Friday, June 20, 2008

From Krakow

A problem with keeping a regular blog dealing with travel is that when you try to see what there is to see, the end of the day finds you too tired to write about what you’ve seen. Nothing like complete coverage is the goal of the impressions recorded here, it's just a few out of the thousands of thoughts and feelings that a given day includes.

I'm writing from Krakow now, and it won’t be easy now to look back and talk about Budapest in close detail. But let’s see. I mentioned crossing over to Buda but didn’t describe my stroll through the Castle precincts (the original castle was destroyed by the Austrians, and all that remains is a section of strongly built wall called--not sure why--“the Fishermen’s Bastion”). There is, still, the old Mathias Church, more properly, Our Lady of the Buda Castle. But it was made over in the 19th c. into something perhaps attractive but thoroughly inauthentic; and then the makeover began to erode and collapse; and now is being restored in a maze of fencing and scaffolding. For me the main attraction of Castle Hill is the residential and administrative architecture there, long streets filled with Austro-Hungarian baroque façades in muted colors, many with white trim and sometimes sculptural ornament. Covered alleyways lead to parallel streets and some of courtyards are open, allowing glimpses into leafy and flowery prettiness. From there I walked south, past the rather modest but attractive house allotted to the President of the Hungarian Republic and on to a vast domed palace (much larger than Vienna’s Belvedere) that once belonged to the House of Savoy and now is used as a state art gallery and National Library. All along the Buda prospect you get stunning views of hills to the north, of Pest, the Danube, and the bridges spanning it. And the air this past week was flooded with the scent of linden flowers, that powdery, spicy fragrance that marks the approach of the summer solstice. The scent was so powerful I began to feel as though it had narcotic properties, instilling a dreamlike, pain-free mental state, useful to block mounting protests sent up from my footsoles. Eventually, I walked down a series of steps and paths until I reached the river level, caught a trolley and went back to my hotel for a nap.

Another day I went back over and climbed Buda’s other hill, the one called Gellèrt, which rises next to the Gellèrt Hotel and thermal baths. (No, I didn’t go to any of the spa establishments this time; in hot weather a steam-bath seems redundant.) It was a steep ascent through a fairly wild park, but, taking things slow, I arrived at the summit in half an hour, without feeling too much out of breath. There you find a military monument built of travertine, with an obligatory heroic bronze sculpture, but military monuments always switch off the observer in me. I was quite content with the city views there and glad to feel cooling breezes. It was also a chance to make my farewell to Budapest, and then walk back down to catch my trolley.

I saw a ballet at the Hungarian State Opera House, which was completed in the 1870s and resembles Paris’s Palais Garnier, on a smaller scale. The interior is highly ornamented, with a ceiling fresco, vast brass chandelier, and columns sporting decorative gilding. But, as Henry James once said, “I can stand a good deal of gold.” The ballet was a version of The Taming of the Shrew, a play whose “fable” is its least appealing feature; even Shakespeare sometimes nodded. The dancing was very good, though, especially the person who danced Kate (Alesja Popova), excellent as a "shrew" and fully convincing as an elegantly restrained wifey willing to allow Petruchio to cover her hand with his boot. Anyway, it’s fair to say that at the curtain the audience went wild, concluding with rhythmic clapping that changed tempo seamlessly several times a minute as though someone were dictating the beat. A moment of communal ecstasy that left the visitor a bit at a loss, I mean, after about ten minutes of the clap-clap, clapclapclapclapclap. "I came to see dance, not to make noise," he mutters grumpily. No, the performance part was fine. So maybe there was one good legacy from the Soviet period—the dance training that was available in Moscow.

Hungary hasn’t yet recovered from the Communist years, and apparently the present-day government is a dud. You see foreign investment pouring in, evidenced by the luxury hotels along the Danube on the Pest side and a tiled mall termed “Fashion Street,” lined with the all brand names you thought you’d left back home. But, no, here they are, urging everyone to consume, consume, consume. Building, rebuilding, and restoration is everywhere, yet the fortunes being made haven’t really trickled down to the populace, not yet. You sense the poverty strongly. Lots of begging and picking through rubbish bins, not to mention drink and cigarettes used for their pain-killing punch. Also, outdoor prostitution, which always saddens me. When money is scarce, women are the first to feel the pinch. Hard times. But the Magyars are valiant people, I sense; they have the fortitude to see it through. Budapest will become as glittery and shiny as all the prosperous cities of the West.

As said above, I’m in Krakow, staying in a battered, old, not yet refurbished district called Kazimierz, ten minutes' walk to the Old City. Kazimierz was once the Jewish ghetto, I mean, when Krakow still had Jews. There are several synagogues in the area, some quite old. And a Foundation for Jewish Culture. And lots of menorahs displayed in shop windows. Yet very few Jews now actually live here. They either went to America, or Israel, or Auschwitz. If you admired Spielberg’s Schindler’s List you’ll be interested to know the events recounted in the film occurred here, just as much of the footage was shot here. I think I found the very courtyard of the enamel factory shown in the film, at No. 12 Joszefa ulica (Josepha Street). It will or will not detoxify the location for you when you hear that the courtyard now hosts two outdoor restos, one of them with umbrellas advertising Carlsberg.

In the past decade Kazimierz has become the arty-bohemian neighborhood of Krakow, but I can see that phase drawing to a close, given that posh restaurants and galleries and less than posh souvenir shops have begun to spring up. The old quarter will be made over for the tour buses—in fact, I saw a tour bus there today. There’s still a good bit of the unvarnished funkiness, especially around Plaz Nowy, which has an open-air market for fresh produce as well as flea-market type antiques, or at least trinkets. But soon enough the sooty walls, cracked and exposing interior brick, will be repaired, hosed down and spun dry, and everything will be camera ready for annual tourist invasion from Italy or Germany or the U.S.A. We saw it happen in the West and East Village in New York, and in SoHo and Chelsea. We saw it happen in the Quartier Latin and the Marais in Paris, and Notting Hill and Camden Lock in London and in the picturesque parts of Prague. Moral: when you do discover something interesting and unspoiled, keep it to yourself. Nothing fails like success.

The historic Old City is very close already to being unbearable, especially around the Rynek Glowny (Market Square) where, in addition to the proliferation of sprawling outdoor cafés with Segafreddo umbrellas that block the view, someone has taken it into his head to set up opposing ranks of viewing stands, preparing to celebrate football, no doubt, or pop music or beer; anyway, some event entirely out of synch with medieval and Renaissance Krakow. Why can’t they have these things on the outskirts of town? Who decided to allow them to add to the unavoidable noise and crowding of the centro? Nobody seems to care. Anway, the result is I haven’t so far been able to get any sense of the scale or general effect of the Square, no matter that it is Krakow's largest public space, laden with Polish history. Nobody cares. It’s circus time in the old town tonight.

A welcome change from the razzmatazz was a visit to the Collegium Maius, the oldest part of Krakow’s Jagiellonian University, which dates back to 1364. Founded by Casimir the Great, it was given a boost a few years later when King (yes, King, the title wasn’t gender-specific) Jadwiga, who survived her husband Wladislaw Jagiello a number of years, decided to sell all her small valuables and jewels to increase the College’s endowment. (Jadwiga or Yadwiga becomes Hedwig in German and Edwige in French, by the way.) A local heroine then; and another local hero, John Paul II, saw to it during his papacy that she was beatified, so she is now King and Saint. As for the College itself, its most famous student was Nicolas Copernic, discoverer of heliocentrism; and one of the College treasures is the first globe in history to include a representation of the New World. All sort of astrolables, orreries, triquetra, and other instruments of early navigational science are displayed in the rooms. Plus donations made to it over the centuries by various patrons. The atmosphere of learning merits reverence. Over the architrave of the entrance to the large hall known as the Aula, I saw the Latin phrase PLUS RATIO QUAM VIS, i.e., “More Reason Than Force.” How little interest in that sentiment those who populate the present moment ever experience. If you want to clear a room, just mention the word “reason.” Watch people glaze over and turn back to their various manias, you know, fast cars, fast food, celebs, cool clothes, stag parties, fast sex, digital toys, and war. Reason can stay cloistered in its little cloisters, thank you very much. And the mad Roman holiday of global unreason goes skateboarding along on its merry way, bowling everything down in its path.

No, I won’t be going on a bus tour to Auschwitz or Birkenau, close as they are to this city. Years ago, during a trip to Munich, I frog-marched myself to see Dachau, purportedly one of the milder camps (based on the fact that it was built on German soil, which must not be dishonored). The Nazis solved the dilemma by putting the worst camps outside the Fatherland. I did go and see Dachau, but… never again. I know the death camps are there. That’s enough.

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