God the Creator, in the ST. Francis Church, Krakow. Design by Stanislaw Wyspianski.

In grad school, late at night over drinks, my friends and I gave name to the “Disneyland Effect.” It refers to a kind of willed openness, a receptivity to experience and determination to enjoy that can occur when one has paid an ungodly amount of money for the experience itself. 

We didn’t come up with the idea, of course – it’s the actual product you purchase when you buy a ticket to Disneyland, and it’s what inclines folks to tolerate the long lines, overpriced food and commercialized mayhem: I will be enchanted!  And in these circumstances, it can lead to all manner of nefariousness and exploitation, that human urge for a smattering of wonder.

But it can be cultivated, too, this hunger to become dazzled. And travel is the easiest way to cultivate it. You’ve bought your ticket, paid for your hotel room, and there you are: somewhere new. You go out, wandering the streets of a place new to you, and you’re looking for things.

Even if you’re following an itinerary, some pocket guidebook: you wind up at that museum or view, and then you search (probably with that anxious voice needling you in the back of your consciousness: what am I supposed to be finding here?). Better, then, to wander, and keep the object of your search open-ended. And when you search, you will find: not always the thing you were looking for (thankfully), but sometimes something altogether better. 

In Krakow, for instance, unsought for, I found this:

The Saint Francis Church, part of an old Franciscan monastery that has been in the Old Town since the 13th century.

A gleaming mosaic on the exterior caught my attention, magpie-like, and drew me in:

Where my kind of vulgar, if ever-ravenous appetite for color was momentarily sated:

These wonderful stained glass windows struck a note of familiarity in me, though I’d never heard of the artist (whom a guidebook explained was one Stanislaw Wyspianski). 

The sinuous lines and abstracted drama reminded me of Yeats, or one of those symbolist paintings that lay gleaming on the pages of a magnificent old art book that’s haunted the bookshelves of every place I’ve lived for the last 30 years or so.

Wyspianski, I learned, was a part of the Young Poland movement at the end of the last century, a contemporary of Yeats, in fact, though not as long lived.  Like Yeats, he was a polymath – a poet and dramatist, a designer of interiors in the tradition of William Morris.  And like Yeats, he was a romantic nationalist, someone who sought to create a soul for an as-yet unrealized nation from old myths and personal vision.

Wyspianski’s self protrait

I’m fascinated by (and more than a little jealous of, I confess) the notion that for these poets, art was not only about self expression; It was also a deliberate effort to articulate, to actually create, the soul of a nation.

Design is a crucial part of this effort: space shapes the things it contains, whether in the cover of a book:

Wyspianski-designed book cover

Or on the wall of a room:

Krakow medical society design for a frieze, by Wyspianski

Location is crucial. Identity is rooted in the specifics of place.

Wyspianski painted Krakow’s Planty in winter.

The soul of a culture is rooted in soil, and the things that grow from it.  And so Wyspianski looked at the plants that grew in the suburbs of Krakow, and drew them.

He painted people – the bonds between people, as much as the individuals themselves.

And, most magnificently, he designed those stained glass windows, to color light and alter the air we breathe when standing in one of those transformed, transcendent spaces that are created. 

Interestingly, he painted Kazimierz the Great, one of the founding fathers of Poland, as a corpse.

Walking the streets of Krakow, I sought wonder, and I found it – and something more.  A life that I’d not known about, and the expression of that life, in color and image and idea.

Krakow: Now I love Polish Food, part 1

Krakow provided me with a number of delightful surprises, the most pleasurable of which was the food. I’d never really thought about Polish food. Sure, I’ve enjoyed the odd Pierogi here and there, and used to be a connoisseur of some of the old Polish/Ukrainian diners one could still find in NYC’s East Village during the 1990’s (Does anyone remember Leshko’s?).

At the edge of Tompkin’s Square park. It was Ukrainian, actually. Rice pudding with cherry pie filling from a can dumped over it. Microwaved vegetables for a few cents. And yes, amazing Pierogis. Perfect late-night hangout for impoverished NYU students.

At the end of our first day in Krakow we made our way to the market square in the center of town. The sun began casting shadows along the ground, while lingering on the spires and rooftops and towers:

And we looked for a place to eat. Krakow has it’s share of pricey, western tourist restaurants, of course — most of which occupy the prime real estate facing the square. Pizza Dominium, Hard Rock Cafe (cough), even a Mcdonald’s down a side street: we wanted the pleasure of dining on the square, but… Polish, please.

And somehow, by some wild accident, my fantasies of brown, earthy, peasant cuisines all came true. On one edge of the square, directly facing Eros Bendato’s empty head sculpture, was a place called Dobra Kasza Nasza — which translates to, google informed me, “Our Good Groats,” or something.

This is what watches you as you dine on the terrace at Dobra Kasza Nasza.

A restaurant that specializes in Kasha, that wonderful eastern European dish that partakes of the rich, savory tradition of whole grains, cooked vegetables and meats.

I was in heaven, of course. My family was indulgent. They are well aware of my enthusiasm for pottage-like foods, and endure it with good grace, most of the time. But here — a whole restaurant that not just accommodated, but celebrated my enthusiasm!

Thank you, Dobra Kasza Nasza. You are not alone, brothers and sisters of the groat.

Krakow: Books, not walls

If one is an English-speaking native, whose Polish is not so great, and who is at that crucial moment in a long journey when all one’s imported reading material has been completed… one seeks out a place like this:

This is Massolit books, Krakow’s magical English-language bookstore. It is a bookstore / cafe, actually, but really — it is so much more. You doubt? I submit:

It is, in fact, an old apartment –two, actually — on a quiet alley in a leafy part of town. Behind walls of books (looking very much like the dwelling place of one’s bookish, cracked old Bachelor great-uncle) one can barely make out the traces of old rooms and speculate as to their function. Drawing room, study, kitchen… bathroom? All book lined, now, in glorious apotheosis:

The other apartment is just through here…

I sat here a while, imagining I was some homesick expatriate.

A book purchased abroad reads differently than the same book purchased at home. I bought a new edition of a book I have at home — Hoffman’s The Devil’s Elixers — and, thumbing though it at the table above, it seemed a new story altogether. I suppose it might have been the translation; more likely, my mood. I was the thing translated…

English language bookstores in Europe are profoundly different from bookstores in the US or the UK. They’re haunted by different ghosts, they generate different longings. Restless natives, homesick travelers, struggling language students…

I’ve been to many an English language bookstore in Europe, and loved them all. But Massolit books is my favorite, and the one I’ll dream about when I’m housebound and my imagination pulls at the confines of home.

Krakow: Looking Up

I forget to look up. In my daily life, when I’m embroiled in the soothing monotony of routine, my gaze is usually fixed on what is in front of me. When, on occasion, by eyes are drawn upward — by a sudden vista, a cloudscape or sunset — I am grateful.

And that’s something I like about travel. It can be can be irritating to natives, I suppose, that tourist’s gawk — pausing in the middle of a busy pedestrian zone, in some enspired European city, gaze drifting upwards (and hopefully mouth not too agape…). But at least it’s an occasion when one is actually looking — trying to see a place, whatever filters might be there.

And Krakow is a wonderful city to look up in.

Skylines draw your gaze upwards…
Rooftops and clouds conspire to do so, too.
And Mickiewicz does his part.
Church facades are designed to lift one’s gaze…
As are church interiors…
Apartment facades facilitate the drift of my gaze upward…
As do castle towers.
Spire and sky counter gravity: the resting place for my eyes is up, not down…
In Krakow, artists and architects reward the upward gaze…
Walls creep upwards…
Where treasures are…

Being a traveler reminds me to do what I should be doing always, on occasion: look up.

Vienna, actually…

Krakow: Replacing Walls

When a wall becomes redundant, what do you replace it with?

During the industrializing 19th century, as the population of cities throughout Europe began expanding and new modes of warfare rendered the old city walls useless, urban fortifications began coming down.

It may be kind of a cultural litmus test to see what the city fathers decided to do with that precious ringing real estate that emerged as moats were filled and walls came down.

In Vienna, the frequently besieged but now secure capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ring Road replaced the old walls, lined with palaces and (now) wonderful, pricey shopping emporiums.

The storied Ringstrasse

Some cities keep them, memorializing there medieval past:

Nuremberg City Walls

But in the more comfortably-sized Krakow, the old city walls were replaced by a verdant public park, the planty. On a warm summer afternoon of strolling, lounging around in the planty was like slipping into a cool, leafy pool.

Trees line the path a like the nave of a church

Sure, there are enough fragments of the old wall left to serve as picturesque reminders. There’s the Barbican, on of the old fortifications:

Barbican, with random tourist

And a front gate, beneath which folk musicians play:

But mostly, there is green. A broad swath of tree-lined parkway for the public to enjoy.

There are places to lounge:

And places to dine and drink:

There are fountains:

And flora:

And statues and flower gardens to wonder about:

And scholars, with whom one can debate:

And argue with:

To replace walls with such a park: a fine trade, don’t you think?

Slovakian Food (Koliba style)

As a tourist it can sometimes be tough to actually find that “authentic” dining experience we’re all seeking after. I mean, you’re in Slovakia, so any food you eat is going to be, like, Slovakian.

So I assumed that actual Slovakians in Slovakia would go out to a restaurant specializing in “Slovakian” food about as frequently as an American would go to a restaurant billing itself as serving “American” food. Like, never.

But I might’ve been wrong.

On our first night in Strba, looking around for a restaurant that served traditional Slovakian fare, we found this place, on the road up to Vysoke Tatry:

Restauracia Koliba Zerucha. It was perfect! Old wood construction, both inside and out; sheepskins thrown over the backs of chairs (as ubiquitous as it is kind of random in a certain type of Slovakian restaurant); hearty, carby foods in variations I’d never heard of. We were pretty happy at this manifestation of authentic Slovakian cuisine!

And then, at the summit of Narodny park, between Ruzomberok and Banska Bystrica (a pretty well-established Slovakian ski resort, it looked like), we were delighted (and a tad disconcerted) to come upon this authentic-looking place:

Koliba Goral
Notice a pattern?

We ate there, enjoying the wood decor, the Slovakian food, the neighborhood cat (whom Liam named Koliba, duh):

taste-testing the food…
Politely thanking us…
And then waiting for more.

We stayed at a small mountain down in South-Central Slovakia called Vyhne. On the road out of Vyhne, we noticed…

Koliba Furmanska, Vyhne.

And near my father’s old town of Hochwies (now Velke Pole), we enjoyed wonderful food (and endured terrible service due to a slow-moving wedding party) here, at Koliba Riecky:

Koliba Riecky

At this point I finally began figuring out that Koliba is not just a Slovakian word for “Restaurant,” or something. Yup, it’s a chain. And it is ubiquitous in Slovakia. I mean, on a 45 minute drive through the country we’d pass 3 or 4 different Koliba restaurants. It became a game for us: “Koliba!” someone would scream out as we drove some green wooded way, and there it’d be — all wooden and well-tended and Slovakian.

Does that make it more authentic, or less authentic? The difference is semantic, I reckon.

But for me, a carb-addled American tourist with romantic ideas of what authentic Slovakian peasants ate, I was just happy to have a reliably good place to indulge my fantasies of authenticity, and other of my appetites:

Thanks, Koliba.

Slovakia: The Tatra and a very large castle…

Approached from the south, they loom up suddenly, erupting from pleasant green fields and gentle hills like shark’s teeth. We wondered about the geology of the place, that time and shifting continents should push up such particular peaks.

I love these European maps of mountain ranges; I have a small collection of them, mostly of Alps…

We hadn’t particularly planned on spending time in the Tatra mountains; it was only a name that had been lodged somewhere in the back of my mountain-loving psyche. But the rest of Europe was simmering in the very hot Summer of 2019, and the temperatures in a little place that no one had ever heard of called Strba were among the lowest we could find, and so we headed East.

We found a a small, quiet house to rent, with a lovely view:

That grew lovelier as evening approached and crepuscular creatures stirred…

Vysoke Tatry is an old resort, directly up the mountain’s shoulder from Strba. Established by some Hapsburg tycoon in the 19th century, it surrounds a small, clear mountain lake.

Alpine flowers edge the lake
Though humans aren’t permitted to swim in the clear water, ducks are…

There some dreary buildings put up during the communist era, but some lovely old restored Hapsburg era ones, as well.

And a few appropriately cheesy (rather inexplicable) touristy gimmicks:

The Tatra mountains run West-East, forming one of the boundaries between Poland and Slovakia. From Poland, in the north, the views are equally dramatic, equally beautiful.

I love that jagged-toothed peak to the right.
The approach…

Our little stay in Strba afforded another pleasure. A short drive away is Spissky Hrad, the largest castle ruin in Europe, I’m told.

The approach to the castle is dramatic, a huge pile of stones looming over verdant fields, forest-covered slopes in the distance.

It’s just, really really big. It looks like an outcropping of one of those Tatra mountains…

Sweating up the steep mountain approach, Liam and I imagined a soldier in some besieging army, being ordered — after such an exhausting hike — to charge the walls in the face of whatever horrors were being rained down upon you…

And then the gates…

And yet another hill to the keep.

Yeah, no.

It’s such a huge ruin that only bits of the castle have been restored. There’s a kitchen that would work quite nicely for me in whipping up some feast…

For the benefit of us bloodthirsty tourists they’ve also put together the all-important dungeon and torture chamber, and on the opposite spectrum of things (I think) the rather lovely and moving little chapel.

From the towers, you get a sense of how big the grounds are.

Beyond these hills, in the eastern reaches of Slovakia, a great plain stretches right into Russia, a highway for successive waves of invading armies from the East. Spissky Hrad was one of those marcher castles erected as a defiance, a ward, a wall against what comes.

Interlude: Buchlovice

Over coffee at the car rental counter we googled the best route to our destination, the High Tatras in Slovakia. The mountains of North Eastern Slovakia are a long drive from Prague, and so we looked for somewhere we could stay overnight to break the journey up.

After a few dead ends we settled on a place that we’d never heard of, a hotel beneath a castle in a place called Buchlovice. We hopped in our rented Skoda and, after several hours of driving through Moravian hillscapes, we arrived.

The Hotel Buchlov is set on a wooded mountain, overlooking green-tilled fields on one side, the castle Buchlov half hidden by trees on the other side.

After airports, the intricate press and density of Prague, after a long drive: the beauty and stillness of the place was a shock to our senses. Liek plunging into cool water on a hot day.

It’s good to stretch legs after a long drive…
And run…

It was a warm day, but a gentle wind picked up as the afternoon waned into evening.

There it is, Hotel Buchlov, with the castle behind.
And the castle, closer up.

We had a wonderful meal at the hotel’s restaurant which afforded a wonderful view;

And then a walk amongst evening fields;

We had a swim in a pool as still and refreshing as the wind itself on our skin;

And later, I watched as the sun went down over the quietest fields I have known. Distant sounds blew in on the breeze and made it seem stiller.

I felt like I’d arrived home.

In the morning we explored the castle itself, enjoying the cool press of stone and years.

Hrad Buchlov is a bit run down — not as proudly rebuilt as it’s counterparts in Germany, perhaps (German ruin in the now-Czech countryside).

But it afforded some peaceful places for relaxation (such a change in roles, as a castle slips into ruin!)

As well as a proud overseer:

In the morning, refreshed in many ways, we resumed our journey to the High Tatras mountains.

I swear, I’m not doing any promotional work for the Hotel Buchlov, but it provided a bucolic backdrop for one of the most peaceful afternoons and evenings I’ve ever spent.

Thanks, Hotel Buchlov.

Neighborhoods: Josefov and the Dead

On Golden Ages

Prague’s “Golden Age” was the product of a close collaboration between the state and the many different populations that were drawn to the city during the late 16th Century. 

My favorite Hapsburg Emperor, Rudolph II, had taken up residence in Prague, establishing it, rather than Vienna, as the center of the world. 

And for a while, it was.   Rudolph was more interested in metaphysics than governance, and he had nearly unlimited resources.  So: he welcomed brilliant thinkers and artists from all over Europe. Through his single-mindedness as much as his financial largesse, he became midwife to one of those “vortices” of concentrated brilliance that occur, now and again, in history.  (For more on Rudolph II and his wonderful court, click here). 

One of the key ingredients for this Golden Age was Rudolph’s support for Prague’s ancient and oft-abused Jewish population.  True, Rudolph may have been motivated more by a greed for knowledge than a genuine, progressive tolerance for religious difference; what is undeniable, though, is that Rudolph seems to have been singularly unaffected by the religious prejudice and sectarianism that tore Europe apart shortly after his death.  Protestants, Catholics and Jews were all welcome at his court; Rudolph was less interested in the provenance of a beautiful or rare object, than the object itself. 

And so, under his reign the Prague’s Jewish quarter thrived.  He oversaw the completion of four magnificent Jewish synagogues, the very ones that tourists flock to today: the wonderful Maisel Synagogue is my favorite among them.

Beautiful Maisel Synagogue, facade
And interiors
I love the light-filled simplicity of the interior.

Rudolph’s support for the Jewish population was only a moment in time, a brief period of tolerance and collaboration.  There were other such moments (my 2nd favorite Hapsburg Emperor, Joseph II, was also a great patron of Prague’s Jewish population; the Jewish quarter is today called Josefov in his honor.) 

We visited the old Jewish cemetery early one drizzly morning.  It’s striking that such a place should draw so many tourists.  What did we seek, walking amidst such dense compressions of time and memory? 

Through the locked gate
Gravestones and trees
Trees and stone and blood and bone
And flowers bloom
“I had not thought death had undone so many”

It’s a moving experience, and a little unsettling.  I only wish I could understand a little more precisely what, exactly, I am moved by in a place like this.  The memory of so many lives, compressed into a single place, a single moment?

The tomb of another of my heroes, Judah Loew ben Bezale, Rabbi Loew, scholar, mystic, philosopher, sometime collaborator with Rudolph II.

Outside and across from the cemetery is the oldest Synagogue in Prague, called (kind of delightfully) the Old New Synagogue.

Rabbi Loew created a man of clay from the banks of the Vltava. The Rabbi gave the clay man a name, Josef, and a slip of paper with a Hebrew letter, Shem, on it to slip under his tongue and bring him to life.

The Golem was created to protect the residents of Prague’s Jewish Quarter, and is at the nucleus of many legends of the quarter. In some, Frankenstein-like, he slips out of control and causes havoc. In others, he falls in love.

His body remains, legend has it, in the attic of the Old New Synagogue. The windows have been sealed up, as you can see, above.

But you can also see the ladder, whereby the Golem — should he ever wake — could climb down from the attic —

And slip down amidst the old alleyways of Prague once again.

Prague, Then and Now

So, here is Wenceslas Square in 1987, when last I visited:

Quiet(ish) Streets

Here are more pictures form the old Prague, the one that I remember from my first visit. They’re not mine (I didn’t take pics as a young man, foolishly relying upon the immutability of memory):

I remember empty streets, streets down which I can imagine Athanasius Pernath, the mad narrator of Gustave Meyrink’s novel The Golem, slinking. Magnificent old buildings, yes, but often grimy and decrepit, awkwardly set against some communist-era gray concrete monstrosity.

There are not many crowds; the trickle of tourists is thin and doesn’t disrupt, much, the slow life of the city.

I like the yellowish light in these old photos; Communism seems to have fixed the city in some hardening amber haze.

And here is Wenceslas Square in 2019:

Constructions, Commercials, and Crowds

Wenceslas Square is bustling; familiar international shops, high-end and otherwise, line its edges. Advertising, construction cranes, and so. many. people.

So. Many. People.

Yes, we were visiting in Summer, the high season for tourism. And it’s still lovely. But by noon, the press of people in Old Town Square was like Disneyland on Memorial day weekend.

So. Many. People.

It’s kind of ignoble to complain about a bustling economy, about tourism, about crowds, so I won’t do that.

And I certainly don’t want to valorize the empty(ish) streets and slow pace of a city bogged down in Communism.

But a market economy has transformed Prague over the last 32 years. Time enacts its own violences on an ancient city, but I don’t think it’s melodramatic to say that Capitalism speeds the process of transformation.

Prague is an amazing city, and has been for a thousand years or so. But perhaps a bit less so now.

And if I return, it won’t be in Summer.