Are you sure those soldiers are real?

On Sunday morning, we were supposed to disembark for the final time in Budapest. Due to the river level being extremely low, our boat couldn’t make it to Budapest. We made it to Komarno, Slovakia and disembarked there and traveled to Budapest via coach. All things considered, it was a minor deviation and there were no complaints. Compared to some other river boats that are currently on the Danube, we were extremely lucky! We arrived in Budapest, Hungary around 10:00am and split into tour groups. I didn’t know that Budapest was originally divided into Buda and Oduba on the west bank of the Danube and Pest on the east bank of the Danube. Budapest became a single city in 1873. I joined a guide named Liz and she led us around the Buda side of the river. Buda is hilly, green and somewhat suburban and there are spectacular old buildings, churches, monuments and a castle district.   
  As a group, we enjoyed a delicious lunch and then toured the Buda Cathedral. It was gorgeous inside – it was a very different look than the other cathedrals we have seen.   

A bit of free time to wander around on our own and then off to check in to the hotel. We arrived at the Kempinski Hotel Corvinus, a 5-star luxury hotel in the center city of Budapest. It was a gorgeous hotel and the view from my room was amazing!  The remainder of the afternoon and evening was free time and I just relaxed at the hotel. I still wasn’t feeling 100% and decided to get take away from NoBu (the well-known sushi restaurant that happened to be in our hotel) and stay in for the evening. I got my fair share of CNN International, as it was the only channel in English. I was in bed early, hoping to get a good night of sleep.

The following morning, I joined a guide named Oliver as we toured around Pest. Pest is the urban center of the city on the east bank of the Danube. Within the city center, you can find Parliment, the basilica, the Opera, Music Academy, Central Market, the National Theater and the largest synagogue in Europe, the Dohany Street Synagogue. Due to a Jewish holiday, the synagogue was closed but I look forward to visiting in a few weeks when I am in Budapest again. Oliver took us to the Opera House and we were treated to a special performance…





  As Pest is quite spread out, we had a “drive-by” tour of some landmarks, specifically Parliament, Hero’s Square and the Holocaust memorial.   

Our tour ended at the Central Market Hall, a food and souvenir market. Tauck treated us all to homemade strudel – the apple caramel was delicious!  The afternoon was free time and I spent some time with Daisy, a Tauck colleague. We grabbed a quick bite of lunch and then walked around Budapest. There were areas I wanted to see more closely – Parliament and the Shoe Holocaust memorial. Daisy and I had so much fun! We took silly photos with statues and did a lot of people watching.

There was also an awesome fountain that sprayed out of the ground but when you got right in front of it, the water would pause, allowing you to walk through without getting wet.    
   The moment of the afternoon came when we were outside of the Parliament building. There is a huge flagpole that flies the Hungarian flag and there are two soldiers stationed at the base of the flagpole.  Tourists were posing beside the frozen soldiers and it was clear to us that the soldiers were real people…..but not to everyone! There was a group of three tourists who were clearly from the United States and we overheard them saying how they didn’t think that the soldiers were real (and yes, they were serious!). I was shocked to hear such a comment. They went on and on…and on. I couldn’t take it anymore and I spoke to them. I told them that the soldiers were definitely real and they didn’t believe me. I suggested that they watch the soldiers’ throats and that every once in awhile, you can clearly see them swallow. I couldn’t believe this conversation was happening and Daisy was about to lose it! She had to walk away because she was laughing so hard. Apparently they saw one of the soldiers swallow but not the other one…so my poor American friends walked away thinking that one of the soldiers was real and one was fake. Yes, really! I thought I was on some sort of a hidden camera show. Daisy and I laughed for a while and continued our walk.
We walked along the Danube, as I wanted to visit the Holocaust Memorial called Shoes on the Danube. The memorial was conceived by film director, Can Togay, who paired with sculptor Gyula Pauer to honor the Jews who were killed by facist Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest during World War II. The Jews were ordered to take off their shoes, and were shot at the edge of the water so that their bodies fell into the river and were carried away. The memorial is made of 60 pairs of rusted period shoes cast out of iron, different sizes and styles reflect how nobody was spared from the brutality of the Arrow Cross militia. The shoes just sit at the edge of the water, scattered and abandoned, as though their owners had just stepped out of them and left them there.    
    Behind the shoes, there lie three signs (one in each language – Hungarian, English and Hebrew) that say “To the memory of the victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944-45.”   

We made our way back to the hotel to rest a bit before our farewell dinner at the Akademia Club.  Tuesday was a travel day. Our guests departed the hotel throughout the morning and I headed to the airport around 10:30am. Checked my bags, made my way through security and waited at the gate…the typical airport drill.

It was during this time that my life was changed forever! Mind blown…  An easy 90 minutes later, we landed in Amsterdam.


   I took a taxi to the Intercontinental Amstel Hotel, which lies right on the Amstel River. The view from my room was phenomenal and my room was fit for a queen!   

I ordered room service, mapped out my plans for the morning and relaxed for the evening.

On Wednesday morning, it was a bit gloomy outside and the rain clouds were rolling in. I can’t complain, as we have had phenomenal weather since I arrived a few weeks ago. I left the hotel at 8:15am and jumped in a taxi headed for the Anne Frank House. Apparently taxi isn’t the way to travel in Amsterdam…especially during rush hour (cars in general aren’t the way to travel). Everyone in Amsterdam rides a bike! Bikes are everywhere! There are more bikes in Amsterdam than there are people!   
   The canal streets are quite congested in the mornings and if there is even one delivery truck, the streets are gridlocked! I found myself getting annoyed and then reminded myself that it’s out of my control and that there is nothing I can do about it. I wasn’t in a rush and had no specific plans for the day so it didn’t really matter what time I got to the Anne Frank house. I arrived at 8:55am and there was already an extremely long que.  The house and museum opened at 9am and the que inched forward quite slowly, but moving nonetheless.   

I was inside the museum by 9:45am, ready to walk in the steps of a young Jewish girl named Annelies Marie Frank. When I was younger, I read the Diary of Anne Frank and as I walked through the actual house that Anne and seven others lived in as they hid for two years from the Nazis during World War II, I found myself getting emotional. Anne and millions of others were murdered simply because they were Jews. I saw myself in Anne. The Anne Frank house is made up of the former business premises of Otto Frank, including the secret annex that was hidden behind a secret bookshelf.   
Much of the secret annex has remained untouched, including the wallpaper from Anne’s room where she had pasted various magazine photos.   
I was touched by the video clips of Anne’s childhood friends, former neighbors and Otto Frank, Anne’s father, the only survivor of the eight who were in hiding.   
  Otto dedicated his life to sharing Anne’s diary and ensuring that their story and former secret home were preserved and shared with the world. I spent the remainder of the rainy day wandering around de 9 straatjes (the 9 streets), 9 picturesque alleyways in the Amsterdam canal belt. The area is full of quirky little shops, designer boutiques, vintage stores and hidden cafes and restaurants. Umbrella in hand, I wandered and explored and enjoyed not having any specific plans. After just one day in Amsterdam, I can say that I love the vibe of this city!

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