Although the Danube floats majestically in a straight line from outside my hotel window there many river cruisers glide by there is an area just a little bit further down the river known as the Danube Bend because of the extreme turns the river makes there. There are three towns that are apparently worth visiting there and I chose to take a river cruiser down to Szentendre (1.5 hours there and 1 hour back).
When I saw the place on arrival I knew it was going to be a cute and relaxing place to spend the day.
The “port” at Szentendre
Around and about the old town of Szentendre and the lampshades make a change from the more common umbrellas!
But what I hadn’t expected to find was that it is also a bit of an artist colony location and at every corner there is something completely different to take a look at.
First I found a public park with these ginormous sculptures which I liked a lot – especially as they are accessible to all.
My two favourite sculptures in the public park in Szentendre
Then I stumbled on an artist’s collective. The interior exhibit was high tech and the garden had more sculptures and for some reason (no comments required) the naked wooden man practising yoga? thinking? looking at a plane? took my fancy.
Merging high tech and art
What is he thinking?
I had heard about the marzipan museum and so of course had to take a look and a tasting too. Who knew you could make so many things out of marzipan? (Barbara – I feel a nativity project coming on?)
Di and Jacko – together forever in marzipan
And more amazing things you can make from marzipan – if you are so inclined
I then found what is supposed to be the smallest synagogue in the world? The Szanto Memorial House and Temple. I’m not sure if that is substantiated but it is a tiny memorial schul paid for my a descendant of his grandfather who was murdered during the war. It is certainly tiny but nicely kept.
Szanto Memorial House and Temple
Then on to the whackiest stop – the Retro Design Museum (1970 prices – about 40 Euro cents to get in!) dedicated to all things 70’s – even though this was 70’s Hungary I still recognised lots of things – do you?
I remember having a drawer full of cassettes.
I’m pretty sure I had that album too and I definitely had a Commodore 64!
And final artsy stop was a gallery dedicated to the folk ceramic artist Margit Kovacs (1902-1977). I’d never heard of her but she is well known in her field and I really enjoyed seeing her work. A must see.
Beautiful ceramics by Margit Kovacs
Folk art ceramics by Margit Kovacs
So a very good day out when you want a change from the city of Budapest – highly recommended.
It seems that whenever you find a city with a river through the middle there is an automatic rivalry between both sides. There is no exception in Budapest. People who live on the Buda (old historic) side are known to say “everyone who lives in Budapest lives in Buda or wants to live in Buda”: those on the Pest (more modern side) say “Buda,Siesta; Pest, Fiesta”.
On this occasion I stayed on the Pest side right on the river. I’m glad I did. It enabled me to enjoy the urbane and lovely Pest side (being a city girl more my thing) while enjoying the views of the Buda side and being able to walk or take a quick bus journey there.
Day and night time views of the Buda side of the River Danube
I was meeting some friends for lunch on that side so made it my day to visit Buda (and a day is fine I think).
Castle Hill is where you find the old palace, the Fisherman’s Bastion, cobbled streets, the Mathias Church and various museums plus great views all around.
The Mathias church is spectacular inside and out and has existed since the 11th century with a rebuild in the 15th century. For a while it was converted into a mosque (yes, Ottoman rule again) and it was used for one of the coronations of the Austrian emperor Franz Ferdinand and his wife Elizabeth known as Sissi in the 19th century. She loved Hungary and learned the language (she was smart) and convinced her husband to let Hungary have its own language and jurisdiction. She is very beloved over here. I remember my mum was obsessed with Sissi – I think she was the Princess Diana type idol of her time.
It is a lovely church inside and out. Very warm colours and a lot of bright Hungarian folk art. Liked this one a lot. If you go to the museum of the first floor it’s easier to take pics of the detail and erase the crowds out. There are lots of them!!
External views of Mathias Church with its pretty roof tiles.
The soft colours of the interior of Mathias Church plus one pic showing the hordes!
Close ups of the artwork higher up in the chirch
The organ and folk art style above the stained glass windows
Castle Hill houses the Fisherman’s Bastion rampart walls. These were last rebuilt at the turn of the 19th/20th century to celebrate the millennium which is why it is more ornate with a viewing terrace than a practical defensive fortress. There seem to be various theories on why “fishermen”? The fisherman’s guild may have protected the original fort as they lived below it and also there was a fish market there – so that’s most likely I suppose. It is very fanciful and the views are lovely.
The Fisherman’s Bastion
I also met up with my friend Jo’s mum Gillian and her friend Jill for lunch inside the Bastion which was very posh:)
Inside the Fisherman’s Bastion Restaurant
Me, Gillian and Jill
Tasty morsels at the Fisherman’s Bastion restaurant
By the way, my pork was uniquely Hungarian from the mangalica pig bred here for superb tasting pork (I learned about this from my food tour guide Ange on the previous day when I tasted some pate from the same pig) . Have to share a picture of them as they are “pigs in sheep’s clothing” and I had to look them up for myself to believe they really existed.
I walked around the castle hill area dodging the rain by visiting the National Gallery which had an exhibit on surrealism. I think the buildings were more interesting than the art and signage is lousy!
Museums and fountain on Castle Hill
A little bit surreal
and then one shot looking down from the Buda side before I walked down the hill to and crossed over the Danube back to Pest.
The other hill on the Buda side is where the citadel is located plus the lady liberty statue and some of the best views of the Danube.
There seems to be some debate about what she is holding? A fish? A leaf? Or as one 8 year old told my guide “it’s obvious – she’s holding an iPad and taking a selfie”!
Well if Slovenia was the morphing location between the Balkans and Central Europe I am now well and truly catapulted into the Austro Hungarian Empire. No more orthodox churches but plenty of RC and once again a country with a strong Jewish culture and quarter.
The Jews here primarily came from German speaking backgrounds and before the war they numbered around 900,000. Hungary chose to align with Hitler’s axis at the start of the war and as a result they were not invaded while the Nazis focussed on the domination of other countries. However in 1944 the Hungarians realised that the Germans would lose the war and so they switched sides. This had a very bad outcome for the country and the Jews. In anger at this switch Hitler invaded and occupied Hungary almost immediately and the occupation lasted until the end of the war. They also upped the deportation of as many Jews as possible. – quite easy to do given they were already living in a ghettoised area of the city. In just two months 440,000 were deported to Auschwitz and very few ever returned. Some of the people in charge in Hungary then tried to slow this process down when they realised they would be seen as complicit in this genocide but by then a lot of the damage was done. In the end something like 80% to 90% of Hungarian Jews were murdered by the nazi.
Post war the Jews who were left were also put in a ghetto as there was an initial far right wing government in power. This lasted for about 6 weeks before the soviets “liberated” the country but by then another 10,000 of the 70,000 in the ghetto had died of starvation or hunger. So really all very depressing but nevertheless good to see that an active Jewish community remains in the city. This is not the case in some of the other parts of Europe badly impacted by the holocaust.
The top part of the Great Synagogue is ow a museum aiming to teach about Jewish customs and holiday. Thankfully people working in other museums took and Hd them during the war. Lots of interesting artefacts but the most heartbreaking were the menorah candle holders (top left) made out of dough that were found in the ghetto. This person gave up much needed food to make this important symbol.
While the exterior of the Great (or Dohány Street) Synagogue was impressive (2nd largest in the world after the one in NYC and it holds 3000 people) it was also kind of weird. Here’s the exterior which has clear moorish influences.
But to me why it is weird is that the inside looks like a synagogue trying to look like a cathedral. An organ? Two pulpits? The seating? The placement of the Torah? There are various theories why this is. They couldn’t find any Jewish architects? It just doesn’t feel right to me ….
I did like the adjacent gardens though. This includes the Tree of Life sculpture which is a memorial to those lost in the holocaust with each lead having names engraved on it. Also memorials to the “righteous ones” – those who helped to save Jews at great risk to themselves and to the many Jews who died in the ghetto where hundreds of bodies found heaped up after liberation.
There was also a big mention for Sir Nicholas Winton – the young Brit who created the concept of kinder trains which enabled many Jewish children from Prague to escape certain death. If you’ve never seen this little video I recommend it. It’s a tear jerker.
Having been somewhat flummoxed by the Great Synagogue I was much more entranced with the Hungarian Art Deco style Kazinczy Street synagogue. The outside is drab but the interior is pretty fab and certainly unusual but this time in a good way.
The Jewish quarter has many kosher restaurants, shops and bakeries so I had to enjoy a traditional flodni cake while in the locale – poppy seeds, walnuts and yumminess.
The Ruin bars are also omnipresent in this area. Originally crumbling communist buildings that had long fallen into disrepair they weren’t taken over by entrepreneurial youth and turned into rough and ready pubs and eating places. They are very popular – but mostly with tourists unless you get off the beaten track. I went during the day so I could see the whacky decor and avoid being soaked in other people’s’ beer!
As Slovenia is so small it is very easy to have Ljubliana as a base and then head out on day trips to see other parts of the country which is what I did in between enjoying the city.
The cave systems in this part of the world are extensive (unfortunately causing the creation of a lot of sink holes) but also enabling visitors to experience huge caverns. Postojna Caves (which I think I visited back in the 80’s) is more than 25 kms in size so you only get to see a fraction of it. On arrival you board a train that takes ten minutes to get you further into the caves and join a group to be taken around the caves for 45 minutes and then back again on the train. I like these caves as they are very airy, have fabulous examples of stalactites and stalagmites and other cave formations. The problem with caves is it is hard to give a real feel for the grandeur of the place so I have had a go but then shown some formations which appear more abstract when viewed in isolation but I quite like that.
Inside the caves as the train takes off. Massive and tiny stalactites and stalagmites
Some different formations and colours inside the caves
A short distance away we came to Predjama Castle – a feat of building that is staggering as you can hopefully see how skilfully they built the castle into the side of the mountain on top of a cave. Not sure how they did it but it worked and they were not successfully attacked. A Slovenian Robin Hood character called Erasmus lived here for a while (he managed to get out regularly via the intricate tunnel system and always bought back fresh cherries for all the people who lived in the castle so he was very popular) but he was eventually killed because someone advised his enemies that the weakest part of the castle was his toilet which jutted out from the side of the wall and that is where he met his end – blown to pieces as legend has it! His girlfriend planted a tree in his memory but it is not looking too healthy!
Predjama Castle with views all around so that the enemy can be easily spotted
The bell can be rung by anyone passing it as long as you make a wish! Erasmus’ tree looking the worse for wear – it has been struck by lightening a few times.
On another day I visited the Trinity Church in Cerkev. It is another walled church that I saw so many of in Romania and also has frescos in good condition since they had been whitewashed over back in the 15th century during the plague as a means of disinfectant and were only rediscovered and cleaned in the 20th century. While the frescos are all good I really liked the “Danse Macarbre” or the Dance of the Dead. Very popular in medieval times it shows a group of people from child to beggar to wealthy to bishop all being led to their death by skeletons. The message being – whoever you are in this world – we all end up in the same way! I like it.
Exterior of Walled Church at Cerkov
The Dance of Death frescos in excellent condition. Love the grins on the skeletons
Onwards to Koper, the second largest city in Slovenia. It has a nice square, original water cistern and some original walls but that’s about it. What you do start to notice in this part of Slovenia is the strong Italian/Venetian influence in buildings. In fact this area officially retains dual language – Slovenian and Italian – since so many people from Italy lived here and indeed many still do.
The main square in Koper
Just outside of Piran are the salt pans. An area where salt has been harvested for centuries and still is although to a lesser degree than in the past. It is an activity that takes place for 6 months of the year and looks like very hard work. Each pan is first primed with an algae mix which acts as a barrier and filters and ensures that the salt never mixed with the mud below. Then they wait and eventually salt crystallises on the surface and is collected for packing and sales. It is very high quality.
Salt pans near Piran
And then we headed to the seaside town of Piran. Slovenia doesn’t have much land by the sea but they managed to nab this bit when the former Yugoslav states were divvied up after Tito’s death. It is the usual rocky beach that you find on the Croatian coast with sparkly water and people wandering about in bikinis that are too small for them. You can see both Croatia and Italy from here.
The overview of the city was taken from the former city fortified city walls.
The former city walls of Piran
Views of Piran and the sparkling Adriatic Sea
But it wasn’t the coast I like the most about Piran, it was the side streets off the main square which were full of old Italian looking buildings in every colour imaginable.
Colourful narrow alleyways behind the main square in Piran
More Piran alleyways
And finally had to include this pic of some baby swallows I came across in a nest in one of those alleyways. So cute.
Ljubliana must be one of the smaller capital cities in Europe (population 400,000 in a country of 2 millionP) but it packs quite a punch. Clear influences from Austria and Hungary are all around but the prices are (still) cheaper.
I rented a great apartment just 6 minutes walk into the main part of the old town but with panoramic views in all directions – windows and terrace on both sides!
Views from my lovely panoramic apartment
The old city centres around the river which is bordered by cafes, restaurants, shops, art galleries and pretty buildings and many dinky little bridges. It is also possible to take a boat ride down the river for a different perspective.
The Dragon bridge below is one of the most well known bridges. There is a dragon at each of the four corners as the dragon is seen as the symbol of Ljubliana. Many myths abound as to why. Apparently he lived (or still lives) in the surrounding hills. He was the dragon that Jason slaughtered on his quest for the Golden Fleece or he was the dragon that St George caught or he escaped and is living in the mountains and when he has a cold and breathes heavily the mist descends over the hills until he is feeling better!
A continuously photogenic riverside makes it hard to know when to stop taking photos!
Riverside view, a dragon on the bridge and the main squares of the Old Town
The colourful building below was an attempt by the crafty artists to develop a “Slovenian ethnic style” back in the day but it never took off. However I am glad they kept this building as an example as it is really quite pretty – although I am not sure I would like a town full of this!
By the river and in the old town of Ljubliana. Ljubliana Castle in the distance at the top of the hill
Everyone goes to visit Ljubliana Castle which looks down on the Old Town. It has gone through many iterations and many rebuilds and repurposing. Of course it was originally built to defend the town from the Ottomans but subsequently became a prison and these days is a cultural centre which hosts events, allows visitors, has open air movies and concerts etc. I took the furnicular up and walked down but I did walk up the spiral staircase to the top of the tower for the views. The spiral staircase is designed on two levels so it looks like one but in fact it is one staircase above another so people go up on one and down on the other. Very clever. The views are impressive as you’d expect. Also pretty at night.
Ljubliana Castle, the spiral double level staircase, the views and the castle at night
The main church has an impressive metal carved door which tells stories from the bible and also local struggles. It was dedicated to the ever popular Pope John Paul who seems to pop up everywhere I go! The bit I liked the best though is if you look at the photo on the right hand side you will see a tiny shiny bit at the bottom. That is actually the artist’s signature and is an engraving of his face on its side as shown in the zoomed version bottom left. Obviously he didn’t keep this a secret as everyone has touched his face for luck and that is why it is shiny!
The entrance to the main Catholic church in Ljubliana
Another person you hear a lot about in this city is the resident acrchitect Joze Plecnik. Most of his work was between 1920 and the mid 1950s and he is absolutely everywhere so I decided to do a Plecnik focused walking tour of the city (there was only 3 of us and the other couple were from Melbourne and their son works for ANZ – of course!).
Apparently he was very grumpy (shades of FLW I think) and the photo is a very rare one of him smiling – usually he looked more like the bust below – dour. He designed the two storey market building that runs along the riverside. At ground level it is all restaurants and a few market stalls and at river level it is a full fish and meat market and houses art galleries.
Fish as art?
Also in the Center of the old town are the three bridges – Plecnik built the other two around the original first one. He always used polished concrete or limestone (it was cheap and plentiful) and recycled everything. He also loved curves and these are classic examples of his work. He liked to build on to what was already there – like on the Roman Wall below.
Examples of Plecnik’s work in Ljubliana
His most famous large building is the National and University student library – exterior shown above. Bit hard to see but the windows at the top jut out in a triangle shape so meant to look like open books.
The interior is also all his own design. We couldn’t take photos inside the study area
(which was spectacular) as there were students studying but we got to see the main entrance and have his favourite tea in the student cafeteria. The entrance staircase was meant to inspire students to work hard – carry all your books up the stairs to the “light at the end of the tunnel” and also where the study area is. He deliberately made all the chairs hard as he felt chairs were not to be lounged in but a place from which to study!
Interior of the National and University Student library building
We went on to visit the photography school that he and his pupils designed which was formerly a monastery.
Former monastery, now the school of Photography
He also designed the bridge below with the pyramid (he liked them too) which is one of the few in the world that has trees on it. The symbol on the house at the bottom right was put on houses during the plague to show that the plague stopped at this point.
Turns out Mr Plecnik was a very grumpy workaholic. The house he lived in was bought by his brother and he was supposed to live there with his three siblings. In the end only one brother lived there at the same time but they were such different characters – the brother loved people and his lady friends; his workaholic brother liked neither – so that didn’t last long and Plecnik lived here alone. He even bought the next door house so that he wouldn’t have any neighbours other than the church. Basically he used to walk into town every day either by the river or the main road and 90% of his work in Ljubliana is in that small area.
Plexnik’s house and the church next door. He was religious and got on well with the priest but no-one else
Interior of Plecnik’s house with uncomfortable chairs to discourage visitors (this one is also a self portrait) plus easy access to his coffee and the garden.
Finally of course a food tour with Jasmine – and I lucked out again as this time it ws only me on the tour. Lots of opportunity to sample local wine and local dishes in some interesting spots. I liked the soup below – meat and turnips and then you pour in the pumpkin oil. Sounds strange but it was very good indeed.
After visiting the less known parts of the Balkans it was a bit of a shock to arrive in Ljubliana, Slovenia where there are far more tourists and shops etc than I have been used to.
I decided I had to visit the famous Lake Bled, Lake Bohinj and the Vintgar Gorge – they didn’t disappoint for sheer gorgeousness and a perfect looking little castle (although we didn’t have time to go and see it) but now we are in July there are a few too many other tourists for my liking (and yes I know I am one of them!)
On Lake Bled we took a wooden boat (no morotorised boats or jet skis allowed on the lakes) called Barbara over to Bled Island which consists of 99 stairs to the church at the top. If you get married at that church the groom is supposed to carry his bride up the 99 steps and she is supposed to say nothing! No comment! I was huffed climbing them without carrying another human being!
The 99 steps
On Lake Bled approaching Bled Island
The wooden boats that take you across the lake plus one of the many paddle boarders
At Lake Bled it is also obligatory to try their cream cake – the Kremna Rezina – so I did. It is quite similar to the one I had in Samobor a couple of days ago but this has layers of cream and custard cream and I had a raspberry version. It was a light as a feather and it did sway on the plate without collapsing – a sign it was the real thing!
A raspberry version of the famous Bled Cream cake
We then headed on for about 45 minutes to Lake Bohinj – this is less of a foreign tourist place and more used by locals as a recreational spot – again very pretty.
Around and about Lake Bohinj
Finally we visited Triglav National Park and walked along the Vintgar Gorge – about 1.6km each way. On the way back we enjoyed a violent thunder storm but it didn’t get too cold so that was ok!
I think I liked this place best of all but think I may return to the lakes and stay there next year during the Autumn when the colours look spectacular and there will be far less people around.
I finished off my time in Serbia with a day trip to visit to Novi Sad via the Novo Hopvo Monastery. A decent place to visit but I think I’ve been spoiled with the painted monasteries in Bucovina, Romania!
Monastery near Sremski Karlovci
Frescos on the monastery walls
We then paid a visit to the cute town of Sremski Karlovci for some wine tasting – which was fun as this was a small group with me, people from Delhi, a Canadian, someone from Shanghai and two from Lisbon. We all seemed to gel together well – especially after the wine tasting (funny that?).
Stemski Karlovci and the clock tower at Novi Sad
Novi sad is quite a modern town but it has a nice open square in the old town and we all enjoyed strong coffee there! The clock tower (above) at the fortress sat Novi Sad is unusual as the big hand indicate the hour and the small hand the minutes. This was to allow the fishermen to easily see the hour from their boats. So the time you see above is 14.25 not 17.10!
The old town on Novi Sad
I once again used mydaytrip.com to be driven from Belgrade to Slovenia. This entailed crossing the breadth of Croatia (which I will come back to another time out of season) and they offered a one hour stop at Samodor – a tiny town just in Croatia near the Slovenian border. It was a lovely and quiet place for a stroll by the river and through the town after a few hours in the car. Glad I stopped there (and tried their local dessert – Kremsnita cake).