Big City Tales

Budapest In All Its Golden Splendor

March 15, 2018
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The first time I ever saw a Viking River Cruises TV commercial, the one destination that immediately struck me was Budapest, Hungary.

As the elegant Viking Longship sailed along the Danube River and passed by the magnificent Parliament House, it was crystal clear that this landmark delights the eyes by day and dazzles them by night.

Yes, when fully lit, Parliament House reveals Budapest in all its golden splendor and there is no question about its status as one of Europe’s most beautiful cities.

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Riverfront Treasures

Not surprisingly, Budapest’s central area along the Danube River is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Some of the notable riverfront monuments to explore are: Parliament House, Szechenyi Chain Bridge, and the Shoes on the Danube Memorial.

Parliament House

Inspired by the Houses of Parliament in London, England, construction of Budapest’s Parliament House was completed in 1902. The building’s exterior spans 268 metres and features statues of past Hungarian rulers, along with several spires, gargoyles and a massive central dome. Inside, 691 rooms showcase the best of neo-Gothic, Renaissance and Byzantine design. There is also an elaborate central staircase decorated with granite columns, gold-covered ornaments and a painted ceiling.

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Széchenyi Chain Bridge

Once upon a time, Budapest was a divided city with the municipality of Buda on one side of the Danube and Pest on the other. The only way to cross the river was by ferry but that changed in the 1800s when one Count István Széchenyi made it his mission to oversee the design and construction of a permanent bridge. The count secured the services of an English civil engineer who had experience with unique suspension designs. The Chain Bridge derives its name from the iron chains that span between the two massive towers that anchor each end.

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Shoes on the Danube Bank

During World War II, a fascist organization called the Arrow Cross Party carried out a mass execution of thousands of citizens, many of Jewish descent. The victims were lined up along the banks of the Danube River then ordered to remove their shoes before being shot and falling into the river. The memorial depicts the shoes that were left behind and pays honor to those who perished.

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Inland Gems

Beyond the spectacular riverfront views, Budapest has many other sparkling gems to explore within the city proper.

Buda Castle

Originally home to Hungarian royalty dating back to the 14th century, Buda Castle is also referred to as the Royal Palace. Having been built, destroyed and rebuilt numerous times, the complex is a true reflection of Budapest’s storied past that has included occupation by foreign invaders. While nothing remains of the castle’s earliest designs and grand interior decorations, its 300 metre facade that faces the Danube River is visually stunning. Today, the castle is the location of the Hungarian National Gallery, the Budapest History Museum, and the National Library each containing important historical artifacts.

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Fisherman’s Bastion

Located high on a hill in the Castle District, Fisherman’s Bastion offers one of the best panoramic views of Budapest. It is also a popular destination because of its fairy tale-ish, castle-like appearance that includes seven towers and a double stairway that connects the bastion with the streets below.  The towers are symbolic of the Magyar tribes who originally settled the country of Hungary centuries ago.

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Heroes’ Square/Millennium Monument

To mark the thousandth anniversary of the Magyar conquest of Hungary, Heroes’ Square was built at the end of the 19th century to pay tribute to the country’s great leaders. In the middle of the square, the Millennium Monument features statues of the seven Magyar leaders at its base; a semi-circular colonnade at its rear with statues of notable Hungarians and symbols representing War, Peace, Work and Welfare, and Knowledge and Glory; and a soaring central column that is topped with a statue of the archangel Gabriel. The square is used as a gathering place for numerous special events and official ceremonies.

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Matthias Church

Named after King Matthias who ruled Hungary from 1458 to 1490, Matthias Church is officially registered as Church of our Lady. Along with being the site of many coronations, the church contains tombs and other significant clerical and royal items such as the neo-Gothic Triptych main altar, the Matthias Chalice and other coronation regalia.

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A Most Beautiful City

No matter the time of day or the season, Budapest truly stands out for its spectacular scenery and rich cultural history that can be admired and appreciated whether just cruising by or disembarking for a more in depth look.

From Destruction to Reconstruction in Dresden

February 12, 2018
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The year was 1945. World War II was raging across the globe. In the European Theatre, the Allied Forces were on the offensive and gaining ground against their dreaded Nazi foe. Boasting strong fire power from the air, the British Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Force unleashed their collective might on strategic targets.

As the capital city of the German state of Saxony, Dresden was considered to be a transportation, communication and general war effort hub that warranted a significant and sustained bombing campaign. Following eight raids spread over three months (February to April), the Allied Forces declared a decisive victory but at what cost? The vast destruction of important landmarks in the city’s cultural centre would draw the ire of critics in the post-war era resulting in an intensive reconstruction effort.

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Out of the ruins of war, Dresden would eventually return to its former beauty. Yes, in some areas the city centre still shows the lingering aftermath of soot stained exteriors that hearken back to the darkest days of World War II, but slowly and surely Dresden’s grandest structures have been rebuilt and fully restored to the brighter days of their pre-war glory.

The Zwinger

Located in the historic heart of Dresden, the Zwinger Palace was originally constructed as the orangery, exhibition gallery and festival arena for the ruling Kings of Saxony.  The palace is Dresden’s most famous landmark and the Crown Gate is its most impressive exterior feature. The series of statues in the gate’s nitches depict the four seasons.

Inside the palace, a series of pavilions and galleries showcase some of the finest European artists, notably the Old Masters Gallery where Raphael’s larger than life Sistine Madonna is on display. In addition to paintings, the Zwinger houses an impressive porcelain collection, as well as antique weapons and scientific instruments.

Given the historical and cultural value of the palace, the Zwinger was one of the first buildings to be restored following the Allied bombing raids. Parts of the complex were re-opened in 1951 and full public access followed in 1963.

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Semper Opera House / Theaterplatz

Prior to World War II, the Semper Opera House had already undergone two rebuilds: one the result of a neo-Renaissance “facelift” completed in 1841; the other the result of a catastrophic fire in 1869. The post-fire rebuild was completed in 1878 and revealed a new High Renaissance look. Following the Allied bombings in 1945, it would take 40 years to complete its third reconstruction. When the Semper Opera House reopened its doors in February 1985, the occasion was marked with a performance of the last opera played before the bombing campaign began.

The Semper Opera House is located in the Theaterplatz, a large open square that is also bordered by the Zwinger Palace and the Hofkirche Catholic Cathedral. At the center of the Theaterplatz stands a bronze equestrian statue of King John, Saxon ruler from 1854 until 1873. This statue was created by Johannes Schilling, a German sculptor who was also responsible for the chariot statue on top of the opera house.

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Dresden Cathedral (Hofkirche)

While Germany is the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation movement, Catholicism was the chosen religion of the Saxon royal family and a ‘battle of the churches’ in the 1700s produced two gems. The Hofkirche was built in an effort to create balance between the earlier constructed Frauenkirche, home of Dresden’s Protestant faithful.

Commissioned by Augustus III and completed in 1751, the Hofkirche was intended to be the largest church in all of Saxony and its grand design included a copper onion dome, Corinthian columns and a series of historical and biblical statues that look out over the city.

The Hofkirche is one of Dresden’s most beautiful buildings and has the added distinction of being the final resting place of Augustus the Strong’s heart.

Although badly damaged during WWII, the church wasn’t restored until the mid-1980s. Following the re-unification of Germany further restoration occurred, including the rebuilding of a bridge leading to the royal castle.

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Church of Our Lady (Frauenkirche)

With its massive dome and exquisite interior, when the Frauenkirche opened its doors in 1743 it quickly gained renown around the world as an iconic symbol of Dresden.

At 95 metres in height and having a dome 23.5 metres in diameter, to this day the impressive Protestant church dominates the city centre landscape. That the dome became known as the ‘stone bell’ is not surprising considering its sheer mass and double shell construction for the inner and outer dome.

Fittingly, a reverent and stoic statue of Martin Luther, author of the Ninety-five Theses and a key figure in the Protestant Reformation, stands in the courtyard outside of the church beckoning true believers to draw nigh and enter in.

During the bombings in 1945, the Frauenkirche at first appeared to withstand the Allied onslaught but the sandstone eventually gave way and the building collapsed. Despite an immediate effort by church members to gather funds and reconstruct the Frauenkirche, the post-war situation in Germany stalled the initiative and wouldn’t be revisited until after the fall of the Iron Curtain in the early 1990s.

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“Florence on the Elbe”

Following the city’s mass destruction during World War II, Dresden was literally reduced to a pile of rubble.  Thanks to decades of intensive labour, the beauty of the city has  emerged from the ashes and it is once again deserving of its nickname “Florence on the Elbe.”

One of the best vantage points to take in the essence of Dresden’s splendor is along the Bruhl Terrace, often referred to as the “Balcony of Europe” owing to its gorgeous promenade and spectacular river views.

The Royal Art Academy is one of the most impressive landmarks along the terrace and is noteworthy for its neo-Renaissance design along with the towering glass dome crowned by a gilded gold statue of Nike, goddess of victory.

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