Monday, September 7, 2015

Rolling Along in Eastern Europe

One of the appealing things about the Rick Steve's tour we took to Eastern  Europe was that it offered a nice mix of well known big cities and smaller less touristy  places.  Leaving Kraków we travelled 2 hours by bus through the High Tatra Mountains and the Spis region of the Slovakian countryside on our way to the town of Levoca.

Our large bus windows allowed us to view the rollong  landscape and periodically small enclaves of people came into view.  These are obviously  isolated villages where we saw women and children washing clothes in streams and others lounging around in the summer sun.  There seemed to be a huge disconnect between what we saw here and what we had been observing elswhere on this trip. Turning to Katka for an explantion she talked to us about  The "Gypsy" Question explaining that Eastern Europe is home to a silent population mostly in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia - of millions of dark skinned people who speak a unique language and follow their own culture. (information quoted from RS travel guide to Eastern Europe)  The preferred name for these people is "Roma" and estimates of their number in Europe is between 6 and 12 million.  They have a long and troubled history in this part of the world ranging from times when their skills and talents were sought out, to the times when they were treated with suspician and widespread bigotry.  Over a quarter of a million of the Roma were exterminated in the Nazi Holocaust.  Following World War II the Communists attempted forced assimilation of the Roma but this too failed and severely disrupted their communities and culture. Today many Roma continue to resist assimilation and they suffer poverty, living in segregation.  Many Roma children drop out of school at a young age and in the face of the added problems this part of the world is experiencing with refugees fleeing war torn countries the Roma problem is likely to remain so for some time.

Arriving in Levoca we settled into the town square for our our picnic lunch. This was a booming spot in the Middle Ages when Levoca was on a trade route between Hungary and Poland  and today it is quieter but still Slovakia's finest small town.  We enjoyed a few hours in the town square where families has gathered to enjoy a variety of foods, craft demonstrations and musical entertainment.  It gave us an opportunity to glimpse how the average Slovakian family might spend a beautiful spring Sunday afternoon.  The town is also known for its mostly intact medieval wall and the greatest Gothic altarpiece in all of Europe. (which unfortunately I didn't see)

Leaving Levoca we continued on to Eger,Hungary  another smaller destination on our itinerary best known in history as the town that successfully held off the Ottoman advance into Europe in 1552.  It is also well know among wine enthusiasts for its surrounding area which produces a well known red wine "Bull's Blood."  Our overnight stay here was in probably the best room of the tour.  It was in a building separate from the rest of the group and it looked out on a quiet courtyard decked out with beautiful flowering plants hanging and in pots.
It was the perfect spot to enjoy a basket of strawberriies from the local market

Our group dined together at Bajor Sorhaz (known as HBH to the locals because of the kind of beer they serve) and I remember the evening best because the waiter used his considerable skills to do the first pour of wine directly into the mouth of anyone brave enough to receive!  He stood some distance away - enough to make me a non-participant!  After dinner our group did the buddy introductions, a mandatory rite of a Rick Steve's tour.
My tour buddy was Tina - a social worker from New York

The next morning we enjoyed a leisurely stroll around Dobo Square which is the heart of Eger and is remarkably free of the usual town square tourist traps hawking cheap souvenirs and postcards.  The Minorite Church dominates the square and is said to be the most beautiful Baroque church in Hungary.  We also visited Egers local market where stalls were piled high with the first bounty of summer.  And we purchased our first bag of paprika.  Later we walked to the Eger Cathedral which is the second largest church in Hungary and also has the second largest organ in the country.  Other town sites seen but not explored - the northernmost Ottoman minaret in Europe and the Eger Castle.  Our visit to Eger was brief but I sensed that I had seen an authentic Hungarian town, full of Egerites  going about their business.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Here Come the Bride- and Groom

What appears to matter most these days is the wedding!  After a long engagement due to her CRNA graduate program, Claire and Derek will be married in just one week.  They have been "showered," fitted and groomed, have tasted appetizers, entries and cupcakes.  They have auditioned bands and listened to strings. They have  been dance coached and ceremony counseled.  She has pondered hairstyles, make up and nail polish, earrings, hair ornaments, jewelry and shoes.  He has anguished over ties.  They spent cold winter Sundays with a "gun" at Bed  Bath and Beyond and Crate and Barrel.

But as I reflect on these activities of the past eighteen months I am reminded that none of this is what really matters.  It is about the marriage, not the wedding.  And what pleases me most is that I know Claire and Derek know it too. I have seen it in the ways their love has grown in the five years they have been together.  They have supported each other through a grueling school program, job loss and some significant health issues.  We have admired their patience with each other and their communication skills. They are loving and generous with family, faithful to friends, and kind to everyone.  They rescued Fancy Pants and are devoted to giving this sweet dog a happy life.  They have plans and dreams for their life together.  And the will to make them come true.

Their parents have combined, over 75 years experience in marriage and have survived things they are yet to face - and some of these things we hope they never have to face.  But I am encouraged by what I see in them now and confident that they are ready for whatever life will bring.   I am certain that they know the ceremony on September 12 and the promises they will make to each other that day are what really matter.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Remembering Krakow

One of the highlights of any European city is the great market square and Kraków does not disappoint.  After the Tatars destroyed the city in 1241 it was rebuilt in a near perfect grid and with a square that is one of the city's best attractions.  Our hotel was just steps from this square and we enjoyed sitting there waiting for the "Trumpeter of Krakow" to play the hourly "bejnal" song from the tower of St. Mary's Church. According to legend, during the first Tartar invasion a young boy was attempting to warn the townspeople by playing his bugle from the tower but an enemy arrow pierced his throat, stopping him in mid song and that is why he still does so today.  ( Today there are 12 firemen who serve as the trumpeters, each one working  24 hour shift, keeping this legend alive.) Note that this legend is recounted in the Newberry Award winning book (1929) "Trumpeter of Kraków" by Eric P. Kelly

St. Mary's Church has stood on this spot for 800 years and I will remember it best for the amazing three part altarpiece,  which RS calls one of the best medieval woodcarvings in existence.  Other artwork in the church is equally impressive, making it one of the most beautiful churches of this trip. We have a "one church a day" rule but we broke it on the day we attended a concert at the Church of St. Adalbert which also sits on the main square.  Built in the 10th century, it is the oldest church in Kraków.  It is very small and since only 40 people could attend the concert this was as close as I'll ever sit to the performers!

Another major site near the square is the Cloth House a place where cloth sellers had their market stalls in the Middle Ages and a market still exists today.  I spent a considerable amount of time puruseing  the many stalls looking for what I thought would be the perfect Kraków souvenir - a trumpet Christmas tree ornament!  I was astonished that not a single vendor had such an item! A serious marketing failure in my opinion. 

Wawel Cathedral was completed over centuries and it's eclectic exterior reflects this
Kraków was one of my favorite stops on this trip. It has all the charm and history of Prague but doesn't seem as touristy.  It is easy to find your way around this very walkable city and on our free day we enjoyed a stroll along Planty, a scenic park like path along a former moat and later a walk along the Vistula River where we stumbled upon a street festival populated by young families enjoying the beautiful day.  On another day we made our way up the hill to Wawel Cathedral, Poland's national church and the Wawel Castle grounds where the flowers were in bloom and the views worth the climb.
Wawel Castle Grounds
On the Castle grounds
Street Festival Foods

On one of our walks we searched out the Bishop's Palace the second largest palace in Kraków (after Wawel) which has been the residence of Kraków's bishops since it was first built in the 14th century. Today the Palace is most famous for having been the residence of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla from 1958 to 1978, before he became Pope John Paul II. During his visits to Kraków as Pope he would often make appearances in the 'papal window' to address the crowds of his followers below; an image of the Pope now fills the window (making it easy for tourists to identify) and during anniversaries you can be sure the area will be festooned with flowers and candles. The building itself is off-limits, but the courtyard is open to tourists where you'll find an exhibit on the life of the Pope and the first monument of the former pontiff, erected in 1980.  I scoured the postcard displays all over Kraków until I finally found a postcard of the beloved Pontiff which I mailed to my 94 year old father who much loved this pope. 

On our last day in Kraków we visited the Jewish quarter (Kazimierz) and later Schindler's Factory. Unfortunately this was the only rainy day of our tour and a cloudburst drenched our group and cut short the time we had to really explore the Jewish quarter.  Before the rain we did learn about the history of the area, how Jews had lived here since the 15th century and this became a flourishing community in the 1800s.  At the start of World War II, 65,000 Jews lived in Kraków but only a few thousand survived the Nazi control. Today only a few hundred Jews live here but our guide explained that this number is growing and there is a renaissance  of Jewish culture happening.
The popularity of the movie "Schindler's  List," which was partially filmed here  may play a part in this and a visit to Schindler's Factory Musuem was the second part of our day in this part of Kraków. 
We took a tram across the Vistula River to the neighborhood called Podgorze where the Nazis forced Krakow's Jews into a ghetto in early 1941.  Our first stop was Ghetto Heroes Square where empty metal chairs sit as a reminders of the how the Jews were forced to this place, along with all their furniture and possessions. The empty chairs are a somber reminder of what happened to the people who lived here.

Thomas Keneally's 1982 book "Schindler's Ark" first brought the story of German industrialist  Oskar Schindler to the world's attention.  When the Nazis first  invaded Poland Schindler was very much a sympathizer who  saw business potential in acquiring a pots and pans factory staffed by over 1000 Jewish workers.  At some point however his allegiance changed and he secretly became an advocate for his Jewish workers using any means possible to ease their miserable living conditions and save them from probable death.  When the factory was ordered moved and directed to begin manufacturing war materials he argued for the necessity of keeping his workers and it is said that the items produced for the war effort were largely sabotaged to fail.  The museum tells Schindler's story but also depicts the World War II experience of all of Kraków.  

Leaving the museum we got caught in the second big downpour of the day.  This time it came with a very big wind which turned my umbrella inside out and that was the end of my Paris umbrella. .  Another reason why I need to go back to Paris! 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Some things I like about travel in Europe and some  things I don't

No sheets, no blankets only comforters in crisp duvets

Expandable mirrors in the bathroom

Fleece blankets on all outside dining chairs

The little "trash containers" on the table at most meals.  So handy for neatly disposing of fruit peels and scraps, wrappers, bones etc

Tankless toilets -when you flush, it's flushed !

Hand held shower heads

Soap dispensers in showers and at sinks

Bounteous breakfast  buffets - but maybe not the hot dogs or spam slices

Pay public toilets at tourist sites - attendants keep them clean and well supplied

Heated towel racks

Public transportation

And not so much...

Extremely slow working toasters - never had a real piece of toast on this trip

Very undercooked bacon

No washcloths

Small elevators, or maybe none and all

No tissues in most hotels

Great bread but where's the butter?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Auschwitz and Birkenau

"Work will set you free"

Jim and I visited Dachau on our first trip to Germany in 1976 and I have never forgotten the hot summer day we wandered around the grounds and reflected on the horror of what happened there.  In intervening years I have read (three times)  Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning" in which he recounts his time in Auschwitz.  In the forward to the book Harold Kushner remarks that the book is less about what Frankl  suffered and endured but more about how he survived.  Frankl himself quotes Nietzsche, " He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How." This is the message I find so helpful at those times in life when life itself seems  to have lost its meaning.  In my own life that was in 1996 when I was blindsided by a second cancer, in 2001 when the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center fell and so many innocent people died within,  and in 2011 when my mother died in a manner that troubled and confused me.

Because he has been such an inspiration to me in these (by comparison) small challenges in life I feel as if I "know" someone who was in this awful place and I visited it with Viktor Frankl in my mind. He had already described the places so clearly to me and they were so much as I had pictured them - the overcrowd barracks, the train tracks, selection platform, gas chambers and crematorium.  When I gazed at the railroad car on the tracks at Birkenau I shuddered to be in this place. As many as 100 people were crammed so tightly in a railroad care such as this. Some  crouched on the floor while others crowded around the small barred peep holes which were the only source of light and fresh air. The transport could last for days and many did not survive the trip.

Our tour group walked mostly single file and quieter than on any other day as we went from room to room guided by a appropriately sober woman who had tears in her eyes as she told us to "take pictures and show them to everyone - let all the world know what happened here."

I have a copy of "Man's Search for Meaning" at home but at tour's end I headed for the small shop to purchase another and it's this one I will treasure as a lasting momento of the hot summer afternoon I walked where Viktor Frankl suffered but survived.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Rick Steves - Best of Eastern Europe: Prague

Everyone said we would love Prague - and we did once we stopped being lost!

Our train ride from Berlin to Prague was very nice - beautiful scenery along the Elbe River, reminiscent of the train ride from St.Paul to Winona along the Mississippi.  We shared our train car with an Indian couple from Scotland and a couple from the Czech Republic and the afternoon passed quickly with interesting conversation about travel, health care, life under communism , and assorted topics about family, parenthood and aging. These moments are the best part of travel, when strangers meet and instantly form connections - reinforcing my belief that people all over the world want the same thing - to just live as happily as possible.

Finding the hotel was a challenge!  We easily managed the Metro system but once we surfaced the confusing street names and layout completely baffled us.  After walking in the wrong direction (pulling our suitcases over the rough cobblestones) we finally were set in the right direction by a very helpful policeman.  After more wandering we made a call to the hotel for directions but were told to just ask someone on the street!  This is not very helpful advice when you are lost in a city of other equally lost tourists! Jim finally solved our problem by asking a very helpful young woman at a hotel we entered.  She delivered the best news we had heard all afternoon, "you are very close."

I did enjoy Prague but I think after being told the past few years by so many how beautiful the city is and how much fun it is to visit, my expectations were very high.  That said, we did love the red roofs viewed from many vistas, the great food and beer, the impressive buildings and squares, and the city's long and interesting history.  Our delightful guide "Katka" is from "Praha" and she is the "jewel in the crown" of this tour.  Born and raised in a small town about an hour from Prague she lived under communist rule until she was 14 and fascinated us with stories of that time as it effected her and her family. It was chilling to stand in Wenceslas Square  and recall those televised reports from 1969 when the Russian tanks rolled in and Czechoslovakia came under communist rule.  Wenceslas Square was also the place where over 300,000 Czechs gathered every evening in November, 1969 awaiting word that the freedom that had already come to Berliners would soon be theirs.

Jim and I visited the Museum of Communism in Prague which traces the story of communism in Czecholovakia from the beginning, including the promise, the reality and the Velvet Revolution when communism ended without bloodshed.   The exhibits depicting the austere life under the communists and a short video with interviews of people who lived through that time confirm what we believed about communism, growing up in the US..

As we visited the various countries Katka spoke frequently about communism and we learned that some people had a difficult time after the Iron Curtain was lifted.  Older people especially found security in having so much of life taken care of by the State - they had jobs they didn't have to work very hard at, health care and pensions.  Because life was bare and basic families spent a lot of time together; that was their entertainment and they relied on one another. There were no homeless people.   When all this disappeared many of them struggled with their new freedom.  Young people, on the other hand yearned for freedom and many of them left their homelands, to work and travel and experience life in ways they had never known.  There were "grades" of communism among the countries we visited - some had stricter leaders and suffered more oppression than others.

We saw many memorable sites in Prague but one of my favorites was a walk to the Strahov Monastery where we has a tasty lunch (cheese and meat board) and the best beer of the trip - a dark beer that was unexpectantly different from what we know as dark beer.

It was fitting that we ended our visit to Prague  with yet another fruitless search as we became lost and never found the famed Monastery Gardens!

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Happy Travels Again

Jim and I made our first trip to Germany in 1976 when the Berlin Wall stood and the Cold War raged. As young travel novices I remember that we considered a visit to Berlin, but only briefly.  I wanted to go but I remember the uncertainty about being so close to an area than I knew was communist when I still harbored very real fears about communism from my 1950s upbringing.  Instead from Vienna we opted for a night train trip across Germany to the Netherlands where we joined hordes of tourists at the Alkmaar cheese festival.  (But that's a story for another time!)

I never forgot my desire to visit Berlin and ever since the Wall came down in 1989 I have been curious about how this city survived and now thrives despite all it endured.  I was further intrigued to visit by a book I recently read "My Berlin Kitchen"  in which the author  recounts her Berlin childhood and her days as a young married woman after the wall came down. When we decided to take the Rick Steves tour of Eastern European countries this provided the perfect opportunity to start in Berlin.  We arrived via Paris on Wednesday, May 20 and enjoyed a few days both immersed in history and awed by the sight of a city that has truly risen from ashes.

We started as we usually do, in a  big and unfamiliar city by doing a  "hop on, hop off circle bus tour" and then we used a very helpful self-guided walking RIck Steves audio tour.   We stayed in the Prenzlauer Berg area, formerly in East Berlin but now revitalized by trendy hotels, restaurants and bars with multiple cranes looming over the streets  - a testimony to the continual rebuilding.  It was conveniently located close to Alexanderplatz  and the city's wonderful public transit system.  Each evening we found amazing restaurants right in our neighborhood and enjoyed the great foods and beer we remember from our previous trips to Germany in 1976 and 1978.

In our recent trips to Europe we have learned to not try to do it all, but to chose a few places we want to explore more thoroughly and after getting a good overview of the city's historical sites, we chose to spend time in the German History Museum and the Jewish History Museum.  The first tells the story of not just Berlin but of all of Germany and helps you to understand the fateful turn this country took in the early part of the 20th century.  The second is considered one of Europe's best Jewish sights.  With the help of an excellent audio guide the  exhibits come alive and you begin to understand the complex relationship the Germans and Jews have had since medieval times. Before experiencing the exhibits you will marvel at the architecture of the museum itself.  It was designed by the American architect David Libeskind who is the master planner for the redesigned World Trade Center in New  York. It is a zinc walled building with voids which represent the world culture missing as a result of the Holocaust.  One of the most haunting experiences of this trip (which included a visit to Auschwitz) was standing alone in the empty concrete tower where only a sliver of light entered the room at the top.  The is the Axis of the Holocaust.
In the maze

By far the most moving site of our Berlin visit was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It consists of 2,711 gravestone like pillars which are made of hollow concrete and are set in a sunken area.  You can enter anywhere and you are soon lost among the maze, alone with your own thoughts about what this all means.

Part  of any visit to Berlin is seeing the Hitler/Nazi sites and most remaining artifacts are thoughtfully presented in historical context with little sensationalism.  Most museums like the German Resistence Museum which we visited rely heavily on text explanations  and have few artifacts. Where they are seen, Hitler's portraits are small.  The spot of his underground bunker where he committed suicide on April 30, 1945 is barely noted - no one wishes this to be a major tourist site.

In addition to the cranes another thing that struck me was  the number of bicyclists everywhere.  We quickly learned to watch out for them as they whizzed by, almost more a threat to pedestrians than car traffic. Walking around I also noted something else I haven't seen before - small fleece blankets on the back of outdoor restaurant chairs!  Perhaps I don't get out often enough, or maybe because the Twin Cities climate isn't exactly conducive to outdoor eating but I don't remember seeing this at home. It's a nice touch for spring and fall outdoor dining.

And speaking of dining - we weren't disappointed!   We were told that Berliners don't go out for German food and that international cuisine (Indian, Italian, Asian) is more popular with the locals.  We bypassed this advice and sought out sauerkraut, potatoes, sausages at every meal.  Jim tried curry wurst a popular street food invented after WWII and found it quite tasty.  Our last evening in Berlin we dined at Prater Restaurant, enjoying their own microbrew and traditional Biergarten cuisine.  A perfect ending to 4 great days in Berlin.  It was worth the long wait.

Fassbender and Rausch- claims to be Europe's biggest chocolate store

Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church - bombed out ruins left as a reminder of the destruction of Berlin in WWII
Fragments of the Berlin Wall

TV Tower - built in 1969 for the 20th anniversary of the communist government