East Europe 2012: Berlin’s Civility, Poland’s Market Squares, Czech Republic’s Castles

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Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic



For me, Paris has been the most beautiful city in the world without the natural advantages of an ocean with beaches and a backdrop of hills enjoyed by Rio or San Francisco, but Prague bests it.  The depth and extent of its architectural heritage is astonishing.  Indeed, that heritage flows over to many smaller towns in Moravia and Bohemia. Tourism is still a nascent industry in the Czech Republic, but it already attracts in excess of 8 million visitors per year compared with 80 million to France.  See it while you can still move around comfortably.
My trip started with three days in Berlin to attend Christian’s wedding.  We worked together at the World Bank on East Africa, China and Romania.  We also belong to a quasi-fraternity of inmates of a singles house in Georgetown, Washington DC.  Many fraternity brothers came from different parts of the world to celebrate Christian finally tying the knot for the first time at near age 60.  I am a half member of this fraternity as I used the guest room on visits from New York and then attended parties there after moving to DC. The contingent from the US lodged at the Seehof Hotel situated by Lietzensee, a small lake that stretched for about a mile and had a park on one side that was used by joggers, walkers and exercisers in the morning.  The hotel’s patio with tables for eating and drinking, overlooked the lake.  The water, greenery and serenity set the tone for Berlin.  Two of the wedding functions were at restaurants by a lake or an island in the middle of one.  The city, reconstructed after WW II, is spotted with parks.  Its traffic is orderly and carefully accommodates many bikers.  The subway system is extensive and ticketing is on an honor basis.  Berlin conveys a civic impression.
I was last in Berlin in 1959 when not much of the city was whole and reconstruction had not made much progress.  I recall sitting in a café on Kurfurstendamm, the main shopping street, drinking a Berliner Weisse beer.  The café is still there, but a lot spiffier.  Indeed, the whole street is fancy with stores of all the main international brands.  This time, instead of beer, I ate a Curry Wurst at a stall, apparently the most popular street food in Berlin, rivaling London’s love of Chicken Tikka Masala.  Later, in the afternoon, we stopped at the restaurant in DeKaWe, the Harrods/Nieman Marcus of Berlin, in search of an Apfel Strudel, but had to settle for a juicy Plum Strudel.  Given our limited free time, several of us took a city tour, sitting on the open upper deck of a tour bus.  What a dramatic change since 1959, especially in the former Soviet sector of East Berlin.  Some landmarks such as the Brandenburg gate and Checkpoint Charlie, the border markers between East and West Berlin, and street names such as Unter den Linden, Friedrich Strasse and Karl Marx Allee remain, but the surrounding context has changed completely to modern architecture.   The Reichtag has a striking glass dome with public access over the debating area, symbolically conveying democratic values of transparency and oversight.  The Museum Island in the River Spee houses five museums.  We visited the Neues Museum, which ironically houses the ancient Egyptian collection, notably a beautiful bust of Queen Nefertiti.  The presentation of artifacts was pleasing to the eye, subtle and informative.
The day after the wedding, accompanied by a friend from the UK, we rented a peppy Nissan diesel car and drove through Silesia in Poland to Wroclaw, the province’s historic city.  The drive was through completely flat, sparsely populated farming country with small villages, clusters of houses around a church, every ten to twenty miles.  While clean and orderly, these villages did not look as prosperous as in the Czech Republic or Germany in that order, reflecting their relative income per capita.  I imagined Europe to be densely populated, industrial and urban, but Poland and the Czech Republic are not.  They still have vast areas of cultivated land, growing a lot of corn surprisingly.
Although seventy percent of Wroclaw was destroyed in WWII, the center of the old town’s Gothic and Baroque architecture has been restored to its former glory.  Its historic market square, with a town hall built between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries as its centerpiece, was the main attraction.  Restaurants and shops surround the square with churches and a university in the vicinity.  It came to life at night when the restaurants filled with diners, tourists wandered around, musicians began to play and performers juggled and danced.
Driving South-East from Wroclaw towards Krakow, we stopped at Klodzka, an ancient city going back 6 millennia.  By chance it was a market day and we strolled through a couple of hundred small stalls offering produce and dry goods.  The fruit tasted good, but the dry goods were basic.   The small town’s historic Gothic and Renaissance architecture survived WWII and was charming to walk through and look at while drinking coffee on the square.
Krakow is Poland’s main tourist draw partly because it miraculously escaped destruction.  It lies on the Vistula River in a valley at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains.  It has a spectacular fourteenth century castle complex on a hill; the largest medieval town square in Europe with a sixteenth century Renaissance Cloth Hall in the center; palaces all around; many churches in the vicinity; the oldest surviving university building in Poland; and a historic Jewish neighborhood where we lodged.  We walked many miles through these sites and along the river where we had a picnic lunch in the sun.We were lucky to be there when the moon was cresting, making the market square magical at night, buzzing with activity in the surrounding restaurants and bars and music wafting throughout.  One evening we listened to a Chopin piano concert in a restored palace at one end of the square.  Walking through the Jewish cemetery and looking at its wall mosaic of headstones was a visceral reminder of the atrocities they suffered.   Tours were available to Schindler’s factory and concentration camps, but we did not visit them.
Kracow Market Square
My friend left for the UK from Krakow and I drove into the Czech Republic where I spent about a week.   In the province of Moravia, I stayed in Olomouc for a couple of nights and visited Trebic and Telc, all deservedly UNESCO Heritage Sites with striking medieval architecture.  Telc, the smallest, looked like a movie set and indeed films have been made there.   Olomouc has an astronomical clock similar to its more famous cousin in Prague’s main square except, instead of angels appearing on the hour, it has workers, courtesy of the Soviet era.

Walking around Prague, along the Vltava river, over the Charles Bridge, in the castle and the narrow streets of the old town, is stunning despite the throngs of tourists.  Most of the remarkable architecture is old, but the city also sports the work of modern architects such as Frank Ghery, whose “dancer” building was near my hotel.  At a nearby restaurant, I struck up a conversation with a real estate developer from Miami and his local partner who renovate and rent or sell houses in Prague, apparently a lively real estate market.

One of my fraternity brothers joined me in Prague for a couple of days.  We used one of them to drive to Cesky Krumlov, also on the Vltava river in Southern Bohemia and a UNESCO Heritage Site with an impressive castle, town square and pebbled winding streets.  We had a nice lunch at a restaurant by the river and coffee on the square.   Afterwards, we took a circular route back to get a fuller view of southern Bohemia.  The scenery was spectacular as it got hilly, and especially around a large lake surrounded by a pine forest, a real forest rather than a large clump of trees.
Prague Main Square
Prague also has museums and performances of all kinds.  I visited the Kafka museum, learned a little about his life.  A handsome man in his portraits, he was convinced he was ugly, looked like an insect.  The Mucha museum had many of his famous nouveau posters of Parisian Theatre, including some of Sarah Bernhardt, and iconic posters of garlanded Slav maidens.  The Museum of Modern Art, appropriately housed in a modern building, had a well-architected display of lesser paintings by most famous impressionists and their Czech colleagues.   I attended a high-quality concert of Vivaldi, Pachelbel and Brahm’s music in an old, opulent auditorium and a bland performance of Swan Lake in an equally bland modern auditorium.

Incongruously, having lost all recent wars, the Czechs seemed proud of their military prowess.  The changing of the guard at Prague’s palace at Noon was an event attended by hundreds of spectators even though it did not have the pomp of its equivalent at Buckingham Palace.  Also, there was an afternoon-long performance by Czech and neighboring country military bands in the main square of Olomouc.

On my way from Prague to Frankfurt to return the car and get on a flight to London, I broke journey in Wurtzburg on the river Main.   It was a sunny, warm Friday afternoon that brought out the best in the city.  I had lunch in a restaurant by the river and spent the afternoon walking around town.  From my table, I looked out over the river to the castle on the hill to my left and a vineyard on another hill to my right.  It’s an old town that was almost completely destroyed in WW II, but the historical structures have been rebuilt.  My walk took me through the Residenz, a small version of Versailles, a university, many churches and over a bridge adorned with statues, rather like the Charles Bridge in Prague.  I toyed with the idea of climbing the hill to see the castle, but decided instead to enjoy a glass of tasty dry Sylvaner at a wine bar at one end of the bridge.  I was not alone in taking advantage of the beautiful day by any means.
Prague Castle
In the past year or two the German economy has been in the press a lot because of the Euro crisis, but reports about Poland and the Czech Republic are few.  Both countries have done well through the recent crisis, primarily because of prudent internal economic management.  Poland’s economy did not shrink at all, although its growth slowed.  Its GDP per capita (PPP) was just over $20,000 in 2011.  The Czech economy, which is more export oriented, did decline in 2009 because of slack demand for its goods and services, but recovered growth in 2010. In that year, it produced 1 million cars for the first time and exported 80 percent of them.  Its population enjoyed a GDP per capita of over $27,000 also in 2011.

These countries’ economic prosperity is reflected in good roads throughout my 2000 mile trip, even the small two lane arterial roads.   Poland had the best roads, perhaps helped by EU resources, but they were very good in Germany and the Czech Republic too.  The highways were mostly two lanes in each direction although just before Frankfurt they expanded to four.  There are no speed limits outside of city areas.  I often clocked 100 mph in the slow lane and heard cars wooshing by me in the fast lane, especially Audis and BMWs or, worse, creeping within inches of my rear bumper if I was in the fast lane and had not noticed them.  Moving from one country to another was seamless—there were no border posts.  What a change from when I drove across Europe in my youth.

Commerce in Poland and the Czech Republic has not caught up with Western Europe or the US.  Shop fronts are simple and goods inside are stacked rather than displayed.  Restaurants I ate at were old style too, with menus that provided information without embellishment and servers were not young, except in tourist areas.  The Czech Republic was more advanced than Poland, especially in Prague where a street appropriately named after Paris had all the swish international brands.  Many small grocery stores were owned and staffed by Vietnamese, apparently the biggest single immigrant community in the country.

The beer was outstanding in Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic, especially the latter.  I drank the widely distributed brands, but apparently the Micro-breweries produce even better beer. I stopped at a grocery-wine bar in Olomouc and a hole-in-the-wall neighborhood Enoteca in Prague.  Wines were on tap in both places.  In Olomouc, locals came in to fill 1.5 liter plastic Coca Cola bottles for about $2 to take home.  As a tourist, I was given special dispensation to taste wines in a glass.  In Prague, bottles of wine were displayed on book shelves that lined one wall (none from California, by the way), but everyone drank the wines on tap accompanied by chunks of cheese and sausage.  The Traminer and Pinot Noir wines from Moravia were potable, but not memorable. The Sylavaner I drank in Wurtzburg was fruity and light, perfect for a warm, sunny day.

Food was a weak link in Poland and the Czech Republic.   The staple offering was some kind of large sausage (brown, white or red (blood)) that was boiled, grilled or fried. The sausages needed the help of mustard for taste, even the Kielbasa, which in the US is quite spicy.    With the sausage came bland sauerkraut or potato salad, but fresh green vegetables were not in sight.   Indeed, the only green vegetables I saw were in a what we call a “Russian Salad”, where they were immersed in mayonnaise so thick that a fork would stand upright in it. I did not venture beyond the sausage into big cuts of this or that animal or bird.   I did notice a number of vegetarian restaurants in Prague, however.

Whether it’s because of the climate or diet or being beaten up in wars, the Poles and Czechs were generally polite, but not warm or friendly.  The Czechs came across as dour, somewhat surly and downright rude a few times.  In their favor, they have preserved carefully the erstwhile Jewish ghettos with synagogues and museums in each city, even in a small town like Trebic.  Guides discuss the WW II holocaust with guilt in atonement.  Younger people seemed more in tune with their cohort in more developed countries and everyone I asked directions from in that age group spoke passable to good English.

After the long drive in Poland and the Czech Republic, I got on a plane from Frankfurt to London, a slow train from Gatwick to St. Pancras, a subway to Finsbury Park and then a cab to my friends house.  I was glad to spend a week in London where I could more or less communicate with everyone.   My visit came after two years so I was happy to catch up with friends and imbibe world-class culture.  I saw four plays and also visited four art galleries.  The standard of acting was high in all the plays, but Mark Rylance gave an outstanding performance in Richard III at the Globe Theater.  I was lucky to sit a few seats away from Vanessa Redgrave, one of the world’s leading actors.  Among the gallery visits, the exhibition of Edvard Munch’s paintings at the Tate Modern and the French Impressionists at the Royal Academy of Arts stood out.  I enjoyed a glass of wine at the Tate Modern’s Bar on the sixth floor with a great view of the City.   Prices in London were surprisingly high especially as the country is in recession, perhaps not in London though.  A movie ticket in the West End cost about $23 and an ordinary hamburger in the Royal Court Theater restaurant cost about $22.


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