Things I neglected to mention in my previous Budapest blog:
1. I never heard a single private car horn sound in Budapest, despite the substantial traffic. This signifies a remarkable level of civility, at least among car drivers.
2. The pedestrian areas around the city are filled with Christmas markets. They were packed with locals. It was good to see handicrafts, instead of the same Chinese-made goods we see at home. Craftspeople work all year to make the majority of their year’s income in December.
3. Hungarian is so different from every language I’m familiar with. Watching American movies with Hungarian subtitles in the hotel, there were almost no recognizable words at all in Hungarian, or even words with roots at all similar to English (or German, French, or Spanish).
4. Roman ruins are present near Budapest, as well as in Vienna, and throughout the whole Danube River region. The apex of Roman Empire reach and power occurred two thousand years ago, almost a thousand years before the coalescence of Hungary, Austria, and other countries in the region. The extent of the power and influence of the Roman Empire through what were at that time basically tribal territories is astounding.
Rolling…rolling…rolling on the river
After spending the first night on the Viking River Cruises boat docked in Budapest, we sailed at 9pm the following evening, westward up the Danube River in the direction of Slovakia, Austria, and Germany. Sailing on a river means that there is no wave action (as is common on ocean cruises) to disturb the smooth sailing.
Early the next morning, the boat passed through the first and the biggest of ten locks that will be transited during our one week cruise. The boat was lifted sixty feet to the next higher river level. This large set of locks is an engineering marvel that took fifteen years to construct, a collaboration between Hungary and Slovakia, whose national borders are separated by the Danube.
I must confess that I knew almost nothing about Bratislava, capital of Slovakia, prior to this trip. I now know a little more, based on a two hour guided walking tour of the city center with a native guide. Slovakia is a young country, independent since 1993, separated from the former country of Czechoslovakia (which divided into Slovakia and the Czech Republic). The tour included viewing plaques on buildings where Mozart had performed on a visit as a six-year-old child. There was a castle and the usual large cathedrals. There were the medieval buildings, sculptures, and abundant artworks. The Nazis killed thousands of Jews here, just as in every country they invaded. Then, while under post-war communist rule, the Russians razed the ancient synagogue.
Famous Slovaks include Zsa Zsa Gabor, the world’s most famous housekeeper (in her many divorces, she always kept the house), tennis star Martina Navratolova, and of Slovak descent, artist Andy Warhol (“In the future, everyone will have fifteen minutes of fame.”) Finally, most of the staff on our Viking River Cruise boat, including the captain, are Slovaks. The Slovak language is a Slavic one, related to Russian, Polish, and Czech.
Like all the cities on this tour, Bratislava’s city center featured a Christmas market, in which the town squares are filled with food and handicraft vendors. It is very colorful. The markets are well attended by locals, so they are not necessarily catering to tourists. Every place on this trip has been very attractive due to the fresh snow, an extension of the huge snowstorm that closed airports from England to the continent.
At the end of our cruise-sponsored city tour with a local guide, we entered the magnificent St. Stephans cathedral just as a holiday mass ceremony was beginning. The holiday was Conception Day, which I had never previously heard of, but which celebrates the Virgin Mary’s conception (with God’s help)of Jesus. That gave only a two-week gestation until Jesus’s birth. But with faith, anything is possible. The mass was totally impressive, attended by perhaps a thousand worshippers, with tourists like ourselves observing the spectacle from the back of the cathedral. There was a symphony orchestra and large choir. The acoustics were fantastic. Large video screens were set up around the cathedral showing close-ups of the priests and musicians. And there were Bose speaker columns installed throughout (just like in the new Mumbai airport), so the sound was great even in the back of the room. It was like walking into an elaborate movie set, with fabulous costumes and actors. Of course, all the spoken mass was in German…using the familiar form of address, which feels so incongruous in such a large setting. But this is the usual and customary use of the informal form of address in German, used to address children, animals, close friends, and God.
Besides taking the cruise-sponsored two hour walking tour through Vienna’s city center, we had the pleasure of meeting an old friend of Susan’s from her high school days in Detroit. Arcola had been several years ahead of Susan. She is now retired. But she was a brilliant harpist who, like many other African-American musicians, found more professional opportunities in classical music available in Europe than in the states. She was harpist with the Rotterdam Philharmonic in Holland for five years, before moving to Vienna and performing with the Radio Orchestra, the Opera Orchestra, and other ensembles. She holds dual citizenship, American and Austrian.
It was interesting to hear of Arcola’s experiences in the music world. It is clear that classical music is very well supported by the Austrian population. A prime example is the traditional New Year’s Day Gala Concert by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Tickets for the concert start at three hundred Euros (around four hundred dollars), with even more expensive tickets available. The tickets cannot be purchased directly. Requests for tickets can only be made through applying online for a period of three months at the beginning of the year. Applications are then entered into a lottery, from which the eventual lucky ticket recipients are drawn.
Another example of the vibrant classical music life is the opera. The venerable opera house presents over three hundred performances per year. They are 90% sold out. The cheapest tickets available are for standing room and cost less than five dollars. Additionally, there are special children’s performances with very cheap tickets, aimed at developing a young audience who will buy full priced tickets when they grow up.
In the evening, we attended a concert featuring the music of Austria’s two most famous composers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johann Strauss. I was a little dubious at the beginning of the concert, because there were only thirteen musicians, strings, a few woodwinds and brass, a pianist, and a percussionist with a drum set and tympani. This was a concert of popular classics for the masses. The orchestra was joined on different numbers by a pair of opera singers and a pair of ballet dancers (on different numbers, of course). Just as Prague features concerts every night of Czech composers Dvorak and Smetana, this was one of Vienna’s nightly tourist-oriented concerts of Austrian music. Despite my initial misgivings, the musicians were so expert and spirited, that I enjoyed the concert thoroughly. After all, they played expertly and with spirit, especially since they perform variations on this basic repertoire probably five nights a week. And even though the original orchestrations had been modified to match the reduced instrumentation, the music was so good that it was completely effective even for tough critics like Susan and myself.
Sailing up the Danube after Vienna, we traveled through the famous and scenic Wachau Valley. It reminded me of the Rhine River valley in Germany, because of its numerous castles and grape vineyards. The boat stopped at the village of Dornstein, where Richard the Lion-Hearted was captured while returning from the third crusade. He was released only after many months and a huge ransom being paid.
We heard stories of atrocities committed in the Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants. Since the peasants couldn’t read, paintings were made to illustrate bible stories as well as recent history. One shocking painting was of a naked woman being executed for her beliefs by being boiled alive in a large caldron. The brutality of acts committed by the Protestants and Catholics of that age against each other were comparable to the atrocities committed by present day Muslim Shias and Sunnis. Middle Age history is also a cautionary tale about the dangers of giving religious leaders control of political and military power. The result was that the religious leaders, both catholic and protestant, dictated the religion of their respective districts, setting up centuries of wars, persecution, and lingering intolerance between religious groups and nationalities.
One remarkable excursion was to the large Benedictine monastery overlooking the village of Melk. The monastery was founded nine hundred years ago and has operated continuously ever since. There are currently thirty-one active monks living there. The monastery serves as a public school for the village. Children don’t have to be Catholic to attend. There is a library containing one hundred thousand antique books, most of which are in Latin. The chapel contained impressive gold-embossed statues as well as paintings and carvings. Words can’t really express the ornate grandeur. I wasn’t allowed to use my flash, so the photos I took are mostly blurry. But when I get home, if I find a good image I’ll email it along with other photos from this trip.
The boat anchored at the city of Linz, from which we were taken on an all-day excursion to Salzburg, a two-hour bus drive away. Salzburg is most famous as the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. But it is perhaps best known to Americans as the place where the movie The Sound of Music was filmed. Salzburg had received over a half foot of fresh snow the night before, so everything was snow-covered and scenic, though it was rather cold and mushy to walk around in.
I learned on the city tour with a local guide, that the name Salzburg refers to the salt mines for which the city was originally famous. In early times, salt was the prime substance used for preserving food, and was thus very valuable, even being used as a form of currency. Wars were fought between Salzburg and neighboring cities over this natural resource.
Salzburg is dominated by a large castle on a hill. There is no road to the castle…the land is too steep. Thus, in its nine-hundred year history, the castle was never conquered. (We did not have the time or energy to hike up to the castle.) There is a large cathedral, which took a thousand workers fifteen years to build, which was a short time considering that many ornate European cathedrals took generations, i.e. many decades (if not centuries) to complete. And of course, we saw the outside of the building where Mozart was born.
The pedestrian area contains many expensive boutiques, as well as a McDonalds, whose sign is rendered in tasteful wrought iron, to fit the antique effect required to maintain the city’s historic atmosphere. We had lunch with new friends made on the cruise, going to a restaurant that is famous…Der Goldener Hirsh/The Golden Stag. It’s in a six hundred year old building, and is most famous as a classy restaurant that regularly attracts famous people, such as ambassadors, movie stars, and the late conductor Herbert Von Karajan, who was born close by, in the same neighborhood as Mozart’s birthplace.
Apropos judgment of whether music is good or not, Indian master musician Ali Akbar Khan was asked about what he thought of various styles of music, such as pop music, country music, Western classical music, etc. Rather than render his personal judgment in response to the questions about specific styles of music, he simply said, “Any music played in tune and in rhythm is good music.” I would amplify the comment to say, that bad music, even played in tune and in rhythm, will still be bad music. On the other hand, great music, such as by Bach and Mozart, can be played (in tune and in rhythm) on practically any instruments (thirteen piece orchestras, guitars, woodwind quintets, brass choirs, synthesizers, etc.) and still be great music. Musical purists might not like such deviations from the composers’ original intentions. I’m obviously not a purist in my musical tastes and practices.
This is the last city of the cruise. We received another six inches of snow overnight, making the city tour a mushy slog. At the Christmas market, I indulged my nostalgia by having a German bratwurst and mulled wine. The guided tour included a demonstration of the baking of ginger bread. Some of the wooden molds have been in continuous use since the 1600’s. The only natural sweetener available at that time was honey. Thus traditional ginger bread contained only flour, honey, and spices.
Passau was a religious center for the Catholic church for centuries. Passau’s ornate cathedral has Europe’s (and perhaps the world’s) largest pipe organ, containing over seventeen thousand (!) pipes. We were lucky enough to be able to attend a thirty-minute noontime concert, which was so well-attended that extra chairs had to be brought in to augment the usual church pews. Admission was four Euros ($6). The sound of the organ was truly impressive. Stravinsky called the organ the “breathless giant”. (He didn’t like the instrument and never composed anything for it.) After the obligatory Bach pieces, the rest of the program consisted of modern compositions, often dissonant. The sound of the organ reverberating in the cavernous cathedral was mesmerizing. I closed my eyes and surrendered to the sounds. As a trained musician, I tend to listen analytically and critically. So it was refreshing in this setting to be able to simply switch off the left brain and listen without judgment or aesthetic analysis.
We’ve had no internet connection available during the last few days of the cruise. Tomorrow, we will take the train to Munich, a two hour trip, staying overnight, and rising early on Monday for the flight back to the US via Paris (weather permitting). So if you receive this email on Sunday, I was able to get online in our Munich hotel. I hope to send out a follow-up email with photos from the trip, once I’m home again and able to download from my cameras.
In spite of the snowy weather during our week here, travel this time of year in Europe has its special charms. We would be happy to travel again during the holiday season. There are still so many places in Europe (and elsewhere) that I’d like to visit. Happy travels to all!