Friday, January 4, 2013

New Year, New Life

Although there are still a couple of weeks left before the inevitable and welcome return to my country of origin, it's nearly impossible to enjoy.  The eye twitch has returned, signaling a finite end to carefree and footloose times in far-flung lands and the beginning of what is bound to be a long and challenging reintegration.  So my challenge now is to try to savor these precious days in Malta, Amsterdam, and Reykjavik without allowing the pressures of employment, housing, and any other concerns detract from the sunset of my journey.

It has been a long time since I last wrote.  This is because the most emotional and life-altering moments of my travels ended when I left Ukraine, at least that's how I feel about it now.  During my travels in Eastern Europe, I satisfied my burning desire for context...the context of family history that I've lacked all these years.  I'm not saying that all my questions were answered, nor that I have a complete family tree to share with future generations.  But that was never the point of this adventure, and I apologize if I didn't communicate that message effectively to friends, family, and new acquaintances over the course of the last six months.  As cliche as I know it sounds, the payoff is and always was about the journey itself, not any tangible evidence like family documentation or solving mysteries a la Everything is Illuminated.

I've been coming down from the high since November, but I am happy to report that the fall has been tempered by the incredible sights of Israel, Turkey, and now Malta.  It's unreal how much I've been exposed to in such a short timeframe...I know I've written it before, but it really is too much to take in all at once.  It's going to take me a long time to wade through these experiences, which is good news because it means that this is the trip that will keep on giving, long after I'm back on terra firma in North America.

In keeping with the pattern of previous posts, let's take a few moments to breeze through some of the highlights of the last few weeks of my time in Israel, as well as the week in Istanbul that I spent with Angi from Seattle over the Xmas holiday.  I made it to Jerusalem and I am so glad that I did.  Everything that people told me about the city was true - it is just one of those places in the world that feels special.  There is something emanating from the hills, the forest, the stone buildings, the narrow alleys of the Old City, that exceeds the sum of its parts.  This is the land where millenia of history have taken center-stage, a showcase for the three great monotheistic religions, where the line between myth and reality is blurred.  I took in all the main sights and also allowed ample time for wandering, which I try to do wherever I go.
Dome of the Rock and Wailing Wall
I made it to the Dead Sea on my last day in Israel.  Beautiful desert landscapes and Earth's lowest elevation on land. The views of what remains of the Dead Sea (it is shrinking rapidly) from the top of Masada were monumental.  Masada was the last stronghold of the Jewish Resistance from the time of King Herod...the Romans finally ousted them in the 1st century CE.  I know it doesn't seem possible with the amount of time that I spent in Israel and the tidy size of the country, but I did not have enough time to see everthing I wanted to see.  I didn't make it to the Sea of Galilee, the historically important Christian cities of Bethlehem or Nazareth, or the town of Safed in Northern Israel which is one Judaism's four holy cities and a major center of Kaballah. 

Masada Gondola
At times in Israel I felt that I was right in the heart of the Arab world.  The old cities are chock-a-block full of minarets and souks, Hebrew sounds like Arabic depending on the accent, and Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are all within spitting distance.  Look, my cousin and I even had to drive through the West Bank in order to get back to Kfar Yona from the Dead Sea!  However, when I arrived in Istanbul where there are spider-like mosques everywhere, I realized that Israel is actually more Western than previously judged.  No piece of the skyline is without a minaret or four stretching upwards toward the sky.  I had almost completely forgotten what I learned in college about the Muslim faith and traditions, so hearing the five calls to worship daily was a good basic refresher.
Hagia Sofia Catacombs
Everything about Istanbul was unexpected...mostly because it wasn't originally part of my itinerary.  As such, I didn't do any research or planning for Istanbul...I left it completely in the capable hands of my friend from Seattle.  The main takeaway from my week in Istanbul was WOW.  I couldn't stop exclaiming this everytime we went to see this palace or that mosque.  The Ottoman style of mosaic art and ornamentation was something I just hadn't been exposed to in the past.  Stunning.  I also learned that there are a lot of places to see in other parts of Turkey that we just didn't have time for:  Cappadocia, Pamukkale, Ephesus, and Konya.  Finally, I gleaned an understing of what it means to be a modern Arab state and how well Turkey has seemingly managed to adapt to modern times while still staying true to its religious heritage.

Now, for the first time since I left Lviv on November 18, I'm on my own in Malta where I've tasked myself with getting a head start on the job search back in California.  Sightseeing by day, working by night.  And an unstoppable eye twitch.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Hallelujah for Halvah

Halvah Selection at Carmel Market in Tel Aviv
About half-way through my month in Israel and, during that time, have probably ingested as much halvah as I have in my entire life.  Israel is not a safe place to be for someone with no self-control when it comes to this tasty sesame treat!  Hummus, falafel, and pita have also been consumed in massive quantities.

Other than it's culinary delights, Israel has much to offer the wandering pleasure-seeker:  the Mediterranean coastline, ancient cities, and desert mountains.  In all these places, stories from the Bible are brought to life, especially for those who have actually read the Bible (self admonition and homework assignment). 
Rosh HaNikra Grottoes
Up to this point in my travels in Israel, I've been to the northern border with Lebanon, the southern border with Jordan, Egypt, and the Red Sea, and many places in between.  I've met my Barishpolsky cousins here, and have heard about their family histories and their strong roots here in this country.  Everywhere I've been and all the people I've met over the course of the last 2+ weeks have caused a reaction in me that is the exact opposite of what I had expected.  The Jewish identity that I've been blindly holding onto for most of my conscious life has become eroded to the point that what's left is that which has always been there...a thin veneer of awareness accompanied by very little substance.  What I mean to say is that you cannot merely will yourself to be something without truly understanding what it is to be that thing.

In Israel, unlike the countries I visited in Central and Eastern Europe, people are quick to encourage Aliyah while extolling the nation's favorable attributes, with an emphasis on the sense of comfort gained by living side-by-side with fellow Jews without fear of anti-semitism.  In Poland, Hungary, and Ukraine, the people that I met seemed to share the sentiment that life in their countries is sub-par in comparison with the way they perceive life to be in Western Europe or the United States.  Growing up in the United States with a relatively high standard of living and a lack of exposure to blatant anti-semitism (perhaps due to my minimal participation in religious and cultural activities), I have never looked to Israel as a refuge as many others have.  And while I appreciate and affirm the raison d'etre for Zionism and the State of Israel, it is not where I want or need to be.  
Holocaust Memorial - Rabin Square, Tel Aviv
On the family side of my visit, I still have not been able to confirm how exactly I'm related to this branch of the Barishpolskys.  However, I can tell you that we have some physical similarities, including the nose...deviated septum and all.  We also share a biological propensity for twins.  We are planning to send our cousin Eugene on a mission in the Kiev archives to see if we can find anything substantive that proves our blood relation, although that no longer has any bearing on the strength of the new relationships that we are building together here.

Next week I will be visiting Jerusalem and the Sea of Galilee.  There is so much to see for such a small country!  I am already taking an inventory of all the sites I've passed up and will not have time for so that I can cover those on my next visit to Israel.  That future visit could happen relatively soon, depending on the plans of my best friend from Seattle and his mother.  We've been talking about coming to Israel together for almost 10 years, so it's about time for that trip to materialize.
Fresh-Squeezed Pomegranate Juice in Tel Aviv
My days abroad are numbered now; I will be back in Boston next month.  I look forward to what the future holds, but I've still got more to experience in these final weeks.  More Israel, a week in Istanbul, 18 days in Malta, 2 days in Amsterdam, and 2 days in Reykjavik.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Mother's Motherland

Holodomir Memorial - Kiev
If my last entry effectively conveyed the deep blue funk that Lviv reigned upon me, prepare yourself for a see-saw ride to the other extreme.  The continuation of my travels in Ukraine were redeeming, both for the country and for my purpose.  I connected with new family, paid homage to my ancestors, got closer to understanding life after Communism, and became ever more certain of the amplitude of human kindness on this lone planet.

The trip east began with a ride on Ukraine's new express train between Lviv and Kiev, covering the distance of ~350 miles (roughly the same distance as San Francisco to Los Angeles) in just under 5 hours.  This modern beauty was purchased from Korea to link several of the country's largest cities in time for the UEFA Euro 2012 last summer.  It was a pleasure, especially since I splurged for first class as a reward for surviving the previous 3 days.  Not too much scenery on the way due to the thick, unrelenting fog, but I imagined at various intervals during the journey the caravans of immigrants who passed over this same terrain a century ago enroute to the ports of Northern Europe, driven by the promise of a free, prosperous life in the the Americas.

My cousin Eugene, one of several Barishpolsky mishpocha that have surfaced over the years thanks to the advent of Facebook and, met me at the train station.  Here is a complete stranger who has experienced life in such a vastly different way than me; but we share the same family name and are instantly connected because it matters to us.  While the intrigue continues as to the exact ancestral connection, we made fast friends and found common interests and embraced each other whole-heartedly, without pretense.
Cousin Eugene and our Tour Guide - Bila Tserkva
While in Kiev, I stayed with a very nice family who went out of their way to ensure maximum satisfaction for their guest.  Although the same bone-chilling weather followed me from Lviv, I was able to manage by diving into cafes or descending into the subway to warm up whenever I couldn't feel my face anymore.  Kiev is a grand city, full of monuments, beautifully restored churches and government buildings, and wide boulevards.  The subway system is a real experience.  For about 20 cents a ride, I joined the throngs of city-dwellers at an unfathomable depth for a jam-packed ride underneath the vast metropolis.  On several occasions, I recalled stories of attendants in Japan who are charged with pushing people into trains...that's how crowded it was.  Sadly, it was riding the subway in Kiev that I was exposed to one of the heartbreaking realities of the city - homeless dogs.  Click here for more information on Ukraine's abhorrent handling of this problem.
St Sophia Cathedral
The main reason for my week-long stay in Kiev was to use it as a home base for day trips to Gritsev and Bila Tserkva, two towns that are a part of the family history for the Fleishmans and Barishpolskys in my family.  My Ukrainian Manager [UM] (i.e., the woman who I stayed with in Kiev) accompanied me to Gritsev, a 4-hour bus ride into the heart of the country where only Ukrainian is spoken (no Russian).  In advance of the trip, we got in touch with some locals who offered out of the goodness of their hearts to show us around town.  Mischa met us at the bus stop with a big smile and took us directly to the WWII Memorial a few kilometers outside of town where thousands of local Jews were killed/buried in a mass grave.  It was located down a path in the forest just off the main road, a place somehow protected from the world by an impervious shield of serenity.  I wondered if I had any family members buried there.

Back in the village, we saw symbols of Soviet prowess, statues of Ukrainian national heroes, and a world seemingly untouched by the 21st century.  Upon deeper inspection, however, some modern technology had managed to seep into the village:  there was a wi-fi hotspot in the Community Center building and a Peace Corps volunteer in residence to modernize the systems of the office of the Town Council.  This is where I met Yuri, an official of some title that I was unable to ascertain, but who had a document to share with me.  It was an inventory of bodies buried in the mass grave, assembled some years ago by an Israeli who came to Gritsev researching his ancestors.  Back in Kiev, my UM read the names written in cyrillic aloud and I listened for something familiar.  As bizarre as it may sound, I was half-hoping to hear a familiar name, so that I could have a concrete, indisputable connection to the village.  Even so, it was a relief that there were no apparent matches with any of the family names that are a part of my heritage.
Sugar Beet Transport - Gritsev
The remainder of the visit consisted of a stop at the lakeside site that may have once been home to the village's Jewish community, a tour of a museum of local crafts that included a large selection of Ukrainian folk dresses made by girls at the vocational high school, and lunch in the home of our tour guide, Mischa.  To make the best impression on his guests, he picked up some moonshine from a friend's house and proceeded to offer it; per tradition, I felt obliged to drink so as not to offend.  I was able to fend off much of the onslaught politely, but what I did imbibe gave me bloodshot eyes and warm toes.  Thus, the return bus trip to Kiev was slightly more bearable, although I was yelled at upon boarding the bus for not speaking Ukrainian.

The trip to Bila Tserkva was much easier because it's only an hour away from Kiev, to the south on the Ros River.  It's also a pretty big city, so the bus connections were frequent and nobody expected me to speak Ukrainian, or Russian for that matter.  My cousin Eugene accompanied on this trip because he too was able to trace his family to this city, so he had an interest in spending some time there as well.  In another incredible turn of events, we were given the name and phone number of one of the leaders of the Jewish community in Bila Tserkva during a visit to Kiev's main synagogue (Brodsky).  We called upon arrival, with no advance warning, and Natella met us near the bus station with an offer to take us to all Jewish sites of importance straight away.  Although I didn't plan in advance the details of how I'd manage to find my way or discover what there was to discover in these two places, the cards fell into place and I was dealt a royal flush.  My gratitude to those who conspired to fulfill my dreams is immeasurable.

Shtetl Life - Bila Tserkva
Bila Tserkva was different from Gritsev in that a thriving Jewish community still exists there.  Remnants from the past still exist as well, including the old shtetl (although no longer Jewish), a Yeshiva, and the Choral Synagogue.  An active Jewish cemetery exists on the site of the old cemetery that was destroyed by the Nazis, which I see as a testament to the will to survive and thrive.  Eugene and I capped of the day of touring with a visit to the regionally-famous Oleksandria Park, with its romantic Classical structures, glades, stone paths and an international collection of trees and plants.  We headed back to Kiev satisfied with the day's adventure and a newly-formed visual on the place known previously only as a word written in the documents of my grandmother's mother's family.

So I leave Europe now with a better understanding of where my people came from.  The culmination of years of research brought with it pleasure and pain, but in the end, the puzzle is more complete than ever before.  It's still blurry in places, but it's enough for me.  I am ready to put this chapter to rest, put it behind me, and recalibrate the focus of my curiousity to the present and the future.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Reality Bites

Carbonated Water Dispenser from Soviet Era
At first I couldn't quite grasp why Polish and Hungarian people call themeselves Central Europeans, rather than Eastern Europeans.  Now I understand; as soon as I boarded the overnight train from Budapest to Lviv, I had clearly crossed the Eastern threshold.  Suddenly, nobody spoke any English and any concept of customer service or courtesy was irritatingly lacking.  At the Ukrainian Border, the agents who boarded the train for passport control had a chuckle when they saw my American Passport.  My interpretation of his chuckle was, "why the hell would an American want to go to Ukraine?"  I started to wonder the same thing when, several hours later, I disembarked in Lviv and was smacked across the face with an arctic blast of post-Communist desolation.

In all fairness, I believe my experience to have been somewhat corrupted by the November weather.  The temperature hovered around freezing for most of my stay, with a ground-hugging fog that broke only momentarily...enough time to snap a few photos of the beautiful UNESCO-listed historic center.  Like Krakow, Lviv was spared the decimating German bombing of WWII.  I witnessed the architectural and Medieval city planning similarities between the two cities, owing mostly to the fact that both were part of the historic region of Galicia under the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Due to its proximity to Poland, the Ukrainian language shares much of the same vocabulary and grammar, giving me a very slight language advantage when interaction with locals was necessary. That said, local interaction was limited as most people were shuffling as quickly as possible from origin to destination to minimize exposure to the elements, which included suffocating air pollution.
Lviv Theater of Opera and Ballet
The most humorous attempted exchange was at a cemetery located on the edge of the city.  I was tooling around looking for interesting Jewish tombstones when a woman approached me.  Although we both were skilled in other languages, none were in common.  Somehow, through a mixture of Polish and Dutch (me) and Ukrainian and German (her), I learned that she was cataloguing the cemetery residents and that she worked at an aviation museum near the airport.  She became supremely annoying after a while, asking me to accompany her to the depths of the cemetery because she was scared to go by herself.  This happened to be the coldest day of the three in Lviv, so by the time I was able to disengage, I was already chilled to the bone and had quite a walk ahead of me to get back to my apartment.  To my surprise, my puffy black jacket, hat, gloves, and scarf are not sufficient deterrents to the 100% humidity of the cold air here, which is different from the dry cold that I once knew in Alaska.

Apart from the Yanivsky Cemetery noted above, which was incidentally an assimilated cemetery (Jewish, Ukrainian Orthodox, etc), I also made it a point to visit historic places of interest of the former Jewish community who thrived in Lviv for about 500 years.  Lviv actually had a larger Jewish population than Krakow, but you wouldn't know that given the relative lack of evidence.  In fact, the apparent lack of recognition of Jewish contributions to the community and the remoteness of any memorial to said community was a painful realization.  The lowlight is the story of the Old Jewish Cemetery, which can be found here.  In a nutshell, the 500-year old cemetery was destroyed by the Nazis and has since been paved over and used as the city's largest outdoor marketplace.  Although Soviet and post-Soviet authorities recognize that the marketplace is built on top of more than 25,000 Jewish bodies, no progress has been made in restoring this site.
Holocaust Monument at Entrance to Former Jewish Ghetto
In Lviv, I felt depressed.  The buildings were muted and warn, just like the downward-turned faces of the city's inhabitants.  The feeling of desperation and desolation pervaded the city's parks, churches, and monuments to Ukrainian nationalists.  Soviet-era housing blocks were just a stone's throw away from the 14th century churches and restored Baroque facades of the historic center.  I could not find a soul nor a heart in this city of 1.5 million. 

One of the challenges I am facing during this phase of my travels is that I am barely able to keep up with all the new sights, sounds, and history that I am encountering in each new place.  By the time the revelations occur to me, it's onto the next city and a whole new bag of surprises.  This is the downside of lumping my checklist of must-sees all together in one big trip.  Hopefully over time I'll manage to sort through and make sense of what I've experienced in Central and Eastern Europe; I'm hoping that this brief diary will offset my less-than stellar short-term memory.  To maximize the benefit of this adventure, I must come away from this with some conclusions or self-awareness that will stay with me for years to come.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Land of the Magyar

Hungarian Parliament
Eight days in Budapest was not enough to get an adequate introduction to all the city has to offer.  I realize that many travelers only spend a long weekend or a few days of their European mega-tour in Hungary; I must be spoiled after my 7 weeks in Krakow.  Part of the trouble is that the winter season has arrived, and with that season comes dramatically shortened days.  Coupled with my lack of discipline when it comes to waking up at a decent hour (I'm on vacation!), 2 days in Budapest in November is equal to 1 day in London, Amsterdam, or Krakow in September.

I walked around aimlessly most days until my legs fell off.  I had no preconceived itineraries or must-sees as this is the beginning of my travels in unknown lands sans Lonely Planet.  I love to travel this way as you never know where the day will take you and what pocket-full of mysteries will challenge your knowledge of the world (or lack thereof).  There was so much eye candy with all the different styles of architecture, a true marriage of East and West!  In fact, I couldn't stop taking photos of all the exotic facades that I encountered on my meanderings - see Facebook photo album for the highlights.  This awakening of my unknown architectural sensibilities made me think of my Mom's reaction to Gaudi's designs during her visit to Barcelona several years ago.

Art Nouveau Facade
I stayed in a great neighborhood in Distirct VII, which is where the Jewish Quarter is located.  Unlike much of Eastern Europe during World War II, a large number of Budapest Jews survived the Holocaust, which means there is a thriving community still in existence today.  Still, there is no lack of horrors to be told in the city's memorials to the Jews who did perish in the ghetto or were deported to concentration and extermination camps.  As I was wondering through the Great Synagogue complex, which is the largest synagogue in Europe, I happened upon the Family Research Center, where I was able to scan microfilmed birth records of Jews born in Budapest in the 19th Century. 

According to my records, my great great grandmother Lena Kline was born Budapest in 1872.  Unfortunately, I was unable to locate her birth record after two hours of searching +/- 5 years of records.  It is possible that she may have been born in a village near Budapest, or maybe her age was more than 5 years off from what is shown on her death certificate, or maybe she had a different first name that wasn't anything like Lena (I looked at as many variations as I could imagine).  Despite the failure, I enjoyed the search and it did help me to confirm three things:  1) the name was definitely spelled Klein in the old country, 2) this was a VERY common name, 3) Lena's mother's name, "Saly", was very likely a short version of the common Hungarian/Jewish name "Rozalia".
Tree of Life Holocaust Memorial - Victims Names Inscribed on Leaves
Budapest was full of Vienna-style coffeehouses (kavahas) with delicious pastries and warm drinks offering refuge from the frigid Transcarpathian air.  I found a few favs, but there were many more that I would've loved to patronize had I had the time.  The intake of rich, calorie-laden delights helped make a dent in the weight loss I suffered in Paris...that is, until I got take-out from a Bangladeshi restaurant on day 5.  Big mistake, but at least I can still fit into my skinny jeans!

Let's see, what else...I spent a day at a Turkish bathhouse that was built about 5 centuries ago, took the suburban train to the picturesque Danube settlement of Szentendre with it's Serbian Orthodox churches and marzipan museum, got a haircut at the most exclusive salon in Budapest on Andrassy Street (think Champs Elysees) for $25, saw the 1000-year old right hand of Saint Stephen (the first King of Hungary) in an ornate box called a reliquary, got lost in the hills of Buda populated by wealthy villa-dwellers, and visited the American Embassy for notary services on Nov 7th, a day of jubilation for 50.7 percent of Americans.
Rudas Turkish Baths
Budapest was a beautiful city, full of surprises and delights.  I cherished my time there and can't believe that I've spent all these years unfamiliar with this jewel of the Danube.  I hope to make it back one day soon and perhaps I'll be able to share it with someone special.  I'm in Lviv, Ukraine now; the contrast between Central and Eastern Europe couldn't be any more dramatic.  More on that in the next post!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

I'm Back!

Rewinding the clock back a couple of weeks to talk Paris.  Where to begin...

My 10 days in Paris began with a high-octane tourism blitz co-piloted by none other than Yuko Furogori.  Yuko and I went to University of the Pacific together back in the 90's and our friendship is one of the few from that period that has stood the test of time.  Although I have yet to make it to Japan to visit her, our paths have crossed in Long Beach, Amsterdam, and now Paris over the course of the last 15 years.  Yuko loves Paris as much as I do, which is why she invited me to hang out with her during her vacation.   
The Clock at the Musee D'Orsay
Although I've spent a lot of time in Paris over the years, I've never given in to the popular attractions to the extent I did during my first four days with Yuko.  Bottom line is I'm cheap and Paris is not, so I am typically reluctant to hand over my hard-earned dollars for the exorbitant entry fees to museums, churches, palaces, etc.  Our apartment was beautiful (and free for me!), in the 7th arrondissement a couple blocks away from the Eiffel Tower and the American University of Paris.  We visited Versailles, the Orangerie, St Denis Chapel, the Musee D'Orsay, the food hall at the Bon Marche, and Sex and the City filming locations.  We dined on steak frites, Basque cuisine, and the famous and pricey macarons of Laduree.  We packed in so much in such a short period of time; not an easy transition for me considering the relaxed pace I treated myself to in Poland.  At the end of our time together, I probably blew more cash than I spent in Krakow in a month.
The Grand Trianon at Versailles
After Yuko left, I went to stay with my friend Celine Battestini and her husband Olivier.  Celine is the sister of Frederique, who was a childhood friend that I met during my first ever overseas trip to Corsica when I was 14.  Celine lives in a suburb of Paris called Chatillon, a very quiet and restful place that was the perfect balance after being run ragged by Yuko.  Unfortunately, my first night in Chatillon I came down with a gastro-intestinal virus...aka the stomach flu.  The doctor said that there is an epidemic in Paris at the moment, and the subway is one of the primary breeding grounds.  By day 3 I had lost about 7 pounds and was considering upgrading the title of my malady to the Bubonic Plague.  Luckily, the involuntary discharge tapered off and I began to regain my humanity.

As soon as I was up to it, we went to see Skyfall at Bercy, weeks before it had been released in the US.  What's up with that?  We then went hunting for a new iPhone for Celine; I have never been in a household with so many Apple gadgets before.  Without the support of Celine and her husband, Apple would likely be bankrupt.  I spent my final days in Paris visiting some of my old stomping grounds:  the Marais, Montmartre, and the Ile St Louis.
Rainy Day at Montmartre
Due to my current interest in and focus on Jewish sites of interest, I also made my way to the Shoah (Holocaust) memorial and the Great Synagogue.  I also noticed for the first time a number of memorial plaques at the entry to Parisian elementary schools, in remembrance of the thousands of Jewish school children who were deported to labor and death camps during Nazi occupation.  In almost every instance, the memorials to the Jews of Paris who suffered during this period included verbiage assigning equal blame to the French government's for their complicity.

Overall, Paris was a welcome break from the challenges of being alone in foreign lands.  Spending time with friends in a familiar place, speaking a familiar language helped me to recharge my adventure batteries.  Hungary and Ukraine, here I come.

Sunday, October 21, 2012


As the fall weather continues to astound locals and visitors alike in Krakow, I have taken the opportunity to take a closer look at some of the sites that I initially overlooked, namely those of an ecclesiastic nature.  I have been utterly astounded by the beauty contained within a number of these centuries-old palaces of monotheistic worship.  Because photography is either forbidden or requires an additional payment (hey, I'm on a budget!), I have only a few interior photos to share with you that I was able to sneak in before being reprimanded.

Famous Triptych (Closed) in St Mary's Basilica
Starry Blue Ceiling in St Mary's Basilica 

These photos are of St Mary's Basilica (Mariacki), which is the largest and most well-known of Krakow's churches.  One would never know from the massive and simple red-brick exterior that such delicate and intricate beauty resides within.  The triptych is something of a tourist attraction - it is opened every day at 11:50 by a nun in front of an audience of hundreds.  This altarpiece was created in the late 15th century by Veit Stoss and, when open, depicts 12 scenes from the life of Jesus and Mary.  It was disassembled and hidden away during WWII, but the Nazis found it and took it Nuremburg where it barely survived Allied bombing.  It was recovered, restored, and reinstalled in its proper home about 50 year ago.
The ceiling blew my mind.  The combination of the height, the richness of the royal blue color, the architectural/structural elements of the gothic ceiling, and the gleaming gold stars were awe-inspiring.  There was also at least one wall of stained glass in the church that had survived since the 14th century!  How is that possible?  Divine intervention, I'm sure.
Royal Cathedral at Wawel Castle
I stepped into at least a half-dozen other churches over the course of the last two weeks.  Besides St Mary's, the other one that really stood out was Wawel Cathedral.  It is here that monarchs of the days of yore were coronated and interred.  Many other prominent Polish visionaries and revolutionaries are buried here as well, including Tadeusz KoĹ›ciuszko, Adam Mickiewicz, and two Polish Saints.  Wawel Cathedral was built in the 14th century, with many alterations occuring over the years that made the cathedral what it is today - a hodgepodge of towers and domes from different architectural periods.
I am leaving Poland in a few days, satisfied with the luxury of time that I granted myself here and the opportunity to truly absorb and reflect upon my surroundings.  I am ready to move on to my next destinations, where I can only hope to be as nourished as I've been here in my great great grandfather's homeland.  The itinerary of these future destinations is coming together in expected and unexpected ways.  Next stop, Paris.  It has been 9 years since I was there last.  Where have the years gone?