Slovakia has only been an independent country for 24 years. Before that, Slovakia had been thrown around between various kingdoms and empires, most recently, in an independent republic with Czech Republic after World War I to form Czechoslovakia. Prior to that, Slovakia was also a part of the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires and was previously ruled by Hungary various times in its long history.
But despite sharing her history with so many other nations, Slovakia has retained her own identity. Speaking with our guide, Eva, reveals the many eccentricities of the Slovaks. Bom during the Baby Boomers generation, Eva remembers life during communist Czechoslovakia and the dramatic change Slovakia went through during the Velvet Revolution. Her grandparents and even her parents were around during the formation of Czechoslovakia and her own children experienced first hand Slovakia’s independence in 1993.
Eva shared how her parents’ generation went through hardships trying to rebuild life after WWII and didn’t have the opportunity to pursue further education. Eva’s generation had it slightly better but Communist rule made it difficult to study anything deemed “impractical’’. Her children’s generation, the one the media have named “millennials”, are experiencing a sort of freedom that was still just a dream when they were toddlers.
Budapest, Hungary is where we start our introduction to the V4 (Visegrád Four, an alliance of four Central European countries: Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Poland). We’re told that “Buda is the more hilly and suburban part of the city, while Pest is the urban centre” the minute we meet our guide, Andrea. Formerly two cities on opposite sides of the Danube River, they were united as one in 1873. This makes Budapest one of the best places to visit for a weekend break.
Stay in Pest for a range of Hungarian entertainment, shopping and dining options but then cross over to Buda to visit prominent landmarks that helped shape Hungary’s history.
We start our tour in Pest at Andrássy Street, one of Budapest’s main shopping streets that is lined with luxury boutiques housed in restored neo-renaissance mansions and townhouses. Shopping at international brand names like Gucci and Armani, stop by the numerous cafes and restaurants for a proper cup of coffee or taste traditional Hungarian food.
One of the more iconic buildings on Andrássy Street is the Hungarian State Opera House, a neo-renaissance building with baroque ornamentations. Hungarian opera took shape around the late 18th century and first began with interpolations of German operas. It was not until mid-19th century that the first fully Hungarian opera was written by Ferenc Erkel, the grandfather of Hungarian opera. We had the privilege of watching one of Ferenc Erkel’s epics, Bánk bán, which is considered to be the national opera of Hungary. Although sung in Hungarian, English subtitles were displayed next to the stage for tourists to understand.
With Andrássy Street as our starting point, we make our way through a series of side streets to reach the Jewish Quarters that are still inhabited largely by Budapest’s Jewish community. The derelict neighbourhood reads of abandonment. “The Jews were forced to move during World War II,” was the explanation Andrea gave us but it wasn’t just WWII that forced the Jews out of Hungary. Prosecution of Hungarian Jews dates back as far as 1349, when Jews were expelled from the country dining the Black Death. Throughout history, the Jewish community would be readmitted and re-persecuted again and again when the country was under Habsburg rule and other foreign kings in the country.
The Hungarian capital has entered its most profound period of transformation since its imperial zenith.
If you want to understand Budapest, buy a subway ticket. The oldest electrified metro line in continental Europe lies below the Hungarian capital, running parallel to one of the youngest.
When Line 1 opened in 1896, the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s second city was in its Belle Epoque glory days, complete with opulent cafes, immaculately shaved gentlemen, and parasol-totting young ladies given to hysteria. The new subway typified the prosperity of Europe’s fastest-growing city. Secession-style entrances of wrought iron led down to stations lined with glazed mosaic tiles. The electric-powered cars were clad in polished wood. “Exceedingly handsome,” wrote a correspondent for a London railroad review. “More like the saloon of a yacht than a tram car?’ The two-mile line and its 11 stations took only 20 months to construct. Christened as the Millennium Underground Railway, the system opened in time for a massive celebration announcing the city on the Danube as a hypermodern metropolis of fin de siecle Europe. The original trains were replaced in the 1970s with vaguely antiqued modern cars, but Line 1, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, remains fully functional, a nostalgic thread connecting many of the city’s most lavish imperial sights.
By contrast, Line 4, completed in 2014, was considered a failure before construction even began. The plan to link the medieval village of Buda to the chaotic commercial district Pest, across the Danube, was approved in the 1970s but languished in political deadlock for more than 30 years. After construction began, in 2006, it quickly became an emblem of the corruption and mismanagement that, while less common than in the days of ‘goulash Communism, still affected Hungary. Unexplained delays caused the budget to balloon to US$2 billion. Residents griped that the line connected parts of the city that didn’t need connecting, while doing nothing to solve the city’s chronic traffic jams.
Wait till the afternoon crowds thin, then cross the drawbridge to this fairy-tale castello almost entirely surrounded by the deep blue water of Lake Garda. All towers and fancy battlements, the 13th-century castle was built by the powerful della Scala (or Scaligeri) princes of nearby Verona, 2 miles out into the lake. Garda is the largest in Italy and considered by many to be the most beautiful in the Lake District.
Just as Bellagio is known as Como’s Pearl of the Lake, fans of Garda call Sirmione the Jewel of the Lake. Beyond the castle are the narrow streets of the boutique- and cafe-lined Old Town, a pedestrian island still redolent of medieval times. In ancient times, the Lake District served as the cool summertime destination of Rome’s VIPs, in particular the hedonist poet Catullus, who was drawn to Sirmione as much for its natural sulfur baths as for the lovely setting. The panoramic Grotte di Catullo is said to be the ruins of his villa.
By comparison the 19th-century Villa Cortine Palace Hotel seems downright modern. Palatial, colonnaded, formidably decorative, and just this side of over-the-top, it is the area’s finest hotel, with impeccable gardens, lapped by the lake’s edge.
Scattered among the remote villages of the Atlas Mountains, the nomadic Berber tribes maintain the ancient customs of their ancestors. The most emblematic ritual is the betrothal ceremony at the annual Imilchil fair.
Having spent spring and the hot summer days in the mountains with their flocks, neighboring clans return to the verdant plain of Imilchil every September to settle in for the winter and to celebrate with this much- awaited social gathering, a kind of marriage mart.
Singles come to find and be found: young men dressed in white djellabahs, displaying their most precious silver daggers; girls wearing modest dresses and handiras capes, heavily hand-embroidered and accessorized with as much jewelry as befits their family’s position.
It is the girls who do the browsing, making small talk; a young girl may take the hand of a handsome young man and lead him about, giggling and asking questions. If she decides he’s a kindred soul, they walk to the scribes’ tent, the two families close in to negotiate, and that evening the couple is married. The fair lasts just three days, and the music and dancing make it feel like one large wedding reception.
Most tour groups head straight upstairs for the gallery dedicated to the mind-boggling treasures of boy-king Tutankhamen. Others make a beeline for the mummy room, only recently reopened after fifteen years.
Regardless of your viewing strategy, the museum houses such an unparalleled collection of treasures (arranged chronologically from the Old [2700—2200 B.C.], to Middle [2100-1800 B.C.], and New [1600-1200 B.C.] Kingdoms) that, allowing just one minute to examine each of its 136,000 pharaonic artifacts, it would take a visitor nine months to see it all.
Another astounding 40,000 items remain crated in the basement, evidence of the chronic space shortage that has plagued Egypt’s greatest museum since it was founded in 1858. A visit here is overwhelming, to say the least; so are the crowds.
After viewing the 1,700 objects unearthed in 1922 in the small tomb of the relatively insignificant pharaoh Tut and the two rooms of twenty-seven mummified royal pharaohs and their queens, the rest of the museum’s exhibits can seem lackluster. A more relaxed return visit can do justice to these other masterworks.
More than 3,000 years ago, on the 34th anniversary of his reign, the never modest Pharaoh Ramses II ordered the colossal Sun Temple of Abu Simbel to be carved into the side of a cliff—with four 65-foot-high seated statues of himself as a young pharaoh on the exterior and an equally awesome interior.
The immense monument took an unknown number of men thirty-six years to complete. In the 1960s an ingenious UNESCO rescue operation saved this and twenty-two other temples from being submerged forever when a high dam was built at Aswan.
The $40 million effort entailed moving and rebuilding both the temple and the statues on higher ground. Engineers even aligned the relocated temple to reproduce a semiannual phenomenon on February 22 and October 22, thought to be the anniversaries of Ramses’s birth and coronation: When the first rays of the sun reach 180 feet deep into the temple’s sanctuary, they illuminate murals of the deified pharaoh and his fellow gods.
The result of the Aswan High Dam is Lake Nasser, or the “Nubian Sea”—the largest freshwater man-made lake in the world. Long unvisited and forgotten, it was a blind spot on the Egyptian map for decades. But the first cruise ship (and still without question the handsomest) parted the waters for tourists on this 300-mile-long lake in 1990: the fifty- four-cabin M.S. Eugenie, a faux steamboat appointed in homage to the opulent comfort enjoyed by wealthy, fin-de-siecle Egyptophiles.
While the majority of foreign cruise passengers today sail north on the Nile from Aswan to crowded Luxor and its legendary sites, travelers heading south to Lake Nasser on the M.S. Eugenie may feel they have the lake’s temple- dotted shores almost to themselves.
The empty desert beyond is like a moonscape, its wind-hewn natural pyramids and bluffs a quiet source of fascination. The steamboat was named after the French empress who opened the Suez Canal in 1869; the Eugenie’s piece de resistance is the Imperial Suite, six times the size of the average spacious cabin. It would have pleased Her Majesty, indeed.
In a dense virgin jungle at the foothills of the Usumacinta Mountains lies one of the most extraordinary ruins of the Mayan culture. Occupying a high, strategically situated plateau, Palenque blossomed during the middle to late Classic Period of the 6th to 9th centuries A.D. as a center of art, religion, and astronomy.
It was one of the first Mayan sites to be discovered and remains one of the most majestic and best preserved. Its elegant architecture, descriptive stucco carvings, calligraphy, and decorative friezes reached great artistic heights, and much has been left in situ.
Other artworks are displayed in a small museum recently opened near the entrance to the grounds, or in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Only a fraction of the monuments have been excavated, the foremost the Templo de las Inscripciones (Temple of the Incriptions), a stepped pyramid that holds the extraordinary tomb of Palenque’s ruler, King Pacal, who died in A.D. 683 (his burial mask, made of 200 fragments of jade, is in the museum in Mexico City).
The perfect complement to the Palenque experience is the lodging at Chan-Kah Ruinas. Its simple stone and wooden bungalows are spread out over 50 acres of primordial jungle like a timeless Mayan village. Your wake-up call comes at dawn when the tropical birds begin their chorus.
The perfectly preserved ancient theater at Epidaurus, built in the 4th century B.C., has acoustics that continue to astound modern-day authorities. The beauty of its setting and its harmonious proportions are without equal.
Restorations since its rediscovery in the last century have been minimal: the original stage of beaten earth has been kept, and the original fifty-four tiers of seats accommodate 14,000, with the red VIP seating in the front rows.
Built with mechanical precision and an artist’s eye for the natural backdrop of peaceful rolling hills, the theater at Epidaurus has become a popular venue for the productions of the Festival of Ancient Drama. It was also, understandably, one of Maria Callas’s favorite places to perform.
It’s a magical place to watch the classics of Sophocles and Euripides, even if you don’t understand the language in which they’re performed. Epidaurus was the sanctuary of Asklepios, the Greek god of medicine, and it attracted the sick from near and far.
Their treatments consisted of physical activity, relaxation, baths, and intellectual pursuits, and so it seems natural that this renowned theater was integrated with one of the world’s first spas.
A crowning achievement of Greek civilization’s golden age, the astonishingly sophisticated Doric temple known as the Parthenon is the largest such structure built in Greece, and it has crowned the loftiest point of the city horizon (acropolis means “upper town”) since the 5th century R.C.
Dedicated to the patron goddess of the city, Athena Paithenos (Virgin Athena), it was originally so vividly painted (like all the other buildings on the Acropolis) that an alarmed Plutarch complained, “We are gilding and adorning our city like a wanton woman.”
Today it shimmers golden white in the sunlight, evidence of its subsequent incarnations as Byzantine church, Frankish cathedral, and Ottoman mosque lost to history. Save the museum for last and see, among other superb statues, four of the original Caryatids, or maidens, formerly serving as columns, and the marble friezes that Lord Elgin did not manage to take back to England.
Greece’s primary artistic event, the summertime Athens Festival, presents ancient dramas, operas, music, and ballet performed by local and internationally acclaimed artists. The 2nd-century Odeon of Herod Atticus on the south slope of the Acropolis has legendary acoustics.