G’day from Gdansk, on the Baltic Sea in northern Poland. From here Lech Wałęsa led the dock workers union Solidarity on strikes and other actions that set in motion the downfall of the Soviet Union. It has been important in other eras, such as the 1700’s, when it too, like Krakow, was a member of the Hanseatic League — take a walk though the port area and you will think you are in Holland, with all the Dutch Golden Age architecture arising during that period.
We traveled via train from Lublin, the first leg on a 1970’s vintage Intercity, a little worn but clean, and with new seat fabrics. The compartments were sparsely populated for the 0800 run. We changed in Warsaw three hours later, averaging just 60 km/35mph for this part of the journey. The next leg was on a sleek modernity which averaged 100km/60 mph, not the 250km/h you can get in France and Spain, but smooth as well as lovely in all respects.
We spoke with the woman sitting with us. She was no more than 40, and spoke English very well. How is it that so many people speak English so well in Poland, Peg asked? She said everyone is taught. She was the first generation to switch from Russian to English, starting class at age 14. The first year was difficult for her but once she got the basics she could begin to talk, helping her learn with relative ease. English grammar, she said, is a lot easier than the Polish, although spelling is more difficult. In Polish the marks on letters tell you which sound the letter makes, something which would of great benefit in English. Nowadays children start learning English in kindergarten, using the immersion method— the English teacher speaks only in English. This is producing excellent results, judging by the amount of English we encounter.
This is our second time in Poland. The first came in July of 1998. You can check it out at Poland 1998. Our impression of Poland is Poles apart (sorry about that pun!) from our current. Cars abound along with the traffic jams, instead of much more crowded public transport from the Communist era. Restaurants were fewer and lower in quality and there were few foreign, which now abound, especially Italian. The people then seemed more glum, and there were far fewer tourists, both conditions which no longer apply. No one spoke English, but today English effective language instruction is universal. While not everyone speaks English, the ones who get practice speak and understand tourist level English very well, and in some cases their skills go far beyond. Buildings are clean, new construction is common, while public areas are spic and span still.
We are hours away from leaving. There is a special city filled with a special people, who threw off the yoke of Soviet rule, after having been invaded by the Nazis then crushed by the Soviet system, with just 20 years of freedom between the wars. Before that it was the Russia Empire. No wonder they worry about Putin, and made nervous by Trump. The Baltic countries are small, on their own unable to fend off a nation as large and well armed as Putin’s Russia. We need to have their back.
Their separation from the Soviet Union is chronicled in the Museum of the Popular Front, in what was its headquarters on Vespilcetas iela 13/15, a building worth visiting on its own merits. With the loosening of controls under Gorbachev, the Front
elected pro-independence delegates to the Soviet assembly
got recognition of the illegitimacy of the Soviet/Nazi pact of 1941
organized protests including the unbroken human chain that extended from the far end of Lithuania all the way to the coast at Tallin, Estonia, a total of 600 km /375 miles
organized barricades in the event of a crackdown after the one in Lithuania.
It is not just this heroic moment that endears me to this city, country, people. It’s the art, it’s the way they have all acquired a second language, these days mostly English by choice (German and Russian are also officially taught), not the edict of a foreign power.
It’s also the architecture, especially the Art Nouveau for which the city is famous:
I like the fashion
The food is less doughy than St Petersburg and much less expensive than Stockholm!
The most fabulous potato pancakes ever! They were fried in bacon, so no wonder. I will need a new liver by the time I get out of Latvia, though.
And the people are more open, friendly than in St Petersburg.
More Latvia posts to come, and I hope to return, in the better weather.
Just a two hour flight from St Petersburg and an hour to Riga, Stockholm is built upon a scad of islands (17 in all) with a wealth of architecture set against a slew of harbors, lakes and canals, with much fine exterior decor as well as art, history and more in its many museums. The most famous of its museums is not about art – the Vasa Museum contains the 17th century ship that sank on its maiden voyage, leaving behind a storehouse of information about its time.
Most important structures show foreign influence as French and Italian architects were brought in during the 18th century. Simon de la Vallée designed the Riddarhuset, the House of Knights . His son Jean de la Vallée and the German-born Nicodemus Tessin became a leading architect with buildings such as Södra City Hall , Axel Oxenstierna Palace , Katarina Church , Stenbock Palace, and Wrangelska Palace. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Architecture_in_Stockholm
City Hall is the site for the Nobel Prize banquet, except for the Peace Prize which is awarded in Norway. The structure is in the style of the Italian Renaissance, though it was built in the early 20th century. It’s interior is astounding, by far the most impressive of the city and competing favorably with others of its ilk in other countries. It’s a fitting venue for the Nobel Prize award dinner, that it seats 3000 or so being a minor advantage. The Queen of Lake Mälaren mosaic is my favorite piece in the hall. The guide said it is in the Byzantine style, but I do not see it that way, having never seen anything quite like her and finding little in common with the Byzantine aside from the gold mosaics.
These mosaics were made in panels in Germany. There are some 8 million tiles, the gold sandwiched between each one before it is attached to the panel.
Gamla Stan, the oldest part of the city, dates from 13th c, shows the influence of the architecture of northern Germany. It retains the narrow medieval streets of the small island.
In 1697, the Castle of the Three Crowns was severely damaged in a fire, replaced by the Castle of Stockholm.
Stockholm’s many waterways make for a natural charm to contrast with man-made beauty.
Art Nouveau Architecture
It would not be at all surprising if you were not sure what constitutes Art Nouveau. Literally the term means “New Art,” new being relative to around 1890 (lasting to about 1910). Part of the problem arises from the diverse terminology used to refer to that general style. The Czech term is Secese, Danish Skønvirke or Jugendstil, German Jugendstil, Art Nouveau or Reformstil, Hungarian Szecesszió, Italian Art Nouveau, Stile Liberty or Stile floreale, Norwegian Jugendstil, Polish Secesja, Slovak Secesia, Russian Модерн (Modern), Swedish Jugend. These various countries produced variations on the general theme and can be difficult to categorize. Here are some photos of the Swedish version.
I’ll add posts on the cuisine – surprisingly good- as well as the museums, also excellent. Even without those added delights, and the friendly English speaking populace – you’d swear you were talking to Americans – Stockholm is a great visit.
The main style of building in Riga is Art Nouveau. There are more buildings in this style in Riga than anywhere in the world, making Riga a major destination for aficionados of the style. Here are some excellent examples of what you can see here. I’ll be posting more of both exteriors and interiors. Often these buildings occupy an entire street, making it even more impressive. We saw interiors at the Rich Art Nouveau Museum.
Morocco left me with eight main impressions. First, the contrasts in technology – delivery by donkey and by truck/motorcycle – and second, in cultures- modern dress next to traditional Berber next to conservative Islam. Third is the intricacy and extensiveness of the decorative architectural designs. Fourth is the daily prayer calls, a strange concoction of sound; perhaps more strangely is that people dis not seem to particularly notice. Fifth, the cuisine can reach impressive heights although it is mired in sameness on many levels. Sixth is the friendliness of the people we have met and the apparent tolerance. Seventh is the level of poverty and, finally, that its glory is largely in its past.
Contrasts in technology
As we walked in the souks (markets) and even in modern areas we would encounter donkeys hauling delivery carts and the modern version, which is a motorcycle rig with an integrated covered bed. There are men pushing delivery carts in the narrowest parts of the souks, or men carrying bundles. Sometimes loads would be strapped to the backs of a donkey for delivery. In larger areas you see large modern trucks transporting goods.
In the souks small stands are the norm, but in the modern areas you can see larger shops, super markets and international chains, some quite upscale.
Contrasts in Culture
Women are everywhere, and dressed in everything from a full covering hijab, only eyes peering out from black robes making for a mysterious appearance both intriguing and chilling simultaneously, to jeans and blouse. The only women not very modestly dressed might have been foreigners. I saw few women working but there were some. The manager of the Orange shop we went into in Fez is run by a woman, and in the modern areas there women working in shops, cafes and restaurants. In the souks almost everyone in the stalls and shops is male.
The intricacy and extensiveness of the design
Here are some examples of the design features you find in old buildings. Islamic art is noted for this design, of which the Moroccan is a variation.
Here’s a modern rendition:
As you can see above, in some buildings the decoration is from floor to ceiling.
Daily prayer calls
These happen 5 times per day and at odd hours- not say at the top of the hour but at say 522 am. Once these calls to prayer begin they rise to a crescendo, starting with a call from a single mosque but soon joined by the other mosques in the area. In Fez we stayed in a poor neighborhood, although the accommodations we stayed in were comfortable enough provided you can climb three flights of very steep short staircases. There were about a half dozen mosques in the area, and the sound echoes off the mason surfaces. It was eerie. Here’s a pretty good rendition:
No one seems to run to the mosque for all this praying. We could see groups of men in the mosques but not in large numbers. Both of the guides we employed talked about the religion. One explained the ritual washing you do before you go into a mosque and how it was not required to do your daily prayers in a mosque nor to assume the bowing posture unless you were in the mosque. But everything revolves around devotion to Allah.
This is a religious country but not fundamentalist as a whole. Islam is pervasive but other religions are tolerated and the king is encouraging the re-immigration of Jews, many of whom left for Israel after a long and prosperous history here. Homosexuality is illegal but violations are sporadically enforced. Two girls photographed kissing were arrested but release without trial after an international outcry. One of our guides said the king does not want bad publicity and prefers to overlook things of this sort. Elton John was invited to perform at a festival celebrating spirituality and after some protests the king said he writes and sings about spirituality, his private life is his own affair.
Alcohol is forbidden in Islam, but you can buy it here and they produce wine in the country.
In our interactions we had in restaurants, shops, hotels and on the streets we found the people to be universally friendly. I saw one conflict with foreigners and that was a metal worker objecting to being photoed by a tourist. The military waved us off when we tried to photo a wall that turned out to be part of a military installation, but entirely understandable from their point of view. Many people talked to us as we walked around, and some have tried to get us to visit a shop to ‘just browse.’ Sometimes they help us find our way just being considerate. A 10 year old boy guided us out of our neighborhood that first day in Fez and insisted on being paid but several adult men wanted nothing for pointing the way.
This is definitely a third world country so it is obvious that money is in short supply. There are many old taxis, for instance, with broken seats and no window cranks, although there are some brand new ones. The public buses are in decent condition- we have used several in Marrakesh. The population is young, with an average life span of 73, ranking 80th in the world. Dental care is rare, judging by their teeth. The food is plentiful and of excellent quality, fruits and vegetables are part of the daily cuisine. They must not be coming from far away. The cuisine is tasty and reasonably varied. Alcohol is in short supply and expensive where available. There are huge vineyards near Meknes.
Glory is largely in its past
The glory of Morocco, as in all of North Africa and the Middle East in general, lies in its past, and of which they are proud. Don’t expect a balanced presentation from people you meet casually. It’s a ‘show me the good parts.’
The Moors who invaded Spain in 711. The name ‘Moors’ comes from the Berber tribe called the Mauri (do not confused with the country of Mauritnia). At that time the Islamic culture was a main source of knowledge for the Mediterranean countries and Europe. Medicine, astronomy agriculture and more were absorbed into European culture as a result of the take over of Spain. It is this of which they are perhaps most proud, but now the main product of these cultures is Islam, in which they seem to place a great deal of hope. Both of our guides witnessed their faith to us, and probably presumed we are Christians. At least we all have the same God, said one. The other suggested that there would be no modern medicine if it weren’t for the Moors and Arabic culture in general. There is something to be said for this, but on the other hand, what have they done since?
Their ancient markets are a huge attraction. Leather production is still done in the same way and at least in Fez in the same location since the 14th century. They use natural dyes only in the craft markets, and are prohibited from selling anything other than traditionally made items. In the leather area they still use pigeon droppings and other traditional processes to treat camel, cow, goat and sheep skins. Goat is the best, we were told, as it produces the softest and most water resistant product. Carpets and scarves are made from traditional materials in the traditional method, using hand looms. We bought some scarves made of agave, the cactus, that you would swear was silk. They preserve their past. What of their economic future?
We set off on our journey from Valencia to Aranjuez at 7am on Sunday. The train route takes you west through massive fields of grapes dotted by the occasional and equally massive wine storage units jutting some 25 meters toward the clouds, stopping in a seemingly endless number of small towns along the way. Progress is slow and the it gets much slower as then we enter the National Park known as Torcas de Palancares, leaving the farms behind.
The ravines (barrancos) along the train route from Valencia to Aranjuez dig deeply into the rocky orange soil. Because it has been raining, itself a bit of a refreshing oddity, rivulets flow beneath the train as it slows to 20 kph as we inched across trestles, looking straight over the side at the rocky bottom far below. You don’t feel confident out there in the middle. They are going that slowly for good reason.
There are more people on the train – so vacant we practically got on a first name basis with the conductor- than live in the protected zone portion of the journey, judging by the total lack of dwellings and just the occasional dirt road. A large bird, a hawk or perhaps even an owl, swoops across the tracks, looking for an unwary rabbit. The boars are too big to lift so they are safe from his talons.
From Graz you take a railroad operated bus to the train that carries you into Italy through the Alps; the bus avoids a much longer train ride through the mountains. The scenery alone makes the trip worthwhile. There are viaducts and tunnels galore. Human have inhabited this area for thousands of years, although it is well west of here,in the Oetztal Alps, where researchers unearthed the frozen body of a man who died in the mountains some 5000 years ago. For more information on that, go to http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/oetzi-iceman-mummy-alps-lyme-disease-lactose-intolerance/story?id=15816788
There’s enough to see and do in Salzburg, Austria for the three days we were there, although beyond that I am less optimistic. It’s certainly attractive enough for longer term living but a bit on the small side, and a good four hours from Vienna for more intensive living, and the winters are still cold and snowy enough to discourage any but skiers and ice skaters. A bit of background and then some highlights.
For a city of a mere 300,000, Graz has a large number of museums. Boys will no doubt be attracted to the Armory, which holds an extensive collection of medieval armory worn by the knights. We skipped that one and instead have gone to the Graz Museum, Kunsthouse and the Museum in Palais. There are a dozen to visit on our annual 30 euro pass. (click ‘continue reading’ below)