Tuesday 24 June 2008

Slovakia: Austro-Hungarian Echoes

When I studied history at high school, I was fascinated by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This mighty empire, with its dual capitals of Vienna and Budapest, was a vast conglomeration of different cultures, stretching from southern Poland down to the Balkans, and from Austria in the west to Ukraine in the east. Though the Emperor spoke German, the empire itself was a polyglot construction that encompassed Slavic languages, Hungarian, and various local dialects.

And before you assume that this empire is a relic of the distant past, remember this: Austria-Hungary was one of the main combatants in the First World War, allied with the German Empire and Turkey. Unlike Germany, however, it broke apart after the war into a bundle of independent nations: Austria, Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia, with some additional territories joining Italy and Romania.

Which brings me to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, where I'm writing this. I'd assumed it would be similar to the Polish cities, and it many ways it is. The language is quite similar for a start: I've often been resorting to Polish, and the locals always get the gist. However, a quick look at the map shows Bratislava's position in the former heart of the empire: Vienna is a stone's throw to the west, and Budapest not that much further to the southeast.

And fragments of those days are everywhere in the city. Grand facades of commercial buildings from the 19th century, when Bratislava was known in German as Pressburg, line the attractive lanes and squares of its Old Town. And the food, influenced by both capitals, includes schnitzels, excellent Viennese cakes and superb hot chocolate, and the spicy goulash of Hungary.

And there's something superbly charming about Bratislava's scale. With a population of just over 400,000, and capital of a compact Slovakia which is an independent state for the first time ever, it's a delightful place which fits its tourism slogan 'Big Little City'. Granted, outside the Old Town the city is something of a train wreck, as the communist authorities dabbled in their usual bland-to-hideous architectural experiments, but the centre is lovely.

As I walk past its compact palaces and convoluted facades decked inevitably with the Slovak and EU flags, I'm reminded of what started my obsession with Central Europe. It was none other than the Tintin book King Ottokar's Sceptre, read avidly in the school library at my primary school in rural Western Australia. Tintin's creator Hergé was a stickler for accuracy, using photographs to get regional details right, and his depictions of the traditional uniforms, decoration and architecture of Mitteleuropa had me hooked.

And the EU flags I see everywhere remind me of how good the European Union has been for Europe. Though it has its bureaucratic flaws, the EU has succeeded magnificently in its goal to break with centuries of war as the continent's standard operating procedure. And with smaller nations like Slovakia and Lithuania, more accustomed to be being conquered than conquerers, it's given them the breathing space to both be themselves, and be part of something greater. And by choice, unlike Slovakia's historic inclusion in Austria-Hungary.

Nevertheless, I will miss the old empire when I fly home next week. But I still have its former provinces in the Balkans to visit. A story for another day...

Sunday 15 June 2008

Poland 6: Mountain Finale

I'm nearing the end of the Lonely Planet section of my journey. Over the past six weeks I've described a loose clockwise circle around Poland (with a brief detour to Lithuania), visiting each of the cities and towns featured in the Poland chapter of Lonely Planet: Eastern Europe.

Yesterday I passed through the train station in Kraków, where I began this trip. And hopped onto a bus heading south into the mountains, to the attractive holiday town of Zakopane.

As this is my last full day in Poland, I thought I'd summarise a few highlights of this visit to Poland. Each research assignment here has been different, even when visiting the same cities. Here are the experiences which stood out in 2008:
  • Łódź: Visiting the National Film School and interviewing Andrzej Bednarek, a former film director and now a professor at the school. We talked about Roman Polański and Krzysztof Kieślowski's days at the school, and he pointed out the stairs where Polański used to sit when hanging around between classes.
  • Wrocław: Hunting for the city's gnomes, hidden here and there among its buildings. These small statues derive from a symbol used by a protest group during the communist years. Each one is like a little cartoon: a gnome making a telephone call, or lying in a food bowl, or holding a suitcase set for travel.
  • Szczecin: Touring through a former WWII bomb shelter, which was later redesignated as a fallout shelter during the Cold War. Built by the Nazi regime and taken over by the communist authorities after the war, it was a fascinating warren and a potent reminder of the paranoia of those postwar years.
  • Gdańsk: Seeing the Roads to Freedom exhibition in its new home next to the Solidarity HQ. This retelling of the long struggle against the communist regime, which started well before the strikes of the 1970s and '80s, is very moving, and an essential grounding in Poland's late 20th century story.
  • Mikołajki: Meeting the same cat who watched me in 2006 as I walked out over the surface of a frozen lake. I realise now that it belongs to the owner of the nearby guesthouse on the lakefront, but it was a little surprising to see it again. I had my laptop with me, so I checked the 2006 photo - yep, same cat.
  • Kozłówka: Visiting the Socialist Realism Art Gallery in this tiny town north of Lublin. After Stalin's death in the 1950s, much of the over-the-top statues of workers striving for socialism, etc, were gathered up and stored at the Zamoyski Palace. Now, with a stirring musical soundtrack, it's an intriguing window into an all-encompassing ideology, with the bonus of being located within an attractive 18th century palace.
It's been, as always, a fascinating journey around a fascinating country. Next stop: the High Tatras in Slovakia.

Saturday 7 June 2008

Lithuania: Comfort Food Central

I've taken a short break from the Lonely Planet job in Poland, to venture across the border into Lithuania. It's a breeze now the two countries have joined the Schengen Agreement... my overnight bus just sped past the empty customs booths into Lietuva (as the locals call it).

It's my first foray into the territories of the defunct Soviet Union. And it's been a pleasant surprise. Vilnius, the capital, is a very likeable and attractive city. Its Old Town area is a maze of winding cobblestone laneways opening onto scenic squares dominated by baroque churches. This historic part of the city has clearly undergone major renovation and renewal since the drab days of the USSR.

The local food, however, is in a class of its own. I never thought I'd encounter a cuisine that makes Polish food look light and healthy, but this is it. Lithuanian food is weighty, filling and heavy on the pork and potatoes.

The prize exhibit is the cepelinas, a Lithuanian rendering of zeppelin, and this large football-shaped potato dumpling with a meat filling does indeed resemble a vintage airship. It's served with a choice of sauce, usually something involving butter, sour cream and pork crackling.

Even the local bar snacks are not for the fainthearted. Which would you prefer with your beer: deep-fried sticks of rye bread, or a smoked pig's ear?

Yes, it's comfort food with a vengeance. Which made me reflect on the comfort food items (heavy and filling, but not necessarily nutritious) I've stumbled across in other countries. Here's a quick selection:
  • Empanadas (Chile): Especially the deep-fried ones filled with tuna and cheese.
  • Placki Ziemniaczane (Poland): Thick, hot potato cakes wrapped around a goulash filling.
  • Bacon Sandwich (UK): Very simple, but for some reason no one can make these like the British can.
  • Pad Thai (Thailand): Tasty noodle dish that's often served with a fried egg on top.
  • Pannekoeken (Dutch, but eaten in Poland): Hefty pancakes cooked with ingedients like bacon or cheese embedded within.
  • And finally... my own country weighs in with the Pie Floater (Australia): Peculiar to Adelaide, a meat pie floating in a thick pea soup.
Hmm. If you'll excuse me, I'm off to order a green salad and a mineral water.