Bruges & Brussels, Belgium

A love for travel was instilled in me from a very early age by my dad. He traveled internationally a few times a year with his job, and each time he would come home, he would bring me back a doll from the country he visited. I soon had a collection of ‘Dolls from Around the World’ in my bedroom, along with stories in my mind that my dad had told me about the culture, food, and sights of the city he explored. He always told me that when I got older, I could go with him on one of his trips, and sightsee during the day while he was in meetings. A few weeks ago, we finally made that a reality!

My dad flew me from Vienna to Brussels, Belgium to spend a few days with him. My friend Timothy, who lives in Brussels, showed me around during the day, and I went to dinner with my dad at night. I loved everything about the city, from the ornate architecture in the Grand Place to the comic book scenes painted on the sides of buildings down winding streets. Of course we were tourists and saw Mannekin Pis, and a museum of Mannekin Pis dressed up in different clothes from around the world which was hilarious. I ate Belgian waffles multiple times a day, which are indescribably good and so much better than anything I’ve ever eaten claiming to be a Belgian waffle. And moulets et frites (mussels & fries!) and pain au chocolat and croissants and macaroons from Laduree and chocolate samples from everywhere. My tastebuds were so happy to be in Belgium but my waistline was glad I don’t live there.

I took a day trip to Bruges one day, which was the most dreamy city. Bruges is often called the ‘Venice of the North’ because of the canals that run through it and the city’s overall quaintness. To me, it felt like a cross between Oxford, UK, Amsterdam, and somewhere the Gingerbread man would live. For some reason the entire train ride there I had the song ‘Colors of the Wind’ from Pocahontas stuck in my head (random), and when I sat down to lunch, as soon as the waiter brought my food that song started playing on the radio. That was pretty much how the whole day went. By the end of a few hours I had taken 800 photos (some of my favorites you’ll see below in the first set), and had officially claimed Bruges as one of my favorite places I’ve ever been.

I’m so thankful for the opportunity to see such beautiful cities, for the chance to enjoy some quality time with my dad on this side of the Atlantic, and for the team in Vienna who let me leave during a really busy week to make this trip happen.

Je t’aime, Belgique.

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Budapest, Hungary II

One of the things I loved most about Budapest was the city’s history, particularly the Hungarian peoples’ struggle through WWII and Communism.

Hungary officially joined the Axis Powers in 1940, after pressure from Germany. While waging war against the Soviet Union, Hungary engaged in armistice negotiations with the US & UK. Hitler discovered this betrayal, and in March 1944, German forces occupied Hungary. Approximately 300,000 Hungarian soldiers and more than 600,000 civilians died during WWII, including among them at least 450,000 Jews and 28,000 Roma. Much of the city of Budapest was destroyed by bombings from both Axis and Allied forces.

In the early 1900s, the city of Budapest had a large and thriving Jewish community. In fact, so many Jewish people were business owners, government officials, or other prosperous members of the community that outsiders referred to the city as ‘Judapest.’ During the war, the Jewish residents of Budapest were either forced into a walled-in ghetto, or sent to Auschwitz. Between 1944 & 1945, over half of the Jewish citizens of Budapest had been killed.

The ‘Shoes on the Danube’ memorial (first set of photos below) was set up a few years ago to honor the Jewish people who were killed by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest during World War II. These people were shot at the edge of the water so that their bodies fell into the river, but were first ordered to take their shoes off so that the shoes (valuable during the war) could be sold.

There exists today a thriving Jewish community in Budapest, & the city holds the 2nd largest synagogue in the world (see 2nd set of photos).  In the synagogue’s park stands another Holocaust Memorial, the Tree of Life, which contains the names of victims who disappeared or died during the Nazi terror engraved on almost each of the 30,000 metal leaves. Thousands of bodies were buried under the memorial. Despite all of the hardships of WWII, Budapest today has the highest number of Jewish citizens per capita than any other European city.

 

Following the fall of Nazi Germany, Soviet troops occupied the entire country with the goal of forming Hungary into a communist satellite state of the Soviet Union. ‘Stalinization’ of the country quickly began, with forced collectivism and militarization being instituted, and state terror keeping the population in constant fear. 350,000 officials and intellectuals were imprisoned or executed from 1948 to 1956, and worship of the Party Leaders was demanded.

The country gained widespread international attention during the Revolution of 1956, where protestors took to the streets revolting against the Communist regime. Though the revolution was ultimately unsuccessful, it was in the long run very instrumental in the downfall of the USSR, accelerating the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. In 1989, reformers within the Communist Party agreed to negotiation talks, and Hungary began taking down its barbed wire fence along the Austrian border – the first tear in the Iron Curtain. In 1990, the country saw its first free election.

The last set of photos in this post are from Memento Park, an outdoor museum showcasing Communist statues that had once been all over the city of Budapest. These statues are monuments of “Hungarian-Soviet Friendship” and “Liberation”, as well as statues of famous personalities from the labour movement, soldiers of the Red Army and other gigantic pieces (most were over 8 feet tall): Lenin, Marx, and other “heroes” of the communist world. Inside the museum, a film was playing that was once used as a training tool for communist secret police. The film gives such instructions as how to follow someone without being noticed, how to break in and plant evidence, and how to ‘recruit’ informants by framing them.

Hungary conquered and in chains has done more for freedom & justice than any people for twenty years. If their distress is ours, their hope is ours also.

Albert Camus, 1957 

The 8-meter tall statue of Stalin was torn down by a crowd in 1949, and only his boots remained. These boots became a symbol for the revolution that was to come.

Hungarian-Soviet Friendship monument

Lenin

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Budapest, Hungary I

After an eventful New Year’s Eve in Vienna (basically celebrated every way possible), I kicked off the first few days of 2015 in Budapest, Hungary.

I loved everything about that city. To me, it was the perfect blend of posh & bohemian, with stunning architecture, a vintage metro (oldest in Europe) that felt more like a Disneyland ride, and a fascinating history of struggle & triumph through WWII & Communism.

Buda and Pest were originally two cities lying on either side of the Danube river. In 1873, they joined into one city to make Budapest. Budapest was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the royal family from Vienna, The Hapsburgs, funded much of the city’s development. Because of this, there are many architectural similarities between Budapest and my current hometown. Matthias Church has a beautifully tiled roof, much like St. Stephen’s Church in Vienna. The roof of Matthias Church was designed to look like a Turkish rug to remember when it was once a mosque during the Ottoman Empire. The opera house in Budapest also looks much like the opera house in Vienna, although I thought the one in Budapest was more beautiful. It is said that Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria, would not allow the opera house in Budapest to be larger than the one in Vienna, so the architects decided to make it more beautiful instead.

We stayed on the Pest side of the city, in an AirBNB in the middle of a lively square. We had a balcony with a view of the Buda Castle, and we sat outside in the cold drinking coffee and staring at the view for hours. During our time there, we visited Hero’s Square, watched ice skating in front of the castle complex in Városliget Park, ate lots of Hungarian food (chimney cakes – kürtos!!), walked Castle Hill, and climbed up to Fisherman’s Bastion (a lookout point on the Buda side with beautiful views of Pest & the Hungarian Parliament building, the 3rd largest in the world). We also visited several historical sites, learning how the Holocaust & Communism affected the Hungarian people (more on that later).

I think it’s safe to say that Budapest was easily one of my favorite cities I’ve visited in Europe. Such a great start to an already amazing year.

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Christmas in Vienna

The first time I fell in love with Vienna was a few years ago, when I saw photos of the city at Christmastime on some of my favorite photographers’ blog. Little did I know that one day I would be living in this beautiful city and experiencing the magic of Christmas in Vienna firsthand.

It seems every part of the city is decorated, from small displays in shop windows to the grand chandeliers strung from the buildings on Graben (still jaw-dropping no matter how many times I see them). There are dozens of Christmas Markets filled with handmade gifts, ornaments, lots of food and of course, punsch. Some of the biggest Christmas markets are in front of Rathaus (City Hall) where the majority of the tourists seem to flock, at Schonbrunn Palace, on the cobblestoned streets of Spittelberg, in between the twin museums & Museum Quartier, and in front of the beautifully domed Karlskirche at Karlsplatz. The Karlsplatz market is by far my favorite, with a bicycle-powered carousel made from salvaged goods, sheep and goats playing in hay in front of a beautiful church, and llamas randomly wandering around the crowds of people. Each market seems to have it’s own unique flair (and it’s own decorative punsch cup), and I’ve done my job of sampling the crepes at all of them.

As this year comes to a close, I’m reminded of just how thankful I am for the journey God has lead me on in 2014. I am doing something I love with people I love, and am seeing the world in the process. What could be better than that?

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