Aquincum, Budapest, Denver, Edinburgh, Hungary, New York City, Scotland, USA

Most memorable travel experiences of 2018

I didn’t do extensive traveling this year, but I was able to go on a couple short trips abroad and some more places much closer to home. Here, in no particular order, are some of my most memorable experiences of the year, many of which are food-related.

Dohány Street Synagogue and Jewish Museum, Budapest

synagogue4

This was, quite simply, one of the most moving places I have ever experienced, and I will never forget it.

Wandering the streets of Edinburgh

street art

Edinburgh was delightful and a great place to wander. I loved checking out charity shops, music stores, and art supply stores, and fantastic street art and hole-in-the-wall falafel takeaway added to the surprise.

Dinner with J in New York

NYC dessert

J and I rarely travel together due to different work schedules and comfort levels, so I was excited to accompany him on a business trip to New York in the spring. On our first night we enjoyed pretty authentic Neapolitan pizza, cocktails, and desserts while watching a storm roll in. Rather than retreat into the restaurant, we decided to stay at our (sheltered) outside table and watch the downpour transform the city.

Denver Greek Festival

Greekfest

This one might be too close to home to count, but it’s always fun to check out one’s own city. It was a great opportunity to eat Greek food, watch cooking demonstrations, and, best of all, see the beautiful Assumption of the Theotokos Metropolis Cathedral of Denver.

Indian food in Edinburgh

Indian2Indian

Like I said, a lot of these are food-related.

Ruins of Aquincum

Aquincum 3

Budapest is littered with remains of its Roman past, and I enjoyed touring the city in search of everything I could find, from the archaeological park containing several city blocks to the baths under an overpass. Seeking Roman ruins was a great way to see the city and navigate its public transportation, too.

Brooklyn Museum

BrooklynMuseum

I visited the Brooklyn Museum for the first time in May and it was well worth the journey out of Manhattan. Highlights included Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (pictured), amazing Egyptian art, and the David Bowie exhibition.

 

It’s been fun, 2018–here’s hoping for some amazing adventures in 2019!

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Edinburgh

Old Town Edinburgh and Surgeon’s Hall

Most of my time in Edinburgh was spent at a conference, but I was able to fit in a few more sights between and after sessions. I made it back to the National Museum a couple more times, and I managed a trip to the fascinating Surgeon’s Hall Museums. This museum, housed in a Greek revival style building, belongs to the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and contains thousands of objects focusing on medical history, specifically pathology, surgery, and dentistry. After a somewhat cheesy introduction featuring a reproduction of an early 18th-century autopsy, I spent quite a bit of time looking at the exhibits showing the history of surgery.

no photos were allowed inside, unfortunately

The next section of the museum was centered on the history of dentistry, which was much more interesting than one would think. I was intrigued and horrified by early dentures and dental tools. My last stop was the Pathology Museum, which was unsettling. Containing preserved examples of tumors, war wounds, deformities, and every disease imaginable, it was fascinating but a little disconcerting. Eventually the combination of the gruesome displays and the smell of formaldehyde started to make me feel slightly ill, but by that point I had seen basically everything. I have never been happier to live in the era of modern medicine.

During my last day in Edinburgh, I had time to take a walk through Old Town. I didn’t have time to go into Edinburgh Castle, but I was able to enjoy the view of the city from Castle Rock on the beautiful, sunny day.

Edinburgh Castle
view from Castle Rock

My next stop was St. Giles’ Cathedral, a stunning Gothic-style structure (but not properly a cathedral). I had a quick snack at the cafe and toured the church fairly quickly before moving on.

I continued down the Royal Mile, listening to the sound of bagpipes, poking into small alleys, and looking for interesting graffiti. I also popped into a few souvenir shops to get gifts.

After a long walk, I reached the awesome, post-modern parliament building, completed in 2004. This building, with its mix of modern and organic shapes and materials, provides a striking contrast with the historical architecture of Old Town. The building wasn’t open when I was there, so I had to admire it from the outside.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time for further exploration of the city, but I hope to be back!

 

Edinburgh

Introduction to Edinburgh

Recently I was fortunate enough to travel to Edinburgh for a spring conference. Although my time was limited, I was able to see a few sights. I stayed near the university, which put me within walking distance not only of the conference, but also just about everything else in the city.

I arrived in the early afternoon, quickly made it to the airport, and took the bus to Waverley Station. From there, it was about a 15-minute walk to my hotel. I brushed my teeth, washed my face, and hurried to the National Museum of Scotland to see as much as possible before it closed. The museum is free, which is awesome, so I was able to justify the fairly short trip. The exhibits are largely thematic rather than chronological, which is an interesting choice. The only other museum I can remember visiting that has a similar arrangement is the fascist Museo della Civiltà Romana in Rome’s EUR district, which displays plaster casts of Roman antiquities and thus is very limited in scope. I actually really enjoyed seeing objects in this way, as it forced me to think differently about it object and how it fit into a larger, human context rather than a geographical, cultural, or temporal one. It did make it more difficult to find, say, Roman antiquities, but I guess that might be good in a way, sort of calling into question why we seek out and/or privilege some things more than others.

museum

There was quite a bit of African art, including some bronzes from the Kingdom of Benin (the accompanying text did acknowledge the problematic circumstances under which they were removed from Africa) and a coffin from Ghana in the shape of a Mercedes-Benz. I was delighted to see one of these Ghanaian figurative coffins in real life–there is so much detail, down to the windshield wipers and leopard-print seats.

After the museum closed, I walked to Greyfriars Kirk. The church was closed, but it was a perfect day to check out the Kirkyard. Everything is shades of green, grey, and brown.

cemetery2cemetery

I wandered around the city a little more before stopping to get some groceries for the week and grabbing dinner at a hole-in-the-wall falafel joint before heading back to my apartment for some sleep.

First impressions:

  • This is a delightfully picturesque city
  • Lots of second-hand/charity shops
  • Also lots of music stores
  • The city is not the easiest to navigate, but everyone I encountered has been very friendly and helpful
Budapest

St. Stephen’s Basilica and Hungarian National Museum

 

St. Stephen’s Basilica is one of the largest churches in Hungary and contains the country’s biggest bell. It is an imposing Neo-classical structure that houses the hand of St. Stephen. The square in front of the church was filled with tourists and locals enjoying the sunny day.

Inside, the relatively simple architecture of the church is elaborated with gold and polychrome painting.

In an ornate reliquary is the “holy right”: the preserved right hand of St. Stephen. It was difficult to get close due to the people crowding around to take a look.

Of course I climbed the tower, from which I was treated to a beautiful view of the city.

My last stop in Budapest was the Hungarian National Museum. I paid extra for a camera permit so I could take photos inside. The museum is huge! It traces the history of Hungary from the stone age to modern times, including an excellent collection of Roman relief sculpture. Before checking out the exhibits, I had a quick lunch in the cafe.

Cream with espresso? Blasphemy!

I spent most of my time in the Roman lapidary and archaeological portions of the museum, so I had to hurry a bit through the more modern stuff. This museum definitely deserves an entire day.

Beethoven’s piano

Our last meal in Budapest ended with dessert as beautiful as the city itself–a gorgeous and delicious panna cotta.

Búcsú, Budapest! Hope to see you again soon!

 

Budapest

Budapest’s Jewish history

The most powerful site I visited in Budapest was the Dohány Street Synagogue complex. The 19th-century synagogue is the largest in Europe and stands in the city’s former Jewish ghetto. It is huge and beautiful inside. The admission fee covers not only the synagogue itself, but also a group tour and admission to the Jewish Museum, cemetery, and Holocaust Park. I usually skip tours, but this one was pretty helpful, as I know very little about synagogue architecture.

After the synagogue tour, I went to the memorial park. It was incredibly moving. In the center is Imre Varga’s Memorial of the Hungarian Jewish Martyrs, a sculpture of a weeping willow. Each of the willow’s leaves is inscribed with the name of one of the nearly half a million Hungarian Jews who died in the Holocaust. There is also a monument to Raoul Wallenberg, who is credited with helping thousands of Jews escape the Nazis. In addition to these monuments, there are smaller memorials to other victims.

The cemetery next to the synagogue contains the bodies of roughly 2000 of the thousands who died, mostly of starvation and cold, between the autumn of 1944 and the liberation of the ghetto in early 1945.

My final stop in the complex was the Jewish Museum, which gives great information on Judaism in general and the history of Judaism in Hungary. It was filled with objects both ornate and mundane, from gorgeous silver vessels to a simple, homemade menorah created during the Nazi occupation.

During my brief stay in Budapest, I was able to see one other memorial to World War II victims. Shoes on the Danube Bank, located near the Parliament building, consists of cast iron shoes representing people who were executed on the banks of the river. Over time, people have left candles, stones, flowers, and other items in the shoes, making the memorial a work of ever-changing sculpture. It is incredibly beautiful and moving.

I wish I could be more descriptive about the power of these monuments and sites, but my words definitely aren’t good enough to express it. I often tell my students that art and the humanities can help us understand people and how we have the capacity to do things that are unspeakably horrible as well as extraordinarily good. This visit was a reminder of both.

 

 

Aquincum, Budapest

Aquincum and two amphitheatres in Budapest

Budapest is on the site of Roman Aquincum, founded in the first century CE. The best preserved part of the ancient site is today an archaeological park in the north of the city. I was unable to find much information about the park online, but I did see that access to the archaeological area is seasonal and dependent on weather conditions. Since it was a beautiful day with only small patches of snow on the ground, I hoped for the best.

I took an HÉV train to the site, which was quick, easy, and very affordable (though I couldn’t figure out how to validate my ticket). My first stop was the museum, which was modern and fantastic. It contains collections of objects found at the site, including jewelry, pottery, and glass, as well as irreverent and pretty hilarious information about the Roman empire and Hungary’s history.

Fortunately the site was open to visitors, although some of the buildings were closed. Most of what remains of the ancient city are foundations and the lower portions of walls. However, this is enough to give a good sense of the layout, which is similar to other Roman cities.  A couple of buildings, including a Mithraeum and the so-called Painter’s House, have been restored, but unfortunately were not open during my visit.

There are many houses and shops to explore, as well as baths, sanctuaries, and the forum area. I basically had the site to myself except for a group of schoolchildren on a tour. The park was more interactive than most archaeological sites–there was a section where visitors could scan a QR code to see a reconstruction of the buildings, for example. It is also compact and easily walkable, with informative signage in both Hungarian and English. There is even a playground on site!

The site also included a lapidarium housed under the colonnade of the original museum building. The collection includes funerary stele, sarcophagi, inscriptions, and relief carving from throughout Aquincum.

After a few hours at the site, I bought a coffee and some guidebooks at the museum and set out to find more of Aquincum’s ruins. Like Rome, there are pieces of the ancient city everywhere, including an aqueduct in the middle of a freeway.

Near the archaeological park are the remains of the second-century civic amphitheatre, which held as many as 7000 spectators. The amphitheatre is opposite the modern freeway from the archaeological park, but despite the noise of trains and traffic, it seems like another world. It is open to the public and feels like a peaceful park, far removed from the bloody events that took place there two millennia ago.

arena of the civic amphitheatre

My next stop was a little closer to downtown, so I got back on the HÉV to save some time. After getting off the train and buying a snack for lunch, I walked to the great baths, which are free to the public and located under a highway overpass. It is rather difficult to get a sense of spatial relationships in the baths due to their poor preservation and the less-than-advantageous location, but it was fun to explore the maze-like ruins while hearing the steady rumble of traffic overhead. These baths were originally built in the second century CE for the cavalry stationed in Aquincum, and were later enlarged.

It was also difficult to get a good photograph,but this one gives a sense of the space. This is the frigidarium.

Next I walked to the military amphitheatre, located in a residential area in the middle of a park. Built in the mid-second century under Antoninus Pius, this amphitheatre was larger than its civic counterpart, and the area of the arena is even larger than that of the Colosseum in Rome. The seats could have accommodated 12,000 spectators. Later in its history, the amphitheatre served as a fortress.

There are many more traces of Aquincum woven into the fabric of Budapest, but many were closed due to season or renovation, and I was limited by time. I was quite happy with all I was able to see in one day, however, and I hope to explore more of Budapest’s Roman secrets in the future.

Budapest

Budapest impressions

I was extremely excited to visit Budapest, especially after learning that it is considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The city did not let me down. We arrived in the afternoon, checked into our hotel, and started exploring. The leader of our group had been to Budapest many times and gave us a walking tour of the city, beginning with a late lunch.

As in Pécs, I was completely enthralled with the architecture and the mixing of architectural styles. Everything is huge! After lunch, we crossed the Danube via the mid-nineteenth-century Chain Bridge. I loved the contrast of the neo-Classical towers in warm limestone with the modern, cool iron of the suspension.

Once across the bridge, we went to Buda Castle. Some of us chose to take the funicular up the hill, which was fun experience in itself. Buda Castle has a long history dating to the thirteenth century. Once the home of kings, it now houses museums. Since it was too late in the day for museum-going, we admired the enormous building from the outside and checked out the gorgeous views from the hilltop.

Next we walked through the charming Castle District to the Fisherman’s Bastion, a neo-Gothic confection perched on the edge of the hill. It is really just a decorative terrace from which to view the river and city framed by architecture.

Speaking of neo-Gothic, the ornate Matthias Church overlooks the Fisherman’s Bastion. It was closed at the time of our visit, but photographed beautifully in the afternoon light.

Our walking tour concluded, we made our way back to the hotel to rest for the next day’s activities. The walk across the Chain Bridge was even more beautiful at sunset. 🙂

Impressions of Budapest:

  • Wow, is this city beautiful!
  • I packed only skirts and dresses for this trip and was pretty overdressed. Budapest seems like a very casual city–most people were in jeans. I am used to being overdressed, though, so no problem.
  • Did I mention this city is beautiful? I love it!