Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Little Side Trip to Paris....

View of the Eiffel Tower from our apartment

Since my friends' tickets to Krakow took them through Paris, I decided to join them for a little "stopover" on their way home. Another friend flew in for the long week-end and we rented a lovely apartment on Rue Saint Jacques that had a view of the Eiffel Tower (kitchen window) and the Pantheon (living room window). This turned out to be particularly nice for watching the lights on the Eiffel Tower at night - for 5 minutes every hour they "sparkle" and it is a fantastic show. We packed a lot into our few days - the Orsay and Louvre museums, Sainte Chapelle and Notre Dame, a night cruise on the Seine, walking the Champs Elysees and Ile St. Louis, with lots of good food and wine (Kathy taught the rest of us about Bordeaux wines). I especially enjoyed grocery shopping in the little stores right outside our apartment - the cheese shop was just delightful. We had great weather and one day was so nice we actually ate lunch at an outdoor cafe on the Champs Elysees.

View of the Pantheon from our apartment

Lunch under the "clock" at the Orsay (the museum is in an old train station)

Me with some of my favorite Monet ladies (can't believe they let you take pictures inside these museums - without flash of course)

The "Paris 5" at Coupe Chou, a great restaurant near our apartment.

View of the Louvre from inside the glass pyramid

The Eiffel Tower at night - you should see it when it sparkles!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Vicki's Friends Come to Krakow

Vicki, LaDon, Kathy and Marg outside a very Polish restaurant (notice - there's no snow!)

How lucky am I to have three friends come visit me in Poland? After a very long flight (Grand Rapids to Detroit to Paris to Munich to Krakow), Marg, LaDon and Kathy arrived. Despite what the pictures might indicate, we didn't spend all our time in restaurants. They visited the salt mine one day when I was giving exams, visited the museum with a DaVinci and a Rembrandt, and they came to see my school. We walked all over old town Krakow - including many of the wonderful churches, visited the castle hill including the palace and cathedral, went to a Chopin concert in one of the old palaces off the main square...and we SHOPPED! What a great time!!

On the grounds of Krakow's castle, the Wawel

No, they're not drinking in bed - that's a traditional Polish restaurant!

Kathy, LaDon and Marg enjoying another restaurant, "Pod Baranum"

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Tyniec Abbey

The Benedictine Abbey at Tyniec

In stark contrast to the ultra-modern Arka Pana church in the suburb of Nowa Huta, this Benedictine abbey in the little village of Tyniec a few miles southwest of Krakow was rebuilt after the Tatars detroyed it in 1240. The original Romanesque abbey was remodelled in Gothic style and defensive walls were added.

We had tried to visit here last fall, when a walk along the Wisla riverbank would have been delightful (and supposedly offer a nice view of the limestone cliffs on which the abbey is built). However, we couldn't find the bus stop for the #112 that goes here. Then the weather turned cold. Armed with better information, we tried again this weekend and - though we didn't walk along the river - had a nice little hike up to the abbey, where they are busy with renovations. After a leisurely walk around the grounds (no crowds this time of year) and a peek into the church's Baroque interior (including a pulpit in the shape of a ship's prow and heavy on the gold trim), we stopped at their little store to buy some of the wonderful jams made by the monks (cherries and rum, 'fruits of the forest' with vodka, black currant). John was disappointed that they didn't sell Benedictine there, though they did have different kids of beer and mead (made from fermented honey).

The pulpit in the Tyniec abbey church

Another delightful afternoon excursion!

Friday, January 18, 2008

Nowa Huta

Nowa Huta's Plac Centralny (main square) im. Ronalda Reagana

With the weather turning to spring-like temperatures (30s and 40s instead of the teens), I decided to take a break from writing exams. We hopped on a tram to visit Krakow's largest suburb, built from scratch after the war as a large industrial (Nowa Huta means "new steel works") and residential complex. The Soviets planned this city as a means of producing steel in great quantities to help rebuild the nation, but did so in a way that would send an architectural message in direct contrast to that of Krakow. It was meant to be the communists' idea of the perfect city - one of only three built outside the Soviet Union - to showcase socialist ideals. Apparently the experts still disagree on whether this planned community deserves to be studied as an important example of urban planning. Large boulevards radiate out from the central square (recently renamed for Reagan in a strange piece of irony), which is a huge hexagonal space ringed by large, grey Socialist-Realist buildings with grand arched galleries on the ground floor. Before everything became covered in soot and grime from the steel mills, this was supposedly a beautiful (if architecturally boring, compared to the wonderfully varied buildings in Krakow's old city center) community: each large apartment building covered the whole block and was a self-contained unit with its own inner courtyard, school and shops. Though today the steel mill operates at just 1/4 its previous capacity (with significant reductions in its harmful emissions, so we're told) 200,000 people still live in Nowa Huta - most of them in large, nondescript apartment buildings nothing like the buildings pictured above on the central square.

One of the more interesting buildings in Nowa Huta is the antithesis of all that the city was supposed to be: the Arka Pana (Ark of the Lord) was the city's first church and was pieced together by volunteers. In keeping with the anti-religious policies of the postwar government, churches were not included in the original plans for Nowa Huta. After years of intensive lobbying (and open-air Masses held in fields by Krakow's archbishop Karol Wojtyla - who later became Pope John Paul II), the Catholic population eventually received reluctant permission to build the Arka Pana in the 1970s. The resulting building (designed to resemble Noah's ark - symbolicly encouraging Poles to persevere through the "floods" of communism) is an amazing building.

The Arka Pana is a concrete structure encrusted with mountain pebbles. There are many very interesting design elements to this building, including the support for the bell tower, below, which is surprisingly reminiscent of a Jewish menorah.

The interior of the church is no less spectacular - and controversial: Instead of a high altar, there's a figure of Christ flying to heaven positioned half-way down the aisle.

One tour book ends its description of the Arka Pana this way: "While architecturally interesting, the church is mostly significant as a symbol of an early victory of faith over communism: you'll be hard pressed to find a more powerful testament to the resilience of a persecuted modern Polish nation."

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

MBA Class

Cracow University of Economics (in nicer weather)
I haven't done any postings for a while because I've been busy preparing for and then teaching a week-end executive MBA class on Implementing Change (a course I have not taught before, so it required quite a bit of preparation). Though exhausting to teach 6-7 hours a day, three days in a row, I think the class went quite well. It was fun to be with working managers who could readily relate to the information and think of examples to apply the ideas we talked about and I think they also appreciated my business experience. (This was the last class of their 2-year coursework.) Since my other students are from all over Europe, this was also my first experience working with students who could give me insights into Polish businesses and how they are managing the transition to a market economy. Several of the students told me afterwards that it was the best class of their MBA - John thinks they were just buttering me up to get a better grade, but I'm choosing to take them at their word (it makes me feel good)! Their class projects aren't due until the end of February, so I'll still be doing work for this class long after I'm back home!

My office at the University

Amazingly, the University was as busy - if not busier - on Saturday and Sunday as it is during the week. Even at 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. the hallways were packed. I guess that says something both about the University's ability to make full use of their facilities as well as the desire of Polish people to gain an education.

On Sunday we also experienced "fund raising, Polish-style." On our way to the University in the morning, there were young people on every street corner with the same cardboard "bank" boxes for collecting money and heart stickers to give to people who donated. We weren't sure what it was all about, but found out once we arrived at the University. This was a nation-wide effort to raise money to buy equipment for childrens' hospitals. On our way home late in the afternoon, there was a big stage in the main square with bands playing. Everyone had the red heart stickers on their jackets - you just had to donate if for no other reason than to fit in! The fund raisers must have all been well-trained because they were courteous, yet aggressive. Once we got home and turned on the TV, it was like a telethon reporting fund raising levels from different cities in Poland and various competitions between different companies, etc. Very interesting!

Monday, January 7, 2008

Happy Sylwester!

Krakow's main square (the Rynek) on New Year's Eve

We couldn't figure out why all the signs advertising New Year's Eve talked about "Sylwester." Then in Budapest and Vienna it was the same thing - Sylvester! When I asked my students (who are from all over Europe) what they call New Year's Eve, they looked at me rather strangely and said "Sylvester, of course." Turns out the 31st of December is the day of Saint Sylvester – therefore, New Year's Eve is “Sylvester."

(Saint Sylvester was Pope from 314-335, and according to legend healed from leprosy and then baptized the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great - a major turning point in the history of the Christian Church.)

Today, many cities here celebrate New Year's Eve by holding formal "Sylvester Balls" but in Krakow, everyone heads for the main market square - at least it seemed like everyone in Krakow was there. It was almost impossible to move, it was so crowded. John, Alison and I headed off to a side street to observe the festivities from a little distance, but Nick dove into the thick of things going right up to the stage (where bands had been playing all night) for a great view of the fireworks (and popping champagne bottles) at midnight. (We still got soaked, even on our side street.) We learned later it was estimated that only 190,000 people were in the square that night when over 200,000 were expected. I don't know how any more people could have possibly fit!

(And I did buy some tacky little pigs in Vienna to give to John, Alison and Nick - hope they bring them good luck in the new year!)

The center stage in front of the Cloth Hall

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Elegant Vienna

The best word I can think of for Vienna is "elegant" - where else would you find chandeliers used as the street lights at Christmas? Here are a few others...

On December 28 we left Budapest and took a short (3 hour) train ride to Vienna. Though farther east than Prague, one seldom thinks of Vienna as being part of "eastern" Europe because Austria was not part of the Eastern Block countries after WWII. And it did have a very different feeling to it than most of the cities we have visited on this trip. It's also on the Euro and quite a bit more expensive - equivalent of any large, modern metropolitan city. We stayed in a pension with rooms on the 3rd and 4th floor of an old building right in the middle of the Old City area, close to the magnificent St. Stephen's Cathedral, the Graben (and other shopping streets), and the Hofburg Palace (with its Treasury and a magnificent collection of crown jewels, robes and other valuables...considered to be the best on the Continent).

Just a few of the crown jewels....

It was very cold, so we spent one morning touring Vienna from the tram that goes around the Old City on the "Ringstrasse." It's lined with many of the city's top sites...the Opera, Austrian Ministry of War (decorated with heads wearing different military helments), the Observatory, Votive Church, City Hall, Austrian Parliament....all very impressive buildings, though we didn't take very good pictures from the tram. We would love to visit Vienna again in warmer weather....though if it was this crowded in the winter, I can't imagine what it would be like in the summer!

Detail of the Austrian Ministry of War building

The Hofburg Palace (or, rather, one section of it)

Close-up of the Austrian 2-headed eagle. (The heads represent the dual sovereignty of the Emperor (secular and religious) and/or dominance of the Emperor over both East and West. Several Eastern European nations adopted it from the Byzantines and continue to use it as their national symbol to this day.)

This time in gold...

A strange contrast to the elegance of Vienna were these little kiosks all over the city selling cheap little pigs of all shapes and sizes. The receptionist at our pension explained that they are good luck charms people give to others on New Year's Eve to wish them luck for the new year.

Even the bakeries got into the pig thing...

Friday, January 4, 2008

Grand Budapest

We left for Budapest at noon on Christmas Day and rode a train through southern Poland and eastern Slovakia before arriving in Budapest, Hungary around 9:00 p.m. I knew it was risky arriving in a new country on a holiday night, but had good directions on how to use the Metro to get from the train station to the hotel and the tour book said there were several ATMs in the train station. What I didn't count on was that much of the train station was under construction (though the section where we arrived was an absolutely beautiful 19th-century building that reminded us of Paris' Orsay train station-turned museum), the area where all the services were supposed to be was closed off with wood boards). There was only one accessible ATM and of course it was out of service (probably out of money). The ticket machines for the Metro (subway) didn't take credit cards, so we all went on a search for a near-by hotel where we could change some dollars into Hungarian Forints. After three tries we found a desk clerk at a Best Western who was very helpful, got our Forints, went back to the Metro and easily found our hotel, the Victoria. What a wonderful surprise when we finally checked into our rooms and looked out the window for what has to be the most fantastic view around. Our hotel was in "Buda" looking across the Danube to "Pest" and the Parliament building and other grand structures. Built as a capital of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, the word that kept coming to mind when touring Budapest was "grand." The buildings are all HUGE and the streets broad. For example, the Parliament Building (one of several built in 1896 for the city's millennial celebration) is enormous, with literally miles of stairs. (We didn't get to tour it because we didn't realize you needed your passport with you to get a ticket.) Today, Hungary's legislature only uses one-eighth of the building.

The Budapest Parliament (Orszaghaz) is really much more impressive than these pictures indicate.
During our time in Budapest, we toured the castle hill (in Buda) with its Matthias Church founded 800 years ago, walked the two grand streets of Pest (Vaci Utca - the shopping and "promenade" street - and Andrassy Ut - a boulevard with theatres and cafes often compared to the Champs-Elysees in Paris), shopped at the Great Market Hall (another grand building from 1896), visited St. Istvan's (Stephen's) Basilica, went to Heroes' Square (Hosok tere) with all the statues of famous Hungarians, walked the Chain Bridge (the first bridge to connect Buda and Pest, built 1842-1849), and rode the first subway built in continental Europe. (You guessed it - built in 1896 for the millenial celebration - every construction worker in Hungary must have been working in Budapest that year.) It was grand and it was cold. But our hotel, besides having a great view and wonderful breakfasts, had a sauna!

John in Heroes' Square, with a statue of Arpad, the grand-daddy of all Magyars (MUD-jars, the Asian ancestors of today's Hungarians). Do you see any family resemblance? John's grandfather (Martin Balo) listed his race as "Magyar" on his immigration documents to the U.S. The Hungarian language isn't related to any European language (except Finnish and Estonian) - it isn't even Indo-European in origin, which would make it very difficult to communicate if so many people didn't speak English or German.

Exterior of the Market Hall

Budapest Market Hall, an early shopping mall built in 1896, is still filled with produce stands, bakeries, meat markets and other produce on the main floor and Hungarian-style fast food and traditional Hungarian crafts (and souvenirs) on the second floor.
My favorite part of the Buda Castle Hill was the "fishermen's bastion" - a structure built with cone-topped towers to represent the tents of the nomadic Magyar tribes. (The fish market was just below this hill on the banks of the Danube, so this part of the castle was supposedly guarded by the fishermen, thus the name...)

There are 7 cone-topped towers in all, to represent the 7 Magyar tribes.

St. Stephen's Basilica

The Chain Bridge at night

And, yes, we ate goulash and meat with paprika sauce. Here the paprika shaker replaced the pepper at the table. There was also a lot of fish on the menus - such as "pike perch" from Lake Balaton, the large fresh-water lake in western Hungary.

Christmas Eve in Krakow

Nick and Alison in front of our Christmas Eve dinner restaurant - which opened in 1364!
On Christmas Eve Day, Alison and I did some shopping first at Krakow's very modern mall and then at the traditional downtown Christmas market. (Actually, we just looked at the mall and then did our real shopping at the market square. )

Alison says the big red heart lollipop from this stand is one of the best she's had! She was disappointed when it wasn't there after Christmas.

Since most places close down on Christmas Eve (this time is traditionally spent at home with a 12-course meatless dinner followed by opening gifts and then midnight mass), we made reservations for an early dinner at a very old restaurant on the square, Wierzynek. (According to legend, its opening in 1364 was attended by 5 kings and 9 princes. Since then, DeGaulle, Bush and Castro have also supposedly eaten here.) We then walked home through the lovely square all lit up for Christmas, exchanged our gifts, and shared our "oplatek" Christmas wafers and Merry Christmas wishes. (Traditionally this is done before dinner: each person breaks off a piece of the very thin wafer and shares it with other family members, then exchanges kisses on both cheeks, and offers a Christmas blessing.) Nick's gift to me was a Polish cookbook that includes the menu for the Wigilia (Christmas Eve) feast, so I guess I'll have to try it next year. (Though I doubt I'll see big tubs of fresh carp in the grocery stores at home!)

Our "Wigilia" - Christmas Eve dinner

These Christmas Angels have been set up in parks all over town - there's even one at the airport. Though I couldn't get a very good picture of it, this is the one we pass every night on our way home.