23.04.2013 - 27.04.2013 20 °C
Alright, let's try to keep the ball rolling! I am writing this post from a train in between Santiago de Compostela and Ourense, in Galicia.... But that's a story for another time! Right now let's talk about the other major stop on my tour of Austria and Hungary, Budapest!
This leg started off poorly enough, when I realized as we were pulling away from the train station that I had left my camera in the room we were sleeping in at Kata's house. Loads better than having left it at a hostel somewhere, as she kindly mailed it back to me in Barcelona, but it meant that I was without a camera in Budapest. So I have gone onto facebook and stolen the photos I like best from my new friends, so I actually appear in more of them than normal!
The three of us arrived in Budapest about noon on Tuesday, and went straight to the hotel to check in. The program took care of our hotel accommodations, and our expectations were not let down. The Intercontinental sits right on the Danube River, which splits the city in half. All of our rooms had views of the river and the hill directly on the other side with the palace and fisherman's bastion. Not a terrible view to see upon throwing open the blinds in the morning.
So we ventured down into the lobby to explore a little bit. And encountered a fellow Whitaker that we remembered from orientation. So I was surprised (and a bit relieved) to find out that Budapest and Barcelona are in the same time zone. However, for Danielle, coming from Australia, the jet lag would be an absolute battle all week. I can't imagine. Anyway, she was looking a little bewildered and took the opportunity to join us for a walk up to the aforementioned hill to see some of the sights.
Now, a bit about Budapest. First the language- it's actually called Magyar, and absolutely is the craziest language (written in the latin alphabet) that I have ever seen. Apparently it's also related to Finnish. Languages are fascinating. Anyway, luckily, most people speak passable English, or else it would be impossible to communicate. Also, the city of Budapest is actually two cities, Buda, and Pest, which are separated by the Danube. I kid you not. Buda is on the hilly side of the river, and has the Palace, Fisherman's Bastion and lots of caves within the hills. Pest is the center of the city, and was home to our hotel, St. Steven's Basilica, the opera house, and the market.
So the four of us ventured forth from the hotel across the river and up the hills of Buda. Part of the program was a guided tour on one of the evenings, and we weren't sure where the tour would take us, so we guessed... Wrong. And it took us to the same place. I suppose, though, that the first go around was great for snapping photos of unknown pretty things (well I wasn't doing any snapping) and the tour was good for learning about those pretty things. So I'll put everything here together as best as I can. At the bottom of the hill was the world's oldest funicular. (Good Balderdash word?) A funicular is a cable car that works on a pulley to use half it's weight to assist the trip up the hill. Unfortunately the cable car itself is less interesting than the awesome sigil painted on the wall at the bottom.
The palace at the top of the hill is absolutely gigantic, and was the castle and palace for Hungarian kings starting in the 1200s. Unfortunately, here too we see the results of the World War. There is a big building just next to the Palace that is riddled with shrapnel holes from bombings that rocked the area during the war. Coming from a country that has seen continued peace within its immediate borders from many many years, it continues te be jarring to see vestiges of the atrocities of war scattered in the biggest cities in Europe.
Further down, there is a magnificent, 700 year old church called Matthias Church -- it is completely white with ornate and colorful roof tiles. The guide explained that there is a small town in Hungary that specializes in producing these tiles and they are distributed all over the country for some of the most iconic buildings. In fact, I realized that the roof of the Stephansdom in Vienna is made with these as well.
Since I neglected to put any photos of the Stephansdom, here is the roof there:
And here is the Matthias Church in Budapest:
Just behind the church is a structure that looked lifted from Disney World. The curving walls and turrets, we were told, were built in 1898 for the defense of the city, and was manned by the fishermen's guild, thus earning the name The Fishermen's Bastion. There are seven turrets representing each of the seven original Hungarian Tribes, dating back millennia.
After walking back to the Pest side of the city, we adventured to find another well-known church, St Stephen's Basilica, named after the first King of Hungary. This church relatively new, having been finished in 1905, but it is one of the most breathtaking churches I have been in since I got here. I will let the photos speak for themselves, but suffice it to say that after all of the Gothic monstrosities I have entered, the colorful marble gives the church a warm, dark feeling that I really liked.
Oh that's right, there was a conference too! About 65 of us have been scatted over the globe, doing scientific projects related to biomedical engineering. It is a hugely wide field, so presentations were widely varied, but all cool. There is a girl researching the cells in the eye that regulate intraocular pressure in order to better understand glaucoma. There is a guy implementing his prosthetic arm in Guatemala and spends each day working with people and perfecting his device. There is another girl working to create a new and improved inner-ear hearing aid. My friend Ross uses stem cells to facilitate skin healing after a burn or trauma. So although there were around 10 hours of presentations over three days, all were very interesting and well done. Plus the people that I got to meet and network with while there really put it over the top as an incredible week. We all lamented by the end that we had to part ways around the world with our tens of new friends. Many of us will keep in touch and continue to have relationships as we begin new phases of life after the Whitaker. Here is a photo I took with three alumni from the University of Rochester! We were probably the best-represented school there, with three scholars and one post-doctoral fellow!
Back to the culture! On one of the evenings, we were given The option to either attend the opera Madame Butterfly or to go to an art museum for a collection of Spanish and Italian art. I elected the opera and was certainly not disappointed. The opera house in Budapest is an intimate place, with vertical boxes rising above the floor seats. I was lucky enough to get put in the third deck of the boxes, and had an excellent view of the stage. It was my first opera and it was quite something to sit in Budapest and listen to an opera performed in Italian with Hungarian subtitles and interact with all of my American colleagues. The opera itself was interesting-- luckily the story line was simple enough that I managed to follow along without too much trouble. Hopefully at some point I'll go to one with at least English subtitles! (In the following photo, I am sitting up on the third level just outside of the photo on the left.
One of Budapest's other claim to fames is the presence of thermal baths scattered around the city. I can't exactly describe the mechanism by which these occur, but basically they are areas with naturally heated springs, that some intelligent individual has harnessed and charges for entry. We decided to go check them out one morning early before the talks and our willingness to get up a little early was rewarded as the baths were unbelievable. In a relatively non-descript building in the middle of park, there are a set of probably ten baths, inside and outside, and ranging in temperature, mineral presence and sulfuric smell. Some had water falls, and others were circular pools with a slow current to push you around. Some of the people were playing chess on the side of the pool while soaking. Hope the pawns float! There was actually nothing in particular to set them apart from normal pools and hot tubs, except for the slight smell in some and I had to remind myself several times that these were earth-heated. Apparently there is a specific order in which to move through the baths, but we kind of just hopped in the ones that looked cool (read: warm) and then moved on. Also, apparently Friday morning is not the select time for the young and hip, as we got many a curious glance from the throng of old, fat men walking around the pools in their speedos. There were flyers up for big parties in the pool on the weekends, so I suppose we just chose our moment poorly. But we did leave the pools relaxed and energized for the final day of presentations.
The last evening of the conference, we were given one last networking and connecting opportunity on a dinner cruise out on the Danube River! It was an absolutely gorgeous evening, well spent with food and drinks and great new friends!
Finally spent after a week of travel and science, I returned to Barcelona on Saturday and slept quite well, thank you very much! So there you have it; my Vienna and Budapest adventures!
As always, hope all is well with you!