Dob Utca

We arrived at our abode in Budapest on a shuttle that took us from the southeastern end of the city into its heart, the seventh district of Erzsebetvaros.

It wasn’t hard to tell how the economic and political landscape of this land had changed enormously from when it was blanketed by the Iron Curtain to modern times that have given way to European chain giants like Tesco and Ikea. I glanced at the giant warehouses along the highway and wondered if my homeland, India, would soon look like this. The Indian government is wrestling with whether to allow the establishment of foreign retailers.

Amid shabby, Soviet-style flat towers that house hundreds were remnants of a pre-Communism past — of quaint homes with smallish gardens dulled by winter’s drab.

As the shuttle sped foward, the scenery quickly changed. We were given hints of the grandeur to come in the city center. It was a dreary day, though not as cold as I had expected. I could tell that rain had fallen not too long ago, the dampness fresh on roads, the tram lines slick.

I tried to follow our route on the “Official Budapest City Map,” offered free at the airport, but quickly realized we were outside its realm. The map was crude — just detailed enough for people like us, tourists on a three-day quickie to Hungary’s capital.

Before we knew it, we had sped into the city, rushing by shops and restaurants and even bars doing brisk business at noon on a Sunday. We even passed the “Bangla Bufe,” spelled incorrectly in English but perhaps correctly in Hungarian. In any case, it was right in Bengali. It was tiny and I wondered what had brought Bengalis to Budapest.

I returned there later to find out hours of business but we never managed to get in a meal. Now I will always wonder about how a Bengali restaurant the size of my kitchen does in the heart of Budapest. The restaurant, I learned later, has a website which claims it is the first Bangladeshi eatery in Hungary.

The shuttle dropped us off at the Queen’s Court Hotel and Residences at Number 63, Dob Utca. I had booked the room through Hotwire and was prepared to be surprised — not in a pleasant way. To the contrary. The man behind the desk, who I was sure worked ungodly hours, took loving care of us and when we opened our room, we found a sitting area, a kitchen and a bathroom complete with a washing machine and dryer. I was happy to see the latter after more than a week of travel already in Turkey.

We put our things down and went off to explore, stopping for a bowl of goulash soup at place nearby. I was overjoyed at the good quality of Hungarian red wine and later that night, we stopped at a wine bar, DiVino, which curiously enough is situated across from the Basilica. Ha.

Yes, we did all the tourist stuff in Budapest — walked across the Chain Bridge, took the funicular up to Buda Castle, bought paprika paste at the old market and saw the ice skaters at Heroes Square.

But we also did the unexpected, including eating a lovely meal at Olimpia, a nouvelle Hungarian restaurant an walked around neighborhoods where few foreigners were in sight.

Most amazing of all, perhaps, was the Dohany Street Synagogue, the largest functioning in Europe and the fifth largest in the world. There is also a Jewish Museum and a Holocaust memorial adjacent to the synagogue.

More than 180,000 Jews lived in Budapest, many in Erzsebetvaros. About half perished under the Nazis. Many of those who died in Budapest’s Jewish ghetto are buried in mass graves, now covered with ivy and trees. Today, Budapest has the largest Jewish population in Europe — 80,000. Compare that to Prague, which only has about 3,000 Jews remaining. You will be able to read more about the Holocaust and the Czech Republic in an upcoming post on Terezin.

Budapest won my heart.

It was small yet big. Beautiful yet grimy. Happy yet sad. It was real. Gritty.

There was no shortness of melancholy there. But there was also plenty of joy.

It was the kind of city that beckons the past and looks forward to the future. The kind of city I love.

Istanbul

My journey began with work — a seminar for journalists who cover international security and terrorism issues. I was one of the lucky ones chosen to attend the event in Istanbul. If you’ve never been to that city, go! It’s ancient and new, beautiful and plain, Muslim and not, East and West.

Istanbul’s striking landscape and architecture reflecting myriad empires is why most people visit, of course. Tourists yearn for a cruise along the Bosphorus and a visit to the old city, home to the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

I did all that, amazed by the wonders of history and geography. But it was all the new people I met that made my visit memorable. So many courageous and brilliant journalists and scholars determined to bring truth to the world. About the carnage in Syria, the revolutions of the Arab world, the militancy of Pakistan.

I appreciated their breadth of knowledge. I learned in their company and also laughed. We had a good time during our many meals together. I especially liked the food at Antiocha, a tiny restaurant near the Pera Palace Hotel. The staff was not prepared for 16 of us descending on them at once but waiter Nureth Kesig accommodated us as though we were royalty. Nearby, at Asmali Cavit, we were shown the fresh catch of the day: bonito from the Black Sea and blue fish from the Bosphorus.

I saved Saturday to visit my cousin’s daughter, Soma, her husband, Bishan and cutie pie daughter Aditi (check out pictures on my Facebook page).  They were kind enough to take me by ferry to the Asian side of Istanbul, which I probably would not have seen otherwise. It was much less touristy there. Soma and Bishan took me for lunch to Ciya, their favorite. The restaurant’s brochure boasts of a menu from “the kitchen memories of forgotten dishes, lost tastes and wiped-off cultures.” We had lamb kebaps, a variety of mezze and pilav. Delicious.

Thanks again, Shoma and Bishan for a lovely afternoon.

One especially poignant moment for me: My CNN colleague and friend Joe Duran took me to visit the house he inherited from Margaret Moth, the fearless camerawoman who blazed a trail for women in television journalism. She was shot in the face during the Bosnian war and, yet, did not let her injury deter her from returning to war zones.

Her house, a bit outside Istanbul, is like a museum of all her possessions — antique furniture, floor to wall shelves filled with books and closets full of Victorian dress collections. Joe and Margaret were the closes of friends and after she died, he began living in that house a few days a week. The rest of the time, he lives in an apartment much closer to the CNN bureau in bustling Taksim Square.

I felt Margaret’s spirit in the house. It was as unique as she was. Beautiful and dark in some places.

So much to reflect on from my trip to Istanbul. A woman I admire, family I love, a bevy of new friends and new knowledge about the world.

Firenze

The Duomo — the main cathedral in Florence — seemed to glow at night.

Florence was warm in July. Very warm. But it didn’t matter. It was a relief to escape the tourist frenzy of Venice and arrive in this Tuscan city of amazing architecture and food. Today’s post marvels at the architecture.

Atop Duomo with all of Florence below us.

My brothers-in-law Jimmy and Peter and I climbed to the top of the Duomo, the main cathedral in central Florence.

There was no warning when we bought our entrance ticket as to how steep a climb it would be the top of the cuppola.

Everest, I thought at the time, might be easier. Ha. But it certainly was not a journey for the faint of heart.

More than 400 narrow winding steps later, we walked out into the fresh air, all of Florence below us. http://www.operaduomo.firenze.it/monumenti/mappa/duomo.asp

It was truly magnificent under a cloudless sky, the Tuscan hills beyond us.

Ponte Vecchio.

It was equally interesting to cross the Ponte Vecchio, the medieval stone arch bridge over the narrowest part of the Arno River.

A central Florence market.

Once the shops on the bridge were all occupied by butchers. These days, it’s a dazzling array of gold and jewelry shops, art dealers and stalls hawking souvenirs for tourists.

We strolled the Piazza della Signoria, the main plaza in Florence, teeming with larger-than-life statues including Michaelangelo’s David — the original is in the Galleria dell’Academia. http://www.florence-museum.com/?gclid=CPTJ8ePnhbICFQWCQgodtQsA5g

Every street and plaza in Florence offered visitors something to gaze at, something to wonder about. We stopped and peered into shops that sold incredible Florentine leather nd handcrafted paper.

And coming up in my next post: the food. Heaven to be in Tuscany, I think. Incredibly fresh food and bottles of Chianti.

Why did i return to Atlanta?

The main plaza.

A new world

On a gondola with Lynn (far left), Jim and Jean.

Lynn and Jean had never been to Europe before this summer. Britain, France, Italy. A whole new world opened to them, vastly different from East Aurora, a suburb of Buffalo.

Lynn at Piazza San Marco.

From food to dress to language, everything was unfamiliar. The girls took it all in stride.

I caught up with them and their father (my husband’s brother, Jim) in Venice. 

At first, Venice doesn’t seem the most kid-friendly place. But Lynn and Jean were enamored with the world of gelatos, pizzas and yes, cappuccinos (yes, the girls love their coffee, especially with lots of sugar).

Animals at a mask shop.


We took two gondola rides but it was more fascinating to walk the back streets of Venice — winding alleys and lanes connected by small bridges over the canals. We wondered about the lives of people who lived there — it was such a different way of life.

There are no cars, of course, in Venice. Only boats. The fisherman bring in their fresh catch from the sea. People get around by water taxi and private boats. The garbage man hauls trash by hand-pulled cart and takes it to a barge that transports it out. You probably don’t ever want to fall into the water here. Who knows what’s in it. 

The beauty of Venice charmed the girls. They were thrilled to sit at canalside trattorias and bars and return to America with memories of a lifetime.

A Venice mailbox.
The charms of outdoor trattorias.
Discovering Venice with nieces.

 

Magnificent and unexpected

Piazza San Marco.

I continue in this post my journey through Italy. Too quick, too hurried, but fascinating all the same.

(I dream of the day when I am not beholden to an employer any more and I can travel at will.)

The train ferried me from Verona back to Venice on a warm Sunday afternoon. I was curious to see, at last, the city of palaces built on a mosquito-infested swamp. What were they thinking?

Along the Grand Canal.
The train rolled into the Santa Lucia station and when I stepped out, I finally saw what Venice’s founders envisioned. What they built is truly magnificent, no other city in the world can compare. In fact, the entire city is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Next, I boarded a water taxi at Ferrovia and 14 stops later along the Grand Canal, I’d reached my destination: San Marco. My hotel was a step away and just around the corner from the main plaza in Venice.

I was meeting two of Kevin’s brother’s here. Yes, I know. A strange thing to go on vacation with your husband’s brothers. But their trip was planned and how easy was it just to tag along? Kevin did not have enough vacation time to make it work.
More about the family in my next post.
Chatting with John and Sue Maso at dinner.

The first night, my brother-in-law Peter and I found a cute trattoria not far from the hotel. We were tired and hungry and filled up on spaghetti with seafood.

Next to us was a couple from Perth, Australia. She’d asked us if our food was good before ordering.
“Delicious,” I said. “Where are you from?”
“Perth.”
“Oh, really?” I said. I lived there for a bit way back in the seventies.”
John and Sue Maso, it turns out, were on a multi-nation adventure. Their days in Italywere to be extra special. John’s parents were from Vittoria Veneto. But the family moved to Australiaafter World War II.
Johns’s father returned four times from Australia. On each of his first three visits, the pope died. It was an omen. The fourth time, he died. That was in 1991.
Veneto was on John’s bucket list. He had to go back to see it, meet family, he explained.
Bangladeshi Shipu Mollah served us our dinner.

I could see he was excited and nervous all at once. He savored his steak as did Sue her spaghetti and seafood.

We laughed and talked some more about Italy. They had enjoyed their day trip to the island of Murano, where glass blowing is an art honed to perfection.
Then it was time to pay the bill. Our waiter Shipu Mollah was young, handsome and I could tell from his speech, very Bengali.

He’d come to Venice from Bangladesh, looking for work.

What I did not know at that moment was that in the three days I was to spend in Venice, I would speak more Bengali than I have in six months in Atlanta.

All the men who sold gimmicks and toys and souvenirs to the tourists were Bangladeshi, as were many of the waiters and shopkeepers. Syad Shamim Ali told me he arrived only a year ago in March — from Libya.
Of course, I thought. I remembered when I had written about Bangladeshi laborers clamoring to get out once Moammar Gadhafi’s rule seemed uncertain.
They’d been transported to the borders at Tunisia and Egypt. Many spent days and nights in the open before they were able to board a ship to take them away.
Life was different in Venice, they told me. Of course it would be after war in Libya and the abject poverty of home. But they did not speak of cathedrals, palaces or aquamarine lagoons.
All they saw were the thousands and thousands of tourists. They were lifeblood.
The Bangladeshis missed their families, their homes — some had not returned in years. But it was possible to make a few dollars. There were a few possibilities here.
Their words would hang over me during my time in Venice.
In between the pricey gondola rides and bottles of Valpolicella, I thought of them, trying to just make it. Life in Venice was certainly no vacation. Not for them.
The basilica and tower at San Marco.

 

Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou? At the arena in Verona, of course

The Arena in Verona’s Piazza Bra
I’d been up for many, many hours – too many to count, I think, after a day of work at CNN, a trans-Atlantic flight and a train ride from Venice.
But when I finally stepped foot in Verona and realized I could watch Romeo and Juliet performed at the Arena di Verona, perhaps the most famous outdoor opera venue, I felt a second wind. http://www.arena.it/en-US/HOMEen.html
Dinner with Mary Foster Batten

Before heading out, I had dinner with Mary Foster Batten, a fellow visitor from Ireland whom I’d met at the lobby of the Hotel Novo Rossi. 

We shared pizza with prosciutto and funghi and glasses of fine Valpolicella. And fine conversation. And then I was off to the Arena.
I took my seat, high above the stage, under fragments of columns that have stood since AD 30. It’s a remnant of Roman glory, like the Coliseum in Rome. Except the Verona Arena is still vibrant, still a place where thousands go to watch.
I took my seat high above the stage in a Roman
arena that was 2,000 years old.

No more gladiators and fights to the death. But mellifluous music.

As in the voice of Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak in the role of Juliet and American tenor John Osborn as Romeo.  And so it began. Lucky for me that I knew so many lines of Shakespeare’s tragedy. “Oh Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo? Deny thy father and refuse thy name; Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love. And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
A bust of Shakespeare
in central Verona

There were no translations offered at the Verona Arena, no sub-titling. I might have been lost had it not been for a story so familiar. A couple in front of me bought a libretto. But as the sun faded, darkness befell our seats, the only lights reflecting off the stage and from the stars above.

Juliet’s statue
at the real house of
Capulet
I was told that the opera’s start depends on the sun’s timetable. On this magnificent July evening, the first notes sounded at 9:15 p.m. It ended at near 1 a.m., by which time I was awake purely on the fumes of excitement.
The next morning, after a breakfast of prosciutto e meloni, I ventured out into Verona, eager to see the house of the real-life Capulets and the famous verandah where Romeo and Juliette’s love for one another was sealed.
At an old castle overlooking the river in Verona
It is, of course, somewhat of a tourist trap. But I looked at Juliet’s statue and gazed upward at the walls of the massive house and began to understand why Shakespeare was inspired to write his tale.
 
Next stop: Venice

 

Viva l’Italia


I never wanted Italy to win until today. But it’s my top pick in the World Cup pool this year. So…

… at 2:30 this afternoon, I gathered with friends at Fritti, a neighborhood restaurant, to watch Italy versus Paraguay.
In the end, my friend Jack said he’d buy me another glass of fine Italian Pinot Grigio if I donned his tricolor shorts. So I did. And said a Hail Mary. It didn’t quite work. Score: 1-1.

That’s really a loss for the fine talians.

But the Pinot Grigio was fine-r.