Friday 31 July 2009

Return of the Red Menace: More Communist-Era Relics

Last week I began counting down the the top ten communist relics I've visited in my travels through Central and Eastern Europe, complete with images (and bonus silly captions!).

We're up to the really big structures now. Who will come in at number one? Let the gender-bending drug-enhanced socialist games commence!

5. New Bridge, Bratislava, Slovakia. When Czechoslovakia's communist regime decided the Slovak capital needed a new bridge across the Danube in the 1970s, they didn't stop at mere functionality. "No," they said, "Let's build a bridge - and place a huge observation platform on an angled steel pylon above it, and make it look like a flying saucer!" And so it came to pass, an awkwardly located observation bubble immediately nicknamed 'UFO on a stick'. Nowadays it's been renovated and transformed into a restaurant and nightclub 85 metres above the Danube.

The Politburo had finally found the perfect place to hold their secret Coca-Cola tasting sessions.

4. Nowa Huta, Kraków, Poland. In the 1950s, Poland's new communist government came up with a bright idea to counter the traditional religious and intellectual elites of the former royal capital, Kraków. They would build a vast new steelworks next to the city, and a huge town to house the workers. But not just any workers' town, oh no, this would be a workers' paradise!

The finest socialist realist architects were called in, huge quanitites of concrete were ordered, and Nowa Huta (New Steelworks) was born. Today, it's missing the statue of Lenin that was the charming centrepiece of its main square, but Nowa Huta is well worth the tram ride from central Kraków for its razor-sharp streets, its enormous grey public buildings, and its sprawling residential blocks. Despite new monuments and steeet signs referencing John Paul II, Ronald Reagan and Solidarity, it's a corner of Poland that will be forever 1954.

Janek wondered when socialist realist concrete structures would score a sexy treatment in Wallpaper* magazine.

3. Warszawa Centralna, Warsaw, Poland. Opened in 1975, Warsaw's main train station (see video here) was emblematic of the dynamic future of socialist transport. It even - so I’ve read - had hostesses in slick modernist outfits assisting visitors through the new rail hub. From outside, the station seems to squat like a gigantic metallic insect, suggesting a spaceship of insectoid invaders who will soon swarm out to wreak havoc.

Curiously, it's not approachable directly from the street, but only via a completely disorientating labyrinth of claustrophobic pedestrian tunnels crammed with shops and ticket offices. Hardly anyone actually reaches the lofty main hall above, and the hostesses are, unfortunately, long gone.

The secret police had discovered how to dissuade people from fleeing Poland by train.

2. Slovak Radio Building, Bratislava, Slovakia. Let's face it, communist regimes only had two aesthetic settings - 'bland' or 'weird'. The Slovak Radio HQ, completed in 1983, is a gigantic, rust-coloured, inverted pyramid just outside the city's attractive Old Town, and falls firmly into the latter category.

For the thousandth time, Pavel wondered wherever the blueprints really had been drawn the right way up.

1. Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw, Poland. Yes, we have a winner! For its sheer enormity and visual scariness, this immense socialist realist structure is the one to beat. When I first came to Warsaw I couldn’t keep my eyes off it, so totally did it dominate the skyline. Even now, with added clock faces, and capitalist-era tall buildings as company on the skyline, it’s enthralling.

The Palac Kultur i Nauki was a gift from Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in the 1950s - the kind of gift you can’t politely refuse. It was built across an entire block of the city centre, which had been devastated in WWII. It's an immense skyscraper 237 metres tall (still one of Europe’s ten tallest buildings), and completely inconsistent with the city’s low-rise character. Strangely, the giant Renaissance-inspired concrete decorative flourishes added by Soviet architect Led Rudnev help not a jot in diminishing its inherent alienating vastness. But you know what? I love it. It terrifies me, but I love it.

Critics of the Palace's architectural merit were invited to discuss the matter in Room 101.

And a special mention... Alexanderplatz, Berlin, Germany. This square was at the heart of East Berlin, and was redecorated in the 1960s in a thoroughly socialist manner. As I haven't been there for 15 years I have no idea how it looks now, but here's a snap we took of its World Time Clock in 1994.

Günther was impressed by the DDR's advanced sundial technology.

And that's it for our communist relic countdown! Try to visit some of these if you can, and let me know what more you'd add to the list. If you'd like to email me an image of a Cold War gem and a few sentences about when you encountered it and what you thought of it, I'll feature it in a future posting!

Until then... keep striving to achieve the five year plan!

Thursday 23 July 2009

Red Menace: Communist-Era Relics

I was recently writing an article on Vilnius, Lithuania, which started me thinking about all the former communist countries I've visited in Central and Eastern Europe.

I love those places.

For me, coming from Australia, it feels just like encountering stereotypical "Europe", with its ruined castles, cobblestone squares and art treasures - but it's an alternative Europe in a strange parallel dimension, which includes curious relics of the communist era, left high and dry when the socialist tide ran out in 1989.

That's why I often recommend that visitors to Europe skip the well-trodden tourist paths in the west and go straight to the good stuff. I'm talking about the weird and wonderful cities of the former communist bloc, with their gigantic concrete monuments, vast housing blocks and oversized cultural institutions.

It's freaky and it's fun. Or maybe I'm just perverse. In either case, here's a countdown of the top ten communist relics I've visited in my travels - with images!

10. Hideous Hotels across Poland. The now-privatised travel organisation Orbis controlled Poland's major hotels in the days of the communist regime, and added some fairly ugly additions to the existing stock. Below, for example, is the exterior of the Hotel Arkona in Szczecin, sadly demolished since I took this photo in May 2008 (watch it go!).

The management hoped the new trouser press would raise the tone of their hotel.

9. Soviet Trains, Vilnius, Lithuania. Judging from my day trip to the attractive castle at Trakai, Lithuania is still operating trains inherited from its enforced stay within the Soviet Union. They're big, clunky, and kinda cool to look at. Because the USSR had a completely different rail gauge from the rest of Europe, possibly aimed at foiling invaders, it's caused no end of hassle in linking the three Baltic states to the rest of the EU by rail.

"The struggle of class against class is a political struggle," said Thomas the Revolutionary Engine.

8. Fallout Shelter, Szczecin, Poland. This sprawling complex of tunnels, entered by a nondescript door beneath a platform at Szczecin Główny train station, was originally built by the Nazi regime when Szczecin was the German city of Stettin. But the Polish communists converted it into a Cold War shelter, and today you can go on a tour through the eerie labyrinth, which looks much as it did in the good old days of prospective nuclear annihilation.

Marek thought he might have overdone it a bit with the low-carb diet.

7. Green Bridge, Vilnius, Lithuania. This bridge, constructed in the 1950s, is a rare example of socialist realist art still in its original location. At each of its corners, a pair of statues stands forth, proud and purposeful, showing the way to the socialist future. They're extremely irony-inducing, given their placement near the most fashionable shopping boulevard in the city, and make excellent photographic subjects.

Piotr longed for Dimitri to realise they were more than special friends.

6. Socialist Realist Gallery, Kozłówka, Poland. This tiny village north of Lublin plays host to the Zamoyski Palace, once the home of 18th century aristocrats. But it's the Socialist Realist Gallery which is our focus here. This museum was originally an annexe of the palace, used as a storage area for truckloads of Stalinist art when the dictator was repudiated after his death. Arranged in an attractive jumble, with stirring anthems playing over the sound system and heroic statues dotted through the gardens, the collection makes an entertaining side-trip.

Lenin wondered if he should improvise a little twirl at the end of the catwalk.

Next week: The countdown continues - what will be named the top communist relic? Be here for the socialist showdown!

[To see the final five relics, click here]

Friday 17 July 2009

The Fins of Glenelg

Steven Spielberg has a lot to answer for. In directing the 1975 hit movie Jaws, he ensured a generation of kids couldn't take to the surf without worrying about a great white shark encounter.

But Spielberg was far from my mind when I travelled to Glenelg Beach on a hot Sunday in 2004 in Adelaide, South Australia.

I’m from Melbourne, and the prospect of enjoying a day at a real beach, and swimming in a real ocean, had me dizzy with anticipation.

Glenelg is a distinct and pleasant Adelaide experience (and also a palindrome). It was the place where the first British settlers landed in 1836, and aspired to be Adelaide’s main port. In the end, it settled for sustaining the role of a charming Victorian-era seaside town.

I had, of course, little idea of the adrenaline rush waiting beyond its shores.

The tide was out when I arrived, so it was a long way to deeper water. As I waded, I thought about my wife Narrelle’s aversion to sea bathing, attributable to the terrifying aquatic stylings of the aforementioned Hollywood director. I noted the reassuring presence of surf lifesavers, and their clearly visible flags.

As I got deeper, I regretted Narrelle not being here. If she came to Glenelg one day, I thought, I would point out the lifesavers, the flags, the clarity of the water. There would be no need for fear, and she would laugh off her girlish fears.

Then, chest-deep, I gazed out toward the horizon. About 20 metres away, a large fin cut suddenly out of the water, attached to the back of a sizeable sea creature. As quickly as it had arrived, it disappeared beneath the waves.

I froze. Then I looked around. No-one else was panicking, on the nearby jetty or in the sea around me. Everyone on the beach looked pretty relaxed. And, come to think of it, that fin had been elegantly curved, in the style as worn by dolphins. It must have been a dolphin. Surely.

Still, discretion beat valour and I trudged back to the sand as quickly as I could manage without looking like a coward. There were plenty of people between me and the mystery creature, after all - surely it would chew one of them first, and the jig would be up?

On the way, I asked a stout young lifesaver if they saw a lot of dolphins in these parts. He confirmed that they did, following the coastline. I laughed in a careless, knowing way, but I suspect it came out a bit thinly. Well, I had to know if the alarm should be raised, didn’t I?

It was a faintly embarrassing episode, but thank god Narrelle wasn’t there after all. It would’ve taken ten years off her life and put her off seawater forever.

So thanks a lot, Steven. Thanks to you, I’ve had a dose of that strange modern syndrome in which your life has no meaning until it feels like you're part of a Hollywood movie. Fish and chips, anyone?

Thursday 9 July 2009

On Platform 2: The 8.05 to Adelaide!

In 2007 I underwent a journey of discovery regarding interstate train travel in Australia. In March I took the overnight sleeper from Melbourne to Sydney; and in September I headed to Adelaide on Australia's oldest interstate (once intercolonial) train journey, the 828 kilometre Overland route, established in 1887. This is what it was like:

The early morning scene at Melbourne’s Southern Cross station is suitably atmospheric; there’s a chill in the air, and passengers are beginning to gather on platform 2 for the train.

The location is majestic, the great curves of the station roof undulating way above our heads. On the other platforms, scuffed V/Line trains are pulling in at regular intervals, disgorging tree-changers commuting to work from their country homes.

I feel that every great rail journey should begin early in the morning, just a little before you’d comfortably like to be up and about. Because train stations are open to the elements, there’s none of the antiseptic claustrophobia of airports. The chill in the air, the bustle of commuters, the grandeur of the setting and the proximity to the city means the journey takes on a certain importance... even if it were just a holiday jaunt.

If you’re overimaginative like me, you can hear a mental echo of the great days of rail, of Agatha Christie novels and Sherlock Holmes stories, of exiled Russian princesses and shady American magnates with obscure motives.

The Overland, a survivor of the 19th century, has two sit-up classes of travel nowadays; in May 2007, the old sleepers were swept away in favour of daytime-only travel, either in standard seating (Red Service) or the more roomy Red Premium carriages.

There’s also a dash of dagginess - or alternatively, homeliness - as part of the mix. As we travel, a recorded commentary pipes up from time to time, with service announcements and information on the destination we’re passing through. The commentator’s smooth tones dance the line between cheery and cheesy, with gags like “GSR has some of the finest train staff in the world... unfortunately they’re not on board today”. Sophisticated it ain’t, but the older audience likes it and it raises smiles.

Heading west

The first part of the journey, to Geelong, is a familiar trek, with Melbourne’s western suburbs giving way to flat, scrubby countryside punctuated by the odd little town. I always find this landscape faintly melancholy for some reason, imagining it as a wasteland between the two cities.

At North Shore we pull over for a while, opposite a maze of equipment in the industrial complex opposite. I can see from the schedule that we’ll be biding our time in a number of sidings today as the single track on most of the route gives priority to freight trains. It’s not really a problem, as the passengers on this ten hour journey are clearly vacationers out to enjoy the company and the passing scenery.

The clearest contrast to the more businesslike Melbourne-Sydney train is the Overland’s very pleasant cafe carriage, a notable omission from the Sydney train. It has comfortable table seating, and I sit here for a while with a coffee, talking to an older couple who are on holiday (On the way back, I share a table around sunset with a Muslim student from India, who breaks his Ramadan fast as the towers of Melbourne’s CBD appear on the horizon).

West of Geelong, industry gives way again to picturesque grassy, gently rolling fields lined by gum trees, though livestock seems thin on the ground. The light rain creates a mist across the horizon, softening the view and giving the suggestion of an Impressionist work. Around 11.30am we pass some fields dotted with rocky outcrops that look like worn remnants of ancient stone circles, happily ignored by lambs prancing about their mothers.

The commentary continues to flick on and off occasionally, giving info on passing towns and remarkable features, in the announcer’s best commercial radio tones. The attempts at folksiness also continue... a segment on SA’s wines mentions “great-tasting plonk” and concludes with the sound of clinking wine glasses.

Border crossing

Lunch arrives and is good - a tasty and crisp chicken caesar salad and excellent apricot cheesecake, served in bowls with a bubbly pinot noir chardonnay on the side. All for $24, which seems reasonable for long-haul transport in both price and quality. As the remains are cleared away we pass the red-brick Dimboola station building, a classic country station of the old school with its all-caps sign.

The crossing of the South Australian border is an anti-climax, announced by the driver after it’s happened. And, unsurprisingly, eastern South Australia looks much the same as western Victoria - green fields alternating with bright yellow fields of canola, interrupted by the occasional farmhouse.

At 2.15pm we pass through the aptly named Bordertown, the first town on the SA side of the border. Sadly, the charming old stone and timber train station, painted white, is boarded up. It seems an unnecessary derelict given the town’s role as the gateway to South Australia... perhaps it could become a visitor centre, or a museum?

South Australia’s passenger rail system has clearly declined since its glory days (there are, in fact, no passenger services outside Adelaide except the tourist-orientated interstate trains), and we pass more abandoned stations along the way. There may be nothing more depressing than a mouldering old platform with a pair of bare metal poles which once supported a destination sign. At least Tailem Bend station, reached about 4pm, is evidently still in use; I find out later it’s being restored as a visitor information centre.

Hills and vines

Ten minutes later, the landscape suddenly becomes dramatic. The consistently flat farming country gives way to hills, and the train begins to climb. Below, as we rise, I can see floodplains and grazing cows. Along the way we pass a peacock in someone’s backyard and a bathtub washed up somehow in the middle of the plain, then cross the Murray River on a spectacular 1924 bridge which carries us high above the plains and crops directly into Murray Bridge station on the opposite bank.

From this point the terrain becomes ever more hilly, as we head toward Mount Lofty and the Adelaide Hills, with rocky outcrops of silvery gum trees growing out of reddish soil. We soon have brilliant views over fields far below us, undulating distant hills, and a highway with cars driving past farmhouses, sheds and dried-out sporting grounds.

At 5pm we get our first glimpses of vineyards, lots of them, forming geometric patterns up and down the slopes. We’re also starting to see winery signs, neat stone houses from colonial times, and other types of farms hugging the hillsides.

Just after 5.30pm, nearing the end of the journey, an amazing view opens up from the heights above the city, looking down onto the vast flat plain with a cluster of tall buildings within the central business district. It feels like we’re truly in Adelaide’s orbit now. We slide down into the city and reach the interstate rail terminal, in the fairly unattractive industrial surrounds of Keswick, close to 6pm.

My verdict? The Overland takes time, but if you want to give air travel a miss in favour of a more relaxed approach involving non-stop scenery, canola fields, vineyards, evocative old stations and drinks in the bar with fellow passengers, it’s a great way to go intercolonial in the 21st century.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Great Southern Railway. The Overland travels between Melbourne and Adelaide three times a week in both directions. For more info, visit GSR's website.

Friday 3 July 2009

Valdivia: Retro Chile

Valdivia, Chile, is everything promised by the glowing description in the Lonely Planet guide, a very beautiful city on the conjunction of three rivers.

We've had brilliant taxi drivers here, and have felt pleased at being able to manage conversations on Australia, travel and Chilean politics, all in our basic Spanish.

The guy who drops us off at the Museo Historico is named Omar, and he agrees his name might have a connection with the Middle East - maybe through Spain’s medieval Moorish rulers? He asks for an Australian coin for his collection, but unfortunately they’re all in the hotel room. So he shrugs and drives off with a smile.

Because we’re too early for the museum, we walk down to the riverbank. The museum, on Isla Teja, was the 19th century home of a successful German brewer, and has a magnificent view of the city opposite.

And directly below us, on a derelict jetty, is a delightful surprise: a group of sea lions draped across the timber, taking a break from their usual practice of haunting the fish market opposite for a free feed. Their resemblance to aquatic Labradors is stronger than ever, as they loll about on each other, occasionally lifting a head and giving us a lazy, unthreatened glance.

Once open, the museum proves to be an excellent collection of items relating to various periods: pre-Spanish, first contact, early independence and German migration. It’s intriguing to draw together Chilean events and prior knowledge - the timing of independence with the Napoleonic wars, for example.

Another surprise is the weather: a real Melbourne-like spring day, with steady rain and a slowly lowering temperature. The prospect of a boat excursion to the Spanish forts nearby, eagerly promoted by waterfront touts, recedes in likelihood as the day becomes wetter. So we retire to the Bar Bomba, one of the few places open for lunch on a Sunday afternoon in the centre of town.

The Bomba is a bit of a dive, much like an Aussie country pub with its front bar and dining room behind, and much in need of a lick of paint. But the waitress is good value, trying out her limited English and going to great lengths to explain what’s available on the menu (Narrelle later hears the staff pointing out the gringa on her way out of the loo).

For my main, I order a dish of a dozen beef empanadas, assured by the waitress that they’re quite small. In fact, each is the size of my fist! Luckily it’s OK to have half of them wrapped up to take home for dinner. We also share a decent bottle of Chilean red (aren’t they all?), labelled “Gato” with a picture of a cat. We’re getting slowly drunk, the rain is getting colder, so the Spanish forts are definitely off the schedule today.

Instead, we set out to investigate the city centre - which turns out to be more interesting than we expected. Throughout Chile, especially regional Chile, I’ve been experiencing a strong sense of nostalgia, a feeling of places and practices still caught in the 1970s.

But the king of all retro remnants is the splendid Cafe Palace, a coffee house where 1974 never ended. Inside, rugged-up locals sip coffee from cups with gilt-edged saucers. The decor is brown - brown cushioned vinyl chairs, tables, tiles, and aluminium ceiling beams; and brown shag carpet on the walls, which clings unnervingly to my shirt as I lean against it.

This tan masterpiece is finished with mirrored pillars and light fittings resembling science class molecular models: shiny chrome rods ending in multiple spheres like mirror balls.

The retro decor is so complete that I smile with delight - it’s like a finely-detailed movie set. The menu extends the illusion. I have a toasted cheese sandwich which takes me back to childhood shopping trips with my mother to the one shopping centre in a Western Australian country town, where we’d stop for refreshment at the centre’s ‘coffee shop’ (well before the rise of Australian cappuccino).

I cap my visit with an insanely huge tip to the loo lady - 1000 pesos - because I don’t have change. But of course, it’s only $2.50. Valdivia’s prices are another welcome blast from the past.

As this article is based on personal experience from a few years ago, the author takes no responsibility for readers’ reliance on the information within. Always check on the current retro cafe situation before travelling to Valdivia.