Archive for the ‘Old World Europe’ Category

The Summer Home of Storks – Falling in Love with Poland

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

638_thumbnailCarol Reynolds weaves high energy, humor, and history into everything she does. After a career in music history at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Professor Carol and husband Hank began designing multi-media fine arts curricula. Her unprecedented Discovering Music: 300 Years of Interaction in Western Music, Arts, History, and Culture (2009) has reached students across the world. In 2011 she released a cross-discipline course called Exploring America’s Musical Heritage. She is now creating a curriculum on the history of sacred music from Jewish Liturgy to 1600. Her research interests include German Romanticism and the musical court of Frederick the Great. She is fluent in German and Russian and maintains a home in Weimar. Dr. Reynolds is a staunch advocate of arts education at every stage of life and speaks regularly at educational conferences across the U.S. A pianist and organist, she is a popular speaker for organizations like The Dallas Symphony, Van Cliburn Concerts, The Dallas Opera, Tulsa Symphony, Kimball Museum, Fort Worth Opera, San Francisco Wagner Society, and the Davidson Institute.

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Storks. They were quite a topic during our Fall 2013 Old World Europe tour. Particularly true in Poland, where the stork is an iconic figure. Twenty percent of the world’s population of storks—as many as 50,000—make Poland their summer home. And while storks migrate to Africa for the winter, they return to their massive nests when the weather warms.

Villages are proud of their storks, whose nests are tucked into all kinds of rooftop alcoves and built even atop chimneys. People see themselves sheltered from bad fortune by the presence of those nests. And the nests are astonishing: up to six feet wide, they can weigh over a thousand pounds. They are easy to spot.

And that’s what our Smithsonian Journeys’ guests did in our first days of travel across Poland (Warsaw to Krakow) and on the dazzling ride across the Carpathian Mountains to Budapest. It became a stork-nest spotting competition: “I’m up to four,” cried someone in the front of the bus. “Oh, that’s nothing: my husband has seen six nests so far.”

“Counting storks nests” won’t appear in the promotional material for Smithsonian Journeys, but it’s a perfect example of the delight that characterizes this terrific itinerary across Old World Europe. We spend a generous amount of time in some of Europe’s most significant cities: Vienna and Prague, of course—the two that draw many guests to join this tour; also, Budapest which entices those who’ve never been and many who have longed to return.

The big surprises on the Old World Europe tour, however, are Krakow and Warsaw. Often, we aren’t taught much about these cities, unless we have Polish ancestry.

Recalling the unspeakable destruction of Warsaw in the Second World War, our Smithsonian guests aren’t sure what to expect. They discover a vibrant city filled with the country’s best talent, dedicated to making careers in the new, post-Communist economy. They see a swirl of fashionable young Poles, proud of their ultra-clean business district and excellent public transportation. And they shake their heads in awe, strolling through a resurrected pristine Old Town that war had reduced to ruble.

Krakow is an even bigger surprise. It’s just about the perfect European city.  Small enough so that you can traverse the historic areas in an afternoon, Krakow teams with activity. Museums, cathedrals, towers, arcades, and picturesque alleys remind us that this city was one of few to escape large-scale destruction in Hitler’s time. The miraculous survival of much of the Jewish Quarter allows us a rare chance to imagine how vibrant Jewish life was, before the horrors of genocide tore Europe asunder.

In my experience as Study Leader for this itinerary, I enjoy watching people fall in love with Poland. I hear comments like “I didn’t expect to be so impressed by Warsaw” or  “I can’t wait to come back to Krakow—I had no idea how wonderful it was.”

After all, travel is about discovery and enjoyment. Partly that happens with the impressive architecture and breathtaking scenery. But it happens, too, in the little moments: standing beneath St. Mary’s Tower in Krakow Square as, twenty-four times on the hour, a lone trumpeter serenades Krakow with the plaintive fanfare Hajnal. Or it happens when we breathe the fragrant air of the Łazienki gardens, realizing what a garden paradise Warsaw must have been before its destruction in World War II.

And it definitely happens as we look for stork nests! Ancient legend comes alive in the brave and loyal stork. Art, too, abounds in storks, as in this beloved painting by Józef Chełmoński entitled Storks (Bociany).

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The Old World Europe tour is filled with generous blocks of free time in every city. So when you join us, walk just a few blocks from our hotel in Warsaw to the National Gallery. In its spacious galleries, expect to be captivated by storks and an array of dazzling images as you begin your journey into Eastern Europe’s beguiling history and tradition.

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To learn more about our Old World Europe tour, click here.

A River Runs Through It: The Heartbeat of the Cities of Old World Europe

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

Hugh Agnew has been fascinated by Czech history and the Czech lands since first arriving in Prague as a graduate student in 1977. Now Professor of History and International Affairs at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., he has taught courses and published books and numerous articles about the Habsburg Empire, the Czech national identity, and Czech heritage and history. His insightful talks on past Smithsonian journeys through the Bohemian countryside, on the Elbe and Danube Rivers, and in Prague at Christmastime have made him a favorite with Smithsonian travelers.

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This year I was trying to decide what makes the “Old World Europe” journey so special. To be sure, the rich history, cultural and artistic treasures, and vibrant modern life of the cities on the itinerary—Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest, Vienna, Bratislava and Prague—definitely help make the journey so attractive and memorable. But each one of these destination cities also shares one important thing—to quote the title of Norman Maclean’s novel, “A River Runs through It. A river (sometimes the same river) is an inseparable part of the cityscape, history, culture, and present day life of each of these cities. Yet each city, in its own way, enjoys a unique relationship with its river, and the place of the river in the city’s life (and our experience of the city as visitors) differs in interesting ways from destination to destination. I set out to explore the relationship between these cities and their rivers.

The river Vistula (Wisła) flows through both Warsaw and Krakow, yet its personality in each place (like that of each city) is quite distinct. Warsaw’s Old Town and the major areas visited on the Old World Europe journey lie on the western side of the river. Here the Vistula, flowing through the broad Mazovian plain, has broadened out significantly, with wide riverbank areas and sand beaches that Warsovians enjoy on a sunny afternoon in Indian Summer. On the afternoon of our arrival in Warsaw I used my free time to take advantage of the reasonably fine-weather and walk across the bridge named for Prince Józef Poniatówski  to Warsaw’s suburb of Praga, in particular to the district known as the Saxon Meadow (Saska Kępa). Spared much of the wartime destruction that left 85% of Warsaw in ruins, this part of the city now has pleasant tree-lined streets with bistros, restaurants and shops. Warsaw’s relationship with its river is celebrated in the city’s coat of arms, featuring a mermaid armed with a sword and shield. The story goes that the mermaid (syrenka, or “little siren” in Polish) led the Polish prince Bolesław of Mazovia to the site of a fishing village on the river and ordered him to found a city there. From that beginning, sometime at the end of the thirteenth century, the city developed further. When Poland joined with Lithuania to form a Commonwealth of both nations, Warsaw’s location midway between the two capitals of Krakow and Vilnius led the Kings to make the city their new capital, a change that became permanent in 1596.

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Krakow, the ancient capital of the Polish kingdom, also lies on the Vistula, but much closer to its sources in the Silesian Beskids near the border with the Czech Republic. As we looked down from the Wawel Castle, we could see that the river is narrower here than in Warsaw, and seems more intimately connected to the old city. Yet while the river is central to the current modern city of Krakow, the old part of town lies only on the northern, left bank of the river, and the associated district of Kazimierz seems in some ways closer to the water. Indeed it should, since Kazimierz was once an island in the Vistula, as recalled by the name of the street that marks one of its boundaries, Starowisłna (Old Vistula) street. City development gradually filled in the former branches of the river, leaving only memories behind. A modest walk along Starowisłna from Krakow Old Town led a group of us to the Kazimierz district for a pleasant evening meal in one of its many restaurants.

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

In contrast to the two Polish capitals, Budapest is both divided and joined right through its center by the river Danube—a situation that is commemorated in the coat of arms adopted by the united city in 1873. The river is an intimate part of the cityscape, and the Margaret Island in the river one of its favorite playgrounds. Yet it is still a broad and formidable power, bridged permanently only in 1848 by the suspension bridge designed by Adam Clark and financed by the patriotic Count István Széchenyi.

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

The Széchenyi Chain Bridge remains one of the landmarks the visitor will use for orientation purposes, and an impressive engineering feat. So many of the city’s significant buildings are along the riverbanks that a tourist river cruise after dark is a wonderful way to enjoy the sights.  But the best place to appreciate the position of the Danube in the life of Budapest is from the summit of Gellert Hill, where we stood on a sunny morning after the previous day’s cold rain, and looked along both the Buda and Pest sides. We could see such landmarks as the Royal Castle and the spire of Matthias Church, the Houses of Parliament, St. Stephen’s Basilica and other buildings of Pest, and the Chain Bridge providing a connection between them. Walking or riding across the Chain Bridge was part of our enjoyment of the life of Budapest.

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Bratislava, too, was once the capital of Hungary—at least that part controlled by the Habsburgs while the Ottoman Turks ruled over most of the rest of the kingdom. Now it is the capital of Slovakia, which joined the ranks of independent states at the beginning of 1993. Here, too, the Danube, navigable for its entire length from Bavaria to the Black Sea, is an important part of the city.

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Gazing down to the three countries corner from the castle hill, we could see that the Danube is a thoroughfare for goods and visitors on the way between Vienna and Budapest, constantly busy with the ebb and flow of working and pleasure craft. Yet although the Petržalka district of Bratislava (joined to the new state of Czechoslovakia in 1919 after the First World War) lies on the southern, right bank of the river, the old town and Bratislava Castle lie only on the northern, left bank. Several bridges join the two sides of the river at Bratislava, the most striking being the assymetrical suspension bridge, the Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising (also simply called the “new bridge”). Built between 1968 and 1972 to connect Petržalka with the Old Town, the bridge destroyed most of the old Jewish quarter of Bratislava, including a moorish style Neolog synagogue (the Orthdox synagogue had been destroyed already in 1961). The bridge juxtaposes the old represented by the castle and the palaces of Austro-Hungarian nobility on the left bank with the new of a densely settled residential district, dominated by the concrete panel apartment blocs built beginning in the 1970s by the Czechoslovak regime.

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

The Danube is inseparably linked with another Old World Europe destination, Vienna, thanks to the immortal music of Johann Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz.” But (as the Viennese like to say) not only is the Danube seldom blue, depending on the weather, but it is not as central to the cityscape of the old part of Vienna as it is in Budapest. True, a canal drawn down from the main course of the river provided the Habsburgs with a moat around their residence city and castle in Vienna, but the river is essential really to the modern, Danube City section of Vienna with its soaring skyscrapers housing the headquarters of international organizations. There too are the river islands with their sandy beaches, where the Viennese can join the Warsovians in some late-summer sunbathing, but the fact remains that the river is more part of the picture frame of Vienna than it is the heart of the picture.

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

But for the final city of the Old World Europe journey, the river is the central heart of the experience. Flowing into Prague from the south, the Vltava (or Moldau, to use the German name more familiar still to most foreigners) makes a large S-curve as it flows through Prague before it continues north towards the Elbe and eventually the North Sea. Immortalized in Bedřich Smetana’s tone-poem “Má Vlast” (My Homeland), it is impossible to remove it from my experience of and feelings about Prague. The Vltava and its bridges knit together the towns of Prague into the great metropolis that is the Czech Republic’s capital. The oldest, and the one most familiar to foreign visitors, is the Charles Bridge, built in the fourteenth century to replace an earlier structure destroyed by floods.  Now the second oldest bridge in Central Europe—after the one across the Danube at Regensburg—the Charles Bridge is a link (or perhaps, as we jostled for space with other visitors crowding along its length during the height of the season, rather an obstacle course!) between the historic Old and New Towns of Prague and the Castle, Castle Town, and Lesser Quarter.

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

If Budapest and Vienna, the two ambitious former capitals of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, impress us as visitors with their almost imperial scale—and with impressive riverscapes in keeping with that scale—the impact Prague makes is somehow different. Though a proud royal capital in its own right, to me Prague’s scale is smaller, more intimate, even (dare one say it?) provincial. Yet every city of the Old World Europe journey has its intimate and small-scale moments for us to enjoy, along with the grandiose relics of the past and the bustling present-day life of a modern European metropolis. And a unique part of all those experiences, making these cities what they are, are the rivers that run through them.

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To learn more about our Old World Europe tour, click here.

A Journey through the Other Europe

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013
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Photo Credit: Anne Mandelbaum

Alexander J. Motyl is professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. He served as associate director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University from 1992-1998. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, he is the author of numerous books, including Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires and Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism. He is also the editor of over ten volumes, including The Encyclopedia of Nationalism. In addition to his academic career, Alexander is a poet, a visual artist, and a fiction writer. His novels include Whiskey Priest and Who Killed Andrei Warhol.

 

 

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8056_image_fileEastern Europe remains a region steeped in mystery for many.  Smithsonian Journeys’ “Old World Europe” program provides a wonderful opportunity to see firsthand and appreciate the historical and cultural richness of the region as well as its critical importance to some of the most significant political and economic developments of the twentieth century.7591_image_file

Who can fail to be impressed by Vienna’s stately Schönbrunn palace, Krakow’s Wawel Castle, Budapest’s airy Parliament building, or Prague’s magnificent St. Vitus Cathedral? At the same time, who can view an Eastern European synagogue or the displays of children’s shoes in Auschwitz without empathizing with, and more deeply understanding, the immense tragedy that befell Jews as a result of the savage Nazi pursuit of the “Final Solution”?11226_image_file

Eastern Europe has experienced some of the most debilitating shocks of the recent past. It was here that World War I devastated countries and took millions of lives. It was here that Stalin killed millions. It was here that the Holocaust raged with full force. It was here that World War II leveled cities such as Warsaw and Minsk, produced tens of millions of casualties, and experienced its strategic turning point. D-Day is often viewed as the battle that turned the tide against Hitler. But the invasion of Normandy took place a year and a half after the Soviet Army stopped the seemingly invincible German armed forces at Stalingrad and subsequently began its relentless push to the west.11217_image_file

Eastern Europe also experienced forty to seventy years of communist totalitarianism—an experience that isolated the region from the world and set it back for decades. The collapse of communism in 1989-1991, the subsequent emergence of independent nations, and their ongoing attempt to define their identities and find their place in the world have confronted the peoples of the region with challenges and opportunities that most Americans can hardly imagine. Our trip demonstrated that Eastern Europeans, whether Poles or Jews or Slovaks or Hungarians or Czechs, are resilient, tough, and determined. As we saw, they are survivors who do not give up—a character trait that bodes well for their future within the European Union and a rapidly globalizing world.

Our group came away from its visit with a fuller understanding of the complexities of Eastern European history, of the immense richness of Eastern European culture, of the importance of Eastern Europe’s many contributions to world culture in general and American culture in particular. In turn, I got to see the region and its peoples through the eyes of the group, a uniquely rewarding experience that greatly enhanced my own understanding of this part of European civilization.

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To learn more about our Old World Europe tour, click here!

Wine Tasting Outside Vienna

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

Hugh Agnew is a Professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University. He has taught courses and published books and numerous articles about the Habsburg Empire, the Czech national identity, and Czech heritage and history.

This fall Hugh led a group of Smithsonian Journeys travelers on a tour of Old World Europe.

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A classic traveler’s dilemma: here you are in a lovely, historic, culture-filled place and you have only a limited amount of time to devote to activities. Do you try to devour as many galleries, museums, and historic buildings as you possibly can, or do you take a little time to step off the treadmill and relax, perhaps in some way capturing an echo of how the locals relax when they are off the treadmill themselves? Of course, in any major tourist center there are practically no places “untouched by tourism” because tourism is an essential part of the economies of such places. Yet even now it is possible to experience moments where the impact of tourism is lightly-felt, if at all noticed. That’s one of the things I like about Vienna.

Vienna is a major tourism hub, and it is also a very international city with institutions such as OPEC, the United Nations, and the European Union (among others) housing many offices and headquarters here. But it is also home to thousands of Austrians, and in their own ways they continue to live as Austrians and relax as Austrians.

The green lungs of the city, the famous Vienna Woods (Wienerwald), are one place where everyday Austrians like to go to relax. And thanks to Vienna’s world-class transportation system, park-goers simply hop on one of the several tram lines that run from the center of the city, ride it to the edge of town, and begin walking.

And once you’ve started walking, typically it isn’t long before you find yourself among vineyards – and if among vineyards, then how much farther is it to one of the informal Austrian wine garden restaurants? In the villages that used to be outside the city, and which are now being swallowed up as its extended suburbs, the local winegrowers have had the right, since Emperor Joseph II confirmed it in 1784, to offer this year’s vintage for sale in their own establishments. In the southern German dialects, of which Austrian German is a standardized version, the term heuer means “this year’s” – and so these institutions have come to be called “Heurige.” When the year’s vintage is ready to be released, the vintner typically hangs a bunch of pine twigs over the entrance to the courtyard or house to let everyone know that he is open (“hat ausg’steckt,” as the Viennese would say).

The Viennese microclimate seems to me (not an expert) to be kinder to white wine varieties. Rieslings and Austrian varietals, such as Grüner Veltliner and Müller Thurgauare, are becoming better known abroad. Reds are typically the central European varieties such as Blaufränkisch (also known as Lemberger), St. Laurent, or a successful cross between the two: Zweigelt.

Austrians share the famous Heuriger locations with tourists by the busload, especially in centers like Grinzing, perhaps the best known of the winemaking former villages, or Beethoven’s summer retreat in Heiligenstadt. Slightly further away, and therefore less crowded but still easily accessible from the city center, is Nussdorf. This is where I, and a few other travelers, went on this journey. Even though it was not the best weather for sitting in a Heuriger garden, we still enjoyed this year’s Gemischter Satz “gespritzt” with carbonated water. Typically the new wines are also accompanied by a buffet of light dishes, with some institutions offering hot meals (including gluten free and vegan!). We stayed with the classic snacks: a few spreads (Aufstriche) including the famous Liptauer cheese, a salad of salsify in a creamy sauce (Schwartzwurzel Salat), Austrian-style potato salad, and a wonderfully sour Viennese rye bread. We ended the afternoon fortified for the evening’s cultural activities and in an overall mood that could only be described as “gemütlich.”

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Classic Viennese Snacks- Smithsonian Journeys. Photo courtesy of Hugh Agnew

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Read more about our small group journey to Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, and the Czech Republic here.

One Traveler Honors Her Family Lost in Auschwitz

Tuesday, August 28th, 2012

Thomas Emmert Thomas Emmert, professor emeritus at Gustavus Adolphus College, is a historian of Central and Eastern Europe with a research focus on the former Yugoslavia. He received his B.A. in history from St. Olaf College and his Ph.D. in Balkan and Russian history from Stanford University.

Recently, Thomas led a Smithsonian group on a trip around Old World Europe. One of the most important and moving visits brought the group to Auschwitz, the former Nazi concentration camp, where one of the travelers had a chance to honor family members lost in the Holocaust. See his post from the visit below:

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No one is ever truly prepared for a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. For a generation born in the years just before or after the Holocaust, this inexpressible horror of the twentieth century continues to haunt us even as we move fully into our new century with all its possibilities.  We left Warsaw early in the morning and drove through the lush, rich countryside of south central Poland, eventually catching our first glimpses of the Tatra mountains on Poland’s southern border. It was a warm, sunny, infectiously beautiful, late spring day, and one could be forgiven for wishing for a lovely, leisurely picnic instead of contemplating a visit to a concentration camp. We were all so very quiet that morning, deep in our own thoughts, reflecting perhaps on our memories of reading Wiesel, Levi, Borowski or the memoirs of some other Auschwitz survivor. We were steeling ourselves for the shock and the tears even as we knew that nothing could really prepare us for this experience.  As we drove into Oświȩcim and caught sight of the first red barracks of Auschwitz, I reminded everyone that we came here to honor the memory of all those who suffered and perished in this nightmarish place. The silence continued.

Auschwitz-Birkenau

Auschwitz-Birkenau main track. Photo by Sylvia Horsta

I don’t know if it’s easier to come to this place when the sun is shining and the weather warm and inviting. I have seen it in pouring rain and in deep winter when the bitter damp cold freezes the tears on our faces, and we cannot imagine a single minute in this place without adequate clothing and food. But the sun and the warmth could not distract us from the reality of what we were seeing.

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Zorica and other Smithsonian travelers reading a psalm at Auschwitz. Photo by Sylvia Horsta

Zorica, our fellow traveler, was as ready for this day as she could be. All her life she had waited for this moment to honor all the members of her family who never returned from this earthly Hades. The tour was almost finished when she gathered us together as a group next to the train tracks and the unloading ramp at Birkenau where Zorica’s relatives and millions of others experienced their last moments of life. Embracing Zorica in a circle we together read a Psalm and listened as some of the group said Kaddish. Finally after almost seventy years, Zorica’s relatives and, for the rest of us, these representatives of the millions, were honored and given their own short funeral.

Aushwitz-Birkenau

Aushwitz-Birkenau track entrance. Photo by Sylvia Horsta

Afterwards, everyone was silent for a very long time on the drive from Auschwitz to Cracow. Silvija, our Tour Leader, played a CD of some meditative violin music for us. As we approached Cracow, I spoke briefly and reminded everyone of Primo Levi’s admonition to us all. He said that we must not leave Auschwitz despondent and without hope. If we are to honor truly all those who died and suffered there, then it is our duty to live our lives as beautifully, honestly, and justly as we can. I know that  these words were very cathartic for all of us.  We had made our pilgrimage and were humbled beyond words by the experience. But we had indeed honored the millions and we accepted the admonition to live good and just lives. A great burden had been lifted from Zorica’s shoulders, and together we were ready to continue our great adventure into Central Europe.