Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Eastern Europe Part II

Following Prague, we departed for Bratislava, where we would only spend a long afternoon. Slovakia recently succeeded in joining the Eurozone (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eurozone), which has left the Slovak economy in far better shape than any of its neighbors that we visited. It also meant that on this single day, we needed to use three different currencies, which was an interesting experience.

I had very little free time in Slovakia, actually, given that we had two extended meetings in our seven hours in the country. I had to skip two meals to really see much of anything at all. Bratislava is an incredibly small city for a European capital though, so that made it a little easier to browse the sights. Bratislava is dominated by its castle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bratislava_Castle), which is unsurprisingly on the highest hill above the city overlooking the Danube (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danube). It also gave me the opportunity to feel really nationalist, which is essentially at the core of the European experience. Despite all their unity and lack of patriotism, nationalism is still the huge driving force behind Europe.

The most interesting thing about Slovakia I was able to notice in my limited time there was the incredibly rigidity of its districting. The commercial area and old town are united on one side of the Danube. Opposite it directly is the residential district. Further down the river, but on the same side as the residential zone, is the industrial zone. There seems to be no overlap between these areas of any note. It's perhaps the most telling legacy of the Soviet era.

Slovenský rozhlas (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slovensk%C3%BD_rozhlas), the main radio broadcaster in Slovakia. Soviet architecture might have not done everything well, but consistently the Eastern Bloc produced fascinating communications towers.

Nový Most (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nov%C3%BD_Most), the most important Slovak bridge over the Danube.

The main square in Bratislava.

Bratislava's castle, once again, complete with scaffolding.

Budapest is a quite different city entirely. Bratislava is small and compact - Budapest is incredibly populous and quite sprawling. It is divided into main areas that reflect the old towns that merged to form the Hungarian capital. Unsurprisingly perhaps, these two areas are Buda (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buda) and Pest (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pest_(city)), each on opposite sides of the Danube. In my free time, I attempted to see them each one at a time, if nothing else for ease of transport. I failed, really, but regardless got to see large swaths of the city. We also took a Danube River cruise, which really split the middle. Literally even.

Budapest has some amazing architecture for certain, and was well preserved just as all the other cities were. It was pleasant to be in cities that had avoided significant World War II damage. That said, it also felt the most foreign. Part of it has to do with the simple absurdity of Magyar (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hungarian_language), as it is not in the Indoeuropean family of languages. Other parts simply had to do with the cultural differences and norms. Certain behaviors for hire that would not be considered acceptable for public knowledge (and indeed ruin political careers) in the United States were carried out in parks in Budapest with little caring about the potential awareness of passersby. Public behaviors were generally just a little bit different.

Among the most interesting things in Budapest was the House of Terror (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_of_Terror), a museum about the oppression of the Hungarian people by the Nazi-affiliated and Soviet-sponsored (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%81VH) secret police. The Nazi cell in Hungary was known as the Arrow Cross (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arrow_Cross_Party). The museum could hardly be called unbiased in its coverage, and seems to be very much designed from the political right designed to simultaneously discredit leftist opposition and give the impression that Hungary itself was not complicit in these crimes. It was interesting to compare it to the Stasimuseum in Berlin, though, which was - like the House of Terror - housed in the same facility once used to torture and interrogate victims. The Stasimuseum was quite stodgy and traditional. The House of Terror was incredibly modern, relying on extensive media incorporation, a constant industrial techno soundtrack, and the most amazing carpet I have ever seen, an extensive map of the Eastern Bloc. I would pay approximately $14,000.00 to have this map replicated somewhere in my house in the future.

The Hungarian Parliament building, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hungarian_parliament_building), perhaps the most ornate national parliament in the world.

Buda Castle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buda_Castle).

The Chain Bridge (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sz%C3%A9chenyi_L%C3%A1nch%C3%ADd) with Buda Castle.

The view of Budapest and the Danube from Gellért Hill (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gell%C3%A9rt_Hill)

As a whole, Budapest and the trip entirely was a positive experience. Certainly not destinations that I would have immediately thought to travel to on my own, but entirely worthwhile ones as well.

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