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.

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Vivid Memories of Vienna

January 27, 2018
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For a mid-October day, it certainly felt more like summer when I arrived in Vienna making for ideal sightseeing and picture-taking conditions. With the temperature expected to climb over 20 degrees Celsius, and nary a cloud in the brilliant blue sky with just a hint of a light breeze, my first vivid memory of the home of the Habsburgs, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and wiener schnitzel was forever etched in my mind. Thankfully, more than just the weather enthralled me…here are some highlights of a quick day tour through one of Europe’s most glorious and grand cities:

Schonbrunn Palace

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Before the Palace of Versailles in France came Schonbrunn Palace in Austria, the imperial summer home of the Habsburg royal family for hundreds of years. The palace consists of over 1400 rooms and its Baroque design evokes awe beyond its distinct golden yellow exterior. The word Schonbrunn means “beautiful spring” and refers to a large, natural well on the grounds that supplied the palace occupants with a plentiful water source and allowed for an expansive garden.

In keeping with other residences of great European monarchies, the Schonbrunn property covers nearly 200 hectares and consists of expansive, immaculately kept lawns, flower beds and shrubs. I could not have chosen a more wonderful way to take in a splendid day in Vienna than wandering the grounds of one of its most popular attractions.

First up was admiring a series of marble statues that line the perimeter of the lower level garden in the area known as the Great Parterre, the space between the palace and the immense Neptune Fountain. Located at the foot of a hill, the sculptures of Neptune and his entourage were certainly impressive, but Gloriette, the crowning jewel of the palace garden took my breath away, literally and figuratively!

– Great Parterre

The Great Parterre includes over 30 life-size sculptures that represent mythological deities and virtues. The statues were carved over a period of seven years between 1773 and 1780 under the direction of a German artist and garden designer.

– Neptune Fountain

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The centre-point of the Neptune Fountain is, of course, Neptune, God of the Sea, and his entourage that includes a nymph seated on his left and the sea goddess, Thetis, kneeling on his right. Neptune holds his trusty trident high in the air and his stance is imposing as if to strike a sense of fear into any person or sea creature that attempts to block his path. A group of four tritons (half man-half fish beings) also adorn the base of the sculpture with each holding a conch shell trumpet to herald Neptune’s dominion.

– Gloriette

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Ironically, the root word of gloriette (gloire) means “little room,” but there is nothing little about the building that Queen Maria Theresa intended to be a symbol of Habsburg power and the Just Wars it carried out in the name of securing lasting peace and prosperity. The Schonbrunn Gloriette sits at the top of a 60-metre-high hill overlooking the Neptune Fountain, the Great Parterre, the Schonbrunn Palace immediately below it, and ultimately the city of Vienna beyond the palace complex borders. The Gloriette is thus both a focal point and a lookout, and was also utilized as a large dining hall and a venue for hosting festive events. It is well worth taking the time to make the trek from the palace, which can be done via two pathways: one is straight up; the other curves its way up the hillside. Either way, there are rest stops to take in wonderful vistas and sit and enjoy the company of ducks that flock to the many water features and grassy banks.

 

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Hofburg Palace

Having surveyed the splendor of the summer residence, my tour continued on to Hofburg Palace, the winter residence of the imperial family. This palace is located in the centre of Vienna and was originally built in the 13th century followed by many expansions. The palace was the seat of power of the Habsburg rulers for centuries, and today is the official residence and workplace of the President of Austria.

 

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The palace consists of a series of wings and overlooks the Heldenplatz (Heroes Square), a large, public green space where two notable statues stand honoring great military leaders of the past: one of Prince Eugene of Savoy; the other of Archduke Charles of Austria. The Austrian Crown Jewels are also kept in the Hofburg’s treasury.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral

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Inside the Hofburg Palace gate lies the heart of Vienna’s Old Town district, the Innere Stadt, where there are numerous places of interests to take in along with experiencing a vibrant market/food scene. I highly recommend trying out the local fusion food carts that offer delicious offerings like duck schnitzel with thick noodles and vegetables.

As the most important religious building in Vienna, St. Stephen’s Cathedral with its colourful tiled roof is also one of Old Town’s most recognized sites. The cathedral is more commonly referred to as Stephansdom and is the mother church of the Catholic Archdiocese in Vienna, as well as the seat of the Archbishop of Vienna. Stephansdom has hosted many important events in Habsburg and Austrian history, including the weddings of Mozart and Haydyn, and the funeral of Vivaldi; its crypt contains the remains of Habsburg royal family members and other notable Austrian figures.

Austrian Parliament Building

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Across the street from Hofburg Palace and located along the picturesque and majestic Vienna Ring Road (Ringstrasse), the Austrian Parliament is a shining example of the Greek Revival style. With towering Corinthian pillars and numerous allegorical statutes, including the Athena Fountain and Horse Tamer in the images below, as well as bronze and marble statues on the roof and within the pediment, the building’s artistic details were intended to capture the attention of the masses, which they still do to this day. The image above shows the series of four statues along The Ramp that consist of Greek and Roman ancient historians intended to remind politicians of their responsibility to be mindful of history.

Mozart Monument

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Last but not least, no trip to Vienna is complete without paying homage to one of classical music’s greatest composers. A lovely monument of Mozart is found in the Burggarten (Imperial Palace Gardens). As a child, Mozart was a keyboard and violin prodigy but he also possessed a penchant for composing, which dazzled the royal court. Although born in Salzburg, Mozart was a restless lad and longed for the fame and glamour of the city life. While visiting Vienna in 1781, he made the decision not to return to his country roots and make the city his new home. A wise choice…Vienna is indeed wunderbar!