Tuesday, August 31, 2010
Monday, August 30, 2010
|Boat to Split|
SPLIT, CROATIA By morning the brilliant sky was gone, blurry gray squalls were gathering over the Adriatic, enough time, I thought, to buy this evening's boat ticket to Split and climb to the castle before it starts raining. It did. It came down in sheets just as I reached the top of the castle tower. I hastened down, getting soaked, finally finding refuge in the hotel lobby. The rain was not going to let up so I unpacked Die Unsterbilichkeit (Immortality), by Milan Kunder, left by someone on a bench outside the station in Ljubljana. I had read a few paragraphs then and found the German not too difficult and the introduction appealing. A single gesture of an older woman captured for Kunder the timelessness of a woman's inner self and inspired him to write the novel. That got me thinking how traveling can suspend one's orientation to time and place. Everyday we're reminded of our age, through family, friends, and relatives; through our house, the pictures on the walls, the souvenirs from long ago vacations - anchors tethering us to an age and point in time. Traveling alone, you're tethered no longer, you're as old as you like, only the mirror at night keeps you somewhat in check. Keep moving and there's a suspension of place - everything is strange - but since everything is strange everything is the same. You're somewhere but nowhere at the same time. Now, I'm somewhere off the coast of Croatia, by morning, Split, someplace somewhere.
OPATIJA RIVIERA, CROATIA Under a brilliant sky, a seductively tranquil deep blue sea, the Opatija Riviera matches the French or Italian rivieras, maybe even more attractive, with its twelve kilometers of winding stone promenade, cut into the side of the rugged rocky shore and shaded by oak trees. Below the promenade are natural and man made stone or concrete outcroppings and some very small pebbled beaches, from which the leisurely swim, dive, snorkle, and sun bathe. The promenade snakes through quaint sleepy harbors, spas that have been built into the sea; past restaurants, shops, and cafes. A relaxed casual atmosphere prevails. Above, hued out of the side of Mount Ucka, are the opulent villas and expensive but also some moderately priced hotels catering to the ubiquitous German tourist and junkies of health and wellness spas. If I had a car, this is where I would stay. Without a car, I took bus 32 from the center of town, walked the promenade in both directions, took dozens of pictures; every turn offering something new to shoot. Back in Rijeka, the charm is gone, my options less appealing, only four hotels, not one good restaurant, but lots of cafes with their ice cream and lattes, and pizzarias specializing in the overcrusted dry cardboard taste.
Saturday, August 28, 2010
|Church Picnic in Kansas|
|The Soca River|
LJUBLJANA, SLOVENIA It was the best of days the worst of days. Through torrents of rain I searched for a hotel only to end up in Ljubljana at the same hotel I had left a day earlier. I spent another hour looking for a parking space; it was Friday night, the rain had stopped, and the city was bursting with activity. But it was the best of days. After a morning walk along the shimmering Adriatic, I left Izola and headed north along the coast into Italy, then back into Slovenia and the Julian Alps. In Poland they say the Tatras are the most beautiful mountains in the world. Sorry, the Julian Alps have them beat hands down. Reminiscent of the mountains in Lord of the Rings and unlike the Sierra or the Rockies, there are countless individual mountains that rise straight up. Maybe due to the rain or an indication that the area has yet to be "really" discovered, there wasn't much traffic on the two lane road that follows the sharp bends and turns of the Soca river. A Frenchman told me, "I catch 20 to 30 trout a day. It's the best trout river in the world." A Kayaker said, "It's the best kayaking in the world. You can take your pick from levels one to five." The rain started gushing as I shifted down into first and second gears slowly making my way up and around limestone clifts and over the Bovec pass. The poor visibility couldn't daunt my senses of an enchanting, exhilerating, wilderness, punctuated with small villages, worth months or even years of exploring and enjoying.
Thursday, August 26, 2010
IZOLA, SLOVENIA I took to the road in a rented car, drove west, came back late to my hotel, and found that the electricity had gone out in my hotel - no lights, no internet, no airconditionig. There was much to talk about, the Predjama Castle, part castle and part cave. I've said too much about castles already, but this was my favorite so far. From there I continued to Koper, Slovenia, but didn't stop until I got to Izola, on the Adriatic coast. This is the most romantic place I've been; Debra would love it - sun drenched beaches with oil soaked sun bathers, an old town with streets so narrow you could touch both sides with outstretched hands, an expansive and colorful marina with wealthy yachts, fishing trawlers, and pleasure boats, restaurants boarding the beaches and marina with views and menus to die for. What's else can I say. The electricity finally came on but it's late and I'm too tired to write more.
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
|Wifi Hotspots in Maribor|
MARIBOR, SLOVENIA Outside the Maribor train station is a billboard with a map showing all of the City's wifi hot spots. If a relatively poor country like Slovenia can do this, why can't we in the States? Again, I go back to an earlier blog: The best thing Obama could do to stimulate the economy and help people in need is to give them a notebook computer and free wifi access, an observation underscored by my last month's AT&T bill, almost a whopping $1,000. Other than a text or two a day, I seldom use my phone. It's the features, like international roaming, that AT&T says will save me money, that are costing an arm and a leg. I'm turning them off. Another interesting price point comparison. My two hour train ride to Ljubljana cost 10 Euro - views alone were worth at least ten times that. The one hour ride from Cologne to Frankfurt cost 70 Euro. What gives here? On that score, you might want to rethink buying a Europass if some of your travels are in Eastern Europe, where public transportation is dirt cheap.
Slovenians wanting to talk to their neighbors in Italy, Hungary, Austria, and Croatia could learn their neighbors' languages but easier is to speak English, the lingua franca, of all these countries. On the bus in Austria, a couple of guest workers from different countries were trying to communicate with each other in broken German. When they couldn't think of a word, they resorted to English, although they knew even less English than German. When I lived in Frankfurt, the highbrow Der Spiegel used latinized words instead of their German counterparts. The lowbrow Frankfurter Rundschau stuck to German. That's changed. Latinized words or simply English words are now everywhere. In German, they write "Information" instead of Auskunft or "Television" instead of Fernseh. In stores, the internationally branded products are, for the most part, in English. On TV, in Slovenia, American programs and movies are in English with Slovene subtitles. Ads are a blend of English and the indigenous languages. My favorite in Germany: "Coole Drink fur alle Stunden (cool drink for all hours)," "Coole" is the phoenetic pronounciation for the German word kuhle and "Drink" is English for Getrankt, and the rest gratuitously is in German. Anglicization is on the march.
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
|400 Year Old Grape Vine|
MARIBOR, SLOVENIA If Slovenia were a city, its population of two million wouldn't rank in the top 100 cities of the world. Before 1991 Slovenia did not exist except as an ethnic enclave of Slovene speaking Slavic people within the context of other empires: Rome, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Germany, and Yugoslavia. As an independent country Slovenia joined the European Union in 1996 and the Eurozone in 2007. Do people feel they are better off as an independent country? I surveyed several people and found that independence is good but whether they are better off was far from conclusive. "The Euro has made us poorer," a young lady told me. "Life was better under Tito. Goods were scarce but we were all in the same boat," an elderly woman said. Everyone I talked to held Tito in high regard. "He kept us together. His mother was Slovenian." The hotel desk clerk assured me that the communist system was bad but others seemed to have mixed feelings. More than one person commented on the importance of the Slovenia language. "They didn't understand us in Belgrade. It was hard to work together." Everyone spoke to me in English, the linqua franca of this small country, although I ran into some who spoke neither English or German. Maribor is the second largest city in Slovenia; its most prominant sight is the Old Vine House with what is purportedly the oldest grape vine in the world - over 400 years old.
Monday, August 23, 2010
|Organ in the Grazer Dom|
GRAZ, AUSTRIA Still in Graz, drinking a beer and enjoying the warm evening weather at an outdoor cafe along the Herrenstrasse, I made the acquaintance of a professor of music and an organist from Linz, Austria. After considerable small talk, he said, "I'm doing a concert at the Grazer Dom. You should stop by." The Dom, a 15th century gothic cathedral, has a massive pipe organ. Here was a chance to hear what one of these behmoths actually sounded like. I was a little put off though by the entrance price of ten Euro. "No Senior discount?" I asked. "No, it's double for seniors because it's double the pleasure," the ticket seller joked. The cathedral was filling up with somberly dressed gray haired folks. I sensed the same crowd that attended mass. I was in my shorts and feeling out of place, but thought, "What the heck," and plopped down my ten Euro. Our backs were to the organ which sits on a balcony covering the back of the cathedral. Promptly at eight, without introduction, Herr Dr. Wolfgang Kreuzhuber, with a sudden burst, filled the cathedral with the roar of the organ - the prelude to some recognizable church music - this might be interesting. But quickly transitioned to a piece or two by Shumann, I didn't like; a couple pieces by Bach, I didn't like either; concluding with some improvised pieces of his own creation, which I really didn't like. Ending promptly at nine, to the trained ears of the others, it was a phenomenal performance as they were still clapping as I exited the cathedral.
Sunday, August 22, 2010
Saturday, August 21, 2010
|Schlossberg Bell Tower|
GRAZ, AUSTRIA The 2.5 hour train ride from Vienna to Graz winds through the Alps, over deeply carved ravines, through pitch black tunnels, around quaint mountain villages. A bachelor party had the entire car in stitches although I couldn't understand a word they were saying - they were speaking the Austrian dialect. The party, as I've become an expert on, involves giving the groom a coin - preferrably a Euro - who gives you a cigar or a small gift in return. No kisses - that's what the brides give out. In Graz, I headed for the town center and just happened upon the Schlossberg tunnel system built inside the Schlossberg to serve as an air raid shelter for up to 40,000 during WWII. From within the tunnel system I took the lift to the top of the Schlossberg, which purportedly was the strongest Renaissance fortification of all time. This didn't stop Napolean from capturing the city and the fortress in 1809 and razing all but the bell tower to the ground. None of this is as important though as Thal, a small town outside of Graz, and the birthplace of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Friday, August 20, 2010
|Ward, Inge, Dave, and Me|
FRANKFURT, GERMANY They hadn't changed. Well, maybe a bit. The little hair that Dave had was gray. Inge, though, looked the same. And Ward, with a full head of grayless hair (what's with that?) looked almost thirty years younger. It had been 35 years. Dave, Ward, and I taught Engish at Berlitz in Frankfurt. Yet our memories were still fresh of those insouciant times so long ago. We laughed at our numerous follies, chided each other on the epic novels we have yet to write, and commissurated on our aging aches and pains. Dave and Inge live in the same apartment. Inge retired from flying with Lufthansa, Dave writes and sings Irish ballads, but mostly the two spend their retirement hiking mountains, running marathons, and traveling the world. Ward joined us later in the evening and the four of us hardly missed a beat from where we had left off 35 years ago as the jokes started flying. Dave's joke, with his heavy Irish brogue, about the Irish version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire took the prize. It's too long to repeat here and who could possibly tell it like a true Irishman.
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
COLOGNE, GERMANY Smiles and hugs as Debra, Rachel, and I reunited. The press conference they produced for EA was exhausting but successful. Rachel and I climbed to the top of the Cologne Dome while Debra waited below nursing a sprained ankle. Like other cathedrals, it’s a work in progress, pieces decaying and falling off. Like ants crawling around on the scaffolding, workers methodically replace and repair the crumbling parts. Left to its own, how long would it take for the Cathedral to come down? Many cathedrals in Europe have far more art, but no cathedral is so staggering in size. Incomprehensible how a cathedral this size built over several centuries could have come together as a single masterpiece. The allies understood this flattening the city of Cologne while leaving the Cathedral untouched. The Nazis took advantage of this diplomatic delicacy and built their headquarters beneath the Cathedral where they discovered ancient Roman ruins. We were a half hour too late to take the tour of the ruins.
VIENNA, AUSTRIA As I leave Vienna for Cologne, I ponder how Mercer Consulting rated Vienna number one in quality of life. Certainly they weren't considering the needs of the roving anthropologist who insists that everything be centrally located; train station, hotels, old town, from whence to explore the city's environs. Vienna falls far short of these criteria. There are four major train stations: Westbahnhof, Sudbahnhof, Meidling, and Simmering. None is near the center of town and each an important arrival/departure point depending on where you're coming from and where you want to go, which poses a problem on deciding where to stay when your future travel plans are uncertain. To be sure, Vienna is a beautiful city steaming with cultural opportunities; concerts, theater, art galleries, museums, and historical sites, but would I rate it above San Francisco (ranked 37 ) - never. San Francisco is the second ranked US city after Honolulu (ranked 35). Can they be serious? I can only suspect that it must have been Vienna's Mercer office who conducted the survey and after that drew cities out of a hat.
|Germany on the Move|
Monday, August 16, 2010
|Tower of Babel|
VIENNA, AUSTRIA For 16th and 17th century European art enthusiasts, you'll enjoy the Rubens, Vermeers, Rembrandts, and Durers at the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Halle 12 is where you'll find the paintings of Pieter Bruegel, the Elder, the 16th century Dutch artist, who paints complex scenes of human activities often with a sardonic twist. The Tower of Babel is my favorite and worth the price of the ticket. The picture depicts the building of the Tower of Babel described in Genesis. Unaware that the Tower is doomed to failure, tilting and crumbling, the workers continue to labor on. It's an intriguing theme and one whose essence is captured in a series of etchings, by a another artist, we have at home, in which one progresses from an idylic hopeful scene, through a series of challenges, to a scene of death and distruction. The series of prints we own is called "Journey to Find Out." In Bruegel's painting, the hubris of achieving immortality by building a tower to heaven is doomed to fail, resulting in death and destruction for the workers and the town sitting at the foot of the tower. For a "wannabe" roving anthropologist, Bruegel is the perfect roll model.
From the art museum, I went to the Austrian Parliament, a greco roman edifice, where I joined a bilingual German/English guide, who, in describing the events surrounding WW II, said, "Hitler marched into Austria in 38 and the allies occupied Austria until 55 before we gained our freedom." That was that. Nothing more to report. End of subject. She continued on to show us the chambers and explain how their parliamentary system works. There wasn't any discussion - just rat-a-tat-tat and we were through in our alotted fifty minutes. From the Parliament, I walked over to St. Stephen with its obligatory scaffolding, recalling that I had yet to see a cathedral in Europe without scaffolding, and reflecting back on Bruegel's The Tower of Babel. In 71, I had gone through St. Stephen, from the steeple down to the bones stacked in the catacombs. It was a good tour then, probably free, but now at 14.50 Euro, I decided to pass. I've seen a few cathedrals on this trip and I'm sure there'll be more to come.
Sunday, August 15, 2010
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY This morning I read a CNN article on Elizabeth Gilbert. You've probably heard of her and her book, "Eat, Pray, Love," now a movie, staring Julia Roberts, about her experiences traveling solo. Her sentiments mirror what I've been saying in this blog except for the large numbers, especially women, she and the article claim are traveling alone. Maybe, among the ubiquitous young backpackers, on their summer breaks, you'll find some; but I haven't, as yet, met a single older woman traveling alone and just one man, the AIDS activitist. Gilbert says, "There's just something romantic, exhilarating and liberating about the idea of setting off on your own and exploring the world and yourself along the way. No companion? No problem. Being alone simply forces a traveler to open up more, whether out of loneliness, curiosity or boredom. You cannot have the experiences traveling with a partner that you have traveling alone." To be sure, it's about getting out of your comfort zone and seeing what happens.
|Golden Park Hotel|
I've stayed mostly in three-star hotels and accommodations and prices have more or less been appropriate. However, the Golden Park Hotel in Budapest was the furthest thing from a 4-star hotel (their designation) you can find. I couldn't take a shower without flooding the bathroom floor. The sink had a crack in it. The safe deposit box didn't work. On two occasions, without knocking, a cleaning woman charged into the room. The breakfast was ugh, awful! Breakfasts, in general, have gotten worse. In the Balkins, you got fresh herring and lox, bellini pancakes, and freshly fried ham and eggs. The herring, lox, and pancakes disappeared in Poland, and now the ham and eggs are gone. You're left eating cold cuts and rubbery cerial. I didn't say anthing about the breakfast to the desk clerk, but when I mentioned the bathroom and safety deposit box, he said, "There's nothing we can do about that." I don't know if he was reading my mind, but then added, "It makes for an adventure, doesn't it?"
|Boring Modern Train|
The train from Budapest to Vienna was brand new, factory smell, sterile, and univiting. The air conditioning, clean toilets, and electrical outlets were nice additions, but not being assigned a compartment, struggling with the windows for some fresh air, and the possibility of meeting someone new, this modern open seating contraption took all the charm and adventure out of traveling by train. The seats didn't even recline. I guess you had to ride premium class for that. And, it was twice as expensive to boot. Arriving in Vienna, I was reminded of my college winter break 1971. It was the first time I had been to Europe, puportedly to ski with a friend in St. Anton, but after a week of bad snow, and less than stellar skiing on my part, I headed to Vienna to explore on my own. On top of St. Stephen's Cathedral I met an Aussie, and together we did Vienna. We spent an afternoon at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, saw Puccini Tosca at the Opera House, and partied New Year's Eve at the Australian Embassy, where she worked.
Saturday, August 14, 2010
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY After a day walking and sight seeing - the Royal Palace in Buda, another museum, and gallery - the sweltering heat forced me to retreat to the hotel early for a late afternoon nap. I zonked out thinking how nice it would be to go fishing for a week rather than see another museum or gallery. By the way, I need to clarify an earlier statement, Budapest was originally two cities, Buda and Pest. No one so far has been able to tell me what the names mean, but their histories were quite different. Buda, where the Royal Palace and where a number of other prominant sights are, is on the hilly north side of the Danube; Pest, the heart of the city, is on the flat south side of the Danube. Often people just refer to Buda or Pest depending which part of the city they're referring. The main train station and my hotel are located in Pest about a 45-minute walk to Buda. I wonder if someone decided to make the two cities one because the name has such a quixotic ring to it - imagine Pest the capital of Hungary?
|The Danube at Night|
I've been thinking about how hard it is to write accurate descriptions of what I'm seeing or experiencing. Often first impressions are wrong and, with time, they change. It's difficult to descibe without being subjective. How many times can one use the words, awsome, spectacular, beautiful, cheap, expensive, etc. What word should I choose to describe a walk along the Danube on a warm Saturday night? All relative depending on a point of view at a particular point in time. What you choose to describe is subjective too, why talk about the Royal Castle, when you could describe the haircut you got at a salon for $5.5 not much more than the price of the two-minute ride on the funicular to the Royal Castle. In the end, can you really capture what you saw or felt and is it the truth? I'm learning the task of a roving anthropologist is a difficult one.
Friday, August 13, 2010
Thursday, August 12, 2010
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY Unlike Krakow where the crowds dominate the streets, Budapest swallows them up. Turn the Danube into the Bosphorus, a few church steeples into minerates, and you have Istanbul. I'm that impressed. Like Istanbul it's large and hard to know where to begin, so I walked in the direction of the Danube and wasn't disapointed. Across the Danube, towers the Hungarian National Gallery, featuring in its main gallery only Hungarian artists. I didn't know a single artist, but the art was of such a high quality, I expected to see a Renoir or a Pissarro among the impressionists, or a Picasso or Braque among the cubists; but these were Hungarian artists, and Hungarian artist only. They did, however, have a special exhibit of an Italian futurist, Fortunato Depero, who, regretfully. I hadn't heard of before although he exemplifies the styles of some of my favorite artists; Leger, Picasso, Escher, and I guess I could throw in a little Kandinsky as well. From the top floor of the Gallery I climbed to the dome from which I had a spectacular view of the Danube and the city of Budapest - afterwards dinner in one of the many outdoor restaurants that line banks of the Danube.
KRAKOW, POLAND I'm in a sleeper car on a 10 1/2 hour trip to Budapest. I should have caught this train last night instead of waiting a day in Krakow. Not that there's isn't a lot going on, there is, it's just that moving on is what keeps the juices flowing. Hanging around Krakow for the day, checking out the shops, had my mind pondering the emaciated purchasing power of the greenback. It's sad that the dollar has been pushed to such lows for the US economy to grow and compete, price-wise at least, with other third world countries. What, we can't do better than that? The theories of Paul Krugman - not to single him out, but I do like to pick on him - will contribute to the dollar's woes. Increased government spending increases debt - duh! The profligate Greeks have the Germans to bail them out, but who's going to bail us out? Spending unrelated to increases in productivity emboldens bad habits requiring years to undo. Spending unrelated to inceases in productivity creates uncertainty as the winners and losers are chosen through the political whims of policy makers - and whose rules do they play by? The currency markets have responded accordingly keeping the greenback low and folks on their farms for a long time to come - just like in other third world countries.
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
KRAKOW, POLAND A warm night in Krakow brought out the crowds, street performers, and a variety of concerts from Chopin to Polish hip hop or something of that nature. The Poles are celebrating Chopin's 200th birthday. Although he was born in Poland, he spent most of his short life in Paris where he is buried; except his heart, which is entombed in a pillar in the Church of Holy Cross in Warsaw. I spent the afternoon walking around the Royal Palace - maybe tomorrow I'll actually take the tour - a four hour marathon - that sells out early. After spending this last week in Poland, and managing with my complete mastery of four Polish words, I'm almost at home here. After returning from the Czeck Republic, I checked into the Europejski, the same hotel I had left three days earlier. Like the prodigal son they welcomed me back with open arms, but without the fatted calf. Maybe I should settle down here for a few days - no that won't do - gotta keep mov'n - next stop Budapest. I purchased a ticket on the sleeper, leaving tomorrow night around ten and getting into Budapest 8:30 the next morning.
Monday, August 9, 2010
|Trenciansky Hrad Hotel|
I spent a couple of hours ruminating over the history of the castle's narrow stairways, small rooms, and defensive bulwarks, before heading west to the Czeck Republic - through the lush wooded, rolling mountains; the towns, now quaint, clean, and prosperous. I pulled over for gas just beyond the border. I gave the attendant my credit card. She frowned. I pulled out some Euros. She smiled, rang up the bill, and handed me change in Koruna. I looked at the strange currency and said, "No, I can't use Czeck money. I'm not staying in the Country." She didn't understand English, German, or Polish. By this time, my Polish consisted of four words, yes, no, please, and thank you, but these were of no use now. After considerable finagling without understanding a word each other was saying, she agreed to take my credit card. Unclear as to how much I actually paid, it seemed a lot but I'm sure it was okay, I continued my road tour, getting lost three or four times before ending up back in Krakow to return the car and consider my next move.
Sunday, August 8, 2010
TRENCIN, SLOVOKIA Hiking the trail, just a few meters from my room, into Tatrzanski National Park seemed like a good idea until it started to sprinkle. Although it didn't deter other hikers, I thought I could do without a good soaking and decided a road trip through Slovakia a better idea. You can easily drive from one end to the other in a day. I headed south along the winding road through the Tatra Mountains to Poprad. The sun broke through as I turned west and followed the Vah River Valley to Zilnia. On both sides, the country-side is lush and green, rolling foothills, the rapid flowing Vah river, framed by the Tatras; rich in recreational possibilities; fishing, hunting, hiking, and skiing. Along the way are number of crumbling castles from the Hapsburg dynasty. I pulled over at one, Hrad Likava, and idled away a couple of hours hiking around the castle and the immediate area. The whole of Slovakia is quite stunning but the towns seem impoverished, in shambles, with broken down, graffiti plastered apartments, clothing hung out to dry on rusting balconey railings. I had to pass on several towns because I couldn't find a hotel, ending up in Trencin, a city with a beautiful castle and certain possibilities.
Saturday, August 7, 2010
ZAKOPANE, POLAND "Poland's premier mountain resort, is one of the country's most popular holiday destinations, both in the winter for skiing and in the summer for hiking and camping. Zakopane has long been a playground for Poles and travellers from Eastern Europe, but is just now being discovered by the rest of the world for its splendid natural scenery, world-class ski slopes, and great value-for-the-money (http://www.zakopane-life.com/)." Great value! My room cost $26.50, breakfast and wifi included. For $12, dinner included a large bowl of pea soup, roast pork in goulash with three types of salad, a half liter of beer, and a glass of wine. Outside the weather is beautiful, the scenery breathtaking. I must decide, do I stay tomorrow and hike the mountains or continue into Slovakia where I hear it's even more beautiful.
The day started off bad, thinking I would catch the train to Bielsko Biala and hoping I could upgrade to first class the ticket I bought the night before. "No first class on this train," the agent said in English. The night before the agent couldn't speak English or German, took my money, gave me a ticket, and gruffly said what must have been "next" in Polish. I left uncertain. This morning I wondered whether the ticket would actually get me to the main station in Bielsko Biala. A friendlier agent looked at the ticket, did some research, and said, "You must transfer to a bus in 'some unpronounceable town.' You have only ten minutes to make the transfer." Stunned, no way am I going to pull this off. It's hard enough getting off at the right stop, let alone getting off at an interim stop, at a place I can't pronounce, and then transferring to a bus somewhere, who knows where, all within ten minutes. Walking back to my hotel, I saw a sign for Avis - what? Remembering Gdansk, I thought there weren't any car rentals in Poland. I was wrong. Avis had one car. I could have it for $40 per day. I could take it out of the country but had to bring it back to Wroclaw or Krakow. "It's a deal, three days."
Friday, August 6, 2010
|Salt Mine Sculptor|
KRAKOW, POLAND I had two objectives when I woke today. First, to find the best train route through Slovakia and secondly to tour the salt mine I had heard so much about. Three people had told me it's a must see, absolutely. I was skeptical, not that I don't like salt mines, but I've been to the one in Salzburg, not once but twice. I wished I had listened to my instincts. Krakow's salt mine is not Salzburg's: no rail ride through a dark tunnel, no slide into a salt chamber, no barge ride across an underground lake, and no salt miner's clothes to wear. The mine is Catholic, of course, this is Poland - three chapels, many religious icons, and what they say is the largest functioning underground church in the world, all carved out of the black salt; alter, frescoes, statues, and even the chandeliers - a mausoleum I would call it. Worse, once in, over half of the 2 1/2 hour tour was in waiting, always waiting on the groups ahead of us. We even waited a half hour to get out. Trust me, if you wish to see a salt mine, this is not it. Go to Salzburg.
I had a hunch getting around Slovakia might pose a problem. What should be two hours by train, according to the map, takes twelve hours. The mountains turrn routes into dead ends. For example, I'd love to go to Zakopane, the Polish ski resort at the foot of the Tatra mountains, and then continue on through Slovakia. Can't do - you must return to Krakow and proceed west - away from anything interesting. I could take a side trip to Zakosane, but that's six hours round trip and I appall going back and forth over the same tracks. Whatever destination I choose, I'd also prefer it to be one that allows me more than one way out. So far, in Slovakia this has been a tall order. After a morning of fretful map reading and checking schedules, I've decided to go to Bielsko Blala, Poland - a non-descript town from everything I can learn - but one that gives me some options of continuing south into Slovakia or east into the Czech Republic.
Thursday, August 5, 2010
AUSCHWITZ, POLAND A city get's an A when the train station is in or near Old Town. It gets an A+ when it's surrounded by hotels, an A++ when information is readily available, and an A+++ when the sights are worth seeing. This is Krakow, alive with tourists from around the world, a lot of Americans and Brits, almost everyone speaks English. At the bus station directly adjacent to the train station, you can catch a bus to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Give yourself the entire day to take in this somber and sobering excursion of the two most notorious NAZI death camps. I found myself tearing up as our guide spoke in a hushed voice and we viewed in silence the large bins of suitcases, clothing, glasses, shoes, and hair of just some of the one million Jews exterminated here. The fastidious NAZIs made a distinction between concentration camps and death camps. Auschwitz and Birkenau served as both. Those coming off the train and deemed unfit to work were sent to the left and to their immediate and agonizing deaths. Those who could work were sent to the right, to the concentration camp, where they served as slave labors in nearby factories, like IG Farbin, or in the extermination of their fellow Jews. They soon would die too, of hunger, disease, and abuse - the smallest infraction punishable through starvation, suffocation, or, if lucky, being shot.
|80 in a Single Car|
As I rode the bus to Auschwitz, gazing out at the undulating fields of golden wheat, I was tranported in time back to 1943. We had been loaded onto box cars in Hamburg. There were over 80 of us packed in a single car. We could only stand, complain, and wait; our destination and future uncertain. As the train rolled on and the hours passed, the summer heat was suffocating, the smell of people relieving themselves, as they stood erect, became insanely poignant. A woman screamed from somewhere in the car, "My mother is dead!" My father, mother, younger sister, and I, grimaced in silence, and squeezed tight each other's hand. I was pressed against the wall where a few slats of sunshine shown in. I could see some women and children in the distance cutting wheat and loading it onto a horse drawn cart. A farm appeared near the track. There were children playing in the yard and as the train approached they started to wave. I screamed, "help us!" Others in the train joined me. The train whistle blew drowning out our crys. The children kept waving. They couldn't hear us or if they could thought it was just another game adults play. My parents and sister would be dead in another hour and I, in good health, and chosen to work, lived another six months before succumbing to malnutrition and typhoid fever.
Wednesday, August 4, 2010
|Wroclaw Train Station|
KRAKOW, POLAND The train station in Poland is a bit challenging. I have yet to meet an attendant who speaks English or German. So, I've learned to write out where and when I want to go. The ticket is clear. It does not, however, tell you the platform, and that's where it gets interesting. You need to look at the schedule board, it shows the times, destinations, and platforms for the departures. However, it doesn't show the train number and the destination shown is invetibly of some other station along the way. Without knowing the destination listed, it's impossible to know for sure which train and platform is yours. You have to ask around. Once at the platform you have the problem of getting on the right car. Your ticket clearly states the car number, but the cars aren't numbered. Again the only solution is to ask someone. Once on the train, it's not unusual to find your seat taken. Nothing earthshaking, of course, but it would be nice if the Poles would put train numbers on their schedule board and a number on the first class car. There's actually a place for that number, they just don't bother with it.
I'm on the train to Krakow, a grouchy woman has taken my seat next to the window, she's not about to change seats. A family of three sits across from me, the mother arguing with her teenage son. I say hello and the father just frowns at me. I guess I'll write about something pleasant. When I was 17, a friend and I hitched hiked, in the middle of the winter, from Minnesota to Los Angeles to attend the Rose Bowl game. It was an exhilerating feeling of freedom - embarking on what then was an adventure of unknowns. Ten years later, after finishing college, and six years Marine Reserves, I left for the uncertainty of a new country, and the appeal of freedom. (The family across from me has started eating, carving up large pieces of smelly sausages, mouths open as they chew, talk, and argue.) Now almost 40 years later, I'm at it again and the excitement is still there. I wonder if one could adopt this as a permanent life style?
So far, I have met only one person who seems to have taken up this challenge. That was the AIDS activitist, who collects countries like others collect stamps, as he advocates for AIDS victims around the world. Besides the fear of the unknown, sufficient funds might hold some back or so they may believe. (The father has fallen asleep, his jaw open, snorting, the mother reading a Polish version of the National Inquirer, the son playing a game on his cell phone.) For many retirees this lifestyle is easily within reach. My own budget is $200 per day. I eat well, sleep well, travel well, and sightsee well. I could manage on a lot less. With a little SS, retirement, or investment income, and, if necessary, renting your home out, traveling is only marginally more expensive than remaining home. (Incredible, the father just let a big fart as he adjusted his position and briefly opened his eyes to see if anyone noticed.
Tuesday, August 3, 2010
WROCLAW, POLAND Riding the train is one of the best ways to learn about a country. From Szczecin to Wroclaw, a five-hour trip, an articulate, well informed, CEO of a Polish recycling company, talked about her country, its politics, history, and culture. Not enough time or space here to do justice to the breadth and depth of the discussion, so I'll pick only one theme. "The political situation here is still very fragile. I fear there could be a revolution," she said, and to underscore the point she refused to mention any political names out loud less the two other passengers in our cabin, who were speaking Polish, became upset and caused a scene. "The tragic airplane accident, probably caused by the president himself, was not altogether regrettable as we now have,” she paused. “Hopefully, a more pragmatic forward looking government. The old government, encouraged and supported by the church - we're 95% Catholic - held power by playing on the fears of the past. Many here, mostly the poor and uneducated, look to the church and government to solve their problems. They don't understand the sacrifices and hard work it takes to be successful. They see what you have and they want it."
I would describe Wroclaw as somewhere between Gdansk and Warsaw - bigger than Gdansk but smaller than Warsaw. It has an Old Town with the architectural appeal of Gdansk. Not surprising, like Gdansk (Danzig), Wroclaw (Breslau) was formerly a thriving German commercial center. Wroclaw, like Gdansk, is haunted by the ghosts of tit-for-tat recriminations between Poles and Germans, between Catholics and Protestants. Some want to keep these animosities alive, but others, like my traveling companion, want to move on. Impressive or oppressive, the Catholic churches loom everywhere. They are part of the power structure within Poland, once Catholic, then Protestant, then Catholic again – burned down, rebuilt, bombed, and rebuilt again, reflecting a history of conflict. From the top of St. Mary’s Church, I counted no fewer than fourteen churches (cathedrals) within one or two kilometers. The guide told me, “There are at least 50 cathedrals in Wroclaw.” The churches, especially those which remained Catholic throughout, are marvelous examples of baroque art: massive pipe organs; priceless frescoes, alabaster statutes, and stain glass windows; gilded alters and sold gold crosses, all to the glory of God and Poland’s national identity. The Catholic Church in Poland is rich and powerful.
Monday, August 2, 2010
SZCZESIN, POLAND My mother used to say, "If you can't say something nice, don't say it at all." Of course, she wasn't one to often follow her own advice and didn't know I would grow up to be a roving anthropologist whose research requires the facts and only the facts. The nicest way to put it, Szczesin is not Gdansk. After finding a hotel room and anxious to see the city, I asked the hotel clerk, "Where is Old Town?" With a puzzled look, she waved her hand, "The Palace is in that direction." Not exactly the response I was expecting. Perhaps, one of the taxi cab drivers conversing outside could take me to Old Town. "Do you speak English?" I said to the group. They shrugged and shook their heads. "Deutsch?" One stepped forward, "A little." "I want to go to Old Town." He didn't understand and turned to the others for help and after a few moments replied, "You want me to show you the town?" "No, just take me to Old Town." Shaking his head, confused, he consulted again with the other drivers. Finally he smiled and said, "Will do it for ten Euro - only ten Euro, no more." I smelled a setup - why the quote in Euros when the currency is the zloty. I decided to get a third opinion.
Around the corner I found another cab driver who spoke fairly decent German. But his reaction was similar to that of the hotel clerk and other cab drivers. Finally, he seemed to get it, "Old Town, tak, tak, I can take you to Old Town, just 20 zloty." That was about half the previous quote, so what the heck. As we got underway, he asked, "What are you doing in Szczesin?" I said, "vacation." He looked back at me in amazement, slapped his head, laughing, "Unglaublich! No one comes to Szczesin for vacation." He drove for a few minutes and then pulled over in front of a large modern glass building complex. "Here's the Galeria where all the tourists go. Back there," pointing in some general direction, "is the Palace." Really, I thought, another mall, certainly glitzier than the Crossroads mall, in St. Cloud, MN, but a place my mother would have felt right at home. I decided to pass on the mall and search for the Palace.
Not far away, the Palace wasn't hard to find, a sterile, almost modern looking building. In the inside courtyard, a four-piece brass band played La Bamba to an older set, swaying in their seats. This is not what I was hoping for; where are the little shops, the street performers, the old buildings, the sidewalk cafes? There were plenty of churches and it being Sunday they were all having services. It was getting late, I was hungry, and I hadn't seen a restaurant. At a small tavern, I asked the bartender, "Can I get something to eat here?" "No, we only serve alcohol." "Is there a restaurant you can recommend?" He thought long and hard, "There's a KFC on the corner." I actually had seen two KFCs and a McDonalds, but hadn't thought of eating at them. I walked a little further. To my surprise, I discovered I was back at the original taxi stand, just a few minutes from the Palace. Wow, and they were going to charge me ten Euro! Very hungry now, I spotted an Indian Restaurant across the street from the hotel. Turned out to be a very bad choice - the red wine was ice cold and lamb kebab unedible.