Why Go to Bratislava

“Why are we going to Bratislava?” Someone asks the question on this route every time we board our luxury coach to leave Vienna. Why aren’t we driving straight to Prague? That’s the city that most of us came to see.

Prague is coming, yes! But Smithsonian Journeys made a good decision to weave an overnight in Bratislava towards the end of this Old World Europe tour. People won’t realize how good a decision it is, though, until they get there.

I’ve learned not to promise too much along a tour. The Warsaw restaurant that gave us scrumptious salmon last year might be serving dried-out fish this year. A terrific guide at the National Gallery in Budapest could retire before I bring my next group through in May.

Still, I feel confident about Bratislava. People have low expectations. They may have read about the city under its historic names of Pressburg (German) or Pozsony (Hungarian), but that’s about it. You’d be surprised how many well-traveled folks think Slovakia and Slovenia are the same place. (They’re not.)

Plus, by now it’s Day 13 of the tour. Our heads are spinning after intense visits to Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest, and Vienna. People are getting a bit homesick, especially for their dogs and cats. Let’s just get this Bratislava side-trip over and move on to Prague!


Marc Ryckaert (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Then we spot Bratislava in front of us: the white castle, the graceful slopes, the bend of the Danube. The bus winds past an ornate symphony hall and stately opera house. Somehow our driver backs the coach into a narrow, neatly treed alley next to a playful fountain. Baskets of flowers decorate the plaza and tidy, wooden kiosks beckon us to come sample Slovakian handicrafts and tasty treats.

Within an hour, we’re sitting on a touristy red “choo-choo train” that hauls us up the steep castle hill. Despite our average age (well past 60), we giggle like third graders.

From Castle Hill we can see the confluence of three countries: Slovakia, Hungary, and Austria. Of course, the map hasn’t always shown these borders. Spending any time in this part of the world, a person realizes that national borders are but shifting sand—valid for a few decades or centuries, but continuously susceptible to the winds of political and military change.

Bratislava’s hilltop castle is nicknamed the “Upside-down Table.” Today, restored but still largely empty inside, its walls glisten in the nighttime illumination. The Soviets rebuilt the castle during the Communist period, repairing not World-War Two destruction—as one might guess, but destruction caused by a fire when troops were garrisoned during the Napoleonic Era. In between, the castle lay in ruins. History moves at a different pace in this part of the world.

The entire Old-Town area has free wi-fi, a magnificent side-effect of the wholesale renovation of gloomy, dilapidated Bratislava after Communism. Slovakia’s economy has done quite well since then. A good deal of the GDP is based on car manufacturing, aided by supporting industry. Bratislava today wouldn’t be recognizable to those who saw it during the impoverished decades of Communist occupation.

But primarily Bratislava is an artistic city. The list of musicians who performed in Bratislava reads like a Who’s Who of Western music. In our hotel, portraits of composers hang along the corridors—men like Liszt, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg—as well as framed pages from their works. The voices of singers warming up for nightly performances drift from the top windows of the opera house. The Viennese still trek regularly to Bratislava for opera and philharmonic concerts.

Sour cabbage soup is popular here, too. Our witty local guide Katarina cautions us to eat this soup quickly, or it will leak through the bread bowl and perfume our clothes forever with cabbage smell. She keeps us laughing with dark Soviet-era anecdotes. They provide a channel of understanding into life in Communist (then) Czechoslovakia.

bratislava-soldierShe also tells us the stories behind the charming, life-sized statues that grace the squares in Bratislava. Most are bronzes, such as the Napoleonic French soldier who leans quizzically over the back of a park bench. People love to snap a picture next to him. They rarely notice that his backside faces the French Embassy.

Another endearing statue with a story portrays a rotund local hero named Ignac Lamar who lived at the turn of the 20th century. He had a sad personal history but nonetheless wandered the streets, wishing good will to all and distributing pockets full of candy to the children.

A third shows a pudgy fellow in a workman’s hat, peeking up from a bronze manhole in the street. In one interpretation, this monument reflects the Communist era when citizens spied on each other’s daily habits. But in another interpretation, his intentions were focused on looking up the skirts of the ladies passing by. The children love him and routinely sit on his head.

duck-dinnerWe end our long day in Bratislava by driving outside of town to experience a village duck dinner. Most people will say this is the best duck they’ve ever tasted. In fact, may people can’t reconcile how they thought duck tasted with this scrumptious, slow-roasted bird, accompanied by pungent red cabbage and potato pancakes.

Back to the hotel we roll, sometimes singing in a state of happiness that can descend upon a well-fed, well-satisfied group (even if we are adults). A good night’s rest lies ahead of us on the lovely linens of our hotel. In the morning I know I will hear folks saying: “This is such a nice city. . . I had no idea! Why aren’t we spending another night here?” I smile.


Ravishing Radishes Refresh Remembrances

radishesLet me tell you about the radishes here in Budapest. Maybe you have such radishes where you live, but, for me, radishes this big and tasty come only from the “paprika capital” of the world: Hungary.

Eating Hungarian radishes is like biting into an apple—juicy but crisp, sweet but pungent. I try to talk myself out of buying them every time I come to Budapest. I don’t really need them: the tour I’m leading includes marvelous meals.

But each time I’m here, a bunch of radishes rolls off the shelf and leaps into my arms. As if they are contraband, I tuck them under my jacket and sneak them into my room at the Castle Hilton. Phew. We are safe!

Sometimes travel comes down to things like radishes. The richness of intense travel can be overwhelming. In my work, I interact with a lot of different people on these tours: from fifth-graders to nonagenarians. Nearly all are encountering the details of hitherto unfamiliar histories for the first time. We’re traveling through places with complex stories like Russia, Poland, and Croatia. At a certain point, the tidal wave of information overwhelms the body, soul, and mind. Names like Vaclav, Sigismund, Kasimir, and Ivan somehow blend together into a single towering king, legendarily responsible for every dynastic disaster or accomplishment. Who can sort it out?

That’s why radishes help. Radishes, or something else simple that pegs the places we’re visiting. It’s easier to learn when we encounter things on simpler terms. For example, everyone is dazzled by the luminescent Zsolnay tiles that bedeck the magnificent roof of St. Mathias Church. But how can our eyes take in that beauty? How can they remember it?


St. Matthias Church, Civertan Grafik (CC BY-SA 2.5)

One strategy might be visiting a shop and buying a tiny figurine cast in the same Zsolnay porcelain. It could be a bird, a cross, or a miniature gargoyle. It will be colorful and luminescent, fit in a pocket or hang as a pendant. Most importantly, it will long serve as a reminder of the beauty experienced.

Some simple reminders are intangible, particularly smells and sounds. In Krakow, everyone’s heart is stolen by the Trumpeter of Krakow. The ancient tune resounds from the tower of St. Mary’s Church that overlooks the vast, opulent square. The trumpeters (a small brigade of professionals) play this brief, oddly truncated fanfare every hour on the hour, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. And they play it in 4 directions, opening the tower windows to the West, South, East, and North. By doing this, they not only stamp a musical signature on Krakow, but they evoke a centuries’ old practice when such church towers were the best watch towers for spotting an advancing army.

A personal favorite travel fragrance of mine comes also from Krakow. Their signature gingerbread, called Pierniki, is baked as small, dense biscuits shaped into hearts, diamonds, and clubs and dusted with a light coating of powdered sugar. Like every point of local pride, it is allegedly the “best in the world.” Those legendary kings probably gobbled it up as heartily as we moderns do.

The simple things can take the form of ritual visits. In Bratislava, once our official walking tour concludes, I walk to an inelegant, out-of-the-way shop where they print T-shirts decorated with patterns taken from ancient Slavic culture. These shirts aren’t cheap, but they last and last. I buy one occasionally and get so much pleasure from wearing it, particularly when people say “Wow, where’d you get that?” I can answer “Bratislava,” which, as you might guess, opens up an opportunity to talk about Slovakia—a gorgeous country not on everyone’s radar.

Maybe the most beautiful ritual visit I make happens late at night in Vilnius, Lithuania. The small, street-side chapel called Holy Trinity Church is the site of a beloved icon known as the “Image of Divine Mercy.” Around the clock, the icon gazes tenderly at the enthusiastic, predominantly young worshipers who keep vigil around the clock, often singing spontaneously in Lithuanian and Latin.

People say to me: “You are soooo lucky to be able to do what you’re doing.” Boy, are they right. I’m the girl who, even in high school, wondered if I’d ever get beyond my back yard. People from my childhood traveled only in books.

But I have gotten out of that yard. I even got across the little mountain called Round Hill that rose up behind our neighborhood. I now regularly cross the Atlantic between six and ten times a year. I know where to find the creamiest ice cream in Weimar and the strongest hot chocolate in Tallinn. And when needed, after review, I can rattle off the history of the Hapsburg, Jagiellonian, or Romanov dynasties with minimal effort.

But the radishes help. The little things that are real to us today help us to grasp the difficult and puzzling things of history. Indeed, small connections weave a thread that will draw us through the complex tapestry of the past. The small, beautiful things we encounter inevitably remind us of how humans have risen from the ashes, surviving the horrifying and disastrous events that define history.

So next time I will bear my radishes proudly through the lobby of the Budapest Castle Hilton. To the elegantly dressed concierge, I will smile, and point to my radishes. “You have an astonishing country, sir. And amazing radishes.” He might just understand and smile back!

Monument aux morts de Strasbourg


He caught only a glimpse of the monument. You know how it is, traveling as a tourist by bus. If you sit on the right side, whatever you need to see is on the left. About the time the guide mentions something important, the light changes and you zoom off.

But Anand managed a quick look at the monument through an opening in the trees. Known as Le Monument aux morts de Strasbourg, the sculpture by Léon-Ernst Drivier, erected in 1936, sits in the center of Strasbourg’s Place de la République. Our guide mentioned it so quickly, some people missed it.

As we rolled along, the guide added that it was modeled on The Pieta, but in an unusual form. The mother holds the body of not one son, but two: one representing a French soldier and the other a German.

Strasbourg’s geopolitical history is dizzying. This cultured city in a region known as Alsace has bounced so often between the French and the Germans, it’s hard to keep up. Plus, just because the Rhine serves as a stable border today between part of France and Germany, borders are never carved in stone.

All the more poignant, therefore, is the portrayal of the sculpted mother grieving over her sons. Think how often this tragedy has occurred, not just in the wars we call World War I, World War II, or the Franco-Prussian War, and not just here, on the Rhine.

The tour of Strasbourg came towards the end of our voyage down the Rhine. Booked as a “family cruise,” this journey brought together multiple generations. Among the 120 guests on the beautiful Amadeus Silver III were 29 kids! The youngest was about seven, while the older kids were experiencing the trip as glorious gifts upon their high-school graduations.

In the course of such a trip, you do get to know the guests rather well. Anand’s family was delightful. His grandparents exuded such joy, plus they kept us in stitches. Anand’s mom beamed with joy at having her two sons and her parents together, making lifetime memories.

Anand’s younger brother, about 12 years old, was the talkative one, spending his free time playing chess and games of strategy with a group of boys his age. He was clearly one of the leaders.

And Anand? He was the quiet one, the observer. Sixteen years old and a football player, he struck me as a gentle giant. His visible deference to his mom and grandparents, indeed all of the adults on the tour, was endearing.

To my surprise he came to my lectures and our discussion groups. He even offered a few comments. But other than that, he was like many teens his age: hard to read.

The evening after Strasbourg he told me about the poem. He wanted to know if I’d like to see it. Of course I did. He handed me his phone. (Is everything on a phone these days?)

I had to glance quickly at it, because we were due at an event. My eyes widened. “You wrote this after glimpsing the monument?” “Yes,” he said quietly. I asked him if he would send it to me, and he said yes.

We bumped into each other at the Amsterdam airport after leaving the ship, and I reminded him. “OK,” he said, with a smile. I added, “If you do, may I share it with people?” He seemed surprised. “I’ll be sharing it with good people,” I assured him. “People who care about history and the arts. And who care about kids.”

The next day he sent it. He asked only that I put his name on it.

Think of all the kids who, if exposed to the arts, would choose to express themselves in poetry, music, dance, painting, or drama! Don’t tell me that they are “electives.” Don’t even breathe the idea that they are frills or unimportant. Arts like music and poetry have the power to open a young person’s heart, soul, and mind. They are not artificial add-ons. They are expressions of our deepest reflections, ideas, and ideals, no matter what our age.

Here is Anand Ambrosi’s poem (as yet untitled):

All I want are my two little boys back
As I scream, I shout, and I cry.
How could you, how could you weep over them,
When you sent them off to die?

You called on them from your ivory tower.
Sat upon a throne of bones.
The blood of your people surrounds you,
But all you see is the other side’s throne

So you shout and you scream to take their land
As your throne grows with the bones of the dead.
Still you can’t see the cost of this great war
Because the blood hasn’t come to your bed.
I held my two boys’ cold and limp hands.
One fought for France the other for Deutschland.
But underneath they still bleed the same red.

I loved them, I loved them, I loved them.
All you thought of was winning the war
At the cost of my children’s precious lives.
You sent the devil to knock on my door.

All I want are my two little boys back,
As I scream, I shout, and I cry.
How could you, how could you weep over them,
When you sent them off to die?

A war will ne’er solve anything,
When two brothers fight for the other to die.
This, the great folly of war, can’t you see?
When one problem is solved,
In return you get three!
So, consider that war costs more than money
‘Cause you’ve left two holes in my heart.
And it hurts, it hurts, it hurts can’t you see?

To you they were just a pawn piece
I loved them, I loved them, I loved them
I miss their sparkling eyes.
Lives cut too short by needless war.
Gone before I could say goodbye

All I want are my two little boys back
As I scream, I shout, and I cry
How could you, how could you weep over them,
When you sent them off to die?

Image: Richard (CC BY-NC 2.0)

A Family Cruise on the Rhine

swanA swan passed by my window this morning at sunrise. No, it wasn’t a dream. I’m on a river boat serving as Study Leader for a two-week Rhine River cruise from Basel to Amsterdam. The focus for this trip is family.

Of the 130 passengers on the ship, more than a third are children. The family groups range from an 82-year old grandma and her adolescent grandson to multi-generational bundles of relatives coming together from across the US.

I needn’t state that these are very fortunate children. In our opening reception, I used nearly biblical language describing the trip as a blessing for the kids able to participate. Every adult head was nodding in agreement.

Certainly the grandparents on the ship didn’t have such luxury travel growing up. In fact in many cases they are but one generation removed from the bold travelers who abandoned everything and sailed to Ellis Island seeking refuge in the early 20th century.

Some of the adults in the “parent” generation, though, enjoyed some international travel as youths. But even so, they seem as wide-eyed and excited as the kids.

And what about the kids? I feared they’d be privileged children hunched over in classic postures of teenaged boredom. But they aren’t. They’re smiling as broadly as an adolescent can in the presence of family. Plus, the best news of all: by the second day, I noticed a decline in their focus on digital technology. Could it be that castles are more interesting?

“Whose idea was this trip?” I like to ask this question of each family group. Inevitably, it will be a grandparent’s. One granddad told me gruffly, “A year ago, in the middle of my chemo, the Smithsonian catalogue came in the mail and I figured, what else was gonna put me in a better mood? So I told them ‘I’ve signed us all up!’” Based on his subsequent grin, that story has ended happily.

Of course not everyone is in a position to book expensive river cruises in order to build family memories. But the shared experiences all families crave don’t have to take place on a tour. They take place, equally powerfully, around the dinner table or standing at the sink doing dishes together. They abound when father and son puzzle over a recalcitrant lawn mower or big brother and little sister walk the dog. And they bloom with vibrancy every time someone reads out loud to the family. Or starts up a round of Frère Jacques.

Since beginning the Professor Carol adventure, I’ve come to understand better the irreplaceable value of family. I’ve observed countless families who, on a minimal budget, manage to find highly creative methods to counter what, to me, is our biggest societal problem. And, no, it’s not our collapsing standards of education, although that vies for the title.

It’s the collapse of the family, and in particular the extended family. It’s the numbing isolation that so many experience trying to raise their children or care for their aging parents without the support of other family members nearby.

It’s also the break in tradition that results when families are spread across a vast country, or torn apart by the demands of work schedules. Like so many problems, it starts quietly and builds over time, making it difficult to assess just how much damage is done.

Moms and dads need backup. They need someone older to turn to for reinforcement and advice. Kids need extra pairs of loving hands to foster them. They need the open hearts of a grandparent, aunt, uncle, or even older sibling or cousin. Even if you factor in the undeniable challenges of sibling rivalry or strife between some relatives, family relationships are the golden cross-threads that strengthen the weave of the fabric.


Breisach, Germany

And so my guests will use this journey to weave such a fabric. It’s a joy to watch contented grandparents taking after-dinner walks with their seven-year old grandchild along the Rhine’s leafy shore as the reflection of Breisach Castle sparkles across the water. It’s utterly fun, if a little scary, when the ceiling above my head shakes as teens on the sun deck romp through a hyper-active shuffleboard tournament. “Surely they built the ship strong enough for that, didn’t they?” I find myself asking.

The parents will go to sleep each night of the cruise knowing that their kids have experienced something unforgettable. Maybe it was their first smoked fish for breakfast or a hike in the Black Forest. Or maybe it was the challenge of photographing the dark beauty of a gothic cathedral.

And I’ll do my part to further the educational side of the trip. When I gave my first lecture called “Unraveling the Puzzle of German History,” most of the kids came . . . and stayed! The adults were pleased: they want the kids to take away more than cozy feelings or a taste for new foods. Tomorrow I’ll be talking about the engineering history of the Rhine itself, and what the Rhine has meant in the imagination of the artist.

And then I’ll launch my favorite session entitled “Goethe Boot Camp.” Few Americans have a solid knowledge of this German giant. We’ll linger a while with a famous passage from Faust in which the theme is lingering:

When I say to the Moment flying
‘Linger a while – thou art so fair!’ (Verweile doch, du bist so schön)
Then bind me in thy bonds undying.

Here Faust charges Mephisto with what he assumes is an impossible challenge: to bring the jaded professor into a state of ultimate satisfaction that will make him want to stop time and proceed no further. Faust, as it turns out, underestimates Mephisto’s abilities.

Can youngsters grasp such a passage? Their grandparents can. But it doesn’t matter. The kids will remember it, just as they will remember standing with grandma, feeling small beneath the spire of the Cologne Cathedral. And just as they will remember splashing Uncle Ralph in the backyard with the garden hose when they were supposed to be washing the picnic table, or hauling slate tiles to build grandma a path to the birdbath.

Because it’s about building. It’s about building moments that bind us together. It’s about needing each other. Nothing can replace what family offers, whatever the bumps and disappointments may be. And nothing could heal so many of our societal ills as quickly as renewed vitality of the extended family unit. At least, so it seems to me this late afternoon as I await the return of the swans at sunset.

The Trumpeter of Krakow

krakowAfter a surprisingly hot day, we’ve had a big storm here in Krakow. My hotel room lies on the top (4th) floor, tucked under the eaves. Outside my window stretch the rooftops of Old Town and, not far in the distance, the famous tower of St. Mary’s Church.

The church’s fame rests on a number of things, including its spectacular wood-carved altar piece. But more influential in shaping the public character of Krakow happens to be an event that takes place in the church’s tower: the trumpeter.

Yes, the famous “Trumpeter of Krakow.” (Perhaps you’ve seen the children’s book The Trumpeter of Krakow, a fictional work first published in 1928). The 13th-century legend tells of a trumpeter placed on watch to warn the besieged town of approaching Mongol troops. He spotted the enemy and began to play a tune to signal danger. What tune? Well, arguably the one still played today known as Hejnał Mariacki (St. Mary’s Dawn), although it can never be proved.

We sometimes forget that wind and percussion instruments were early warning systems in historical times. The blare of a trumpet or clang of a gong could travel long distances to alert a commander of approaching danger. In this case, the tune played by the long-ago trumpeter was cut short, says the legend, by an arrow to the poor chap’s throat.

Whether true or not, the legend’s power is such that every time, every single time, the tune is sounded from St. Mary’s tower, it is rendered in such a way as to be cut off abruptly, mid-stream, with a kind of trumpet gasp.

Now when I say “every time,” I’m not joking. Because this tune is sounded four times at the top of each hour. First the trumpeter rings the hour on the tower bells. A few seconds pass. Then, if you’re within one or two kilometers of the square, you will hear the strains of the melody.

The trumpeters today play in a specially constructed area that includes a place for a limited number of viewers (tower-climbers) and a resting area for the trumpeters. There are a number of selected musicians who share the 24 hour/365 day shifts. It is a great honor to become one of the trumpeters who opens a window on each side of the tower (north, west, south, east) and plays this tune, once in each direction!

Below, on the square, tourists and even locals stop to listen, applaud, or even cheer. Often they return the brisk wave the trumpeter gives upon completing each strain before snapping the window closed and turning to play in a new direction.

You can see in this video just how it looks from the perspective of the trumpeter. Considering how beautiful Krakow’s massive square is, especially in summer when filled with flower vendors, or during the Christmas Market when snow adds extra radiance, you can imagine that the trumpeters never tire of the spectacle.

But, of course, it is a job. Still, what a job! Can you imagine the job description? “Trumpeter needed to devote years to perpetuating an extraordinary musical and cultural tradition, one with enormous significance both to the people of Krakow and to the Polish nation. Not too many pitches required but intonation must be perfect.” And, for that matter, trumpeters approach this short tune with certain individual differences, as you will here if you sample a second video.

We’re extremely lucky on our Smithsonian Journey’s tours to stay in hotels along Floriansky Street, just off the square. That means I can hear the trumpeter from whatever room I occupy, no matter which tour. Do I tire of it? Never. If I wake in the middle of the night, and it’s the top of the hour, I hear the tune. While getting ready to go down for breakfast at 6, 7, or 8, I hear the tune. Walking around the square, I hear the tune. It’s marvelous.

The rain is really pouring now. But it’s 3 minutes until 9 p.m. and the trumpeter is up there. He’s standing at the window, warming up the mouthpiece. The blast of rain may block out this iteration but in a few hours the storm should pass. The midnight melody should be crystal clear. I’ll be eager to hear it.

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