Thursday, July 01, 2004

Prague - Summer 2004

hello all -

i am now in praha (or prague for you non-czech speakers) since i last wrote i have been to budapest, krakow and now here.

for these three cities i am traveling with my friend, susan teitz. it has been nice to have companionship and to stay in hotels vs hostels. i was so happy to take a long bath in budapest and clean off three weeks of travel grime!

all three cities are alike in many ways. they are each cities with castles on hills and rivers running through their centers. they share the hapsburg/austro-hungarian, world war two, and communist block history and share similar architecture from the baroque and renaissance eras. the buildings are unbelievably ornate. with every turn there is a building prettier than any i had seen before. i love the use of color. new york could use a fresh coast of pastel paint!


i arrived in budapest after a full day on the train riding through the beautiful rural countryside. it was a bit hard to get into big city mode again. ljubljana is a tiny hamlet and budapest is the big time. at first i didn't even know which direction to go, since there was so much to see.

i decided to just head out and must have made a correct turn because i bumped into katie callahan, a friend of mine from high school and junior high school. she was there for business and we caught up and she gave me the lay of the land. it reminded me again what a small world it is!

the best thing about budapest is that is has many ornate public baths where one can go to get spa treatments and swim in their natural warm waters. the one i went too, the gellert baths, was enormous. there was a wave pool, that somehow made you feel like you were on an ocean beach jumping in the huge waves. the spas are not exactly like spas in the US. instead you lie in rooms full of people as loud hungarian women poke and prod at you. it was a great message though and i was able to have a glass of wine poolside afterwards!

another great thing about budapest is the pastries. they are so good that we decided we should have them for breakfast. now thats vacation!!!

our hotel was right across the river from the parliament building which is most ornate building i have ever seen. at night all the buildings are lit up and this one looks a bit like a mirage. how could people possibly carve such a huge sculpture and then work in it! the entire Hungarian parliament can only use 15 percent of the space, its so big.


we survived our two overnight train trips. there were rumors of lots of crime, but really we climbed into our little bunks and slept the night away, in between big mean border guards waking us up to see out passports. the experience was a step back into soviet times.

we arrived in krakow at 5am, which meant we could experience the main square with no one in it. it is a truly beautiful place. its that biggest square in eastern europe and is lined with cafes and stunning buildings. i had seen pictures and they couldn't capture its beauty.

the centerpiece of the square is st. mary's cathedral. all i can say is "oh my god!" this is the absolute most ornate church i have ever seen and in the last month alone i have probably seen 200 churches including notre dam... this is the church that pope john paul II is from so you can imagine it gets some extra love from the catholics.

krakow is very very catholic. you can't walk anywhere without seeing a nun and each of these nuns is from a different order so they wear great habits. the churches are filled with people praying and bowing. it is an awe inspiring experience.

basically it is a small city. you can walk from one end of old town to the next in 10 minutes, but every step is charming. what is really hard to believe is that 15 years ago there were no stores or restaurants or bars, because there is a bustling shopping world there. in this way, the eastern europeans seemed ready to throw out communism and embrace capitalism. in other ways though, you can hear dissatisfaction with the free market. they complain of the loss of the social support system and the pain of rising unemployment as well of the fact that the communists are still in power under different party names and now they do an even better job of controlling the resources.

while i am here, i have been trying to learn about the eastern european jewish experience. i feel like i owe it to my russian and polish jewish relatives. it means i have been seeing some pretty tragic things. each of the cities has the remains of ghettos which have been pretty much turned into museums since there is not much of a jewish population left here. although the museums are well done, it is sad to have to hear the story via a museum rather than learning from the actual living people.

i was in krakow for the jewish cultural festival which arose out of poles wanting to know more about such an important part of their history. for me it meant great klezmer music everywhere!
i also went to auschwitz. it was really weird to be there and realize that 60 years ago there were jews being killed there. i've been to so many holocaust museums and seen so many movies that i'm almost desensitized, but not quite. hearing and seeing the nazi plans in person gives them new painful reality to me.

i also went to a salt mine outside the city, that has sculptures made carved out of rock salt by the miners who worked in the mines. there are 40 chapels carved directly into the salt so that the miners could pray since mining was very difficult work. its hard to explain what i saw, but suffice it to say that if you ever go to krakow, you should check it out.


i was worried that after so many similar cities, prague would be a disappointment, but that has not been the case. prague is more architecturally diverse than the other cities so it keeps my eyes popping.

also the revolutionary experience is really alive here. they are very proud of their history of student rebellion and i can only be in awe of them for their ongoing resistance against the soviets. as we all know their final rebellion was in 1989 and i keep wondering what i would have done. they were my peers. i'd like to think i would have been out on the main squares fearlessly fighting the military, but i really can only feel real respect for them and their struggle.

its interesting to reflect on soviet communism again in my life. in 1986, i traveled throughout the USSR and got a chance to see soviet communism in action. this is bringing alot of memories to life.

its weird to think that i guess the USA really did win in this struggle. i feel very lucky to have been born in the USA! now all we have to do is show how strong our democracy is by throwing out our president in november. as someone who has never been a terribly big bush basher, its almost painful to watch him on the local news here. (ok, enough politics!)

i have rambled on, but didn't want you to miss anything. now i must go have a beer since that is THE THING to do in prague!

bye bye!


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