Thursday, July 27, 2017

Eastern Europe July 2017

tl;dr Go here if you're an illiterate schweinhund and only like pictures.  If you want to read the history too, focus not on violence and war, but on the people who made a difference by creating something that would continue being a gift to human civilization into the future:  Ignac Semmelweis, Gregor Mendel, Franz Kafka, Viktor Frankl, Ludwig Boltzmann, the Hussites, and Marcus Aurelius.

None of these cities was the Leesport of their respective countries, except maybe Hostavice, Czechia.

I was in Prague for a meeting and, noting that the countries in central and eastern Europe are small I realized I could maximize points!  In all seriousness, there's nothing quite like the concentration of culture, history, and beer you find in these places - along with some actual nature occasionally - and as inheritors of the Western European view of history, we neglect the history of these places at our peril. (Until I did my research for this vacation, I didn't know most of this either.)

Where I went: Czech Republic (Prague, Karlovy Vary, Brno); Poland (Auschwitz, Krakow, High Tatras); Slovakia (Spissky Hrad, Kosice, Trencin, Elizabeth Bathory's castle, Bratislava); Hungary (Mohi Battlefield, Budapest); Austria (Vienna, Carnuntum Roman ruins). Of the large cities I went to, I liked Krakow the most, Budapest and Vienna a lot, Prague a little bit less, and wasted a whole two days in Bratislava. As in the rest of Europe, most of the mid-size towns were quite pleasant.

I was surprised how much the countryside of Central Europe looks like Pennsylvania.

Where I didn't go: Romania, because the rental car companies don't let you drive your car into Romania, and there still really are no true highways so it takes forever to get anywhere, and they're not even in the Schengen Area yet; also, Ukraine, because part of the country is a war zone so my travel insurance would be voided even though I was just going to cross the border and get a soda and come back into Hungary, and in the western part at that, far from the military activity in Crimea. A travesty of social justice; clearly I am being oppressed. So if I enter Ukraine for 5 minutes so I get points for it, and then two days later a bear attacks me in Romania - the insurance company would check my passport before they reimburse, and when they saw that Ukraine stamp, BINGO! medical bills not covered. What does Ukraine have to do with that! Did the bear follow me across the border? Plus, you can get covered in lots of other supposedly safe places (e.g., rural El Salvador, which is a lot sketchier than the side of Ukraine away from Crimea, but no war there, so I guess it's fine!) Outrageous and shameful.

Note: eastern European languages use a lot of diacritics and accents that we don't use in English. Out of laziness, I omit those.

Positive surprise of the trip: Krakow is really cool.
Letdown: Although Slovakian small towns are quite pleasant, the capital Bratislava is pointless.

The garden in Brno where Mendel did his genetics experiments
The law school (but not the building) that Kafka attended
The site of both Defenestrations and the Prague Castle complex
The many bridges over the Vltava, including the Charles
The Jewish Quarter
Karlovy Vary and Jachymov (Joachimsthal), birthplace of the word "dollar" as well as site of a uranium mine and modern radon baths, yes really (in case you thought Centralia wasn't weird enough)
The park and mini-Eiffel tower on the hill
The Battle of Austerlitz (Napoleonic Wars)
The Battle of Bila Hora ("White Hill") (Thirty Years War)
Site of the Heydrich Assassination site (the Czechs assassinated their Nazi ruler)

Krakow (amazing medieval city, rebuilt in glory after being flattened by the Mongols twice)
The High Tatras, Europe’s awesomest mountain range you’ve never heard of (but judging by the crowds, Poles sure have)
And ate: pierogies!

Mohi Battlefield, where the Mongols slaughtered the Hungarian army
The Ignaz Semmelweis Museum (the guy who figured out you should wash your hands before surgery)
The single high school that a substantial portion of the physicists on the Manhattan project attended
The Terror Museum (about the Nazi and Communist secret police)
Various monuments dedicated to the 1956 revolt
The Royal Palace
Parliament building
The Jewish quarter
And ate/drank: real goulash, palinka, semi-sweet Hungarian wine, and lots of other flavors (though it sounds weird to say) strange to Western palates, like meats in different creams, and elderberry soda

Roman ruins on the Danube where Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote part of the Meditations (Carnuntum)
Place where the Ottoman Turks were turned back by a combined army of Austrians and Poles (Kahlenberg)
Graves of Boltzmann, Beethoven, and Viktor Frankl (at Zentralfriedhof, Central Cemetery, the biggest cemetery you’ll ever see, a meganecropolis)
Natural History Museum
Art History Museum
Freud Museum
Emperor’s Palace (Schoenbrunn)
And ate/drank: schnitzel, strudel and coffee

Elizabeth Bathory’s castle
Roman inscription and castle at Trencin
Monstrous miles of Soviet apartment blocks
Spissky castle (you’ve never heard of it and neither had I; still awesome)
The Iron Curtain – the Slovakia/Hungary/Austria tripoint
Old city Kosice
And ate/drank: haluska – warm sheep cottage cheese with bacon (Seriously, it’s amazing)

Here was my route:

GERMANY - I didn't mention Germany, but I flew through Dusseldorf on the way there and got an altbier.  Not blown away, but never had one before.

It was a four hour layover and I'm a little bummed I didn't take a quick ride out to the Neander Valley, to which I felt a strange draw for some mysterious reason.

Briefly: I found Czech people to be the least warm and approachable of all the four Slavic countries I was in. In particular the waitstaff in restaurants were often quite brusque. (German influence? I’m of German descent so I can say that.) Prague itself is beautiful as advertised, and feels smaller than it is, although at times can be unpleasantly claustrophobic, old city and otherwise. You can find museums and exhibits about the Soviet era but the Czechs seem not as focused on the Soviet legacy as some of the other countries (I get the impression that they think of themselves as, at least, first among equals in eastern Europe.) I didn't have a strong feeling that "this country was part of the Eastern bloc" as opposed to just "That's not like home...I must be in Europe." Czech food is the hearty meat-and-vegetables combination you’d expect.

Prague, Old Town - The first night, in typical European fashion, everything was closed too early.  Except the burrito place.  It's important to try local food.  Kidding!  I chided them sternly about their hateful cultural appropriation. I haven’t had whole pieces of lettuce in a burrito before, but whatever. I did on the other hand have the best ryby (fish) and chips I’ve had outside New Zealand.  Of course I had to get out on the Charles Bridge right away.  Nota bene, the single worst thing that happened to me on this trip: about 1 a.m. on a Sunday night in Prague I went to a money exchange place off Charles Square. The guy tried to rip me off to the tune of 75% (i.e. if I had given him US$100, he tried to give me back $25 in Czech koruna.) At first I thought I might be making a mistake because you’d have to be a moron to think other people are similar morons, but no, he was trying to screw me. When I demanded my money back he tried to negotiate with me, coming closer and closer to the actual exchange rate, at which time I offered some observations about his ancestry, practices, and moral character. No dealing with a thief. This is the only time an exchange desk has ever tried to rip me off.  

Returning to Charles Square during the day I noticed that the buildings actually had color.

On the wall (in Spanish), "Until forever comander, we will conquer!" A Guevara reference. Very interesting in a city that began blossoming precisely with the end of communism. (Just sayin.) I did note a lot more Spanish in Europe than I'd ever heard before, a testament to the success of Spain.

Prague, Klementinum - This is part of the Prague city library. What I wanted to see was this (image credit to the Klementinum website:)

But it's under construction, so what I actually saw was this.

Much like the cable cars in San Francisco were undergoing maintenance the first time I visited as a kid and I was so crushed I had to move there. How difficult is it to get Czech citizenship?  At least in the main modern library there was a giant book vagina.

Prague, Jewish Quarter - In Prague, Venice, and Budapest I spent a fair bit of time in historically Jewish areas. I didn't go to the ghetto in Krakow, which is largely a club zone now. Schindler's real factory is still there, although shuttered. Jewish areas in eastern Europe tend to be pretty depopulated of Jewish people, for obvious and very sad reasons which will be repeated throughout these pictures.

Above, the New Old Synagogue (really), one of the oldest in Europe.  Below, the Maisel Synagogue, where supposedly the real golem is sleeping in the attic.

Prague, Charles University Faculty of the Law - this is where my meeting was and where our panel spoke. Franz Kafka attended Charles University Law (law school is full of monstrous vermin, ZING!) so I asked an audience member just prior to starting whether this was the building he studied in, and she kindly looked it up and informed me it was only built in the 1920s, after his death. (I would have guessed late, i.e. that it was Soviet brutalism.) There was a small Karl Capek museum in his childhood home outside Prague but I didn't go.

Views From the Hill Across the Vltava from Prague

The First Defenestration of Prague - Until I was reading up before this trip, I had no idea that there was almost a full-on Reformation a century before Luther and Calvin in the form of the Hussites, their own leader in turn inspired by an English theologian. This is fascinating because it suggests that there was always going to be an intra-Christian revolt in Europe along north-south cultural lines. In 1419, the Hussites were marching and someone threw a rock at them from inside the New Town Tower (Novomestske Radnice).  They didn't like that, so they charged the tower, grabbed the city councilmen, and threw the fellows out a window. (They died.) Thus, the First Defenestration of Prague. The Hussites are now more or less the Moravian Church.

Prague Castle and the Second Defenestration of Prague - it turned out the Protestants weren't done complaining, and a second generation spontaneously emerged, and two hundred years later reacted with similar restraint when a Catholic official told them what they didn't want to hear. (I don't know about you but if I were an official in Prague, after the first time I would keep my office on the ground floor.) As it turned out I also defenestrated my phone onto the cobblestones, cracking the screen, as I prepared to take a picture of the defenestration window. This tower is in the Prague Castle complex, a massive enclosed area of cathedrals and palaces and administrative buildings worthy of Game of Thrones, the Czech president's residence now works (hence the military men with metal detectors seeing us in and out.) On the grounds there's also a vineyard that was planted in A.D. 908. A colleague on my panel said he tried the wine and it sucked. (The oldest vines in the U.S. are in Mission San Antonio on California's Central Coast, and date I think only from the 1840s, and those already make wine that tastes like crap. Nine more centuries might not do the vines further favors.) I didn’t take the funicular, as I’m already an expert (after Hong Kong, Pittsburgh, and even Altoona, I felt Prague would have frankly been over-indulging in funiculars.) Below is the very metal-looking St. Vitus cathedral.

Above:  the original Budweiser (Budvar.)  Below:  an IV bag drink that drained into my glass just before I took the picture.  I think we were all doctors at the table so no one was impressed.

Above:  Czech pork and sauerkraut passed this Pennsylvania Dutch boy's taste test, and the liter of beer didn't hurt.

Prague, Bila Hora (White Mountain) - the site of the first battle of the Thirty Years War following the Second Defenestration, about ten miles outside Prague. Catholic forces won the battle and never again lost Prague; Protestant-friendly Frederick V abdicated after a short reign, earning the derogatory nickname the Winter King (which has many parallels today it turns out.) A young Renee Descartes fought in this battle as a mercenary.  This war gave us such pleasant innovations as the modern nation-state, as well as the Swedish drink. The Swedes also lay siege to Prague and managed to take and loot the castle, but never the city; and Frederick the Great attacked the city in 1756 during the Seven Years War but his men could never advance across the Charles Bridge. Just imagine, some hothead colonel from Virgina has a French officer executed in the Appalachians (do a CTRL-F here for Jumonville) and next thing you know, the King of Prussia is attacking Prague. There are a lot of interesting questions from this period in history: to what extent were the horrendous conditions and the mercenaries used during the Thirty Years War responsible for the Treaty of Westphalia and its decried-by-alt-righters shift from city-states to nation-states? For that matter, is there a drop-off in the rate of castle-building in Europe after 1648? I predict yes. Also, I learned at this battlefield that you open Volkswagen trunks by rotating the medallion along the left-to-right axis.

Prague, monument and last stand of Czech World War II Heroes - Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis were Czech patriots who parachuted back into their occupied homeland and successfully assassinated the Nazi ruler of Czechoslovakia in a daring plan known as Operation Anthropoid. For this they were hunted down and killed where they hid in a church crypt. Today there is a monument at the spot where they got him (with a grenade) and you can still see the Nazi bullet holes in the stone where they were caught. By the flowers and offerings you can tell they're still remembered. This made me further admire the Czech spirit and I wish that in the U.S. we were better at paying attention to the kinds of people who made a sacrifice to make our lives better today.

Brno, Mendel's Garden - the Mendel Museum is on the site of the abbey where he lived, and you can see the old greenhouse foundation here. If you have a degree in molecular biology a lot of this smallish museum is redundant, but there is a list of all the geneticists whose careers Mendel made possible and who won Nobel Prizes - and on closer inspection, you can see that they autographed the list when they visited the museum, as an unlikely number unsurprisingly had. There was also a great section on Richard Dawkins, of obvious interest (as well as GMOs, explaining patiently that they are safe.) I was wearing a Darwin T-shirt that day without having planned it. They do sell pea seeds as souvenirs but when I asked the ticket girl if they were actually descended from Mendel's plants, she correctly looked at me like I was an idiot and said "No."

Austerlitz - Just outside Brno is the site of the famous battle that ended the War of the Third Coalition, where Napoleon not only defeated Russia and the Holy Roman Empire, he ended the Holy Roman Empire.

Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad) and Jachymov (Joachimsthal) - This is the original Carlsbad (Charles's Bath), used by King Charles and others as a vacation spot; there are hot springs in the area, which is why it became a resort (though admittedly one with a bit of a best-days-behind-it early 20th century feel.)  I went to this area for two reasons.  1) It used to host rich silver mines that minted their own coins, like many mines; these coins came to be called "Joachimsthalers" (from Joachim's Valley), which was shortened to taler, and then dollar.  I always wondered where that word came from and why even the U.K. colonies that stayed in the Commonwealth used this term. If I recall correctly, in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, Leibniz complains that silver from his mine in this area is still more expensive than silver from Spanish mines in the New World, even after shipping costs, and for the life of him even the co-inventor of calculus can’t figure out why – and of course the answer is that labor is a substantial portion of the cost, and when your labor cost is zero (i.e. you’ve enslaved natives to work in your mines) that shows up in the market price. 2) Later on, this same area proved to have uranium and radium deposits, and was used by the Soviets during the Cold War, with Czech prisoners forced to mine the uranium.  The silver mines played out long ago and the uranium mines closed by the 1960s, but that didn't stop other enterprising types from capitalizing on the minerals in the ground as you'll see. This is where Marie Curie got her radium. (Note: radon is a nuclear decay product of uranium, and uranium is also found in pitchblende, the type of granite underlying parts of Pennsylvania, including Berks County – which is why some basements in Berks have a bad radon problem.) Thanks to BJ for some of the pics and putting up with my psychopathic muttering during the drive.

Above:  directions to the home of Pilsener.  Below:  a small town within the forest preserve of Slavkovsky Ies (old name, Kaiserwald.)

Above:  hot springs feeding the stream in Karlovy Vary are evident.  Below:  the old resort buildings are present but the place does have a bit of the feeling that its best days are behind it.

Above:  closed uranium mine and blogger being metal.  

Above:  sorry for the size; it says "The first radon spa in the world." Are there others!??! There are probably some places in Pennsylvania that could open one.  At this point we were about 5 miles from the border with Germany, and the normally thorough cleansing of German names from Czech places was relaxed enough to show the German name of a street immediately next to the shuttered uranium mine as Silberstrasse (Silver Street).  Below:  yes, it does say radium palace, and no I didn't go in because I don't want to get special mutant powers like for example cancer. No happy endings in THIS spa!

Karlstejn Castle and Czech Karst Country - about 10 miles past Vaclav Havel Airport, an area of steep forested hills and rocky outcrops begins.  This castle takes advantage of the terrain, as do hiking trails.  

And then back in the little town where I was staying...ribs and beer of course.  (Only thing on the menu.)  This plus live music plus the beer I already drank was $7.50. 


POLAND - I liked Poland best of all the countries I visited. The people seemed warmer and more open and were more unassuming. In particular I really liked Krakow; it's the Vietnam of Europe, in the sense that you should go now before the bad tourists (not you or me) find out about it. I got pierogies in Poland, of course, and yes they were awesome. Also (so I've been told, I wasn't looking) it's true that the girls are very pretty.

Auschwitz - Auschwitz was actually two main camps, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau (Auschwitz II.)  It can only be described as a well-designed killing factory.  There is no shortage of upsetting things in this place.  The one that bothered me most is the small structure where newborns were killed with a phenol injection to the heart just after delivery, and then their mothers.  As an expecting father and a doctor, I can't put into words the offensiveness and outrage and senselessness of this, and that these people dared to call themselves doctors. Notably, only a very few of the captured officers ever apologized.

It's also worth reflecting that this place was the result of a state that wanted to become synonymous with an ethnicity. They meant what they said, and they said what they meant, and they carried it out. This is the logical conclusion in the industrial age of a race that aims to be a state, and vice versa. And not coincidentally, the barely-concealed intentions of the term "globalists" that's re-emerged in 2017 was used identically to describe Jews in early twentieth-century Europe, who were thought to be stateless, disloyal parasites. There's an interesting parallel here with Roma (gypsies), who of course were also killed in the holocaust, but historically Europeans had far more pogroms against Jews and the holocaust was far more about them. Why, I wonder? Because these particular stateless "parasites" actually contributed a dramatically disproportionate amount of their country's culture and GDP and they resented them? And even after the Russian occupation started, the Soviet Union was known to be anything but warm to the Jewish population; I guess they thought it mattered whether you were oppressing people for reasons of political purity, instead of racial purity.

Above and below:  this is a women's "barracks."  The beds held multiple people and were just wooden shelves. Someone had left a rose. There was an overpowering sense of wanting to comfort the people held here.

Above:  most of the prisoner buildings were wood and are no longer standing, except for their chimneys, which are like a forest.  Below:  the Nazis knew very well that they would be held accountable for what they were doing, and so at Auschwitz II they demolished the gas chambers and cremation facilities when the Soviets were a week away.

Below, the infamous gate of Auschwitz I.

Above and below:  the gas chamber.  Those are the marks left by people scratching at the walls in their last seconds of life.  People did revolt in the camps, sometimes on the way to the death chambers.

Below, the cremation units in the next room where the bodies would be loaded after being stripped of gold teeth.

Krakow - About an hour away from Auschwitz.  The surprise of the trip for me. I really liked Krakow, not least because it has a medieval city center that it's possible to approach by car and not lose your mind. The central square in the old town was beautiful, and the locals seemed to be enjoying it just as much as the tourists. In this sense Krakow seems like Vietnam to Prague's Thailand. There's also a greenbelt around the whole old city which is actually the filled-in moat. This was where Pope John Paul II came from, and it’s where Lech Walesa led his trade union revolt in the 1980s (why does a trade union even have to exist in a communist country? The obvious answer is that communism is primarily dictatorship with better rhetoric, and doesn’t actually help workers at all, unless you think Walesa was a Western stooge.) Krakow is an important trade center on the Vistula already by the 900s as recorded by a Sephardic Jewish merchant from Spain, but was flattened twice in the 1200s by Batu Khan et al, which made me like the Mongols less. (What stopped the Mongols from continuing west to the Atlantic? Why don’t Europe’s royal families all have straight black hair today?) This may be given why Krakow is so pretty today because unlike most medieval cities, when they rebuilt it from scratch they actually planned it out first. Unlike London, which burned down four centuries later, and still couldn't get their act together.

On some of the back roads on the way to Krakow I did go through a few small towns where I saw something which made me think "yes, I'm in a post-Eastern bloc country," e.g. large multi-story brutalist concrete architecture in the middle of small towns, crumbling homes with cows tied in the yard, etc. – though the latter was definitely the exception to the rule and most of the country seems pretty well developed. It is interesting though that in the U.S., on Indian Reservations, very often the only large, concrete building(s) in town are the government buildings, and the rest are small cheap dwellings for individual families. I enjoyed a delicious dinner of cod and sausages with the mandatory liter of beer. My biggest regret of the trip is that I didn't stay there longer.

Cod and onions and beer.  What else do you need?

High Tatras - The mountains that separate Poland and Slovakia contain the highest point in Poland, unsurprisingly, since Poland is otherwise very flat (the name Poland actually means "fields" in the old language.) They're a northwest extension of the Carpathians, and although the highest ones are only around 10,000', they seem very sudden, with several thousand foot faces (very uncommon in Europe outside the Alps) and at over 50 degrees north, you don't have to get very high to get into the alpine zone. In mid-July I was actually cold there, even during the day. Due to this natural barrier it makes sense that Polish is therefore the more different of the West Slavic languages and remained a separate realm never controlled by Turks or Austrians. Poland also has the biggest territory of the non-USSR Slavic countries by a fair margin.

Zakopane is a mountain resort town which looked like mostly recently construction and reminded me of similar towns in Colorado or Tahoe. This means that everyone in Poland and their sister comes to these mountains – they're really the only serious mountains in the country – and the trails were overrun. Until I got to the alpine lakes, I was more or less surrounded by a crowd. Even in Asia I've never seen anything like this. My first morning, even after oversleeping the official free breakfast hour, when I asked nicely at reception, the pile of food you see is what they brought to my room. 

The Tatras are beautiful. Unfortunately Rysy is the highest mountain in Poland and I'm pretty sure everyone in Poland was on this particular trail. As is usual, you lose most of them once the real climbing begins, but for the first 5k at times it was just silly. On one hand I'm glad people are out enjoying nature but...does it have to be all at once?  (Deliberately excluded the crowds from my pictures.)

There was a lower and upper alpine lake.  In some of these pictures the reflection is so still that it makes the photo confusing at first.

Above:  dummies sitting at the edge of the falls that drop to the lower alpine lake.  Because I saw some people coming down from above the snow line, I considered trying to summit even though I knew there was exposure and I believe sections requiring chains a la Half Dome.  But between the lowering clouds and the clearly poor judgment of some of the people coming down I decided to call it a day at the snow line.  It started raining during the hike back so it was a good call.

Below:  I don't know what kind of critter this was, probably a corvid.

SLOVAKIA - I drove through Slovakia on my way from the Polish Tatras to Budapest.  I would return to the country later in the trip.

Slovakian Tatras

Above:  haluska (sheep cheese.)  This is very very good.

Spissky Castle - in the mid-to-late medieval period a local leader was trying to build a confederacy of towns, and this was the castle.  It's quite a sight as you approach it, even if you've read about it and you expect it.  But even with such a magnificent castle we barely remember the name of the nation they were trying to build.  Summer grass, all that remains...look on their works and despair, etc.

Kosice - Slovakia's "second city", this eastern city was recently developed for tourism by a very active mayor.  The old creek is channeled in the middle of the old main street.

Above:  during the big dig to develop the city they found medieval structures under the street, and now (much like in Guangzhou, click and scroll down) there is a street-level window down onto the underground excavation.  Below, self-explanatory.


General: Hungary seems a lot more focused on the Soviet era than other former Eastern Bloc countries. Magyar (the Hungarian language) is an agglutinating Uralic language which to an English-speaker often looks quite ridiculous on signs (note the place names: Faj, Bag, Gyöngyös, Hell, Hungaroring, and Hódmezővásárhely. Hungaroring sounds like a national high school pep rally portmanteau. "Tomorrow at the Hungary-Ukraine game what are we going to be doing? We're going to be Hunga-ROARING!") I liked Budapest a lot.

I blew by this roundabout sign but I knew someone must have taken a picture and put it online; namely, Reddit user wagner89

Mohi Battlefield - this is the site of a battle between the Hungarians and Mongols under Batu Khan in April of 1241. The Mongols are known for behaving remarkably like a modern army, with choreographed blitzkrieg tactics, and a communication system developed on the steppes using flags to signal movements. (The gold flag means “west”, hence the horde that stayed in Russia was the Golden Horde.) As they routed the Hungarians, they would gradually let a few out at a time to flee, and then slaughter the rest. It was an absolute catastrophe and Hungary's army (along with large portion of German and Polish forces) were annihilated. The Mongols then faded back into Central Asia in 1242 for a kuriltai to replace the Great Khan who (fortunately for Europe) had just died. What if he hadn't? Next three photos.  But look at it. I mean how metal is this. 

Budapest - For some reason Budapest had the most "New York" feeling of any of the cities I visited, although it wasn't the biggest. That said, it also is the most European city I've ever been to. Sorry Prague, but Budapest is prettier. Sorry England, but Hungary’s parliament house is better. Smack in the middle of Europe, these non-Indo-Europeans have managed to fight, rule, or be ruled by just about everyone you can name since the Romans (in rough order: Byzantines, Mongols, Turks, Holy Roman Empire/Habsburgs/Austrians, Nazis, Russians.)  I also noticed a lot more Asian tourists here.  I also immediately had real goulash.

Above:  a lot more monuments to the 1956 uprising than I expected (there's not much at all about the Prague spring in Prague.)  Below:  I noticed that many telephone poles and other light support poles are constructed this way in eastern Europe.

Above:  they're convinced they're descended from the Huns but they're not, sorry.  Below:  the royal palace, overlooking the Danube.

Above:  the Ignac Semmelweis Museum.  Semmelweis was an obstetric surgeon in Budapest in the mid 1800s and should be a household name, yet he's barely remembered by doctors.  Semmelweis had the outrageous idea that you should wash your hands before performing surgery, especially if just before surgery you were working on a cadaver (really.)  This was ten years before Pasteur's theory!  Of course, despite having collected data on complication rates, he was laughed at.

Above:  a bladder needle.  Below:  a fellow who got trepanated to get access to a brain bleed, and apparently survived the experience for some time afterward.  

Above:  one of the Danube cruise boats (complete with hotel rooms) passed under the bridge as I was about to take a picture of the Turkish baths (those buildings on the right.)  The baths were originally built by the Ottomans during their occupation, and remain quite popular.

Above:  the largest synagogue in Europe.  Below:  the Terror House is a museum of state oppression housed in the building where the Nazi and communist secret police worked and interrogated prisoners.

Above and below:  the Fasori Gymnasium, a private high school attended by von Neumann, Teller, and in fact a substantial proportion of the people who built the first atomic bomb.  Two more such schools can be found in Budapest, leading to the recognition of profound Hungarian overachievement in math and physics that continues to this day, and inspired the article "The Atomic Bomb Considered as Hungarian High School Science Fair Project," which in turn inspired me to visit the school.  It was not in session, I didn't note anything special (including a sign bragging about their success) and I can't say I feel any smarter. You would think they would have something, like a plaque saying "without this high school there may have been no atomic bomb because of this guy class of '18, this guy class of '22, etc." to encourage their modern science students; then again John Updike, arguably the most famous man of American letters in the late twentieth century, went to my high school and was only mentioned a few times in my English classes, so who knows.

A good number of pictures follow of the Hungarian Parliament House. I was quite impressed when I came upon Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament in London in April at dusk (see here), but the Hungarians have soundly beat the British. This building is also deliberately a foot larger in the longest dimension than the UK's Parliament. The Danube is immediately behind it, and at night, lit up, Parliament, the Castle and the Bridges face each other across the river. It's quite a spectacle, one which I don't think any other capital matches. 

Nearby, I stumbled on a statue of Ronald Reagan while I was taking pictures of the Red Army monument, which is directly opposite. A curious juxtaposition to say the least. I noticed in the former satellite states, after the end of Soviet occupation, they often left the monuments to the Red Army for liberating them from the Nazis, but little else. (If your bar is "you're slightly better than the Nazis", you might want to try harder.) There's also a park named after Elvis (but no statue) since he asked for donations on Ed Sullivan for the refugees of the 1956 uprising.  Below that is the monument to the Jews murdered during World War II.  

Little appreciated in the West, during WW2, Hungary (and Romania, and Bulgaria) allied with the Axis, although in 1944 when the Nazis told the Hungarians it was time to turn over their Jews, the Hungarians hesitated (did they think this was an equal partnership?) and the Nazis got rid of the suddenly independent-thinking leadership and installed even more obedient puppets.  The pictures which follow are the night-time sights along the Danube, including both the castle and parliament buildings already seen close-up.


Trencin - I went to Trencin to see the Roman inscription on the rock, ordered by emperor Marcus Aurelius.  There's also a castle in Trencin but in this part of the world you get castled out pretty quickly; plus, Europe's "castle period" is not anything to be proud of. It was a sign of a collapsed civilization where the only technology that advanced was military technology. That is to say, if a Roman could foresee Europe's medieval period, he would likely react to it as we do to the world envisioned in Mad Max movies.  In any event I had quite a nice time drinking coffee and hanging out in Trencin's small main square.  A very pleasant town.

Above:  the Trencin synagogue, now used for community events as the Jewish community of Trencin is gone.

Elizabeth Bathory's Castle (Cachtice) - a prolific serial killer (read here), the rumor is that this beautiful woman wanted to keep her looks, and killed peasant girls and bathed in their blood to achieve this.  Whether or not that specific part of her legend is true, it's very likely that she was in fact a serial torturer and murderer of poor women, with victims estimated anywhere from 50 into the hundreds.  She was accused, placed on trial, and bricked into a tower with only a slit for food and water.  She died after less than four years.  This is the castle where she lived, tortured, and died.

Bratislava - The capital of Slovakia, formerly Pressburg when it was part of the (German-speaking) Holy Roman Empire, and not even where bratwurst was invented. I have a bit of a bad taste after getting a thirty euro ticket from driving through a taxi zone that is perhaps intentionally not well-marked. Slovakians repeatedly told me that you can see Bratislava in two hours and in retrospect I agree; would've liked to trade a day there for Krakow. In the amicable divorce between the Czechs and Slovaks, the Czechs kept Prague and, I can only imagine the Slovaks saying, "Fine. We'll make Bratislava the capital." No one seems to love it. Only 35 miles from the capital of neighboring Austria, it is very much Baltimore to Vienna’s D.C., and that's understating it. It definitely looked and felt the most run-down of the four capitals I visited. The city plan is a bad mix of tangled medieval mess and mid-century communist concrete, without the charm or abstract interest either can inspire. It's also pretty dead at night.

Above:  the Soviet era radio building.  The Soviets really liked things that were narrower at the base than the top (I guess that made it "modern"?); reminiscent of the UCSD Library.  Below:  I had a hankerin for Chinese so I got me some.  It wasn't utterly offensive,  but the Slovakian wine was the best thing about the meal.

International Tripoint - of Austria, Hungary and Slovakia. The barbed wire is presumably a piece of the old Iron Curtain, and there were what looked like old guard towers in fields along the Austrian-Slovakian border. Yet another point, for tripoints.

European Long Distance Path E8 - Europe now has a whole network of these and when I saw that one of them climbed up the low mountain ridge that started just north of Bratislava, I went. There's also a gigantic antenna (Kamzik) at the top of the ridge with typically Soviet-looking tapered base. Needless to say, there are two bars in it.

See?  Narrower at the base again.

Next few photos:  Bratislava is famous for its massive mega-blocks Soviet-era housing, Petrzalka, which immediately after the end of the Cold War were thought of as the Bronx of eastern Europe (not in a good way) but today are a bit safer.  Oddly I saw another building in exactly the same style, being built now in 2017.  These don't seem to be facilitating a communal living experience, although in two other places where I've seen similar architectural arrangements (Guangzhou China, and a town outside Prague) the opposite was the case.

It turns out the weird circular building is a Catholic church from 2002.

Above:  I need that chair for my office.  From the pharmacy museum of Bratislava.

Below:  the Danube.  I saw it in three national capitals, and never was it blue.  Strauss you liar.

AUSTRIA - Why wasn't Austria divided like Germany?  What happened to the imperial family at the end of the First World War?  (You'll have to look those things up for yourself.)  Once I started reading about the country that ruled most of the other countries I had visited, I realized how little I really knew about this place.

Carnuntum - This was a Roman "garrison" town and provincial capital (of Upper Pannonia) with a permanently stationed legion on the right (south) bank of the Danube, considered the northern border of the empire, defending against the German barbarians.  That the town is now in Austria shows you how successful they ultimately were.  The Roman town was much larger than the small farm towns today in the thirty-mile stretch between Bratislava and Vienna.  Marcus Aurelius spent much of his time as emperor directing these campaigns in the empire's northern marches and he wrote book 2 of the Meditations here.  They've restored quite a few buildings to the way they would have looked when the Romans were there.

 Above, restored mosaic floor.

Above:  remnants of a heated floor.  Below:  dining hall.

Above, toilets.  Fortunately they didn't include the sponge-on-a-stick.   Below, physician's work area. Keep scrolls rolled up to avoid HIPAA violations please.

 Above, restored bath. Below, non-restored, so we can see how they heated it.

 Above, my boy Emperor Diocletian (late third century) just before Constantine. Below, there were large areas of graves and the inscriptions are often still quite clear after the headstones are unearthed.

Above you can see a plain old farm field next to the museum; as I walked by it on the way to the amphitheater I thought "there must be thousands of buildings and headstones still to discover." As I was walking back to my car, I looked over at two farmers standing in the field talking, and then one picked up something headstone-shaped from out of the dirt and the other one looked at it then motioned for him to put it back, glancing furtively around to see if anyone had noticed. (It must be pretty annoying to be a farmer there.) I had a couple cherries from a tree growing next to the amphitheater, possibly built out of molecules from dead gladiators.

Vienna - A unique city, that lacks a cluster of high-rises in a central business district - just tasteful apartment buildings and gorgeous monumental architecture to the point of fatigue.  This is also my second least favorite city I've ever driven in, after Sydney, though charming (read: not charming) Bratislava is close behind. Although I claimed Budapest is the most European city, Vienna is the most...monumental. People describe the period of Bourbon autocracy in seventeenth and eighteenth century Paris as one of monumental architecture, but apparently these people haven't been to Vienna. Like Budapest it had a bit more genetic diversity a more African people than I expected in central Europe, and consequently felt more like a real modern city. There was an Ethiopian restaurant two blocks from my hotel, which I happily patronized.

Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery) - an enormous public cemetery, measured in square kilometers (look at the distances on the direction marker photo.) I mostly wanted to see the graves of Boltzmann (with his formulation of the entropy equation), Viktor Frankl, and Beethoven. I didn't know until I read up on him while walking through the cemetery that Boltzmann hung himself, and it seems likely he had bipolar disorder. When I went to find Frankl's grave I noticed that the very large Jewish section of the cemetery is returning to a wilderness state because after the Second World War, there were not many Jews left in Vienna to take care of their family's graves. The seemingly mass-produced markers you see in one photograph are, ironically, Jewish Austrian soldiers who died serving their country the the First World War.

Above: Ludwig Boltzmann with his original formulation of the Second Law. Below: the directions and distances within the cemetery.

Kahlenberg - It was here on this steep hill overlooking Vienna that the Austrians and Poles under Jan Sobieski halted the Ottoman advance and turned the tide in central and southeastern Europe.  There's still a small Polish church there today.

Vienna must be a terrible place to be a physicist. Like starting a band in Liverpool.


Natural History Museum - The Viennese have a bad habit of making their museum buildings so beautiful that they compete with the exhibits for your attention.

Above:  the Venus of Willendorf. You're looking at 28,000 year old porn and/or religion. You could fit two of them in the palm of your hand. Below, Neanderthal skeleton and reconstruction, then Homo erectus reconstruction. 

Above and below: the Trump cabinet.

"How will the universe end? Decide for yourself!" I imagine an over-excited salesman announcing this on a late night commercial.

Freud and Psychiatry - This round building (being restored) is on the campus of the Vienna School of Medicine, and was the very first specialized locked psychiatric ward. It's now the Pathology Museum and is filled with gruesome examples of now preventable infectious diseases like TB and smallpox. Parents that hesitate to vaccinate their children should be required to take a tour of this museum. Much to your relief they don't allow photography inside. It must also be difficult being a psychiatrist in Vienna. Like trying to start a band in Liverpool.

Above:  Freud's microtome, for slicing brain tissue; a more rapid, direct and accurate method of diagnosing pathology in a brain than probing it by "talking" to it. During his career he used the latter method exclusively, possibly because it's easier to do on an outpatient basis (it wasn't for the reimbursement, I can tell ya that! ZING) Below, his waiting room, the only room where the furniture remains in Austria.  (The rest of it went with him to England, after a steep payoff to the Nazis, when he left after the Nazi Anschluss.)  Below that, the young Sigmund.

Many pictures follow of Schoenbrunn Palace, the imperial palace of the Holy Roman Emperors.  They don't allow interior photography, but the grounds are quite nice.  This land began as a hunting preserve for the Habsburgs and much of it remains un-manicured, even within the Vienna city limits.

 Wittgenstein House:  an interesting contrast to Schoenbrunn, this is now part of the Bulgarian Embassy; you actually can get tours inside, which I would've been interested in, but this isn't widely advertised, and I didn't have time when I realized it was possible.  (If the tourbooks could speak, I bet I would understand them.  But they didn't.  Not about this.)  Most famous as a philosopher, Wittgenstein was given the design job by his sister Margaret to distract him from legal proceedings involving him punching one of his (young!) students.  (Interestingly, I noticed an arresting picture of a poised and intense young woman in the Freud Museum, and it turned out to be Margaret Wittgenstein.)  The architect he worked with found him "exhausting", as did many people throughout his philosophy career, and his family members who lived in the house never liked it.  How surprising, for the charmer who remarked, of the families whose children he was teaching, "These people are not human at all but loathsome worms."  Ever the charmer, in another village he remarked that the people were "one-quarter animal and three-quarters human."  (This was all in writing by the way.)

Above and below:  interior and exterior of the church where the Habsburgs were interred in the crypt.  You can get a tour of the crypt but I've heard dead Habsburgs are kind of boring to be around so I passed.

Art Museum

Above and below:  I was most excited to see some of Velasquez's work, and viewing it up close was actually a unique experience.  Here you can see how the reflections of the draperies are meant to be seen from a distance, and looking at them up close reveals the brushwork.  He liked to build clever little surprises into his work so I wonder if this was intentional.  (And honestly, why spend time on something that most people won't look at closely for very long or at all?)  Compare to the famous draperies of Vermeer further down and note that Vermeer's don't disintegrate as much on closer inspection.

There were crowds like this in a number of rooms, taking in a lecture. I have the same ambivalent feelings about teeming hordes enjoying culture as about too many people enjoying nature.

Above:  Bruegel's Tower of Babel.  Below:  my stoic boy Marcus Aurelius, using his CBT and mindfulness skills to defeat my ancestors in their incursions along the Danube.

Above:  a Babylonian mosaic.  Below:  most of the ivory in the ancient Middle East was actually hippo ivory; then suddenly there wasn't any.  Any guesses as to what happened?

In honor of my Austrian grandfather, who loved cheesecake.



Mog said...

Your energy amazes me. You're smarter than me. I'd love to travel with you. Well done choosing such interesting places to see.

Michael Caton said...

You're very kind, but I was using a lot of coke which helps explain it. Coke Zero! I kid, I kid!!! But these kinds of trips are over for a while. THEY'RE OVER JOHNNY