Monday, May 16, 2016

Filling in some gaps in my education: a trip to Eastern Europe

One of the many Gothic cathedrals we saw.  This one in Vienna

The Parliament Building on the Pest side of Budapest on the Danube River in Hungary

The Wawel Castle and wall that dominates Krakow, Poland's skyline

Pierogies.  I had too many of these!

Living quarters at Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland

Prague in Czech Republic is hard to beat, but overrun by tourists

Katie at what remains of the Berlin Wall in Germany

Looking down from tower at palace in Cesky Krumlov in Czech Republic
I haven't posted for nearly a month because I took a 17 day trip to Eastern Europe, covering the countries of Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic.  We concentrated on history and culture and the bigger cities like Vienna, Budapest, Krakow, Warsaw, Berlin, Dresden and Prague, while touring the country side between these cities in perfect, warm Spring weather.
We didn't hike, although we saw nearly 2,000 miles of countryside and walked our legs off looking around.  The Tatra Mountains separating Slovakia and Poland were the only high mountains we saw.
We flew in and out of Calgary rather than Great Falls, cutting our fares in half ($750 roundtrip!).
I'm very overwhelmed by what we saw and experienced and it will take some time to sort it out.
The big takeaway was the rich culture of the area despite its war-wracked history.  In recent history cities like Warsaw, Dresden and Berlin were reduced to rubble during WWII, but have been beautifully restored.
Our trip was heavy acknowledging Jewish enclaves that had been destroyed by Nazis, and Soviet monuments attesting to Russian influence in Eastern Europe.
The local foods in these countries are simply horrible;  heavy meat-based, creamy sauces, dumplings.  The pastries, beers and wines sort of make up for the bad entrees.
We traveled in the off-season, but still found that most sites were overrun.  I can't imagine what the traffic must be like during the summer height of the season.
Country-by-country here are some of my observations:

Secular and sacred architecture in Vienna, Austria dominates the skyline
VIENNA, Austria:  I felt bathed in the cultures of grand architecture, classical music and history every moment I was there.  We took in Puccini's "Turandot," at the State Opera, toured many museums and churches --- the Belevedere Palace, the Shoenborn summer palace, and National Library and Museum stand out, went to a Lippizaner's exhibition, and another concert that featured Viennese composers in a grand palace --- a terrific ending to the tour.
This city is very easy to get around in, but watch out for aggressive drivers and don't expect to cross streets except at cross walks.
A major gap in my education emerged:  that Austria had been liberated after WWII.  In fact, it took until 1955 for the Soviets to let go.  We visited a major Soviet monument to that occupation.

Hungarian Parliament Building at night in Budapest
BUDAPEST, Hungary:  My greatest surprise.  It is an incredibly beautiful bi-city (Buda and Pest) that is separated by the Danube River.  On the steep banks of the river are amazing palaces, churches and of course, the Parliament Building, probably the most interesting single building we toured.  We floated the Danube one evening, enjoying the buildings on the banks all lit up. I would have liked to soak at one of the city's ancient hot springs, but we did climb hills, visit churches (St. Stephen's Cathedral).  We were there on May Day and saw an incredible air show where jets flew under the Chain Bridge.  This is a city I would like to revisit.  You can have the paprika spicing of all dishes, though.  The Sofitel Hotel at Chain Bridge was my favorite hotel on this trip.

Cobblestone and ancient buildings in Medieval Krakow
KRAKOW, Poland:  The drive through the countryside between Hungary and Poland is reminiscent of the low Appalachian foothills or even the bluffs of the Mississippi River, populated by hardwood trees.  We passed through Slovakia, an extremely rural and forested country as we approached the Tatra Mountains that separate Slovakia and Poland.  Krakow is the home of my grandmother's family, the Jaskulski's.  It is also an ancient, medieval, walled city of cobblestone streets, a large city square, and dominated by the Wawel Castle, which we toured during the May Day weekend celebrations. Here we encountered the Polish pierogi, what our tour guide liked to call a "Polish ravioli," a heavy dumpling filled with cheese, potatoes, mushrooms or meat.  By the time we left Poland I vowed never to have another, although I had eaten plenty of them growing up in Chicago.  Too heavy!!! We stopped by the 600 year-old Salt Mine outside Krakow, filled with statues made out of the salt, including a large church sanctuary.

Stalin's gift to Warsaw, the Palace of Culture
WARSAW, Poland:  Nothing could have prepared me for the muscularity of this Polish capital city that has been rebuilt since WWII.  We toured Stalin's gift to the city, the Palace of Culture, a 30 story skyscraper, scorned by Poles, but a major tourist destination.  I liked the modernistic Chopin Memorial in Lazienki Park, the Old Town Square, and was impressed with the new Holocaust Museum built on the site of the Jewish Ghetto.  The rebuilding of Warsaw is hard to imagine after the German devastation of the city, but it has been done nicely.

The "Black Madonna" at Czestochowa
Stops at Auschwitz and Czestochowa.  I was overwhelmed by both of these.  Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp where more than 1 million Jews were gassed and incinerated is a deeply emotional place to visit, where we saw the work camps, living quarters, gas chambers and incinerators.   This is a somber place.  We saw the adjacent Birkinau death camp.  The camps are major tourist destinations, but I didn't mind because this story needs to be imprinted on the minds of all humans.  At pretty Czestochowa we visited the church where Poland's venerated "Black Madonna," icon of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus are on display.  Mass was in session when we arrived and like many others we fell to our knees and traversed the sanctuary.  This was an image my parents displayed in my childhood home, so I was anxious to see it.

The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, Germany
BERLIN, Germany:  This was by far the most dynamic of the cities we visited.  Yes, it has been rebuilt since WWII,  but there are many new, modern buildings in the midst of grand and historic buildings.  The skyline is littered with booms from high cranes. The Reichtag has been rebuilt, but a futuristic dome added.  The Berlin Cathedral, one of the favorite churches on our tour, has been restored.  And of course, the Brandenburg Gate, who could resist this, or a stroll in the Tiergarten Park or Lindenstrasse avenue?  We toured the remains of the famous Berlin Wall, visited an East German apartment preserved as it was under Communism.  We also visited Checkpoint Charlie, the former Soviet/American sectors' boundary and two Soviet War memorials, underscoring for us the grim Soviet presence in Berlin and Eastern Europe for more than 40 years, but also reminding us that many Soviet soldiers died liberating Berlin from the Nazis.  I wasn't taken as much by the Holocaust memorial adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate.  I found the design almost disrespectful in its modernity and lack of emotion.

Dresden, Germany Opera House rebuilt after Allies destroyed it in WWII
DRESDEN, Germany:  We had a brief visit to this ancient city that had been bombed to smithereens by the Allies in retaliation for the Nazi blitz of London.  This city has been beautifully rebuilt and would make a three or four day stay in itself.  The stop on the way to Prague forced us to consider the barbarity of the bombing there.  We were impressed by the royal castle and the church and bustling square.  I would have liked to stopped for a performance at the ornate opera house, but ran out of time.

Infant of Prague Shrine in Prague, Czech Republic
PRAGUE, Czech Republic:  Home of another ancient city, magical for its castles, cobblestone streets, gardens, architecture and square.  We toured St. Vitus Cathedral, the Prague Castle, now seat of Czech government, and climbed the smaller version of Eiffel's Tower, designed by Eiffel himself. We spent much time wandering the narrow streets and visited the Shrine of the Infant of Prague, another icon from my childhood.  One evening we went on a cruise of the Moldau River that only accentuated the magical nature of this city.  I fear that Prague, of all the cities we visited, is in danger of being trashed by tourists.  We found ourselves fleeing some of the major landmarks to escape the hordes of people.  I hate to say it, but now that I've seen this magnificent city, I probably won't return.
On the way of Cesky Krumlov in the Bohemian countryside, we stopped for a tour of the Budweiser beer plant in Budojvice, where Budvar beer, not to be confused with America's Budweiser is brewed. There are historic trademark cases being fought in international courts over which company has the rights to the name Budweiser.  The Bohemian Budweiser is a Pilsner, although we drank a lager version on the tour.  The Czech people are inveterate beer drinkers who believe in the health benefits of beer.  Our young, athletic female tour guide, drank a beer with us while on the tour!

Katie at  Hluboká Castle where we stayed in Czech Republic
CESKY KRUMLOV:  Another Medieval town built around a castle, church and small town square.  We climbed to the top of the castle tower and toured vast gardens where we were treated to Bohemian folk dancing.  We stayed the night at the Hotel Stekl, actually part of the  Hluboká Castle, a magical place sitting high above the Moldau River and its surrounding countryside.  Our spacious suite overlooked all this.  The castle was surrounded by manicured gardens and a private forest of hardwood trees.  

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