Lisbon…. June 2018

Lisbon was a delightful surprise.
Anecdotally the oldest city in Europe, it is claimed the Ulysses once visited. The Phoenicians settled here 3000 years ago, then the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, various fighting tribes and then the Moors. They called it Lissabona and held it for 400 years until the Crusaders took over. With the spices and other treasures Vasco de Gama brought back from Asia it became a rich city, more so when the 18th century Portuguese navigators found gold in Brazil.

The city of half a million people (with a greater metropolitan population of nearly 3 million in a country of 10+ million) is spread across 7 steep hills with the business/retail/formal centre, the Baixa, sitting in the riverside valley. It is a vibrant city of rich and poor, old and new, locals and visitors, nostalgia, romance and cutting edge.

To avoid travellers’ fatigue, the trick we discovered after a few days is that there are escalators scaling the hills … known to insiders but so integrated in the fabric newcomers can miss them. Inside one railway station there are escalators down to the station then up the other side to a totally new neighbourhood. Similarly from the core of the city at the sea level, there is an elevator beside a supermarket that takes you to yet another quarter where the castle stands.

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The steep double storey escalators  go down and up at opposite entrances to our railway station. From midway up one hill, underneath the centre, to midway up another.

The famous Elevador de Santa Justa is 45 metres tall and was built by one of his admirers in the style of Gustav Eiffel of Paris fame. It takes you up from the Baixa to the hip party Barrio Alto neighbourhood.

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Lisbon is divided into distinct districts. We stayed in the Chiado district.

Chiado neighbourhood

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The view from my balcony

Again my travelling companion outdid herself in selecting accommodation, an old baron’s house now run as a boutique hotel by family. The Casa do Barao in the Chiado district was a few hundred metres off a lively square, the Praca Luis de Camoes. In the square was the subway with the magic elevators that saved hours of walking, a tram stop, a wonderful church, an alfresco café, a Portuguese tart bakery, and a change machine. What more could any traveller want?

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Dining alfresco

In the square are two churches. One with a plain exterior and first built in 1670 on the site of the old city wall is the Igreja do Loreto, a  church built primarily to welcome many Italians in the city (hence its nickname “Church of the Italians”). It was severely damaged in the earthquake and rebuilt in 1785. It consists of a central nave and twelve chapels representing the twelve apostles. despite the plain exterior, the interior is quite splendid in the baroque fashion.

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Introductory walk

To orient ourselves we took a walk that luckily began in our square where we met at the base of a grand bronze statue of the poet Luis after whom the square is named. While I included a history timeline in my Porto blog, I did not dwell on any particular period. However, two things stood out for me from the walk, both disastrous events but both reaping a silver lining:

The Dictatorship

Portugal was under control of a dictatorship from 1932 to 1974. This is the longest continuous dictatorship of modern history. Antonio Salazar was Prime Minister from 1932 to 1968. He died in 1970 and four years later, the Carnation Revolution occurred to end the dictatorship.

Under Salazar Portugal was officially neutral in World War II, but in practice Salazar collaborated with the British and sold them rubber and tungsten. In late 1943, he allowed the Allies to establish air bases in the Azores to fight German U-boats. However, as tungsten was a major product of Portugal, it was also sold to Germany until June 1944, It was a surprise to read Salazar admitted several thousand Jewish refugees during the war. But …. for a price.

Lisbon, maintaining air connections with Britain and the U.S., became a hotbed of spies from several countries and was the base for the International Red Cross in its distribution of relief supplies to POWs.

The silver lining of those times and the subsequent disaster of the Global Financial Crisis might well be the current growing economy and seemingly contented population in contrast with much of Europe (see end musings).

The Earthquake

On All Saints Day 1755 three earthquakes hit Lisbon in rapid succession. They are among the largest ever recorded at between 8.5 and 9.0 on the measurement scale. Much of old Lisbon was devastated by both the quakes and the subsequent fires and tsunami.

The king commissioned the Marquis de Pombal to rebuild the city. He redesigned the city in a simple grid fashion to ensure its safety in future earthquakes. The resulting neoclassical streetscape of Biaxa is the silver lining.

Later Pombal when Prime Minister also abolished slavery in Portugal and its colonies.

Baixa

The heart of Lisbon, redesigned by Pombal, begins with the grand Praça do Comércio. Seen as the entrance to the city this square was the scene of the assassination of the last King and Prince Royal in 1908. While we were there, a great TV screen playing World Cup fixtures entertained the crowds of a different era.

The square is framed by two curving monumental colonnades which meet at the Triumphal Arch. Leading from the arch into the city proper is the pedestrianized Rua Augusta thronged with shoppers, tourist and of course, their accompanying buskers.

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The Arch and restorations, a sign of a thriving city

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Wonder what a faux American Indian busker did for his supper

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A whole classical ensemble busking

 

On another pedestrian street, Rua Garrett, there’s the oldest continuously operating bookshop in the world, Bertrand, which dates to 1732. A few doors down, the art nouveau A Brasileira, is the first coffee shop in the city, opening in 1905

Past the end of the Rua Augusta is the very large Praca Dom Pedro IV where one can watch the world go by sipping a cocktail at an elegant outdoor café or even visit a shop that sells overpriced tins of sardines stamped with the year of one’s birth.

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The Alfama neighbourhood

Some commentator wrote that Lisboetas carry around with them a sense of saudad or profound melancholy and nostalgia. It may well be that the old people who lived under the dictatorship and subsequent hardship do emanate this feeling but I saw little to support that in the modern city.

However great melancholy is expressed in the music Lisbon is famous for, the Fado. The home of the Fado is Alfama, the steep neighbourhood of red-tiled houses and narrow lanes that was established by the Moors in the 8th century. Here are real neighbourhoods of the city where washing is strung out in tiny squares and older people chat from window to window as if the wandering tourists did not exist.

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We strolled through during a festival where bunting in the national colours was strung out across the streets and coal fires ignited to grill sardines.

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On some of the houses there are photographs of the residents. Apparently there was an art project to capture the faces of the Alfama and the residents were so pleased they are proud to have their photos placed on permanent display.

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The castle, the church of the Knights of Malta and the tram ride down

Above Alfama is the Castle. This hill has been a defensive fortification since the Phoenicians. While the castle walls are impressive I found the interior, except for an archaeological museum and a roaming peacock, quite uninspiring. The view however was fantastic.

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In a city which tumbles down hillsides there are of course many Miradouro. From one (below)  you can see the castle on the hill as well as the city in the distance.

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Wandering down the hill from the castle we came across Santa Luzia Church. The origins of this Church date back to the first years of Portuguese nationality (12th century) during the reign of the first Portuguese king, Dom Afonso Henriques. It was built by the Knights of Malta. The Crusaders of course played a major role in ridding the city of the Moors.

The present building, built over the previous temple, dates from the 18th century, with many alterations after the 1755 earthquake and tsunami.

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Exhausted after the climb up to the castle we then waited at Stop 12 and took the famous old rattling tram back to our own neighbourhood. The tram experience is amazing. There are streets where if you leant out you would be able to touch the houses on either side and sometimes these are street so steep you could be on a mini roller-coaster.

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I could have touched this car’s headlights from the tram

Food

In the ‘hood

Tired on our first day, we fell into a small workers café on the corner of our street and had the best sardines ever. They came complete with a very grumpy proprietor but still an indicator of the culinary treats in store.
Food In our neighbourhood, the food was so good we didn’t stray. In the parallel street, on the Rua das Flores is a small (7 tables of two) unpretentious restaurant where the food was so fantastic we ate there whenever we could be early enough to beat the queue. The menu tempted with duck livers with port and cherries, mackerel ceviche, seasonal vegetables, sautéed baby squid to name a few. All with excellent house wines.

 

At the Taberna I could not resist photographing the couple below. Their silence said so much:

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When we couldn’t get into the Taberna da Rua das Flores, we moved 70 metres down the street to By the Wine, a large cosmopolitan wine bar that served great wine and equally delicious food – a quesadilla, spicy sardines and ceviche teriyaki (salmon), a charcuterie selection and lime pie.

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Tram 28 tour

The Tram 28 Food Tour began when we were met at the final tram stop on the route. It happened to be by the cemetery gates.

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We wandered through a gentrifying trendy neighbourhood on a guided tour of markets and restaurants and the home of the best chocolate cake ever. True. We ate cake and mussels and pork and came to understand how important food is in Portuguese culture.

Some trivia from the tour:
• 93% of Portugal is sea
• May through October is the only time to fish for sardines
• All cod is imported

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Then in the midst of all this walking and food, this girl appeared on the street.

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Lisbon is now such a stop on the hip travellers tour that Time Out has opened a huge food market with both market stalls and delicious casual eating.

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Art

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In hindsight there are many contemporary art galleries in Lisbon and alas, I failed to put them high on my itinerary but we did manage to trek for miles along the sometimes very unattractive waterfront to the LX factory.

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This urban renewal project under the bridge close to river and harbour is a redesign of an abandoned industrial space which started life as an industrial fabric plant in 1846.space.

An investor had the idea of revitalising the area and now the space is home to more than 200 businesses ranging from cafés, restaurants, design houses, show-rooms, shops, offices, and projects all of which trade on cultural and artistic aspirations. Whether or not it was the twilight timing of our visit, the excitement of the project eluded me, as primarily it was the craft shops that were open.

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When we looked into this bookshop the LX Factory there was a very earnest play reading in rehearsal.

General Musing

Lisbon is an appealing city and I know we scratched only the surface. I see it as the Major or the Minors in terms of great cities only because it lacks the High Culture of other centres. There is no obvious collection of great art, no gallery to compare to say, the Uffizi or the Prado; no orchestra to compare to the Berlin Philharmonic; no standout architecture or international symbol such as the Eiffel tower of St Peter’s in Rome; no accessible archaeology like the Parthenon.

Yet is a city of vitality and unique offerings, the Fado, the streetscape of the Baixa, probably the contemporary art I missed, and the delightful cobblestone streets. There is certainly something here acting as a magnet; the 300 busy bars in the Barrio Alto district with their crowds of young internationals are a testament to that.

For me, one marker of the great energy around is the progress Portugal is making as a nation and Lisbon is emblematic of that. Recent history saw Portugal lagging behind the rest of Europe. As recently as 1989 literacy was so poor that there were still newsreaders wandering the cities informing people of events. Then during the 1908 Global Financial Crisis Portugal was dealt another blow with the consequences more serve here than anywhere else except perhaps Greece.

Ironically this may have provided one plank in Portugal’s recovery as I have read some argue that disaffected Europeans, the French in particular, seek to relocate to more affordable cities, ones with strong a cultural history and an inventory of beautiful buildings ripe for restoration.
Lisbon’s position on the Tagus River near where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean, close to unspoiled beaches, the popular holiday destination of the Algarve, the vineyards of the Douro Valley, and landscapes rich with magnificent old castles and villas, have made it (some have argued) irresistible for many.
Another plank may be that the constitution, after the long dictatorship was written as late as 1976 after the Carnation Revolution.

Much more significantly though the current socialist government with its anti austerity measures appears to be working. Portugal’s 2016 budget deficit of 2.1 % of gross domestic product will be the lowest since democracy was restored in 1974. Unemployment, which topped 17 % in 2013, was 6.8% in January 2019. The left government  has also introduced significant reform policies in a number of areas including corrections and drug law.

So life for the people of Lisbon is much improved. Any wonder there is a new lightness in the air, a lightness charming the visitor. Even some of the signage was no deterrent.

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This more seemed more appropriate:DSC08238

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Porto and the Duoro Valley……. June 2018

I’ve been so slack, taking so long to get around to recording last year’s trip. But here I am finally at the beginning of our trip to Portugal.

After Krakow, we flew to Porto and what a surprise. Porto, founded in 417 is the second-largest city in Portugal and has a city population of 287,591 with 2.3 million living in the wider metropolitan region.

To see layers in a city one needs to know something of its history and I came to Portugal with little knowledge. For this reasoning my own reference I have attached a potted history at the end of this blog. I thank Tim Lambert who authored it.

While I always ask if I can photograph people, I admit I took this photo without permission because I found the man’s face so haunting and to me, symbolic of old Portugal.

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This town on a hill running steeply down to the Douro River hits the eye like a visit to an open air art gallery with a colourful cornucopia of tiling styles, decorated windows and wrought iron balconies covering the [mostly] four storey terraces.

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From the traditional blue and white decorative tiles to green tiles brought from Brazil in the seventeenth century during the age of navigation, to modern apartments covered in brightly coloured tiles of only one colour……red, yellow, green, the tiling in the old centre is almost certainly one reason Porto was proclaimed a World Heritage Site in 1996.

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Azulejo tiles, the traditional blue and white patterned tiles, were originally brought from Seville in Spain during the 15th century. Azulejos were very common in parts of the Iberian Peninsula dominated by Islamic expansion during the middle ages.

The standout examples of this wonderful tiling I saw were at:

The Sao Bento railway station

Between 1905 and 1916 the artist Jorge Colaco installed 20,000 painted azulejos in this central station named for the Benedictine monastery that once stood here. Historical events were pictorially represented because even until 1916, the majority of citizens couldn’t read or write.

Education became compulsory in 1980 and in 1987, the role of the public newsreader became obsolete.

The most remarkable panels are those showing:

King João I and Queen Philippa of Lancaster by the city’s cathedral in 1387

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Prince Henry the Navigator conquering Ceuta in Morocco;

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The longest bi-lateral Alliance in the world still in force is alleged to be the Anglo Portuguese Alliance which dates back to 1373 and consequently these countries have never waged war against each other. The marriage of Philippa of Lancaster to the King may have been to cement the Treaty. One of the stories of this union is that when Phillippa was riding into the city rose petals were strewn before her to mask the smells. From this it is said the tradition of  “red carpets” for special occasions grew. At least the Portuguese like to think so.

Capela des Almas

This 19th/20th century chapel has exterior paintings depicting the lives of St Catherine of Alexandria and St Francis of Assisi.

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The Cathedral

This tiling was believed to have been installed  (1729 – 1731). Today 30% of Portuguese practise Catholicism.

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The old town tumbling down to the river is the lively part of town with its al fresco restaurants and tourist crowds. The World Cup playoff were on and crowds gathered outside TVs in bars to watch.

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This group of young women football enthusiasts were wearing their Ronaldo masks

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While some Portugal supporters were not so subtle.

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Bunting flew from apartments above the riverside mostly for Portugal

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Buskers  are an integral part of tourism now and I found this father and son with their monkey, music box and marionette the most poignant of any I have seen anywhere.

The boy just concentrated on the book he was reading.

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In the old town we visited the Misericorde which served as a headquarters for the Santa Casa da Misericórdia since the mid-16th century. It is now a museum to the memory of  those benefactors of the poor. Besides some fine portraits of same, it has a relic from the head of John the Baptist.

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Also from the Misericorde is a fine view of the Cathedral.

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The highly ornate church interiors of Porto are all that one expects from parts of Spain and Portugal.

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My simplistic mud map of the city has the railway station central with the old town running down to the river and upward on one side you can find the monumental Avenida dos Aliados with the town hall and other grand buildings. To the other side you can walk across the bridge to the Cathedral.

In the formal part of town there are long queues to enter the bookshop where J K Rowling took inspiration for images in the Harry Potter series. The crowds make it an unpleasing experience but interesting.

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The grand square with its granite buildings hinted at a formal past.

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Clérigos Tower is the foremost undisputed landmark of Porto and a reference in the city’s history. Clérigos Tower opened its doors in 1763, becoming the highest bell tower of Portugal, with over 75 metres.

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MacDonalds is worth a 5 minute stopover if only for its great Art Deco features

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But my favourite part of the grand plaza is the statue of the Newsreader who was still operating in 1989 because of the high levels of illiteracy in the country.

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Across the river on the south is the town and municipality of Gaia. Twelve municipalities make up the metropolitan region, Gaia probably being the most famous for it is where the wine cellars or “caves” are located. These hold the port (and other wines) for which Porto is famous. It is said that there is more wine stored here than any where else in the world.

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The Duoro Valley

We took a day trip to the Duoro Valley. It was indeed pleasant but the fabled marvellous landscape seemed not much greater than other wine valleys along say, the Rhine.

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The first route stop was at the Sao Goncalo church in the town of Amaramte. The church has a commanding position overlooking the River Tamega and next to the Gonçalo Bridge.

A mix of Renaissance, Mannerism and Baroque architectural styles, construction of the church and monastery was commenced in 1543. There is nothing particularly outstanding about the interior, but it is worth a quick visit.

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Gonçalo is alleged to have struck a rock with a stick, causing wine to flow from it for the construction workers building the bridge. He’s also said to have called out to the river when the workers ran out of food, resulting in fish jumping onto the river bank to feed them. Whether these things happened or not, they resulted in Gonçalo being named a saint in 1561.

The Duoro valley soil is rich in iron. Two billion years ago it was an ocean floor. Now 48,00 hectares of its 250,000 hectare expanse are used for wine. Of course various port styles constitute its famous tipple. Our guide claimed 12 of the top 50 wines in the world were grown in 13 Portuguese wine regions. There was the obligatory visit to a winery, the Croft winery, set up for tours and serve lunch to tourists. This winery was established in 1588 and is now owned by a Yorkshire family.

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The wine trip was pleasant but my interest was more on stories from some smart young Americans. One, a teacher, horrified with a story about how her primary school class had to practise crisis evacuation in the event of a gun attack. Apparently the practice is  true to life down to the noises blaring from the loudspeakers and ways to avoid being killed. I gave thanks to live in Australia with our sane culture of no guns.

Today Portugal with its population of 10.8 million, is known for olives, wheat, wine and cork. Tourism is also an important industry. During the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, Portugal was on its knees. While things have improved with employment down to 9.7% in 2017, it remains a country that still depends on providing cheap labour for the rest of the world. There are 1500 shoe factories, including some Amani ones, in the north. Some Ralph Lauren clothes are manufactured here.

 

 

 

A potted history, thanks to Tim Lambert’s Short History of Portugal (www)

30,000BC Stone age hunters inhabit the land

2,000 BC Bronze is introduced into Portugal

700 BC Celts enter Portugal bringing iron with them. Meanwhile the Phoenicians trade with Portugal.

600 BC The Greeks trade with Portugal

210 BC The Romans invade the Iberian Peninsula

409 AD Roman rule collapses and Germanic people invade the Iberian Peninsula

Medieval Portugal

585 AD A people called the Visigoths conquer Portugal

711 Moors invade the Iberian Peninsula. They conquer southern Portugal.

c 1050 A Visigoth state grows in northern Portugal

1147 The people of northern Portugal capture Lisbon

1179 Portugal is recognized as a kingdom by Papal diplomats

1211 The first Cortes of parliament meets

1290 The first University in Portugal is founded

1348 The Black Death reaches Portugal

1386 Portugal makes an alliance with England

1415 The Portuguese capture Ceuta in Morocco

1427 The Portuguese discover the Azores

1488 Bartolomeu Dias sails around the Cape of Good Hope

1498 Vasco da Gama reaches India

Renaissance Portugal

1510 The Portuguese take Goa in India

1531 The Inquisition is introduced into Portugal

1580 Spain annexes Portugal

1640 Portugal becomes independent

1703 Portugal signed a trade treaty, the Methuen Treaty with England

1750The Marques de Pombal became the king’s chief minister

1755 Lisbon is devastated by an earthquake

 

Modern Portugal

1807 The French invade Portugal

1811 The French are driven out of Portugal

1820 A revolution takes place in Portugal

1828 Miguel becomes king of Portugal. He rules as an absolute monarch.

1834 After a rebellion Pedro becomes king

1838 A new constitution is introduced in Portugal

1846-47 Civil War in Portugal

1910 Revolution takes place in Portugal

1932 Salazar becomes prime minister (and dictator) of Portugal

1968 Salazar resigns

1974 After the Carnation Revolution democracy is restored

1986 Portugal joins the EU

 

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A long weekend in Krakow and then Auchwitz…….June 2018

It is more than 6 months now since my last trip to Europe and while I quickly recorded impressions of Palestine and Israel, I have been slack in getting around to the rest of the journey.

Not knowing Eastern Europe well, just quick visits to Budapest and Prague, the surprise was Kraków, the old capital of Poland – a wonderful university town with a Market Square and Old City boasting buildings from medieval times through to Italian renaissance and then French provincial architecture.

My travel companion, Gill, has a gift for finding just the right accomodation and this time she excelled. My grand apartment was on Market Square with the best of Krakow laid out under the window.

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A better view of the square from my window

Krakow is a university town with a core population of 800,000 plus 200,000 students. The university is among the world’s top 500 and the Med School teaches in English. The fact that all university education is free is enshrined in the Constitution. There are 120 merit based places for non Polish students and 1000 apply.

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A medieval room now used as a cafe in the university

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A close up of one of the many drawings on exhibition in the cafe

With tourists outnumbering citizens 11:1 (11 million tourists a year) there is obviously something  worth seeing. Surprisingly in mid-summer the city did not feel overwhelmed by tourists nor even that its quaint restored centre and castle were merely tourism’s stage settings. I don’t know how Krakow manages the feeling of normalcy, given the constant stream of  “dressed” heritage horse and carriages driven by young women, and the open sided tourist cars and their touts waiting around many corners.

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A street in the Old City

MARKET SQUARE

The Square (200 metres square) was first set out in 1257. In it are the Cloth Hall, a trading hall since the mid 14th century; the tower of the original Town Hall; St Mary’s basilica where every hour a bugler comes to a tower window and plays. The 15th century wooden altar piece took 12 years to make. There is an underground museum , the National History Museum and many outdoor cafes. This is a lively place, a honeypot for tourists and locals and apart from the main attractions it is worth a walk taking in the facades, rooflines and other architectural features.

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The Cloth House

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The Bascilica where every hour at an upper window a bugle is blown

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Sculpture in the Square

This has always been the centre of life (and executions) in Krakow and it was here in 1794 that Kosciuszko inspired the revolt against foreign rule. Here too, Hitler changed the name to his own during the Occupation. The favourite cafe of the occupying Nazis was on the Square

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The Nazi’s favourite cafe was here

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All tourist cities have buskers but this one was a little unusual

The atmospheric Old City  with its many historic buildings and cobbled streets stretches out 1500m x800m around the Square and it itself is ringed by the Planty, the circular park established in the 19th century to replace the demolished city walls.

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The Planty is a place to stroll and to sit and contemplate the world

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A number of old churches are scattered through the Old City

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There are always shrines to remind you that this is Catholic Poland

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Should you be tempted to forget, there is a representation of the Polish Pope, John Paul 11, at the window of his Bishops’s Palace in Krakow

There are many pleasures in Krakow besides the city itself. Is there anything more delicious than pierogi – the dumplings stuffed with many flavours? Yes of course there is but they are pretty tasty when served homemade at a little restaurant!

Then there is finding a concert in the 1597 Church of Saints Peter and Paul  with Bach, Mozart, Chopin etc.performed by members of the Krakow Symphony Orchestra.

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WAWEL

Wawel Castle is such a busy epicentre of the tourist throng, that only a cursory visit could be comfortably paid. The castle is on the cave riddled limestone formation of Wawel Hill. Legend has it the hill was once the home of the Wawel Dragon. Many knights were killed in contest with the dragon trying to win the princess’ hand as a reward but a cobbler tricked the dragon into eating a sulphur filled sheep which blew up inside him. Krak, the cobbler, married the princess and built his castle on the hill. The dragon’s cave in the hill, once a tavern is now a tourist attraction.

The castle was used as a fortified castle before the first Polish ruler (962-992). 36 Polish rulers were crowned there until the 17th century. All lived in the castle and all added some architectural detail. The Austrians used it as a hospital. In the 20th century it was Nazi HQ. Even a short visit shows the muddle of styles from medieval though romanesque, renaissance,  gothic and baroque.

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A photo giving some idea of the myriad styles that make up the castle and its cathedral

The Jewish Quarter

In the Middle Ages, the Jews left western Europe to escape the Crusaders. They walked to Krakow in 1495  and it became the centre of Jewish life. We were told that 50% of all Jewish people have Polish ancestry. Now there are only 1000 Jewish people living here.

Kazimierz was the Jewish quarter of Krakow for 500 years until the coming of the Nazis. Near here is the factory of Schindler whose bravery in rescuing many is recorded in print and film. There are many old abandoned synagogues

Under the communists it fell into further disrepair; was rediscovered in the 1990s and is now in the process of gentrification.

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A Polish hero Jan Karski, a WW2 Resistance fighter  is remembered in the street of Kazimierz and kindly given a yellow umbrella

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One of the better maintained synagogues

On the other side of the river between Kazimierz and the limestones hills lies Podgorze. The Nazis established a prison district here and in March 1941, the Jewish population was herded into this area which became known as  the Krakow Ghetto. The majority of residents were murdered.

Below are sculptures on the bridge crossing the Wisla river between Kazimierz and Podgorze.

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In Podgorze there is a moving memorial, a flat concrete expense with  33 illuminated chairs (1.4 m high) in the square and 37 smaller chairs (1.2 m high) standing on the edge of the square and at the tram stops.

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Auschwitz/

Birkenau

We travelled by bus on a day trip.

I don’t want write about Auschwitz. It is beyond words. The cattle train deliveries of Jewish and other peoples and the scale of the killings, is incomprehensible. The only thing that balances out a fraction of the overbearing  horror is the production line tourism necessitated by so many visitors. You are marched briskly wearing headsets through a number of residential Blocks and many specific sites, aware that hot on your heels another group is coming. And then another. Relentless.

One million one hundred thousand people died in Auschwitz. Photos say it better than I ever could. Glass fronted exhibits of hills of hair shaved from prisoners were too much for me to photograph.

 

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One remaining block and chimneys of others

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Train carriage used to transport prisoners right through the camp to the door of the gas chambers

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Shoes of the prisoners

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Brushes of the prisoners

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Empty tins of the gas used in the gas chambers

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For me though, the gently guided tour of Sachanhausen, a prototype camp just outside Berlin had a greater impact with a slower investigation as details of camp life were spelt out and sites specifically explained.

Here is what I wrote of Sachenhausen:

Suffice to say, at Sachsenhausen I was flattened and tearful. Among the prisoners, there was a “hierarchy”: at the top, criminals (rapists, murderers), then Communists (red triangles), then homosexuals (pink triangles), Jehovah’s Witnesses (purple triangles), and Jews (yellow triangles). This was the HQ of all the camps where many of the worst Commandants were trained for the 2000 other camps across 18 countries. Here industries included making bricks for Speer’s version of the new Germania, sorting glasses and teeth from other camps and testing army boots by excrusciatingly running all day until you dropped to test every possible circumstance. Women were prostituted and if pregnant, their babies killed. Medical experimentation occurred. Over 200,00 enemies of the Reich were imprisoned here from 1936; in 1941, 10,000 Soviet prisioners were brought here to be killed and the Soviets kept it operating for the first 10 years of their occupation when 12,000 people died here. At the end of the war  in the death marches when prisoners were taken into the countryside by the failing regime, 35,000 were taken from Sachsenhausen and only 6000 survived. In one of those sad ironies, the adjoining training camps used by the Third Reich are now the Berlin police training camps.

Perhaps it is just that the scale of horrors of Auschwitz is incomprehensible.

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