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Eastern Europe Part 1: Romania

Eastern Europe

Part 1: Romania –  Dracula, Gypsies and Political Intrigue

 

August 31, 2008

Dateline: Bucharest, Romania

Latitude at Bucharest 44.25 degrees North, Longitude 26.04 degrees East

Since the “Iron Curtain” has more or less rusted, and tourism, along with McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Pepsi Cola, is now booming in the area the formerly known as the Eastern Bloc, we decided to embark on a tour to see first-hand how things are coming along. Fancying ourselves world travelers (what our German friend Klaus tells us is known as “weltenbummler” in his country),  we felt we needed to go here since this is an area of which we largely ignorant  and  have neglected in the past.  We booked, along with our good friends and neighbors, Stu and Sharon, a river cruise on the Danube starting in Romania and ending in Vienna, followed by 3 days in Prague,  a visit with our German friends and fellow “weltenbummlers” in Munich for Oktoberfest and then venturing behind the “Curtain” once more in the former East Germany.

Our expectations were many, largely colored by clichés formulated in the Cold War era and by Hollywood, so it was interesting to see how these panned out. Plus the Balkans, prior to the Soviet era, have always been a hotbed of war, intrigue and mayhem (e.g. WWI started with an assassination in Sarajevo that really probably could have been settled with a duel had it happened anywhere else).  Historically the Balkans have been sort of a cauldron of discontent that boils over periodically, some in squabbles, some in all out war, primarily over those perpetual favorite causes:  possession of land, religion, and ethnicity. In any event, we hoped to avoid any such ”boil-overs” on our trip, including warfare in general and gunfire in particular.

We arrived in Bucharest via New York and Budapest, and thus it was well after dark by the time we got here. Gary had bought a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue at the Budapest duty free shop so he had a sip of that before bedtime. Unfortunately we had flown across the Atlantic on Malev, the Hungarian Airline and we enjoyed the Hungarian Wine so much en route, Gary didn’t realize that it was priced in Euros, not dollars, and having priced the same liquor at JFK Airport’s duty free, thought he had happened upon a bargain. Unfortunately this is not the case so he is sipping that really slowly.

Our cliché based expectations for Romania would concern mostly Dracula, gypsies and big drab blocky looking buildings, a gloomy city in gray-scale or black and white.  We envisioned the occasional citizen/vampire with rather longish canine teeth to be lurking in the shadows.  I further envisioned a stern tour guide, shaped something like a bowling ball, maybe named Ludmilla, with an excess of facial hair and perhaps an unfortunate warty-mole on her lip, perhaps sprouting some of that aforementioned facial hair. She would threaten us with a KGB –type interrogation/torture on our first offense  – perhaps tardiness or talking while she was lecturing us on the virtues of the communal society.  Or perhaps it would be a behemoth named Igor, with a shaven head and little slits for eyes, a cruel mouth . . . but I digress, here’s what really happened.

Our first adventure started with the taxi ride from the Bucharest Airport with Sky Taxi. It was a wild ride with great weaving between construction cones, scattering of intimidated pedestrians and barreling through parking lots offering short cuts. Stop signs were ignored (I think the rule must be you don’t have to stop if nobody’s coming and nobody can come if you aren’t looking).  You would have thought the paparazzi  was in hot pursuit.  Our taxi was a little Peugeot that had a heavy duty mesh screen between the baggage compartment and the backseat, which was we assumed,  intended to keep passengers from being bludgeoned to death by their own luggage if the drive had to stomp on the brakes to avoid disaster. We sorely missed having seat belts and a roll bar. Our driver did ask if we minded if he smoked. His driving was so scary we thought about asking if we could bum one ourselves to calm our nerves. We thought he might have to slow down while smoking, since he was now steering with only one had – but , of course, this was not the case. We feel certain he doesn’t have to worry about the long-term health effects of smoking – odds are he won’t have a long term.  And oddly enough, he has a lot of company. We learned that all cab drivers here drive that way. Despite the driving, we didn’t see a single vehicle with any dents so it must work okay for them. We checked into the JW Marriott, a little haven of sanity, amid the chaos with blessedly soft toilet paper, but the towels are a bit rough so you have to sort of pat yourself dry or else risk drawing blood. Maybe there is a sadistic Ludmilla in the laundry room.

September 1, 2008

Dateline: Bucharest, Romania

Our first myth was busted at breakfast when we met our Tour Guide.  Instead of Ludmilla, we got Bogdan Curea, who goes by “Boggy”. Boggy is a knowledgeable,   quite personable Romanian, who looks like a thinner, younger version of Drew Carey. He tells us his last name in Romanian means “belt” and his first name, quite popular with first time mothers here means “God’s gift”.  He is actually quite a modest fellow, his name not withstanding. Our driver is Ramos – no explanation on that name, but he does a good job of keeping our tour bus with the shiny side up in this kamikaze traffic, which is always appreciated.

We took a tour this morning and were able to confirm one clichéd image. The city is indeed full of dingy Communist-era blocky gray buildings, crumbling concrete, squat and graceless, both apartments and government buildings.   The streets and sidewalks are also crumbling and are in various states of disrepair. It seems the Communists did away with all the smart people who knew things like how to make good concrete, how to wire and plumb buildings, and how to design a building that has even the smallest vestige of artistic merit beyond the “Communist Renaissance” style.  We called this style Proletariat Drab. We wanted to go in search of pre-Communist structures from a far more aesthetically pleasing era and fortunately we found several.

Bucharest's Government Buildings

Bucharest’s Government Buildings

On the positive side, there are still palaces and churches scattered among (and often secreted behind) the architectural monstrosities that line the major avenues. They also have a charming (or at least it has the potential to charm) Old Town called the Lipscani. The Romanians are working on this area, trying to revitalize it and it will be quite interesting if it turns out as envisioned.  Unfortunately, the Communist dictator Nicholas Ceaucescu (more on him later) razed thousands of historic structures to build his hideous building. The hotel where we are staying (the JW Marriott) was started by Ceaucescu, but after his fall, it was finished and opened by Marriott, and they were able to make several cosmetic  and structural improvements. We were told they made one room out of every two that he had planned. I guess Ceaucescu planned on bunk beds since our room is pretty much standard in size now.

The local people are generally on the trim side, especially compared with us more full figured American tourists. Although with the arrival of American fast food chains, I’m thinking the youngsters may be shopping in the Plus sizes themselves before they reach adulthood.  Romanians are attractive people and appear to be mostly fair skinned with dark hair and eyes. The older generation dresses in mostly drab clothing. The younger ones dress in clothing indistinguishable from American teenagers, also in drab colors, but it’s fashionably drab – the same stuff the kids at home wear.  Some of the women seem to favor the hennaed look for their hair (no drab colors here) with riotous shades of red not found in nature, so this is apparently a fairly universal  trend.  There are gypsies, but not so many as we had imagined, since according to Boggy, many have migrated  to greener pastures in Western Europe.   Boggy says most of the cut flowers in the open air markets are sold by gypsies, (more on them later), but for the most part they are unemployed in the traditional sense of the word.  There are also open air markets scattered around the city including ones that, in Boggy’s words, offer “table clothing” which I finally determined is a market selling table cloths.

Romania, is a Latin island in a sea of Slavic countries. It has been occupied for millennia, and was called Dacia when it was part of the Roman Empire. The Romanian language most closely resembles Italian, and like other Romance languages, it is based on Latin. It has been free of Communism since a revolt on December 21, 1989, which resulted in the death of over 1,000 Romanians, before the bad guys decided to decamp.  They still have an economic dependence on Russia to some extent since they get 60% of their gas and oil from them, and we’re told that if they criticize Russia, the price goes up accordingly.   Since the fall of Communism, the retirees have suffered the most, with the wealthiest people being the younger workers.  Unemployment is extremely low now and there is a very respectable economic growth rate here.  Bucharest has 2.5 million people, close to 85 per cent of whom own their own houses. People don’t make much money here by our standards, and rents are high, but when the Communists left, the new government allowed people to buy their homes for practically nothing in order to make at least partial amends for nationalization of all personal property in 1947 when the Communists took over.  They have now joined the European Union, but have their own currency,  the Leu (pronounced Lee-euw,)  which is worth about 50 US cents, and the plural is lei (just like the Hawaiian word). RON is put on prices to indicate it is the new Leu vs. the old one. They dropped several zeroes to make it more reasonable to carry money around.

Boggy pointed out that Romanian drivers are quite “exuberant” in their driving techniques.  They make several brands of cars here, including the local “Dacia”. Boggy attributes the wild driving to close cultural ties with the French and Italians. The sidewalks here are used as much as for parking as for walking. While it is not legal, the offenders so far outnumber the tow trucks, most people take their chances. We have found everyone to be polite and friendly, even as they are bearing down on you in the crosswalk in their Dacias. ” Good Morning” is Bona Niminaza (the spelling is all my own) and Bono Sera is “Good Evening”. However, English is so widely spoken, you can easily get by.

Bucharest has been referred to in pre-Communist times as the Paris of the East (wide boulevards, a smaller version of the Arc d’Triomphe, lots of Parisian Architecture) although Ceaucescu almost single-handedly turned it into the Harlem Housing Projects of the East during his tenure here.

Romania fought Germany in WW1 and lost over 1.5 million people, due in large part to a rather glaring flaw in their national defense plan. They had bought guns from the Germans and ammunition from the British and unfortunately, once at the Front, they discovered that the two would not work together. As you can imagine, things went pretty badly for them for a long time, but they did get Transylvania in the peace deal. They also didn’t fare so well in WWII when they allied themselves with Germany. Then came the Russians, who invaded and did not leave, followed by the Communists and Ceacescu, so this democracy they have now is pretty new for them.  Romania had only won independence from the Turks as recently as 1877 so they didn’t have long to enjoy their freedom the last time around.

When the Communists took over, they deposed the then current king, Mihail, and held one of their famous elections with only one candidate on the ballot, who happened to be their candidate, Ceaucescu’s predecessor.  Ceausescu was quite a success story considering he was a pretty dim bulb and had only a 4th grade education, but as it turned out, a dim-bulb puppet was just what the doctors in Moscow ordered in order for Communism to flourish. Ceausescu’s father was reportedly a drunk, who when selecting a name for him, apparently forgot he already had a son named Nicolae and gave him the same name. Anyway, Nicolae #2 was apparently charismatic in a crazy-man Adolf Hitler sort of way, prone to garbled speeches. He met the leaders of the Communist Party while in jail and once he got out, he became their messenger boy.  He continued with his winning ways to become President in 1965 in a one candidate election and proceeded to further wreck the country, which the Turks and Romanian monarchs had already given him a pretty good start on. Ceaucescu, never one for small plans, had a vision to make Bucharest a port on the Danube and spent a lot of the country’s funds on a canal, but it was never finished The Ceaucescus remained in power for 27 years because he was always miraculously re-elected by the people, which probably has something to do with the fact that a long string of his political opponents” committed suicide” just before the election.

Transylvania Farmhouse with Eyebrows

Transylvania Farmhouse with Eyebrows

Our first visit was to the Village Museum which is a showcase for the 3 regions of current day Romania – Wallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania.  Each of the regions was represented with typical housing in the region from the olden days. For example, Transylvania which is in the mountainous region, had steeply pitched roofs with small vents cut in them, looking strangely like little cartoon eyebrows, rather than chimneys. They would put meat up in the attics and smoke it with the fires they used for warmth.   The phrase “raining cats and dogs” comes from this area. Animals kept outside would often shelter in the eaves from the rain. If it really started pouring, they would get washed down into the yard. It’s understandable how the cats could get up there, but the dogs you have wonder about.

A Farmhouse Window

A Traditional  Farmhouse Window

There were also a number of Romanian Orthodox churches (a mix Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox) Whereas Muslims do not allow any representational art of anything created by God, and the Christians are just the opposite, the Orthodox Church is in between. Images are okay, but are not allowed to be 3 dimensional. They have their icons which painted on every available indoor surface, but they were not allowed to have them on the exterior of the churches during the Communist era.  Because so many people were illiterate in the olden days, they used the illustrations on the walls as a teaching tool for Bible

 

A Romanian House at the Village

A Romanian House at the Village Museum

study. The exterior walls were also used in the rural churches before Communism.  The Transylvania houses also had carvings on their beams and eaves with sharp edges to prevent icicles from forming in winter.  Almost all of the structures were wood, although no nails were used. They made a caulk to seal the boards with a combination of clay and horse manure (that of cows and goats will not do). Boggy told us that as a child during the Communist years, horse dung was at a premium since they confiscated all personal property including horses. His grandmother used to send him out with a pail looking for it and it was not uncommon for children to get into fist fights over it.   You know the times are hard when you are fighting over horse poop. While the Transylvania houses had shingled roofs, the houses in the other two areas had thatched roofs. In areas bordering Turkey, they were

A Low Profile Romanian Farmhouse

A Low Profile Romanian Farmhouse

actually built underground with the roof line only a few feet off the ground. The Turks were notorious raiders and so many Romanians chose the camouflage models.  As in current day Bucharest, there isn’t much sparkle in these old houses, (they are universally dark brown),  and the Communists weren’t even here yet, so maybe they aren’t totally to blame for the lifeless colors we’ve seen here, but at least these homes have architectural interest.

Our next stop was a Collector’s Museum, as we learned, was one of the few in the city open on Mondays. It was pretty much a

A Old Windmill at the Village Museum

A Old Windmill at the Village Museum

snoozer, mostly stuff that people had collected from various parts of the world. One of the most interesting things were Impressionist paintings of an Impressionist I have never heard of, Nicolae Grigorescu (the suffix “escu” means “son of” in the Romanian language, much like Johnson originally meant “son of John” in English.) One thing the museum was full of was religious art – those same flat images we saw at The Village Museum. They were, in my unlearned opinion, very amateurish drawings, flat expressionless eyes and those halos that bear a remarkable resemblance to gold dinner plates, appearing to be attached to the heads of the saintly. I guess that is why they call them icons – they are intended to symbolize, rather than replicate as did the artists from the West who sought a more realistic approach.  The other interesting part of the museum was in the basement where there were decorative pieces from a monastery torn down under Ceaucescu. The story was more interesting than the pieces. Apparently Mrs. Ceascescu  (Elena) was really looney tunes. She did not want to see any churches as she drove around town so several enterprising engineers managed to jack them up and move them back from the major boulevards and ugly Communist Renaissance buildings were put up to block the view of them from the street. People could still go to church, but it was rather “dangerously unfashionable” to do so, and thus no one who was anyone in the Communist party would be seen going to church. Mrs. C also did not like to see any laundry hanging from the balconies on her ugly apartment buildings, so that offense had dire consequences as well.  Mrs. C.  was quite an interesting, if universally despised, character. Like Mr. C, she had no more than a 4th grade education, and she fancied herself a chemist, arranged to be awarded unearned or fake degrees, built herself a laboratory only slightly smaller than the Parliament building and often read scientific papers on TV which she passed off as her own. However, her cover was blown for good one day, when she saw H20 (H-2-oh) in her document, but read it aloud as H-twenty. And of course any smirking or giggling would have been dealt with harshly by the Thought Police, so there were no jokes (at least that anyone survived the telling of) in this regard.

The Palace of Parliament

The Palace of Parliament

After our tour we walked to Old Town, crossing the Dambovita River in search of a restaurant called Caru cu Bere, which translates at Cottage with Beer. Our path took us (mistakenly) in a circuit around the Palace of Parliament, which proved to be no small undertaking since it second only to the Pentagon in terms of size. In fact Mr. C. ordered it to be built larger than the Pentagon, but the architect made a mistake, and we hear, fled to France before Mr. C’s death squad could deal with him harshly.  Our hike included a stroll down Bucharest’s version of the Champs Elysee  –  the chic shops and restaurants seem to be

A Life Size Topiary

A Life Size Topiary

missing, but  it does have the trees and it also sports fountains spurting water down the center which the French version does not. It is called (probably a holdover from Communist days), Boulevard De Unirii, which translates as Unity Blvd. And in a Ceausecu display of ego, it is one meter wider and one meter longer than the original in Paris.   We did find the Caru cu Bere and had a delightful meal. Gary ordered the cabbage rolls and has vowed to sample them whenever and wherever he can. He did pause for a moment when it was listed on the menu as stuffed with “force meat”.  At first we thought it might be a typo and they were offering “horse meat”, but with further inquiry we were able to ascertain it was pork, ostensible forced through a grinder, and Gary and Sharon both pronounced it delicious.  We walked back to the hotel and had a few cocktails at the hotel and it was off to journal-writing and bed well before dark.

September 2, 2008

Dateline: Bucharest, Romania

Peles Castle - Transylvania

Peles Castle – Transylvania

Today we set off for a castle tour after Boggy asked us each individually this question:  “Are you having your passport? We all confirmed, that yes we each were having it, and off we went. En route we learned a subtle distinction: palaces are basically for royalty to live in, whereas  castles are meant to be fortresses to fend off one’s enemies, or perhaps just the local rabble who are thinking they might want a new king. We also learned, first hand, that democracy breeds traffic jams. It was never like this under the Commies, but of course no one had a car to speak of either. The Romanians were subject to repression under 42 years of Communism  and 400% inflation in the post-Soviet era (there is a local saying  that the only things worse than Communism is what comes immediately after it) It appears that they were deprived of material possessions for so long,   they are now becoming “material girls” and boys with a vengeance, in particular, with the purchase of cars. They don’t seem to be deterred by  the price of gasoline, running around $8.00 per gallon. Unfortunately, they have the same road infrastructure that they had the Communist era, and the result is nightmarish traffic.  And thus, of course, we felt right at home.

The largest minority here is Hungarian, with the second largest being gypsies , numbering about 800 thousand. Romania is the largest and most populated Balkan country, about the size of Oregon, with they think, (those gypsies are hard to pin down on those  census forms) close to 2-3  million people here in Bucharest. Romania’s name means “people of Rome” and they were once a Roman state from about the time of Trajan, who built the first bridge across the Danube. Gypsies, who prefer to be called Roma, actually got their name from the British (who have a penchant for renaming things to their own liking (e.g.  Bombay for Mumbai and Peking for Beijing). The Brits were under the mistaken impression that the “Roma” people were from Egypt. Subsequent scholarly studies have shown that they actually originated in India and comprised a lower caste of people who fled India, hoping to improve their fortunes.   It is believed that they actually first migrated to Western Europe, but were forced out and ended up settling in Eastern Europe.  There was actually, as far back as the 1400’s a “diaspora” of the gypsies which certainly served to, if not create, then  re-enforce their nomadic lifestyle. They were persecuted, along with the Jews, for centuries, including being sent to death camps in the Nazi era. A common accusation was that the gypsies cast spells that poisoned the wells in communities where they lived. It is much more likely that the polluted water supply and disease were actually a result of rapidly increasing population which was unaware that it was a very bad idea to dump raw sewage into their local stream, and thus when more and more people started doing it, the next thing you know there was  a typhoid epidemic and things went downhill from there

Under the Communists, they didn’t really discriminate against the gypsies as a group. They more or less discriminated against anyone who was not in the “Party”. The Communists first confiscated all the property and wealth and then redistributed it. Some people went from a mansion to a tiny apartment in an ugly block of cloned apartments, while others went from extreme poverty to those same apartments, but of course they were much more appreciative. In the case of the gypsies, they refused to conform (sort of a passive aggressive thing) in that they moved into the housing, but used any available wood for camp fires and sold the windows on the black market.

Another more or less bright spot, in addition to no traffic, under the Communists was that everyone had a job. Of course it was assigned to you and you had it for your whole life regardless of your performance or skills or intelligence. And while you made money, there was nothing to buy with it, but that was brushed off by the Communist Party as a minor detail to be worked out. Other than these bright spots, life was pretty bleak, indoctrination not education was the rule of the day, and essentially fun was banned in all its manifestations.

The Communists created a lot more problems than they solved, such as the plethora of stray dogs and cats as people were forced to abandon their pets when they were moved into government provided housing.  However, the most truly hare-brained ideas came from the Ceaucescus. Take, for example, the widely publicized orphan problem. They had the bright idea that Romania needed more people so Romania could have more workers to build more ugly buildings. So no form of contraception was allowed. Families who already had several children were having more that they could afford.  There were also a record number of children born out of wedlock and these were taken from the mother at birth. Consequently, there were a lot of back-alley abortions performed by unqualified people in unsanitary conditions, resulting quite often in the death of the pregnant woman. Because the widowed husband, more often than not, could not manage to take care of the children, they were sent to overcrowded, understaffed, unsanitary orphanages where they were treated like caged animals. Thousands of these children were adopted after the fall of Communism. However, today there are very few orphans, and it is illegal for Romanian children to be adopted outside the country.

Romania offers free medical care for its citizens, but the doctors and nursing staff are so poorly paid and the wait is so long that many people use private doctors if they can afford it.  Boggy tells us that it is a common practice to tip your physician and nurses prior to any medical treatment. They swear they give the same service regardless of the gratuity, but it would give one pause for reflection as to the consequences of not offering a tip.

Our first stop was to be the Mogosoaia (pronounced Mow-gush-shy-a” with the accent on “shy”) Palace, but before I get to that, I have to relate a sight I have never seen before, not even in India where the weirdest of the weird sights can be seen. We were on our bus, sitting in traffic inching toward the palace when we glanced out the window to see one of the locals (we assumed) in a compact car (perhaps the Dacia that is manufactured here) inching along going the other way with a casket strapped to the roof. We could only hope it was empty.  Anyway, back to the palace. The name means “wife of Mogush” who is the person the land for the castle was purchased from. This land purchase was actually kind of odd, since most royalty in the olden days just took whatever they wanted.

The Gardens at Mogosoaia Palace

The Gardens at Mogosoaia Palace

The palace was completed in 1702 by Constantin Brancoveneau, who was the ruling prince, who ruled at the pleasure of the sultan of the Ottoman Empire. The Sultan’s pleasure included receiving tribute (gold was his favorite) from the various ruling princes around the Empire. In the case of Romania, this went on for about 500 years. Most ruling princes didn’t last long since the Sultan was really touchy about any number of issues, but  Constantine was able to hang in there  for 26 years. However, this all came to an abrupt halt, on a visit in 1714 to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) to see the Sultan. More or less upon arrival, the Sultan gave him the ultimatum to convert to Islam or else. Constantine said “no thanks”, he was sticking with his Romanian Orthodox.  As it turned out, the “else” happened to be a beheading for Constantine, along with his four sons. Their heads were put on pikes and paraded through town and their bodies were thrown in the sea. Mrs. Brancoveneau and her daughters were imprisoned, but somehow managed to get out and she hired someone to retrieve the headless bodies (no word on where the heads wound up) so she could bury them back in their own country. There are conflicting accounts as to how many were “fished” as Boggy put it.  Constantine, it was later determined, was a martyr for the faith and was declared a saint. As a side note, if you were required to pay tribute to the Sultan and did not have gold, you could send your male children to be trained as soldiers of the Ottoman Empire. Then they could be, and often times were, required (again at the Sultan’s pleasure) to come back to your country to kill you.  So while it was good to be Sultan – it was not so good to be a mere ruling prince.

The Cotroceni Palace

The Cotroceni Palace

We then visited the Cotroceni Palace, which is today the home of the current president.  Ceausescu lived here too, but he called it the Pioneer Palace.  Romania also has a prime minister who has more of the executive duties to run the cabinet. The president is more figurehead than worker bee. He (and maybe one day she) is elected by popular vote, whereas the prime minister is selected by the majority party in the legislature, (similar to the system in Great Britain). The Cotroceni was built by the first king of Romania,  Carol I. This was not a woman – Carol was the Romanian version or Carl, Karl or Charles, depending on where

On the Grounds at Cotorceni Palace

On the Grounds at Cotorceni Palace

you live. After the Ottoman Empire crumbled, Romania became independent, but apparently decided, or someone else decided for them, than rather than a democracy, a king would be just the thing. This was in 1877. The king idea only lasted until 1947, when the Communists took over the reins of government. The Cotroceni is much more elaborately decorated than the Mogushaia with different themes in different rooms – Japanese, French, Moorish, Norwegian, and so forth.  Carol I was married to Elizabeth, a royal princess from Scotland. Their only child died at the age of 4 and with no other heirs, they adopted his nephew, Ferdinand, to succeed him on the throne. Ferdinand married Mary, who was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria and also related to the Romanovs of Russia, so this was a good alliance. However a problem emerged later on because Ferdinand was related to German royalty, and when the World Wars broke out, they had family members going at each other like the Hatfields and McCoys.  Romania fought against Germany in WWI, which proved to be a good choice since it allowed them to take back Transylvania from the Hungarians in the peace settlement. They had a similar family dilemma in WWII, but this time they first sided with Germany due to family ties, but later switched sides to team up with Russia. Unfortunately, by that point, they had a serious credibility issue, and both sides were bombing them for a while, which demonstrates rather dramatically the dangers of a flip-flop at high levels of government.  Then WWII ended, paving the way for a Communist takeover and that was pretty much that for ruling monarchs in Romania.

When the Ceaucescus lived here,  they replaced all the leaded crystal windows in the palace with stained glass. Mr. C was apparently paranoid about people looking in at him, which, given the evil he perpetrated during his tenure, thinking someone might be out to get him was probably a valid concern. He redecorated a suite of rooms anticipating a visit from Queen Elizabeth II, however her aides, put him off, ever so subtly by scheduling her state visit 11 years into the future, by which time Mr. C was more or less history.

We were on our own for lunch so we walked to a restaurant in the old town (in a rather circuitous fashion since we had just enough of an idea of where we were going to travel well beyond where we should have stopped for directions). It was called the Ladies Terrace (or in Romanian, the Terasa Doamnei) and we had a wonderful lunch in an outdoor courtyard. Our waiter (we think his name was Don, but it could have been something with a lot more syllables) was quite a character and we had a lot of fun with him as he more or less made our lunch decisions for us, something along the lines of, although much more cordial than, Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi. Stu was allowed to have his calamari, but it was border line for a while there.   Gary was allowed the cabbage rolls, continuing his cabbage roll taste test research across the Balkans.  Don decided we should have a truly decadent dessert called “papanosh” (spelling is phonetic and may be off a few consonants – accent on the “nosh”). It was basically a hot donut, crowned with the donut hole with icing and strawberry sauce on it.  We made an afternoon of it with a couple we met from Iowa, and had a few cocktails outdoors at the hotel that evening enjoying the summery weather.

September 3, 2008

Dateline: Transylvania, Romania

Today we are heading north into Transylvania and the heart of the Carpathian Mountains.  Transylvania literally translates as “beyond the forest”.   Our destination is the town of Sinaia, (pronounced “ Sin-nye-ah” with the accent on “nye”) It was so named by the founders of a monastery built in 1695 after a visit to the Sinai Peninsula.  On the way out of town, we passed Press Square, whose name comes from the adjacent building housing a local newspaper. Strangely enough, this is where the Communists chose to erect a statue of that not so great friend of the free press, Lenin, and take over all publishing  in the country – all propaganda – all the time.  This statue was pulled down as the revolt against the Communists unfolded on December 21, 1989. The Romanian flag at the time was Blue, Yellow and Red with a hammer and sickle on the middle yellow portion. Since there wasn’t much money for new flags, people just cut out the offending symbol in the middle and flew it anyway.  Today they have the same tri-color as the official flag, minus the offending Communist symbol. However, from time to time, people still fly the old flag with a hole in the middle in a virtual thumb-nosing to the departed Soviets, even though almost 20 years have gone by.

Our drive takes us through Ploieste, the site of the Romanian oil fields that were bombed by the Allies in WWII that were so key to the Nazi War effort. They are still producing oil today and we see pump jacks and drilling rigs in the surrounding countryside.  One of the things we have noticed on the big blocky buildings in the is large advertising banners that often stretch across multiple floors and multiple balconies. We learned that apartment residents get paid by advertisers to hang these ads across their apartment facades. As for the businesses, I guess it is cheaper than erecting a billboard, and the residents get to trade drab for tacky.

Leaving the city behind, the countryside is really lovely, well tended fields, flocks of sheep, orchards  laden with ripe apples, and the Carpathians looming in the distance. There is also mile after mile of fields of sunflowers ready for harvest. Here they use the sunflower oil for cooking, rather than olive oil. We also saw a number of gypsies (a.k.a. “Roma”) in horse-drawn wagons, which are built with two levels. The family sleeps on the lower level and they store their goods to sell (e.g. jewelry, farm produce, or whatever) on the upper level.  They make a brandy from fruit called tuicha (pronounced “Tweak-ah) that is their specialty. When you toast each other in Romania you say “Narack” (my spelling is probably off, but it rhymes with Barack). The Roma do have tribal leaders (literally Gypsy Kings – not to be confused with the band by the same name, although they are musically inclined as a rule) and they do have some laws all their own, but even those are frequently more suggestion than enforced laws.  E.G., girls may marry from age 14 to 16 and boys at 18. The boy’s family pays a dowry to the girl’s family for the loss of income her absence will purportedly cause. They also believe red and green are lucky colors and it is perfectly okay to wear stripes and plaids together. They are extremely superstitious,  E.G. they will not wash the top half of their clothing with the bottom half. I don’t know what is supposed to happen if they do, but our local guide, who is clearly not fan of the Roma, says this is not a problem, since they don’t invest any time in personal hygiene anyway. Also, the Roma are reportedly very religious, but apparently think God was only kidding about that not stealing business.

Rural Transylvania

Rural Transylvania

Our plan was to visit the monastery and two castles, although regretfully, not that of Bran, which is reputed to be the home of Count Dracula, per the Bram Stoker novel.  However, the family castle in question is actually several miles to the west of Bran and is in ruins, but Bran makes much better theater. It’s dark and foreboding, perched on a rock between two mountains, looking like a real life version of the lair of the Grinch who stole Christmas. Dracul, which is the actual family name, in the Romanian language can mean, “Dragon” or “Devil” and thus Dracula means the son of the devil (or dragon). There were a long line of Counts Dracul, although the one everyone thinks of as the vampire is one called Vlad, the Impaler, (in Romania it would be Vlad Tepes)  who lived during the 1400’s.  This nickname came about when Vladimir, (Vlad for short) established a reputation for impaling scores of people who incurred his displeasure on long stakes with sharp points, causing them a slow and painful death. Depending on to whom you talk, some say he only impaled those who really had it coming, and in fact he is considered by most Romanians to be a hero for standing up to the Turks.  One story that does have some historical basis in fact says that he left several miles of impaled enemy captives (some 20,000 in one day as the story goes) for Turkish invaders to see to more or less discourage them from further invasion.  This would certainly cause the average invading soldier to stop and perhaps realign his priorities. I proved an effective way to get his point across– no pun intended. The contrasting view is that his impaling of heads was cruel, wanton and random and that he impaled anyone who crossed him and anyone whom he thought might cross him in the future.

Regardless of what you believe, (as they say , one man’s vampire is another man’s patriot – or maybe they don’t say it and I just made that up myself) you have to think that the man was really looney tunes in a very major way. It is said he liked to test people for honesty by overpaying a merchant. If the merchant returned his money, there was no problem. If not, the merchant would come out, not on the short end, but on the sharp end of the stick.   He also liked to leave coins in the street and see who picked them up and what they did with them. Wrong choices, of course, had serious consequences. Some of his defenders say the whole story about his drinking blood, creating a whole batch of vampires in his wake, etc. is either total fiction created by Bram Stoker, or else a smear campaign started by his enemies. But if his escapade with the Turks is any indicator, he may have done all the evil deeds attributed to him, just to keep his reputation intact so nobody would mess with him.

As for Bran Castle, it was built to defend against raids by the Ottomans, served briefly as a customs house and eventually, was  given as a gift to Romania’s Queen Mary in 1920. Even today it is widely believed to be haunted. And perhaps there was something to the haunted castle business at Bran, which was the Queen’s favorite hangout. As the story goes, she was so fond of it, she asked that her heart be cut out of her body when she died and be buried in the courtyard, while the rest of her was to be carted off to some official royal cemetery to be buried with her husband.  It seems unclear whether her wishes were carried out. She was more than a little on the unconventional side. She was reportedly the first woman ever to be seen smoking in public. Her life and eventual demise were beyond bizarre. She became Queen in 1914 when her husband, Ferdinand inherited the throne. She was considered to be the power behind the throne and is credited with getting Transylvania back for Romania at the end of WWI. However, prior to that she had a number of illicit affairs, several resulting in children, not fathered by her husband. One was reportedly sent away, but after the next few, Ferdinand must have decided to go with the flow and declare them his. I do have to interject here his rooms at the palace at Peles are decidedly feminine while Mary’s have got the usual kingly décor and manly knick-knacks, so she might have worn the pants in the family ,so to speak. But I’m getting ahead of myself. More on Peles Castle after I dish the dirt on Their Majesties.

The Scupture Garden at Peles Castle

The Scupture Garden at Peles Castle

The  five siblings proved to be rambunctious children, including two girls who were nicknamed “Ducky” due to her squeaky voice, and “Mignon” which roughly translates as “petite”, as in Filet Mignon. Her two sons, the heir to the throne, Carol and his younger brother Nicolae were beyond rambunctious, often fighting with each other using lethal weapons. While summering at Bran, they got into a particularly nasty  brawl, involving a knife fight, and when Mary intervened, she was stabbed (unintentionally as the story goes) by Carol. She died some time later, according to rumor from complications from the wound.

 

The Church at Pelisor Castle

The Church at Pelisor Castle

Since Carol, of course, was the Crown Prince, this incident was more or less swept under the rug, along with Mary’s own infidelities and other assorted family scandals.  King Ferdinand died shortly after, and Carol, the oldest son, ascended to the throne as King Carol II. However, he was more commonly known as the “Playboy King and he had trouble focusing on the business of actually being king. His portraits show him to be handsome in a James Dean sort of way, but regretfully, with a weak chin to match his weak character.  He ran off to Paris and Monaco with his mistress du jour, Magda , and back home in Bucharest  his son Mihail, a child at the time, was declared King. However Carol II came back some time later and was again declared king. Apparently he had tired of Magda, or exile or whatever, but he did not apparently tire of illicit sex since he had two children with his high school age mistress upon his return. His wife Elena divorced him – no surprise there. Carol II died in 1940 and Mihail got to be King again, but then the Communists came along in 1947 and he was sidelined until the 1989 revolt. Then the people decided they didn’t really need a monarch since public funds could be wasted quite well without one and they’d had plenty of being bossed around by the Communists. And so Mihail, still alive today, is  more or less still warming the royal bench.

Peles Castle - Summer Home of Romanian Royalty

Peles Castle – Summer Home of Romanian Royalty

We visited Peles Castle, named after the Peles River, which was the summer home of King Carol I and Queen Elizabeth. From the outside is resembles a Bavarian Lodge (albeit a giant one) and on the inside it has the most ornate and elaborate carvings imaginable.  There are over 170 rooms in the palace. The style is actually called German Renaissance, which translates as Big Time Gingerbread, with carvings and curlicues on every surface. It was started in 1873, but not finished until 1914. Then we went to Pelisor (which means little Peles) which was the summer home of Ferdinand and Mary, just down the road from Mom and Dad,

 

Pelisor Castle

Pelisor Castle

and the site of many of the aforementioned shenanigans.  It is only a modest  70 room palace furnished in the Art Nouveau style. Both palaces were among the first in Europe to have central heating, but air conditioning is strictly al fresco. We were told that Ceaucescu wanted to take over Peles as his summer residence, but the local caretakers cleverly fibbed to him (brave souls) telling him they had found bacteria growing in the walls and it would be bad for his health. Hypochondriac that he was, that was more or less the end of that.

 

The Monastery at Peles

The Monastery at Peles

From there we visited the monastery and church which is still functioning today. Carol and Elizabeth lived here part time when Peles was being built. This is a Romanian Orthodox Church, different in several ways from Roman Catholic. E.G. they make the sign of the cross in reverse order and then the touch the ground, signifying the “dust to dust” aspect of the Gospel. They also kiss certain icons in the church, have confession face to face with the priest twice a year, but often chat with him regarding things that concern him throughout the year. Priests have to be married on order to have a church. Otherwise they will be

Monastery Gardens - Peles

Monastery Gardens – Peles

monks.  Mass lasts approximately 3 hours and the attendees stand during that time. There are elaborate liturgies, no hymns and it is highly ritualized, although it seems disorganized to the drop in casual observer. On an egalitarian note, the iconography is no more skillfully rendered for the royalty than for the commoners as far as I can tell.

 

 

 

September 4, 20008

Dateline: Bucharest, Romania

The Palace of Parliament

The Palace of Parliament

Today we visited the Palace of Parliament, first dreamed up and started by Ceaucescu in 1984, He ordered blocks and blocks of historic buildings torn down, including no fewer than 22 churches, in order to erect this behemoth.  A massive earthquake in 1977, centered in Bucharest, only further aided the cause. The Romanians also call the building the Casa Populari, or the people’s house, which has a nicer ring to it than Ceaucescus’s White Elephant. Something we noted here and around much of Bucharest is the lack of care given to lawns. They mow, but they don’t eradicate weeds so any given lawn is a blend of crabgrass, dandelions and other sorts of noxious weeds intermingled with desirable varieties of grass. However, we were told that during the G8 Summit here in April, gardens bloomed, weeds were beaten into submission and stray dogs disappeared from the streets, so apparently it is a matter of priorities. As a side note: Brigitte Bardot provided money to sterilize the stray dogs of Romania, but she must have either lost interest or run out of money because there are lots of puppies running around.

The Palace of Parlilament project was not completed before Ceauscescu and the Communists were booted out, and they were both so hated, the general consensus was to tear it down, but it was at a point where it would cost more to demolish than to finish. Mr. and Mrs. Ceaucescu were eventually convicted in a rather speedy trial of various crimes against humanity, theft, misuse of public funds, etc. and eventually executed by firing squad in December of 2007, so apparently justice isn’t too swift in Romania either. I understand that a video of their execution can be seen on You Tube and other websites, in case anyone is interested in watching.  Mrs. C was even more hated than Mr. C. During their tenure (his official title was General Secretary of Romania), she insisted that her picture be on the first page of every text book in the land. After the revolt, there were millions of textbooks with that page ripped out.

Although Ceaucescu never got to have the big moment in front of the crowds from the gigantic balcony of the Palace of Parliament, the one major world figure who did was Michael Jackson, greeting an estimated (perhaps exaggerated) 1 million fans who had hoped to see him here in concert. Unfortunately, Michael made just the smallest of bloopers when he came out and said

The Potato on a Stake - Downtown Bucharest

The Potato on a Stake – Downtown Bucharest

“Hello, Budapest”.  The local citizens apparently didn’t take it too hard since his concert was a sellout, but Michael ended his remarks rather abruptly after the gaffe. Bucharest also has some interesting post Communist  modern sculpture which the locals usually give irreverent nicknames. My personal favorite is the one called the Potato on a Stake (I thought of an impaled baked potato  and wondered if there is a connection to Vlad) on a tall spire and another called The Cookie, which is indeed cookie shaped with a cross formed by holes cut in it.

Since the 1989 revolt, Romania has had a series of presidents – some with more integrity than others. I didn’t get the names, but it seems they all end in “escu”. One of these “escus” in particular was pointed out as being the worst of the worst (next to Ceaucescu that is). He supposedly sold the Romanian Navy Fleet for scrap and pocketed the money.

We made a brief visit to a Greek Orthodox church, I found that herein dwell the drab Ludmillas of the Eastern Bloc that I had envisioned. She and a clone were guarding the church against improprieties committed by the tourists wandering in off the street. She was built like a fireplug and had a no-nonsense demeanor that convinced us all she could take us down and rip our hearts out for the slightest infraction. Every church we came to visit seems to have their own Ludmilla guarding the portals. They also sell votive candles for you to light for a small fee. In this church, they are lit outside in little metal oven-like structures with vents. I’m not sure why – possibly they are afraid of fire since in subsequent churches they were lit inside with the candles supported in a layer of sand covered by water. Another theory is that they would smoke up the church and obscure the iconography.

We had lunch at the Pescarus Restaurant (translates as the Seagull) and were entertained by native folk dancers and a small musical group playing both classical and the classics with a very gypsy sound, with a few polkas thrown in for good measure. The closing dance number was called the Chicken Dance, although the music and execution of dance moves is very different from the US version. It is done at weddings by the bride and groom for the purpose of collecting wedding gift money from the guests. They use a real chicken (plucked and cooked), but for purposes of this dance, they were the gag gift rubber type and they were collecting tips from the tourists.

The Port of Giurgiu

The Port of Giurgiu

After lunch we drove by bus to Guirgui, Romania, the port on the Danube where we boarded our vessel, the River Explorer. We had dinner on board and then departed for the Bulgarian port of Silistra. We are going down stream toward the Black Sea to enable us to visit Varna tomorrow, before turning upstream and heading west to continue our adventure.

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Eastern Europe Part 2: Bulgaria

Eastern Europe

 Part 2 –  Bulgaria: Gold Artifacts, Iron Gates and Grandma’s Stone Fort

 

September 5, 2008

Dateline: Silistri, Varna and Ruse, Bulgaria

At Ruse Latitude 43.51 degrees  North, Longitude 25.56 degrees East

We came downriver overnight to dock at the port of Silistri, Bulgaria to enable us to take a bus to  Varna on the Black Sea. Apparently Silistri doesn’t have any tourist-worthy sites and so we buzzed through town past the usual collection of Soviet era buildings rather quickly to emerge into a really bucolic countryside. Our guide today is Mariann, who is from Hungary and we also have a local guide from Bulgaria named Malani. Apparently there was a Roman fortress just north of Silistri built in 26 A.D. used to keep the Barbarians at bay. Not much is left standing, and of course, the Barbarians did not remain “at bay” and eventually and made this their own stronghold, along with Varna and Ruse, which we will also visit. These same Barbarians are the ancestors of the Slavic population of Bulgaria today.  Before they drove out the Romans, the Barbarians looted and plundered everything worth having. I don’t really know the difference in looting vs. plundering, but plundering just sounds a little more lucrative of an undertaking. Also the Romans usually were really good at building things to last, so I was surprised their fortress isn’t still intact, but then again if these guys that built the fortifications back then were the forebears of those in the Communist era who couldn’t come up with concrete that didn’t crumble after 10 years – maybe I shouldn’t be surprised – they were probably following a family recipe.

Bulgaria still uses the Cyrillic alphabet, a bright idea of two Bulgarian monks who were brothers, Cyrill and Methody. Both were subsequently given sainthood, but I’m not sure if it was for this or for other good works. But regardless of the kudos, it’s really hard to read any signs and menus in this alphabet they came up with.  The Bulgarian alphabet has 30 letters. The Russians use the same alphabet, but theirs has more letters. I’m not sure why Cyrill got top billing in having the alphabet named after him, nor what Methody thought about it (e.g. was he too saintly to feel miffed?)

Sofia is the capital city of Bulgaria, located inland, closer to the Serbian border than the Danube,  which forms the northern border with Romania. The Balkan Mountains divide the country into two distinct climates, the north of which has the Danube Plain where we are now. It has cold winters with snow and hot summers. To the south of the Balkan Mountains the climate is more Mediterranean, much like that of Greece. Although they are in the European Union, they still have their own currency, the Bulgarian Lev, which goes for $1.36 lev to the US dollar. They have a turbulent past, going back for centuries. In recorded history, they were first conquered by the Romans, then the Barbarians came, and then they had some monarchs here and there. The Ottomans were in control here for 500 years, then the Balkan Wars, the World Wars, the Communists, the unrest in neighboring Balkan countries and so forth.  But with a relatively small minority ethnic population  (about 3% gypsies and 9% Turks), they avoided much of the conflict in neighboring countries.

The countryside was delightful with its checkered in green and gold tones, with the occasional plowed field of chocolate brown. There are few wooded areas, but there is bountiful looking farmland as far as the eye can see with rich black soil, well tended and well plowed. We also had the added pleasure (for us any way) of seeing farm animals used and hay being cut and stacked by hand (no John Deere’s here). Most of the farms are co-operatives and were established when the Communists, who had nationalized all land between 1944 and 1953. Once the Communists left Bulgaria, the land was intended to go back to the original owning families. However by this time, as much as 45 years had gone by and most family members who could even be located were well past the age for farming, and so this land is mostly leased to a younger generation of farmers. This region is grape growing and wine-making country, and also known for grains and sunflowers. Their best cash crop, however is roses, but not for floral purposes. They grow a particular rose, which has an oil called attar of rose which is used in high end perfumes, creams and cosmetics.  Pound for pound it is twice as valuable as gold. It is harvested only in the morning with the dew still on to best retain the scent and it takes a gazillion petals to make an ounce. (In the absence of facts, I have to resort to generalizations – I may have dozed off for this part of the talk.) We also saw numerous herds of goats and sheep which are tended co-operatively in that one shepherd may be taking care of livestock belonging to multiple farmers in kind of a goat/sheep daycare.

There is still a labor shortage of farm workers in the post-Communist era, since an estimated 800 thousand people have emigrated to Italy and other western countries.  Bulgaria has since instituted a program called the Brigadiers (more farm brigade than military) to bring young people to the fields during harvest to “volunteer” for a month or so at a time. They don’t get paid, but they do get time off from high school or college and it can be, according to Malani, a fun thing to do with a summer camp/Spring Break sort of atmosphere.  They live in larger dormitories, with farm families, or if their own homes are close enough, they commute.  Malani told us a joke that Bulgarians had during Communist era that goes like this: The workers pretend they are working and the government pretends they are paying them. Villages are largely self sufficient and every house has a large garden. Donkey carts are still widely used and spotting one will cause a flurry of picture taking by the tourists on a passing bus, present company included, except I accidentally cut off the donkey’s head in my best picture.

The Black Sea at Varna, Bulgaria

The Black Sea at Varna, Bulgaria

We arrived in Varna and got our first glimpse of the Black Sea, which strangely enough is blue. It supposedly gets its name from its reputation as a dangerous place to be during storms, resulting in many lost sailors, resulting in many widows dressed in black. Another theory is that the seaweed makes it look black but the seaweed we saw was green. The Romans referred to it as the Inhospitable Sea – possibly because the rough seas tended to wreck their galleys. An interesting side note:  from outer space, the Black Sea does indeed look black, and so some people who espouse the theories about aliens in ancient times can have a field day with this factoid.  The Black Sea is comprised of saltwater, with an average depth of 3,600 feet, with sharks, dolphins and many species of ocean fish.  Some say there is evidence of Noah’s Ark on the bottom, but that theory may be out there with the one about the outer space perspective on the Black Sea. There are a number of sea ports on the Black Sea and have been since ancient times, but the only outlet to the oceans of the world is through the Bosporus at Istanbul, and thus the Turks have always had a lot of “say” in the goings-on around the Black Sea.

Varna has about 350 thousand people today and is Bulgaria’s major seaport and home to the Bulgarian Navy, such as it is. Over 60% of the revenue of the city is generated by tourism, with the second largest amount coming from shipping and transport-related industries. We learned a few handy Bulgarian phrases:  Good Morning – Dobro utro, Good afternoon – Dobar den, Good evening – Dobar Vecher. The good morning phrase is good until about 10:00 a.m. and then they switch to good afternoon. The afternoon greeting is good until around 4 or 5, and then they switch to good evening. If that isn’t confusing enough, their head movements for yes and no are totally the opposite of ours. A shake of the head means  yes ( da in Bulgarian) and a nodding motion means no (Ne in Bulgarian. ) But most importantly, we learned the phrase for cheers, which is Nazdrave (pronounced “Noz –drah- vey” with the accent on “drah” so we could drink our wine and blend with the locals.

The Varna area has been inhabited for literally thousands of years, with artifacts found dating back to cave dwelling times, as far back as 5,000 BC.  The good stuff however, was discovered just north of Varna and was made by the Thracians, around 1200 BC who lived in a colony of sorts called Odessos.  A trading colony was founded there by the Miletians in 570 BC.  Odessos was attacked by Philip II of Macedonia in 339 B.C.and they managed to fend off the invaders, but when Alexander the Great (also a Macedonian) came along in 335 B.C. they surrendered, and Macedonia ruled Varna until 281 BC. Varna was independent for a while, then the Romans showed up and took over, and of course started building baths, forums, and assorted engineering marvels during the First, Second and Third Century AD. The city came to be known as Varna with the Slavic conquest of the Balkans in the 6th and 7th Century AD. (Slavs were known as the Barbarians by the Romans, just one group of many to be so designated.) Control of the city changed several times during the Middle Ages and then the Ottoman Empire had a turn for 500 or so years, then the Russians kicked them out, then the Nazis came to power followed by the  Russians in their Communist suits this time around.  Since 1990, Bulgaria has been independent,  and now the invaders are the fast food chains (yup McDonalds, KFC and others are here)  A side note on the use of BC and AD here with regard to the calendar:  after so many years of Ottoman Rule (Muslim)  and Communist Rule (atheists), it is common practice here to refer to the year of the Birth of Christ as the start of the Common Era.

The Romans called current day Bulgaria Thracia (and the area across the Danube, current day Romania they called Dacia). The Thracians were the first known jewelers to work in gold and we saw some of their work in a visit to the Archeological Museum. One of the most interesting exhibits was of a male skeleton that had been found with quite a bit of gold jewelry and small gold coin-like discs, about the size of a US quarter. All the gold items were placed so that we could see everything exactly as it was found. The small discs were placed at various points on what had been the body in some sort of ceremonial function. The deceased must have been a very important grand poohbah or whatever his title was, since he was buried with some major “bling” on neck, arms, hands, legs, and ankles. The strangest piece of “bling” I’ve ever encountered  anywhere was in this museum in the shape a small tube made of gold, about the size of a cigar (or maybe half a cigar) that was intended to adorn the king’s private parts (or part should I say). It was very strange jewelry these Thracians had and the beauty part is that they could and did take it with them.  They also made some pieces with exquisite detail such as a pair of earrings with statuettes of Nike the Goddess of Victory from the 4th Century B.C., which I wouldn’t mind having myself.

A Black Sea Resort at Varna

A Black Sea Resort at Varna

Varna sort of reminded us of Atlantic City in the pre- Donald Trump years – kind of a Coney Island for the Proletariat, with many buildings in the Stalinesque Baroque style. However, many wealth people are now building summer homes on nearby beachfront property, so can The Donald be far behind? There is not a boardwalk, but there is an old fashioned bath house and park called the Sea Garden with many buildings that have seen better days. We took a stroll on the beach and were a little surprised to see several topless female sunbathers. Unfortunately, many of the “bosoms” on display were like the buildings of Varna in that most had seen better days.

The Cathedral of the Assumption - Varna

The Cathedral of the Assumption – Varna

We visited the Eastern Orthodox Cathedral of the Assumption of the Holy Mother in Varna, which was built in 1886. In these churches there is a highly decorated wall behind the altar called the iconostasis. The area behind the wall is sacred and is considered to be God’s home. Only priests can go behind the wall, but strangely enough babies and small children being baptized are taken behind the wall to be shown to God only if they are male – no girls allowed.  But I did see a guy go in there with his vacuum cleaner so I guess the cleaning crew doesn’t count.

While Bulgaria is almost overwhelmingly Orthodox, there is a Jewish population with an interesting story from  World War II.  Bulgaria was allied with Germany, and as the head of an allied country, King Boris was ordered to ship all Jews to German concentration camps. King Boris very cleverly wrote a letter to Hitler saying this would be far too expensive and that Bulgaria would build camps and take care of the problem locally, but he had no intention of doing so. It was his way of protecting them.  Bulgaria’s citizens were so protective of their Jewish countrymen that many of them made their own yellow Star of David armbands and wore them in support of their neighbors.

Lunch at the Sunny Day Cove

Lunch at the Sunny Day Cove

We went to a resort called Sunny Day Cove for lunch. It is situated right on the Black Sea on a beautiful stretch of beach, which in the Soviet Era, was reserved exclusively for Communist Party Members and their families. Of course the building architecture is that same blocky style we saw in the cities and towns, but at least it was painted white and was well-landscaped.  We walked the beach and waded in to test the waters. It was by no means warm, but not cold enough to take your breath away.  The wine however, could and did take your breath away. We had some good Bulgarian wine in other places, but this was not one of them. They had two selections, red (which was really more an opaque maroon that frothed a bit on the surface) and the white (which broke a personal cardinal rule of wine drinking which is “one should drink no wine that could be mistaken for a urine sample”).

We went back to our ship and departed for the overnight trip to Ruse (Pronounced Roo-say with the accent on the “Roo”, with a population of around 170 thousand people. It is actually right across the river from our port of embarkation, Giurgiu, Romania so we are again going upriver. There is a bridge across the Danube here, the only drawbridge on the river. Just prior to our arrival in Ruse, we went under the so-called Friendship Bridge between Romania and Bulgaria. Its name is something of an oxymoron since they are often not on good terms.

Of course the Romans were here too (sort of like Kilroy – they were everywhere). They called their settlement Sexagina Prista which means the Port of 60 Ships.  They were later invaded by the Slavic tribes (which is the politically correct term for the Barbarians, particularly since the people telling the story are mostly descendants of theirs). And then of course in the 1400’s those pesky Turks came to town and more or less leveled it. I’m not sure how much effort this would have taken – it could be as simple as two Turks with a match, unless you count the stuff the Romans built as part of the town. Then in the 19th Century a Turkish governor of the area decide to rebuild it and he named is Ruschuk and things started to flourish. It has been an important transportation center (if not a premier tourist attraction) for the Danube corridor ever since, even though occupation of the Ottoman Turks, the Nazis and the Communists.

The Communist Renaissance architecture(a.k.a. Lenin Baroque) is also abundantly evident in the buildings of Ruse, along with the ubiquitous graffiti on every available surface as far up as little vandal arms can reach. The Vandals actually were a tribe (using the term loosely) of the people from the “Land Beyond” as the Romans termed lands beyond the area they controlled.  The Land Beyond contained all sorts of evil doers, whom the Romans termed collectively “Barbarians”, including the Goths and Vandals. The Vandals are among the forefathers of the Slavs so it is interesting how the old tribal moniker has come to apply to the hooligans of spray paint today who are “vandalizing” the property of the descendants of Vandals.

Flower Market at Ruse

Flower Market at Ruse

There are still some charming buildings in Ruse that have managed to avoid the Commie wrecking ball and a major earthquake in 1986, including the Battenburg Palace, a pastel yellow structure trimmed in white with graceful arched windows.  The Battenburgs no longer live there, and it became a museum, as was the fate of so many homes of the wealthy under Communism.  Interestingly enough, these centuries old buildings are holding up over time much better than the Lenin Baroque structures. In these buildings there were no elevators unless the buildings were 6 stories or higher, so, you see it was actually a good thing there wasn’t much food in the grocery store – this way people’s shopping bags would be more manageable. They are currently being “sanitized” which is a Bulgarian euphemism for structurally renovated so they will be safe to live in. We (and even more so the locals) can only hope that some cosmetic sanitizing is also going to take place.

On Ruse's Freedom Square

On Ruse’s Freedom Square

We visited the Holy Trinity Church, a Bulgarian Orthodox Church which was built during the Ottoman era, at a time when they were striving for inconspicuous architecture that the Ottomans could pretend to overlook.  The highlight here was quite unplanned and that was we got to watch the baptism of two boys, one and infant and the other perhaps 6 years old. They actually dipped the naked baby into the baptismal font (more like a giant urn than the sprinkling version) and great wailing ensued, until the mother wrapped him in a towel and put new dry clothes on him (New clothes symbolize a new pure life.) Then it was the little boy’s turn. In the interest of personal modesty, he got to keep his underwear on and his mom lifted him up and stood him up in the “urn” where the water only came perhaps halfway to his knees. The priest then splashed him with water to get him wet all over which caused a giggling fit in the young man who was trying, or so we thought, to keep a straight face. He too was dried off and put into different clothes. Then they walked 3 times around the altar and were taken behind  an icon covered wall called the iconostasis (the area designated as God’s Home) by the priest to be shown to God.

The Turks allowed Christians to worship, but had a set of rules of the things that Orthodox Churches could not have. These included no bell towers, nor religions symbols on the outside (no crosses, no icons). A church could only be built in a spot where a previous church had been and so this kept the numbers of churches down, plus the tallest point on the church could be no taller than the shortest mosque in town.  The church today actually has a bell tower, but it was erected after the Turks left, courtesy of the Russians in 1878. Bulgaria was again saved from oppressors (the Nazis) by Russia, but this time they stuck around and did some oppressing of their own from 1944 to 1990.   Bell towers were used for many purposes including letting people know when it was time for church since common people had no clocks nor watches, letting people know about deaths since there was no newspaper and hardly anyone could read it if there were, sounding alarms about fires and invaders, and so forth. So during Ottoman times, individual people were dispatched house-to-house to bang on doors with whatever sort of metal implement they had on hand.

Freedom Square - Ruse

Freedom Square – Ruse

There are some interesting structures (such as the library and theater  of Ruse and the History Museum) and sculptures here, including the well done Monument of Freedom in Freedom Square, displayed amid fountains and quite pleasing to the eye. There is a statue of a gentleman named Angel Kanchev, a war hero who fought against the Turks. He reportedly took his own life in 1872 rather than to be captured (although it makes you wonder whether this suicide was a patriotic act, of one of self interest, especially since the Turks’ had quite a reputation for nastiness over the centuries. Of course this must be weighed against the impaling business just across the Danube with Vlad, the Impaler back in the 1400’s.) His statue looks, strangely enough,  like he’s holding a starter’s pistol, ready to start a foot race at a track meet, but he was actually trying to get the Bulgarians to revolt against Turkish oppression. They also have a rather modest monument to Stefan Karadzha, the first King of Bulgaria.

The Happy Cafe - ruse

The Happy Cafe – ruse

After our tour, we had lunch in Ruse’s old town at a place that serves food far too healthy to compete with fast food chains.  Our restaurant, called the Happy Café, had umbrellas and outdoor tables on a really charming square. We ordered the Shopska (pronounced just like it sounds with the accent on “shop”) Salad and it was excellent. It is made with vine-ripened tomatoes, crunchy cucumbers, creamy feta cheese and a vinegar and oil dressing with special spices we think included oregano.

Our next stop was to get some snacks for our own personal Happy Hour in our rooms. We bought goldfish, shoe string potatoes and some really awful Cheetoh knockoffs that seemed to be coated in some sort of faux barbecue flavoring. Gary was the only one who seemed to think these were okay. We also bought some Bulgarian gin, which sounds pretty scary, but it was inexpensive, quite tasty and we survived without hangovers so it meets the basic criteria for liquor purchases.  So that night, we had A special Bulgarian toast to our friends and to our voyage  -“nazdrave”.

September 7, 2008

Dateline: Vidin, Bulgaria

Latitude at Vidin 43.59 degrees North, 22.86 degrees South

The Baba Vida Fortress at Vida

The Baba Vida Fortress at Vida

Our ship was tied up at the dock when we awoke this morning and we visited the ancient fortress at Vidin, (it rhymes with Eden), built on a bend in the river in ancient times. Fortesses and castles are so prevalent throughout Europe since they have been killing each other pretty much non-stop for over 2,000 years. Our tour guide, promised that we would be “dazzelated”(she must have been  watching too many of George W. blooper speeches) by the sight of the fortress. Of course English is one of 5 languages in which she is fluent, so I understand a little slip-up from time to time. She explained that most small cities and towns in Bulgaria are actually decreasing in population (really ghost towns compared to the major cities) since many young people have been moving to the larger cities and EU countries looking for work. They are struggling to establish a working capitalist economy, so tourism dollars are much appreciated.

The River Gate to Baba Vida

The River Gate to Baba Vida

We went to the fortress called Baba Vida, which is a massive stone strong-hold first built in 10th Century as a Roman fort and added to over the centuries. For the Romans it served to defend against the Barbarians from across the river (in current-day Romania).  Baba Vida (not what the Romans called it) translates as “Grandma Vida”, a rather strange name for a fortress, but it was named after the youngest daughter of a favorite Bulgarian king. Baba is also “grandma” in several other languages and is the source for the name of the babushka, a scarf worn back in the 60’s by women striving for the dowdy Russian matron look,

 

The Moat at Baba Vida

The Moat at Baba Vida

and the perfect way to deal with a bad hair day. The fortress kept falling into the hands of the enemy, starting with when the Romans tried to defend against the Barbarians.  In the 14th Century A.D., Baba Vida fell to the Ottoman Turks in what they termed the Mother of All Battles, (a phrase the late Saddam Hussein apparently borrowed.  That may have been true for the battle, but it apparently Baba Vida was not actually the Granny of All Fortresses, since it was demolished. The Turks had to rebuild the fort, and occupied it for the duration of their 500 year -rule of the area. The fortress was built of stone and brick and had a moat, now grass-covered, but in the olden days it was full of water  and was intended to slow down the enemy  so they could get the boiling oil ready for when the enemy  started to climb the walls.

The Ramparts of Baba Vida

The Ramparts of Baba Vida

Our tour operator has arranged for a quartet concert for us in one of the ramparts of the fortress which included 3 violinists and a cellist who treated us to Mozart’s, A Little Night Music, and several other light classical pieces as we watched the Danube flow by below us. After the concert we got to peek into a few of the dungeons and barracks, as well as the torture and execution rooms which they had set up with mannequins and props so you could get the visual. On the bright side,it’s pretty toasty up on the ramparts with very little shade. The dungeons were quite cool by comparison so at least in the summer, torture and beheadings aside, the dungeons were really the place to chill out – in the literal sense.

A Quite Street in Vidin

A Quite Street in Vidin

Our next stop was a wine tasting at a local restaurant called – as best I can tell since it was written in Cyrillic alphabet – Gahcka Klwa. I think the translation must be “hotter than the hinges of hell”.  It was, in addition to being toastier than the Baba Vida ramparts, pretty small quarters for 140 or so people who had been inside a stone fortress for a few hours – lots of personal humidity, if you get my drift. If the décor were properly interpreted from a cultural perspective, we deemed it to be a Mexican-Bulgarian restaurant. Plus it was subtitled, again in Cyrillic Mexaha-Pectopaht, and we interpreted the first half of the name to mean Mexican, the second half, well, we gave up on the second half.  They had bread and cheese on the table for snacking, but thankfully, they took us back to the ship for lunch, and we were spared what we believed to be the Bulgarian tacos on the menu. The wine was, well, I guess if you look on the bright side – free. If you choose to be a little more critical, it was not so good as to induce you to finish the half inch they poured into your glass. There were five tastings, the first called Targovishte Muscat Ottonel. The other four were from the Magura vineyard – a chardonnay, a merlot, a gamza (whatever that it is) and a cabernet sauvignon. I mention them only as a warning – suffice to say, my friends, please do not try these at home.

Our Ship, the River Explorer

Our Ship, the River Explorer

We went back to our ship in the early afternoon, had some more palatable wine with a late lunch and sailed up the Danube toward our next destination, Serbia. As a side note: the Danube is not always called the Danube – that is just the English name for it. It can be called the Duna in Hungary and Romania, the Donev in Bulgaria, Serbia and Croatia and the Donau in Austria.

A note on our waiters: We have Miro (from Serbia) who is almost too tall for the job. Ceilings in dining room are 6”8, he is 6”6. He looks very much like his countrymen who play in the NBA. Other waiter is Ivo (pronounced E-vo) who is from Bulgaria. He seems to be a strange mix – a little bit Dracula, a smattering of Mafia.  First the Dracula – he has jet black hair with a widow’s peak that he combs back with some sort of “Slicky-do” hair product. He has big white teeth with the incisors, just a fraction longer than the others (but maybe it’s my imagination). All I know is that when he’s serving, (and he can be at your elbow in a heartbeat without a whisper of a sound) I keep my collar turned up. But then as several days went by we became convinced he has some Sicilian named Guido in his bloodline somewhere because he is also a dead ringer for a NY wise guy – I think it’s the attitude. Just picture a shorter smaller version of Don Corleone in a waiter’s uniform. Dracula and Don Corleone aside, he is really a nice guy.

Tomorrow we will be, as the lyrics of Proud Mary describe, “rolling on the river”. To this point, the Danube has been wide and seemingly placid, although the current appears swift. The riverbanks were lined with trees, and surprisingly there was not much population in evidence. We have seen several people taking advantage of last few days of summer on the beach as we have gone upriver, with their boats, picnics, tents and so forth. That scenery changed literally overnight as we left Bulgaria behind and crossed into Serbia, now on our port, but Romania is still to our starboard.

September 8, 2008

Dateline: The Iron Gates between Romania and Serbia

Latitude 44.40 degrees North, 22.31 degrees East

At the Lockkeeper's House on the Danube

At the Lockkeeper’s House on the Danube

We awoke this morning to find our ship entering the first of two locks that will take us through the Iron Gates, where the river separates the Carpathian Mountains on the Romanian side, from the Balkan Mountains on the Serbian side. This section of the river is 84 miles long and has 3 distinct sub-sections which will take all morning to traverse.  The northern-most gorge (which is actually the one we see last) is called the Golubac and is approximately 10 miles long and 700 feet wide. It derives its name from a medieval fort built on a rock called Baba Kai (there is Baba again – they are fond of naming things for granny in

 

The Great Kazan

The Great Kazan

these parts.) The cliff walls and peaks are as high as 1,650 feet above sea level. Then comes, the Great Kazan, which translates as “big kettle”, and which is at the narrowest part the river – 495 feet across and 175 feet deep at this point.  One of the most amazing things here (which we have to imagine since it is no longer visible because the river was dammed in 1972 and the water level raised by 115 feet), was provided courtesy of the Romans. Emperor Trajan had a bridge erected in this gorge and had roads built that were actually suspended from the cliff tops because the walls of the gorges were too steep to carve out

Trajan's Tablet

Trajan’s Tablet

roads. He needed the road in order to get to the bridge to enable the Roman legions to capture the land they called Dacia (current day Romania). The only thing visible still above the waterline is a commemorative plate carved in granite by the Romans called Trajan’s Tablet. When the dam was being built, in a addition to covering the Roman Road,  as many as 17,000 people were displaced and several villages covered.

We also saw the Romanian version of Mount Rushmore, but with only one face, that of Decebalus Rex, who was the last Dacian king to fight against Trajan’s Romans between 101 and 102 A.D. We also saw two  watchtowers called Trikule from the olden days which were used to signal when the Turkish invaders were coming. Today signaling stations are also in use, but in this case they are used to control river traffic through the Iron Gates. Most are quite utilitarian looking, but one Called Mraconia Station is quite charming, looking more like a church than watchtower.

Prior to the dam being built, there was a canal built in 1896 to circumvent the most dangerous rapids and cataracts to make the river mover navigable. Despite the attempts at mitigating the risks, there were many ships wrecked and supposedly $2 million in gold coins lost on one ship alone. And speaking of legends, there are also reportedly sturgeon in the river so large that they regularly feast on small dogs which, for whatever reason, might be dog-paddling, so to speak, in the river.

Highway Along the Danube

Highway Along the Danube

Prior to the canal, boats and cargo had to be portaged around the various gorges which really restricted how much shipping could take place.  It was a common practice in the days before marine engines to ship downstream only (too narrow for sails, too rough for rowing) and then the ship would be broken up to be used as lumber. No one can say for sure where the source of the Danube is since it disappears under limestone in several places and reappears miles away. In fact some of the Danube water could actually end up in the Rhine since is seeps into limestone all over Germany. Because of the uncertainly over the source, the usual form of numbering kilometer markers (source to sea) is reversed and Marker #1 is at the Black Sea. Of course, now that the Rhine-Main canal and locks are in place, it is possible to travel by river from the Black Sea to Amsterdam.

As we are rolling on up the river, we had a leisurely afternoon so I took the time to record a few “ship facts” about our vessel, the River Explorer:

It was launched 2001, weighing 2,082 tons, with two 1,050 horsepower Caterpillar diesel engines. It has 2 pod type propellers with 360 degree swivel. It is 410 feet long, 37.39 feet wide, 28 feet high, with a draft 5’4”, and a maximum speed 17 mph. It carries a crew of 44, serving 170 passengers.

The Iron Gates of the Danube

The Iron Gates of the Danube

Once through the Iron Gates, the character of the Danube changes back to a more tranquil version, but we found that it is much more scenic than the Lower Danube, with haystacks, prosperous looking farms, small villages with matching houses and most importantly, no sign that the Communists ever built here.  We continued through the night toward Serbia’s capital, Belgrade where we will dock early tomorrow morning.




Eastern Europe Part 3: Serbia and Croatia

Eastern Europe

Part 3: Serbia and Croatia – Ethnic Feud-  It All Started When You Hit Me Back

 

September 9, 2008

Dateline:  Belgrade, Serbia

At Belgrade:  Latitude 44.49 degrees North, Longitude 20.27 degrees East

We arrived in Belgrade early and docked in the Sava River just beyond the point where it empties into the Danube. We had a guest lecturer, a Serbian expert in Balkan history and political science, come aboard to tell us about what has happened here and why.  Our guest speaker’s name is Slobodan (the same name as Milosevich but a much nicer guy) and he said we should call him Dan. In his opening remarks, he told us that he likes the American people very much, but does not comment on American policy, which was as hospitable a welcome as we could expect since NATO bombed his city in 1999. The question of the day is “Did they, or did they not have it coming?”  The answer according to Dan is an emphatic no. So here is the story of the area now referred to as “The Former Yugoslavia “in a nutshell as related by Dan.

Prior to 1914, there were the Balkan Wars which were a series of battles fought for territories with no definitive end or outcome. Country boundaries shifted many times in the ensuing years, and thus every time some altercation (localized squabbles to global warfare) took place, they subsequently found they had people living in countries they didn’t have documentation for, on land that they no longer owned, speaking a language different from those governing them and practicing a religion that was different from the majority – a recipe for disaster if there ever was one.  No one can seem to put their finger on who started it all, but then the finger never points toward the body to which it is attached. Perhaps a Hungarian saying expresses it best:  “It all started when you hit me back”.  The combatants were from six different countries (Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Montenegro and Macedonia). I’m unclear on how Herzegovina figured in back then, but it has since been lumped in with Bosnia. Also the country called Kosovo today was part of Serbia.

Then in 1914 the events that started the First World War began here. Students of history (who managed to stay awake for this class) will remember that the official story is that Archduke Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sofia were assassinated by a Serbian Nationalist in Sarajevo, (current capital of Bosnia, but back then part of Austro-Hungarian Empire which I will refer to as AHE). So why did this cause a global war? The simple answer is it didn’t. It provided an excuse for AHE to attack Serbia.

At that time the AHE stretched to the banks of the Sava River and included modern day Bosnia.  The Serbs were aware the AHE had designs on their country and were feeling threatened, and having recently endured 500 years of outside rule by the Ottoman Turks, they weren’t real eager to go that route again.  So they aligned themselves with some powerful allies in France and Great Britain.   Because the AHE had no sea ports, they wanted the area that is today Serbia and Croatia as a means to obtain one. According to Dan, the assassination was more or less engineered by the AHE to create the excuse they needed to declare war. Here’s how it happened:  AHE conducted military exercises in the border between these two sovereign countries, Croatia and Serbia, led by the ill-fated Archduke himself. The date was June 28 which just so happened to coincide with the exact same date in 1389 when there was a battle between the Turks and the Serbs and it was a Serbian national holiday, which added insult to injury.

The Austro-Hungarians assumed, at least that was their story, that he had been sent to do the deed by the Serbian government and thus they had their excuse to invade, thinking they could easily knock the Serbs off in a matter of weeks. France, who shared a large border with Germany, got nervous, when Germany backed their kissing cousins, the Austrians, so they sided with Serbia. Then Great Britain, concerned about what would happen if France fell (it’s only a short hop across the Channel after all) sided with France. The USA stayed out until 1916, but finally decided isolationism wasn’t working and so they joined in. And the rest is history, literally. The armistice came finally in 1918 and no one really benefited from the war (or learned anything) except arms dealers such as Germany’s House of Krupp, who prospered sufficiently to finance the Nazis in the next World War.

The Danube Below Belgrade

The Danube Below Belgrade

In the wake of the Great War, as it was called, the former warring and still feisty Balkan nations were brought together to make one country called Yugoslavia, a name which means the Land of the South Slavs. They lived in relative peace until the Nazis came along. The Yugoslav government had an agreement with the Nazis, but it was so unpopular with the people, that Hitler in 1941, decided he better provide the locals with an attitude adjustment and so he invaded his own ally, just for good measure. On Palm Sunday of 1941 300 Nazi warplanes killed 25,000 people in one morning in Belgrade. The invasion created even more dissent and the resistance movement grew under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito, who became one of the most successful guerilla fighters of the era. He managed to gain control of over 800 thousand fighters who were loyal to him, which at that time was 5% of the population. Both Churchill and Roosevelt were big supporters of his. The “Freedom Fighters” of Yugoslavia under Tito are credited with saving more than 2,000 downed Allied airmen.

In 1948 Tito became the leader of Yugoslavia, taking the title of “Marshall, albeit under the Communist regime. Unfortunately Russia kept control of almost every country they liberated from the Germans. Tito succeeded by doing a balancing act (sort of a faux Commie/ Western World Wannabe) between Moscow and NATO. He managed to get financial aid from the US (some 13.5 Billion – more than the entire Marshall Plan for rebuilding Europe) while saying no to many directives from Stalin and even living to tell about it. He was able to get away with it because he had friends in high places with big weapons. The US had nukes and a proven delivery system and at that point the USSR did not and Tito apparently convinced Stalin that his friends would nuke him if they messed with him. Under Tito, Yugoslavia was invited to join NATO, but decided he liked being the dictator (a.k.a. “Marshal”) and a democracy would only cramp his style. According to Dan, he was quite brutal in getting the country established, but that he had to be in order to succeed. Once he became established, he became more benevolent (as long as you agreed with him of course. Tito was Croatian by birth, but Belgrade and Serbia became his seat of power and Serbian the national language. One of the Nice Guy Tito’s gifts to the people was free medical care (Dan says that today it is not free, not medical and they don’t care).  He also gave political asylum to Hungarians and Czechs when their respective rebellions against the Commies failed. The Bad Guy Tito had the Secret Police and a Judge Roy Bean Justice system, but Dan sort of dismissed this as a necessity for the times. Overall everything was beautiful under Tito (unless you were part of that 1% on his enemies list or if you were non-Serbian)

Tito's Train Station

Tito’s Train Station

Perhaps Tito’s greatest achievement is that he held a country together that had so many belligerent factions with so many different agendas (e.g. secular nationalists, Muslim separatists, Bosnian Fundamentalists, Croatian Nazis).  It is said that his nation was bordered by 7 countries, cobbled together with 6 republics, 5 nations, 4 languages, 3 religions, 2 alphabets and instead of the partridge in a pear tree, there is 1 party and that would be the Communist one.  He did this mostly by the force of his personality (and his military backing carried quite a bit of weight as well, but one thing did not go according to plan and that happened in 1980 – he died. Perhaps thinking himself immortal, he had no succession plan and a vacuum was created (always a bad idea) leaving the country wide open for the most vicious and unprincipled to rise to the top. The various countries which comprised Yugoslavia no longer had cohesion and once the Soviet Union crumbled, the perfect storm of chaos was ready to break. In Serbia, this was the cue for Slobodan Milosovich to come to power. His misdeeds are well chronicled and the Serbs agree he was bad, but they say “Everyone else was doing it too” (“It” being ethnic cleansing and mass execution of political enemies).

Milosevich has been demonized for the sins of all the bad guys, but the one that really caused his downfall was the violence in the province of Kosovo (termed by the world at large “a humanitarian crisis”) which was brought to light by journalists around in the world and could no longer be ignored. So to get him to order the Serbs to back off, NATO authorized surgical air strikes at key targets in Belgrade in 1999. Milosevich protested that this was all a hoax and western propaganda. According to him the whole Kosovo thing was a minor dust-up and the world should mind its own business. Fortunately NATO wasn’t buying it, and the bombs came down over a period 78 days. Slobodan was a little slow on getting the message, but finally the atrocities stopped and Kosovo has now been recognized as an independent nation.

Now our speaker, Dan, says this is not fair. Kosovo is part of Serbia and the world is interfering, and  it wasn’t Serbia’s fault that a wacko took over the government.  As it turned out the bombings were pretty compassionate as far as bombings go. NATO let it be known through unofficial channels that they were going to bomb Belgrade with dates, times and targets so very few injuries resulted, as far as bombings go. Of course Serbia still wants Kosovo back, saying this whole independence thing was just a bunch of Albanians who moved in and tried to take over the country.

On lighter topics, we learned there are (and were) some Famous Serbs out doing good in the world: Nicola Tesla,(scientist), Mother Teresa, (humanitarian candidate for sainthood) Karl Malden (actor)  and Tarzan (Johnny Weismuller),  Anna Jankovic  and Novak Djokovich (tennis) As an example of just how hard life was in Serbia, early tennis stars didn’t have any tennis courts to play on and had to practice in an empty swimming pool.

An Open Air Restaurant in Belgrade

An Open Air Restaurant in Belgrade

After the lecture, we took a tour of the city with our guide,   Srdan (pronounced Ser-Jan).  There are 2.5 million people who live in Belgrade, but only 1/3 are Serbs. The other 2/3 are from 28 different nations. The name, Belgrade,  comes from the Serbian phrase belo grad which means white town. The name was given to the city by attackers on the fortress in ancient times since it was constructed of white stone. It is a pleasant city with parks and fountains, although it still bears the scars of the 1999 bombings by NATO cruise missiles on those selected targets (Army HQ, Internal Affairs Ministry and Police HQ) and one that was not selected which you probably remember – the Chinese Embassy –  accidentally bombed in an embarrassing “oops” moment.

The Serbian currency is the dinar and the exchange rate is about 52 dinar to the dollar. Their national TV network is called Pink TV. I don’t know if this is a little joke since the station used to broadcast Red Communists propaganda and now they are a democracy with a tinge of socialism and thus only pink, not red. I thought about asking our guide, but some things just don’t translate well – jokes being one of them.

Now at this point, you may saying, what, no Romans? The answer is yes of course there were Romans. Belgrade in those days had one of the roads that led to Rome which was called the Via Militaris – or military road. Anytime they needed to get to Belgrade fast to kick some Barbarian butt, the road was there for the centurions to use.  Unfortunately, the Via Militaris (whose gazillion blocks are still intact even now) mostly lies under the asphalt of a freeway. The Celts had been there before the Romans and many conquerors came after them with most of the conflicts centering on what is today referred to as the Kalemegdan Fortress, built at the confluence of the Danube and the Sava Rivers. Most of the conquerors either destroyed the city or occupied it, with the longest tenants being the Turks, who came in 1521, and stayed for the next 500 years. During the Turkish occupation there were repeated battles, not only with the Slavs trying to kick them out, but also with Crusaders setting out to free the Holy Land.

Downtown Belgrade

Downtown Belgrade

Belgrade is a very prosperous looking city (aside from those half a dozen bombed buildings, but even these have  been tidied up) and is very western in many respects – many streets resemble those of Paris’ wide boulevards lined with chateaux. The city is dotted parks, outdoor restaurants and open air markets, and the drivers don’t exhibit that same crazed behavior as the drivers of Bucharest, so you can walk here without having to risk annihilation at every intersection. They also have the endearing western habit of coming up with cute names for their portable toilets – instead of “Johnny on the Spot” or Port-a-let, they call theirs “Toi-Toi”s.

The best hotel in town is the Hotel Moskva (Moscow Hotel) that was pointed out to us as, not only the place where Tito liked to hobnob with the Jet Set, but as a place of former international intrigue during the Cold War. Today it is mostly celebrity intrigue that goes on there any time a

Republic Square Belrade

Republic Square Belrade

celeb from the West shows up, and thus it has become a paparazzi hangout. We also visited Republic Square, the site of two protests against Milosevich. In 1991 approximately 100 thousand people came to the square demanding that Milosovich leave office. Srdan (our tour guide) was among the protesters and says it was his first experience with tear gas. Unfortunately, the protesters were very harshly dealt with. However, in October of 2000, there were an estimated 1 million protesters in the same square, and this time the police and the military joined them, voicing the same demand and Milosevich came to the conclusion that it was time to decamp. He was later charged with genocide by the International Courts System and imprisoned to await trial at the Hague. He died during his trial and was never punished for his crimes, but many who suffered under him believes God will deal out the justice in this case. Mrs. Milosevich and her son reportedly received asylum in Russia and are living there.

We did a drive by shooting (cameras, not bullets) of both Tito’s former residence and the garden where he is buried. It is in an area very reminiscent of Embassy Row in Washington DC. Tito’s house is now a museum showcasing the many gifts he received over the course of his 35 years in office, bestowed upon him by everybody from Churchill to Elvis. Tito was reportedly quite the name dropper and loved getting lavish gifts. However, there are so many of them that the displays have to be rotated frequently in order to have everything displayed. In the same neighborhood is a house Milosevich built for his daughter, Helen, as a wedding present which he named Villa Helen, although locals just call it the Thank You Daddy Villa. Helen never got to move in since it was finished about the time the one million Serbians gathered at Republic Square and all of a sudden Milosevich had other priorities.

Saint Sava Church

Saint Sava Church

We also had a few minutes just on the outside of St. Sava Church which the locals call The Temple. It is a huge, and beautiful domed structure, very “Eastern” looking – and interestingly enough given the events surrounding its construction, it looks remarkably like the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Sava was the youngest son of the King of Serbia back in the  12th Century, who ruled at the pleasure of the Ottoman Turkish Sultan. Sava traveled to Greece where he became a Greek Orthodox monk, and then made the bold move to go to Constantinople to see the Byzantine Emperor (Sultan) to ask if Serbia could become independent from the Orthodox Church. Strangely enough, the emperor actually agreed and Sava became the first Archbishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church. The Orthodox churches don’t have popes – each branch has its own head.  Shortly thereafter people starting coming to Sava for miracles of healing and so forth. After his death, they still came to the church and prayed to his spirit and the miracles reportedly continued until 1594. At this point, the Turks made the decision to let the church exist, but they took his mortal remains and burned them (since he had been dead for a really long time with no preservatives, I’m not sure what there was to burn, but then it was a time of Miracles, so who knows for sure). His followers collected what was left (presumably bone fragments and ashes) and vowed to rebuild a church in his name. They had to hang on to them for quite a long time since the Turks weren’t driven out until the late 19th Century. The church is still under construction and there have been many offers of financial aid, which have been turned down by the archbishop. He says” we are not building this church – the church is building us”, meaning that the church has given Serbians a sense of self worth and an identity. This building is no small undertaking (e.g. it took 16 hydraulic elevators to lift the dome into place) so the Serbs have a lot of expense and work ahead of them.

The Kalemegdan Fortress

The Kalemegdan Fortress

From there we went to the Kalemegdan Fortress, which is situated on a high bluff at the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers. This location has been used as a strategic military stronghold for over 2500 years. In its early days as a Roman outpost, it was used to keep the Barbarians on their own side of the Danube. Then there were literally centuries of battles with the Turks. The fortress was destroyed many times and every time reconstructed with the rubble of a previous battle. In fact one set of walls from the 1400’s is constructed of brick from the Roman fort, big stone balls used in catapults in Medieval times,

 

The Moat at the Kalemegdan Fortress

The Moat at the Kalemegdan Fortress

and an assortment of mismatched hewn stones from wherever they were found. Srdan tells us that Belgrade has been destroyed 40 times in recorded history and has changed hands 60 times. (I guess that means there were 20 times when they gave up without a fight). It is estimated that over the course of time, approximately 6 million people have died in and around the fortress. One battle was so violent between the Slavs and the Turks that virtually everyone on both sides was killed. The final defeat of the Turks came at the hands of Prince Mihail who liberated the fort in 1867. Actually the Prince had to finish the battle, it started in 1804 before he was born, so it had gone on for 63 years by the time he won the final battle. The Turks were suffering defeats all over the Ottoman Empire and so Mihail may have just outlasted them instead of actually beating them. The fortress continued to have a role in conflicts, but none so bloody. The Fortress was last bombed in 1944-45 by the Allies in advance of the Russian troops coming from the east to liberate the city.

Tito's blue Train

Tito’s blue Train

In the afternoon we had the opportunity to tour and to take a ride on the Blue Train – the personal train and favorite mode of transportation of Josip Broz Tito. The cars had been stored for years after his death, but have been dusted off and brought out for the tourists to see. The cars are very elegantly appointed, velvet covered furniture, burled maple wood paneling, Murano chandeliers and light fixtures and silk draperies. Tito’s most famous guest on the train in terms of star power was  Queen Elizabeth II and we saw her compartments as they were when she stayed in them. Tito’s suite includes a conference room car, and

In tito's Quarters on the Blue Train

In tito’s Quarters on the Blue Train

his personal car which has a small sitting room, office, his bedroom and bath and Mrs. Tito’s bedroom and bath. There were actually 5 Mrs. Tito’s over the years, 3 of which became exes, one of whom died before she could become an ex and one who survived him. Josip was said to have liked the ladies and was quite the libertine, but we weren’t told whether he ever put the moves on Her Majesty during her visit. He was also quite short and was fond of a variety of devices to enhance his physical stature including a taller chair than others around him, only allowing photographs where he is seated, etc.

We left Belgrade in the early evening as we were eating dinner and toasted our good time in Serbia in the local lingo with a heart-felt “nazdraste” , which translates as “cheers”.

September 10, 2008

Dateline:  Vukovar and Osijek, Croatia

Latitude at Vukovar 45.20 degrees North, 19.0 degrees East

The Danube at Vukovar

The Danube at Vukovar

Today we docked at the town of Vukovar,  (pronounced voo-ko-var with the accent on “voo”.) If the name rings a bell, you may have seen footage of it on the national news being bombed, if not into oblivion, then certainly into rubble, during the last decade of the 20th Century. Our tour guide is Sonia, a native of Vukovar,  who was a college student when hostilities broke out in the early 90’s. During the war she worked in an administrative role trying to assist victims of the war and their families in the business of day to day survival Her husband was seriously injured in the war and her home and in fact 95% of her home town was destroyed by a combination of the 3,000 bombs, artillery and house to house fighting. Her comment on all this tragedy was at once simple and profound and that is “You learn to complain less when you are so blessed just to be alive.” In listening to Sonia, we got the other side of the story that Dan, the Serb told us yesterday.

A Restored Church in Vukovar

A Restored Church in Vukovar

Croatia is a boomerang-shaped country with a beautiful coastline on the Adriatic Sea on one side of the outer western edge, Slovenia and Hungary on the northern edge, with  Bosnia/Herzegovina on the underside and Serbia on the easternmost tip. The capital is Zagreb which is in the center of the country, just at the bend of the boomerang. There are 4.5m people in the country, with another 2 million abroad who left during the war with Serbia and have not returned. There are essentially two parts to the country – the coastal area including the lovely Dalmatian Coast (where the spotted dogs with the same name came from originally) most often described as a scenic paradise, and the eastern end of the boomerang, Slavonia, is most often described as a “war-torn” landscape . Croatia is also the country where the necktie for men originated. The Croatian Cavalry back in the olden days wore a scarf they called a cravat, which is a Croat word. The French adopted the look and the word and the necktie evolved from there. Another Croatian export was the Grgich family who moved to California and produced wine under the label, Grgich Hills.  The Croatian currency is the kuna and there are 4.5 kuna to the dollar. The name, “kuna”, literally means “marten” (the little furry mink-like animal) in the Croat language, and harks back to the days when animal pelts were used as currency. They have a chessboard on their national emblem on their flag which symbolized a legend that an ancient king defeated an enemy prince at chess and won the kingdom of Croatia. Of course the way the boundaries have changed , that king might have won some totally different real  estate from what Croatia is today.

As many as 1300 years ago, people settled along the Adriatic Coast and over time more people came and they more or less assimilated. It was only later when religion, language and nationalism got involved that the squabbles started. The biggest threat was from the Ottoman Turks, so the Croats welcomed the rule of the Hapsburg’s Austro-Hungarian Empire (AHE). In WWI of course they sided with the Germans who controlled their long time ally Austria and ended up on the wrong end of that one. Then in WWII their leaders put their money on the Nazis, and we all know how that turned out. However, many of the locals had joined Tito’s guerilla fighters and once the war ended, the country became part of Tito’s Yugoslavia.

The Serbs Were Here

The Serbs Were Here

Here is where the Croatian view diverges from the Serbian one. Sonia was being extremely diplomatic, but gave us the impression that Tito was not considered the national hero here that he was in Serbia – he was much more the heavy handed dictator, and as bad as his Communist brethren across the USSR and the puppet countries they controlled. But they do give him credit for (1) fighting the Nazis (2) standing up to Stalin (3) bringing tourism to Yugoslavia.

The Croatian version of events is that Serbian ambition to control Croatia goes back two hundred years when the prince who ruled Serbia (at the pleasure of the sultan of course) decided that Serbia should rule everywhere that Serbians lived. Since many lived in Croatia, then ipso facto, Croatia should be theirs. However, Croatia was one of the 17 countries ruled by the AHE and they weren’t really eager to relinquish control. Then came the World Wars and then the Communists, which sort of killed the idea of a Serb takeover. However, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, all bets were off and Serbian expansionism reared its ugly head again. The countries under Communist  control began pulling away and establishing themselves as independent countries. Tito had been dead for 9 years and had left no successor to hold Yugoslavia together, which resulted in what was termed the Homeland War.  So the 6 countries that made up Yugoslavia decided to make a break for it. Slovenia tried it first and it went pretty well for them, but when Croatia tried to follow suit, they were attacked by the Yugoslavian Army, which was largely comprised of Serbs, but which also had Croats in it – thus they were ordered to attack their own country. In addition to a regular army there were also right wing Croatian extremists called Chetniks who favored Serb takeover. And the thus the battle began. It is interesting to note that all the fighting was on Croatian soil, and thus the Serbs were viewed as the invaders (except in the Serbian version it was rightfully theirs in the first place.)

Vukovar was the first point of attack in August of 1991 when the first bombs were dropped.  The town was placed under unrelenting siege, and yet the defenders of Vukovar, which included people from towns all over eastern Croatia (military and civilian) were still able to hold out for 3 months  at an enormous cost. There were 2,000 people killed,  over half of which were civilians, and many were found buried in mass graves. Survivors were sent to Serbian concentration camps. While Vukovar  eventually fell on November 18, 1991, the 3 months it held out at least gave the rest of the country time to evacuate and prepare for the coming battle.  Over 22,000 residents became refugees for the duration of the war which lasted for almost 10 years, and ended only with the Dayton Accords, signed in 1998 in Dayton, Ohio, which basically said Serbia had to leave Croatia and go back to their own land as defined by the Accords.  The Croatians have a small clay bird that can serve as a candle holder in many of their homes they adopted during the war as a symbol of their faith in their eventual return to their homes. They call it the Dove of Vukovar.  It is really a pheasant based on an artifact from an earlier time, but who’s going to quibble over details  after what they’ve been through. We bought one to remember our visit.

Flowers Among the Ruins at Vukovar

Flowers Among the Ruins at Vukovar

Our trip today took us through Vukovar to the ancient town of Osijec (pronounced oh-sick, with the accent on the “oh”) which unlike Vukovar, is of significant ancient history. Yep, the Romans were there – with ruins now being excavated just east of the old part of the city. They seemed to have not built much in Vukovar except a road out of there, which given the current state of things, that proved to be good idea.  As we drive through Vukovar on our way out of town, signs of destruction are still everywhere, even though much rebuilding has been done. Some of the people who fled here spent years as refugees and have come back to plant flowers among the ruins as a symbol of their hope for the future.  Croatia still has much to do, including solving an unemployment rate in the eastern area of the country (the war torn part) of around 28%. Those are the official numbers, but our guide Sonia tells us there are many undocumented workers so these people aren’t necessarily idle. Another major

Landmine Warning in an Open Field

Landmine Warning in an Open Field

problem is that many of the mined areas have still not been cleared and on our drive to Osijek we saw many overgrown fields with the warning signs in multiple languages accompanied by a skull and crossbones. Many of these were planted by the Croatians to defend their towns against the Serbs, but unfortunately they are now reaping what was sown. Landmines aside, it is very pretty countryside with farms similar to those in other countries we have seen. It’s also very flat (the local saying in this part of Croatia (Slavonia) the highest thing on the horizon is a pumpkin. ) There is a lot of post-war housing lining the roads that have been built with contributions from foreign countries including the US. We noted that instead of free standing utility poles, they have the poles emerging from the roofline of each house – sort of teepee-like. It should make for an interesting floor plan.

Osijek Town Square

Osijek Town Square

Osijek is still trying to get over the war as well, but because they did not hold out as Vukovar did, they have much more to work with. They do still have a lot of Communism to get over, such as the massive (several blocks long) military barracks from the Tito era. Now why couldn’t the Serbs have destroyed that, they may ask. In an attempt to make lemons into lemonade, they plan to make it into university housing. Our tour takes us to the Tverda (pronounced something like “tah-ver-ja” with the accent on “ver”) which means fortress. It was built by the Austro-Hungarians to fight off the Turks. Much of it has been torn down over the years.

The Tverda

The Tverda

It is situated on the banks of the Drava River on top of old Romans ruins of a community the Romans called Mursa. The Slavs settled here after the Romans were eventually rooted out. The city of Osijek was mentioned in written history as early as 1196 and more or less flourished as a medieval trade city until the Turks showed up under the command of Sultan Sulejman, the Magnificent in 1526, when the town bigwigs promptly surrendered the keys to the city without a struggle. The good news was their surrender saved the city from destruction. The bad news was, the Turks stayed 161 years. They also got a

The Church in Osijek

The Church in Osijek

bridge across the Drava out of the deal since Sulejman had his eye on Vienna. The AHE raised a Christian Army to destroy the infidel and when the Turks heard these Crusaders  were coming, they headed back toward Constantinople at a pretty good clip until Sulejman ordered the city gates closed. However sometime in the night, all the troops simply went over the walls and headed east and the Sultan decided to skedaddle right along with them, and thus Osijek was once again in Christian hands.

 

The Altar at the Church of the Raised Cross

The Altar at the Church of the Raised Cross

We explored the Tverda and visited the Church of the Raised Cross, which the locals call St. Anthony’s Church and an adjacent monastery. City fathers (and mothers) are working to get this area designated as a UNESCO world heritage site. There is a picturesque baroque square with pastel buildings with many commercial enterprises in the lower floors. For example McDonalds is located on the first floor of a  towering gingerbread structure, but the locals say it’s not a McBargain for them with a happy meal running around 5 bucks. Sonia says this is her children’s number one treat of choice. However since the average Croat earns around  $600 per month, it is a rare treat for local children.  The church bells ring out on the square at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., originally to commemorate the defeat of the Turks, but now everyone just uses it to remind them it’s time to head to McDonalds, or more commonly, head home to prepare lunch.

Snjezana''s Street

Snjezana”s Street

All school children go home for lunch – if parents work, then they have a “grandma service” where lunch is prepared by her. School provided lunches are unheard of.   After our visit to the old town, we went to the local village of Almjas (pronounced All-mash with the accent on “all”). The name means apple orchard. It is a tiny village on the banks of the Drava River and there we had lunch prepared for us by a local woman who lives there named Snjezana. If you ignore the “j” in her first name, the pronunciation will be close to Sneeze Anna, but it didn’t sound all that bad and in Croatian. It means something along the lines of White Snow or Snowflake. She works as a hairdresser in the village and her husband is an electrician. She lost a 20 year old brother in the war and has named one of her two teenage sons after him. We met the sons, but not the father and they were so much like American teenagers, it made us smile. She made a great chicken soup for us with couscous dumplings and then served meatballs and all sorts of fresh vegetables from her garden and a cake she made herself from scratch. She also served us local wine and fresh cherry juice from her own tree’s fruit. She also offered some plum brandy they call palinka, but it was pretty strong stuff – I think it may double as charcoal

Local Refresments in Vukovar

Local Refreshments in Vukovar

starter. Plum brandy aside, it was a delightful meal and a memorable glimpse into another culture that demonstrated something that is true all over the world. That is: We human beings have much more that binds us together than separates us. After some local refreshments along the Danube in Vukovar, we returned to our ship to head up the Danube into Hungary, ready for our next adventure.

 

 




Eastern Europe Part 4: Hungary

Eastern Europe

Part 4 – Hungary: Land of Pusztas and Paprika 

 

September 11, 2008

Dateline:  Mohacs and Pecs, Hungary

Latitude at Mohacs 46.00 degrees North, 18.68 degrees East

From Croatia we motored overnight and docked at our first port in Hungary, called Mohacs (pronounced Mo-hatch with the accent on “Mo”), and which is our first entry into a European Union country. However, the real reason for stopping there is to go by motor coach to the ancient town of Pecs (pronounced Paych). Hungary uses the forint as their currency and the exchange rate during our visit was 158 HUF to the dollar, so as you can imagine, it took quite a few forints to buy anything, assuming there was anything to buy in Mohacs, but that would be a no for the most part. Pecs was a different story and made the stop entirely worthwhile, although in the half-day allocated, we pretty much hit all the high points. Our guide is Istvan, which is Stephen in Hungarian and quite a common name. Istvan bears a remarkable resemblance to Ross the Intern on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show – kind of chubby, kind of gay. Istvan, like our other guides, is quite the diplomat. Someone asked if gypsies were a problem in Hungary and his reply was “They earn their reputation” A note on accents – we have noticed that many of the guides have difficulty with the “th” sounds in English. South becomes Souse. We have heard it so often, we no longer hear it and have started using it ourselves.

En route we learned a few key phrases like yes is “igen” and no is “nem”. Good is “jo” (pronounced “yo”) and you can add it to “reggelt” for good morning, napot for good afternoon and so forth. Hungarians called themselves “Magyars” going back to their heritage as descendants of Central Asian and Mongol invaders – and thus the classic Slavic facial structure with the high cheekbones. The terrain here is gently rolling hills, although the Hungarians call them mountains, the Mecsek Mountains to be exact, and the city is 135 miles southwest of Budapest. Sixty per cent of Hungary is open land, part of a rich farming region that covers most of Hungary and stretches into Romania, Serbia and Croatia that is called the Alfold.

Roman Ruins in Pecs

Roman Ruins in Pecs

Pecs goes back to (you guessed it) Roman times and part of our tour today took us through the site of Sopiane (pronounced Soapy Annie), the original city of the Romans and the early Christian catacombs. The Romans called what is the current day Great Hungarian Plain, Pannonia, although the Danube was considered its border, with Barbarians lands to the east. Hungarians call this the pustza (pronounced pooh-sta with the accent on “pooh”) which literally means “bare ground”). A Pustza is also a ranch, but more on that in tomorrow’s travelogue. Speaking of Barbarians, I had always thought Attila, the Hun was from Hungary, but was told this is not the case. He invaded and occupied Hungary for a time, but they don’t claim him as one of their own.  Attila and his followers are credited with running off the Romans after repeated raids and they set up headquarters in what is today Budapest, but once there was nothing left to loot, they more or less moved on and left an opportunity for the conquering Magyars to move in around 896 A.D. and the state of Hungary was established in 1,000 A.D.

Pecs in Medieval times was known as Quinque Ecclesiae which translates as Five Churches. The city walls were built after the Mongol invasion in the mid-1200’s, but a lot of good they did since the Ottoman Turks breezed into town and took over in 1541. Then it was taken from the Turks in 1686 by Europeans armies led by the Habsburgs and Hungary became part of their empire. They picked the wrong side in both World Wars and then the Communists came and they fared poorly under that regime as well. Hungary has never won a war, and we were told that when the Turks invaded, the locals in Pecs hid in trees on an island in the river. Given their track record, we wondered if this makes the EU allies nervous about having them on their side.

The Church of St. Mary - Pecs

The Church of St. Mary – Pecs

There was a large Jewish population here as well , and all major religions have at one point peacefully coexisted. In the town center, there is a rather unique religious structure called the Church of St. Mary, but it has come to be called the Mosque Church because when the Turks invaded, they tore down the old Romanseque church that was there and used the stones to build a mosque. When the Turks left, it was converted back to a Christian church, but in a rare show of unity the dome today has both a Christian Cross and an Islamic crescent. An interesting note on conversions: Pecs has one of the foremost porcelain factories in the world (called Zsolnay),known for especially delicate artistic pieces. When the Communists took over, they made them shift production to ceramic insulators since to paraphrase the Comrades:  “The people don’t need no stinkin’ art”. We also saw large stretches of pipeline – all above ground and all an aesthetic nightmare – which provides steam for the city’s use (power and heat). This was also a Communist project, so we assumed they also felt “The people don’t need no stinkin’ underground utilities.

Communism collapsed in 1990 and now the land that they had nationalized is mostly (90%) back in private hands, with a lot of private and corporate investors. The farm houses are tidy with flower boxes and well tended gardens attached. The grapes grown in this region are Tokay and thus the regional wines are white. Hungarians are noted for their ability to make liquor out of everything. They have a paprika schnapps which they call palinka and it is only slightly more palatable, than say, jet fuel.

They also grow peaches, almonds, figs, maize (which is what they call sweet corn) and corn (which is what we call feed corn) and most of all they grow the national spice: paprika. Paprika is derived from peppers which are dried and ground, but Hungarian paprika is much more flavorful than the wimpy US version which is mostly used to add color to a dish. It is also made into a paste and can be used that way as well. A dish made with paprika will be said to be “paprikas”, (e. g. you can have Chicken Paprikas or Pork paprikas). Hungarian farmers are having issues with labor for the farms since the farming population is aging and it seems all the young people want to go to the cities and thus they have an immigration issue similar to ours, but with Albanians instead of Mexicans supplying the labor.   They do have a Halloween-like celebration of the harvest which phonetically sounds like “Busso”, but I never did get the exact  spelling. In any event, people dress up in scary costumes to ward off the evil spirits, drink wine and eat donuts and have a parade, so we thought these are our likely our kind of people.

Lovers' Locks

Lovers’ Locks

Upon arrival in Pecs, we walked to the city square and on to the cathedral. En route we noticed two wrought iron fences covered with padlocks (by covered I mean so thick the fence no longer shows). As the story goes, a young man was trying to demonstrate the depth of his love for the girl of his dreams and he attached the padlock to the fence, threw away the key and announced that this would forever be a symbol of his undying love. Since that day, thousands of lovers have supposedly followed suit and consequently the site has turned into a tourist attraction. Gary says it would be a good business opportunity for some enterprising individuals to set up a stand to sell padlocks to the tourist to add to the fence so he will probably be emailing this idea in to the Pecs Chamber of Commerce.

St Peter's Basilica

St Peter’s Basilica

The Pecs Cathedral (called St. Peter’s Basilica) originally dates from the 11th Century and has been torn down and rebuilt several times. It was built literally on top of the Roman Christian Necropolis (now subterranean catacombs). Over the centuries Sopiane disappeared as structures were build on its ruins and stone was “borrowed “ from its walls. Only part of the site has been excavated and preserved with much more still to be explored by archaeologists. We were able to go into the catacombs to see the ancient necropolis – chapels, tombs and burial chambers, many of which were elaborately carved and frescoed. The necropolis was called the Cella Septichora after a 7 chambered mausoleum that was one of its major features.

Tasting the Local Brew - Zlaty Bazant

Tasting the Local Brew – Zlaty Bazant

We had free time so the beer drinkers in our group sampled the local brew at a sidewalk café called Zlaty Bazant and pronounced it good. If we had toasted in Hungarian, I think we tried but mangled it – we would have said egeszsegedre which would have sounded something like ah-gah-she-ged-rah with the accent on “ah”). You need quite a few Zlaty Bazants to get this right and you should never try this when sober.

 

 

September 12, 2008

Dateline: Kalocsa, Hungary

Latitude at Kalocsa 46.31 degrees North, 18.59 degrees East

A Warm Welcome to the Puszta-Bakod

A Warm Welcome to the Puszta-Bakod

We motored upriver a short distance to  a small town called Kalocsa (pronounced Kah-low-cha with the accent on “low”), which over the centuries has had the strange misfortune of having the Danube re-channel itself and move away from the town by 4 miles, which more or less put a damper on their shipping industry ambitions. Our focus today is not on the town, which has quite a history, being first established in 1000 AD, but it was burned to the ground by the Turks. When they finally left, it was rebuilt, but the Danube had moved on by that time.  Today we went to a local puszta – a Hungarian ranch, called the Puszta Bakod (pronounced bah-code with the accent on “bah”). It is a working ranch with herds of a special breed of cattle called Hungarian Grays. A herd of cattle is called a “gulya” and the soup or stew was called gulyasleves, which has been Americanized and termed “goulash”. We are in the heart of paprika country, termed piros arany (red gold) by the locals. Interestingly enough, it was those pesky Turks who first introduced paprika into Hungary, so their 500 year occupation had at least one positive note.

A Chicoca and his Horse

A Chicoca and his Horse

At the Puszta Bakod we were greeted by Hungarian Cowboys called “Chicocas” (pronounced cheek-oh-cash with the accent on “cheek”. In envisioning the chicocas you should think more gaucho than John Wayne type cowboys. They ride with a saddle, but it has no girth so they have to stay balanced on the horse on their own just as if they were bareback riding. They also brandish long whips called ostors (pronounced oss-tors with the accent on “oss) but they never touch their horses with them – they crack them to make a sound like a gunshot. Horses and cattle are intended to react to the sound, but the horses we see are trained

Hungarian Grays

Hungarian Grays

to obey very subtle voice and physical commands. The horses are aspecially bred and are half-Arabian (for speed and stamina) and half-Hungarian (for size and strength. The Hungarian Gray cattle are not so easily trained and can get quite feisty so they need the more heavy handed approach. They are however, quite hardy creatures, bred for both their meat and their ability to pull wagons easily. I don’t know if they make the connection between over-achieving at wagon pulling to avoid ending up on some one’s barbecue grill. Gary bought an ostor and tried

 

A Racka Sheep

A Racka Sheep

it out, but he is going to need some remedial work since with his initial efforts he hit himself in the back of the head with the tip. They also have a special breed of sheep called racka which have short twisty horns and dreadlock fur. They don’t use the whip on the sheep at all. They are kept in line by special breeds of herding dogs including the komondor, the kuvasz and my favorite, the  puli, which has dreadlocks of his own (the better to blend in with the herd).

 

 

A Horse in "Stealth Mode"

A Horse in “Stealth Mode”

Two of the most interesting horse behaviors we saw are totally unnatural for horses and that is to lie down on command and stay there and to sit on their haunches on command. The lying down part had a very practical application in the olden days when,for example, soldiers wanted to ambush invading Turks. Riders would have their horses lie down in a wheat field and they and their riders could not be seen by the enemy and they could hide or ambush (whichever seemed to work out best for them). The sitting down part seems to be mostly to amuse the tourists.

 

An 8-in-Hand Demonstration

An 8-in-Hand Demonstration

The chicocas put on a great show for us, demonstrating their own and their horses skills. There was a historical aspect – showing us how they pulled working wagons, as well as fancy carriages, along with rodeo type skills that showcased the horses’ training and the riders’ skill. The most impressive skill (called 8 in Hand) was a rider who handled the reins of 8 horses with no wagon – he stood on the backs of the last 2 horses as they galloped around the arena at top speed.

 

 

Watering the Horses

Watering the Horses

After the riding exhibition we traveled a short distance out on the prairie for a few refreshments and had a chance to mingle with the horses and found that they are very well mannered. We also had the opportunity to fill their trough from a hand operated well. We learned they prefer to drink out of the bucket rather than the trough – it got a little murky there with all those horse lips dripping water back into it so I guess that demonstrates why they call it “horse sense”. This is definitely the wide open spaces – the highest point of the Great Plains is only 346 feet higher than the lowest point, which more or less explains how the Danube can move pretty much where ever it wants. We returned to our ship and departed for Budapest, where we arrived in the wee hours.

September 13, 2008

Dateline: Budapest, Hungary

Latitude at Budapest 47.29 degrees North, Longitude 19.03 degrees East

 

Statue of King Mattias at the Fisherman's Bastion

Statue of King Mattias at the Fisherman’s Bastion

Budapest is actually two cities which were united in 1872, with Buda on the hilly side of the Danube’s west bank, and Pest on the flat east side. At around 2:00 a.m. we docked on the Danube on the Pest side of Budapest. We are told the correct pronunciation is “Buda-Pesht”. There are conflicting reports about the origin of the name “Buda”. Buda was the name of Attila the Hun’s brother, but also a Slavic word for water. Pest is simpler – it is the Hungarian word for almond and supposedly almond trees covered the eastern bank of the Danube in the olden days. The history of the city goes back over 1,100 years and they had their millennium celebration in 1896. The city was established when 7 Slavic tribal chieftains called Magyars brought their people down from the Ural Mountains in Central Asia to live here. Interestingly enough, the Hungarian language’s closest relative is Finnish, so apparently there was a lot of wandering going on. Of course the Romans were here first with their city called Aquincum which was settled around 89 A.D. and the Celts were here even before that. Aquicum was the capital of lower Pannonia, as the Romans called the Great Plains area.  Sometime in the 4th Century, they left , driven out by the barbarians, and thus clearing the way for the Magyars. In 1361 Buda was declared the capital and a nobleman named Stephen (later declared a saint) became Hungary’s first king and then patron saint.

Things went along swimmingly for a couple of hundred years until those pesky Turks showed up.  Once they were defeated, Hungary joined forces with neighboring Austria, kind of like the scrawny nerd makes friends with the big guys as school. Consequently, they didn’t co-exist as equal partners in the Austro-Hungarian Empire – Hungarians were significantly less equal than Austrians in the scheme of things and the royal family of Habsburgs (often spelled Hapsburgs) from Austria ruled Hungary as well. Second class or not, this proved to be their last good

Old Buildings in Buda with WWII Shell Damage

Old Buildings in Buda with WWII Shell Damage

alliance for a while. They were on the losing side in both World Wars. In WWII the retreating Germans destroyed what bridges were left after Allied bombing raids. Over 250,000 Hungarian Jews died in 1944 and early 1945 alone. However today, Budapest has the highest Jewish population per capita of any European city. Then as WWII was drawing to a close, the Russians came to “liberate” the city, which they translated as raping and looting, and in the aftermath of “liberation”, they instituted a severely repressive Communist government. There was a Hungarian Revolt in 1956 against the Communists, but it was quickly and harshly quelled.  The revolution began as the prime minister at the time, Imre Nagy, declared that Hungary would not be part of the Warsaw Pact (which was the Communists version of NATO). Moscow begged to differ and sent tanks into Budapest to underscore their position in this difference of opinion. As part of the crackdown, the Soviets decided to make Russian the official language of Hungary. There was a student protest that started in Elizabeth Square and before it was all over more than 2,000 Hungarians were killed. The Hungarians were hoping that other disgruntled Soviet occupied countries would join them, but they were about 30 years ahead of their time. Prime Minister Nagy was executed for his decision and everyone who could, fled into exile.

President Reagan and Margaret Thatcher are largely credited with the decline of Communism in Hungary. With their help, Hungary actually had a 2 party election in 1990 and the Communist Candidate did not win. Privatization and capitalism were in and haven’t yielded any ground since. As the Soviet Union started to dissolve, Hungary managed to slip out of the corral with the rest of the herd of Soviet Bloc nations in the general exodus. Their joining both NATO and the EU is hopefully a sign that they have at last picked a side where they can rule their own country.

Mattias Church

Mattias’ Church

We started the morning with a city tour to see the highlights, which included a visit to Matthias’ Church (Matyas Templom in Hungarian) which is officially known, but not locally known, as the Church of Our Lady. It was built in the 13th Century by a much loved King named Matthias, of course.  Many kings that followed him added and changed things as it was destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries. Today it is a grand Gothic structure sitting high on the cliffs of Buda overlooking the river.  Royal weddings were held here, as well as coronations, the last being in 1916. Next to the Church is the Fisherman’s Bastion, built to

The View of Parliament from the Fisherman's Bastion

The View of Parliament from the Fisherman’s Bastion

commemorate the city’s Millennium Celebration. It was built on a section of the original medieval wall and was erected between 1895 and 1902.It has 5 limestone medieval turrets connected by stone breastworks with galleries with cloisters in a re-creation of what they envisioned to be here in medieval times. It derives it’s name from medieval times when the Fisherman’s Guild (sort of like a union in the olden days) defended this section of the wall. It is one of the most prominent landmarks in the city.

We did a drive-by of the Royal Palace, also on the heights of the Buda side where there is a vast museum, but we still had miles to tour so we thought we’d save that for later. On the Pest side of things, the high points were Parliament (a huge Neo-Gothic building, only slightly smaller than Ceaucescu’s Romanian behemoth) which was started in 1884, but not finished until 1902) and Heroes’ Square, also built for the Millennium Celebration.

One sight that we missed that will have to be saved for a future time is the world famous Gellert Hotel and Baths. The Hotel is from the era of the Grand Hotels (e.g. the Ritz, the Waldorf Astoria, and so forth) and is built on the highest hill in Buda, site of a former Citadel. The hill, also named Gellert, was named after a Christian missionary bishop by that name who in 1064 A.D. was stuffed into a barrel and shoved from the summit to land in the Danube far below by a group of Hungarian dissidents who apparently chose not to convert.  The hotel is situated at the sight of a number of hot springs that have been converted into baths, large enough to accommodate hundreds of people. In case you can’t afford the Gellert, there are over 120 hot springs all over the city to work out those tour bus kinks. The elaborate baths located here and throughout the city are one of the few things (in addition to paprika) left behind by the Turks that the Hungarians really appreciate.

The Budapest Opera House

The Budapest Opera House

In the afternoon we had a tour of the Baroque/Renaissance style Opera House where the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife Elizabeth presided over the opening extravaganza in 1884. He had made some rules about how large the Opera House could be since he did not want it to overshadow his own city’s opera house in Vienna. Unfortunately for him, he did not make any rules about elaborate décor – sculptures, paintings, frescoes, and the amount of gilt that can be applied to any given surface. It is reported at the opening he left in a huff in mid-performance and never returned because he was so incensed over how much more beautiful it was than its Viennese counterpart. The Empress Elizabeth (nicknamed Sissy) however, who was much beloved by Hungarians, was not so petty and she came back several times. Sissy, we learned, was quite an interesting character – more on her later. On the outside of the building there are statues of composers by the dozen – everybody who was anybody – which adorn every nook and cranny, as well as statues of the four Greek Muses.  Inside it is equally ornate with marble staircases and carvings, 3 stories of boxes, so richly gilded that it seems to be solid gold, and a giant fresco on the ceiling of the Greek gods on Mount Olympus, punctuated by a 3 plus ton bronze chandelier.   The stage has 50 trap doors to raise and lower scenery. The seats are covered in a rich burgundy velvet with small vents under each seat which was intended to be used for cooling. It was a rather simple approach which involved water and ice cubes, but never really used –  the problem being that ice was in short supply and was very costly in those days. For example a block of ice was 4 forint, whereas you could get a whole horse (alive and kicking even) for 6 forint.  There is a special royal staircase that leads to the royal box, and at the top is a huge mirror which served several purposes. Per protocol, the Emperor and Empress ascended the steps and never turned their heads. With the mirror they could see everyone in their silk finery to the sides and behind them. Also the reflected images reportedly made the person look thinner and smaller. Sissy supposedly liked it a lot, but Franz Joseph, who was rather short of stature, apparently wasn’t so thrilled.  And there were electric lights – very unusual for the time – which really highlight the “bling” factor, and which may be the final straw that sent Franz Joseph over the edge. The Royal Box was at the center of the stage for optimal viewing of the performance, but we were told that Sissy liked to sit in a box close to the stage on the side to ensure optimal viewing of her own royal self, by her adoring subjects. The Royal Box in later years has been used by highly placed government officials, and highly esteemed celebs, most recently including, strangely enough, Madonna. We didn’t hear whether she had worn her pointy-boob outfit to the Opera, but we certainly hoped not. The Ugly American legend has plenty of help here as it is.

After the Opera House, we had a special treat of tea and dessert (a blueberry crepe)  that they are famous for at Gundel’s Restaurant. It was built in the 19th Century and has served the upper crust – Kings and Communists, alike for almost 200 years. The crepes were spectacular and beautifully presented. The restaurant itself, very unassuming from the outside, is as lavishly decorated as any palace imaginable.

St Stephen's Cathedral

St Stephen’s Cathedral

After the Gundel’s experience, we were on our own so we walked to St. Stephens Cathedral, named for the first Christian King of Hungary, who was later named a saint. The plaza itself is a work of art with elaborate mosaics covering the whole area. The plaza held several outdoor restaurants where we had some very nice Hungarian wine and admired the exterior of the building.  We did manage to stop our drinking long enough to go into the cathedral where  mass was just concluding.

St Stephen’s is a beautiful structure – a mix of Neo-Classical and Neo-Renaissance (started in 1845 and that’s where the neo or “new” comes in, but not completed until 50 years later). They had a major “oops” in 1868 when the main dome collapsed, so it was back to the drawing board on that small detail. Because it is new by European Cathedral standards, it has avoided the grime that the really old structures have to deal with and it did have a total make-over in 2003 and thus its exterior is the intended color of freshly cut sandstone. It is equally fabulous on the inside with two huge frescoed domes, marble pillars and an elaborate altar.  In a side chapel called The Chapel of the Holy Right (no, it has nothing to do with politics) They have a religious relic called “The Holy Right” which is supposedly the right hand of St. Stephen (not an image, but the actual hand, pickled or somehow otherwise preserved), but we took a pass on seeing that. The cathedral burned during WWII, but was rebuilt in 1948-49.  The Nazis had taken the bell from the tower for melting down to make weapon, so that had to be replaced as well. Fortunately, many of the treasures including ‘the Holy Right” were moved elsewhere for safety before the pilfering and the fire took place.

We explored the extensive pedestrian mall, lined with restaurants, which included the famous Gerbeaud Coffeehous,  founded in 1858. We toyed with the notion of skipping the preliminaries and going right to dessert, but Gary was on a mission to find stuffed cabbage rolls (kapuszta) here in the native city of his grandparents – Grandma and Grandpa Emery, who had emigrated to the US in the early 1900’s as children. So he felt certain that he would find the Holy Grail of kapuszta here in the homeland. Unfortunately, he had to settle for Italian food since the restaurant in which we had planned to dine was closed, and the smells coming from the pizzeria were too tempting to withstand. And thus the quest for kapuszta continues.

September 14, 2008

Dateline: Budapest, Hungary

Along the Danube on the Pest Side of the River

Along the Danube on the Pest Side of the River

We had docked overnight in Budapest and were to be here all day, and thus we had the day free to explore on our own. We had seen a bike rental place at St. Stephen’s Cathedral and so we set out on foot to find it. We walked down the Danube for a way to see a memorial to the Holocaust victims which was both moving and unusual. Not all victims of the Nazis were sent to camps. At one particular spot on the Danube, right in the heart of the city, a group of Jews were rounded up, ordered to remove their shoes and summarily shot and their bodies were shoved into the river.  The Nazis apparently had plans for the shoes since the Allies found millions of pairs of them as they liberated the death camps. This memorial consists of perhaps 20 to 30 pairs of shoes – everything from work boots to high heeled evening shoes –  that have been cast in iron, looking as if someone had just stepped out of them. I was reminded of the bronzed baby shoes so popular with the baby boomer generation, but with very different and somber message of remembrance.

Biking Thorough Pest

Biking Thorough Pest

Upon arrival at the bike rental place, we hunted up the bike attendant who unlocked the bikes, sized us up and picked out a “mount” for each of us. We plunked down a deposit of 70 Euro per person – which required a visit to the bank – those Euros just seem to fly out of your pocket here. We did a few practice laps and hit the bike trail. We kept our biking to the Pest side since it is flat. Buda, we would do on foot in the afternoon.

The city has several bike paths, some of which are even connected to one another, and only occasionally did we find ourselves in a dead end. There are parks full of gardens, fountains and the temperature is just right for a pleasant ride. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the bicycle seats so we agreed to keep our biking adventure at around 3 hours. While there are many sculptures and statues in the parks and along the avenues, there are none are of the Communist leaders,   which was quite unusual since in the Soviet era, the city was awash in likenesses of Lenin, Marx, Engels et. al. Once the regime fell, they were yanked down off their pedestals (literally) and were warehoused for a period of time. Eventually a few surviving statues were dusted off and put in the newly created Socialist Statue Park, but  there were only a few people who felt those years under Communisms were the Good Old Days and consequently, it is visited so little, it has more or less become a graveyard for former heroes of the proletariat.

Along Andrassy Avenue

Along Andrassy Avenue

We headed down Andrassy Avenue, under which the first underground railway was built in 1896, toward Heroes’ Square, passing a lot of high end stores and then various embassies, along the lines of Massachusetts Avenue in Washington DC. Right smack in the middle of all this elegance is the former headquarters of the Communist Secret Police (the AVH – counterpart to the KGB) which is now a museum for victims of their practices,  as well as Holocaust victims. This building is now called the Terror Haza (House of Terror). It also had been the headquarters of the Nazis in 1944 so there was a long tradition of torture and murder in the eerie cellars of the buildings. No one seems to understand the reasons why it has not been torn down, but for now it remains a wart on the grandest avenue in Budapest.

Heroes' Square

Heroes’ Square

We arrived at Heroes’ Square (called Hosok Tere in Hungarian) at the end of Andrassy Avenue and at the entrance to City Park. It was here that the Soviets held their military reviews and it was here that in 1989, 300k people attended a rally on the day Imre Nagy (the Prime Minister who had been executed as a result of the Hungarian Revolt of 1956) was reburied in a place of honor. It is a very large plaza surrounded by parks and museums, featuring a column 118 feet high with the 7 Magyar tribal chieftains at its base, on horseback with swords swinging, mouths open wide in a warrior’s scream and belligerence oozing from every pore. You can just imagine them yelling the Magyar equivalent of “So, you wanna piece of me” to whatever stray barbarians Attila may have left behind. There is also an elaborate colonnade with 14 Hungarian heroes looking on.

The Gate to the Vajdahunyad Castle

The Gate to the Vajdahunyad Castle

We took a lunch break at a small restaurant at Vajdahunyad Castle, which was built especially for the 1896 Millenium Celebration. It is a copy of a castle from Transylvania (which belonged to Hungary at one time) We didn’t actually dine in the Palace, which is now a museum, but in a waterside restaurant called Anonymous, tucked behind the Jak Chapel, a copy of Romanesque Abbey in the town of Jak, complete with a cloister. The restaurant gets its name from the anonymous monk who chronicled the life of King Bela III.

 

A Replica of the Jak Chapel

A Replica of the Jak Chapel

We biked back to the Parliament Building, and debated whether to park our bikes and tour, but opted to keep riding to see the Jewish Synagogue instead. A tour of parliament would take all day if it were to be comprehensive or be minimal in coverage if done in an hour or so. The Parliament seems only slightly smaller than Rhode Island. Its actual sprawl covers 17,745 square meters. I would convert this into feet, but it’s probably higher than I could cipher. Its dome is almost 300 feet high. A few other highlights: there are 29 staircases, equaling a total of 20 kilometers, 233 statues, 27 gates, 10 courtyards, and 691 rooms.  However, unlike its Romanian counterpart, it is a beautiful Gothic structure – still we opted to admire it from the outside only.  We will have to save the inside for another visit since it is really stunning in the pictures we have seen.

Statue of Imre Nagy

Statue of Imre Nagy

We made a stop at a statue of Imre Nagy, the national hero,  and , who was executed by the Communists for his role as Prime Minister in the 1956 Revolt. The statue is on a small square in the center of the old part of Pest, very unassuming and striking at the same time. The sculpture stands in the middle of a small bridge, the figure clad in a hat and trench coat of the mid-fifties era, and he appears to be looking at something in the distance.

 

 

The Dohany Synagogue

The Dohany Synagogue

We rode for another half hour though the streets of the Jewish Quarter to the Dohany Synagogue. It was built in 1859 and is still in use today. It is the largest in Europe and the second largest in the world. The bleakest moment in its long history was in March of 1944 when Adolph Eichmann and the Nazi troops marched into Budapest to establish a ghetto (the term came from Venice actually which is where the practice of segregating minorities behind high walls originated). Twenty thousand Jews took refuge inside the synagogue during the winter of 1944-45, but 7,000 did not survive and were buried in the adjacent graveyard. We returned our bikes and proceeded across the Danube to tour the Buda side. We learned on our tour about two of the things that Commies considered way too subversive for the proletariat:  golf and car racing.  They did allow Grand Prix racing to come here in 1986 and. Communism collapsed 2 years later so there may have been something to that. If the US had only known we could have infiltrated the Secret Police with golfers and been building race cars instead of building missile defense systems. Who knew?

The Szechnyi Chain Bridge

The Szechnyi Chain Bridge

We crossed the Szechnyi Chain Bridge, a suspension bridge with lions guarding the entrance to each side. The sculptor of said lions was reportedly ridiculed because the lions have their mouths open as if ready to pounce, but he had left a blank space where the tongue should be. If they were able to make jokes in Communist era, his critics would have said it’s because the people aren’t allowed to speak, but the lions actually pre-dated the Commies.  The sculptor reportedly took his detractors to the zoo to show them that lions’ tongues do not show when they are in the ready to attack position. Apparently no one bought the idea and it’s still an inside (inside Budapest anyway) joke. All seven of the bridges across the Danube were blown up by the retreating German Army so all of them had to be reconstructed.

The Funicular to Buda

The Funicular to Buda

Once on the Buda side we took the funicular railway (called the siklo), built in 1870, to the top of the hill, 95 meters above the river. We found ourselves at the Buda Castle, which had a wine tasting in progress. We toyed with the idea of joining in, but there were a lot of tents with a lot of wine demanding to be sampled and so we decided the rest of Buda would remain unexplored if we got distracted in this fashion and we soldiered on in our walking tour. The Royal Castle was started in 1242 by King Bela after the devastating invasions by the Mongols, and he concluded they needed a fortress, not just an everyday palace to

The Royal Crest at Buda Castle

The Royal Crest at Buda Castle

fend them off. Subsequent rulers expanded and enlarged it. Fortress notwithstanding, the Turks laid siege and took the castle and largely destroyed it. It was not restored until Maria Theresa’s reign between 1748 and 1770 under the Austro-Hungarian Empire (AHE) when she ordered it restored. You may know Maria Theresa as the mother of Marie Antoinette (she with the missing head, courtesy of the French rabble). However Maria Theresa was a woman of much more substance than her flighty daughter and she chose her own husband (a lesser noble whom by marrying her became significantly more noble). She had 12 children, ruled the AHE for several years and presided as commander-in-chief to send the Turks packing for good. Today the Palace houses a museum.

In the courtyard adjacent to the Palace we passed a stone building still bearing the holes from bullets and artillery shells from a WWII battle as we worked our way up Tarnok Street (street is utca in Hungarian) back to Holy Trinity Square (Its Hungarian name is Szentharomsag ter which I would never attempt to say out loud) where Matthias’ Church is located. We strolled the streets of this storybook village with some houses dating back to medieval times, and stopped for a late lunch at a quaint little place called the Voros Odrog which translates as the Red Devil. They had a little carved likeness of the devil at the entrance, but he looked pretty harmless – sort of a red version of the Duke Universisty mascot. We had a round of goulash and worked our way back down to the river for the trip back to the Pest side and crossed the Elizabeth Bridge, named for Sissy, wife of Franz Josef of the AHE. We had dinner on board and then went up to the top deck with our wine for a look at the lights of Budapest as we motored northward. The City is really beautiful at night with all the Gothic splendor of the Parliament and the Matthias Church, the dome of St. Stephens and the Fisherman’s Bastion, all softly lit.

September 15, 2008

Dateline: Neszmely, Hungary 

Latitude at Neszmely 47.44 degrees North, 18.21 degrees South

The Nezmely Wine and Strudel Lodge

The Nezmely Wine and Strudel Lodge

We motored overnight to our last stop in Hungary, which is a tiny village called Neszmely (pronounced Nes-mel ee with the accent on “Nes”) in the heart of Hungarian wine country. The idea, so we’re told, is to give us a feel for the country life. The weather had turned blustery and chilly with a driving hard rain. We walked a short distance to a specially constructed lodge-like building with open pit fireplaces inside to taste wine and make strudel. Vantage (the tour operator with whom we are traveling) has made arrangements with the village people (no relation to the Village People from Saturday Night Live and “YMCA”) to provide the wine tasting and strudel making lessons. Everyone from the village turned out, including Her Honor the Mayor. As far as we could tell, we were the biggest thing to hit Neszmely in weeks – at least since the last boat docked. We hope the village recovers soon.

Stretching the Strudel Dough

Stretching the Strudel Dough

We were divided into two groups and our group first had the strudel lessons. The idea is that we would make the strudel and eat it for dessert after our lunch, which the town ladies provided. Stu and Gary were our token strudel makers and it was very entertaining to watch. The ladies first demonstrated rolling out the dough (or stretching it really) onto a card-table-size table on a clean table cloth. They refer to pastry as pasta so once we got the hang of that terminology, it became easier. The pasta/pastry has to be almost paper- thin before it is ready for the filling. Then the chef ladles on the poppy seeds and cherries (cooked already) and then it is rolled up, baked and sliced. The cooking teams had to mix the dough from scratch and then knead it – or in their case beat it into submission to render  it stretchy. Fortunately for the roll-out part, they brought out new dough that the village ladies had prepared ahead of time and the mission proceeded from there.

Afterward we did the wine tasting at which we were all much more skilled (we hardly spilled a drop). The wine was Hilltop Vineyards and very good – 2 dry whites, 1 dessert wine and one red. We determined that we will look for these labels: Hilltop Premium Merlot (this one is easy), then the Craftsman Cserszegi Fuszeres and the Craftsman Kiralyleanyka.  We would skip the dessert wine, (Craftsman Harslevelu.) but then we tend to skip all dessert wines since that seems to be something of an oxymoron.

A Succcessful Strudel

A Successful Strudel

Lunch was a very hearty and delicious creamy chicken  soup in a big pottery crock-like bowl which was covered with the largest biscuit this side of Texas. It may be these “biscuits” are the failed strudel dough we tourists made earlier. Whatever their origin, they were big and tasty. When the strudel was served we noted that it was apple when we distinctly remembered putting in cherries, but then we learned ours was coming out next. So we had the difficult task of eating two strudels each.

We slogged/waddled  and staggered back to our ship in the rain for our late afternoon departure for Bratislava, Slovakia. The verdict on Hungary is a definite thumbs up. We had a great five days. I do have one closing note on the Hungarian language:  I am taking all sorts of liberties with little squiggly marks above vowels in many Hungarian words and names in that I am leaving them out completely.  The English language keyboards either don’t have them or I am unable to find them, but hopefully I am not changing any meanings of words by their omissions. So it’s to Bratislava and our next adventure!

 




Eastern Europe Part 5: Slovakia and Austria

Eastern Europe

Part 5 – Slovakia and Austria -A Velvet Revolution, a Velvet Divorce and A Narrow Escape from the Hammer and Sickle

September 16, 2008

Dateline:  Bratislava, Slovakia

Latitude at Bratislava 48.8 degrees North, 17.6 degrees East

When dreaming of vacationing in exotic locales, the name Bratislava, Slovakia seldom sets anyone to salivating over their travel brochures, and any expectations one may have are, well, low. We motored up the Danube a good part of the night and awoke tied up at the pier in the same driving rain we had experienced the day before, which did nothing to adjust our notion of how lackluster this port of call was likely to be.  Despite our preconceived notions of a drab city, with more of those row–upon-row of drab Communist bloc era structures, we set out to seek the charms of the city with our umbrellas and our limited expectations, and we were quite pleasantly surprised at what we saw.

Bratislava's Old Town

Bratislava’s Old Town

Slovakia is sort of perceived as the ugly step-sister in comparison to her Cinderella sister nation, the Czech Republic. These two countries once comprised Czechoslovakia in the same post WWII negotiations that gave us Yugoslavia. (i.e., after the break up of Austro Hungarian Empire (AHE) there were all these loose countries floating around and they were sort of arbitrarily joined up.)  And so a country formed with Czechs and promptly commandeered by the Russians as a Socialist Republic after WWII. When the Soviet Union began to self-destruct in 1989, they had what was termed the Velvet Revolution to break away from the USSR (meaning no blood was shed and nobody got hurt). Fortunately these two countries more or less liked each other, but both agreed they should be two countries, not one, so in 1993, Slovakia had the Velvet Divorce with the Czech Republic and each country became an independent nation. In the custody settlement, Slovakia ended up with the smaller piece of

Bratislava's Town Hall

Bratislava’s Town Hall

the pie in terms of land and resources, but apparently there was some historical precedent for these boundaries so everyone decided to get over it. The Slovak language is a separate language from that of the Czechs, but is so closely linked they can mostly understand each other.  The population is mostly Catholic, as is the case in the Czech Republic so they didn’t have the normal things to fight over as did the Balkan countries. Slovakia shares borders with Hungary, Austria, Ukraine and Czech Republic and Poland. Bratislava is  only 35 miles from Vienna, making them the closest neighboring country capitals in the world.  They use the Slovak Koruna (SKK) as their currency and there are 20.5 SKK to the US dollar. They also have their own word for the Danube, which is the Dunaj.  They have been in  NATO since 1993,  and in the EU since 2004. Neil Boortz would love it here since they adopted a 19% flat tax and business is booming here.

An Old City Gate - Bratislava

An Old City Gate – Bratislava

Of course the Romans  were here (no country left unconquered), as well as the Celts, but they didn’t leave a lot behind in terms of structures. The town gets its name from a Slavic leader who arrived in the 5th Century whose name was Bratislav.  The heyday of the city was in the medieval period starting around the 900’s. A university was established here by the Hungarian King, Mattias Corvinus in 1467.

 

 

A Rainy Day in Bratislava

A Rainy Day in Bratislava

When the Ottoman Turks invaded and occupied Hungary, the Hungarian royalty set up residence in Bratislava, and 15 kings were crowned in the local Cathedral of St. Martin.  It was referred to as Upper Hungary at the time. It remained the capital of the Hungarian Kingdom until the end of WWII in 1918. It only has 450 thousand people now since many of the younger generation have fled to better paying jobs in western countries.  The whole historical area is area very small and walk-able. It is quite charming with wide tree lined streets, cobblestone lanes and a blend of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture, all within ancient city walls. What was the walled city today is called the Stare Mesto which translates as Old Town.  The rain did lift momentarily and we saw across the river the awful Soviet Renaissance housing (called the Petrzalka) that we have come to recognize, but fortunately the skies opened up again and our view was restricted to our small storybook village.

The Creeping Peeping Tom - Bratislava

The Creeping Peeping Tom – Bratislava

One thing that we found delightful in the city was the quirky bronze sculptures scattered around in the Stare Mesto. My personal favorite was one of a man in a hardhat, ostensibly a city sewer worker peeping out of manhole cover lifted above his head, apparently trying to look up ladies’ dresses. One sight we missed was the Bratislava Castle (which they call the Bratislavky Hrad). It was said to be worth the climb up to it if only for the fabulous view, but since it was raining so hard, you could barely see past your umbrella, we decided to save the energy. It is rather squat and square and later when we found out it had been restored by the Communists, we had to wonder  if it were squat and square before they started.  We also missed seeing the Church of the Sisters of the Order of St. Clare, one of the oldest Gothic buildings in the city. They were a very poor order which relied on begging (and thus their nickname the “Poor Clares”). They were forbidden to build a steeple on top of their church, so in a rather bizarre move,  they built one on the side wall instead.

We did see St. Michaels Tower (called the Michalska Veza) which is actually the gate to the Old Town. It is part of the medieval fortifications and you can still see the remains of the moat and bastion.  A statue of St. Michael himself is on top of the tower. We also saw from the plumbing end, a medieval potty. We stood on a walkway that was once a moat and, and per the instruction of out guide, looked up to the tower above. Directly overhead (about 30 feet up) was a ledge projecting out from the parapet, and cut into the ledge was a perfect oval opening, which we were told was the launch site for human waste for members of the royal household. Of course in those days, anything released would have landed in the moat, but it was still a little disconcerting. I would think it would definitely a deterrent for invading armies to plunge into the moat in order to scale the walls.

A Carving Inside the Cathedral of St. Michael's

A Carving Inside the Cathedral of St. Michael’s

We also visited the Cathedral of St. Martin which was the site of the many coronations of Hungarian Kings while the Turks had control of Hungary. It is small, but beautiful. It was started in 1221, completed over two centuries and finally consecrated in 1452. Some chapels were added on in 1729-1732. Unfortunately, during the Communist era, a highway was built right outside the front door, but they’re doing the best they can today to keep it preserved.  This same freeway separated the Bratislava Castle from the old town. Hopefully one day the Slovakians will do away with the freeway, but it would be really hard since it’s the access to a modernist bridge (called a “most” in the Slovakian language) across the Danube linking the old town to the Soviet era hulking monstrosities across the river. We are told on a clear day, you can see beautiful mountains in the distance, but all we see is a sea of umbrellas.

Bratislava's Old Town Tour Busses

Bratislava’s Old Town Tour Busses

The city’s main square, called the Hlavne Nam is surrounded by the Old Town Hall and a mix of restaurants, shops and cafes, with small cobble stone streets and pedestrian promenades radiating out like spokes on a wheel.  Many of the old Renaissance style buildings have been restored and are quite beautiful. We also got to see an 18th Century Palace that now serves as the mayor’s office. It was here in 1805 that Napoleon and the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire signed a peace treaty following the Battle of Austerlitz, near what is now the city of Brno in the Czech Republic. We didn’t go inside, but we did have a chuckle at the name. It is called the Primalcialny Palac which translates as the Primate’s Palace. We decided they apparently don’t use the word “primate” to describe gorillas and other great apes.

The wind continued to blow and Sharon and I bought some wool gloves to keep our umbrella hand warm, but you had to be very careful with how you tilted your umbrella or risk taking off over the Danube like Mary Poppins.  We stopped in at a small pub for some fortifying beverages (wine and Irish Coffee). We learned that the greeting, “good day” is  dobry den,  pronounced like it looks with the accent on “doh”.  Although this was a crappy day weather-wise , we didn’t have that on our phrase sheet and so we stuck with dobry den or dobry rano which is good morning. Our most often used Slovakian phrase was Nazdravye (also used in the Balkan countries) which translates as “cheers”.

We got a recommendation for lunch at the pub where we were taking refreshment in response to our request for typical Slovakian food. We were sent a few blocks over to the very cozy Slovenska Restaurant. Sharon had goose which she pronounced “interesting” and Gary had Our Old Mother’s Sampler, which proved to be a platter full of a lot of local favorites, mostly carnivorous fare which Gary pronounced delicious. Gary’s meal included Haslusky, Slovak dumplings made of potato meal, flour and egg. Stu and I had more ordinary fare – so ordinary I can’t remember what it was.

Hviezdoslavovo Plaza

Hviezdoslavovo Plaza

As a side note, our restaurant was  located near the U.S. Embassy on a wide tree-lined pedestrian avenue, with fountains at both ends called the Hviezdoslavovo (I don’t have a clue on how to pronounce this one, but if you ever find yourself in Bratislava and have need of the US Embassy, you may need to learn to say it – or an easier method would be to ask a taxi to take you to the Slovenska and walk the two blocks on your own). The embassy is in an old (looking) building beautifully restored, but the bullet proof glass portico erected after 9/11 more or less spoils the old town ambience.  We noted with interest the armed guards strictly enforcing the no photograph rule, while across the street was an internet café where you can use Google Earth and see everything there is to see, right down to the guard’s shoe laces.

We slogged back to our ship in the continuing rain to get ready for the evening festivities which included the captain’s cocktail party. I would very much like to come back to Bratislava on a nice day and maybe then I could come up with a better name for it – Bratislava, even on a cold, wet blustery day just sounds too drab for such a charming little city.

September 17, 2008

Dateline: Vienna, Austria

Latitude at Vienna  48.12 degrees North, Longitude 26.22 degrees East

Because Bratislava and Vienna are so close together, we took our time to very slowly motor up the river to our dock on the Danube on Vienna’s east side and for the first time in 17 days, we were in a “Western” country. However it very narrowly escaped falling behind the Iron Curtain,  the fate that befell so many of it’s neighbors.  Austria has 21 million people, with close to 2 million living in Vienna, the capital of the country. The city has 23 districts, including the famous 2nd district which was the site of one of the first Jewish ghettos in the world.  The word ghetto has since come to mean slum, but in those days it was borrowed from the Venetians who first established the idea of segregation. Sixty thousand Jews died in concentration camps during WWII, but another 170 thousand escaped. Old Vienna is surrounded by the Ringstrasse – a series of connected streets that form a circle around the city. It is bounded by the Danube to the east and the Vienna woods in the other three directions, with the foothills of the Alps due west. There is a canal running through the city (called the Danube Canal) which is where the Danube used to be before it decided to change course centuries ago, as the Danube has been wont to do.

Vienna, which calls itself the City of Music is home to 1.7 million people. The music here is classical, and it is said that even the cab drivers listen to opera and sing along, although the ones we had seemed to be singing along with either Martha and the Vandellas or Elvis, so opera singing cabbies may be  just chamber of commerce propaganda. However, the city is quite genteel, noted for its opera houses, theaters, palaces and museums. Of particular note are the traditional Viennese coffee houses (kaffeehaus) in German. German is the native language here and they have a word they use to describe life in the city which is “Gemutlichkeit”, which roughly translates as “comfy, cozy and easy going”.

The Vienna Opera House

The Vienna Opera House

As for classical music, just about everyone who was anyone, wrote and performed in Vienna – Beethoven, Brahms, Strauss, Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, as well as the world famous Vienna Boys’ Choir. The Habsburgs, who ruled Austria for over 600 years were ardent music lovers and many family members were talented musicians in their own right and they created an environment for music to flourish, by sponsoreing promising musicians and appointing a Royal Composer. Haydn and several others held this job which included being responsible for the dress, conduct and rehearsals of the musicians in the orchestra. They would compose melodies, especially for their patrons, and in the case of the emperor, it was often played only for him. One of the emperor’s ditties composed by Hayden was actually perverted to a large degree into the Nazi Anthem. It was changed from a soft melody into a bellowing, faster paced and more militant “Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles” which roughly translates as Germany, Germany, superior to all of y’all. Another such composer was Mozart who was whiling away his time in Salzburg as composer to the Archbishop. He was labeled a “wunderkind” (whiz kid) and was performing as early as the age of 6 years old. Once he was “discovered” he was brought to Vienna in 1871 and performed a number of times for Empress Maria Therese and Emperor Joseph I. Mozart was dismissed from the archbishop’s staff and later reported that he was “fired by a kick in the arse by the archbishop”, but he was glad to be fired since he wanted to get to the major league of music which was happening in Vienna. Mozart’s music was very contemporary and non-traditional and he was not very well received at first. In fact Emperor Franz Joseph reportedly said that Mozart’s music is “tough meat for my Viennese, but they must learn to chew”.

Perhaps the most irascible of all the “Viennese Classics” was Beethoven who was considered ill-tempered, eccentric and haughty. He had been a student under Mozart and Haydn and was really disagreeable, but the emperor and nobles paid to keep him in Vienna. To quote the emperor in addressing Beethoven:  ”Thou art what thou art, but princes are a dime a  dozen” or something to that effect. He was basically saying that there is only one Beethoven so he’s to be allowed a lot of leeway in the personality disorder department. Beethoven also became profoundly deaf, which did nothing to improve his disposition. Nevertheless, he continued to write music and communicated with others by writing in “conversational notebooks”. The last of the “Viennese Classics” was Schubert, who was born the 12th of 14 children and died at the age of 31, but still managed to write over 1,000 works, mostly chamber and piano music. Apparently he got along with Beethoven better than anyone else since he asked to be buried next to him. We listened to Strauss’ Blue Danube waltz while we gazed at the river, but it still looked a gray, even under a brilliant sun. Of course The Gray Danube Waltz just doesn’t have that same panache. And another thing, speaking of names, Strauss actually means “ostrich” in German, which is another reason not to get too literal or try to translate everything to English. After all, it’s hard to take a composer named Ostrich too seriously.

The Viennese still do love their music and even with two full orchestras and two full scale Opera Houses, with a third under renovation, the events are usually sellouts. These are still some of the hottest tickets in the world with many performances offering Standing Room Only,  if you can get in at all. A striking example of the citizens’ devotion to their music, occurred on April 2, 1945 when Vienna was being bombed by the Allies in advance of the Russian troops marching toward the city from the East. Hitler had given the order that Vienna was to be defended to the last man and there were anti-aircraft towers (some still visible today) blazing away. At the Opera House, however, a performance was underway and no one left their seats, even as the bombs fell around the city, until the fat lady sang there at the end.

Of course the Romans  were here and in the First Century A.D. and they defended this area from the Teutons and Slavs, and Attila the Hun himself, who fortunately for the Viennese, died before the city could be taken and the Number 2 Hun in Charge apparently lost interest. The Turks also failed to take Vienna, another stroke of good luck since they tended to tear down all the good stuff and use the stones to build mosques. The Hapsburg dynasty ruled here for 600 years, and often succeeded in keeping their power through arranged marriages. For example, Emperor Franz managed to suck up to Napoleon by giving him his daughter Marie-Louise in 1810 to replace the Empress Josephine, whom he divorced due to her infertility. Franz figured Napoleon would not invade his father-in-law’s country and Austria became a French client state (not quite an equal, but not a conquest either) and this worked pretty well until the battle of Waterloo and the Napoleon’s death in 1821. The Habsburgs continued as rulers of the Austro Hungarian Empire, despite a series of revolutions until WW1 when unfortunately for them, they sided with the Germans and lost much of their turf in the 1918 Armistice. Modern day Austria (they call it Osterreich) was formed at that time, but they again had the misfortune to be annexed by Hitler’s Germany in 1938 in what was called the Anschluss, and thus again found themselves on the losing side of a world war.

In 1945, the Russians marched into Vienna and forced the Germans out. Fortunately the other Allies also marched into Vienna and it was determined that Austria should be declared a victim, not a German ally. Further, the Russians agreed to an election to establish a new government, confident that the Communist Party would be elected. They had a rather nasty surprise to find they were not the elected party and refused to have elections in any other countries they occupied, and thus as the Iron Curtain descended,   Austria had the good fortune to be on the other side.

Schonbrunne Palace - Home of the Habsburg Dynasty

Schonbrunne Palace – Home of the Habsburg Dynasty

This morning we had a tour scheduled of the Schonbrunn Palace (pronounced “Cham bron” with the accent on “cham”, ( there are supposed to be two dots over the “o”). As we drove from the Danube, our guide Edith showed us an example of a  landmark gone amok.  It was the former home of the composer Johann Strauss, but the house currently suffers from the misfortune of having a McDonalds on the lower floor. It seems to be a travesty, but perhaps those burger euros enabled the saving of the whole building. The Schonnbrunn was the summer palace of the Habsburgs and is only a short distance from the city, but of

 

The Gloriette of the Schonbrunne Palace

The Gloriette of the Schonbrunne Palace

course in the horse and carriage days, it was probably considered a “getaway”. It is quite grand with formal gardens stretching from the palace to the horizon. There is a dramatic pavilion up on a hill in the gardens behind the Schonnbrunn called the Gloriette, which translates as “little glory”.  The palace itself is sort of a mustard color, not French’s plain, but more Gray Poupon. It’s name means “beautiful fountain” and is derived from a spring discovered on the site prior to its being built by then Emperor Matthias. The palace was started in 1692 and was finished in 1700. It was a simple structure then (relatively

 

The Gardens at Schonbrunne

The Gardens at Schonbrunne

speaking), but it was only under the reign of Maria Therese that it was completed as it is today (1744-49), with 1,441 rooms which included 390 used by the Emperor and his court and 139 used for kitchens where food was prepared for roughly 1,000 people a day. The Schonbrunn was built with the intention to “out-Versailles” Versailles and they more or less accomplished it. It is bigger than the Vatican and the rooms are so lavishly decorated, it’s almost overwhelming. The palace was used by successive emperors until the abdication of Karl in 1918 in the aftermath of WWI. It was heavily damaged in WWII, but has been beautifully restored – maybe not all 1.441 rooms, but enough to wear you and your shoes out walking through them. The Schonbrunn was a constant financial drain on the royal piggybank and quite often fell into disrepair while the Habsburgs were warring with the French, which seemed to happen every decade or so for about 200 years. Maria Therese and Joseph gave their daughter in marriage (or rather negotiated their daughter in marriage to the King of France) hoping for a strong and peaceful alliance, but that ended rather badly, especially for their daughter and the French King (who happened to be Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI respectively) and then the next emperor and empress tried that gambit again with Napoleon, and of course things ended badly again.

Another interesting period of history in Austria was the reign of Franz Joseph and his wife Elizabeth, who was much beloved by her subjects and given the nickname Sisi (which they pronounce “Sissy” as in sister). She was a teensy thing, 5’7” and barely 100 pound – likely anorexic, but no one knew what to call it then – they just used the term “delicate”.  She supposedly drank the blood of oxen to strengthen herself and she certainly needed her strength since she had a very tragic life. Her only child and heir to the throne, Rudolph, committed suicide at the family hunting lodge called Mayerling, after shooting his mistress,   Baroness Mary Vetsera .  Sisi withdrew from court life and traveled abroad constantly, often  in disguise. She was killed in Geneva in 1898 by an Italian bent on attacking a member of European royalty.

The Albertina Museum

The Albertina Museum

We had free time so we strolled around Albertina Square to admire the modern sculpture, (or maybe “see” is a better descriptor than “admire”) since you had to study it a bit to figure out what was going on. The central themes seemed to be sex, torture, combat and childbirth – and consequently nobody portrayed looked like they were having any fun – not even the sex part. We strolled along the Graben (a pedestrian only business street) in search of lunch. “Graben” means “moat” in German, and the street is so named since in medieval times when Vienna was a walled city, the moat was where the street is now. Key features of the street are the so called Plague Pillar built in 1687 to commemorate victims of the plague and the “Stock Im Eisen” which translates as “Stick in the Iron”. This strange site is comprised of a tree trunk in which hundreds of nails have been stuck into the wood. As the story goes it was intended to be a masterpiece of art by a local locksmith who created it with the help of the devil. It’s not too artistic in my book, but it does demonstrate that in the olden days, people had way too much time on their hands. Unfortunately restaurants are not one of the businesses on this street, but we found a young man dressed up as a stein of beer who was hawking a particular restaurant a few blocks away. He directed us there and we had a delicious lunch.

St Stephan's Cathedral

St Stephan’s Cathedral

We did some more strolling after lunch and took in St. Stephan’s Cathedral, named after Stephen, who was stoned to death by the Romans and became the first Christian martyr. Its main spire towers 137 meters over the city and is called the “Stephansturm” (Stephen’s Tower) , but the locals call it “Der Steffl” for short. The original structure was built in the 12th Century and was destroyed by fire in 1258. It was rebuilt in Romanesque style, but over the centuries it underwent more and more gothic style changes, with the current cornerstone laid in 1359, and towers erected in 1433 and 1455. The cathedral has a giant organ called the Riesenorgel (which actually translates as Giant Organ) with 4 keyboards, 125 registers and 10,000 pipes. The cathedral tower houses one of the largest bells in the world called the “Pummerin”. It was shattering in a bombing raid during the last days of WWII when the roof of the church was also destroyed, but it was recast and the cathedral was restored.  The Pummerin can be heard all over the old part of the city and is truly a joyful noise. We did observe the cathedral could use a good power wash since the grime of centuries has collected on its walls, but because it is sandstone and relatively soft, gentle cleaning is required to  avoid the risk of having a gargoyle or two being blown off their roof-top perch.  An interesting note – many of the Habsburgs are buried here in the catacombs, but their hearts are buried in one of the church’s chapels – a tradition we had heard of in countries previously visited on this trip, but the idea still takes a little getting used to. One of the major Crusades was launched from this cathedral and a special pulpit commemorates the one in 1430, but like the others, it too failed. Those Turks were pretty tough customers in their day.

The Mozart Caffehaus

The Mozart Caffehaus

We had some time before we had to go back to the ship so we decided to sample one of the famous Viennese Coffee Houses – in our case the Café Mozart just beside the Staatsopera (or State Opera House). We were bedazzled by the elaborate pastries, such as the Sacher  (pronounced Sah-hair accent on “sah”) Torte, which is a confection of chocolate sponge cake served with apricot jam or cream)) from the famous hotel bearing  the same name as the torte. There is a bit of a “torte” feud that continues to simmer between the Sacher and another coffeehouse, which claims Sacher stole their recipe and tried to

The Hotel Sacher

The Hotel Sacher

disguised it by putting raspberries instead of lingon berries (blue currants) in the cake. The kaffeehaus (there are more than a thousand of them in Vienna) emerged in the 18th and 19th century as meeting places for artists, student and intellectuals – and now the common tourist can be found there as well.   There are 10 times more variations than Starbucks has, plus you can have booze in it too, if that suits your fancy. And speaking of fancy – the typical kaffeehaus is every bit as tricked out as the Opera House itself – crystal chandeliers, velvet chairs, brocade drapes, damask table cloths and napkins, silver tableware, and gilt everywhere.

In the late afternoon we went to a concert hall called the Kursalon where many classical composers and famous conductors have worked, Johann Strauss (a.k.a. John Ostrich) conducted his own compositions here many times and a new dance was introduced based on his music called the Viennese waltz. In this case, it is better to call it by the English name – in German it was called the Wiener Walzer. Even if you pronounce the “w”s like “v”s, it still is far from musical to the ear. The dance was actually quite scandalous at the time since it involved dance partners actually touching each other, of all things. We heard sort of the “biggest hits” music from Strauss and Mozart, waltzes, marches, polkas and ballets, plus a couple of “movements” from major concertos, as well that as 3 arias which were beautiful , but blessedly brief. My favorites were the well-known  Blue Danube Waltz by Strauss and Eine Klein Nachtmusik (A Little Night Music) by Mozart. And I must say classical music does sound better in a room with a chandelier and gilt chairs.

 

September 18, 2008

Dateline: Vienna, Austria

The Naschmarkt

The Naschmarkt

Today we had the morning at leisure so we strolled around the Open Air Market called the Naschmarkt (pronounced “nosh” market and thus we supposed the Upper Midwest expression of having a “nosh” or a snack) came from this word. There were over 150 vendors selling spices, fresh produce, bakery goods, meat, wine and all sorts of gourmet delicacies. We made a few wine purchases and then had a mug of heisse schokolade mit schlagober (as unappetizing as that sounds,  it actually was delicious  hot chocolate with whipped cream) to take the chill off since it has grown increasingly cooler as we made our way up the

The Golden Cabbage

The Golden Cabbage

Danube. We had the occasion to pass by the building the locals refer to as the Golden Cabbage. It is actually named the Jugendstil or Secession Building and was built in 1897. As I understand it, it was an artistic movement in which the artists of the day were rebelling (or “seceding” if you will) from all the “ism”s that had emerged in the art world such as Impressionism, Pointillism, Cubism and so forth. The building was intended to house their works which are very strange indeed. We understood the “cabbage” adorning the top of the building is one of the least bizarre of all the oddities on display. We left those “artworks” unexplored and moved on.

Vienna was also home to Sigmund Freud , Billy Wilder, Hedy Lamarr and Peter Lorre – and in the late 19th, early 20th century, it was also home to an untalented painter who left Vienna in disgust, after the city’s art critics failed to appreciate his work or take him seriously. They would take him quite seriously several years later in quite a different light, however, since the would-be artist who was twice turned down for admission at the Art Academy in 1906 and 1910 was named Adolf Hitler. I guess he was even too weird for the Jugendstil – or perhaps not weird enough which is a scary thought.

We saw no operas, nor did we tour this Opera House, particularly since no lesser a man than Emperor Franz Joseph felt it was inferior to the one in Budapest. Even so it is interesting. Despite holding over 300 performances a year, it still operates at a 47% deficit. Taxpayers pick up difference, and supposedly the taxpayers do not mind doing it since  opera supposedly brings a lot of tourists to Vienna.  There was a bit of scandal surrounding the Opera House – so much so that its principle architects chose to skip the grand opening. The local people declared it an eyesore, finding fault with the design of the building. They ridiculed it, calling it such names as the Sunken Box. They apparently wanted a grand staircase (even those backwoods  Budapest opera-goers  had sense enough to have  a grand staircase). It was declared to have a “total lack of style”. Supposedly the Emperor approved all the designs, but all the blame for the monstrosity fell on the hapless architects and the Emperor led the court in criticizing the structure. One architect reportedly committed suicide over it and it is said the other died of a broken heart. Ugly or not, it had taken 8 years to build (1861 to 1869) and had consumed a small fortune. As time passed, I supposed the Viennese decided an Ugly Opera House is better than no Opera at all , and they eventually came to look fondly upon its squatty contours and started vying for invitations to the very exclusive Opera Ball held annually. They did have a unique opportunity to remedy the ugly building issue since an Allied bomb and subsequent fire gutted it in 1945, but they chose to rebuild it exactly as it was, only with a few modern conveniences such as modern electric lighting.

The Votivkirche

The Votivkirche

We took a leisurely stroll around the city on the Ringstrasse, stopping to admire the Hofburg Palace from a number of view points, and we also took in the Rathaus, which is what they call the City Hall. It a is a huge gothic structure, built in 1872-73 and looks almost indistinguishable from a catherdral, but has a clock tower in lieu of a cross. We also admired the Karlskirch (Karl’s Church) – a beautifully domed baroque church built in 1716. We particularly liked the Votivkirche with its lacy steeples and Gothic curlicues everywhere. It is actually considered New Gothic since was built in 1879, long after the original Gothic was in vogue. It was built in 1879 as sort of a “thank you” of sorts to God for sparing the life of Archduke Ferdinand Maximillian after a failed assassination attempt. Of course another assassination in 1914 on another Archduke named Ferdinand was successful and the result was a world war instead of a cathedral.

They do have literally dozens of very fine museums here, but we chose a different route for the afternoon – a tour called Spies, Lies and Allies, and a decidedly minor museum, both of which are based on the movie, The Third Man, which is set in Post-WWII Vienna and is considered a classic. The movie was made in 1948 and starred Joseph Cotton, Trevor Howard and Orson Welles. There are many famous settings from the movie you can still see today, including the Prater (fairgrounds) with its giant ferris wheel , and of course the sewers of Vienna where there was an “ edge of your seat”  chase scene long before Steve McQueen ever hit Hollywood. Supposedly Orson Welles refused to enter the sewers and since he was a key figure in the pursuit, he had to have a double stand in for him. He was supposedly afraid he would get a bacterial infection and it caused a 3 ½ day delay in shooting. They reportedly used a lot of shadows in the scene because they couldn’t find a believable double. We learned that they had to cut a scene with the heroine in her pajamas since that was considered way too racy.

Our tour did not include the cellars, but instead focused on key sights and events from 1945-48 in post-war Vienna.  After extensive Allied bombing, the Russian Army drove the Germans out of the city in early  1945 and once peace was declared, the City of Vienna was divided into 4 sectors with each of the major Allied Powers governing one section. The Viennese were very glad to see the other 3 Allies show up to control to some degree the brutality of the Russian soldiers, who  were raping, looting, and murdering at will. The Allies decided that the only way to protect the citizens from the Russians was to have all jeep patrols have one soldier from each of the 4 occupying countries. The Austrians say the Russians were interested in three things – watches, bicycles and women – not necessarily in that order. A large flea market of sorts (i.e. Black Market) sprang up where today’s Naschmarkt is.  There the Viennese could go and buy back things that the Russians had stolen from them – assuming they had any money left after the Russians came to call.  There is another Viennese saying regarding a memorial to the Russian soldier with one arm raised, erected shortly after the peace agreement. Question: Why does the Russian soldier have his arm up in the air? Answer: If he put it down, he would lose all his watches.

On the Grounds of the Hofbrau Palace

On the Grounds of the Hofbrau Palace

Our tour began downtown at the Hofburg Palace, the winter home of the Habsburgs which was even larger than their summer palace, the Schonnbrunn. It seems at the Hofburg, each succeeding emperor added his own wing to the palace for his private residence, along with whatever structures were required to house his hobbies and interests (art museums, conservatories, concert halls, theaters, as well as the indoor riding arena for the Spanish Riding School complete with chandeliers and frescoes. This continuous construction kept people employed and the monarchy broke, while creating a

 

The Spanish Riding School

The Spanish Riding School

monstrous palace. This building took place during the reign of the Habsburgs (over 600 years) although they more or less stopped the building craze after 1908.  At this point, the palace had 18 wings, 54 staircases, 19 courtyards and 2600 rooms. And of course there is the treasure chamber which today houses priceless goodies thanks to the foresight of someone minding the store at the palace in 1938 when Hitler showed up. The bulk of the treasure was moved to empty salt mines near Salzburg which is why they are still around today. We stopped at the Hofburg to see the balcony where Hitler gave his famous “Anchluss”  (meaning political union) speech to an estimated  350,000 people  in 1938. He declared that there is no more Austria –  it would henceforth be incorporated into the Third Reich.

The Hofburg Palace as Seen from the Ringstrasse

The Hofburg Palace as Seen from the Ringstrasse

Today the Hofburg is a combination of government buildings,  plus libraries and museums. In 1945-48 it was the site of official handover of control of the city among the 4 Allies. Each power governed for 4 months and then it was turned over to the next. Each country had its own headquarters. The Russians got first dibs since they got there first and took over the fanciest hotel in town which was the Imperial. The bar and lobby of the Imperial became literal hotbeds of intrigue as all four countries supposedly spied on the other three, but the Russians were the one they all mistrusted so that’s where a lot of the spying took place. The Brits didn’t do badly for themselves since they took over the Sacher Hotel downtown although with all that bombing, it was quite down at the heel at the time. The US took over the Bristol hotel, rather modest digs, but in keeping with the desired low profile.

The Cornerstone of Freedom

The Cornerstone of Freedom

The Russians learned of the treasures hidden in the salt mines and ordered all of it to be sent to Russia. Fortunately the other Allies blocked this move, and American soldiers were deployed to Salzburg to physically remove the treasures and guard them. The Russians put a big statue of Stalin outside their HQ, but the Americans chose a very insignificant pedestal (about knee-high) with a small plaque, today called the Cornerstone of Freedom. The Americans were using the National Bank Building as their HQ and the monument is still there, but Stalin’s statue is long gone. Austrians who were around at the time report their memories of those bleak days. They reported “The Russians gave us wormy peas to eat. The U.S. GI’s gave us corned beef in tins and chocolate so of course we favored the Americans”. The Russians had agreed to a national election, certain that the Austrians would vote their way, but that did not happen. It could be that the corned beef and chocolate trumped the wormy peas (and of course the Russian atrocities really tipped the scale.

The American HQ for occupation was across the street from an infamous Nazi Jail – it is believed that thousands of people were beheaded there at the hands of the Nazis – mostly resistance fighters and their families. Nazis thought that including the families in the executions would be more effective at keeping people out of the movement. Then the Russians came and it was hard to tell whether they were worse or better than the Nazis, but the timely arrival of the Good Guys – American, British and French kept them more or less in check.

An Old Projector in the Third Man Museum

An Old Projector in the Third Man Museum

From the prison, we traveled about 30 minutes to the Third Man Museum which has 3 sections. The first was comprised of historical items from 1945-48 including uniforms, newspapers, civilian clothes, and sundry items. The second room was movie memorabilia including the zither used to create 55 minutes of zither music soundtrack. In the third section we actually saw some footage on an ancient projector of the movie itself. We resolved to get a DVD of the movie and see the whole thing since we were all too young to see it when the movie was released.

Although we spent 2 days in Vienna and were busy just about every minute, there was much we had no time for. So for next time we plan to do several things, including a visit to the Spanish Riding School, (Spanische Hofreitschule) also called the Winter Riding School (Wintereitschule). The Spanish part of the name is in reference to the Spanish style of riding that was adopted by the school.   It is housed in a palatial baroque building (no coincidence since it is part of the Hofburg Palace) in a structure completed in 1735. It has a great hall with 16 Corinthian Columns and the only clue that you are not in a palace chamber is that the floor is dirt – since this is where the riders and horses perform. The riders wear period costumes from the era of Emperor Karl VI who began breeding the Lippinzan horses. They are a cross between Arabian, Neapolitan and Andalusain breeds and they are born black, turn white as they mature. They were good in everything from battle to horse ballet, since they could be trained to rear up at the appropriate moment and strike with their hooves, which certainly unsettled the opposition. They get their name from the emperor’s stud farm called Lipizza which is in present day Slovakia. They are remarkably intelligent and strong, but very few in number.  General Patton is credited with saving them during the Allied Occupation where they were at great risk since there were literally thousands of starving people

Vienna has a plethora of museums and we certainly did not do them justice.  In addition to the requisite art and history museums, they have a fireman’s museum, a transportation museum, a technology museum, and a clock museum just to name a few. There was even a taxi museum called the Fiaker (fiakers being the horse drawn open carriages that served as taxis in the 1800’s).   The museums, as many as there are, are vastly outnumbered by the churches – really old, really beautiful churches –  that we didn’t do justice to either. And I really want to see the royal treasure – those crowns and scepters and so forth and I’d also like to hear the Giant Organ play in the cathedral. However, we are leaving Vienna tomorrow morning with still much music unheard, many museums not visited, many treasure not ogled, and many tortes not tasted. We’ve put Vienna on our list of places to re-visit.

 

 

 




Eastern Europe Part 6: The Czech Republic

Eastern Europe

 Part  6: Prague – A Welcome Reprieve from Stalin Gothic

 

September 19, 2008

Dateline:  Prague, Czech Republic

 Latitude at Prague 50.05 degrees North, Longitude degrees 14.25 East

Today we took a motor coach the 220 miles from Vienna to Prague, leaving the ship and the Danube to travel on land. We are traveling on the Autobahn or Motorway, which is a high speed freeway with no speed limit for private cars, of which there are many, but not so many as to choke the roads. The autobahn idea is said to have originated with Hitler, one of his few (and maybe the only) that was actually a good one.  In Communist times traffic was even lighter since no one could import cars from any Western country and the only choice for those who could afford it in this part of the USSR was the East German made Trabant, for which there was a long waiting period. Our guide, Mariann, told us of her family’s wait of several years for their family

A Surviving Trabant

A Surviving Trabant

vehicle, a Trabant 601. (The local joke was that for every 600 orders, there is one delivery). Her entire family traveled to Budapest to pick it up,  but were dismayed to find the only color left was turquoise. They should have been equally dismayed to learn that although it had a steel frame, the body was made of wood pulp pressboard. I guess they figured that since travel was so highly restricted outside the Soviet Bloc, that pressboard would do just fine. A local expression concerning the Trabant was the slogan “Nothing stops a Trabant – not even the brakes.”

Of course now the Czech Republic is part of the EU and they don’t have the same problems as when they were under the Communists, but they have discovered  new problems stemming from this new found freedom and new found mobility. For example, they have had several instances of people who live in a city on the border between two EU Countries, who can actually get away with working in one country to which they commute and collecting unemployment in another where they live. Big Brother never would have let this happen.

The Moravian Countryside

The Moravian Countryside

Our trip took us north through the vineyards of northern Austria and southern Czech Republic, and area called Moravia. We traveled through gently rolling hills gradually gaining in elevation, crossing the border at the Czech town of Mikulov and the local currency changes again from the Euro to the Czech crown with an exchange rate of 16 Crowns  to 1 Dollar. We learned that most of the school children around here get out of school for a week during grape harvest to pick the grapes, mostly white varieties. The first press of grapes is called the Versturm and a wine commonly consumed on New Year’s Eve is the result. However, in the Czech Republic, the big story from a beverage perspective is beer (pivo in the Czech language), the most well-known being Pilsner Urquell, which our beer drinkers at out lunch stop at Brno (pronounced “Bruno”) proclaimed to be good. Discriminating beer drinkers say it must be draft beer, no cans, which is the only way it is exported, so unless you come here, you won’t get the good stuff. The word “pilsner” has become a generic term to describe this type of beer, but this was first made in a Czech town called Pilsen in 1842.  And speaking of beer, the Czechs say the American Budweiser, actually swiped the name, since they have had Budvar long before the American brew came about. Theirs is named for a Czech town called something unpronounceable in Czech, but which translates into German as Budweis. The world record holder for speed drinking beer is also reputedly Czech with a record of 1 liter in 3.44 seconds. The do make other spirits such as Slivivice (plum Brandy), Borovicka (juniper flavored “spirit”) and Becherovka (a bitter herbal drink) not recommended to try at home unless you are short on lighter fluid and need to fire up the Weber Grill.

Since we had a long trip, our guide took the opportunity to tell us a little bit about Czech history and how it came to be the Czech Republic (or Ceska” as the locals call it.) The country has 10.3 million people and  is roughly the size of South Carolina. There are 3 main regions, (1) Moravia (famous for their wine and the Moravian Church to the south, bordering Austria, (2) Silesia (famous for coal) to the north, bordering Poland and (3) Bohemia which I assume is famous for unusual people who don’t usually go with the flow in the western and central part of the country. Its major river is the Elbe which runs into Germany and on to to the North Sea. One of the Elbe’s major tributaries is the Vlatava (pronounced Val-tah-va with the accent on “tah”) which runs through Prague, although the Germans call it the Moldau. Czech history very much parallels that of Hungary and Slovakia – the usual assortment of Romans, Celts, Slavs and Magyars. Prague more or less peaked during medieval times in the 14th Century, supposedly rivaling Paris in culture and sophistication.

The first rulers in the “kingdom” sense of the word were a family called the Premyslids, who did some serious fighting among themselves, the most notorious being the murder in 935 A.D. of King Wenceslas by the sword wielding henchmen  of his brother Boleslav, who had ordered the “hit”. There was a feast in progress and Wenceslas was on his way to Mass, when he was set upon by said henchmen. Apparently a monk was in on the deed since he locked the door to keep Wenceslas from getting into the sanctuary where he would have been safe. He was later canonized and became Bohemia’s patron saint. He also became the featured subject of a Christmas Carol, “Good King Wenceslas”, although interestingly enough, apparently no one in the Czech Republic ever sang this one. It is said that a Czech princess was sent to England to marry a nobleman and told the story to the English Court, where it was converted into a Christmas carol.

After the murder, Boleslav became King and his wife, one Bozena Biagota  became queen and their children were in line for the throne.  One poor kid, born about the time Boleslav had his brother Wenceslas murdered at the feast, was burdened, perhaps out of remorse on his father’s part, with the moniker Strachvas, which means Dreadful Feast, There was a lot more skullduggery in this same family (too dysfunctional even for Dr. Phil to straighten out) including a daughter-in-law princess who ordered a hit on her own mother-in-law, the queen, who was found strangled with her own scarf.

Old Prague as Seen from the Vltava River

Old Prague as Seen from the Vltava River

Then in the 1500’s the Protestant Reformation came to town, which got started here with the martyrdom of Jan Hus. He was born in 1370 and became the rector of one of the first universities in Europe. He was a prominent religious thinker and philosopher and would-be reformer. His major reform ideas seemed pretty tame, but he was also outspoken about the corruption and opulence of the Catholic Church and the Church apparently took a dim view of that. He mainly was trying to get the church to conduct mass in the local language rather than in Latin so the average Joe could actually understand what was being said to and about God, Jesus, Mary and all the saints and the Church took a dim view of that too. He met with a papal council to defend himself and to make this seemingly reasonable request, but it ended with his being condemned to death. It was not just any death – he was burned at the stake in 1415, a special method for dealing for heretics. His martyrdom became a rallying point for the Protestants and the Catholic Church lost ground from there in a series of battles termed the Hussite Wars between the Catholic faithful and the followers of Jan Hus. Over the years Jan Hus evolved into a symbol for dissidents.  A statue was erected in his honor on the Old Town Square in 1915 and became the site for dissident activity during the Communist era.

The Premyslids were succeeded by the Luxemburgs, but after a series of weak kings, the country came under the control of the Habsburgs of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1526, and with them came the Renaissance. The Habsburgs managed to hang on for 400 years until WW1, when Czechoslovakia gained a short-lived independence, courtesy of the Nazis in 1938, with the Munich Agreement. But of course after the war was lost, the Communists took over and life continued to be grim. Alexander Dubcek was elected as First Secretary in 1968 and adopted several liberal programs which were termed the Prague Spring, but in August of that same year, troops were sent in to keep reforms in check and over 100 protesters were killed. Even though the Velvet Revolution took place in 1989 and the Communists are no more, the Czechs still like to take to the streets occasionally to protest whatever doesn’t suit them.

The Stare Mesto - Prague

The Square in the Stare Mesto – Prague

One of the best things about Prague is that it suffered no damage in WWI or WWII and thus most of the old historical buildings are still standing and in good shape which makes for great sight-seeing. We arrived in the late afternoon and checked into the hotel in the Old Town Quarter called the Stare Mesto (pronounced “starry” mesto). The buildings here seem to be all pastel shades – ice cream colors – strawyberry, French vanilla, raspberry, and mint. Many of the structures may have a beautiful color underneath, but still bear the grim of centuries, particularly the cathedrals and bridges. We set out on foot from the hotel and easily found the Old Town Square called the Staromestske Namesti which is bounded by fabulous buildings on all sides. This part of Prague became a municipality in 1338. We saw the Kinsky Palace with an elaborate rococo façade, purchased in 1768 by the Kinsky family and it was several centuries  old when they bought it. There was also the Church of St. Nicholas,  built

The Church of Our Lady of Tyn

The Church of Our Lady

between 1703 and 1761, the Church of Our Lady before Tyn, which was started in 1365,  a medieval town palace and a potpourri of colorful styles and architectures – tall and ornate, reminiscent of those in the old part of Amsterdam, but much more elaborate Romanesque, Neo-Classical and Gothic structures dating from the 15th to the 19th Centuries. Perhaps the most famous (although not in his lifetime) citizen of this square was Franz Kafka, whose father had a shop here and who studied here around the turn of the century. One of the major features of the square is the Old Town Hall which was established in 1338. It was cobbled together from a series of attached houses which did had to be restored after the Nazis heavily damaged in putting down an uprising in 1945. The most prominent features are the tower which was built in 1364 and its wonderful astronomical clock, rebuilt in 1490 by Jan Ruze. Legend has it that the town councilors were quite anxious that no other towns have such a wonderful clock that they blinded Mr. Ruze so he could never build a knock-off clock. On the stroke of noon, there is a procession of the 12 Apostles, led by St. Peter. This is triggered by the figure of Death who pulls on a rope and inverts an hourglass. The rope opens a window and the apostles start their parade. At the end of the parade, a cock crows, the clock chimes and the remaining figures go into action – a Turk who shakes his head from side to side, the figure of Vanity who looks into a mirror, and the figure of Greed. There are also 3 different clocks in one – one with Arabic Numerals ( a 24 hour day based on when the sun sets) , one with Roman Numerals  (time as we know it) and the third with Babylonian time – separated in 12 segments which vary in length depending on the seasons. It also shows the movement of 12 signs of the zodiac. And an additional note on the clock – this is the best place in town for a tourist to have his pocket picked.

The Charles Bridge Across the Vltava

The Charles Bridge Across the Vltava

From the clock we walked to the Charles Bridge (the Karluv Most) and crossed it to the Little Quarter or the Mala Strana. It was built in 1357, commissioned by Charles IV, and until 1741 it was the only bridge across the Vlatava. Today it is pedestrian only, but it was designed to accommodate 4 carriages abreast. The bridge itself is a work of art and historical treasure. There are ornate Gothic towers on either end and it is lined with sculptures of saints, including that of St. Vitus, the bridge’s patron saint. The statues there today are mostly copies with the originals kept in a museum.  Some of the saints are well known (St. Francis, St. Augustine, St. John the Bapitist, and some not so well known outside of the Czech Republic including St. John Nepomuk who was canonized in 1729 and became the patron saint of secrets and drowned people. He was arrested in 1393 for having displeased the King., and he was tortured to death and thrown off the bridge. His statue was erected on the bridge in 1693 on the spot where he was thrown in, and the others were added over the next two centuries. Along those same gruesome lines, Napoleon had the heads of his enemies chopped off and mounted on pikes and displayed on the bridge and they were left there until they completely rotted off. You have to hand it to Napoleon– he sure knew how to send a strong message.

Pegnuin Art on the Vlatava

Pegnuin Art on the Vlatava

We had drinks outdoors on the river by one of the locks right next to a line-up of lighted electric penguins which was part of an art exhibit, but I think the art was mostly lost on us. In the first place it was getting chilly – so chilly we went inside and in the second place – they were plastic penguins with lights inside. Need I say more? We went inside the restaurant, the Sovovy Mlyny Restaurant (no clue on the pronunciation. It sounded like they were clearing their throats when the name was repeated to us) and had some wine. We enjoyed a leisurely meal and walked back to the hotel, which was a treat in itself. The city at night is like a fair- land with very dramatic shadows and ethereal light.

September 20, 2008

Dateline:  Prague, Czech Republic

Prague Castle

Prague Castle

Today we had a tour of the famous and massive with a capital “M”, Prague Castle (Prazsky Hrad to the locals), the largest castle complex in Europe. It sits up on a promontory above the Mala Strana (the Little Quarter) across the river from the Stare Mesto in its own section of town called the Hradcany, built in 1320 just outside the castle walls. The castle was started in the 9th Century and has been added to over the years, plus it has been rebuilt several times after various and sundry fires and invasions damaged it. Today the castle walls enclose eight palaces, three churches, two gardens, a convent, two monasteries, and several towers as well as what is left of the housing for the hundreds of people who worked for royalty. Today it houses the offices of the Czech President, but this only takes up a fraction of the real estate.

St. Vitus' Cathedral

St. Vitus’ Cathedral

We only had a half day tour so we hit the highlights, but there was much more left not visited. Our first stop was St .Vitus’ Cathedral.  Work began on this cathedral as it looks today in 1344 under the orders of the King at the time, John of Luxembourg. However, the original church goes back much further to the time of King Wenceslas (this is the church he was trying to get into when he was attacked and killed)   Finishing it took several centuries  due to a number of fires and a long string of local wars up through the big ones of the 20th Century. In fact as late as the 20th Century, they were still adding on, almost doubling it in size. It is a massive gothic structure, replete with a rose window, gargoyles and flying buttresses. Inside is the tomb of the martyred King Wenceslas and the crown jewels. In fact everyone who was anyone from a royalty perspective in the olden days is buried here, as is St. John Nepomuk (who apparently was retrieved from the river).  Also the Kings of Bohemia were crowned here. There are beautiful stained glass windows and tons of gold everywhere, particularly in the St. Wenceslas Chapel where the opulence is so dazzling, you would need sunglasses if it were not so dark in there. Even the frescoes on the walls are decorated with polished gemstones.

St. Vitus was said to be martyred which normally means  tortured and killed, but there are many stories of his surviving various tortures, e.g. he was supposedly thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil and emerged unscathed, he was thrown to the lions and they licked his face and so forth. He is believed to have lived in the 4th century AD, the son of a Sicilian member of the Roman Senate who converted to Christianity as a 12-year-old. He is one of the 14 Holy Helpers, meaning he is one of 14 saints whom it is believed can intercede for an individual through

St George's Basilica

St George’s Basilica

prayer. He is the patron saint of dancers, young people, dogs and the City of Prague and it is believed that he can help out with a wide variety of ailments or a neurological nature (including the disease called chorea sancti viti which is Latin for St. Vitus’ Dance or in medical terms, dyskinesia). We also visited St. George’s Basilica in a brief walk-by, which is the oldest church within the grounds of Prague Castle dating back to 920 A.D.  It is one of the most colorful structures in the complex and the site of many notables such as royalty and saints, inlcuding the illustrious, if little known, Saint Ludmilla.

 

A View of the city from Prague Castle

A View of the city from Prague Castle

While at Prague Castle we also saw Vladislav Hall of the Royal Palace (Kralovsky Palac) dating from the 11th Century. The hall is enormous with  a vaulted ceiling, resembling a public market hall. It was actually used for indoor jousting matches and a Riders Staircase allowed jousters to mount up and ride into it for the day’s festivities. There was an interesting bit of melodrama here (probably more than one), but this one caught my fancy. In 1618 more than 100 Protestants nobles marched into the palace to protest the ascension to the throne of a religiously intolerant Habsburg (and Catholic) king, represented by two Governors. The enraged Protestants ended up tossing the Governors and their secretary (a male in those days of course) out a window of the palace. They fell about 50 feet, but were saved from the hard cobblestones by a largish dung heap upon which they landed. This consequently triggered the Thirty Years war between the two religious factions, which on the surface would seem to be a pretty weird thing to go to war over, although in the course of history I suppose they have been started for lesser offenses.  Catholics took this landing on a dung heap and being saved from certain death as a sign that the angels intervened and proved God was on their side and so we assumed that angels, like God, must work in mysterious ways.

Residences of Prague Castle

Residences of Prague Castle

This event was called the Defenestration of1618, and since I did not have this word in my personal vocabulary, I had to look it up. It actually means throwing someone out a window (from the Latin “de” which is “out” or “out of” and “fenestra” which is window (the dung heap must be a optional feature).  I was surprised to learn this defenestration business has been a fairly common practice throughout history, even going back to Biblical times when Jezebel was thrown out a window by her servants as related in “Kings 2”. Of course unless you have at least a two story building to “do the deed”, it may not achieve the desired effect. And even then, there may be an unanticipated dung heap to foil your plot.

The Torture Devices of the Dalibor Tower

The Torture Devices of the Dalibor Tower

We also visited the 15th Century Dalibor Tower, which served as a prison. It is named after its first prisoner who was, according to legend, a young knight sentenced to death for harboring outlawed serfs (They even had illegal worker problems way back then). He was lowered on a rope and placed into a dungeon which was a pit in the floor. Supposedly he somehow acquired a violin and played so beautifully that people brought him food and drink (also lowered on a rope) to hear him play, which totally subverted the justice intended since he was supposed to starve to death. He did not however live happily ever after, since the King ordered him to be beheaded and that was the end of that.  Whether this legend is true or not, it is apparent that the tower was the site of some truly nasty business because many of the torture implements – the rack, the Iron Maiden, the Spanish Boot and a big meat-hook like thing  – are all on display and appear to be well used.

The Former House of Franz Kafka

The Former House of Franz Kafka

We also visited Golden Street which is a street from medieval times (the 1500’s) lined with tiny, but colorfully painted houses (or quarters may be more appropriate) where castle employees lived. They were actually attached to the interior castle wall, which served as the back wall of the house. The street officially derives its name from the many goldsmiths who worked and lived here. The unofficial story is that the street got its name from an open sewer frequently used as urinal which used to run down one side of the street. It became a slum in the 19th century and the writer Franz Kafka, lived at Number 22 on this street, but it  was restored to its medieval state in the 1950’s. In addition to the goldsmiths who dealt with gold found in nature and mined (and pillaged from enemies) the king also employed alchemists whose mission was to find the secret formula for turning various minerals into gold, although needless to say, the pillaging proved to be a much more fruitful an endeavor.

Old Town Rooftops as Seen from Prague Castle

Old Town Rooftops as Seen from Prague Castle

We left the castle and walked to the Mala Strana (Little Quarter) below the town searching for a Church called the Church of Our Lady Victorious which was built in 1613 to see the famous Infant of Prague, now in the care of the Carmelite Order of Nuns. The infant is a wax effigy that was believed to originally be a gift from the Queen of Spain to honor her daughter who was marrying a Czech nobleman. and it was again given as a wedding gift to another bride, who  in 1628 gave it to the Carmelites. (So this re-gifting business is not peculiar to our generation by any means) The Church was destroyed by invading Swedes and /or the Saxons,  and the Infant was discovered in the rubble and restored. Many miracles have been attributed to the restoration of the Infant to His place in the church. An interesting note on churches: the old town of Prague has hundreds of them, as did Vienna and Budapest for that matter, and most of them  earn money for restoration and maintenance by holding concerts in their sanctuaries, which is far more lucrative than passing the collection plate.

After visiting the church, we walked back across the Charles Bridge to the Stare Mesto and had a late lunch at an excellent pizzeria, even though Gary has been on quest for pig knuckle since seeing one in Budapest. There are hundreds of “gitchee” stores – a Texas term for shops that cater to tourists, with many selling really cleverly crafted marionettes. My personal favorite was one dancing to “La Marcarena” – a little dated, but nevertheless amusing. There were also a number of vintage touring cars that are for hire to take people on city tours of the Old Quarter for $75. for ¾ of an hour.  We kept to our foot tour and resolved to save the $75.for wine.

Most of the good stuff here in Prague is the old stuff, but we did see the Metronome in Letna Park. It is a huge work of modern art built in 1991 with an arm that does move back and forth like a metronome. It sits on a prominent hill above the river across the river from the Jejwish Quarter where a huge statue of Stalin used to stand before someone blew it up in 1962. (Apparently the Communists were cool with this since they didn’t like Stalin any more either by that time) Word is the locals don’t like the Metronome any more than they liked the statue so it may not last much longer. We tourists pronounced it interesting, weird, but interesting.

The Old City Gate and the Charles Bridge as seen from the River

The Old City Gate and the Charles Bridge as seen from the River

We walked around the town taking in the sights for a bit, discovering just how much would have to be saved for a future visit. Just before sunset we took a river cruise on the Vlatava River and enjoyed the scenery with a glass of wine. This time we had a Czech toast which was “Na Zdravi (Pronounced (noz drah vee with the accent on “drah”) After the sunset cruise, we joined our other tour group travelers for dinner at a restaurant in  Prague’s Municipal House. The Municipal House was built in 1905 in the Art Nouveau style and was intended to be an exhibition hall. It was built on the site of an old palace dating back to 1383, but it was abandoned for centuries and eventually demolished to build the Municipal House. Amid so much old stuff the Municipal House looks almost like new. It was beautiful in a JW Marriott sort of way, but we’ve seen so much really fabulous, really old stuff, we barely took note.  We walked slowly back to our hotel enjoying the sights and sounds of the Old Quarter and called it a day.

September 21, 2008

Dateline: Prague, Czechoslovakia

The Jewish Quarter - Progue

The Jewish Quarter – Progue

Today we toured the Jewish Quarter (Josefov) which proved to be one of the most fascinating areas of the city. The Jews here spoke three languages, Hebrew, Czech and German. Jews have lived in this area since the Middle Ages and suffered for centuries under oppressive laws. Their neighborhoods were walled in to separate them from the rest of the city and in the 1600’s they were forced to wear yellow circles and they were frequently the target of hatred and false accusations by many who professed to be Christians, but didn’t much walk the talk. Using Jews as scapegoats was an age-old tradition for centuries,

The Streets of the Jewish Quarter

The Streets of the Jewish Quarter

long before Hitler ever drew breath.  In Prague Jews were accused of starting fires, poisoning wells and anything else that their “Christian” neighbors decided to saddle them with. Each King of Bohemia decided what privileges Jews should have. For example, one king decided they could not possess gold. King Charles decreed that only the oldest son in a Jewish household could marry. Other sons would have to leave the country in order to do so. Another King decreed that Hebrew names should be changed and Jews should be given Germanic or Bohemian names. Many took the names of the towns they were from and thus today, many common Jewish names go back to those towns such as Horowitz and Rosenburg.

Fortunately this anti-Semitic attitude was adjusted somewhat by Jospeh II who ordered many of the discriminatory laws invalid, and thus the ghetto became known as Josefov. In 1850 it was officially made part of Prague, but in the 1890’s much of the area was a slum and was razed due to disease and sanitation issues, and thus the buildings there today have mostly a Victorian or Art Nouveau  look and feel. However, a number of the old structures were saved and much of the culture of the old days along with it. The Jewish quarter is quite small and we covered it all on foot accompanied by a local guide with an accent that was so similar to Steve Martin doing the Wild and Crazy Guys skit on Saturday night live, we had to chuckle a bit.  Our first stop was the oldest synagogue in Europe, a simple gabled brick structure built around 1270, surviving fires, pogroms and slum clearance over the centuries. There are a number of interesting artifacts here and is also an Ark to hold the ancient sacred scrolls of the Torah. The torah is always kept on scrolls and rolled out so that no human hands touch its sacred pages. Pointers are used to keep one’s place while reading it.

The most distinguished rabbi to preside here was Rabbi Low in the 16th Century, who in addition to being a scholar and philosopher, was believed to be endowed with magical powers – giving rise to the legend of the Golem. The rabbi was said to have created a figure out of clay and brought it to life by placing a magic stone tablet in its mouth. The original intent for the Golem is that it would protect Jews from harm, particularly from the bizarre practice of blood libel, whereby a Christian could accuse a Jew of killing a Christian child to make matzoh balls out of the child’s blood, and the Christian would be rewarded when the government would seize the assets of the accused and half would be given to the accuser. Some stories even say that accusers would go so far as to frame the Jew by putting a dead Christian child in his house.  One version says that the Golem went berserk and the rabbi had to remove the tablet and store him up in the rafters of the synagogue. Other versions portray him as a benign Frankenstein sort of figure, while others portray him more like the boogey man that parents tend to threaten their children with in order to make them behave. There were no Golem sightings on this tour, but plenty of dark alleys and hidey-holes where he just might be lurking.

Our next stop was the Spanish Synagogue, so named because of its Moorish architecture, reminiscent, in style at least, to Spain’s Alhambra. It was built in the 19th Century, but the ground itself goes back to the 11th Century when a school stood there.  This synagogue houses an excellent Jewish History museum where we had some free time to look at exhibits including those documenting the fate of thousands of Prague’s Jews at the hands of the Nazis. In 1938, part of Czechoslovakia was called the Sudetenland (Land of the South) by the Nazis and it was basically given to them with the signing of the Munich Pact – perhaps the most notorious example of appeasement in history. The year 1938 was also the time of Kristalnacht when 269 synagogues were burned by the Nazis – a certain sign of bad things to come. In 1939 deportations began to a camp called Terezin that was portrayed as a model facility and proof to the world that Nazis were not mistreating Jews. Unfortunately it was all propaganda and Jews were sent by the thousands from there on to death camps in Poland with 80,000 Czech Jews lost in the Holocaust. Miraculously 245,000 survived, including 600 children sent to England on trains by a wealthy businessman and many more sheltered by Czech citizens.

The Pinkas Synagogue and Jewish Cemetery

The Pinkas Synagogue and Jewish Cemetery

We visited the Maisel Synagogue, named for a mayor and built in 1590 which currently houses a Jewish historical museum covering up to the 18th Century. We then visited the Pinkas Synagogue, built in 1479 and the second oldest in Prague. It was the first synagogue we visited which was offering disposable yarmulkes to cover the gentlemen’s heads if they are so inclined. It picks up historically where the Maisel left off.  It is now a memorial with over 77,000 names of Czech Jews are inscribed on the wall, organized in groups under the names of  the 153 cities and towns they came from. Like the Vietnam Memorial, it really

has a visual and emotional impact when you put individual names to the numbers. They also have artwork and toys of some of the many children sent to Terezin, which makes this an even more heart-wrenching experience. During the Nazi occupation, this synagogue like many others, was used to store property confiscated from Jews sent to Terezin. Consequently the structures and the possessions were left intact, and it was a museum bonanza, although it was a monumental effort to sort catalog everything

The Old Jewish Cemetery

The Old Jewish Cemetery

Upon exiting the Pinkas Synagogue, we found ourselves inside the stone walls of the Old Jewish Cemetery, literally crammed with 12,000 ancient headstones where an estimated 100,000 people have been buried over the centuries. For over 300 years it was the only burial ground permitted to Jews and thus people had to be buried in layers, sometimes 12 deep. The oldest tomb is dated 1439 with the last burial completed in 1787. The tombstones are leaning at every imaginable angle, competing for real estate with the roots of trees just as ancient. Many of the gravestones are carved with symbols denoting background,

The Prayer Wall in the Old Jewish Cemetery

The Prayer Wall in the Old Jewish Cemetery

family name or profession of the deceased (e.g. a pair of scissors for a tailor or a pair of blessing hands for a rabbi). There is also a wall, similar to, but much smaller than the Western Wall in Jerusalem where the faithful go to pray and leave prayers written on scraps of paper stuffed into the wall’s crevices.

We had free time to walk around the Josefov to see at least the outside of  the many churches and synagogues, as well as the old Jewish Town Hall that will have to remain unvisited for the time being.  The Jews got permission to add a tower to it in 1570 after helping to defend the Charles Bridge against invading

 

The Josefov Synagogue

The Josefov Synagogue

Swedes. It has a clock whose hands do not turn clockwise since it has Hebrew figures and Hebrew reads from right to left.

We had lunch in Old Town (still no pig knuckles for Gary here in Prague) and explored the New Town, the quarter called the Nove Mesto in the afternoon, but even the New Quarter isn’t new by our standards. The chief attraction is the very long Wenceslas Square with a statue of the martyred saint by the same name standing in front of the huge National Museum, which will also have to be saved for another time.

We had dinner on our own on this, our last night in Prague and chose a restaurant in the Old Town called the Restaurace U Supa, with Gary still on a quest for his pig’s knuckle. He had to make do with a pork dish of some sort, but we all had a very good meal, despite learning somewhat late in the meal that Supa, means Vulture in Czech. Fortunately, we did learn that we were not eating road kill, and that many of the old buildings had names based on their names from the olden days. Since most people couldn’t read, houses had names and that became their street address. Our waiter showed us several others on the street, including the House of the Duck . Thus reassured, we enjoyed our meal and our walk back to the hotel. Tomorrow we venture back into the Western World with an early train to Regensburg, Germany and on to Munich. After that, we will explore the former East Germany where this Great Adventure will conclude.

 

 




Eastern Europe Part 7: Germany – East and West

 Eastern Europe

Part 7:  Germany – East and West

September 22, 2008

Dateline:  Regensburg, Germany

Latitude at Regensburg 49.01 degrees North, Longitude 12.05 degrees East

Today we took a four hour train trip from Prague to Regensburg, Germany for our final leg of exploration behind the former Iron Curtain in the former East Germany. There didn’t seem to be a lot of lingering Communist era structures (for which we and the Germans should be thankful) along our route. We weren’t sure if they didn’t build them or the Germans tore them down after the collapse of Communism. The day was chilly and overcast, but we enjoyed a nice snooze and some quiet reading (and GAT writing) time as we rolled across prosperous looking farms and woodland to find ourselves once again in a city on the Danube (or the Donau as the Germans call it). We had reservations at the Hotel Maximilian and hopped in a cab as soon as we arrived to be taken there. Much to our chagrin, the cabbie pointed to it, sitting there just across the street. However, since our bags were already loaded in the cab, we asked him to take us any way and gave him a fare commensurate with a more distant destination.

Old City Walls of Regensberg

Old City Walls of Regensberg

We set out on a self-guided walking tour in search of lunch just as the skies opened up, so we pretty much ruled out our original idea of eating outdoors in a picturesque town square. Regensburg is a lovely old city – rain or shine- in south eastern Germany in the state of Bavaria. Bavaria was at one time an independent kingdom, as were most of the German states, prior to the formation of a “Reich” in 1871 formed by Otto von Bismarck and the King of Prussia. (A note on Reichs – the word translates as “kingdom” or “empire” in German). Bismarck was the Prime Minister of Prussia, which was where most of Poland is today. This was actually the Second Reich.  The First Reich (although it wasn’t called that at the time, because, one assumes, they didn’t have any idea other reichs were going to be coming along) was in the 1700’s when the assorted German states were brought together under Frederick the Great ( a Prussian King). Things were going along pretty well until they tangled with Napoleon and came out on the short end of the stick several times until 1815, when Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo (now in modern day Belgium) setting the stage for the Second Reich.

Over the years of battles in the Napoleonic Wars, a sense of German unity and nationalism developed and Germans got to be rather fond of this war business and proved to be disturbingly good at it. So when Bismarck came along with this New Reich idea, the Germans were all for it and the German empire was born. The good news for the Germans, was that the individual kingdoms were no longer fighting among themselves. The bad news for the Germans, not to mention the rest of the world, was they would be fighting against everyone else–and thus WWI unfolded, resulting in a disastrous defeat for Germany and the end of that reich. This defeat, of course, set the stage for Hitler to introduce the Third Reich and we all know how badly that turned out.

The Regensburg Town Square

The Regensburg Town Square

Regensburg (called Ratisbon in German) is known as the city of churches and like every other place we visited, had been unwilling hosts to both the Celts and the Romans, but this was more of an encampment than a town so the elaborate ruins we had seen elsewhere were largely absent. The city was not damaged in WWII since it was not invaded by any Allied armies and the Communists mostly left it alone. The city’s most important role was in the Middle Ages when it was a commercial and cultural center under the Holy Roman Empire. The main sight in Regensburg is the Dom (Church) of St. Peter, It is reputed to have a statue of the Devil’s grandmother, but we’ll have to save that for a future visit. I only saw the picture of it in which the devil looks downright cherubic. Well, okay he does have a smirk on his face, but Granny seems woefully miscast. It looks like she has a WWII era helmet on her head and has one hand slapped to her face as if saying “Oy Vey”. And then there’s the angel pulling Jesus out of a sandcastle and tearing its turrets loose. It makes you wonder what was in the mead they drank back in those days. The Dom is a massive cathedral built between 1250 and 1525 in the Gothic style, with a number of additions over the centuries, as is the case with most cathedrals we’ve encountered.

The Regensberg Rathaus (City Hall)

The Regensberg Rathaus (City Hall)

We also walked through the Rathausplatz where the old 15th Century town hall stands. The town hall in Germany is called the Rathaus and the platz is the town hall square or plaza. We were sorry we had already had lunch because we stopped by to see the famous Wurstkuche (Sausage Kitchen) which is roughly the medieval equivalent of a hot dog stand on the banks of the Danube, They have been selling sausages and locally brewed beer here since the 12th Century in the same location. Nearby is the Steinerne Brucke,  which translates as Old Stone Bridge and dates back to the 12th Century. We also walked to see a palace called the Schloss Thurn und Taxis (Schloss being the German word for castle and “Thurn und Taxis is a family name of ancient dukes.( No connection to taxi cabs that we could ascertain.  The palace also housed a Gothic cloister, chapel and library. The rain continued and intensified so we called a halt to our touring, but not as it turned out to our adventures.

A Trip to DHL to Lighten Our Load

A Trip to DHL to Lighten Our Load

Gary and Stu concluded that we had too much stuff to be hauling around Germany for a week and decided to ship a box home. We learned there was a DHL service center adjacent to the train station across the street and we were able to mooch a box  and tape from the hotel. It was a largish box so we put in all sorts of stuff we didn’t need anymore, including several pounds of guide books. In an act of sartorial rebellion, Stu and Gary threw in their sports coats which they had to wear to a couple of dinners on the river boat. Unfortunately, there was so much stuff it was too heavy for one person to carry and too awkward for two. And so we borrowed the luggage trolley from the hotel bellman and trundled the box across the street – actually more of a boulevard than a street – it was 3 lanes in each direction separated by landscaped medians. By this time we were trotting/jogging across the street with the cobblestones rumbling beneath the trolley wheels since we learned that DHL closed at 6:00 p.m. and it was 5:45.

We made it at 5:55, but alas our box was too heavy at the weigh-in and so we decided to open it and take out some of the smaller heavier things (like books) Stu sat down to fill out the paperwork and Gary got busy with his Swiss Army knife while I bought a new roll of tape. Unfortunately, Stu’s custom made silk sports coat with the custom made silk lining just happened to be on top and when we got the box open we saw that the lining had been perforated (or maybe slashed is a better word – Gary was in a hurry) in about half a dozen places. Well we all had a brief semi-hysterical laugh over this, but the clock was still ticking so we slapped the new tape on and weighed in – just under the limit. We were still laughing as we retraced our steps back to the hotel to turn in the trolley and order up the Stoli.  You know you have a good friend when you can poke his new coat full of holes and he’s still your friend.

September 23, 2008

Dateline:  Munich, Germany

 Latitude at Munich 48.08 degrees North, Longitude 11.34 degrees East

A Gat to the Old City - Munich

A Gat to the Old City – Munich

Today, we again boarded the train, this time to travel into the former West Germany, to make our way to Munich and the Oktoberfest. Munich sits on the Isar River (not a major waterway), just north of the Alps, which are visible in the distance when the weather is fair, but this did not happen while we were there. Munich is an ancient city, most famous for beer and those leather shorts called lederhosen. They had beer halls here before there even was a town here, dating

 

Carousel at Oktoberfest

Carousel at Oktoberfest

back to the 1300’s. Gary and I have friends, Klaus and Inge, whom we met on the QE2 Cruise in 2006, who live in Munich and they offered to take us to the Oktoberfest. We splurged on our hotel for the two days we are to be here with reservations at the Bayerischerhof (which translates as the Bavarian House) Hotel. It is 165 years old, and has been privately owned and managed for 4 generations. It is located right in the heart of the old city and is a perfect base for exploring. The rooms there were pretty pricey, but this was before the big Wall Street implosion, so we were pretty much in big spender mode, even with the really lop-sided

An Open Air Market in Old Munich

An Open Air Market in Old Munich

exchange rate, since this was a once-in-a lifetime experience. Klaus and Inge had a welcoming gift for us including Oktoberfest steins and big gingerbread cookies cut in the shape of a heart. They are called lebkuchenherzen (literal translation is gingerbread heart). They have decorative ribbons attached and are worn as adornment at the Oktoberfest – they make better adornment than sustenance since they are baked to the very well done stage – i.e., the approximate hardness of a Pyrex pie plate.

We were in search of a light lunch and had a fantastic bowl of soup at the hotel. We know it must have been fantastic since the price certainly was at $24 per bowl, and then there was the wine. Our friends from Munich met us at the hotel, all dressed for Oktoberfest, he in lederhosen (translates as “leather britches”) and she in peasant blouse, apron and skirt. We thought they had just dressed up for us, but once we got to Oktoberfest, we realized that the lederhosen and dirndl skirts far outnumbered the blue jeans.

The Paulaner Beer Hall "Tent"

The Paulaner Beer Hall “Tent”

Oktoberfest originated in Munich at the meadow called Theresienwiese. The original event was a betrothal celebration for Princess Theresa from a noble German family and Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig in 1810 and it involved a horse race. Everyone had so much fun, they decided to keep it going and eventually the beer drinking got to be the essence of the party and the uber biergarten (that is the ultimate beer garden) was born. Its hallmark is lots of boisterous strangers from around the world becoming new best friends in a matter of hours. Oktoberfest lasts for 16 days, beginning with a 7,000 person

 

Pualaner on Draft

Pualaner on Draft

parade.  Today  there are 12 tents holding 6 to 10 thousand people each, plus countless thousands on the midway and the farm exhibits (Called the Landwirtschafts Fest) which is very much like our state fairs. All beer served is German beer, specifically Bavarian beer. Bavaria boasts more than one-sixth of the world’s breweries, each with their own beer wagon and draft horses (Budweiser copied them). In addition to tents,  there are food stands, shooting galleries, thrill rides, and calliope music. While there are plenty of “oompah” bands, most tents are actually featuring American golden oldies  – everything from Elvis

 

Hofbrau Draft Horses

Hofbrau Draft Horses

to Martha and the Vandellas. The real hoot is when the singers translate the lyrics into German. Supposedly 6 million people attend Oktoberfest  and consume 5 million gallons of beer – the 6 million includes small children so you know many people are drinking more than a gallon.  In Munich, they heartily embrace the words of Ben Franklin: “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to prosper”.

So you may wonder why Oktoberfest starts in September – The short answer is because it’s too cold to start later and it could put a damper on the beer drinking. In the spirit of Oktoberfest I tried a stein of my own since our hosts and the beer connoisseurs (Gary, Stu and Sharon) proclaimed the beer to be wunderbar, but I have to confess it was not sufficiently so to make me convert. Having said that, it did taste wonderful compared to the wine. I think they serve bad wine on purpose to make you drink more beer. All beer is served in glass mugs, or steins as they call them – plastic is strictly verboten as far as this particular liquid national treasure is concerned.

The Main Gate of Oktoberfest

The Main Gate of Oktoberfest

We entered the fajr grounds under a huge arch with a “Willlkomen” (welcome) on one side and “Auf Wiedersehen” (goodbye) on the other. We strolled the midway full of laughter, music and neon, and visited several beer tents to sample the local brew. We stopped at the Hofbrau Haus, where suspended from the ceiling is a giant Cupid like figure with a Harp, but whose features are more Cabbage Patch than celestial. It was festooned with female lingerie, particularly brassieres launched slingshot style with their own elastic toward the Cupid with the hopes of sticking a landing. As I understand it, if your bra stays

 

Inside the Lowenbrau "Tent"

Inside the Lowenbrau “Tent”

you will be lucky at love (as opposed to drinking too much beer and just getting lucky). I am pleased to report that all bras in our party stayed firmly in place in this tent (and all other tents for that matter). We also stopped at the Augustiner Tent where we sampled their brew and had a local treat of bier radi, (beer radishes) which look like giant fat white carrots, but are sliced paper thin and salted and served up with beer. And of course the salt increases the thirst, so it’s a vicious cycle, but it’s all good. We admired the animated Lowenbrau Lion, who is not only about twenty feet high, but also talks and moves his head, taking the

 

The Lowenbrau Lion

The Lowenbrau Lion

occasional swig of beer from a giant mug. In the late afternoon we settled at our own table at Armbrusterschutzenzelt (translates as the Bow and Arrow Tent) owned by the Paulaner Brewery. We were awed by the waitresses who can carry 12 to 16 full steins at a time. They are sturdy, but not big women, but I must say that after seeing them haul the beer around, you wouldn’t want to arm wrestle one of them. Beer is kept outside to keep it cold so there is a whole lot of hauling going on.  While there is lots of beer consumed, there is no violence, probably due to the presence lots of undercover people, who not only keep the patrons under

A Beer Tent Waitress with Half a Load of Beer

A Beer Tent Waitress with Half a Load of Beer

control, they also keep the beer mugs from leaving the beer halls with those same patrons.  We did see a lot of happy people, pledging vows of eternal friendship and the occasional blubbering drunk bear-hugging a friend and mumbling incoherent words, but they seemed to be very “kumbaya” event as best we could tell.   The festivities are punctuated by the occasional toast of “Prost” whichtranslates as “Cheers”.   There was also the occasional strange battle cry (or in this case a drinking cry) thatsounds something like “Wicky Wocky- Wicky Wocky – oy, oy oy.” I asked Klaus for a translation, but it seems there is not one – it must be something along the lines of Yale’s “boola boola” fight song in that it’s not meant to have meaning. The festivities ended at 11:00 p.m. so we made our exit shortly before then while we could still get a cab.

 

September 24, 2008

Dateline:  Munich, Germany

The Munich Rathaus on the Marienplatz

The Munich Rathaus on the Marienplatz

This morning we decided to explore the Alstadt (old town) on foot, before taking a cab to Klaus and Inge’s house to have lunch. Novelist Thomas Wolfe described Munich as “a German dream translated into life” and it certainly does have the fairy tale aspect to it. Streets are spotless, graffiti absent (at least in the Alstadt, elsewhere it’s pretty prevalent). It’s like you have stepped back in time into a Disney landscape, except real people live and work here. Our first stop was the Marienplatz (the central square in the heart of the old town) which has the town hall, a huge neo-gothic structure that far outshines most cathedrals with the abundance of statues, gargoyles and curlicues. The town hall is of course called the Rathaus, but this is the new one (Neues Rathaus), which is only a stone’s throw from the old one (the Altes Rathaus). The Old Town Hall was built in 1470 and remodeled several times before the decision was made to build the new one. The new town hall was built in 1867-1909 with a façade that is 330 feet high and a clock tower which is 260 feet high with a fabulous “Glockenspiele”. Each day at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. carillon bells ring, followed by performing mechanical figures: knights on horseback jousting, people dancing with various other figures appearing in diferent windows and waving at the crowds below, along with a town guardsman carrying a lantern and an angel blessing a child.

The Augustiner Brewery

The Augustiner Brewery

We also saw the downtown location of the Augustine Brewery – the oldest in Munich, which began operation in 1328, founded by Augustinian monks. We visited the Hofbrau House, the most popular beer hall in Munich. There was some serious beer drinking underway, although it was not yet 9:00 a.m. They have a beer garden shaded with ancient chestnut trees, but most of the patrons were inside due to the chill in the air. The beer garden was filled mostly with smokers and cell phone users. The Hofbrau House was established in 1589 and has been in the current location since 1654. The main hall is called the Schwemme (it

The Courtyard of the Old Hofbrau House

The Courtyard of the Old Hofbrau House

translates as public bar, but the word also means “watering place”). It can accommodate about 1,000 people. On the floor above, in the Festhall (Party Hall) another 1,300 can be served. We also visited the Viktualienmarket (victuals market) which is a large square that has been in operation for over 200 years. In addition to fresh victuals and all sorts of ethnic restaurants, we located a weinmarkt (yes it is a wine market) to get some wine for our lunch.

Our meal at Klaus and Inge’s home was a traditional German lunch with lots of different kinds or wurst, potato dumplings,

Fish Smoked over an Open PIt at Oktoberfest

Fish Smoked over an Open PIt at Oktoberfest

radishes and beer of course. After lunch we went back to Theresienweise, this time to visit the Landwirtschafts Fest, the farm section of the Oktoberfest. We saw fish (mullet) being cooked over a trench of coals perhaps 30 feet long – each on an individual stake. They looked very unappetizing, but they were going like hotcakes so I may be wrong about that. Regardless of taste, they do get low marks on presentation. We visited several buildings with the requisite fluffy lambs, snuggly bunnies, long-maned ponies, contented milk cows, oblivious pigs and somnolent beef cows along with draft and show horses, chickens, goats pigeons, etc.

The Automatic Cow Washer

The Automatic Cow Washer

In the farm equipment area, we saw huge log splitters for truly huge logs that would cut one tree into 32 length-wise sections across the butt of the stump. My personal favorite was the automatic cow washers –  a drive though model (or more appropriately – a herd through model) with big rotating brushes, not just for show cows, but also to be used to keep your farm cows squeaky clean.  John Deere is on display here, but mostly we see German brands.

 

 

A City Street in Old Munich

A City Street in Old Munich

We had a farewell dinner that evening with our friends in the Alstadt  at a restaurant called the Osteria der Katzlmacher  (which is a scoop or scuttle like you would use for coal) with lots of good food and good wine. There was much we missed because there is much to see and time is so short. Someday we would like to return to the Marienplatz to see the Christkindlmarkt , a holiday market of stalls selling hand crafted ornaments and toys at Christmas time. We will have to return to the Residenz with its beautiful theaters and art galleries, and chapel. Many churches and many museums were left for a future visit, as well as the nearby, Schhoss Nymphenburg palace.

 

September 25, 2008

Dateline:  Dresden, Germany

Latitude at Dresden 51.03 degrees  North, Longitude 13.44 degrees East

 

This morning we took the ICE train (a high speed train whose initials stand for Inter-City Express) from Munich to Dresden, a journey of about 4 hours, which took us from the state of Bavaria to the state of Saxony to what was once again territory behind the former Iron Curtain. Dresden, situated on the Elbe River, first came to be noted by historians in 1485 when the Albertine Wettins family (quite prominent in circles of the nobility) set up their residence here. Today Dresden is the capital city of Saxony. Like so many other modern day German states, Saxony was once an independent kingdom, often warring with neighbors. Then in 1697, Saxony became united with Poland and came under the rule of Polish Kings, who had the title of Great Elector. The word “elector” is something of a misnomer since they weren’t elected as we know it, but they were considered to be elected by God I suppose. Saxony remained Polish for about 60 years under Frederick Augustus the Strong and his son Frederick Augustus II, who was not called the Strong, but then he wasn’t called the Weak either. What he did do is engage in the Seven Years War with several neighbors and that ended rather badly for Saxony. They, like Bavaria, in 1806, the allied with Napoleon which was okay until Waterloo and Saxony lost a lot of territory to Prussia. Then in 1871 it became part of the German Empire, and suffered greatly as a result, particularly in WWII. The night of February 13-14, 1945, the City of Dresden was carpet-bombed by the Allies and many centuries old buildings were destroyed. Estimated deaths from this bombing run between 25,000 and 40,000 with 80% of the city in rubble. The only public building left standing was the Dresdener Bank.

The Tauschenberger Palace Hotel

The Tauschenberger Palace Hotel

We took a taxi to our quite impressive digs at the Tauschenberger Palais Hotel, which was indeed at one time a palace love nest  built by Frederick Augustus, the Strong for his mistress, Duchess Cosel in 1705-06. It was located conveniently across a narrow street from the Royal Palace behind a set of fancy wrought iron gates which made any royal dalliances so much easier to pull off. Of course discretion was not possible, nor required since Frederick was the King after all. He must have been pretty much taken with the duchess since two more wings were added in the ensuing years. It was reduced to rubble in the bombing of Dresden, but the good news was, they were able to put in some modern plumbing and lighting as it was restored to its former glory and it is now a Kempinski Hotel.

The Frauenkirche Dresden

The Frauenkirche Dresden

We set out on foot to explore the old part of the city and our first stop was one of the premier sights of the city, the Frauenkirche (which translates as Church of Our Lady). It is a protestant church, built in 1726-43 with a giant dome and cupola standing 95 meters high, and beautiful pastel frescoes, along with gold leaf on white,  with so much more light inside than most old churches. It was totally destroyed in the bombing and was only a burned out shell in 1945, but it is now fully restored. There is an interesting architectural aspect to the outside. It has a checkered look due to the re-used old stone amid the new predominantly clean limestone. Reconstruction did not start until 1993 after the Communists left. The church is situated on Neumarkt (New Market) Square which was once lined with elegant baroque houses, looking quite Parisian, perhaps due to Napoleonic influence.

A Chunk of the Old Dome from the 1945 Bombing WWII

A Chunk of the Old Dome from the 1945 Bombing WWII

Outside the Church there was a bus-sized chunk of the original dome on the spot where it landed after the dome collapsed, two days after the WWII bombing raid. It has been preserved and made into a monument to the war victims.  Beside it were many 3 wheeled vehicles used for guided tours for two. They were a bicycle-like contraption with a fiberglass shell pedaled by the guide sitting in front – sort of like a Chinese rickshaw.

 

 

The Furstenzug

The Furstenzug

We had a stroll past the Furstenzug ( translates as procession of dukes) Langer Gang (long walk) which is a frieze (like a mural) on a long building built in 1586. The building connects the Residenzschloss  (Castle residence) with the Johanneum (now a museum), which was a stable in the olden days. The frieze is over 100 yards long and depicts a procession of many Saxon rulers over the centuries. It was originally done in the sgraffito style, which is a technique of painting which involves using the wrong end of the brush to scratch images on wet paint to reveal surface below. ( In Italian, the word means “to scratch”).The frieze was re-worked  in 1907 by craftsmen using 24,000 tiles made at the porcelain factories at nearby Meissen and was done quite skillfully and tastefully in shades of yellow and charcoal.

The Palace of Frederick, the Great

The Palace of Frederick, the Great on the Elbe River

The Old Market Square (Altmarkt) goes back the 1300’s and was the site of markets, meetings and festivals. It is still undergoing renovation today, but a few of the old churches that surround it have been restored and are open. Altstadt, the old town took the brunt of the damage from the bombing.  The New Town (Neustadt) is across the river. We left the Altmarkt area and walked down the Bruhl Terrace, which is an embankment along the Elbe that once was used as a fortification. We ate dinner outside at the Down Under Restaurant (more German than Australian we thought) under little space heaters in a narrow lane off the Neumarkt Square. We then had a leisurely wall  back to the hotel for drinks and desert enjoying the Frauenkirche again, this time softly lit from a dozen strategically placed flood lights.

September 26, 2008

Dateline: Dresden, Germany

The Semper Opera House

The Semper Opera House

Today, we took a bus ride around town on the Stadtrundfahrt which is basically a hop on hop off bus that circles around the major sights of the city. We got on at the Semper Opera House It is also called the Sachsische Staatsoper – Semper is the name of the architect who created it. It’s had a rough time staying intact. It was built in 1838-41 and burned to the ground in 1869. It was rebuilt in 1869-1878, only to be destroyed in the bombing in WWII and was not fully restored until 1985. We decided to keep our distance just in case it’s time for another disaster to befall it and thus we only saw from the outside.

We also did a drive by the the Hofkirche, a baroque church which still serves as the Church for the Dresden-Meissen Diocese. It has a four story tower with an open work single tower which is one of the tallest buildings of Dresden’s  skyline. The church is adjacent to the Residenzschloss (home of the Albertine Wettin family) which we only saw from the outside as well.

The Brauhaus Biergarten - Dresden

The Brauhaus Biergarten – Dresden

There are several small breweries in Dresden and we decided to sample one at lunch time. We chose the. Biergarten at the Brauhaus (Beer Garden at the Brewhouse) at a place called Waldschlosschen (little forest manor) on the heights across the Elbe from Old Town Dresden. It was built on the site of an old hunting lodge in 1790. We hopped off the Stadtrundfahrt and had Waldschlosschen beer and a light lunch here on a terrace overlooking the city across the river. We also drank some local beer at another small brewery – a light Pilsner called Radeberger, which is pretty much an upstart on the German Beer scene since the brewery was only started in 1872.

Sightseeing Tour Cars - an Alternative to the Bus

Sightseeing Tour Cars – an Alternative to the Bus

In the course of our bus ride, we went by what for all intents and purposes looked like a mosque, but it was actually a former cigarette factory called the Yenidze Tobacco House It has a glass Moorish-looking  dome and a chimney made to look like a minaret. Dresden was once the cigarette capital of Germany, but today that honor has apparently gone elsewhere and this factory is now a tourist site. It seemed rather jarringly out of place here, but not perhaps so much as the next sight we saw from the Stadtrundfahrt.  It was a sign (in English) indicating that we should turn immediately and go to the Erotic Car Wash. We did not have an actual sighting, so we could only imagine what was happening on the other side of the fence, but we did speculate that English speaking drivers are the target consumers for this rather unusual service.

A Dresden Vineyard

A Dresden Vineyard

We also saw several buildings of historical interest  in other drive-bys such as the synagogue that was burned by the Nazi’s in 1938. The Jews managed to continue for some time to worship there by erecting a tent inside the walls of the ruins. We also drove by the headquarters of the Stasi, the East German Secret Police, which looks harmless from the outside, but the horrors that went on inside are unimaginable. We also saw the Volkswagen factory – a marvel of auto production with few employees and many robots. It has glass tower where new  cars are showcased.  We were somewhat under-whelmed by the Blue Wonder (Blaues Wunder) suspension bridge– lots of steel, not much art, but since it was built in 1890-93 it probably was a wonder at the time and it is most definitely blue.

The Zwinger

The Zwinger

Our last stop of the afternoon was the Zwinger  which is a complex of galleries and pavilions built around a courtyard with dramatic fountains and statuary – little cherubs, cupids and nymphs everywhere, many engaging in decidedly naughty acts of flirtation with occasional displays of lust. One of the fountains there is actually named the Nymphenbad, which translates as the Bath of the Nymphs. There are staircases and ramparts that offer any number of places to view the splendor of the place. It was built in the 18th Century in the Baroque style by Frederick Augustus, the Strong, more or less intended as a pleasure

The Fountains of the Zwinger

The Fountains of the Zwinger

palace. Frederick Augustus the Strong was apparently quite the Swinger at the Zwinger, since in addition to his mistress, the Duchess Cosel, he reportedly had as many as 300 ladies on the side, no doubt re-enforcing his nickname.

Today the Zwinger is a fabulous treasury, full of old masters, armor and weaponry. Fortunately, much of the artwork was sent to Russia for safe-keeping during the war, and was actually returned to Dresden by the Communists. Sadly enough the name of the place has nothing to do with romance or kings who are swingers. It is an old military term that refers to the space between the inner and outer walls of a fortification called the zwinger.

The Wehlin on the Elbe

The Wehlin on the Elbe

We boarded a boat named the Wehlen, a paddle wheeler which actually had a working paddle wheel, for a river tour just before sunset. Gary and Stu got an engine room tour and Sharon and I enjoyed seeing the Old City and then the country villas (more the size of palaces than houses) go by. We also saw the Bruhl Terrace from the water.  It once had great buildings and gardens, but only one fountain, the Delphinbrunnen (Dolphin Fountain) survived the 1945 bombing. The sunset was very dramatic outlining the now restored domes and steeples of the city in one of the most picturesque scenes we have seen.

A Dresden Sunset

A Dresden Sunset

There is much to see on a future visit (like the insides of at least a half a dozen museums).  I especially  want to go into the vault at the Albertinum museum called the called the Grunes Gewolbe (that would be the Green Vault) to see the many treasures collected over the years by the Wettins family. One of the highlights is a centerpiece made by 16 or so artisans that has 132 figurines and thousands of precious gems with close to 5,000 diamonds160 rubies and 164 emeralds. I will probably have to wear my sunglasses to protect my eyes from the sparkle coming off all that bling.

September 27, 2008

Dateline: Berlin, Germany

Latitude at Berlin 52.50 degrees North, Longitude 13.22 degrees East

This morning we planned to head to Berlin, traveling into the state of Brandenburg from Saxony on the ICE Train, but since it’s only a two hour trip, Gary and Stu decided they’d like to take a tour of the Volkswagen factory. Unfortunately the only tour available that morning was conducted in German and the production line was not working since it was Sunday, but they got the gist of the way cars are put together which was reportedly very cool . One fact they were able to garner from the tour was the price of Volkswagen’s top of the line car which was around 60k Euros or close to $80k in US dollars. The guys decided that for $80k they might be doing business with a different German carmaker.

We arrived in Berlin’s fabulous train station, the Hauptbannhaus (translation is central rail house) which looks like something from a Star Wars set – maybe Darth Vader’s command center for running the universe. Some detractors have referred to it as the Glass Armadillo, but love it or hate it – it is still spectacular. It was completed in 2006 in time for Germany’s hosting of the World Cup at a cost of 700 million dollars. It has a glass ceiling (literally) that has solar receptors so it can generate its own electricity and then some, and all the latest in technology to run the most quiet and efficient train service from the largest railway station in Europe.   .

The Spree River Today

The Spree River Today

Berlin, like the other places we have visited, is an ancient city, originally started with two market centers being established on islands in the Spree River in 1237 A.D. in a marshy low lying area with many creeks and small lakes.  Today Berlin is criss-crossed with many canals made from the creeks and lakes (called sees in German) that have been retained. The Hohenzollern family chose this area as its seat of power and ruled for hundreds of years. Like other German states, the ruler was called an Electorate, but as in other states, there wasn’t really any electing going on and Brandenburg made the same poor choices and alliances as its sister states. Berlin rose to become the center of government for the emerging German Republic of the Second Reich and Hitler’s Third Reich, and thus its fall was all the more dramatic.

Modern Berlin on the Spree River

Berlin Rebuilt on the Spree River

As WWII drew to a close in the spring of 1945, the Russian Army was converging upon Berlin and Hitler committed suicide in his underground bunker (although there are those who believe he escaped). The War in Europe ended a week later and the four Allies (US, Great Britain, France and Russia) agreed to share governing of the country and its capital by dividing it into quadrants with each country running one quadrant. However Berlin lay in the heart of the Russian Sector of Germany and the Russians planned to keep everything they controlled and taking parts of Berlin controlled by their allies. Their goal was to have the Germans so totally defeated and demoralized that they would instantly turn to Communism for salvation. In June of 1948, they notified the other Allies that any convoys of food and supplies crossing the Russian Sector (as they would have to do to get to Berlin) would be stopped and searched. The response to this by the Tri-Zone Council (American, British and French) was to institute an Air Lift to Berlin to continue to keep West Berlin free from the Communist threat. The allies succeeded in delivering approximately 5 thousand tons a day and the airlift was so successful, that by May of 1949, the Russians relented and called off the blockade of rail lines and motorways to the city.  Thus the first crisis of the cold War was over, but the Russians managed to create many more over the next 40 years.

As soon as the war ended, the women of Berlin went to work immediately clearing rubble. There was no one else to do it since every able bodied man had years before bent sent off to war and toward  the end, Hitler drafted even the non-able bodied men and all boys big enough to hold a weapon. And thus the clean-up fell to the women, who were called the “Trummerfrauen” (translation is Rubble or Debris Women).

A Chuknk of the Historic Berlin Wall near Potsdammer Place

A Chuknk of the Historic Berlin Wall near Potsdamer Platz

Over the years there was a steady stream of people leaving the Russian Sector for the Western Sectors of Berlin and so Khruschev ordered the wall erected in 1961, where it continued to generate international incidents and intrigue for decades. You will recall President Reagan urged Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear down that wall.” Well of course Gorby, didn’t exactly tear it down, but rather events took over and the USSR sort of spontaneously disintegrated in a process that the Russians are still scratching their heads over. The border was ordered open on November 9, 1989 and the people took to the wall with hammers and chisels to bring it down without opposition. Reunification of Germany took place in October of 1990.

A Quiet Berlin Neighborhood

A Quiet Berlin Neighborhood

From the Hauptbannhof, we took a taxi to the Maritim Hotel, conveniently located only a block from the Tiergarten with an easy walk to all the main sights.  The Tiergarten is a huge park which was formerly the hunting grounds for the Elector (a.k.a. King). In the desperate times at the end of WWII, it supplied wood to provide heat for the freezing and starving people of Berlin. We noted that autumn is in full swing here and the sun finally came out to let us see it in all its glory. We walked through the Potsdamer Platz, formerly a no man’s land where the Wall divided East and West. After reunification, it became the heart of the city with global firms building skyscrapers and shopping plazas here using some of the world’s most famous architects. We stopped for a bite of lunch at an outdoor café and people watched. As it turned out, there were plenty to watch since on this particular weekend, Berlin was hosting a series of marathons, not only for runners, but also for in-line skaters, wheel chair racers, and children.

The Brandenburg Gate

The Brandenburg Gate

After lunch we walked to the Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburg Tor.) It was conceived in 1791 to celebrate a Prussian victory and interestingly enough was called the Gate of Peace, presumably since the people foolishly thought in 1791 that there would be no more wars fought. The figure at the top is the Goddess of Victory in a chariot called a quadriga pulled by 4 Horses. The Goddess holds a figure of the Prussian eagle aloft. The historic street called  Unter den Linden (translation “under the linden”, with  linden being a type of tree) starts here at the gate and runs into the heart of Old Berlin and what became East Berlin.  Unfortunately under the Communists, Old Berlin wasn’t a priority so restoration really has only gotten underway since Reunification. The Brandenburg Gate was incorporated into the Berlin Wall when it went up in 1961. Chunks of the wall are now on sale in the area, but unfortunately, no certificates of authenticity are available so you may end up with a chunk of something else.   The wall (die mauer in German) was 29 miles long and 13 feet high with barbed wire extensions atop it. In the Potsdamer Platz and in several other areas of the city large sections have been preserved as historical landmarks.

The Holocaust Memorial - Berlin

The Holocaust Memorial – Berlin

En route to the Brandenburg Gate, we walked unknowingly through the Holocaust Memorial since it is not well marked. Only later did we understand what we saw and that the lack of marking is intentional. The memorial looks like a park with a series of 2700  rectangular plinths of all different sizes, some upright, some on the ground lengthwise. There are no inscriptions and no two are exactly alike. It was not intended as a holy place and thus there are no names and no inscriptions, but it was intended as place Berliners will use daily and thus remember why its there in a very low-key sort of way. It was full of people sitting and reading, talking, smoking, cell phoning, and in some cases apparently simply reflecting. Interesting side note – the surfaces are treated with an anti-graffiti coating manufactured by the same company who made poison gas for the Nazi death camps. No word on whether they provided it for free as one would hope.

The Reichstag Today

The Reichstag Today

We walked around, but did not get to go into the Reichstag, which is the seat of Germany’s federal government. It was originally built between 1884 and 1894 in the Italian Renaissance style and dedicated to the German People, “Dem Deutschen Volke”, as is engraved over the entrance. The first German Republic (the Weimar Republic) was proclaimed here in 1918. However in 1933 the building was set on fire and gutted. The arson was blamed on a Dutch Communist dissident. It was further destroyed in bombing raids in1945. Fortunately, the Reichstag was on the west side of the wall and thus was fully restored by 1970 and further updated with a glass dome in the early 1990’s.  Today it is home to the German Bundestag or Parliament. The New Reichstag is part of a vast complex of very modern structures –sort of in the style of the Guggenheim Museum in New York with seemingly endless stretches of marble and granite walkways, bridges, fountains and water features. In re-building the capital of Germany, there is a very obvious departure from the old styles from the bad old days.

Berlin's Famous Linden Trees

Berlin’s Famous Linden Trees

We also took a stroll down Unter den Linden, a beautiful boulevard with few traces of the ugly old days of Communism. Linden trees are also called lime trees, but not lime trees that bear fruit as we know them. The leaves are heart shaped and on this fall day had turned a vibrant yellow so it made for a very scenic walk.  An interesting side note: We had barely set foot in the former East Berlin when we ran across a Bentley dealership, appearing to be doing a brisk business. This brash capitalism would have really irked the old comrades who used to hang out here. And speaking of the comrades, there is little evidence, at

Stairwell Ruins from the Bad Old Days of Communism

Staircase Ruins from the Bad Old Days of Communism

least on this street that they were ever here. Today it is revitalized and the site of many foreign embassies and expensive stores.  The only relic from the Communist era that we saw is a DPR (Democratic Peoples Republic which is what East Germany used to be called) government legislature buillding where they Communists had pretended to let people govern themselves. Only the concrete stair cases are left today and they are going to succumb soon to the wrecking ball with new public buildings to go up on the site.

We stopped in Adlon Hotel for a peek at Berlin’s most famous hotel. It was destroyed by the Soviets in 1945, although the original grand staircase survived. The hotel was finally re-built in a free East Berlin in 1997. The setting for the 1932 movie, Grand Hotel, was modeled after the Adlon and the place where Garbo uttered her famous line from the movie “I vant to be alone.”

We took a brief stroll through the Bebelplatz, originally called Opera Square. On May 10, 1933, this was the scene of the infamous book burning by the Nazis. 25,000 books by authors considered to be enemies of the Third Reich were burned. A monument in the square marks the event with a plaque bearing a quote by the Jewish German poet and essayist, Heinrich Heine, written in 1820 that quite prophetically says, “Where they have burned books, they will in the end  burn human beings.”

Lowering the Smokestack to fit under a Bridge on the River Spree

Lowering the Smokestack to fit under a Bridge on the River Spree

In the late afternoon we took a boat tour on the Spree River which really gave us a different perspective on all the sights we had been seeing.  Pronunciation of the name of this river involves a lot more “Sch” sounds than it than it looks like, and you have to be careful not to get sparyed with errant saliva if anyone pronounces this word in close proximity to your face. A boat is a Schiff  in German, very similar to our word “skiff”. So many German and English words are similar, I think you could get the hang of this language fairly quickly.  For example, we had to buy a Schiffkarte ( a boat ticket or card) in order to board. This Schiff had to have it’s smokestack lowered to go under each of several low bridges.  This was done manually which, in this technology rich environment, surprised us. We decided in East Germany they are a little slow in getting that famous German engineering cranked up.

We walked back to our hotel just before dusk through the huge park that is  the Tiergarten and enjoyed the autumn colors and meandering pathways, however we did ask for directions since it was almost dark and we hadn’t managed to meander out of the park after close to an hour of walking.

The German Historical Museum

The German Historical Museum

We will leave Berlin tomorrow with much unseen. There are many, many museums here –  in fact there is a whole island of them in the middle of the Spree.   There is also much to see susrrounding the city – palaces such as Charlottenburg and Sans Souci, and historic Potsdam. We are voicing a familiar refrain from the other cities we have visited  on this trip: “ Next Time”.

 

 

September 28, 2008

Dateline: Frankfurt, Germany

Latitude at Frankfurt 50.07 degrees North, Longitude 8.40 degrees East

The Kurfurstendamm

The Kurfurstendamm

Before leaving, we decided to take amorning walk on the famous street called the  Kurfurstendamm, (the locals call it the “KuDamm” for short). It is a wide boulevard of shops and restaurants, (sort of the Champs Elysees  or 5th Avenue of Berlin). Today, it was filled with wheelchair marathoners rolling down the streets. We also wanted to see the nearby Kaiser Wilhelm Gedachtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Church) built in 1895 by Kaiser Wilhelm II ( the guy at the helm of Germany during the WWI debacle). It was heavily damaged by Allied bombs in 1943, but it was not restored. Instead it was left as a memorial to victims

The Kaiser Wilhelm Church

The Kaiser Wilhelm Church

of WWII. A new modern bell tower and sanctuary in blue glass was added adjacent to the ruins. It sounds as if it might be an architectural nightmare, but strangely enough, it works and its message about war and peace is readily understood.

From Berlin, we had a six hour train ride back into the former West Germany and the city of Frankfurt and the state of Hesse.  We had lunch on board the ICE Train dining car, accompanied by some good German wine, and then a snooze and some reading and some travelogue writing ensued. Upon arrival we

Modern Frankfurt

Modern Frankfurt

checked into a Hilton, just a short walk from Frankfurt’s Old Town. The newer part of Frankfurt sits just across the Main (pronounced “mine”) River and looks like a smaller version of the Manhattan skyline, and it serves the same purpose – it is the financial center of Germany and home to their stock exchange, the Borse. Our hotel was just down the street from the Turm (tower) which is a relic left over from medieval days when it was part of the city’s fortifications. We walked there and then to the Romerberg which is the center of Frankfurt’s Old Town. (Romer translates as Roman, and yep they were here too). Today the

The Romerburg - Old town Frankfurt

The Romerburg – Old town Frankfurt

Romerburg is lined with a series of half-timbered restored houses called the Ostzelle, which originally dated back to the 1400’s and  which were part of  post WWII reconstruction to restore the area. We did manage to work in a final boat tour on the Main and again were treated to a great sunset, this time with the silhouettes of  skyscrapers, versus the old church spires of Dresden.  We had a final dinner at a great pizza place we visited 5 years ago – brick pizza oven, thin crust hand tossed pizza crust with different wursts on top and cold German beer. Life is good. Tomorrow we catch our flights back to Atlanta after 4 weeks of traveling and we’ll be home for a while. Life is good there too.