Sunday, May 08, 2016

Meandering East

Slovenia, where's that? I certainly had no idea where it was until I read an article on the BBC website extolling the beauty of Bled. One look at the picture and I was sold. I had to go there. And more than two years later I was there.

I arrived in Ljubljana on a sunny spring afternoon. Don't worry, the spelling looks a lot more difficult than the pronunciation. And the locals were genuinely happy when I uttered the only Slovene word I learned. The historic part of town is set along the river as it snakes around a bluff. There was something beautiful about the city that I couldn't quite put my finger on. Maybe it was the neat red roofed buildings along the river, maybe it was the intimate small town feel, maybe it was the friendly people. Or maybe it was just the peace that comes when you leave the chaos of Rome behind. A short little hike up to the castle gave expansive vistas of the city and beyond. That was followed by a drink at a cafe by the river listening to some 80s pop music. Ljubljana is a great place for your 'bring-back-the-80s' band.

Next day was a trip to Bled, the town that my heart bled for from thousands of miles away. It is picture perfect. A castle set on a cliff high up above the lake against a backdrop of snowy mountains. A church on an island in the lake breaks the monotony of the delicate emerald waters. Tiny boats milling around the island complete the picture. I'd say a trip to the castle, a boat ride to the island and a hike around the lake make for a perfect day. You get the feeling that Slovenia exudes a sense of optimism as it looks to the future after a tumultuous recent past.

The lovely Slovenian countryside and the small town feel of Ljubljana made me want to shift the focus of this trip from big cities to small towns. Guide books tend to overemphasize cities. The cities have a lot of highlights, no doubt. And on a short trip, you get the maximum bang for your buck. But they can leave me tired and jaded after a few days. And occasionally the cosmopolitan feel means uniformity and repetition across different destinations. I'd wanna mix things up a little by trying a few offbeat destinations. Maybe Slovakia in a few days might have something to offer on that front.

There was one last stop in Italy, the beguiling and romantic Venice. The city is beautiful and exhilarating. It is the best city to get lost in. Firstly, you can't end up too far from your hotel as you are surrounded by water. And more importantly you can discover the seductive charm in the hidden treasures of small bridges, gondolas on narrow canals, ornate churches, peaceful piazzas and time worn buildings. There are no cars and bikes and so your mindless zig zag meanderings will not endanger your life. As you get lost you wonder about the future of the city. It is sinking into the sea. It is dying as a city and is slowly turning into a hybrid of a museum and Disney land. Almost everyone you see is a tourist or connected with the tourism trade.
And even those people are day commuters. Venice is a must see before it is too late. This glitzy jewel of yore is slowly fading and sinking as time takes its toll.

Venice has a vibrant classical music scene with many churches being turned into concert venues practically every night. I had the good fortune of attending a free concert in an old stone church one evening. The beautiful singing coupled with the ambiance of delicate lighting in a baroque church and beautiful acoustics made for a memorable performance. Another highlight of Venice is the Cathedral. Initially it gives an impression of a cave with it's dim interiors. But let your eyes adjust and you'll find the beauty in the details. Thousands of square feet of mosaic adorn the roof and walls. A mix of Byzantine, Venetian and Islamic styles make for a unique canvas of medieval art. 

Next stop, Budapest. My first stop in Europe without the Euro. Florints are hard to use given that everything is in the hundreds and thousands. It requires pulling out your rusty and dusty arithmetic skills. And the language is incomprehensible comprising of sounds that I've never heard before. Hungarian is very different from the neighboring Slavic languages and is very difficult to learn. Also, the people seem to smile a lot less here. Not that they are hostile, they are just cold. I believe it is a remnant of the communist era. Another remnant of the communist era, monotone audio guides. I took a boat cruise up and down the Danube one evening to soak in the beautifully lit bridges and castles of Budapest.
The narrator used the same monotone to talk about a king being put in a barrel of snakes and thrown into the river and about Hungarians enjoying summer pastimes along the Danube. I couldn't stop laughing even though some of the events narrated were quite tragic.

While Slovenia could be considered a former commie state, it was not the true red Soviet communism. Hence, I consider this as my first stop behind the Iron Curtain. Though some of Rick Steve's podcasts make it seem like communism is at times remembered fondly, the realty is different. Conversations with a couple of people led me to believe that communist Hungary was a terrible place to live in. A trip to the museum 'House of Terrors' confirmed this notion. I'm now even more grateful for democracy, despite our struggles with dirty politics. I will always cherish freedom of speech and lame jokes. May I always be able to make fun of Trump's hair. I wonder why we have lost interest in our democracies. Maybe it is because we have never seen the horrors of dictatorships as we were lucky to be born in a free society. And what makes it harder to accept is that in Budapest the brutal and corrupt communist officers were never prosecuted after the fall of communism. They are actually living among the people they persecuted. I believe Hungary is trying to move on with life in the hope that the past will be forgiven, if not forgotten. I'm not entirely sure if that's the way forward. May God give them the strength to overcome the horrific events of the past.

Thanks to the Balint Nagy SJ for arranging my stay with the Jesuits in Budapest.

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