Saturday, 30 June 2012

The Statues of Olomouc

After I finished this year's Lonely Planet assignment in Poland, I hopped on a train from Katowice into the Czech Republic, getting off at the town of Olomouc.

Olomouc is in Moravia, the lesser-known eastern half of the Czech Republic, fated to forever play second fiddle to Bohemia (where the Czech capital Prague is located).

This relative obscurity means, of course, it's not as flooded with tourists.

The Prague hordes' loss was my gain, as Olomouc proved a very attractive burg, lined with beautiful monuments and facades from its time in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There's a fair bit of Art Nouveau architecture along its streets, a dash of Baroque and a decent dose of Renaissance (along with less attractive communist-era contributions).

Something which especially caught my eye was the collection of mostly Baroque statues in its city squares, all harking back to legends from ancient Greece or Rome.

Here's the first I happened upon in the main square, Horní Náměstí. It's a dynamic rendering of Julius Caesar, who legend has it was the founder of the town on one of his campaigns in the area:

Around the other side of the square is this statue of Hercules slaying the Hydra. As it was constructed soon after the Turkish Empire's 1683 defeat in the Battle of Vienna, it's thought to be not-so-subtly referencing the outcome of that battle:

The final statue in Horní Náměstí is a radical stylistic departure, and that's because it only dates from 2002. Maintaining the classical theme, this multi-part installation references the Greek legend of Arion, a musician who was rescued from drowning by a dolphin.

Because it's constructed as a fountain, this work is a lot of visual splashy fun, and there's even a second large turtle outside the fountain for kids to clamber over.

In the quiet square Náměstí Republiky, I found Neptune's son Triton holding two water-dogs on chains, supported by Aquarians with the whole company spouting water:

And finally, I located this unconventional statue of the god Mercury in a kind of wrapped plastic motif. OK, he's under wraps while some heavy construction takes place in the building next door, and will eventually be revealed once more.

But I don't know... he looks intriguing the way he is right now, prompting the observer to puzzle out exactly what's hidden beneath those contours:

Friday, 22 June 2012

Welcome to Södermalm

On Monday afternoon, I popped up out of Medborgarplatsen Station in the district of Södermalm in Stockholm, Sweden, and was a bit surprised by my surroundings.

I'd fancifully imagined the Swedish capital to be a wall-to-wall mix of grand old palaces and ultra-modern buildings, in a spotless contemporary setting; a kind of "Disneyland meets IKEA" arrangement.

What I found instead in Södermalm was this:

Now I don't want to be rude, but my first impression of this scene was that it looked the way a street would've looked if one of Europe's ex-communist countries had somehow soldiered on and found money for building maintenance.

It turns out, however, that's what Söder is like. It was once a gritty working-class area with a mix of architecture including modernist housing blocks built in the 1960s. However, in recent years it's become an uber-hip district of cool bars, shops and cafes, and a bit of urban starkness does this image no harm at all.

As an example, here are a couple of shots of my new favourite "local" cafe-bar (ie it's walking distance from the hotel), Gilda at Skånegatan 79:

Södermalm's not entirely composed of stark 1960s modernist facades, as it turns out. Down near the waterfront facing Gamla Stan (the Old Town), there are some hilly streets full of beautiful residences.

This street is Bellmansgatan - in fact, that reddish building on the right was the address given in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo for the home of novelist Stieg Larsson's detective hero, Mikael Blomkvist:

There's a beautiful view toward the Old Town from a lookout near this building. It gives you a sense of the watery nature of Stockholm, sited as it is across an archipelago:

And further east of this point, in a small square in front of Slussen Station, is the final Södermalm gem I'd like to share with you. This stall came recommended by a local - all it sells is herring, in various guises:

... and here's the particular item my benefactor suggested. It's a “strömmingssburgare” - a herring burger. To the flattened fried herring fillets are added iceberg lettuce, creme fraiche, red onion and parsley, and the whole mess is jammed into a bun:

Sitting at a rickety table next to the stall in the warm 8pm June sunshine, I chewed my way through my herring burger. It was tasty. Fishy. And tasty.

Disclosure time: On this trip I was assisted by the Stockholm Visitors Board.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Poland 3: Baba Pruski Scores!

The mysterious lady reproduced below is one of the more intriguing fragments of Poland's past.

I first encountered the Baba Pruski - as the figure is called - in the grounds of the castle in Olsztyn. This small attractive city is the hub of Warmia and Masuria, an attractive region with numerous post-glacial lakes, green countryside and not that many international tourists.

The region also has a history of being traded between Polish and Germanic rulers, having spent centuries under both the Teutonic Knights and the Kingdom of Poland, later being part of the German Empire and modern-day Poland.

Baba Pruski (Prussian Woman) goes even further back than that, however, being connected with the pagan Prussian tribes who predated the Teutonic Knights' rule.

No-one's really sure what the statues were for, though one romantic theory says they were used to honour heroes who died far from home. Other explanations link the figures to legends of people turned to stone by witchcraft.

Whatever the truth, Baba Pruski has become a local icon, and fibreglass reproductions like the above are often used by Olsztyn to mark special occasions.

And what's the big special occasion in Poland right now? It's co-hosting, with Ukraine, the Euro 2012 football championship. Hence, wandering through the city centre, I happened across these figures in a park...

1. Here are the two Euro 2012 co-hosts, Ukraine in traditional garb and Poland a bit more fanciful in the national colours (and you can just see Denmark doing a Viking in the background):

2. It's interesting that the Babas representing nations which have once invaded Poland tend to be given a military theme. The German Baba is done out in the garb of the medieval Teutonic Knights, arch-enemies of the Kingdom of Poland. Behind him, by contrast, is the Irish Baba being green and cute:

3. Similarly, the Dutch are given a light, bright treatment:

4. As are the tasty Italians. You can just make out the Greek Baba behind this one, and the Croatian one in diving gear:

5. Russia is given some of Churchill's "riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma" treatment, rather than the expected warlike garb:

6. As is the Czech Republic (anyone know who the mouse is)?:

7. Finally, we're back to the warrior look. Sweden may make you think of such harmless things as IKEA and Volvo, but possibly the artist had as inspiration the destructive Swedish invasion of Poland in the 17th century, known as The Deluge.

And the girl is in that shot because her mother was having no luck at all in getting her to move on. When you have a Viking to point at while sitting on a beanbag, why would you?

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Poland 2: Warsaw's Stone Curios

I'm now in Warsaw. When I come to the Polish capital I usually stay in the Old Town, the historic heart of the city on the banks of the Vistula.

This district is like the Old Towns found in other old Polish cities - it has a cobblestone market square, graceful old medieval and Renaissance buildings, and attractive narrow streets.

What makes Warsaw's Old Town remarkable is the fact it exists at all. By the end of World War II the area was a heap of smoking rubble, first damaged in street fighting then deliberately detonated by the Nazi occupiers after the Warsaw Rising armed revolt of 1944.

The damage was so great that attention was seriously given to making another city the capital - perhaps the then second city, Łódź. However, in a remarkable display of energy and conviction, postwar Poland rebuilt the entire Old Town from scratch, using original materials where possible.

The result is a harmonious scene of historic charm, with only the occasional hint that things aren't as old as they look.

It's a very pleasant area in which to wander, with some marvellous and sometimes odd decoration on its facades. Here are a few interesting elements I've spotted on my meanderings:

1. Samson Meets Lion. Whenever you see the word "pod" ("beneath") on a Polish sign, look up - it usually means there'll be something interesting to see on the facade. Here's Samson and the lion getting physical above the entrance to the restaurant Restauracja Pod Samsonem:

2. Curious Curie. Further along ul Freta, here's a colourful new painting on the exterior of the museum devoted to Marie Skłodowska-Curie. She's better know in the west simply as Marie Curie, co-discoverer of Radium and Polonium (the latter element named after her homeland, Poland):

3. Beware the Basilisk. I encountered this mythological creature above a restaurant in Rynek Starego Miasta, the old market square. It doesn't look that much like the snakelike creature in Harry Potter - then I learned that in Central European folklore, the basilisk combined aspects of both the snake and the rooster:

4. Let Sleeping Cats Lie. Here's a contented cat, tucked up high above a cafe:

5. Gargoyle Time. And a grotesque gargoyle above a beautiful clock on a street corner:

6. Post Haste. I really love this symbol above a post office - it somehow combines an old-fashioned design sense with a hint of modern technology:

7. Cherub Antics. Finally, here's a crowd of naked cherubs (or the like) having hi-jinks involving a goat on a facade above a reptilian sign outside a pharmacy. I don't know who they are or what they're up to, but it looks like they're having fun...

Friday, 1 June 2012

Poland 1: Jazz & the English Language Club

I stumbled across the English Language Club in 2008, while updating the Poland chapter of Lonely Planet's Eastern Europe guidebook (which is what I'm doing again right now).

While wandering around the beautiful Old Town in Kraków, I happened to glance up at a sign on a building near the massive and historic St Mary's Church:

There's an interesting back story to this simple social group. According to Roy, its current organiser, the club's origins can be traced back to 1983.

This was, of course, deep within the communist period and the club was presumably a safe way for Polish students to meet and talk with foreigners who were visiting Kraków as tourists.

The tradition continues in the 21st century, with a less covert mission - to provide a weekly space for Poles, expats and tourists to meet up and chat.

There's nothing fancy about the setting, a simple room on the top floor of an old building owned by the Catholic Church, with folding chairs and a grand ceramic stove in the corner in 19th century fashion (nowadays it's heated from within by electricty rather than coal).

Anyone is welcome to come along to the meetings, and the club charges two złoty (about 60 cents) to cover hot beverages and biscuits.

There's usually a crowd of 25 to 40 people there, and on the most recent Wednesday I got into some interesting conversations as I moved around the room.

Among those present, I chatted to a Kraków local who's recently been to India and wants to go back to live there; and an English teacher originally from Liverpool who ended up in Kraków mainly because he was friends with a Pole he knew while living in Edinburgh.

A Ukrainian who's working in Poland gave me the lowdown on the differences between the Ukrainian and Polish languages - he estimated they were about 40% the same. An English teacher discussed recent Polish government cutbacks to the education budget and what that might mean for teachers.

But my most interesting discussion started with a Canadian whose relationship with Poland started via jazz, as he's a musician who first made contact with the lively Polish jazz scene online.

This was a cue to mention my theory that jazz became so popular in Poland because it was the new, energetic music form in the 1920s, when Poland had just been reassembled after more than a century as part of other people's empires, and the music resonated with its nation-building task.

However, a local IT worker in our huddle of chairs disagreed with my theory. He thought jazz may have instead become popular in the 1950s and 1960s as a gesture of musical defiance against the communist regime and its suffocating cultural restrictions. He also pointed me to Beats of Freedom, a 2010 documentary on Polish rock under the communist regime.

Now all I have to do is find it.

The English Language Club meets every Wednesday from 6pm to 8pm at ul Sienna 6, Kraków, Poland. Entry is 2zł.