haunt coffee shops and cafes.

As my visit to Budapest neared, I was excited to learn that the city has one of the most impressive cafe cultures in the world. By the beginning of the 20th century, more than than 400 coffee houses (kávéház) were attracting writers, painters, musicians, philosophers, and actors who gathered daily to sip espresso and discuss politics. More importantly, these poor artists found sustenance in the form of cheap food, free paper and ink, and a warm refuge from rented rooms they could not afford to heat during the brutal Hungarian winters. It is said that entire books were written in these coffee houses. Many of the original cafes were destroyed during World War II and the remainder, seen as a breeding ground for political dissidents, were closed down during the communist era, but since the 1989 revolution quite a few have been restored to their former glory.

Opulent Italian Renaissance and Baroque decor at New York Cafe, one of Budapest's most famous coffee houses

Opulent Italian Renaissance and Baroque decor at New York Cafe, one of Budapest’s most famous coffee houses

Determined to discover this alternative culture, early one morning I met a guide from Budapest Underguide for their Delicatessen Tour. My guide for the day, Bogáta, wasted no time, waltzing me into the New York Kávéház. Reputed to be the most beautiful of all the cafes, it was such a popular spot that writer Ferenc Molnár is said to have tossed the key to its front door into the Danube in an effort to keep it open around-the-clock. I could understand why; what writer wouldn’t want to spend his days and nights spinning words beneath the obscenely opulent gold-leaf decor that spread before me? Read More

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I lugged my backpack and suitcase up the steep metal steps of the train in Bratislava, Slovakia and collapsed into my seat. Two and a half months earlier I had arrived in England after an unusually long winter stay in the States, during which I got precious little exercise. I was out of shape and nursing a bad hip and knee, but London beckoned. Never one for moderation, I walked for eight hours on day one. The following morning I was in agony and for the next month I battled pain and soreness that had me limping and struggling to climb steps.

After England I joined a Morocco tour that challenged my patience and sanity, then spent a whirlwind three days in Paris before hopping a plane to Prague, which was a severe disappointment. Poznan, a delightful town in Western Poland, raised my hopes, but four days later I was in Bratislava, where the people were just as cold and uncaring as they had been in Prague. So far, my travels in Eastern Europe had been one big challenge that left me exhausted. So I sat back in my first-class seat, grateful for an air conditioned car that offered wifi and electrical plug, and hoped for the best as I rolled toward Budapest, Hungary.

Hungarian Parliament Building in Budapest

Hungarian Parliament Building in Budapest

From the moment I stepped off the train in the Hungarian capital, I sensed that this city was different. Weaving and dodging through throngs of pedestrians as I walked the five blocks to my rental apartment, I tried to hide my astonishment at the flamboyant architectural styles lining the broad avenues. Art Nouveau mingled with Secessionist, Art Deco, Romantic, Classic, and Neo-Classic buildings, some nicely restored and others crumbling, but all massive and fully in use. Intrigued, I dumped my Read More

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I can’t say when I first learned of the Danube River. Perhaps a zealous geography teacher impressed the name in my adolescent mind. More likely, I read about it in one of the National Geographic magazines that were always stacked haphazardly in the front hall of my childhood home. Back then, the name evoked romance, history, and an endless parade of Romans, Ottomans and Austro-Hungarians following its braided and looped course across central Europe. Fifty years later, the mystique surrounding the word still held me in such sway that upon arriving in Bratislava, Slovakia I stepped off the bus and turned my back on the Old Town. First and foremost, the river beckoned.

View over the Danube River from the top of UFO Tower in Bratislava, Slovakia

View over the Danube River from the top of UFO Tower in Bratislava, Slovakia

Tamed within concrete embankments, the lazy gray-green Danube caught up in whorls beneath SNP Bridge, as if perturbed by the bizarre metal tower that anchors one end of the city’s main river crossing. Like the river, I was initially disturbed by the saucer-shaped disc, appropriately named the UFO Restaurant and observation deck, that balanced precariously on top of the tower’s concave metal legs. It seemed entirely out of place, something of an eyesore, until I realized that the river would take even aliens in stride, just as it had withstood the onslaught of countless conquering armies over the centuries. Read More