Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Budapest!

It takes only two and a half hours by train to get to Budapest from Vienna, but it feels a world away. I suppose it mostly reflects the very different post-war histories of the two cities. While both were affected by the war, Vienna was reestablished as a country in 1945 and by 1955 was free of outside control, while Budapest was far more seriously damaged during the war and was subsequently occupied by the Russians from 1945 until 1991.

Nonetheless, Budapest is a gem. Its people are friendly, its history is interesting, it is jam-packed with architectural and decorative treasures, and it is quite inexpensive relative to other European cities.

Buda Castle, a large complex of fortifications and royal residences, is situated high above the west side of the Danube. It is an impressive sight, especially in the evening when the lights are on, but sadly most of the original interiors were destroyed during the war and by post-war renovations.

Chain Bridge and Buda Castle

The Hungarian National Gallery and its collection of Hungarian art from the 11th century onward is housed in several of the buildings.

At the Hungarian National Gallery

Also on the west side is the Matthias Church, built in the mid-fourteenth century in the gothic style and substantially remodeled late in the nineteenth century.

Matthias Church

The remodeling is beautiful and unusual, an interpretation of earlier styles with an Art Nouveau aesthetic.

Detail of Matthias Church

On the east, or Pest side, we visited the enormous St. Stephen's Basilica.

St. Stephen's Basilica dome

It was worth climbing the tower for the panoramic views.

Buda Castle from St. Stephen's Basilica

We took in The Marriage of Figaro at the Hungarian State Opera, which at $35 per ticket for orchestra seats was an incredible bargain. I enjoyed the performance tremendously, but found the venue even more memorable.

At the Hungarian State Opera House

Every surface is ornamented in some way with marble, gilding, paintings, etc.

Hungarian State Opera House lobby arches

The timing didn't work for us to join the English language guided tour of Parliament - the only way to gain access - though we did enjoy views of it during an evening river cruise.

Hungarian Parliament from the Danube

On the other side of Parliament is Kossuth Squre.

Kossuth Square entrance to Parliament

Since we couldn't tour Parliament we went across the square to the Museum of Ethnography, in a building originally built for the Ministry of Justice. Naturally I was drawn to the textiles, including traditional clothing, table linens and bed linens. I love the colorful exuberant floral design in this piece.

Detail of traditional Hungarian clothing

And was interested to see these sketches from a pattern book.

Pattern book sketches

The density of stitching on this border is impressive.


I hoped that I would find a nice piece of traditional stitchery at the Great Market Hall, Budapest's oldest and largest indoor market, but was disappointed to find that the textiles were garish items targeted to the tourist trade. The market does contain impressive displays of food, from beautiful fresh produce to every kind of paprika imaginable.

Inside Great Market Hall

The Royal Corinthia Hotel was excellent base from which to explore Budapest. We found the service to be of a high standard, our room comfortable, spacious, and quiet, and staff who were helpful and courteous without being obsequious. It was an easy walk to the opera house (Zoltan, the concierge secured us excellent seats to The Marriage of Figaro) and convenient to the Metro and cable cars. It is the hotel on which the setting for the  movie "Grand Hotel Budapest" was loosely based.


Royal Corinthia Hotel

We even took time to enjoy the spa, sampling the pool, the hot tub, the sauna and the steam room.

 Royal Corinthia Hotel pool














Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Vienna!

Last month I had the opportunity to visit Vienna for the first time. We packed a lot into our four days there, but left feeling that we had only had a small taste of all the city has to offer.

Our hotel, adjacent to St. Peter's Church, was a convenient base from which to explore. We could simply step out the door to wander in the heart of the old city center, now mostly limited to pedestrians and horse drawn carriages.

Carriage ride, anyone?

What fun we had exploring narrow cobbled streets and squares,


Franziskanerplatz

ducking into churches,

Dome of St. Peter's Church

St. Stephan's Cathedral at night

admiring shop windows,




examining monuments, and sampling the culinary delights in coffee shops and restaurants.

Pastries at Cafe Central

Cafe Landtmann

The city center also contains the Hofburg, once the winter palace of the Hapsburgs. Among other things, it now houses the Spanish Riding School, which we decided to save for our next visit, when we hope to bring the girls with us,


and an incredible collection of arms and armory.



Surrounding the city center is the Ringstrasse, or Ring Road, along which are arrayed monumental buildings in a variety of styles, including Parliament, the neo-gothic Rathaus (city hall),

The Rathaus

museums, parks, hotels, the university, and the neo-renaissance Vienna State Opera house. We were privileged to hear Anna Netrebko sing the title role of Anna Bolena. Not my favorite opera, but Anna Netrebko was wonderful. Given that we lost track after the sixth curtain call, others clearly agreed with us. I didn't love the sets, which seemed to be modern just for the sake of being different, but the opera house itself offered up enough eye candy to make up for it.

Marble staircase in the Vienna State Opera House (photo taken with an iPhone)

Model, based on Albrecht Durer's watercolor "Young Hare," outside the Vienna State Opera

Venturing outside the Ringstrasse, we took in the Belvedere, a 17th century Baroque palace built as summer residence for Prince Eugene of Savoy. It now houses the Belvedere Museum and its collection of works by Gustav Klimt.

Belvedere Palace

The enormous Baroque Schonbrunn Palace and gardens is farther still from the city center. We spent an afternoon touring the mid-18th century interiors (which sadly visitors are not permitted to photograph), done up in the Rococo style for empress Maria Teresa. Compared to the elaborate interiors, the exterior seems rather sedate.

Schonbrunn Palace viewed through the Poseidon statue

 I spent another afternoon strolling in the grounds and gardens,

The Gloriette at Schonbrunn Palace

 which are clearly a popular spot for walking

The Gloriette in Schoenbrunn Palace Gardens

and simply enjoying the outdoors.

View of Schonbrunn Palace and Vienna beyond

The weather was so nice during our stay that we opted for a walk in the Vienna Woods, easily reached via the metro and bus, instead of another day inside museums.


It was early enough in spring that only a few trees had leafed out.


Lovely as the city is, it is not immune to graffiti, though perhaps Viennese graffiti is more elegant than most.

Top hat graffiti

I don't have any stitchery that can match the elegance of things we saw in Vienna, so I will simply share the piece on which I whiled away several hours of our transatlantic flight. I was so pressed for time prior to departure that I wasn't able to prepare a portable project and ended up grabbing a stack of pre-cut squares that came in this year's QuiltCon goodie bag. I don't have the patience, or enough squares, to make a bed quilt, so although it is a bit lame, I will most likely turn it into a pillow top.



Check back soon for a report on Budapest.





Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A Weekend in Carlsbad, California

I traveled to Carlsbad last month to run the Carlsbad 5K, billed as the world's fastest 5K. Arriving on Friday for a Sunday race, and then not departing until Monday afternoon, made for a relaxing weekend, not counting, of course, the time it took to actually run the race.

As road races go, Carlsbad has an unusual, but very pleasant schedule. The town closes off its main streets for most of the day, allowing each age group to race in separate heats, followed by the elite women and then the elite men. Even better for us, masters men and women run the first two heats so we got to run in the coolest part of the day, shower and change, and then park ourselves at a coffee shop to watch the younger runners.


The elite course is modified so that runners go around the loop twice, giving spectators multiple chances to watch each racer go by. The elites are well worth watching, for the drama of the race and for the sheer beauty of their running. They make it look effortless. On most days I call myself a runner, but when I see them run I realize that what they do is very different from what I do. Notice the faces of these two runners. They are totally focused, yet completely relaxed. Genzebe Dibaba finished in 14:48, just two seconds short of the women's world record. Isn't she gorgeous?

Genzebe Dibaba

Bernard Lagat did set a world record for men's masters, with a time of 13:41, 14 seconds off the previous record.

Bernard Lagat

To my surprise, it was definitely beach weather and I spent more than a few hours at the beach and poolside.



Making washcloths was an excellent beach activity.


Aside from relaxing on the beach and running, we explored the town. It's tiny so it doesn't take long to make your way from one end to the next. We found some colorful wall art.

Wall art painted by Michael Summers

We also learned how Carlsbad got its name. In 1882 Captain John Frazier drilled a well for his farm and found water that is chemically similar  to therapeutic waters from the spa in Carslbad in what is now the Czech Republic.  His statue stands outside the California version, where you can still purchase alkaline water for yourself. Judging from the size of the cup he holds, it doesn't take a large dose to be effective, though not having tried it myself, I can't say for sure. Maybe next year.

Capt. John Frazier, founder of Carlsbad, California, alkaline water

Friday, April 3, 2015

Signs of Spring

In our family springtime means spring break, and for me nothing says spring break more than a road trip. This year we visited the western Arizona desert and the Grand Canyon.

I was last in western Arizona over 30 years ago, visiting Steve in the Granite Wash Mountains where he was doing field work for his dissertation. During the summer temperatures frequently soar well over the century mark. But in the spring, with lower temperatures and cactus and wildflowers in bloom, it is a lovely place to hike.


The mountains are dotted with remains of old mines and mining encampments, testaments to past hard-scrabble lives. Today a few claim stakes mark hope for further finds, but networks of tracks from all terrain vehicles show the other role these mountains play in today's world: playground for retirees who winter in Arizona. 

Desert pavement and tracks in the Granite Wash Mountains

They are also home to wildlife such as this desert tortoise.


According to NASA these mountains contain the largest population of cacti in the United States. I don't  know how they know that, but it seems plausible.

View of the Harquahala Mountains

We stayed at the funky Westward Motel, a block off the highway in Salome. It has clean rooms, comfortable beds, and a proprietor with an excellent eye and seemingly endless energy for turning other people's castoffs into useful and interesting items.

The Westward Motel



Next stop was the Grand Canyon where we spent our first morning visiting the geology museum (of course) and following the outdoor timeline that illustrates the canyon's history. In the afternoon we hiked west along the rim from one scenic viewpoint to another.


The best part of our trip was hiking down the Bright Angel Trail, across the Colorado River to Phantom Ranch, then back across the river and up the South Kaibab Trail. The route covered over 15 miles of trail with 5000 feet of elevation loss and gain. Signs along the way caution against doing this in one day. We did it anyway,


starting well before dawn to take advantage of cooler morning temperatures, and took plenty of water.

Early start down the Bright Angel Trail

Other advantages of our early start was a quiet trail,


and sunrise views  of the canyon.




The early start also gave us plenty of time to enjoy the views and examine the geology along the way.





Bright Angel Suspension Bridge

We even stopped in the mess hall at Phantom Ranch for a cup of coffee and to write and mail a couple of post cards.


Both suspension bridges across the Colorado River are fun to cross.

South Kaibab Suspension Bridge

The South Kaibab Bridge has the added interest of being accessed on the south side through a small, dark tunnel.

South Kaibab Suspension Bridge south entrance


The South Kaibab Trail is more open than the Bright Angel, and affords stunning panoramic views of the canyon.


We were lucky to get some afternoon clouds to add even more interest.



The final stretch towards the top includes an impressive bit of trail building. Viewed straight on it looks rather scary.


Once on that section you realize the trail is plenty wide and gentle for comfort.


We were back at the rim by mid-afternoon, in time for showers and a glass of wine before sunset.


Another sign of spring is outdoor entertainment. A dear friend invited us to dinner at her home so that we could all first enjoy champagne and hors d'oeuvres in her lovely garden, fragrant with Texas Mountain Laurels, aglow with white wisteria. As a hostess gift I knit up some wash cloths, with free patterns from KnitPicks, to pair with a nice bar of soap. I used organic cotton yarn that I found in my stash, but any kind of cotton will work just fine. Happy spring!