Posts Tagged With: Stalin

Budapest’s Memento Park

Budapest continues to impress.  As we mentioned before, we wish we could spend more time here, realizing we cannot possible see and do everything on our list.  During our last full day with our friends, Gina and Tom, we managed to balance seeing some interesting sights with spending quality time together.  It was a really great day!

We began our morning by heading to Memento Park, the new home to communist-era statues which formerly filled the streets and city center of Budapest.  When the iron curtain fell, so did the many of the monuments which had been erected by the former dictatorship.  Great debate ensued among the people of the city about whether they should destroy these reminders of their terrorized history, or if they should use them as memorials of an important piece of their past.  They decided on the latter and created Memento Park.  Originally, we thought this would be a sort of “statue graveyard” for these communist era relics.  On the contrary, great thought and consideration was put into the design and organization of this museum.  I call it a museum, because that is a much more accurate term than park for this collection of sculptures.  Our tour guide led us between the statues, discussing their historic significance and their importance in perpetuating communist ideology.  Along with the standard statues of Lenin and Marx are the bronzed boots of Joseph Stalin.  His mammoth likeness was actually torn down by the people during the 1956 revolution against the Soviets.  Stalin’s statue was cut at the knees and torn into bits by the people.  All that remained on the pedestal were his boots, and although the revolution failed, the rest of his body was never replaced.  One statue we found particularly captivating was that of the “Liberating Soviet Soldier.” It stood atop a 7 meter high platform on a hill which overlooks the city.  Its mammoth size is intimidating, especially imagining it in its original environment.  This was also knocked down in the 1956 revolution, but unlike Stalin, this statue was quickly replaced with an exact replica in 1958.  After all, the city could not be left without the protection of this Soviet soldier!

The guided tour fascinated each of us and we left with a much greater understanding of Hungarian history and the nuances of life under a communist regime.  The museum also had an indoor photography exhibit chronicling the rise, reign and fall of communism throughout Eastern Europe.  This part of the museum featured training tapes of the secret police.  More than 100 training and feature films were produced between 1958 and 1988 which trained secret police in state defense methods.  In 2004, these tapes were edited into short documentaries showing the methods used to spy on “traitors”, and their recruitment methods.  I was particularly surprised to learn how many agents of the secret police were forced or blackmailed into service.  I could have easily sat and watched these films all day.  They offer insight into a part of history which was historically a great mystery.

When we finished with the museum, we headed back toward the city center. (The museum sits in the outskirts of the city to discourage lingering hostile sentiment and any temptation to vandalize the statues.)  While we searched for a certain Thai restaurant for lunch, we discovered Great Market, Budapest’s largest market selling all kinds of gourmet foods from meat to paprika to honey and everything in between.  They also had a huge selection of palinka, the potent drink we sampled earlier in the week.  No matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t convince Gina to invest in a bottle.  We didn’t even know this market existed before accidentally discovering it.  We window-shopped the wares for a while before heading down the Vaci u., the pedestrian shopping street which leads the way back to our hotel.  As with all big cities, wading through the cheap touristy souvenirs to find something of value is challenging.  We came up mostly empty handed, though there is a pottery shop I may head back to tomorrow.

Since it is our last night in Budapest together, we decided to get a delicious and traditional dinner at a nice restaurant.  Our hotel concierge recommended Rezkakas, a fine dining Hungarian restaurant not far from or hotel.  The combination of hearty food, Hungarian wine and wonderful friends made for a perfect evening.  Gina and Phil both started with a small bowl of goulash.  After all, what’s a trip to Hungary without goulash?  We discovered that contrary to the heavy, noodle-centric stew some of us are used to, goulash more closely resembles a beef vegetable soup and is suitable as an appetizer.  The entrees did not disappoint and we even had room for a little dessert!  After dinner we headed back to the hotel where we shared drinks, laughs and plans for our next international adventure together.  We are so pleased that Gina and Tom were able to come to Budapest, and we all agree we could not have chosen a better city for traveling together.

Now, Phil and I are back to being a twosome again, but not for long.  After one more day in Budapest and another day of travel, we will meet up with our friend, Jack, in Dubrovnik, Croatia.  We are looking forward to seeing him and hearing about the adventures he’s been having in Turkey.  Until then, we spend will spend our last day in Budapest doing nothing.  Or everything.  Whatever we want!

–Brooke

All that remains of Stalin’s statue–his boots.

Gina and Tom with Krtek, the European answer to Mickey Mouse.

Statue of liberating Soviet soldier shaking hands with a Hungarian man . Locals say the  Hungarian is using two hands so he doesn’t get his watch stolen.

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Categories: City Visits, Destinations, Diversions, Eastern Europe, Eating, Exploring, Friends, Hungary, Museums, Surprises, Tours, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Rila Mountains and Monastery

What a view!Having lived in New York City for the past six years, we are somewhat starved for nature.  Yes, we try to chip away at our hunger by taking short trips outside the city or visiting my family’s cabin in the Great North Woods.  We have slowly been working our appetite back to fulfillment, but years of living in the “Concrete Jungle” leaves a lot of work to be done.  After our journey today, we feel satisfied.  The warm contentment that comes only after an amazing day surrounded by lush green forests rests solidly within our souls and we are happy.

Today, we visited the Rila Monastery which sits nestled in the Rila Mountains, the highest range in the Balkans. Bulgaria is filled with monasteries, and this one is easily the most beloved and visited by tourists.  Hostel Mostel, the hostel where we are staying, arranges daily trips for this two-and-a-half hour journey outside of Sofia.  Accompanied by our driver, Ivan, and a French traveler, we set out into the Bulgarian countryside.  As we began to wind our way up into the mountains, the warm air sweeping through the car cooled and the surrounding forests grew thick with foliage.  Feeling confident with the sharp turns, Ivan sped around bends that were starting to make me a bit queasy.  And then, out of nowhere, the monastery appeared before us.  Grateful to be there, we slowed to take in the sights.  Driving past the monastery, Ivan pointed out places to eat lunch and other points of interest, but then kept driving. We were momentarily confused, he explained that he was first going to take us to a small cave just three kilometers up the road.

The minute we climbed out of the car, the beauty overwhelmed me.  Images of my family’s home in Canada flooded my brain and immediate happiness ensued.  Ivan told us it would be a 15 minute hike to the cave.  It was balmy–65 degrees, sunny with a lovely and light breeze.   The perfect day for a hike.  I only wish I knew this was going to be part of the trip–I wore my sandals, which worked but would not have been my first choice.  Before spotting the cave entrance, we came upon an old church.  In broken English, Ivan explained that this was used hundreds of years ago by monks (we later discovered this was the original location of the monastery).

That's a backdrop that would make Olan Mills droolAfter wandering around, he led us into the cave.  Now, we have had two “cave experiences” on this trip–Waitomo Caves in New Zealand which was amazing, and Heavenly Cave in Vietnam which was underwhelming.  Those trips bare little comparison to this one.  Upon entering, Ivan told us a monk lived alone for 12 years in this cave, filling his time with prayer and religious study.  We had to double over to enter the cave which was pitch black inside.  Probably 15 feet long, 7 feet wide with maybe an 8 foot ceiling at its highest point, this was a cramped space.  Ivan lit 3 small candles to provide some light for us to see the ledge where the monk probably slept. The tiny space made it impossible to imagine living there for so long.  Ivan motioned us to a ladder in the corner which led toward daylight.  He began climbing to exit through the top of the cave and indicated we were to follow.  As I watched him squeeze through the hole at the top, my self-consciousness made me question whether or not my round hips would fit through.  I slowly started up and twisted myself into one awkward position after another until I was able to emerge on the other side.  We all made it safely through, which is an especially good thing–apparently legend has it that only those without sin can fit through the exit.  Glad we made it, though I’m not so sure the legend holds true.

After sampling some delicious spring water, we descended the slope so we could continue on to the monastery.  Phil and I found ourselves walking slowly, taking deep breaths of the crisp clean air, and wishing there were a hammock for us to spend more time soaking in the environment.  Eventually we forced ourselves back into the car, but not without lamenting the fact that beauty like this can’t really be captured in words or photos (as much as we like to try).  It can only be experienced.

We ventured back toward the Rila Monastery.  Built in the 10th century, these grounds hold a special place of importance in the hearts of Bulgarians.  The monastery, which has been threatened by destruction from the Ottoman Empire as well as a disastrous fire, prioritizes the preservation of Bulgarian culture.  It has been rebuilt and maintained as needed throughout the years and now attracts thousands of visitors. The architecture is striking, but we were most impressed with the paintings which cover the walls of the church entrance.  Meant to teach the lessons of the Bible, these sometimes cartoonish depictions are quite entertaining.  We particularly love the facial expressions and the ways the devil tries to tempt people into doing evil deeds.  Both entertaining and educational.  What more could a person want?

After wandering the grounds for a bit, we took some time to soak in just a little more nature before we got back in the car to head to Sofia.  One of the things I found so amazing about the journey back was that in the span of twenty minutes we saw a monk checking a cell phone, a family of pigs running out of the woods into the road, a BMW speeding around a tight turn, and a farmer driving his horse-drawn cart.  This constant juxtaposition of old and new continues to emerge during our visit to Eastern Europe, and that is what makes this such a great place to be at this moment in history.

As if to punctuate the thoughts I was already having, our driver stopped by a privately owned museum (of sorts) on our way back into Sofia.  Really, it was one man’s collection of antiques that he had on display for visitors who gave a small donation.  Old cars and motorbikes caught our attention first, but it was the bust of Stalin and the wall of old TVs and radios that had us enamored.  Our French friend was fascinated by the WWII era bombs which were on display.  A cross between a museum and a junkyard, visiting this collection was the perfect end to what can only be described as a perfect day.

–Brooke

Paintings on the outside of the church designed to teach parishioners to stay away from the devil!

Phil climbing through the afore mentioned caves!

Categories: Bulgaria, City Visits, Destinations, Diversions, Eastern Europe, Hiking, Hotels, Landmarks, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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