Pecs–or in German, Fünfkirchen

21 May
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Szechenyi Square, Pecs

We would have had no idea that this invigoratingly attractive little town even existed if we hadn’t been staying on Lake Balaton in the region that our Eyewitness Guide defined as “Southern Transdanubia.”  That section of the guide gave an inviting description of the place, only two hours away by car.  During our trip to Budapest, we found out that all those Zsolnay tiles and ceramics we were seeing had been made in Pecs. So we were curious to see this place that seemed to us to be far removed from European cultural centers, but which had been selected in 2010 as the European Capital of Culture.

After driving through pleasant green hills and a host of small villages, we came into Pecs on a road like any town’s outskirts, with car dealerships and tattoo parlors. Parking in the lot of a shopping center that could have been in any Australian or Midwestern town, we walked up out of the lot’s bowels to find ourselves in front of…another synagogue!  On one of the main squares named after the great Hungarian patriot Kossuth, the synagogue was an absolute gem–still a bit shabby around the edges and in need of some repair, but we were welcomed in by the friendliest man at the entrance, and directed to a set of placards throughout the interior that gave the history of the Jewish community in Pecs, both in Magyar and in English. The story is, of course, as heartbreaking as all of the others in this part of the world: at its height, the community here numbered at least 6,000; in 1944, the Hungarian Nazis known as Arrow Cross rounded them up and sent them all to Auschwitz. Only 500 survived. The displays do tell this part of the community’s history, but also focus more happily on the contributions to Pecs by its Jewish citizens. It was all so welcoming and charming, and the 1870s interior, with painted decorations, was delightful. And look who contributed to its renovation: USC!

We then walked past the Kossuth monument–one to Kossuth seems to appear in every Hungarian town–and up to Jokai ter, one of the historic center’s squares, where we found Az Elefantos Cafe among many other superb offerings for a great lunch. It was becoming increasingly clear to us that Pecs is a buzzing, hip university town–and indeed it is! It is home to the first university in Hungary, in fact, founded in 1367, and today has about 30,000 students. We were charmed by the expansiveness of the squares and the cozy location of the town up against green hills that are now a national park.

The town’s greatest claim to fame, at least for history buffs, is its concrete evidence of the extended presence in Hungary of the Turks. As my guidebook says, “No other city centre in Hungary is quite so dominated by a former mosque as Pecs’s Szechenyi ter, yet no other city seems quite so at ease with the fact.”

The Gazi Kasim Pasha Mosque was built on the site of a Gothic church in 1579, and has a 28-meter high dome. As soon as the Turks were routed in 1702 (by “our beloved Prince Eugene,” as my Austrian teacher used to call Eugene of Savoy), the building was changed into a Christian church, and is now The City Parish Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Tit for tat! Although a “Christian” extension has been added to the original mosque, evidence of its Islamic origins remain, in some Arabic writing on the central wall, and in a prayer niche in the domed center. And there is that fantastic dome!  The Jesuits pulled down this mosque’s minaret in 1766, but there is yet another mosque converted to a church in town that still retains its minaret. Unfortunately, we ran out of time to visit that building, as with so many other sites in this fascinating town.

For us, the highlight of the visit, and the place where we spent most of our time, was the Zsolnay Museum, location of the most magnificent works of that vaunted figure, Vilmos Zsolnay (1828-1900), creator of all those tiled surfaces and roofs that we had seen in Budapest (and, it turns out, in Vienna as well). Located in the oldest building in Pecs (from the 14th century), the collections are simply mind-bogglingly prolific and diverse.

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Iridescent tiles made in the 1890s.

Zsolnay began his career in the ceramics factory of his family, which made garden pots and pipes. He had always wanted to be a painter, so along with his technical training decided to apply his newly invented techniques to artistic designs and objects. By the 1860s, he had developed important new glazes for ornamental ceramics, and by the end of the century was in the perfect position to be at the forefront of the aesthetic directions that defined the Central European version of Art Nouveau, the Secession style. He became wildly popular for his iridescent glazes (shades of Tiffany at the very same time) and was known especially for a blue metallic method that one started to see in vases and tiles throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  His factory employed the best designers from Vienna and elsewhere, who produced the most elegant decorative pieces for public spaces–roof tiles, fountains, and garden ornaments–as well as the designs that defined the Secession period.  Zsolnay was lionized and received medals at every World’s Fair across Europe. The factory continued to produce the Zsolnay trademark blue-glazed objects until the end of World War I, when Hungary lost Transylvania to Rumania, and Zsolnay thus lost his source of necessary raw materials. The company is still in operation, and still produces luxury porcelain, but nothing on the scale or with the same aesthetic variety of Vilmos Zsolany’s heyday.

The diversity of Zsolnay’s experimentation with materials and styles is what impressed us the most. What was a bit depressing was that absolutely no one was in the Museum, and the guards acted like they hadn’t seen a soul in weeks.  They were also completely indifferent about the collection, and even if they could speak English, didn’t know a thing about the holdings or the building, and didn’t seem to care to learn. We decided that perhaps they were military-age students who were fulfilling their service obligation by being guards in the Museum. In any case, we can only encourage anyone who visits Hungary to seek out this extraordinary place in this elegant little town.

There was so much else to see in the town, but we had no more time.  I really recommend a visit to anyone who is in the vicinity–or make it a special stop when in Central Europe!

Bonus for the day:  on our way to and from Pecs, we saw storks in their nest!  Hungary is very proud of its stork population, the ones who return every year from their migration to Africa.  I was so excited to have one pose for me!

Finally, while some of my followers insist that I include a cat photo in all my blog posts, on this trip I only saw some funny dogs. These two were in front of a dress shop on the square where we ate lunch, and they presented a entire movie of charming entertainment as we ate.

Visit Pecs! You’ll love it!

Backtrack: Budapest

19 May

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Having come to Hungary chiefly because I had never been to Budapest, we did finally get around to driving up to the Big City, which was an hour and a half away from our place on Lake Balaton. Since we only spent half a day there and assumed we would return (we didn’t), we decided to focus our visit thematically: we would explore Jewish Budapest. This theme is in keeping with our visits in other cities, from Berlin to Trieste. And in Budapest this focus seemed especially appropriate:  before World War II, one in four Budapest residents were Jewish, and they were probably more accepted and essential to the city’s culture than in most other places in Central Europe. In the 1920s, 90% of bankers in Budapest were Jewish, 60% of the doctors, and 50% of university students. (I am not Jewish, but have a long, close relationship with many Jewish friends and have been drawn to Jewish history because of the years spent in German-speaking countries).

One can learn so much about a society’s cultural mores and its history by visiting its cemeteries, so we began our explorations at the Kosmas Cemetery, opened in 1893 and one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe.  It lies much further out of town than we had anticipated, and driving there brought us through less than salubrious parts of the city, past lots of those unfortunate Soviet-era apartment blocks, as well as a rather intimidating prison (we were stopped in traffic while prisoners were being escorted across the street, surrounded by viciously barking German Shepherds and what seemed like about 20 guards). Not the greatest introduction to one of the most beautifully-situated cities in Europe. But the cemetery’s grounds were an inviting venue of solemn calm. The entrance is where the domed building stands, now a bit dilapidated and having lost its gilt around the dome. The gates lead into a myriad of tree-lined paths extending for great lengths in several directions, with grassy expanses filled with gravestones.

jewishcemetery_schmidltomb2_budapest_may9Near the entrance are a number of extravagant tombs in all architectural styles:  the resting places for Budapest’s leading Jewish families in the period of their most prosperous and influential presence in the city, from the 1860s through the 1920s. One of the most impressive and flamboyant tombs is that of the Schmidl family, designed in 1903 by Hungary’s leading Secession architects Ödön Lechner and Béla Lajta and using Zsolnay tiles (we’ll talk about Zsolnay again in Pecs). One gets a sense in these elaborate tombs of a competition for ostentatious display among these prominent families, even in monuments to the dead. Evidence of happy, integrated times.

But then one is confronted here with the sorrowful fate of this shining world.

So many of the gravestones list a death date of 1944.  Most of these are memorial tombs, created to commemorate the loss of whole families in that hideous year, when under Adolf Eichmann’s direction, all the Jews of Hungary were sent to the concentration camps, or were locked up in the Budapest ghetto where they were systematically shot or died of starvation. (Hungary is the place, however, where thousands of Jews were saved from the camps by people like Raoul Wallenberg, for whom there is a memorial sculpture in the Jewish Museum.) The Kosmas Cemetery also has a Holocaust Memorial, on which, poignantly, names are still being pencilled in, as families learn more about their ancestors’ fate.

On that somber note–it rained only during our time in the cemetery, and cleared up as soon as we left–we drove into Central Pest, first to visit The Great Synagogue on Dohanyi Street (“dohanyi” means tobacco in Hungarian!). This is the largest synagogue in Europe (the largest in America, Manhattan’s Central Synagogue, is a direct copy of this one), built in a Byzantine Moorish Revival style by the Viennese architect Ludwig Förster in 1854-59. As is so often the case with 19th-century historicist buildings, Förster said he chose this revival style because he thought it was most closely aligned to Levantine styles and could not identify a specifically Jewish architecture!

If you look at the photo of the synagogue’s interior, you can see plaques with flags along the middle aisle. These identify where guides speaking each country’s language give explanations of the synagogue’s history. The biggest group sat in the English-language section. The grounds also include a memorial garden to the victims of the 1944 pogrom–many of whose bodies are buried here–and a stunning Holocaust memorial, a metal weeping willow with the names of victims inscribed on every leaf. (The sculpture was partly funded by Tony Curtis, who was of Hungarian background).

Next door to the Synagogue is a small Jewish Museum, which has been in operation since 1931.  Its exhibits change regularly, but we were able to see this artifact, which will speak for itself:

Another of our thematic goals on this trip is to document public libraries, and in Budapest we found a doozy.

The Ervin Szabó Library is housed in a 19th-century Neo-Baroque palace built by the Wenckheim family. When we arrived, we found a film crew had taken over the palace part of the building, so we were only able to enter the library section. But what a public library space!  One has to pay to buy a library card to enter the reading room, so we just admired the coffee shop and got information about the collections. It contains an unbelievealbe photographic archive of 120,000 images of Budapest, as well as 300,000 books and documents on the history of the city.  It is located next to the university, and the place was stuffed to the gills with students. Szabó was a social reformer who served as the library’s first director.

Budapest–or shall I say Pest, since we really only got to that side of town–is filled with some beautiful buildings, many of which are still in a lamentable state. Plastering is desperately needed!  They reminded me of what Viennese buildings looked like in the early 60s before war damage had been completely repaired. While the city has a bit of a hipster buzz–all the young folks speak English, there are tons of pubs and night spots–it’s obvious that money is only being spent to renovate the most touristy places, which is sad.  Let’s hope that progress will be made soon–it’s a shame to see these edifices falling into decay. And I am not saying they should be tarted up to gentrified levels! Just maintained a little bit.

So that was our whirlwind trip to Budapest! We also were able to visit the spectacular Central Market near the river, the mighty Danube River, which, as I had always been told, looks much more like the romantic waterway of song in Budapest than it does in Vienna.

Finally, as we drove past, we caught a glimpse of the phantasmagoric Museum of Applied Arts, with all those amazingly glittery Zsolnay tiles. Mention of Zsolnay leads into my next blog on Pecs; I had hoped to include that description here, but there’s so much to write, and so little time!  Next blog, I promise!

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Altenburg and Buchberg: art at opposite ends

16 May

After a bit of a tiff with the German landlord of our Hungarian rental, we left Somogyszentpal a few days early, and through the kindness of our friends Nora and Wolfgang, returned to Gars to regroup. We are so happy we did, for the weekend offered us artistic and intellectual treats in abundance. That old chestnut, “a study in contrasts”, at least artistically, certainly applies to our experiences back in the Austrian countryside.

Our friends had mentioned to us before that they would like us to visit their friends in the castle-town around the corner who had an extraordinary art collection, but the couple were away when we were first in Gars. This time they were able to arrange for a visit.

And so we travelled to Schloss Buchberg, literally the next bridge over across the Kamp River from Nora’s house.  The owners Dieter and Gertraud Bogner have lived here since the 1960s–or, rather, have been in possession the castle since then. It is one of those historic properties that dot the Austrian countryside, with origins back to the 12th century.  After centuries of renovations, additions, different owners and finally bankruptcy, the castle came to Herr Bogner’s father, not entirely derelict, but having lost many of its original elements. Since the 1980s, the Bogners have turned the castle into a working space for artists they invite to create site-specific works and Conceptual art.

https://viennacontemporarymag.com/2016/07/18/buchberg-art-collectors-gertraud-and-dieter-bogner-interview/

Frau Bogner came to greet us in her gardening clothes, and could not have been a more charming and enthusiastic host. When she learned that I had written my dissertation on Anton Romako, we shared all kinds of memories of Viennese art historians we have known. She led us through the castle grounds, beginning with their most important piece, the Star of David Pavilion by the American artist Dan Graham. We then were led through the Schloss’s inner courtyards, also filled with conceptual pieces (including a sound sculpture by the Austrian Bernhard Leitner), and into the many rooms of the Schloss, where artworks were integrated into the most astonishing spaces, in rooms dating from the Renaissance to the 19th century. I must admit that I was more interested in the unbelievable collection of gorgeous Kacheloefen–ceramic ovens–in each room than I was in the perceptually nuanced efforts of the artists. But I am so impressed by the Bogners’ sensitivity to preserving historic property while allowing artists the freedom to explore and create within these spaces. Documentation is also a large part of their ambitions, and a whole room is devoted to archiving the artists’ plans, models, and proposals.  An exhilirating and stimulating day! Thank you, Wolfgang and Nora for introducing us to these extraordinary people!

After that splendid Saturday, we decided to revisit Stift Altenburg on Sunday.  When we last went, only the Church was open, and the day was freezing; this Sunday, everything was open to the public, and the sun was shining brightly.  We were able to wander through the sumptuously painted rooms  and gorgeous grounds all by ourselves.

Sumptuous is hardly an adequate word for the phantasmagoria of color and narrative effusiveness created here! Most of the elaborate scheme was initiated in the 1730s by the Abbey’s visionary abbot Placidus Much, and the project seems to have been his own quite grandiose idea. He employed the best Austrian painter of the time, Paul Troger, to complete not only the iconographically elaborate Church decorations, incorporating stories from Revelations (that’s how the dragon got there!) and the Old Testament that were meant to demonstrate Good triumphing over Evil, but also the ceiling of the Library, and the even more ambitious fresco cycle over the Grand Staircase.

But the most extraordinary aspect of the Abbot’s vision, to my mind, was the painting of the crypt–that part of the abbey where the monks and abbots were to be buried.

Unlike most funereal settings, and especially in a place as spiritual as an abbey, where such spaces are meant to be solemn and subdued, this crypt is bursting with busy color and boisterous vitality.  This is apparently exactly the style that Abbot Much wanted. Troger does include some figures of Death in the form of skeletons shooting arrows and hovering over rich ladies, but the mood of the room is positively lighthearted.

Curators in the Abbey have arranged an entertaining and illuminating exhibition outlining Much’s enlightened aims in creating such complex iconography. They have produced games to explain the mythological references in the paintings, as well as participatory labels that invite the viewer to contribute questions and opinions about the images being viewed. In the Library space, which is no longer much of a functional library, they ask viewers to fill out forms giving the title of the books that have most influenced them and leaving the forms on a library shelf, to see if the Library might acquire them for the Abbey’s collection.

This kind of didactic information was particularly helpful in deciphering the meaning of Much’s pivotal scheme, the design for the paintings of the Grand Staircase.

Abbot Much would be pleased by their efforts, since he said that without an understanding of what the figures were meant to represent, the paintings would be nothing but decoration. Here he directed Troger to depict the theme of Faith and Wisdom creating Truth. Faith and Wisdom are shown holding hands in harmony, surrounded by depictions of the arts and sciences, as well as Love (shown as a mother with children). Finally, Truth is represented as a half-naked woman holding the sun. Pretty risque for a monastery, don’t you think?  At the time, it must have been astonishing, bristling with meaning in debates in the Church about the place of knowledge and religion in people’s lives.

Finally, the Abbey has fine gardens, from little contemplative spots to grand representations of the World’s religions. After concentrating on deciphering the complexities of 18th-century theological iconographies, it was a relief to step into nature again, just as it was after struggling with Conceptual artists’ ideas at Schloss Buchberg. A thoroughly enlightening and enjoyable weekend!

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Serendipities

12 May

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One of the real joys of travelling and being open to whatever comes along is the possibility of those serendiptious moments that allow you to be taken into people’s  everyday lives or to be shown kindness by strangers. We experienced two of those occasions in Hungary, and one of them involved piglets.

At the beginning of our stay in Hungary, I came down with a particularly vicious bout of urinary tract infection, an affliction that I have had in the past. While I did have some medication, I needed to see if I could find the other tablets that offer relief. I found a pharmacy next to Tesco, and brought my old bottle with prescription information, in hopes that that would help with communication. The pharmacist spoke very little English or German, as is bafflingly often the case in Hungary.  She found that my particular medication wasn’t available, so I tried to ask her if she had any other preparations she could offer. She didn’t understand what I was asking. Suddenly, the man standing in line behind me came up to the counter and asked me in perfect English, “How can I help you?”  He turned out to be another pharmacist from the Big City; he asked me all the right questions about my condition and what I had done for it already. Together he and the other pharmacist discussed the possibilities, and came up with some solutions–ones that I would not have been able to get without this man’s help. And the preparations worked!  What are the chances of this happening in this tiny town in the middle of Hungary at that particular moment on that particular day?

And in an even lovelier example of serendipity, we come to the piglets, related to the photo at the beginning of this blog.  We decided to take some very rugged country roads to explore the countryside near our village up to Lake Balaton. Purely by chance, we turned the wrong way at Fonyód , but seeing a restaurant nearby we decided we might as well stop and have lunch before getting back on the “right” road. As we came up to the parking area, we noticed that there was a crowd of rather well-dressed people heading for the entrance of the restaurant; we assumed this must be a private party of some kind, a wedding or the like, so assumed we had better look elsewhere for a meal. But as we headed back to the car, we noticed that the restaurant had a pen with pigs and new baby piglets–we had to go see them! Standing next to the pen was a young woman with a bouquet of flowers, also admiring the babies. Being always curious even when he recognizes that the person may not understand him, George asked her, in German, if she was the object of celebration at the party. She turned out to speak perfect American English! She was indeed being celebrated, and was being feted by her family for her graduation from high school–hence the bouquet. She was more than happy to communicate in her perfect English, and was a real spark. When we were just about to leave after our piglet viewing, saying that we thought the restaurant was serving them as a special occasion, the aunt– who was standing with us and who also spoke perfect English–said she would ask the owner of the restaurant if we could join them, too! The mustachioed owner said why not, as long as we were willing to eat the same menu as the party.

And so we were able to experience this lively young woman’s special day–her name was Blanca–while sitting to the side of their long table filled with family and friends. Just look at how proud her beaming parents are! She loves to travel, and so when we were leaving, I gave her my card and told her to look us up if she ever came to California. She was so pleased, and gave me a big hug.

The restaurant was also a real find: in the same family for 100 years, in a 250-year-old wine cellar. The waiter, the owner’s son, spoke English, German, and Spanish, and was proud to tell us the history of the building. We had as part of the lunch a fruit soup–a traditional celebratory dish–and finally a cherry strudel made by the waiter’s mother that morning.

It was a lovely day, and we have the piglets to thank for it.

Things I’ve learned about Hungary–so far

7 May

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At this point I can no longer remember why I decided that we should come to a very small village in the vicinity of Lake Balaton, Hungary, for two weeks of this trip. I think the notion to be in Hungary began because I was amazed that in all my time in Vienna, I had never crossed into the other half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and people who knew me were astonished that I had never been to Budapest. As for the decision to come to this resort region: all I can reconstruct now is some vague idea that seeing this part of the country would expand my understanding of how Austria and Hungary were connected; we have often been so close to this border in Austria that we could look into the Hungarian countryside. Another factor was, I think, that all the rentals in Budapest were too expensive! In any case, the consensus of our Austrian friends has been that two weeks here is a bit much, and that we would be bored out of our minds in a few days. I know what they mean–I’m sure I’d say the same thing if a friend said he was going to spend two weeks at Lake Havasu or the Nevada desert–but so far we have found more than enough to do and explore, despite rainy weather and some discomfiting ailments.

We are in the tiny village of Somogyszentpal, a place with only two roads in and one of them is so rugged that it hardly counts as a road.  I found this little romantic-seeming cottage on HomeAway–what an amazing thing the internet can be! And from this vantage point, and at this time of year, this is what I have observed and learned so far about this proud little country:

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The village church, Somogyszentpal

**Despite being a largely Catholic country, historically Hungary has harbored many different religious sects. During the Reformation, and probably because of opposition to Habsburg rule, the country embraced Calvinism, Unitarianism, and Lutheranism, as well as every different type of Orthodoxy. Under Turkish rule, of course, Islam also entered into the mix.  All of this resistance to Catholicism may explain why the churches, even though Catholic, appear so severe and unornamented. Inside of the small village churches, the walls are usually whitewashed, and altars and Stations of the Cross are added as wood carvings or plaster artifacts. Even the more significant churches appear rather subdued on the exterior, when the interior are elaborately painted.

**Although a resort location that half of Hungary visits in the summer, no town or village in the area has a laundromat! We are at a loss to understand what people are supposed to do to wash clothes. Since the owner of the cottage we’re staying in has declined to put in a washing machine, we have had to wash things one at a time by hand, and finally had Rosi, our neighbor, offer to wash things in her machine. This lack would seem to be a golden opportunity for some eager entrepreneur to invest in:  just a few locations in places like Keszthely, Marcali, and Tapolca.

**The reason Magyar, the famously indecipherable language of the country, is so frustrating for foreigners is because the words are in Roman script, and so appear to be approachable for Westerners. But when one tries to make out the words, not a single syllable or root has any relationship to any of the other Western languages.  So one confronts the letters and is certain that SOMETHING will make sense, but nothing does. The other intriguing thing is that despite speaking this language that nobody else understands, Hungarians are not enthusiastic about learning other languages. Unlike the Finns or the Danes, who recognize that their language is too limited to be learned by others and so they must learn to communicate in other languages as a matter of course, the Hungarians are fiercely proud of their language and hold on to it intently. Whereas Swedish and Slovenian universities teach many of their classes in English, Hungarian universities do not. We have found that most people just keep talking Magyar to us, even when we make it clear that we have no idea what they’re saying. We find the sound of Magyar quite pleasing, and people are nothing if not kind despite the language barrier.

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**Recently, in keeping with what seems to be a distressing trend, the Hungarians have elected their own Donald Trump: Victor Orban, who has made so many reactionary and corrupting decisions that even other conservative leaders have made him retract his orders. He came to real power once the refugee crisis began in Europe. The Hungarians were strenuously opposed to the floods of refugees entering the country, and refused to take in any number of those fleeing Syria and elsewhere. While Hungarians can be prone to gloom in the best of times, this situation has led many to even greater bouts of moroseness, while Orban’s dictatorial hold on power continues.

**Economically, Hungary is in the doldrums, although the recent popularity of Budapest with trendy folks has made for some improvements, if only evident in the more touristy parts of the city, but not in the rest of the country. On the plane to Vienna, we read an article in the London Financial Times about all the hot properties in Budapest, but this really did seem geared toward the elite end of the market. A 2014 study found that 1 in 2 Hungarians live on less than 260 Euros a month, and that more than 250,000 children are undernourished.

**The place where we have noticed the most fascinating evidence of how dramatic a border change can be is in the example of bread. Austria–literally yards away from Hungary–has some of the best, most diverse, varieties of hardy breads, the kind that make Germanic types consider bread the staff of life. Cross the border into Hungary: the bread is awful! Mediocre white bread, very little variety, and even searches in bakeries yield perhaps a whole grain that doesn’t hold a candle to a loaf one could buy at the Austrian supermarket Billa. How/why does this happen?

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Bondi, the only fully domesticated cat we’ve met in Somogyszentpal

**The Hungarian people are quite diverse in appearance, with all shapes and sizes, from dark hair to the lightest blondes. This is only to be expected, given that the country has been conquered and pillaged for centuries by every group of invaders imaginable. Even the cats are diverse–orange and white, calico, gray, lots of black and white ones, but I haven’t seen any tabbies.

**There are many, many Gypsies in Hungary (about 400,000!), all Roma or Romani, but of every variety of assimilation. Our neighbors here in the village, who act as caretakers for this house (the owners are German) are Roma, but of the more assimilated sort, who have a reasonably nice house, have worked in Germany, are gainfully employed, and have never been wanderers. According to locals, there are hierarchies of Gypsy groups: at the top the assimilated ones, at the bottom those who are very dark-skinned and look like they come from South India. We have seen wild and ragged groups of these kind,  living in near hovels on the edge of the village, and in huge family bunches buying food at Tesco (yes, there is a Tesco on the outskirts of Mancali, a town 10 km away from here). Apparently, very few Gypsies still live in wagons and travel throughout the countryside. In any case, they are still the minority most maligned and mistreated. I must admit that I have rarely seen a group of people so frightfully feral in my life.

**The region around Lake Balaton, and indeed throughout Hungary, is filled with thermal baths, which the natives take to as enthusiastically as the touring Germans. I had no idea that this region was volcanic (all of them now extinct), thus the enormous number of hot springs. Thermal spas are also a huge money spinner, as places such as Heviz, with the largest natural thermal lake in Europe, attract health seekers from around the world, who come here on tours to putter around on plastic floats in the mildly radiated waters that are supposed to cure any number of ailments. Signs for “Wellness Centers” abound around Lake Balaton, and offer all kinds of treatments.  I’m going to go get a massage and paddle around in the muddy waters tomorrow; George thinks it’s all nonsense and can’t imagine why anybody would get into an irradiated pool.

**Hungarian architecture swings from the traditional thatched house of the Plains to Secessionist elements to some bizarrely “folkloric” styles for public buildings and restaurants that seem to refer to some romantic and phantasmagorical adaptation of vernacular forms.  I must do some more study of this, but all these excessively pitched red roofs, with ornamental sculptures at the peak seem to be everywhere. Kind of kitschy-pretentious, if you ask me, but they must fulfill some nationalist sentiment.*

housewithhorns_1877_somogyszentpal_may2The most fascinating aspect to me is the number of domestic houses that look ever so much like a Texas ranch-style country house. These often involve an arched walkway along the side of the house, and each room must be entered separately. The front of the house will contain the kitchen and a main room, perhaps a dining room, then the bedrooms are along the walkway.  It almost looks sometimes as if they add on a room each time they have a child or need another space for some reason.

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**Hungary has 20 different wine regions, all of them producing different varieties, many of which are claimed to be world class varieties.  Only a few of these are known outside of the local region.

**The history of this region is so complex, and involves so many conquests, re-conquests, ancient resentments about regions taken away from nations, that one can hardly make sense of what was considered Hungary when. Transylvania is the real sore spot: given to Rumania after World War I, the region still is home to some 2 million Magyars, the Szegedi, and Hungary has never forgotten this slight.

One fascinating example of this ethnic diversity is the story of the Festetics family, Croatians who came to Kezsthely on Lake Balaton in the 16th century, made a bundle in land (i.e. real estate!), were ennobled by Maria Theresa in the 18th century, and made Kezsthely their own personal fiefdom. They were enlightened rulers, built an enormous palace and accumulated a superb library. They thrived throughout the Dual Monarchy, and suffered the fate of all aristocracy after World War I.  The Palace, now open to the public, contains other amusing examples of Hungarian pride in identity:  in the Maria Theresa Room, the Empress of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and her son Josef II are identified in the labels only as the rulers of Hungary. No mention is made of Austria at all.

**Another ethnic example: we found in our Eyewitness Guide a reference to a folk museum in the village of Buzsak, only a few miles from our village as the crow flies, but since marshes lay between the two spots, one has to go a rather roundabout way to get there. The museum is charming, and plays up the fact that this particular part of the region was populated by Croatians who maintained their own language and culture well into the 20th century.  The ladies of the village who were there to sell their embroidery, and all the labels in the museum, emphasized that these designs and motifs were Croatian rather than Hungarian, even though they have been here for hundreds of years.

**One final note:  the near-sanctification of “Sisi”, Empress Elizabeth, Franz Josef’s wife, is evident everywhere in Hungary.  She was beloved by the Hungarians because she learned the language and preferred to spend her time in the country outside the stifling atmosphere of the Habsburg court.  Statues of her appear everywhere. As a friend of mine says, in Austria Sisi is just a tourist doll, while in Hungary she is a saint.  I was so amused to capture this image of these ladies reading the plaque below her statue on Lake Balaton.

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*I want to thank my friend David Lightfoot for steering me to the most likely source for this fantastical architecture: Imre Markovecz, who worked mostly in the 1950s and was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright and Rudolf Steiner.  http://www.pbase.com/helenpb/makovecz

Austria! In the Waldviertel

4 May

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After our lovely week in rather nippy London, we flew into Vienna, rented a car from Sixt (we have used them before in Europe, and liked their rates and service), and then drove to Wolfgang and Nora’s Vienna apartment in Nussdorf. Having no cell phone, and no GPS, and only a bit of a map and the Google Map instructions I had written down ahead of time, we got somewhat lost, but made it eventually by remembering our bus routes from our last Viennese stay. We were very happy to see both of the Petritsches–as well as son Nicola, deep into the final stages of study for his rigorous Matura exams. Our plan was to follow them in our car out to their country place in Gars am Kamp in the Waldviertel–the forested region of Lower Austria.  And so we embarked, keeping their gray Skoda in our sights ahead of us–or so we thought.  (And remember, we have no cell phone, and limited maps, and no coins for a phone booth, if we could find one).

We followed the gray Skoda until the man who was driving it turned into his driveway in the outer suburb of Floridsdorf.  We had been following the wrong car the whole time! So what to do, with no way to contact the Petritsches, and only a vague memory of how to get to their Gars house?  I got out of the car and found a nice man on the street who told us how to get back on the right freeway, and with our map, we drove into the Waldviertel, and eventually made it to the proper town. We thought we would be able to find Nora’s house by radar, remembering the way to turn from our last visit there. We almost made it, but missed one essential turn. We went back to a nearby service station, and told the attendant our story. He knew the name Petritsch, and  obligingly phoned Nora on his phone–there is no such thing as a phone booth anymore, apparently.  Nora was in her car on the way to Gars; it turns out that when they saw us going the wrong way–which was nearly at the beginning of our trip–they decided to go back to their apartment!  It wasn’t until this moment that we realized how silly we were not to have had one of the Petritsches with us in our car. In any case, we DID get into the Gars house at last, and Nora did arrive (this time without Wolfgang), we got into our cozy apartment at the top of her newly renovated house, and then went for a great dinner at a  local Gasthof filled with Gemütlichkeit.  Adventures all around….I don’t know why our friends put up with us!

But they do greet us so warmly, and we are forever grateful. This is the apartment as it now appears after Nora’s fantastically well-considered renovations. Wolfgang and Nora used to have this as their apartment in Gars, while the downstairs was rather forlorn, but now they have completely transformed downstairs into beautiful living quarters.

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Nora and her sister Heidi, in the new apartment in Gars

This was Nora’s childhood home, so she is having a field day transforming it into a little country gem. This means, of course–construction! At least this time it was only work in the garden, putting up stone walls and pathways, so the noise was minimal. Once again, our God of Construction Projects continues his pursuit of us on our travels.

While the weather was less than ideal, we had a splendid time, visiting fantastic structures and experiencing old-fashioned village life.  Gars is surprisingly diverse, and has served as a cultural hub in the Waldviertel for a thousand years. When the Babenbergers ruled this region in the 11th century, Gars was even the capital of Austria. Consequently, the ruins of old fortresses, as well as a 14th century church, loom romantically over the town. Quite astutely, the Austrians have cashed in on this location, presenting operas and other musical performances here in the summer months; “Kulturtourismus” is the salvation of these European historical sites. The 13th-century tower has even been restored, with historical displays on each floor and a magnificent view over the Kamp Valley from the top.

We headed out to visit the castles of the surrounding area, having really no idea what to expect. Our first stop was Schloss Rosenburg, which I only knew was a Renaissance-era structure; I didn’t even know if it was open to the public.  In a great stroke of luck, we arrived just as the main event of the castle complex began: an exhibition of falconry!  Rosenburg is a UNESCO-recognized center for falconry, offering workshops and training for would-be falconers. Every day the staff put on a show of their skills for visitors. I was over the moon!  Even though it was freezing–it actually started to snow as the show went on!–we were so enchanted to see these marvelous creatures perform that we stayed on as long as we could.

The castle is worth a look, too. The current configuration dates to the 17th century, and the complex has been owned by the same family, Hoyos-Sprinzenstein, since that time. The current Count has taken advantage of the location, with includes the only fully intact tournament grounds in the country. Along with the falconry events, the castle hosts historical reenactments in period costumes, and rents out the spaces for historic films and TV shows.  You can also book the excellent restaurant and its rooms in the castle for weddings.

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The coat of arms of the Hoyos-Sprinzenstein family above a door at Schloss Rosenburg, Austria.

Our next stop was the renowned Stift Altenburg, the great Baroque monastery famed for its magnificent library. Alas, the entire complex would not be open to the public until May 1–this was April 28!–but we were able to get into the church, with its fascinating murals by Paul Troger (1698-1762), Austria’s greatest illusionistic ceiling painter.  These paintings were on themes of “Good triumphing over Evil”, and included arcane narrative Biblical stories that seem to have had some political meaning among the 18th-century abbots who commissioned the works. The stucco work and the marbling are also splendid. We must come back to see the Library, which rivals Melk and Admont in its grandeur. The Abbey also has a boys’ choir and school; the boys were in residence, and we were able to hear them practicing in the rehearsal rooms.

The Abbey gained special notice in recent times when the abbot, in 1938, refused to fly the Nazi flag over the grounds. He was arrested, the Benedictine order was disbanded and Nazi storm troopers occupied the buildings. As soon as the war ended, the order was reinstated, and the abbey returned to the church. The grounds now include Gardens of Peace, representing the world’s 5 great religions.  These, too, were not yet open for viewing, and as it was still so cold would not have had many plants yet in any case. I was able at least to light a candle, in a small side chapel of the church, for my old friend Leslie Gliessman Holt, who died a few months ago of cancer. She had studied in Vienna, and I’m sure visited Altenburg at one time. Rest in Peace, Leslie.

In the next few days, it did get warmer, and our last day culminated in a delightful event: the raising of the May Pole by the volunteer fire brigade in the village of Zitternberg. Such a lovely experience, to participate in such a traditional event, something that has taken place in European villages for thousands of years!  Most of the village was there, and the fire brigade raised a bit of money through the sale of sausages and new wine. The raising itself took a good hour and a half–it’s quite complicated to do, and of course, one had to have a few wine breaks while carrying out such manual labor! It was truly impressive to see these firemen continuing to do this raising the old-fashioned way.

And so, dear reader, as you can no doubt tell: I am happy when I’m in Austria!  The landscape, the architecture, the culture, the aesthetic–all this feels comfortable to me, it feeds my soul. On one level, I find this all rather odd, since another part of me is so Californian that just the thought of cold weather makes me shiver. I have never skied, and never wanted to, and I still have terrifying memories of being bone-chillingly numb with cold in that “Hundert Jahr Winter” of 1969-70, trudging from the tram stop in Sievering through vineyards in my little miniskirt and tights. But Vienna was my revelatory moment as a young woman, and the culture has permeated into my heart. When we make our lists of “where to live?” criteria, Austria will no doubt get top marks for culture, if not for YEAR-ROUND weather.  Wir werden Oesterreich wiedersehen!

London adventures

25 Apr

Museums and libraries! Just what we needed after Mexico!  It is so wonderful to come back to the same place we stayed in London when we were last here (see my blogs for September 2015). Our friends’ lovely city apartment near Regents Park offers such a view of this place that we would never be able to experience if we had to pay for it. And just to remind us that we have still somehow angered the God of Construction: even here in plummy Marylebone, just as we did in Ajijic, Dubrovnik, and Vienna, we had a construction site right next door! Amusingly, the workers only made genteel, politely British bangs throughout the day.

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Our apartment was just on the other side of the scaffolding, which we could see from the front window.

Our first visit was to the Tate Britain, where we had heard of a rather controversial exhibition, “Queer British Art, 1861-1967,” and which I promised several gay friends I would report upon.  (The David Hockney exhibition was also there, and was packed with visitors; he is immensely popular in Britain. His drawings are very nice, and I liked his video of the countryside, but his paintings: meh….too much familiarity perhaps?) The dates of the show commemorate two startling moments in gay history: in 1861, the death penalty was abolished as a punishment for sodomy, and 1967 saw the partial decriminalization of male homosexual acts. As the exhibition’s brochure explains, the term “queer” was chosen to emphasize the broad continuum of sexuality represented in the artworks on display.

If ever an exhibition required contextual labels, this one stands out. Indeed, many reviewers complained that the show had more to do with anecdotes about artists, innuendos about gay lifestyles, than it had to do with any particular aesthetic direction or quality. I found the show fascinating because of these revelations, and applaud its non-polemical approach to a complicated subject that opens up myriad possibilities for debate. I am in awe of the curators, who must have had many an obstreperous battle, first to identify their objects and to place them into a meaningful context. Can one really speak of a gay aesthetic?  Why was it considered scandalous for women to paint images of nude women? Can one talk of “gay” content if one doesn’t know the artist’s intentions or sexual leanings? What role does class play in the long and tangled saga of persecution for homosexuality?

The Victorian room, labelled “Coded Desires”, was just bursting with “reading between the lines” repression and longing.  Some of the stories, such as that of Simeon Solomon, Jewish and gay and eventually shunned despite his obvious artistic talents, were sad beyond imagining. Others offered hilarious examples of subversion, such as Joe Orton and Ken Halliwell’s altering of library books’ covers and blurbs with suggestive titles and images. And so many mergings of sexual identity!  My favorite was the story of the “life partners” Edith Cooper and her niece Katherine Harris Bradley who combined themselves into one identity called Michael Field, a name under which they wrote many plays and poetry.  I managed to take photos in the exhibit until the point where I was advised that photos were forbidden, so I wasn’t able to get many of the later images in the show.

But I had to go back to sneak one last picture of the most moving object: the door to the cell in which Oscar Wilde was incarcerated at Reading Gaol for his liaison with Lord Alfred Douglas. An entire section of the show focusses on Wilde’s case. Talk about a concrete example of the absurdity of trying to legislate morality and control sexual desires.

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And now for something completely different:  the Wellcome Collection, a thoroughly bustling place with an air of eccentricity turned to genuinely life-saving charitable ends. Sir Henry Wellcome, one of those 19th-century phenoms, the American self-made man, came to England and founded the pharmaceutical firm Wellcome and Burroughs (which would be the foundation of contemporary drug giant GlaxoSmithKline). Becoming immensely wealthy, he amassed an amazingly bizarre collection of objects, ostensibly relating to the history of medicine, and founded at the same time a medical library on the subject.  My son tells me that the Wellcome Trust, the legacy of the man’s beneficence, is the single most significant medical charity in the world today, and is the organization that saved the human genome project from becoming a for-profit entity.

The building is a happy place, with temporary exhibitions, two bustling and very good restaurants, a permanent display including a minuscule number of Wellcome’s collected objects (including Florence Nightingale’s moccasins and Napoleon’s toothbrush!), a host of lectures, a great bookshop focussing on science and nature, and the magnificent Wellcome Library.  George actually got a library membership card for free–our kind of place!

Through the generosity of our dear friend Ken, we also went to see the National Gallery’s show “Michelangelo and Sebastiano.”  More Sebastiano than Michelangelo, but as with so many exhibits now (an approach that I personally enjoy), the show was really about context and milieu. The labels explain how Michelangelo took Sebastiano under his wing, out of his hatred for the wastrel Raphael, and as a way to thwart this younger artist’s ambitions. After the Queer Art show, I couldn’t help but read some gay subtext into all of this, but in any case, the artworks gained more immediacy once these stories were told.

Our final museum tour brought a hilarious surprise. The Royal Academy of Arts, housed in Burlington House–the last great 17th-century mansion in London–had as its exhibition…American Art of the 1930s! Organized by the Chicago Art Institute, it came from the Orangerie in Paris.

We laughed and laughed, to see Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” in the halls of the Royal Academy. Once again, I took a few surreptitious photos until I was caught.

We spent a lovely if nippy afternoon in Regents Park, admiring the gorgeous displays of spring flowers, so elegantly considered–curated by gardeners as any exhibition of art would be–with rows of tulips and other spring blossoms displayed in matching colors along each path.  We were struck by two observations in the park: because the sun was out, despite what we considered rather chilly air, the natives were taking off their shoes and their jackets, lying in the sun to soak it up.  We also noticed that the enormous crowds contained every nationality of the old British Empire. We heard at least 10 languages, most of which we didn’t recognize.  Lots of “mixed” families, with beautiful children sporting completely British accents. London is nothing if not diverse. I couldn’t believe how many women in full purdah were shopping at Marks and Spencers and Selfridge.

This diversity was not in evidence in our final adventure, and was all the more striking for it.   My favorite shoes are Hotter, a British mail order–and now online–company. I assumed when I got to London I would be able to find the shoes in regular shops in the city. Not so: the only shops that carry them are in the outer suburbs. In need of some attractive comfortable pairs, we ventured out on the Tube to Enfield Town, about an hour away. (I have just been informed that I am incorrect in my assertions about Enfield Town. Sorry! It does feel quite different from central London nonetheless.)

While appearing fairly prosperous, this was definitely Brexit territory. Not a brown face to be seen, or very few at least.  These are the English who resent the EU, who fear immigrants, and feel that they have been ignored by the governments. All very congenial people nonetheless, which I must say has been the happiest aspect of this visit. People here seem to be comfortable in themselves and with their lot, are friendly and approachable. We felt little tension or aggravation anywhere, a welcome change from the charged atmosphere of the US right now.  I’m sure that this observation is a very shallow one, but daily interactions and mundane observations do tell some of the story.

If only Britain had better weather!