A Hungarian Stairway To Heaven – Friday’s Weekly Travel Photo

Inside Saint Stephen's Basilica

I’ll confess, I can be pretty lazy.  On more than one occasion I’ve looked at a long, winding flight of steps…let out an “oof” and sat down with that, “I’ll see you when you get back” look on my face.  I find this to be especially true in places that like to advertise the number of steps.  Things like, “600 steps to the top!” may seem like great inspiration…but they’re really only good for bragging rights and illiciting the ire of pale-faced friends later down the road. That said, after a few minutes to huff and puff I inevitably find myself trudging up whatever large staircase I’ve found before me.  Some spiral in graceful arcs, others are tight tunnel-like staircases that leave you dreading the inevitable traffic jam when you meet someone heading back down on the same stairs.  Yet others, like in Nafplio zig zag up the exterior of a large cliff face.  Of all these different types I often find the graceful spiral stair to be the most beautiful.  Not because of the view out non-existent windows…never that…but rather, because a glimpse back down the stair’s spiral reminds me of of the swirling shape of a beautiful seashell.

The staircase featured in the photo for this post hails from Saint Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest, Hungary.  The basilica is a beautiful building that offers a commanding view of the surrounding city.  It provides a great opportunity to examine the multi-colored rooftops of nearby buildings, while simultaneously looking across at Buda Castle and the Palatial Hill. Oh, and for those of you who have an even more pronounced hatred of stairs than I do? I’ll confess that there is even an elevator, though I advise you skip it.  The view back down the stairwell is well worth a little added huffing and puffing – besides, it’s good for you…right?

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos? View past travel pictures here.

Dinner and a Sunset in Assisi

Storm Clouds Over Assisi

For the three days of the conference, I found myself periodically staring out the window of my room over a perfectly manicured vineyard at the unusual city and ancient structures that dominated the nearby hillside. I felt longing – while located a mere 15 minutes outside of Assisi, our schedule was busy and largely confined to day-trips to near by cities or events at the resort.  This meant that it wasn’t until the final day of the conference that I had an opportunity to join a small group of other travel bloggers for a free-form trip into Assisi.  Our goal was simple – to enjoy a few hours around sunset walking the city before ferreting out a place for dinner and local Italian wine.

Assisi - Cathedral and Fields

We reached the town late in the afternoon just in time to enjoy an hour or so of solid light before the day began to give way to dusk lit by stunning clouds.  The view out from the city was full of rich fields, beautiful trees, and at least 20 hues of green.  The spotted clouds cast shadows across the landscape and broke the light, softening the view.  The soft rain which had fallen earlier in the day wet the soil, slicked the roads, and deepened the verdant hues that stretched out from the hilltop upon which Assisi rests.

Assisi - Fortifications

The city of Assisi is an old one. While it is unclear just how old – historical indicators suggest that the city’s roots date back around 2,500 years. Possibly earlier. Located in Italy’s breadbasket, it held a powerful strategic position for nearly 2,000 years and was incorporated into the Roman Empire during Rome’s infancy.

Assisi - Pigeons on a Rooftop

Our exploration of Assisi started at the main bus park.  A humble beginning, but none-the less a convenient drop-off point for our taxi.  From there we surveyed our surroundings before opting to head towards the city’s primary landmark and defining characteristic:  The Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi.

Assisi - Lone Tree

The street curved and flared out, teasing us with a sweeping vista over the countryside as we looked out from beneath the Basilica compound’s castle-like arched supports.  As I glanced out over the country side I was greeted by a view I never quite get tired of. ..a solitary tree standing alone amidst a well-kept field.  I find there’s just a certain poetic charm to the sight. One that nags at me to pause, reflect, and to slow down.  No small challenge given the fairly hectic pace I tend to set for myself in my day-to-day life.

Assisi - City Streets

Soon though, the overlook/street dove through a fortified gateway and we found ourselves pulled in toward the city’s heart.  After ascending a brief but steep street we wound around, navigating more by landmarks than by any actual plan or idea where we were going.

Assisi - Rooftops

As I mentioned in my Perugia post, one of my favorite things about Umbria’s historic hilltop towns are the irregular roof-lines.  Assisi is no different with a veritable maze of unique structures, all at different levels and facing in a variety of directions.  At times it reminds me of the drawings of M. C. Escher.

Assisi - Cathedral Square

Quite suddenly we found ourselves passing through a gateway into the lower plaza of St. Francis. We had traded the narrow, steep, winding cobblestone streets for the large open area that serves as the Basilica’s welcome mat.  The Basilica is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which dates back to 1,228 AD. The complex consists of two churches – creatively named the Upper Church and the Lower Church.

Assisi - Stairway to Heaven

The structure serves as the mother church for the Franciscan Order, also known as the Roman Catholic Order of Friars Minor.It was erected in part to honor St. Francis who began and ended his life in Assisi.  In an interesting twist, many reports note that the hill where the Basilica was erected was initially used to execute criminals and went by the name of the hill of hell.  After it was gifted and re-purposed by the Franciscans, the hill has since found redemption and is now hailed as the hill of paradise.

View from Assisi - Green Fields

A fitting name given the hill’s location on the spur of the large slope where the town of Assisi resides. I imagine that the fresh air circulating around the Basilica was a wonderful boon to its inhabitants in medieval times and the location on the hill overlooking the warm plain below kept it cool and bathed in gentle breezes even during the most humid and muggy parts of the year.

Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi

By the time we reached the entrance to the Upper Basilica the light had begun to change and fade.  As if on command, the sky let loose fantastic rays of light in every direction which framed the Basilica in a near-halo.  I’m not a religious person, but it was the type of view that renews my love and wonder for the natural world around us. I can definitely imagine that it would have been a moving moment for the faithful.

Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi

When I’m in a hilltop town I always feel inclined to go up…And up….And up. It makes navigation simple and usually takes you toward some sort of central square, fortification, or view port.  In this case we wound around the large green yard in front of the Upper Basilica, past a rather forlorn looking statue of a knight on horse,walking along the city’s exterior wall toward a small gate.

Assisi - Winding Streets

With the gate and the ruined tower that sat vigil over it behind us, we paused at a steep hook in the road and watched as the sun slowly began to sink toward the horizon. The town was largely silent outside the the occasional squeak as a passing car’s wheels desperately clung to the slick cobblestones accompanied by the rhythmic noise of feet shuffling along the cobblestones as an elderly couple or two two made their way down into one of the lower parts of the city. Enticed by the rich scents billowing out into the streets from the numerous restaurants around us, we couldn’t ignore the sound of our rumbling stomachs as our bodies roared in protest.

Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi

Eager to get one final view of the Basilica and the sunset we paused along a small walkway near the city’s exterior wall and then set to the task of finding an affordable  restaurant. Quite often no small challenge in a city like Assisi which is known as a significant tourist destination. Still, with our stomachs growling, we overcame the challenges of making a group decision, and quickly settled on a small place just around the corner.  We entered and piled into one of the side rooms.

Eating in Umbria

Contrary to what I expected (expensive food and small portions), the waiter suggested one of the evening’s specials – pork shank with potato wedges for 10 Euro.  Still skeptical, I expected a small shank served on an equally small bed of potatoes.  What showed up was a massive, fist sized, shank and a hearty serving of potatoes that was full of flavor and cooked to perfection.  Everyone’s food looked fantastic and came in hearty portions.  The place was Trattoria Al Camino Vecchio on Via S. Giacomo, 7 and I’d return there in a heartbeat the next time I find my way back to Assisi.

Assisi - Winding Streets

We finished our meal and met up with another large group from the conference in the basement of a nearby restaurant. It was offering 2 Euro 50 cent pitchers of house wine.

The wait to see Assisi had been well worth the it. Even though I only got a brief taste of the city’s winding streets and delicious food selections, I was thoroughly enticed and rewarded by the offerings of the city.  I look forward to returning to Assisi and exploring it in greater depth.  I would love to tour the fortifications, re-visit the inside of the Franciscan friary, and Basilicas which I remember vaguely from my visit as a child of 11 in 1994.

If you’re considering a trip to central Italy, I hope Assisi makes the list of places you intend to visit. It’s a charming city with a rich past and one can only hope a bright future. Have you been?  I’d love to hear your personal stories of times spent exploring Assisi in a comment below.

Hagia Sophia and The Sultan Ahmed “Blue” Mosque

Hagia Sofia at Night

Hagia Sophia

Every art and architecture student has studied the beauty and wonder of  Hagia Sophia. It is a premier example of Byzantine art and construction. This fortress-esque structure has stood as a testament to human ingenuity since 537 AD.  That’s not a typo.   This massive sprawling citadel to God is just under 1,500 years old and has played a pivotal roll in human architectural history.  Some reports suggest that it also held the title of largest cathedral in the world for nearly 1,000 years.  No small accomplishment.

Hagia Sofia in the Snow

Amazingly the entire structure was built in less than 10 years, reportedly by a work crew of some 10,000 people, by the decree of Justinian I of Constantinople. It was the third basilica to be built in the location and the largest of the three. Unfortunately, the structure was severely damaged less than 20 years after it was completed by a series of earthquakes which collapsed the main dome. Resiliently, the dome was re-built, re-structured and raised some 20+ feet. These enhancements were completed quickly and done by the year 562.

Hagia Sofia in the Snow

The church stood as a shining example of Christiandom until 1453 when the Ottoman empire conquered Constantinople. The church was immediately converted into a mosque, a process which resulted in the removal of most of the holy relics, altars, and bells. Interestingly, instead of removing the old Christian mosaics, the Ottomans decided to paint over them.  The interior was re-decorated to serve as a mosque and the building’s four large minarets were added.  The majority of the building’s interior (as seen today) dates back to this period, with the exception of several large christian mosaics which were recently uncovered.

Hagia Sophia (Recovered)

The building served as one of the largest and most impressive mosques in the Muslim world for the next several hundred years. The mosque’s design and appearance was mirrored in other Ottoman mosques and served as inspiration for Istanbul’s numerous structures. It served as the key model for the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, which is now commonly known and recognized as Istanbul’s Blue Mosque.  In an interesting turn of history, Hagia Sophia ceased to be a mosque in 1935 when the then newly elected President Ataturk decreed that it be converted into a museum.

Hagia Sofia in Istanbul

The interior of the structure is truly fascinating.  The sheer scale of the open space in the main area will leave you feeling tiny.  The mosaics are beautiful and reflect the periods in history during which they were created. The mixture of cultures, religions and periods in history is evident in all aspects of the structure creating an eclectic mixture that while somewhat cold, still manages to be very rich and engaging.   Stay tuned for video from inside Hagia Sophia in future posts.  Beyond that, you’ll just have to visit yourself!

Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Snow

Sultan Ahmed “the Blue” Mosque

The Blue Mosque was completed in 1616 and sits immediately opposite Hagia Sophia.  The mosque embodies the epitome of Byzantine-influenced Ottoman construction. It relies on heavy inspiration from Hagia Sophia, but the building’s lines and domes are enhanced while simultaneously integrating a series of six minarets into the original design.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Snow

From the start, the goal while creating the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, was to create one of the greatest mosques in the world.  The structure was built on a massive scale and can accommodate 10,000 people during prayer.  It was created to be a purely Muslim structure, in contrast with Hagia Sophia which had a mixed heritage.   It was also fairly controversial initially due to its 6 minarets, which was a violation of accepted policy at that point in time-typically all mosques outside Masjid al-Haram in Mecca were limited to four minarets.

Blue Mosque

Unlike Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is still in active use and faithful are welcomed to attend for daily prayer.  However, don’t fret – the mosque remains open most of the day for tourists, who are welcome into the mosque and given free roam of just under half the ground floor.  If, that is, you’re willing to leave your shoes at the door and have made sure to dress appropriately.

Interior of the Blue Mosque

The mosque’s nickname comes from the beautiful blue tile work that decorates its interior. This is accentuated by more than 200 blue stained-glass windows.   The tiles and beautifully painted calligraphy work has made the Blue Mosque one of Istanbul’s leading tourist attractions.

Interior of the Blue Mosque

Every inch of the building’s interior is covered in rich, padded carpets, beautiful stained-glass windows, or intricately decorated Islamic decorations and calligraphic script. The amount of time and energy that went into these decorations is staggering and an amazing testament to the might, wealth, and glory of the Ottoman Empire at its peak.

Interior of the Blue Mosque

For people familiar with calligraphy, many of the tiles depict beautiful flowing script, which are verses from the Qur’an and were created by Seyyid Kasim Gubari – one of the greatest calligraphers in his era.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Snow

The interior of the Blue Mosque is absolutely gorgeous.  However, it is also slightly overwhelming making the structure feel somewhat smaller and significantly more cozy than Hagia Sophia.  If planning a visit to Istanbul, I highly suggest visiting both structures and dedicating ample time to each. While it is easy to assume that the two will be very similar, the reality is that the experience varies significantly from one to the other.  The Blue Mosque will awe you with its beauty, with its polished architecture and wonderful lighting.  Hagia Sophia will captivate you with its size, scale, and odd mixture of religious and cultural history.

Mosque in Istanbul

Other Mosques Abound

As a first-timer to Istanbul I expected that the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia would be the only two large religious structures in the city.  Especially after seeing the incredible size and scale of the structures it made it hard to imagine that the city could have ever supported a third, fourth, or fifth building of similar scale and scope.

Istanbul at Sunset

So, perhaps you can understand (and share) my surprise at discovering that Istanbul’s skyline is decorated by the impressive domes and needle-like forms of towering minarets from at least half a dozen large mosques.

Have you visited Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque?  What were your favorite parts?  What surprised you?

**Bonus – While visiting Hagia Sophia, there is a free (and separate) series of tombs which can be accessed from the external side of the building.  These serve as the eternal resting place for a number of the region’s influential rulers and religious figures, in addition to boasting their own wealth of beautiful tile and mural work.

A Traveler’s Journal: Meandering Budapest’s Streets

Wandering Budapest

With its origins dating back to the 9th century, Budapest was officially formed in 1873 when the cities of Buda, Pest and Obuda were unified.  Once hailed as the heart of Europe and the Pearl of the Danube, it can be easy to overlook  Budapest’s rich and influential history.

Castle Hill in Budapest

I didn’t know what to expect. I knew that Budapest was a mecca for backpackers and that just about every person I’ve ever met who visited fell in love with the city. Many described it as similar, but uniquely different, from Prague in the Czech Republic, a city I visited in 2007 and found to be absolutely charming. On the other hand I had heard stories of Budapest as a somewhat run down city suffering from significant economic hardship and the post-Soviet woes that came with the USSR’s collapse.

Independence Day in Budapest

The reality of the Budapest I found was a combination of both. As luck would have it, I was in Budapest during Hungary’s independence day which celebrates their attainment of independence from the Soviet Union in 1989. The city was decorated with special Hungarian flags. As you’ll notice in the photo above, taken in front of the Parliament Building, all of the Hungarian flags on display had a circle cut out of the middle to commemorate the removal of the Red Star when they gained independence.

Wandering Budapest

BUDAPEST’S CHARM

While it is obvious that the city is suffering from significant economic woes, it is also nowhere near as dirty, poorly maintained, or shabby as I had been led to expect. In truth, I found the city’s beauty to stretch far beyond the usual tourist attractions bleeding over into the old historic districts. It has a number of picturesque tree-lined boulevards, wonderful old buildings, great parks, and an exciting mixture of architectural styles. It’s also a gorgeous city at night, with many of the buildings boasting well-lit facades that give it a charming, romantic feel.

Wandering Budapest

Mixed in with newly renovated structures and modern buildings there are definite signs of economic woes, but these are being repaired or at the very least, casually maintained. One example I stumbled upon was a largely abandoned shopping mall dating back to the early 1900s – the Parisi Udvar or Parisian Aracade. Every inch of the interior was crafted for beauty with stained glass and marble decorating and lighting nearly every inch. While not something you’ll see in the tour books, a stroll through the building’s main hall is well worth a detour. It can be found at Petofi Sandor utca 2, Budapest 1052, Hungary just off the Ferenciek Tere station.

Wandering Budapest

Budapest’s skyline was one of my favorite aspects of the city. It is often colorful, full of character, and has a vibrant flare to it that really differentiates it from many of the other European cities I’ve visited. It also reflects the feeling of the buildings and city itself – which left me feeling as though I’d partially stepped back in time to the late 19th and early 20th century. It’s hard to put into words but Budapest just has this wonderful romantic feel to it.

New York in Budapest

The city is also home to a number of fantastic hotels with rich histories and a captivating late 19th century ambiance and class. These include the Hotel Astoria (1914), and Boscolo Budapest (1894) which was formerly known as the New York Palace.

Moped Along Budapest's Streets

The nature of transportation in Budapest only serves to add to that historic feeling. It boasts the usual mixture of modern vehicles, mopeds and the rare bicycle. Where it really sets itself apart, however, is its public transportation. The metro lines are small, narrow, and have an aged feel to them which makes sense given that the oldest of the lines, Line 1, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and dates back to 1896. While a good bit newer, most of the cars – especially those on Line 1 – tend to have a very historical feel. They are small, cramped, extremely narrow, old, loud and completely charming. I would guess that many of the metro-cars date back to the 70s and 80s.  The city also has a series of excellent surface trams which make for easy transport once you figure out the somewhat odd and out-dated paper ticket punch-card system. In short, to use it you buy a paper ticket with 6 boxes at the bottom. Then upon boarding there’s a hole-punch which you use to validate the ticket while trying to avoid tearing it.

Central Train Station in Budapest

I highly suggest a trip to the city’s Central Train Station located on the Pest side of the city. This old building is still in active use and has a lovely feeling to it. While due for restoration, it showcases a mixture of historical design elements and repairs which combine the modern, not-so modern, and old into a delightful mismatch. If you’re like me and love old train stations, I think you’ll get an absolute kick out of this one. Just don’t confuse it with the city’s other train stations which are more modern and far less charming.

Along the Danube

THE DANUBE

The Danube plays a significant role in Budapest’s history, serving as the boundary between Buda and Pest.. The two sides are very similar in many ways, but each has its own unique flavor.  As a major actor in the region’s history, the Danube also serves as home to a mixed assortment of great places to explore.  A walk along the waterfront is an absolute must.  What you’ll find is a number of barges and old riverboats which are semi-permanently moored along the river’s banks. Many have been converted into pubs, restaurants, night clubs and dance halls.

The Lion's Statue on Chain Bridge

As you wander down along the riverfront, you’ll eventually come to the Chain Bridge. The bridge was the first permanent bridge across the Danube and was opened in 1849. Several changes have been made to it over the years, including massive repairs after the Siege of Budapest in World War II. It offers a wonderful view of both Buda and Pest as well as a chance to pose with its famous guardian lion statues.

Hungarian Jewish WWII Memorial

Located just to the north of Chain Bridge is the Hungarian Jewish WWII monument. This monument was incredibly touching, especially given the day’s bleak, rainy weather when I stumbled upon it. A series of bronze shoes are left at the side of the river to commemorate the genocide of Budapest’s jews during WWII. As the story goes, the jews were escorted to the edge of the Danube where they were required to take off their shoes and then shot at the edge of the water so they fell backwards into the Danube which in turn washed the bodies away. The monument was simple, small and sent shivers down my spine.

Saint Stephen's Basilica

CATHEDRALS AND MUSEUMS

What would a post on a great European city be without mention of the city’s grand cathedrals? While Budapest boasts a number of beautiful religious structures one of my favorites is Saint Stephen’s Basilica. Named in honor of Hungary’s first king  (975-1038), the Cathedral is one of the tallest buildings in Budapest and was completed in 1905. Perhaps the most fascinating, and in my opinion disturbing, fact about the Cathedral is what it holds. The Hungarians have held onto St. Stephen’s right hand, the mummified remains of which, are housed within the Cathedral and available for viewing.

Inside Saint Stephen's Basilica

If you’re up for a few steps (364 to be precise), don’t miss the bell towers and dome. One of the interesting aspects of St. Stephens is its exposed double dome. Viewers interested in a spectacular view of the city should head up into the dome and make sure to opt for the stairs for the final leg. The metal staircase winds up through the infrastructure and allows you to look at a cavernous room which features the Cathedral’s inner dome on the bottom, and then it’s free standing upper dome several stories above. Of the many cathedrals I’ve seen, very few actually allow the opportunity to see the exact nature and structure of the building’s dome(s).

Saint Stephen's Basilica

Once you’ve had a chance to view Budapest from above, head back down into the Basilica and enjoy the beautiful interior. I’ve always found that some cathedrals feel larger from the outside, and others from within. Saint Stephen’s Basilica falls into the second category and is bound to leave you feeling awed by it’s impressive size and scale.

Hungarian Museum of Fine Arts

Another must visit is the Hungarian Museum of Fine Arts. A palatial building with a beautiful interior it not only boasts a impressive collection of fine paintings, it also serves as home to the second largest Egyptian collection in Europe and a wonderful mixture of Roman and Greek pieces.

Hungarian Museum of Fine Arts

A beautiful sprawling building built with high ceilings, grand halls, and an abundance of open space, the walls of the Museum of Fine Art are filled with works from some of history’s greatest names including El Greco, Bellini, Velazquez, Goya, Raphael, da Vinci, and Rembrandt among many, many others.

Independence Day in Budapest

Budapest is a fantastic city to wander. During my week there I sampled many of its delightful charms, but lacked the time or good weather to properly explore many others. I can tell you one thing for certain – I fell in love with Budapest and cannot wait to return. The food was good, the city beautiful, and its winding, historical streets an absolute delight. The people were friendly and helpful.

Stay tuned for the next post in my series from Budapest during which I share my days spent exploring Budapest’s castles and palaces! Also, make sure not to miss my post Caving Deep Beneath Budapest – My First Brush With Claustrophobia.

Have a question or considering a trip to Budapest?  Let me know and I’d love to answer it!