Eastern Europe Trip – Day 11 – Budapest, Hungary

Today was my last full day in Budapest. I had a quick breakfast and took the bus to All Saints Roman Catholic Church. This church was built in 1975, was designed in a brutalism architecture style, and was the first church in Budapest that the Communist regime allowed to be built. The previous one was built in 1948. The state provided no money, so the congregation had to rely on social workers for labor and very cheap building materials. Architect István Szabó, a man of faith himself, also working for free, designed all of the interior decorations and the furnishings himself.

Next door to the church is the Imre Makovecz Mortuary Chapel, which was originally built in the early 1930’s. The chapel was destroyed during World War II, and was eventually rebuilt. The building underwent full refurbishment in 1991 and resembles the inside of a human chest. The ribs are made of hardwood and coffins are placed where the heart would be. There was a funeral occurring when I was here, and I wanted to be respectful of the family, so I didn’t take any photos.

I took the bus back into the city and walked by the Turkish Bank House, an Art Nouveau style building, which was designed by Henrik Böhm and Ármin Hegedűs in 1906, The facade is almost entirely glass-covered, and in the upper gable it sports a Secessionist mosaic by Miksa Róth called Patrona Hungariae, which depicts Hungary surrounded by great Hungarians of the past.

Close by was Gresham Palace. The Four Seasons Hotel (Gresham Palace) is a beautiful example of Art Nouveau architecture style. It was constructed in 1906 as an office and apartment building, but is now used today by the Four Seasons Hotel chain. It is located right along the River Danube and looks absolutely stunning. During World War 2 it was used as a barrack by the Red Army. It became fairly run down and was used as an apartment during the People’s Republic of Hungary. After the fall of communism in 1990 the national government turned the property over to the city. Oberoi Hotels entered into an agreement to manage a hotel in the building in 1991, but due to legal battles it never happened. In 1998 Gresco Investments acquired the building. Together with the Four Seasons the building was renovated in its original Art Nouveau architectural style for about $85 million. Building ownership again changed in 2001 (Quinland Private of Ireland) and 2011 (State General Reserve Fund of Oman), but the Four Seasons continues to operate and manage it. In front of the hotel area few statues, which include Count Istvan Szechenyi, and Ferenc Deak.

It was then time for lunch so I stopped in at the First Strudel House of Pest, which was opened in 2007. It features a really unique Split Flap Display, similar to what you would have seen at an airport decades ago, and you can watch the staff make fresh strudels all day long. I had a savory strudel, and a coffee. If you end up visiting here make sure to checkout the bathroom; it’s pretty neat!

After lunch I walked by the Dohány Street Synagogue and the Holocaust Tree of Life Memorial. The price for the synagogue was more than I would have liked to pay, so I didn’t go inside.

The Holocaust Tree of Life Memorial was designed by Imre Varga in 1991. It was paid for by the late American actor Tony Curtis for his Hungarian-born father Emanuel Schwartz. The memorial stands over the mass graves of those murdered by the Nazis between 1944 and 1945. The names of some of the hundreds of thousands of victims are inscribed on the metal leaves.

The Dohány Street Synagogue is the largest synagogue in Europe, with a capacity for over 3000 people. Designed by architect Ludwig Förster, it was built between 1854 and 1859 in a Moorish Revival architecture style. The building suffered extensive damage during World War 2 bombings and was not repaired until 1998. The restoration took 7 years! I forgot to take a daytime photo, however here’s a night time photo I took on my first night.

The final, and what I think was the best stop of the day, was the Aviation Cultural Center Museum (Aeropark), located near the airport. I took the express bus 100E back to the airport, and walked to the museum. Fortunately there was nobody else at the museum so I received a private tour from a wonderful man named Zainko Geza. He worked with Malev Hungarian Airlines for 47 years as an aircraft mechanic. If you like old soviet era aircraft I highly recommend checking out his website. The museum featured a bunch of old Soviet era aircraft including Lisunov Li-2, Ilyushin Il-14T, a pair of Ilyushin Il-18V’s, Tupolev Tu-134, Tupolev Tu-154B-2 (which resembles a Boeing 727), a pair of Yakovlev Yak-40E’s, Antonov An-2M, Mil Mi-2, Antonov An-2R, and a Let L-410 Turbolet.

My personal favorite was the Tupolev Tu-154, which closely resembles that of a Boeing 727, however looks much beefier. The plane was produced between 1968 and 2013, and 1026 were made. This plane was the workhorse of many Soviet era airlines from the late 1960’s until the mid-2000’s. The aircraft was capable of cruising at 850 kph for 5300 kilometres, and even had the unique capability of operating from unpaved and gravel airfields, hence the 12 main wheels, as opposed to Boeing’s 4 main wheels on their 727.

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Eastern Europe Trip – Day 2 – Plitvice Lake & Ljubljana, Slovenia

Today I drove from Zagreb, Croatia to Plitvice Lakes, about a two hour drive away. On the way I attempted to stop at The Monument to the Uprising of the People of Kordun and Banija, however the road was closed off for the season to prevent continued degradation of the site by looters during the off-season. The Monument to the Uprising of the People of Kordun and Banija is a World War 2 monument designed by Vojin Bakić, and built by Veliki Petrovac on the highest peak of the Petrova Gora mountain range. The monument celebrates the uprising and resistance movement of the people of Kordun and Banija against Nazi-fascism, as well as commemorates the victims of the Nazi-fascism. The monument took ten years to build and was finished in 1981. At the time the monument was finished it was the largest postmodern sculpture in the world. After 1991, antifascist monuments and memorial complexes were neglected. This continues to this day as local people continue stealing the stainless-steel plates off the monument. I snagged a few photos from Google Maps (credit given to the photographers) so you can see what it looks like.

Photo Credit: Bara Fai – 2021
Photo Credit: Arwen Swan – 2021
Photo Credit: Uldis Strauss – 2019

Next stop was Plitvice Lakes National Park. Plitvice Lakes National Park is one of the oldest and largest national parks in Croatia. It became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. The park was founded in 1949 and is very well known for its beautiful lakes, pathways, and waterfalls. Entrance cost to the park is about $16 CDN, however expect to pay double when its not off season.

After visiting Plitvice Lakes National Park I drove about 3.5 hours towards Ljubljana, Slovenia. The border crossing took about an hour because they were checking everyone’s COVID vaccine passports. Before I dive into the rest of my day in Slovenia let’s talk about Slovenia’s history, which has a lot of overlap with Croatia.

Slovenia’s History

Slovenia is a relatively young country; being formed on June 25 1991. The history of Slovenia is very similar to that of Croatia; having been its neighboring country. Historically, Slovenia was part of many different states dating back to the Roman Empire, Byzantine Empire, Carolingian Empire, Holy Roman Empire, Habsburg Monarchy, the Republic of Venice, the Illyrian Provinces of the First French Empire of Napoleon I, the Austrian Empire, and finally the Austrian-Hungarian Empire until it broke up in October 1918.

As mentioned back in my brief history of Croatia; in December 1918 the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was formed. In 1929 this kingdom was renamed to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

During the beginning of World War 2 Yugoslavia had a neutral stance, but in March 1941 a coup was held by pro-British officers, and as a result the Germans invaded Yugoslavia on April 6 1941. The Germans set up shop in Croatia with the fascist Ustase in charge, but the Croatians were able to liberate them by 1945.

During the 1960’s nationalism re-emerged and more people were demanding autonomy. In 1971 Tito, the Communist leader put a stop to it, but he ended up dying in 1980. Communism collapsed in most of Eastern Europe in 1989, during the same time frame that many non-Communist organizations were being setup. In April 1990 elections were held and in December 1990 a referendum was held, with the majority of people in favor. On June 25 1991 the Slovene parliament declared Slovenia independent. This irritated the Yugoslavian army, so they tried to invade Slovenia a few days later on June 27 1991. They were held back by the Slovenian Territorial Defense forces and the police, and on July 7 1991 the Yugoslavians agreed to a ceasefire brokered by the European Union.

In December 1991 a new constitution was written, and on January 15 1992 Slovenian independence was recognized by the European Union. As was the case for many of the eastern European countries, Slovenia faced a long painful transition from Communism to Capitalism during the 1990’s. In 2004 Slovenia became a member of the European Union.

Exploring Ljubljana, Slovenia

When I arrived in Ljubljana, Slovakia my first stop was exploring Ljubljana Castle, a castle complex standing on Castle Hill, which overlooks the entire city. It was originally a medieval fortress constructed in the 11th century, rebuilt again in the 12th and 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. The castle is depicted on the city’s coat of arms, along with a dragon on the top. The castle just finished a major restoration project that lasted from 2000 to 2019. There was also a puppet museum inside the castle, which was pretty neat.

After visiting the castle I drove to my hotel; BIT Center Hotel, to check-in, and do a few hours of work, which included a few meetings. After working I drove back to the castle to haver dinner at the renowned Strelec Restaurant. A reservation is a requirement here, however being off-season I just booked it in the morning and they were able to accommodate me. This is a michelin star quality restaurant, however it is not a michelin star restaurant. I was served a 5 course dinner, however it was more like 8 courses… I wish I had taken better notes as to what I ate, however I had a few favorites. My first favorite was the ravioli with truffles, cheese, and home made sour cream. My second favorite was venison with beet-root. Third runner up was beef tartar. The meal was finished off with chocolate ganache, ice cream, a sweet puree of some sort, hazelnuts, and gold foil. The meal cost me a total of $115 CDN, however it was absolutely worth it. It was one of the most enjoyable dinners that I’ve ever had.

Be sure to check back tomorrow while I explore more of Ljubljana, before driving back to Zagreb, Croatia to catch a flight to Belgrade, Serbia late in the evening.

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