Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Mediterranean

The Mediterranean (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mediterranean) is the only real common thread between my last two trips. The first weekend in April, I headed to Barcelona (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barcelona), which is my favorite city that I've been to yet. The next weekend I headed to Nice (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nice), Cannes (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cannes), and Monaco (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monaco), which was an entirely different experience.

First, though, Barcelona. I hardly had enough time to fully appreciate Barcelona, but I surely did my best. Soon after arriving, we headed to the Montjuïc area(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montjuic) to see the Font Mágica, which is an impressive fountain/light/music show. The next day we got up early to go on a Gaudí tour (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antoni_Gaud%C3%AD). I always have appreciated architecture, so this was the part of the trip I was most looking forward to. It didn't disappoint at all - I was able to have time to see his four most famous buildings: Casa Battló (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casa_Battlo), Casa Milà (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casa_Mila), Parc Güell (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parc_Guell) and La Sagrada Família (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sagrada_Familia), the still-under-construction cathedral in the Eixample (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eixample) district. Sagrada Família is unlike any building I have ever been in before nor will ever be in again. The intricacy of the architecture is impossible to adequately describe, and I could have easily spent an entire day just in that church. Construction is currently projected to be complete in 2026, at which point, it will have several more towers added to its already imposing façade.

A couple other quick notes about Barcelona that don't fit easily into the paragraphs. My favorite part of the trip ended up stumbling across a graffiti-encrusted Spanish Civil War (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Civil_War) bunker at the top of a hill in one of the parks in Barcelona's hill district - I believe it was Parc Guinardó, but I'm not sure. It was amazing, a piece of history abandoned except for its location in the center of a park, but abandoned in such a place that it maintained complete panoramic views of the city. Completely unexpected, but completely wonderful. Unrelatedly, Hospital de Sant Pau (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hospital_de_Sant_Pau) fits in well with the capricious architecture of the city and is the most absurd hospital I've ever seen. Finally, we ended up staying in a quaint apartment right off Las Ramblas (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Las_Ramblas), which proved to be the perfect base to be located.

One of the most interesting things about Barcelona is the amazing singularity of the city's districts. Each district has a completely different personality from one another. Eixample is perhaps the most obviously unique, being that you feel as though you are walking around a landscape from a Dr. Seuss (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dr_Seuss) book with its whimsical turn-of-the-century architecture. But it was apparent wherever we walked when we were entering a new area. It's a fascinating feeling. The feeling exists in other cities as well (Berlin, New York, for starters) but I have never felt it quite so singularly.

Font Mágica

Me, jumping between the broken parts of the Spanish Civil War bunker atop the hill.

The Barcelona harbor from Montjuïc.

Parc Güell, Gaudí's architectural park.

The Olympic Stadium (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Estadi_Ol%C3%ADmpic_Llu%C3%ADs_Companys) and communications tower.

Sagrada Família.

The French Rivera (aka the Côte d'Azur) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_Riviera) is a coastline of constant traffic and ostentatious wealth. One thing was apparent to me the entire trip: I did not have enough money to be there. And no one was afraid about letting me know that, either. It was the first place on my entire European journey - Paris included, mind you - where I was treated at all rudely by anyone in a service sector. I didn't belong, so they didn't care.

That said, the French Riveria is indeed beautiful, and it's quite apparent why the rich would want to flock there. The cities have plenty to do, but are not completely overdeveloped, and the natural terrain is incredibly picturesque. But it still felt with all of the beauty around completely devoid of any real humanity, or any personality. Monaco's character solely comes from its association with Monte Carlo (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monte_Carlo_Casino), the most famous casino in the world. Gambling in it was an unparalleled experience to say the least. I broke even and would have been significantly ahead if I hadn't misinterpreted my divine sign. Monaco at least was classy. Cannes, devoid of its film festival (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cannes_Film_Festival), felt like any generic beach front town, filled with all the expected American beach front tourist traps. Nice has a bit more substance and culture to it, but it still feels as though it is missing any real personality of its own. Rather than emphasizing many of the cultural attractions there, the city subordinates them to focus on - just as the rest of the Riveria - the beach and shopping. I'm very glad I went there, but unlike most places I went in Europe, I feel no compelling urge to ever go back.

Monte Carlo Casino

Nice, its beach, and its sea.

The harbor in Monaco, complete with yachts worth tens of millions.

The beach in Cannes.

I'm entering my last few weeks in the program now. From May 3 to May 6, I will be visiting Croatia, otherwise, I will be staying in Germany until my final departure from Freiburg on May 15, a bitter sweet day indeed. After the program ends, I'll be doing a little bit more traveling, which will take me to Pisa, Florence, and Venice in Italy, Madrid and San Sebastian in Spain, and Bordeaux and Paris in France. I'll be back in Minneapolis, presumably safe and sound, the evening of May 27. So if you're planning on greeting me in any form of an excited fashion, that should be the day you shoot for.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Eastern Europe Part II

Following Prague, we departed for Bratislava, where we would only spend a long afternoon. Slovakia recently succeeded in joining the Eurozone (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eurozone), which has left the Slovak economy in far better shape than any of its neighbors that we visited. It also meant that on this single day, we needed to use three different currencies, which was an interesting experience.

I had very little free time in Slovakia, actually, given that we had two extended meetings in our seven hours in the country. I had to skip two meals to really see much of anything at all. Bratislava is an incredibly small city for a European capital though, so that made it a little easier to browse the sights. Bratislava is dominated by its castle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bratislava_Castle), which is unsurprisingly on the highest hill above the city overlooking the Danube (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danube). It also gave me the opportunity to feel really nationalist, which is essentially at the core of the European experience. Despite all their unity and lack of patriotism, nationalism is still the huge driving force behind Europe.

The most interesting thing about Slovakia I was able to notice in my limited time there was the incredibly rigidity of its districting. The commercial area and old town are united on one side of the Danube. Opposite it directly is the residential district. Further down the river, but on the same side as the residential zone, is the industrial zone. There seems to be no overlap between these areas of any note. It's perhaps the most telling legacy of the Soviet era.

Slovenský rozhlas (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slovensk%C3%BD_rozhlas), the main radio broadcaster in Slovakia. Soviet architecture might have not done everything well, but consistently the Eastern Bloc produced fascinating communications towers.

Nový Most (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nov%C3%BD_Most), the most important Slovak bridge over the Danube.

The main square in Bratislava.

Bratislava's castle, once again, complete with scaffolding.

Budapest is a quite different city entirely. Bratislava is small and compact - Budapest is incredibly populous and quite sprawling. It is divided into main areas that reflect the old towns that merged to form the Hungarian capital. Unsurprisingly perhaps, these two areas are Buda (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buda) and Pest (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pest_(city)), each on opposite sides of the Danube. In my free time, I attempted to see them each one at a time, if nothing else for ease of transport. I failed, really, but regardless got to see large swaths of the city. We also took a Danube River cruise, which really split the middle. Literally even.

Budapest has some amazing architecture for certain, and was well preserved just as all the other cities were. It was pleasant to be in cities that had avoided significant World War II damage. That said, it also felt the most foreign. Part of it has to do with the simple absurdity of Magyar (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hungarian_language), as it is not in the Indoeuropean family of languages. Other parts simply had to do with the cultural differences and norms. Certain behaviors for hire that would not be considered acceptable for public knowledge (and indeed ruin political careers) in the United States were carried out in parks in Budapest with little caring about the potential awareness of passersby. Public behaviors were generally just a little bit different.

Among the most interesting things in Budapest was the House of Terror (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_of_Terror), a museum about the oppression of the Hungarian people by the Nazi-affiliated and Soviet-sponsored (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%81VH) secret police. The Nazi cell in Hungary was known as the Arrow Cross (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arrow_Cross_Party). The museum could hardly be called unbiased in its coverage, and seems to be very much designed from the political right designed to simultaneously discredit leftist opposition and give the impression that Hungary itself was not complicit in these crimes. It was interesting to compare it to the Stasimuseum in Berlin, though, which was - like the House of Terror - housed in the same facility once used to torture and interrogate victims. The Stasimuseum was quite stodgy and traditional. The House of Terror was incredibly modern, relying on extensive media incorporation, a constant industrial techno soundtrack, and the most amazing carpet I have ever seen, an extensive map of the Eastern Bloc. I would pay approximately $14,000.00 to have this map replicated somewhere in my house in the future.

The Hungarian Parliament building, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hungarian_parliament_building), perhaps the most ornate national parliament in the world.

Buda Castle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buda_Castle).

The Chain Bridge (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sz%C3%A9chenyi_L%C3%A1nch%C3%ADd) with Buda Castle.

The view of Budapest and the Danube from Gellért Hill (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gell%C3%A9rt_Hill)

As a whole, Budapest and the trip entirely was a positive experience. Certainly not destinations that I would have immediately thought to travel to on my own, but entirely worthwhile ones as well.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Eastern Europe Part I

Apologies for the long durée, coming back from the Eastern Europe trip has been a bit chaotic. Lots of homework to catch up on. In fact, you are only getting this update right now because I was unexpectedly informed right now that a paper got delayed a week.

Our Eastern Europe trip - the final major field study trip for our program - took us to four cities over nine days: Kraków, Poland (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krakow), Prague, Czech Republic (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prague), Bratislava, Slovakia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bratislava), and Budapest, Hungary (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Budapest). By the way, any politicians in these countries would probably have stabbed me through the heart by now for calling these places Eastern Europe. They believe they are in Central Europe (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Central_Europe. As far as I'm aware, Central Europe as a (tourist) concept did not exist before 1990, so I'm not buying it. As far as they would have you believe, only Belarus and Armenia really count as Eastern Europe.

Anyway, as should not surprise you at all, I'm going to have to split this up into a couple posts. We'll start with Krakow and Prague and finish with Bratislava and Budapest.

Kraków was somewhat surprisingly my favorite city of the three. It's at a different pace than the others: it's not a capital, so it doesn't have the same political emphasis as the other cities. Also, the food was amazing. Potatoes and sausages and bacon as the staples of a diet can hardly go wrong. It was also considerably smaller than the other cities (well, not Bratislava, but that was a special case, as you'll see in the next entry) and fairly compact, so it was very easy to get around solely by walking. Perhaps most importantly, I found a pierogi (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierogie) fast food restaurant.

Absurdly, Kraków is named after a guy who supposedly slew a seven headed dragon. Let's just think about that for a second. It is also very cheap, another huge plus. All together, a lovely, laid back city. It avoided World War Two bombings rather successfully, so the old town is remarkably still intact. By the same token, the Soviets didn't get to rebuild all of Kraków, so it's not bland everywhere either. Good luck for a major Polish city.

I feel like there was some more interesting stuff to talk about, but it's been quite some time and I've been quite a few other places since then, so I can't remember the specifics. The weather was chilly, but sunny for the most part with one evening of snow, which one cannot complain about at that latitude in March.

We on the way between Kraków and Prague had a short visit to Auschwitz (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auschwitz. Nothing I can say can adequately describe it. So honestly, I'm not even going to try. That is an experience that every person must have on their own. It will not be a pleasant one.

The Vistula (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vistula_River), as seen from Wawel (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wawel).

Town Hall Tower (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Town_Hall_Tower,_Krak%C3%B3w) in the Main Market Square (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Market_Square_in_Krak%C3%B3w) during a snow storm.

Roofs of the city of Kraków taken from Wawel Castle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wawel_Castle).

Wawel Cathedral (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wawel_Cathedral), where Polish royals were crowned and Pope John Paul II (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_John_Paul_II) wanted to be buried for a time.

Prague was another matter entirely. It's big and a little less concentrated than Krakow, with one of the most impressive castles in the world, Pražský hrad (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prague_Castle). The views from the hills above the city are amazing as well, amply demonstrating why one of its nicknames is the town of one hundred spires. The weather was also incredibly dysfunctional - over the course of one day, and really in about a seven hour span, the weather went from rain to snow to sunny to hail to sunny to rain to freezing rain to snow. Impossible to adequately prepare for.

Prague felt much more active and harried than Krakow. Mainly, this is because Prague has fashioned itself as the Paris of the 1920s - ie, all the self-important, self-styled Bohemian expatriate Americans go to live there and feel superior about themselves. There were times, especially in main areas like Wenceslas Square (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wenceslas_Square) when I would only hear English spoken. With occasional interludes of Japanese when flashmobs of tourists would go by.

Also contributing to this development was that the Czech government collapsed while we were in there. Honestly, there was no real tangible result from this: no protests, no demonstrations, no excitement, no real nervous energy throughout the capital like one might expect. I think the people who were the most excited was our group. Because we took credit for it. We were hoping to take out Hungary's government when we got to Budapest too, but they held on for a couple weeks. We had a couple days in Prague to explore the city as best we could, and then we headed still further south.

The skyline of Prague, with several of the one hundred spires visible, as taken from the Prague Metronome (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prague_Metronome).

The bridges of the Vltava (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vltava).

The Pražský hrad from the opposite banks.

The Charles Bridge (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Bridge).