Bruges: Move over, Ghent’s on the muscle!

Ghent’s Big Three towers, all in a row: St. Nicholas, the Belfry, and St. Bathos

Bruges is everyone’s darling.  One marvels at Brussels’ great square, but everyone falls in love with Bruges (or Brugge, as it’s called in Flemish).  Most non-European travelers never go to Ghent.  And the Ghent citizenry is way too polite to complain about the unfairness of the world’s love affair with Bruges.  But the instantaneous, broad smiles show their whole-hearted approval and agreement if you say, “Ghent is so beautiful, even nicer than Bruges!”  The universal reply is, “We think so!”

We spent a too-short weekend in Ghent, and we hope to return for more.  Ghent is one of Europe’s oldest cities, with a surprising amount of intact medieval buildings, given how much warfare the city has endured. The bottom line: Ghent is simply charming.  Unfortunately, the first full day we were suffering the usual Benelux weather (rain and gloom) so my pictures are not as plentiful or as nice as I’d like.  But first (of course!) a brief history.

The main canal in Ghent

I’ll skip through a few centuries to early medieval times: for a couple hundred years, Ghent was the largest and most important city in Europe, second only to Paris.  The source of its wealth and position was the wool and cloth industry.  Ghent simply was the biggest and best of the times, so much so, they had to import wool from England and Scotland to meet production demand for woven cloth.  The city suffered many setbacks due to its participation in several international wars (and this is prior to the 20th century’s conflicts).  Readers of European history will be familiar with the Hundred Years War, the Revolt of Ghent (against Spain — they lost, badly), the Religious Wars (Catholics vs. Protestants), the War of the Austrian Succession (France vs. Austria), the Napoleonic Wars, and the Rebellion of Belgium (against the then-parent country, the Netherlands), among others, all leading up to the two world wars.  No wonder Belgium tried to stay neutral in the 20th century!

Interestingly, Ghent did play a peace-making role that is a part of U.S. history:  the city was the site of the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, which marked the end of the War of 1812 between the U.S. and Britain.

City skyline of Ghent showing the “Big Three” towers.

Today, Ghent still has a good deal of business and trade (third largest port in Belgium), but also is known as a university town, with over 50,000 students in residence.  Tourism, for obvious reasons, has become an increasing portion of the economic pie.  The people we did talk to about Ghent vs. Bruges readily acknowledge Bruge’s dominance in tourism, but reflect that may not be so terrible as Ghent is still livable.  More than once it was noted that the historic center of Bruges is like a museum, whereas “people actually live in Ghent.”

On to touristy matters…

A  boat tour on the Leie River.

Despite our best efforts, we found it impossible to see and do everything in under 48 hours.  Just an excuse to return, right?  We did our share of touristy things:  a boat tour, going to the top of the free-standing Belfry, wandering the massive St. Bathos Cathedral.  Regrettably, we were unable to get into the other two beautiful medieval churches, St. Nicholas and St. Michael’s, but their pictures are below.

St. Bathos Cathedral from the Belfry Tower.

St. Nicholas

St. Michael’s Church

One attraction which is a do-not-miss is the exhibition of the van Eyck brothers’ Adoration of the Mystic Lamb in St. Bathos.  Also known as “The Ghent Alterpiece,” it is regarded as one of, if not the, pivotal painting in the history of art.  Rather than get into a lengthy description of the painting, if interested in details of its several panels, go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghent_Altarpiece.  Another interesting blog-piece  discusses the painting’s importance and history:  http://secrethistoryofart.blogspot.nl/2010/11/van-eycks-ghent-altarpiece.html

Among other thefts over the centuries, this incredible piece of work was hijacked by the Nazis in WWII and eventually, miraculously, recovered by a small U.S. Army unit known by the moniker of “the Monuments Men”  and returned to Belgium after the war.  I will be writing about this multi-national group within the U.S. Army at a later date.  What they  accomplished in tracking and recovering Europe’s stolen art was almost superhuman.  The world is forever indebted to their selfless efforts to rescue Europe’s arts repository from certain destruction by the Nazis.  I highly recommend the book, The Monuments Men, by Robert Edsel, if you want to learn the whole story.

The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, also known as the Ghent Altarpiece.

One of the other stand-out attractions in Ghent is the Gravensteen Castle, commonly referred to as the Ghent Castle, built in 1180.  Small and compact as castles go, it is quite simple, and beautiful in its simplicity.  An audio guide provided a pretty good tour of the castle and its rooms. It sits smack in the center of Ghent, with streetcars running just meters in front, as you can see below.

Gravensteen Castle

Onto more touristy matters.  the old Fish Market across from the castle now sports a half dozen cafes and a spanking new tourist office that is amazing, using 21st century technology combined with plain old good “people” service.  In the middle of the tourist center is a huge table with an enormous interactive computer “tablet” as its surface.  You begin by selecting your language, one of about 8-10, then proceed from there, answering questions about your specific interests, receiving suggestions and information on different sights in the city.  Very cool. (BTW, we were about the 990th-plus American visitors to the center since its opening in March, 2012.)

The archway leads to the old fish market and today’s brand new Tourist Office. Over the portal is a statue of Neptune.

Ghent sports over a dozen of museums; in addition to everything else we did, we managed to get to two:  The STAM, or City Museum of Ghent, which was outstanding, and the House of Alijn (Huis van Alijn).  I highly recommend both, but here are some observations on the Alijn.

The House of Alijn claims to be a museum of “the culture of everyday life.”  Beginning with the latter portion of the 19th century, the museum has exhibits which explain and showcase the artifacts of all of Belgian life’s major events:   baptism, marriage, pregnancy and birth, death, and a lot odd in between, such as the exhibit artifact below:

Grandma’s enema potion?

Additionally, many delightful rooms recreate the different types of work Belgians performed in the late 1900s-early 20th century — grocery, barber shop, pharmacy, etc. — along with the period furniture, implements and tools. Another series of rooms present tableaus of Belgian home life from the 50s through 80s.  In between is an exhibit on the circus, and a table with dozens of volumes of old photographs.  In a separate building, an entire two rooms are devoted to wedding pictures and customs from the 1890s through the 1970s.  In the midst of all the wedding displays stood a 1950s Rockola jukebox, and, yes, you could punch the buttons and select old 45s to play.  Which we did.

The background of the museum is unusual.  In a mid-14th century feud between two aristocratic families, members of the Rijm contingent ambushed and murdered two brothers of the Alijn family.  The Rijm family was pardoned this dastardly deed only if they funded and maintained an almshouse or orphanage for the poor; hence began the House of Alijn. By the 1940s, the property came under the city of Ghent, and was eventually turned into a museum; the current incarnation is definitely a must for those who like their history a tad idyosyncratic.

Inner courtyard of the House of Alijn, now a cafe. Originally the cottages seen here were built to house the poor, sick and elderly of Ghent, in penance for a cowardly crime.

I’ll end with several photos representing a mix of historic Ghent, as well as  new and even quirky aspects of life.  Here was an interesting sight outside the old town hall, our first morning in Ghent:

The Marriage Bus — how practical!

Ghent town hall on a Saturday, with wedding parties gathered to await their turn inside.

Since this isn’t a bicycle built for two, I’m assuming the bride and groom get the bus, and these decorative bikes are the ride for a couple of celebrants.

Nice building, lousy signage. Too bad there’s a McDonald’s now on (nearly) every major square of Europe.

And some random photos…

This poor, somewhat battered dragon sat atop the bell tower for years as mascot to the city. The dragon was removed to preserve it, and now rests in the belfry museum.

Ghent used to be part of the Netherlands, hence the lion is a commonly found symbol.

A 12th century commode in the castle. No fun on a winter morn!

One of several interesting art exhibits in the side chapels of St. Bathos.

Another view of Gravensteen Castle.

The main canal in Ghent, where outdoor cafes abound.

Night view of the canal and cafes, from opposite direction. From Wikipedia.

Dooie!

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Quaint, once-impregnable, Naarden

Looking from the old arsenal towards the Groote Kerk (Great Church) of Naarden. The former arsenal building to the right is now home to one of the trendiest restaurants in the region.

The weather in Holland has been simply terrible — cold and rainy — for most of the four weeks we’ve been here, so with some break in the forecast predicted for this past Saturday, we set our compass to a couple of small towns I’d been wanting to see.  Our good friend Corinne went with us – in fact she insisted we take her car instead of renting one – so come mid-day Saturday, off we three went.

First we drove to nearby Naarden, a small town north of Utrecht and east of Amsterdam, and a delightful throw-back in time.  One of the many star fort-cities of late medieval Europe, it is beautifully preserved and maintained.  (Explanation and history of the star fort to follow.)  Colorful flowers abound in planters and window boxes, and the town-within-the-fort is well maintained.  St. Vitus Church, locally known as “the Great Church,” dominates the town center, although, like most Dutch churches, it is no longer used for religious purposes.

St. Vitus Church, locally known as “the Great Church,” or Groote Kerk.

The main street in Naarden, leading from the Utrecht Gate in the south to the arsenal at the northern end.

More bright flowers. The building in right center is a nice example of the stepped gables of Dutch architecture in the first half of the 17th century.

One of the canals going through the star fort town of Naarden.

Today, Naarden is mostly a bedroom community in the southeastern suburban reaches of Amsterdam in the province of North Holland.  Because of its picturesque charm and well-maintained historic buildings and fortifications, several locales in the town are sought after wedding venues, such as the historic town hall, the renovated arsenal, and even in the old cathedral.

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Naarden Town Hall, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Council Chambers within the town hall

One of the arsenal buildings used for weddings, as it was on the day we were in Naarden.

The Utrecht Gate, now pedestrian-only.

Now for some history….A simplified and brief history of the star fort

The star forts or trace italienne, was a form of city fortifications developed in the mid-15th century as cannons and other gunpowder-based weaponry began to dominate warfare.  The round towers and vertical, flat walls of earlier fortifications had proven impractical in the age of gunpowder:  cannon balls fired directly against the flat walls could inflict great damage.  Moreover, the round towers of these earlier fortresses and castles had dead zones, where defenders could not see invaders amassing at the foot of the towers:

By contrast, the points and angled walls of the star forts solved these sighting problems: in the star fort, defenders arming cannons placed along the sides and ends of the star points could better see large stretches of the adjoining walls and the area below the points, thus more effectively provide fire coverage.  The star forts usually sat atop glacis, high earthen embankments angling down to broad, deep moats, making it far more difficult for attackers to get close enough to breach or scale the walls.  In later designs, many star forts had overlapping star formations to cover larger areas; building an outer perimeter of steeply banked glacis, all equipped with cannons, added to the fortifications.

Once ingenious war mongers developed more explosive shells and mortars, however, the effectiveness of the star fortifications was greatly diminished, and their construction largely abandoned by the early to mid-19th century.  For an example of an old star fort in the U.S., there’s Fort McHenry in Baltimore, of Star Spangled Banner fame.  Below are some examples of both simple and more complex star fort plans, as well as an aerial photo of Naarden, all courtesy of Wikipedia.

Ideal fortified city: 1663 plan of Neuhäusel, Upper Hungary (Nové Zámky, Slovakia), drawn c. 1680

17th century map of the city of Palmanova, Italy, an example of a Venetian star fort

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Bourtange fortification, restored to its 1750 condition, Groningen, Netherlands

Aerial view of Naarden

After an hour or two of delightful meandering, the three of us finally tore ourselves away and headed to the equally old town of Muiden, a few kilometers west, where I wanted to see the Muiderslot, or castle.  Unfortunately, once there, we had only 40 minutes to see the castle before it closed at 5, and at €12,50 a person (with no senior discount!), it didn’t seem worth the heavy entrance fee.  So we did what everyone else does on a pleasant Dutch afternoon:  retired to a café along the canal, sip beers, and watch the boats go by.  I did manage to take a few pictures, which I will end with below.

Muidersot, or Muiden Castle

Swinging bridge opening to let a sailboat come through the lock.

Not quite done yet….

Okay, I wasn’t quite finished.  In search of the highway on our way out of Muiden, I spied an unusual sight for here in Holland.  I made Michael turn and go back, because he and Corinne thought the (one) beer had gone to my head.  But, I wasn’t hallucinating on hops, and here’s the proof:

Who’d have thunk you’d see camels grazing in Holland?!

Small Towns, Large Vistas

Thatched cottage in Giethoorn, the “Venice of the Netherlands”

Michael and I have now been back in the Netherlands a month and, of course, enjoying it very much — despite another colder-than-usual and rainy summer.  In between teaching and seeing friends, we’ve tried to go on a few side trips.  Most of these have been one-day side trips out of Utrecht, to Amsterdam, Leiden, den Bosch and Giethoorn, the subject of this blog.

A student had mentioned this water-bound village to Michael, and a subsequent Google search brought up only a little information.  Nevertheless, I figured out the train and bus routes and off we went.

Giethoorn is a quaint, lovely village in north-central Netherlands known as “the Venice of the North” or “the Venice of the Netherlands.”  Second to Amsterdam, which is a dozen times larger, Giethoorn has more canals (about 4 miles) than any other locale in Holland.  In fact, the “avenues” of the town are all canals, and the “streets” bicycle paths.  In fact, the bicycle paths are a recent addition.  The preferred way of getting about town is on foot, hoofing it over the more than 50 small wooden bridges, or by “punters” or, more recently, small boats powered by quiet electric motors.

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One of the thatched houses of Giethoorn. Notice the two punters to the right. They are flattish-bottomed boats propelled by one person standing in the rear, using a long oar to push off the shallow bottoms of the canals — much like the gondoliers of Venice. 

Giethoorn was established in 1230 by people from the “Mediterranean region.”  (Note:  I did try and find out more specifically what part of the Mediterranean but have been stymied thus far.)  Apparently the landscape was littered with wild goats’ horns, so the fledgling town was name Geytenhorn, or horn of goats.  Later this was shortened to Geythorn and then adapted to Giethoorn.  The shallow lakes surrounding the town were formed by the harvesting of peat from the naturally-forming peat bogs in the area.  Reeds from the marshes were also plentiful, hence the abundance of thatched roofs in the village.  There are about 2600+ year-round residents today in the village, but a thriving, contained vacationers’ area has sprouted up between the town proper and the lake:

Small, cheaply built, rectangular wooden vacation houses such as this were being advertised for sale for 150,000 Euros.

Punters on the lake outside of Giethoorn

Panoramic lake view. There are many such shallow lakes in the area.

 

It seemed several thatched cottages included art studios, as this one.

Most of the above pictures were taken from a “tour boat,” one of about three dozen that clog the waterways of Giethoorn.  It wasn’t the most informative tour ever taken, and I think next time we’ll venture out on our own.  In addition to the tour boats, vendors are hawking “whisper” boats, electric-motored little dinghies for people who wish to tour on their own.  While I didn’t notice any bike rentals, I’m sure there is at least one in this tourist-oriented town.  However, one can rent bikes at the train station in Steenwijk, the station closest to Giethoorn.

Getting to Giethoorn wasn’t difficult, and we ended up having a lovely time chatting with a gregarious bus driver. From the station you can take Bus #70 or rent a bike for the (approximately) 7m/10 km round trip to Giethoorn and back. As it was, we took the bus, and this friendly bus driver not only made sure we got off at the correct stop, he told us when he’d next be by, and he made sure we were delivered to the train on time.  I love the Dutch!

So, I will close what has probably been my shortest blog ever.  Stay tuned for additional posts on smaller venues in Holland!

 

Back in the U-T-R-E-C-H-T

The Oudegracht, near our apartment

Canals, bells tolling the hours, the Dom Tower itself soaring above stepped gables, cafés on canals or crowding every scrap of pavement – even if part of that’s the street – and bicycles everywhere, yup, we’re back in Utrecht!

When we left Utrecht in the Netherlands last August, Michael and I never thought we’d miss Holland and the Dutch as much as we did the first couple of weeks.  But, in truth, we became so quickly re-acclimated to the car-based, job-focused frenzy of the U.S. that the slower-paced Dutch culture soon seemed very distant.  So I was surprised how quickly we re-acclimated to Utrecht.

After three weeks on the road, mostly in Eastern Europe, we found ourselves in a new apartment in a new section of Utrecht’s old center, and sitting at a sunny outdoor café overlooking the Oudegracht, Utrecht’s 13th century canal.  I was in heaven.  I just had forgotten where heen was.  The Dom tolled, I sighed in contentment, and Michael just looked at me, saying, “You really love it here, don’t you?”

You betcha!

The Dom tower of Utrecht

That was a month ago, and, yes, I am seriously back-logged with this blog.  But time flies.  The past month has sped by, with Michael busy teaching at the medical school, and me readjusting to life here.  We are staying in a very small two room apartment of about 600 square feet total.  Most people I know in the States have garages twice that size.  But we manage quite well. Probably the most difficult aspect in down-sizing from a five bedroom (plus full attic dorm) house was going from a larger than standard U.S. refrigerator/freezer to a dorm-sized teensy little fridge.  But, with two full service food stores (well, Dutch full service!) and one fruit and vegetable grocer all within 300 feet, daily shopping is not an issue.  Oh, and we also have on the same block as the above a butcher/deli, two bakeries, a fish store, a cheese store, three wine shops and a “bierhuis.”  Plus a bunch of cafés and drinking establishments.  And the canal is 40 feet from our front door. I absolutely love it.  Eat your heart out!

Our Bedroom

Another angle on the bedroom

Living, Dining, and everything-else room

The kitchen and “dining room”

Our “street”, Wijde Watersteeg, as seen from across the Oudegract (old canal). Our place is the lower apartment in the yellow building in the middle of the photo, a very old building.  Notice how part of its facade leans out, another back.

Part of the great fun has been reconnecting with our good friends Corinne and Martin.  A few of you met them when they visited us at Thanksgiving this past year.  For those who didn’t: Corinne van Bergen is the Dutch sculptor I wrote about last year.  Some of you saw the glass sculpture she made for us in the house we were renting this past year on Mountain Road.  We’ve spent many nights with them, meeting new people, greeting old friends, having a good time.  Martin and Michael share similar wacky humors so the two of them are usually doing something amusing.

Michael and Martin, at it again! I’ve no idea where Martin got this sheepskin “hat” or why Michael’s wearing it!

Also part of the fun lately has been watching the Dutch national football team in the warm-ups to, and then competing in, the Europe Cup 2012.  The Dutch did great in a warm-up game, bowling over the Irish, then completely bombed in their division of the Europe Cup.  So they are totally out of the race.  Meanwhile, Utrecht, as most of Holland, has been displaying orange, the national color, all over the place.  In particular, I’ve been amused at some of the orange paraphernalia.  Have a look:

The Lion is the symbol of the Netherlands. Storefronts like this one displayed victorious lions and people large and small sported orange lion manes.

Corinne sporting the orange lion’s mane and some (fake) tattoos

 

One excursion with Corinne and Martin was to an Indonesian cultural heritage festival in a nearby town.  Two of Corinne’s 9 siblings (yes, 10 kids in that family!) are married to Indonesian-Dutch.  For about 500 years Indonesia was a colony of the Netherlands, only reaching independence after WWII.  The ties between the two countries, however, remain, and over the last century thousands of Indonesians immigrated to Holland and inter-married with the Dutch. (Whew!   I hope you all appreciate such a condensed history in two sentences!)

Anyway…the results of this old relationship resulted in some interesting contrasts at the festival.  For starters, Indonesia is a VERY hot country, with about half of the country (scattered over several islands, large and small)  bisected by the equator.  The day we went to the festival, it was so cold, I was wearing my long underwear, brought in anticipation of cold days in Sweden…and I was still cold.  Upon arrival at the festival, the first cultural event we saw was a couple of very blonde dancers, male and female, attempting (badly) to perform Balinese dances.  Having seen the originals (Balinese people and dances) several times, I wanted to alternate between screaming and laughing.

Here’s the next scene of cultural dissonance:  Indonesian festival, in a bar decorated with red Chinese lanterns, a small crowd being entertained by Indonesian performers  twanging on electric guitars, singing American country music in English (of course!  Ever heard such music in Dutch or German?).  In the audience,  Dutch (except us two), several people were munching frites with mayonnaise, then a few women jumped up and started country line dancing in front of the musical trio, while one elderly lady proudly waved her battery-powered glittery-red heart on a wand.

I kid you not.  Total cultural dissonance.

Line dancing to country music

The white blip on the wand was actually a glitter-red, battery-powered heart.

Chinese lanterns at an Indonesian festival in Holland

In the past month, we’ve taken a couple of side trips, but I’ll describe those in a later blog.  This year my postings have been rather lengthy, so I’ll give my faithful readers a break and keep this one short on words and big on pictures.

Doie!

A typical alley in the old section of Utrecht where we live.

Traditionally, Dutch stores are closed on Sunday and don’t reopen until about 1 p.m. on Monday. Even within the last year I’ve noticed more stores are open on Sunday, perhaps in response to consumer demand, or perhaps due to this clever and very Dutch advertising campaign, encouraging business to open on Sundays. I walked out of our apartment on a Sunday recently to see every parked bicycle within sight with this bright seat cover, urging Sunday business openings. How better to make a point than provide a bicycle-riding society with plastic seat covers in this rain-drenched country?

Every space used: an alley here is used as a bicycle rental place.

Europe has a different and in my mind healthy attitude about pets. It’s common to see a cat basking as this one in a store’s bay window or wandering around customers in  cafes. I even spotted a cat luxuriously
 stretched out on a table inside a cafe between two patrons, both of whom were petting her while conversing. And cafe patrons routinely bring their dogs with them, even inside.

By Your Seat Advertising in Holland

Living in another country for a period of time enables one to settle back and observe the many differences in cultures, yours and theirs, theirs and others.  Many cultural differences are readily apparent, others tend to take some time to sink in.  Certainly, the bike culture of the Netherlands is ubiquitous.  Whether in Amsterdam, Utrecht or a small hamlet, even the most unobservant dolt connects to fact that everyone in the Netherlands bikes everywhere.  On the streets, one can barely doge the bikes or negotiate crossing a roadway because everyone, it seems, is mounted on two wheels.  The Dutch even have parking lots and garages (some multi-story) for biking commuters.

A multi-story bicycle garage at the central train station in Amsterdam.

To commute by bike 20-30 miles a day is nothing.   I know people in the States who complain about a daily 30 mile commute by car.  Sure, in Holland, there are the bicycle traffic jams on the morning commute.  Yes, the bicycle parking garages in the bigger cities can be overcrowded.  Yes, people will often steal bikes.  People seem to accept the inevitable bike commute hassles and accept with resignation the thefts.  And, of course, there is usually a lot less invested in a $90 “granny bike” than an automobile.

A typical “granny bike.”

But does anyone truly think the car culture (with its traffic jams, overcrowded garages and carjackings) is superior?  Didn’t think so.

Thus, in a bicycle-dominated society, advertising by bike seat should not have come as a surprise, although truthfully, I didn’t pay too much attention to how people decorated their bicycle seats.  (Even though I wrote a whole blog on the Dutch proclivity for decorating their bikes in the most wonderful manner.)  This summer, however, I walked out of my apartment one Sunday morning to see every parked bicycle in sight (just a few hundred) blanketed with this seat cover:

A plea for stores to stay open on Sundays in downtown Utrecht.

This  bicycle equivalent of handbill dashboard advertising was an effort to mobilize grass roots support for stores to stay open on Sundays, something most do not think is necessary.  “Well, duh, I thought,” looking around with eyes freshly opened.  “This certainly makes sense.”  So I started walking around taking pictures of bicycle seat covers.  Mind you, this engendered some weird looks, but in the best photojournalistic tradition, I bravely ignored the stares.  Of course, I was somewhat used to the looks after I photographed every cleverly-decked bike in sight last summer.  (If interested in the resulting blog of that endeavor, see https://ourdistantsojourns.wordpress.com/2011/06/15/pimp-my-bike-dutch-style/)

First, some history. (Of course!  Do you expect, gentle readers, anything less from me?)

The Netherlands is a pretty rainy country.  Also, it is an “ecologically correct” country.  Among other practices, one is expected to bring one’s own bags to the grocery store, and, if you forget to bag a bag or fall victim to impulse shopping, you usually have to pay anywhere from 50 cents to over $1 for a plastic bag in which to carry your wares.  Thus, between the weather and the green thing, the Dutch usually have a spare plastic bag on hand.  Many, very practically, use their spare bags to cover their bicycle seats and keep their tushes from getting wet during or after a sudden sprinkle.  Thus, the practicality of advertising by bicycle seat:  useful, makes a point, and saves a plastic bag – which could be used to carry home whatever your new seat cover is advertising.

A typical and practical seat cover – a re-used plastic shopping bag.

So, here I’ll stop and just display a few of the covers I photographed.  Some are self-explanatory or you’ll be able to figure out, others I’ll attempt to translate if I can figure out the Dutch!

Wroclaw By Any Other Name

Cathedral Island, as seen from central Wroclaw.

Beyond “To-may-toe, To- mah-toe”

“This is a great city:  beautiful – gorgeous! — clean, organized, up and coming – but they’ve got to change their name to something pronounceable!”  So proclaimed my husband on our first day in Wroclaw.  We’d just discovered the city’s name is not pronounced “roe-claw,” as we’d been saying for weeks leading up to our visit, but “vrots-wauf” – or something close.  I finally managed a facsimile after the first 24 hours, but Michael is still lost in phonetic translation.

The problem is, Wroclaw has changed its name several times over the centuries, usually under duress, and the city has no intention now of going back to any of “the other” names.  (Although we did hear several tourists refer to this fair ville as “Breslau,” its most recent, previous name while under Prussian/German rule for the better part of 200 years.)  In fact, the city-sponsored tourist guide notes: “the national status of Wroclaw has changed more often than any other city in Europe.”

Regardless of what its name is or how pronounced, Wroclaw is a pleasant, beautiful city in western Poland of about 633,000 people.  It sits primarily on the Odra River, but sprawls over several small islands and four smaller rivers, and has plenty of green space and river walks.  Wroclaw claims to be fourth in Europe for the number of bridges in a city, following after Venice, Amsterdam and St. Petersburg.

Park along side the River Odra

Isles on the River Odra

Heavily damaged in WWII, the city chose to restore and recreate as many of their old buildings as possible, so its “historic” sections, including the market square, are mostly re-creations of Wroclaw prior to 1945. As in most European cities rebuilding after the war, salvaged materials were used whenever possible in the reconstruction, but the results are architecturally authentic in detail.   However, there is more to Wroclaw than the historic reconstructions.  The city has been undergoing a facelift as well as new construction in preparation for the Europe Cup 2012 (in football aka soccer), with new buildings, a new stadium, and a complete renovation and expansion of its central train station.  Wroclaw has also been selected as the European Culture Capital for 2016.

The Heart of Wroclaw

The market square, or Rynek, has been the heart of Wroclaw since 1241, serving as the city’s business, civic, cultural, and social center.  It is also one of the largest market squares in Europe The Rynek is somewhat unusual in that there are buildings smack in the middle of the square, including the original town hall or Ratusz (referred to as “original” because it sustained only about 10% damage).  There are arched passageways through the ground level of several of these centered buildings, so pedestrians can cut through the square if they choose.  Rebuilt or not, if you can squint past the modern cafés lining the periphery and the occasional chain store, you can easily envision the square as it looked a few hundred years ago.

Re-created facades on the market square.

Town Hall (Rathusz) facade.

Rathusz from the side

One charming architectural detail included replicating former gold symbols on building fronts.  These gold symbols, usually of an animal, served as addresses of sorts.  For example, the house or store with a gold dog on its facade was known as “Under the Gold Dog” instead of having a numerical address.

House Under the Golden Dog

House Under the Golden Stag, now a Starbucks franchise. (The stag is lying, legs curled, at the top right of the awning.)

Gnomes and Bears, Oh No!

Another interesting touch that distinguishes Wroclaw from other cities is the city’s fascination with gnomes.  Purportedly there are about 180 diminutive sculptures of gnomes scattered about the city, mimicking the full-sized denizens in a full range of behavior from laughing, drinking, pissing, to drudge-work, and even one using a diminutive ATM.

A trio of gnomes.  Any guesses as to what they’re doing?

Drunken Gnomes

According to the city brochure, the gnomes were started as a prank in the 70s by the Orange Alternative to annoy the authorities, more or less at the time, the Soviets.  The movement claimed to be anti-establishment and not ideologically motivated, but since the vast majority of targets were related to the Soviet-backed regime, one begs the question.  Less than amused, the government would paint over the graffiti, so, come nightfall, the naughty Oranges would sneak out and paint cartoons of gnomes over the redacted graffiti.  Images of gnomes and Big People in gnomish costumes began to appear in protest marches and rallies, and by the time Communism fell, the city had embraced these pint-sized symbols.  The first “modern” incarnation of a gnome sculpture was commissioned in 2001, whereupon the City Council and local businessmen leapt in to commission additional statues.  These wee folk have become so popular that the tourist Office now sells a map showing the location of about 30 of the gnomes.

Another cultural icon is the bear on a stump, aka “The Breslau Bear.”  The  hunched bronze bear perches on a tree stump, long tongue hanging from its mouth, looking as if it had just lapped up some water. Several tourist guides I consulted simply referred to the bear as “a strange sculpture” but gave no background.  Not satisfied with a sufficient explanation, I did an internet search and found the story.

Breslau Bear

The original bear had actually been a public drinking fountain near the Town Hall since 1904.  Passersby would tug on his collar, and potable water poured from the bear’s nostrils.  People also would rub its tongue for good luck.  An American lecturing in (then) Breslau in 1930 was enthralled with the bear, found the still-living sculptor, arranged for a casting of a duplicate statue, and presented Bear #2 to his alma mater, Brown University, where it remains today. During or after the chaos of WWII, the original Bear #1, was lost, stolen, or blown up – no one knows or will confess to this day.

Meanwhile, the denizens of Wroclaw missed their bronze bruin, so in 1998 a local sculptor re-created the sculpture (Bear #3), which has since stood next to the Town Hall.  And while this poseur may not spurt water, people still rub his tongue for good luck.  (For more details, go to:  http://today.brown.edu/articles/2008/06/bearone)

Alexander Fredro, 19th c. comedic writer

Not far from the bear sits Count Alexander Fredro, an early 19th writer of social comedies satirizing the Polish nobility.  Like many of the fixtures in the Market Square, his statue did not originally stand here.  His bronze visage is a relatively new face, as it has stood here since 1956 when the statue was removed from Lviv (now in the Ukraine) and brought to Wroclaw to replace the site’s former inhabitant, a statue of German Kaiser Wilhelm.  Preceding all these sculpted political statements, this area of the square once served as the fish market, as well featured “the mad men’s shed,” a cage in which miscreants were tossed and displayed.  The city’s records reveal that while the incarcerated were usually drunks, other temporary inhabitants included homosexuals, a cross-dressing woman, and two gamblers caught playing cards during a Sunday sermon.

Memorial to Slaughtered Animals

At times Wroclaw’s penchance for odd statues seemed a bit stretched.  To point:  the “Memorial to Slaughtered Animals” on Stare Jatki, the alley which once housed the butcher stalls in the city.  The cast iron figures – a goat, pig, goose, hog, rabbit, rooster — were commissioned by the city and have been displayed here since the 90s.

Former Butchers’ Alley with its cast iron sculptures of farm animals, as a “Memorial to Slaughtered Animals.” The former meat stalls now house tony art studios.

The rooster, part of the memorial, stands a bit further away from the others, perhaps because it was commissioned separately from the other farm animal sculptures.

It Can Happen Anywhere

Wroclaw’s denizens and sculptures were indeed delightful, but one incident left us less than amused.  After one late breakfast in an open air café, we strolled the few feet from our sidewalk table into the market square.  A disheveled man approached me, seeking a handout.  I shook my head — while holding my breath — as he reeked.  But I kept my eye on him as he approached Michael, who was leaving some zlotys as a tip on the table.  As Michael turned away, the beggar reached over the flower boxes into the café and snatched the coins from the saucer.  I called a warning to Michael, who immediately accosted the drunk as he attempted to run away.  Both of us were shouting in English, the drunk in Polish, but it was pretty clear what was going on.  Some young guys who’d been sitting behind us in the café started yelling for the waiter, and at least one of the guys got up and headed in our direction to help.  But Michael managed to literally shake the coins loose from the man’s grip before releasing him.  The drunk stumbled off, no doubt mumbling in Polish about us, and the young guys and waiter applauded.   What a start to the day.

This incident certainly wasn’t enough to put us off, as we ended up spending an extra day and night in Wroclaw.

Ostrow Tumski

Cathedral Island, as seen from left to right: the Church of the Holy Cross/St, Bartholomew’s; the Archbishop of Wroclaw’s Residence, Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, and the beginnings of the Botanical Gardens

The oldest part of the city sits on an island, Ostrow Tumski (Cathedral Island), on the Odra River.  One of the oldest bridges – and the main bridge to Ostrow Tumski — is fast becoming a “lovers’ bridge,” as evidenced by the hundreds of locks affixed to the stanchions and rails.

Tumski Bridge and Cathedral of St. John the Baptist

Bridges adorned with lovers’ locks are sprouting all over Europe.  I think they are symbolically quite charming, but I can’t help but wonder how many fish have died from swallowing all those keys tossed off the bridges.  Perhaps Europe’s lovers are becoming more ecologically conscious about this fad; for the first time I noticed several combination locks in addition to the keyed locks.  However, the point of this exercise in forever-love-swearing is to “lock” your love then throw away the key, because then your love will last forever.

Inscribed locks on Tumski Bridge

Ostrow Tumski has several churches soaring above the roof tops.  The two most striking are the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist and the dual-level Church of the Holy Cross (upper) and St. Bartholomew’s (lower).  One of the spires of the cathedral has stairs and an elevator to a viewing area at the top but we were unable to find the entrance so we missed the panoramic views.

The interior of this gothic cathedral is stunning, with some of the prettiest colors in its stained glass windows I’ve ever seen.  As most landmarks in Wroclaw, the cathedral, begun in 1244, was heavily damaged in WWII and had to be rebuilt.  But as the archdiocesan seat for Wroclaw, it was a priority to reconstruct the cathedral to its original, sumptuous form.  The archbishop’s residence, about twenty meters away, was likewise destroyed and rebuilt.

Cathedral of St. John the Baptist

Archbishop’s residence

The lovely detail on the gate to the Archbishop’s residence caught my eye.  Absolutely lovely.

We were unable to go into the dual church, which would have been interesting to see, as there are very few of these two-level churches in Europe.  But St. Bartholomew’s (lower) is closed to visitors and Holy Cross (upper) is open only at mass.  So we did what we like best:  sit at an outdoor café for a beer and a snack and enjoyed the view, including the church.

Church of the Holy Cross (top) and St. Bartholomew’s (lower)

Wroclaw University

On the other side of the Odra River sits Wroclaw University.  Founded in 1670 by the Jesuits, the now-secular university has 40,000 enrolled students, and has produced nine Nobel Laureates.   While the main buildings are open to tourists, we discovered the university too late in the day to gain entrance.  Another time.

Wroclaw University

An Unplanned Visit Isn’t Necessarily a Bad Thing

We’d not planned in spending more than a few waking hours and a one-night rest stop in Wroclaw.  We were so enchanted by the market square our first evening, we haphazardly changed our travel plans and finagled to stay an extra 24 hours.  Consequently, we did little more than walk and gawk our one full day there.

We made it to only one museum, the Raclawice Panorama, but have a laundry list for the next visit.  The panorama was interesting and rather unique, as the 360° art form is long past its heyday.  The 140 meter canvas depicts the Polish victory over the Russian Army in 1794.  Although the ragtag Poles won the battle, they lost their war of rebellion.  Nevertheless, this painting is revered by the Polish as a symbol of unity, bravery and victory – if however temporary.  The description of the battle is narrated overhead in Polish, but audio guides in multiple translations are available.

Another sight we missed was the White Stork Synagogue (built 1829), the only synagogue in Wroclaw (then Breslau, Germany) which escaped total destruction on Kristallnacht  in 1938.  Much of the interior and the precious Torah scrolls were destroyed that night.  A few years later, the White Stork’s courtyard was where the city’s Jews were gathered by the Nazis for transportation to the death camps.  The battered synagogue exchanged hands numerous times until 1996 when the city’s Jewish community was able to finally begin restorations.  In May 2010, after 70 years, the synagogue was rededicated; there are plans to eventually turn the synagogue into a museum.

So, more museums, the synagogue, and definitely a river cruise are on my list for “next time.”  But there are less serious activities I’d like to accomplish.  Like find all 180 of those cute little gnomes!

Auschwitz-Birkenau

The above plaque may sum up the numbers of peopled deported to and murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau, but it cannot describe the horrific extents to which the Nazis reached in carrying out their genocidal plans.  The kangaroo courts where Polish protesters against the Nazis’ invasion and brutalization of Poland were tried, then shot or hanged after “judgment.”  The basement cells where both political prisoners and Jews were tortured in ways that defy man’s capacity for creative cruelty.  The barracks where Jewish women’s bodies were mutilated as part of the Nazis’ quest to find the most efficient means of mass sterilization, because simply killing the Jews took too much time to achieve the “final solution.”  The brick building where Dr. Josef Mengele performed his inhuman experiments on children and the deformed.  The gas chambers.  The crematoriums.  The endless ramp along which hundreds of thousands Jews trudged from their cattle box cars to the dividing point where a handful of Nazis pointed right or left – who shall live, who shall die.

The tracks and ramps from the gate house at Birkenau. Hundreds of thousands disembarked on these ramps and were directed to the left or right, to live or to die.

One would have to have lived in a hermit’s cave the last 60 years or be a master of self-delusion to not be aware of the Nazi atrocities leading up to and through WWII.  I had severe reservations about whether I should even attempt to write about this incomprehensible place.  Indeed, until the morning Michael and I boarded the bus for the trip to Auschwitz, I was not certain I wanted to or could even handle seeing this most infamous of death camps.  But I did, and while “glad” is an emotion I hesitate to use here, I am thankful I went.

Initially, I’d resisted the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum’s mandate that all those who wish to visit the camps are required to join an “official” guided tour.  I did not want to be with a large group of strangers while I wrestled with emotions and my composure.  Now I can appreciate that this requirement means that visitors will come away with an unvarnished and comprehensive understanding of what happened there.  The complex is so huge, and so much was destroyed by fleeing Nazi troops, it would be impossible for unguided visitors to grasp the full story and horror of what took place at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

In fact, the first realizations that struck both Michael and I was the sheer size of the Auschwitz complex.  There were three death camps: Auschwitz I, II (Auschwitz-Birkenau) and Auschwitz III with about 40 other smaller camps in the area forming the Auschwitz complex.  The more substantial, two-story buildings had been built pre-war by and for the Polish Army. Subsequently the Nazis used the larger buildings as barracks and offices for Nazi and SS troops, but some of these also housed prisoners.  The majority of the single-story, flimsy brick and timber “barracks” which housed the prisoners were built by slave labor.  In the pictures below of Birkenau, you can see just a portion of the remaining barrack buildings.  Where the lone chimneys stand on the far side of the tracks, wooden barracks once stood before being burnt.

The “death wall” between Blocks 10 and 11 where many “political” prisoners, primarily Poles in the early years, were shot.  In Block 10, doctors experimented with sterilization techniques on Jewish women, and Josef Mengele conducted his “studies” on twins and deformities.  Block 11, to the right, is where the Gestapo held “trials” and sent the condemned  to the wall.

Part of the expanse of Birkenau.  Most of the prisoner barracks were wood.  A fire destroyed much of the camp at Birkenau.

Having now visited, I am very appreciative of the Polish government and the UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage for their incredibly sensitive, honest and unflinching portrayal of the Auschwitz complex and the horrors that took place there.  The written and visual exhibits were concise and powerful, stating facts without resorting to emotional hyperbole — the facts, plainly stated, are enough.  The Polish tour guide maintained a fairly consistent neutrality as she narrated the unbearable, horrific story of Auschwitz-Birkenau during the 3 hour visit – although several times her voice trembled and I could see her face crumple slightly as she described the worst parts.  Since she’d told us from the outset that she was “from Roma,” meaning part “Gypsy,” she may have had relatives who died in these camps.

Interestingly, at all times the guide used the words “Nazis” or “SS” when referring to those people who engineered or carried out the atrocities; she never referred to “the Germans” as a nationally cohesive group as being behind the genocidal crimes.  Moreover, she was careful to point out that all Poles had been deported from the area at the outset of Nazi occupation and therefore had no participation in the atrocities; this was a Nazi death camp, not Polish, a distinction lost a few days later on President Obama’s speech writers.  I would imagine these distinctions are as important for today’s Poles and Germans as it is for white Americans today not wanting to be hereditarily linked to the rabid racism and lynch mobs of bygone years.  Ironically, just two days after visiting the Auschwitz complex, we heard on the news that the German Medical Association had just formally apologized for the medical atrocities performed by German doctors in the camps during WWII, an apology long coming.

A row of the “blocks” at Auschwitz I. Originally these brick barracks were built for and used by the Polish Army. When the Nazis invaded Poland, they took over the area around Auschwitz, expelled all Poles from the region (other than those being held in the camp).

As most people know the basics, I will simply share some facts, then impressions that struck me, as well as a lot of pictures, as pictures can show the story of Auschwitz far better than words:

  • While I’d known that the original Auschwitz was primarily a forced labor or “concentration” camp, I had not realized how few of the 1.3 million people deported to the complex were actually slave laborers.  Of the 1.1 million who were murdered here, primarily in Birkenau, the vast majority went from the trains to the death chambers as rapidly as the Nazis could “process” them.  Only 400,000 persons were registered as working prisoners at Auschwitz, with about half Jews and the other, non-Jews.
  • The Auschwitz complex became the primary and largest “camp” to which the Nazis sent Jews and other “undesirables” due to its isolated but central location and the abundance of existing rail lines. To further increase its isolation from all but official eyes, the Nazis conducted forced removal of all Poles from the area.

A map of mainland Europe, showing the origins of those deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Two reasons for establishing the camps here were the central location and good rail routes.

  • Of the slave labor force, the average prisoner survived 4-8 weeks before succumbing to starvation, disease or murder.
  • The first prisoners at Auschwitz were not Jews but Poles from all walks of life who had been perceived as a threat to the Nazis:  captured partisans and POWs, anti-Nazi activists, student protestors, intelligentsia, priests and nuns, intelligentsia, and others.
  • The mass numbers of Jews deported to the camp began to rise radically in early 1942.  By mid-1942, Jews comprised 26% of the camps’ population.  By mid-1944, the peak of the prisoner population, Jews comprised 68% of the prisoners.  Of all the Jews deported to the complex, about 90% were exterminated.
  • In two months alone during the summer of 1944, 437,000 Jews were deported from Hungary; nearly all of them were immediately exterminated.  It was estimated that of all those murdered at the Auschwitz complex, one-third were Hungarian Jews.

An actual box car used in WWII to transport Jews to the death camps. It stands alone on the Birkenau tracks in commemoration of over 400,000 Hungarian Jews murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau, approximately one-third of all deaths at the camp.

  • Whenever the slave work force at Auschwitz or in Nazi Germany became depleted, the hardiest of the deported Jewish men (and sometimes women) were selected as workers and thus spared the gas chamber – for a time.  One Jewish boy was 15 years old in 1944 when he arrived in Birkenau with his family from Hungary.  As was the case for virtually all the women, children, the old and the infirm, his mother and siblings were separated on arrival and sent in one direction, his father in another.  A prisoner on the ramp instructed the boy to tell the guards that he was 17, not 15, and the boy was sent with his father to the Auschwitz work camp instead of to the gas chambers.  The father did not survive the camps.  The boy, Elie Wiesel, not only survived, but went on after the war to found the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.  He received the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1985 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for his lifetime work against repression, violence and racism.
  • The Nazis took more than gold teeth from the condemned.  They confiscated and either reused or reprocessed virtually everything removable from the dead:  shoes, artificial limbs and braces, cooking pots, personal articles such as shaving and tooth brushes – all and more were confiscated and sent back to civilians and the army for use.  And, of course, jewelry was melted down and jewels extracted, all to help refill the depleted war chest. 
  • Most distressing among the exhibits were the bales and bundles of human hair.  Despite the Nazis’ attempts to destroy evidence of their inhuman slaughter and harvesting, 2 million pounds of human hair were left behind by fleeing troops and discovered by the invading Soviet Army when it liberated the death camps.  After being gassed, the women’s hair was shorn then used to stuff pillows and mattresses, as well as mixed in with cotton and wool to make clothing and blankets for the army.  (The display of hundreds of pounds of hair was one of the few areas where visitors were not allowed to take photos, out of respect for the dead.)
  • Living conditions were beyond what any of us can imagine.  Two to three minutes per day for going to the bathroom – two trips to the latrines per day if you were lucky.  Rations so limited that death from starvation came as a blessing within two months – if disease didn’t kill first.

Row of latrines in Birkenau

These troughs at Birkenau were the only way prisoners could clean themselves.

Re-creation of “bunks” in a barrack.  As many as a dozen prisoners slept on each level, even on the brick or concrete floor.

Concepts are more difficult to explain or understand than facts.  No matter how many times one hears of it, the whole concept of a “final solution,” a plan to systematically – and most expeditiously and efficiently – exterminate an entire race, the Jewish people, as well as any other “undesirables” is beyond belief.  So, also, to understand the planning and mechanics that went into murdering over a million people as efficiently as possible was both unbelievable and harrowing.  The gas chambers were able to gas 1500-2000 persons in about 20 minutes.  But it took far longer than 20 minutes to cremate the bodies.  Five crematoriums were built and still were insufficient to dispose of all the victims despite the ovens often burning 24 hours a day.  So open pit “crematoriums” were dug and used as well.  Still, the Nazis couldn’t “process” people fast enough through the death chambers.  So, the mass of barracks at Birkenau were built, housing as many as 1,000 people per filthy barracks, where they were starved and brutalized while awaiting death.

One of the underground gas chambers at Birkenau. The former crematorium once stood to the right. Below it now lies in ruins.

One of the crematoriums at Birkenau.

One of the crematoriums at Auschwitz I.

The goal of the final solution was to eradicate all 11 million Jews in Europe, and the Nazis reached over half that goal, along with killing several millions of other targeted ethnic groups as well.  By the time the war was over, more than 60 million people around the world, mostly civilians and noncombatants, had perished as a result of a megalomaniac who sought to impose his hateful “vision” upon the world.  Most of us are familiar with the slogans, “Never forget,” or “Never again,” aimed at preventing another large-scale genocide in the future.  But perhaps we should all be more acutely attuned to the smaller, quieter beginnings of fear and ethno-religious hatreds espoused by petty, vicious politicians and religious zealots of all stripes because, unchecked, we know where they can lead.

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” 
― Elie Wiesel

Krakow

File:Wawel z mostu Debnickiego (2007).jpg

Wawel Castle in Krakow, from across the Vistula River (Wikipedia image)

Up until a few years ago, my husband had believed general family lore that his bi-lateral genealogical roots were primarily Russian-Jewish.  Two events changed this perspective.  First, the Soviet Union collapsed, and territories formerly engulfed by the communist maw emerged as resurrected countries.  As cities like Minsk and Kiev turned up in new-old countries, it appeared that most of his family harkened from Belarus and the Ukraine, not Russia. As for the rest, he just assumed they were from somewhere in Russia (must have been that innate love of his for potatoes and vodka).

The second discovery was that his paternal name was Polish.  I’m not sure whether this was good or bad news; he’d held this “Russian” image for all these years.  Nor was he certain as to what part of Poland his father’s family had emigrated from over 100 years ago.  I noted that given Poland’s history of being conquered, carved up and appropriated by other nations over the centuries, it really was a moot point what nationality his paternal great-grandparents had claimed at the time they left the old country.  (Besides, I pointed out, Poles loved potatoes and vodka, too, as did almost everybody from that part of the world.)  Bottom line:  we both decided that on this trip we should visit Poland and learn a bit more about the land of his roots.

The map below gives you a fairly good idea of the geopolitical situation Poland was in for about 150 years:  carved up.  With the end of WWII and then the fall of the Soviet Union, Poland regained its (more or less) “traditional” boundaries which encompass most of the colored areas below:

We chose Krakow as our first stop, largely  because our readings of   guides and postings gave the city enthusiastic write-ups.  Since Krakow sustained relatively little damage during WWII, the city was purported to reflect “medieval” Poland.  For two people in search of history, we definitely wanted to see what “old Poland” looked like.  Warsaw had pretty much been leveled by the Germans, as well as post-war become heavily industrialized and rebuilt in the mode moderne, so it was lower in the running.  Besides, Krakow historically if not consistently had had a significant Jewish population; prior to WWII, 64,000 Jews lived in Krakow, comprising one fourth of the city’s population.  Two other drawing points:  Oskar Schindler’s famous factory was in Krakow, and the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps an hour away.

Part of the main square in Krakow. It is one of the largest in Europe.

Krakow today is an interesting city, a combination of mostly late 19th – 20th century architecture, an ancient and huge castle complex (Wawel Castle), and the former Jewish Quarter, Kazimierz, which showcases a number of now largely unused synagogues.   The city’s population boasts over 700,000, with 1.3 million in the metro area.  The city has one of the oldest, nicest and largest market squares in Europe, some beautiful churches and parks, and clearly is bustling and on the muscle.  However, although our hotel was great and many of the city’s denizens polite, if not friendly, neither one of us found Krakow a particularly inviting city.  Part of the dissonance was clearly built-up expectations versus perceived reality; I was expecting an older, more sedate, historical city, perhaps closer in appearance to Budapest.   Certainly, Krakow is steeped in history, but much of that history, especially for Jews, is not pleasant, so perhaps our perception of Krakow is skewed.  Nevertheless, Krakow clearly is up and coming and has a lot to offer, as well as much history to ponder.

Schindler’s Factory

We began by touring Oskar Schindler’s enamel-ware factory made famous in the 1993 movie, Schindler’s List.  Now a branch of the Krakow Museum of History, much of the original factory has been converted into exhibit space focusing on Krakow under Nazi rule from 1939-1945.  The brutal life before and during this period for Poles of all faiths and backgrounds is preserved and retold; special, temporary exhibits and a fascinating film provides in-depth histories of the lives of and interviews with many individuals – both Jewish and non-Jewish – whose lives were saved because of Oskar Schindler.  We spent over two hours at the museum, fascinated and appalled by what we learned.

A somber exhibit struck both of us:  one dimly lit wall was plastered with what appeared to be arrest rolls, with hundreds of names and addresses listed.  Scattered among the names were several dozen photographs of hangings.  We gathered enough from the Polish words for “partisan” and “anti-Nazi” and others that the arrests and hangings had been of local partisans or other counter-insurgents of the Nazi regime in Krakow.

One of five mentions of “Rolnik” among a list of people to be arrested. Relatives?

The most unsettling aspect of this wall of infamy was seeing five mentions of my husband’s family name inscribed among the arrested.  Unfortunately, this was one of the few exhibits that did not have an English translation.  But seeing “Rolnik” written several times with different addresses shook us up a bit: a generation ago, did five of Michael’s relatives die on the gallows in Krakow?  Were other relatives rounded up and sent to Auschwitz as were most of Krakow’s Jews?  I doubt we’ll ever know.

Our questions and assumptions are based in history. After Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Krakow became the seat of the “General Government” in the country.   As part of the Nazis’ attempt to make Krakow a model “clean” city, thousands of Jews were deported to labor camps, synagogues plundered and closed;  many Jews were rounded up and murdered for no other reason than who they were.  In 1940, 48,000 of Krakow’s Jews were forced to relocate to surrounding rural areas.  Another 15,000 Jews were relocated in early 1941 from the Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz to south of the Vistula River to a newly walled area, the Krakow Ghetto.

One of the guarded entrances to the Krakow Ghetto.  Today, only a few sections of the walls remain.

In May, 1942 more deportations began, sending thousands of Jews to the death camps.  In March, 1943, the Nazis liquidated the Krakow Ghetto, herding almost all the remaining inhabitants into the main square, Pod Zgody (now called Plac Bohaterow Getta).  There the fit were separated and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau or other camps for slave labor or extermination.  The unfit, the sick, the old and small children  — approximately 2,000 — were murdered on the spot.

Today the renamed square is a memorial, with large empty chairs signifying the thousands of people who had died here or been deported to the death camps.  It is a sobering sight.

The memorial in Plac Bohaterow Getta for the more than 2,000 Jews murdered here by the Nazis.

Somewhere between 3,000-5,000 Krakow Jews survived the war and the camps; most left the area following liberation.  Today, less than a thousand Jews live in Krakow.  Of the seven synagogues in Kazimierz, only one is still in active use.  Walking through the Jewish Quarter seeing empty synagogues amidst overflowing, laughter-filled cafés and bars was unsettling.

The Reform Synagogue

The “wailing wall” of the Remuh Synagogue in Krakow.  The wall was built from fragments of tombstones deteriorated over time or broken apart by Nazis in WWII.  

A Less Somber Side of Krakow

We also spent quite of bit of time as more mainstream tourists in Krakow:  a snack and drink on the lovely market square, touring St. Mary’s Basilica, gawking at the hordes of school groups and tourists engulfing the square, seeing Wawel Castle.

St. Mary’s, beautiful and ornate, was resplendent and mind-boggling awash with gilt and stained glass.  With all the tributes to Pope John Paul II both within and outside the church (and the overload of JPII memorabilia for sale at every turn), we assumed this had been “his” church when he was bishop of Krakow before ascending the papal throne.  We only discovered the next day, in our tour of the castle complex, that the Wawel Cathedral holds the honor as the bishopric of Krakow – as it has for about one thousand years – although the majority of the present edifice dates to the 14th century C.E.

St. Mary’s Cathedral, Main Square, Krakow

The interior of St. Mary’s

Wawel Castle

An aerial view of the immense castle complex

Wawel Castle, sprawling, beautiful, and stately, dominates the western end of the old city of Krakow.  Some of the best views of Wawel Castle are from the opposite banks of the Vistula River, as Krakow’s more recent growth obscures views from many city vantages.  The rocky hilltop has been inhabited for a hundred thousand years, but the beginnings of a major church and residence of regional rulers seem to date from the 9th to 10th centuries.  Around the mid-11th century C.E. Krakow became the capital and royal residence of Poland.  Almost all Polish monarchs have been crowned and buried in the cathedral since.  The castle’s cathedral is also the bishopric seat for Krakow, and  as a young priest, the future pope John Paul II offered his first mass there in 1946.

Cathedral of Wawel Castle complex. The interior courtyards, or rather a series of courtyards, are immense. The palace buildings are to the right and behind the cathedral.

We toured parts of the castle complex, or tried to.  The ticketing process is unnecessarily complex and confusing, and separate tickets must be purchased for the dozen or so areas open to visitors.  Guided tours are only offered in two or three areas of the castle and cathedral; in the rest, you are dependent on a very small (2’x 18”), bi-lingual plaque (Polish and English) in each room to provide any information as to the contents.   As it was, virtually each plaque simply identified the title and artist of some of the pieces of art or period furniture in the room.  Almost nothing was given about the function of the room or history of the period, the section of the castle, etc., except perhaps some vague dates or occasionally the names of the rooms.  We’d purchased an English guide to the castle and cathedral prior to entering the buildings, but it was of little more help:  the route in the guide did not always match the arrow-pointing signs “guiding” the route in the castle.

In our travels, we try not to make comparisons or judge, just accept places and styles as they are, but it was extremely difficult not to get frustrated in this case.  This beautiful castle is a national museum run by the Polish government, and I would have expected a great deal more national pride and information in presentation, particularly in touting what is one of Poland’s most treasured national landmarks.  Since most foreign visitors do not have a great grasp on the country’s rich yet convoluted and sometimes tragic history, the lack of information provided was extremely disappointing.  In fact, wanting to learn is why most people go to museums.  In conclusion, I strongly recommend that serious visitors who want to understand the history and what they are seeing at Wawel, not just “gawk and walk,” arrange to have a private tour guide.  I wish we’d had time or warning.  Poland could take some lessons in museum curatorship from Slovenia.

In all, we were glad we had visited Krakow.  The city has a wealth of history and beauty to offer tourists of every ilk.  I only regret we had only three days.

Bratislava = Ice Hockey, Boatels, FUN!

Where Hockey Rules

One look at the above picture tells you several things:  Michael had a great time in Bratislava; Michael is thinking about adopting their national flag as his own; Michael still cozies up to blondes; what happened in Bratislava, stays in Bratislava.  So this will be a short post…..

Seriously, we had a pretty good time in Bratislava, which turned out to be party central while we were there.  Contrary to what my husband thinks, he was not the raison d’être for all the merry making, although he certainly put his heart and soul into it!  (And BTW, the blonde’s boyfriend is in the foreground, on his cell.)  Nope, our visit coincided with the international ice hockey semi-finals in Europe, and Bratislava was revved to the gills with national enthusiasm and pride.

Our “boatel”, anchored on the Danube, with Bratislava Castle and the national parliament (to the left) above.

We spent three nights on a “boatel”, a small hotel on a boat anchored in the Danube River.  I knew it would be cramped, but come on – who else do you know has been rocked to sleep on the Danube, unless you’ve taken one of those tony river cruises?  The boatel came with a decent Indian restaurant atop and a rollicking bar on the bottom level, so we headed down the gangway  after dinner to enjoy some live music.  We discovered the bar full of an interesting combination of 40 20-something Slovakians and about 20 40-somethings Brits from Birmingham.  The latter were there for a stag party or bachelor’s party.

The themed stag party has become an increasingly popular event in Europe, particularly among the Brits.  The friends of the groom-to-be will pick a theme – usually related to sexual exploits or sex in general – and make up tee shirts or costumes for the entire group to wear.  We have seen groups of men wearing cartoon-themed outfits, doctors’ scrubs (with accompanying gynecological tools), Waldo (passé but popular still for male dress-up), and, most commonly, colorful and lasciviously-captioned tee shirts. Also in vogue are men dressed (skimpily) as women, usually those employed by bordellos and strip joints.  You’ll understand why I refuse to post pictures of overweight guys in near-nude drag.

Having boisterous (and sometimes riotous) themed parties of all-male Brits descending on various European cities for a weekend of heavy drinking and etcetera has become popular among British bachelors & friends, but they are not as appreciated among the continental Europeans.  In fact, in Amsterdam, most of the people find these roving drunken bands a huge annoyance.  To read more about these unique parties go to http://fireflygroupevents.com/blog/2010/08/16/british-stag-do-vs-american-bachelor-party-staggered-tells-all/,

But, despite their rather lewd tee shirts, this group from Birmingham was actually very nice, even posing for a few pictures.  Unfortunately, between them falling down inebriated, the bar rocking in other boats’ wake, and (I’ll admit) having had a few glasses of wine myself, none of the pictures turned out too clearly. So any editorial decisions were settled for me.

On to more serious stuff…

The former Czechoslovakia, showing the current division between the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic.

Our second night in Bratislava turned out to be the semi-final in which Slovakia went up against their penultimate arch rivals, the Czech Republic.  Ironically, the winner of this match would go on to face the Russian the next night in the all-Europe ice hockey championship.  In the briefest history lesson ever:  these good-natured rivals spent nearly a century combined together as “Czechoslovakia” before an amicable divorce in 1993. As one, however, during the 20th century they were invaded by first the Nazis (anyone remember the Munich Agreement?) and then the Soviets, under whose dominion they suffered for over four decades, even brutally during the insurrection of 1968.  Today, both countries are doing well separately, but equally  thankful to have shed the hated Soviets. So, for all three countries, these two nights were more than just a couple of hockey games.  There was friendly rivalry, and there was some bad blood.  Literally.

Czech player on the left, Slovak on the right.

Back to more interesting stuff.  Slovakia hadn’t beaten the Czechs in 6-10-12 years – who knows how many years? (we never did get a consistent answer from anyone).  Since ice hockey hugely surpasses football (soccer) as the Slovak national sport, this game was a big deal.  I’d told our tour guide earlier that we bring countries we visit good luck in sports (I won’t go into a catalogue, I promise).  So that evening we planted ourselves in an outdoor bar and watched the game on TV with about 50,000 of our new best friends.

Slovakia creamed the Czech Republic in the third period, and as the game was sewn up, EVERYONE in the entire country went collectively nuts. From the lead picture at the head of this posting, you can see Michael shared in the local if not national enthusiasm.

The next night, downtown Bratislava was awash in red, white and blue, and it wasn’t the stars and stripes.  The city had set up a huge screen on the biggest plaza, and thousands of people were gathered to watch the final, Slovakia versus Russia as broadcast from Helsinki.  Unfortunately, Slovakia didn’t win, not even close.  But it was still a fun time.

On the more touristy end of Bratislava

I mentioned a tour, which was a source of some merriment for us.  Advertised as a “FREE walking tour of Bratislava”, the small print quickly established that while the tour was “free,” it cost €4 person.

So out came the Euro coins, and while it wasn’t the best tour we’ve ever had, it was definitely worth €4 apiece.   Here are some photos:

Bratislava Castle, also known as Pressburg Castle.  Nearly destroyed by a careless cooking fire in 1811, the castle lay in ruins until the early 1950s when restoration began, continuing on to this day.

Bratislava is known for its street statues of unusually posed figures. Probably the best known is this man emerging from a manhole.

Within a couple of meters of the bronze statue posed a bronzed man, manhole cover and all, with an incongruous top hat soliciting funding for his clever street art. Question: is this life imitating art or art imitating life?

A statue of a popular Bratislavan denizen who walked the streets greeting one and all, spreading the daily news.

The bell tower of the town hall. Notice the hole to the left of the second floor window: Napoleon’s army deposited a cannonball in the tower as part of their attempt to take Bratislava.

Somehow, the Slovaks seemed to still like Napoleon, hence the statue below in one of the main squares:

Michael’s Gate in bottom right. Hapsburg monarchs, crowned in St. Martin’s Cathedral, walked along the main road to the gate to show themselves to their subjects. Today, the royal way is marked by bronze crowns inlaid among the cobblestones.

St. Martin’s Cathedral, where Hapsburg monarchs received their crowns.

St. Martin’s is where nearly all the kings and queens of the Hapsburg Empire were crowned until the 19th century.  Once crowned, they were supposed to walk among the people from the church to Michael’s gate, one of the medieval entrances to the old city, to announce and show their presence to their subjects.

Within a few yards of St. Martin’s there is a sculpture and a wall of remembrance of the city’s oldest synagogue and entire historic neighborhoods that were razed by the Soviets in the early 1970s to build a bridge and highway through the city.  This travesty was pointed out by guide books and tour leaders, all noting that the old town had lost about half of its historic area and buildings because of the Soviet callousness for history.

“Wall of Remembrance” and sculpture memorializing the old synagogue razed to make way for a bridge and highway.

But the Soviets were not entirely devoid of imagination.  Some aspiring architect of that era decided to append an edifice on top of the western span of the bridge.  The Bratislavians disparagingly call it the “Ew-pho” (UFO), which, of course, it resembles.  Regardless, the restaurant and nightclub atop the bridge apparently do a killer business!  And as sacrilegious as this may sound, I actually think the bridge and the “Ew-pho” are quite pretty and unusual.  It’s just a shame that the Soviets couldn’t have built them either east or west of the old town and synagogue  and left more history standing.

The UFO Bridge

Devín Castle

In between ice hockey games, we managed to squeeze in a touristy side trip.  On a recommendation, we took a cruise up the Danube to Devín Castle, once a proud fortress that had withstood invading armies over the centuries until Napoleon Bonaparte came along.  In typically Napoleon fashion, he blasted the castle to ruins.  Seems like his artillery had improved its aim since blowing off the nose of the Sphinx.  Archeologists have made some headway sorting through the rubble, and there are some interesting sights and vistas.  If we’d had more time, we’d have rented some bikes and brought them out for a day of cycling and picnicking, an activity many Bratislavians like to do in nice weather.  Much of the area below the castle promontory is a protected environmental area wound with lovely walking and biking paths.  Devín sits at the confluence of the Danube and Morava rivers, so ample opportunities exist for nature watching as well as getting in some serious exercise.  For refreshment, there are a few cafés strategically assembled at the lower entrance to the castle grounds, ready to resuscitate weary bikers and hikers.

Good-bye from Bratislava!