Trip Start Jun 08, 2010
Trip End Aug 26, 2010

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Thursday, July 22, 2010

I realized yesterday that I was using the word "interesting" a lot. For my next trick, I will attempt to write this entire blog entry without typing the word "interesting"...

First stop, Esterházy Palace, the Versailles of Hungary. I haven't seen Versailles, so I can't say how it compares, but it was certainly the second best Baroque palace I've seen in my lifetime. (The first was the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, which I saw in 1991, so it was pretty well neglected at the time, but it was still obviously amazing.) Certainly the man responsible for it's construction, Nicholas Esterházy, didn't say he was trying to top Versailly or even equal it, but I think he definitely succeeded in creating the Versailles of Hungary.

I don't know if Versailles was ever ransacked, but Esterházy Palace was abandoned for 100 years, renovated around 1900, then looted, burned and reused as German headquarters then a Russian military hospital during WWII. Only a small portion of the original items and interiors remained, but much of it had been reconstructed. The Palace was actually undergoing a protracted rennovation. At the time of my visit, only some parts of the interior and one side of the facade had been completed. Rennovation was ongoing on the facade of the main palace and had just begun on some of the out-buildings.

In order to see the interior, you had to join a tour. Although one of the posters at the palace said there was an English tour, there was not. It may have been by reservation only. In fact, there were several extended tours of the grounds that required advanced notice. I settled for the German tour, and probably understood about 60% of it, but they gave me an English handout with an overview of the palace history and each of the rooms we visited.

There were apparently two things Nicholas Esterházy loved, fireworks and Haydn. Two buildings were constructed specifically for performing Haydn's operas, an opera house and a puppet theater. The opera house burned down and was never rebuilt, for a reason I didn't understand because the guide was speaking German, possibly because it occurred during the century the palace was not in use. The puppet theater, where Haydn's operas were performed by marionettes, still exists. Unfortunately, I was told at the information desk the puppet theater will be under rennovation for the next 5-10 years, so I wasn't going to have a chance to see opera-singing marionettes on this trip. Boo!

I did get to see some fireworks, though, of a sort. The museum (the tour had a type of intermission where we went through a series of rooms rebuilt as a small museum) had one room with screens on three of the walls. Projected onto the screens was a recreation, or probably "re-imagining", of what one particularly spectacular show of fireworks in the palace garden might have looked like. It was very impressive, but I question the realism. There were fireworks arching over the heads of the guests, raining down like waterfalls from the tops of the buildings, and shooting out of a boat-shaped float as it rolled across the garden, pretty elaborate for 1790.

After the tour, I walked around the gardens. They mostly contained large topiary trees followed by an extensive section of wild forest. The information booklet said there were fountains and flowers by the bushel in Nicholas's time. I did see a deer in the woods. I couldn't get a good picture because it bolted before I could get anywhere near it. Oddly, I was able to walk a fair distance towards the deer with my jangling cameras and my jingling pocket full of rental car keys and Hungarian change. It wasn't until I crunched a stray leaf in the path that the animal took off.

My hotel for the night was in Sopron, near the border with Austria. On my way to the old town, I stopped by the Bakery Museum. I didn't know what to expect, but I had plenty of time so I thought I'd at least take a peek. I was greeted at the entrance by a woman asking me if I preferred English or German. I told her English, and she made it clear that wasn't happening, so I said German was okay too, expecting to be given a handout explaining the exhibits. Instead, before I knew what was happening, I was on my second German-language tour of the day.

This one I'd say I understood about 95% because she spoke simple German and used a lot of pantomiming, probably because she knew it wasn't my first language. We went through two buildings connected by a breezeway. The first building was the residence of the baker and his family. The last baker died without a wife or any children sometime in the 20th century. The house and bakery went to the city, which turned it into a museum.

The house had small, simple rooms. She showed me the stove and explained how some of it worked. For example, to heat a clothing iron, an iron shape stone was heated in the stove and then placed inside the metal skeleton of an iron. Water could be poured into a pocket on the side of the stove and then drained after being heated. There was even a spherical basket attachment for roasting coffee beans. The kitchen also had a small gas stove, which was used in summer when it was too hot for the full stove.

The second building contained the bakery, including a small cafe. In addition to bread, the bakery made wine and even ice cream on the premises. There were bunks for apprentice bakers or other employees inside of the bakery. One of the store rooms had a small exhibit with photos, drawings and memorabilia from the baker's life.  My favorite was the illustration of "baker dunking" where the baker was dunked when his bread did not weigh as advertised. It reminded me of Ljubljana where the tour guide talked about dunking the baker when the bread was bad.

Wishing my tour guide a good evening, I continued on to Sopron's old town. The main square was in the process of being "restoned", and the adjacent Goat Church (named for the heraldic emblem of it's main patron), was also undergoing renovation. The church had been prominent in the 17th century and held graves from several families that to Catholicism at that time, including the Eszterházy family. The church was still open, so you could enter and see where they had torn-up the floor to reveal the substructures, so that made it pleasantly different from other churches I've seen. Another unusual area of exposed excavation was the forum of the Roman town of Scarbantia, built where Sopron now stands. It looked a lot like the ruins I'd seen at Aquincum, but it was neat to see it within the town borders.

In addition to the usual churches, I was able to visit another synagogue. This was the first trip I'd seen synagogues on, so they were still novel to me and I was always up for a chance to tour one. Due to Sopron's medieval building codes restricting their construction, the synagogue was built set back from the street and hidden behind surrounding buildings. Inside there was a small room, about the size of the Dubrovnik synagogue, and with the same structure of raised central platform surrounded by seats with an alcove for the Torah on the eastern side and a separate room for women. The synagogue and been looted and damaged during the many periods of persecution of the Jews, but the current reconstruction attempted to match as much as possible the original form, and there were still a few bits of original material.

Finished with my stroll around Sopron, I headed back to my hotel with my mind set on getting some fries and a coke at a McDonald's I'd passed out on the highway. I'm not usually a big McDonald's fan, but for some reason I had a craving for hot, crispy french fries. The hotel parking lot was tiny, and I was very close to being parked in. Although I was concerned about scratching up my rental car, my stomach told me to go for it. The hotel clerk saw me maneuvering, and tried to come out and help by directing me. It really would have been easier if she hadn't, but I made it out without any damage.

So after all the time she took to "help", I didn't feel like I could just run grab the fries and be back parking in ten minutes. Instead, I decided to visit Scarbantia's amphitheater. I had seen a blurb about it on the info board near the Forum ruins as well as a mark for it on my map, and it was close to my hotel. The Sopron amphitheater takes the award for Least Excavated Amphitheater of the Trip. It was basically just an oval shaped bowl of grass-covered mounds. Well, at least it added a little time to my excursion.

There we go. Finished and no "interesting" in sight, although I'm sure it took about ten minutes longer for me to write as I struggled with rephrasing and synonyms because I really did see some interesting things today.

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