23 January, 2007

The trams of central and southeastern Europe really rock.

Prague tram

Prague tram inside

Zagreb tram

Zagreb tram inside

OK, they are old, most of them, and the furnishing is spartan. But they are also robust, fast, quiet, spotlessly clean (inside and out), warm, comfortable, well lit, cheap, frequent, and run all night. In other words, they are trams the way most people like them.

I travelled in these trams in Zagreb, Budapest, and Prague, and every single time I was impressed – with how badly Amsterdam has handled the whole tram thing. In 2002 Amsterdam bought an astonishing 155 Siemens Combinos, some of the most modern trams €220 million could buy at the time. They quickly turned out to be noisy, slow, fast-wearing, uncomfortably rigid, badly behaved and badly built, and Amsterdam has spent years persuading Siemens to sort them out. The model has since been discontinued.

So: what did Amsterdam know in 2002 that Prague, Zagreb and Budapest didn’t? Why didn’t we just buy the same trams they were using and run them the way they did?

Just askin’.

Prague (Praha)

23 January, 2007

Prague, ‘the golden city’, ‘city of a hundred spires’, is another hugely impressive Austro-Hungarian city. Long settled (probably because it is usefully located right on the continental divide between Europe’s Baltic-bound and Meditteranean-bound river systems), it has been in Czech hands since 936 AD and has been an important centre of European geopolitics ever since.

Most of what you can see today is either 13th and 14th century medieval (in the Old Town), the oldest remains of the original settlement, or 17th and 18th century baroque (almost everything else), built after a fire destroyed much of the city’s ghettos in 1689, spurring reconstruction and reinvestment at a historically favourable moment.

The city is a testament to the building powers of Austro-Hungarian royal and merchant money, with a great many extraordinary buildings and some equally extraordinary modern stuff right next door. Compare the extravagance of the National Theatre’s roof statues (15m higher than they ought to be, wouldn’t you say?) with the take-no-prisoners futurism of the Magic Lantern Theatre:
on the left, the Magic Lantern; on the right, the National

And as you can see they have some cracking trams. 🙂

The city centre emerged relatively unscathed by WWII and has lots of beautiful Art Nouveau and Art Deco buildings, like this one, the 1912 Municipal House:
The Municipal House entrance

whose interior is equally ravishing, if you like Art Deco as much as I do:
the Municipal Hall restaurant

Now normally in a building like this I would have made a bee-line for the toilets, which are often so breathtakingly beautiful that one wonders whether architecture and design have forgotten more than they ever learned. But the waiters looked so stern that I didn’t have the nerve. Sorry.

Oh, and right next door to the Hall you have some nice Gothic, the Powder Tower:
the Powder Tower

So there’s lots to see. In fact everywhere you look there are beautiful buildings and lovely corners. Here’s a random courtyard:
random courtyard

Prague has also been an important European Ashkenazy Jewish settlement since the 11th century, although the community was repeatedly attacked in pogroms or expelled en masse by edict from the city. Once 18,000 lived in the tiny Josefov district alone. Their story is a fascinating one, told well here. Interestingly, they had to wear distinctive caps or the yellow star of David on their clothing for about 400 years, until 1781, so the Nazis didn’t even think that one up. The city still boasts a large number of fantastically impressive synagogues; this one was just down my street:
bizarre perspective the result of cunning stitching software

People clearly still hate Jewry; the building, along with several other Prague synagogues (and all American embassies in the world), had 24-hour police protection.

For lots more good pictures, take a peek at this site on the Josefov synagogues.

The city is also famous for Charles Bridge, a rather elegant and clearly remarkably well-built 14th century stone crossing that for centuries helped to cement Prague’s importance as a vital central European trade route.
Charles Bridge

Today it is closed to vehicular traffic and is important only as an historical tourist attraction, A Gothic picture postcard beseiged night and day by tourists like me and their ever-present parasites: rapid portrait sketchers, picture hawkers, musicians, hustlers and beggars. Actually, something tells me it might have been a bit like this in the 14th century too…

into the Czech Republic

22 January, 2007

I drove into the Czech Republic from the south. There was a long queue, but the border guards waved me through; they were clearly after something else.

To my mind the border areas of European countries are all a bit odd. The people who live there are always popping over the border – for work, or family visits, or cheaper cigarettes or beer or petrol – so for them, the two countries (with their different langauges, money, prices, and laws) become equally familiar, and therefore equally ‘normal’. The people who choose to live in these areas are not inclined to attach themselves strongly to either country, or to its rules or values. That independence (or indifference!) becomes their culture, and by extension becomes the culture of these areas: ambiguous, rootless, pragmatic and opportunistic. A land of small-time operators, temporary buildings, and dodgy-looking businesses.

The first thing I saw on entering the Czech Republic was a couple of kilometers of casinos, life-size plastic animal and black garden gnome shops, and Excalibur City, perhaps the most revolting strip of Vegas-style ‘shopping/entertainment’ anywhere in Europe. My jaw had dropped too far to take photos of this, but I’ve borrowed these two from the web:
plastic crap

Excalibur City (reached - oh, yes - by American Way)

Further on down the road I passed several women standing or squatting alone on bits of flattened verge, coats wrapped tight against the bitterly cold wind. Was this because the Czech Republic has laxer prostition laws? No, laughed a friend in Prague later; they’re just cheaper for the Austrians.

From a distance the first actual town looked a bit more normal, but close up it showed another face. Every 50m a deeply sexist roadside billboard advertised the charms of a local brothel, and the noble statue in the middle of the main roundabout turned out to be waving a machine gun. Sex and violence: well, Hollywood does that too.

After a few hours of all but abandoned A-road I joined the Brno-Prague motorway and was soon being flashed and jostled by angry Czech drivers on Prague’s 4-lane, 140kmh approach roads. For the first time I wondered whether European motorway driving might not be becoming a young man’s sport: fast, dramatic and dangerous.

the national characteristics of the countries of former Yugoslavia

12 January, 2007

*cough*: this post is not to be taken very seriously

After much painstaking research on the subject (i.e., listening to the jokes that Slovenians, Croatians, etc make about each other) I am now in a position to reveal the authentic underlying character differences which were the fundamental cause of the breakup of Yugoslavia into its six constituent South Slav ethnic groups. In no particular order:

– Montenegrans are lazy and inventive (sounds like a good combination);

– Croatians are religious and boring;

– Bosnians (after centuries of occupation and opression) are careless and cynical;

– Slovenians are stiff, rich, ambitious, and think the mountains are everything;

– Macedonians are clannish and obsessed with Macedonia;

– Serbians like fighting and have the army, so nobody makes jokes about them.

So there you are: easy peasy.

whoops, I almost forgot Szoborpark!

11 January, 2007

You remember I mentioned Szoborpark (Statue Park), in Budapest, where all the Soviet-era statues were? Well I had a chance to visit them, and here’s what I saw…

behold, comrades! a statue park!

The modern Fascist-type architecture at the gateway boded well, and right over the road was a full-scale replica of Stalin’s original plinth and his empty boots,
all that’s left of Stalin

which were all that was left of him after his 40-metre statue had been torn down and chopped up by rioters during the 1956 revolution (a wonderful story told rather well here). So I was keen to get in and see the rest.

Once I’d been parted from about €3 and was inside there did seem to be a few statues about:
Soviet-era feather duster? Probably not

Lenin, probably

But apart from a few of the Our Hero Lenin variety there didn’t actually seem to be that many. There was this arresting fellow, though:
now this is a cracker

…and this is how big he is:
…and this is how big he is

And there was a great little army done in painstaking stainless steel (which is a pig to weld):

Here’s a closeup (nice lapels!):
army detail (sorry)

Most of the statuary was non-transcendental, repulsive and cheap; it reminded one ineluctably of the execrable, Chinese-made renditions of Amsterdam’s dead musicians (Johnny Jordaan, Tante Leen, Manke Nelis, Johnny Meijer, Andre Hazes) that have started cluttering up public space in Amsterdam of late. I mean, look at this

So there you have it: the park does what it says on the box: it collects the statues that everyone actually wanted to be shot of, so that we might remember.
Lenin waits to be unwrapped

The idealistic images of ordinary people that had first attracted me to the genre weren’t going to be here. This ‘windy day’ is the only cheerful image of the whole lot:
a windy day

So to give you an idea of what I’m on about, here’s the façade of Government House in Ljubljana, Slovenia. A prime example of utopian socialist pride in ordinary heroes, all nakedly working with power tools and playing nakedly with each other as if Jugoslavia were some sort of huge naturist camp (which is actually just what this reminds me of):
Jugoslav naturist site

Now that’s what I mean by utopia. And long may it continue to adorn our public buildings. 🙂


8 January, 2007

I have just one photo of Bratislava, one I made of a sort of covered market near where I stopped in the middle of town, simply because I liked the building and the rather informal way it was being used:
market-type hall in Bratislava

But it’s just the one photo. This is because I arrived as it was getting dark, spent much of my evening trying to find an affordable hotel, got ripped off by that hotel, slept badly because I’d been ripped off and because the hotel was between a motorway and a railway, forced down a disgusting hotel breakfast, vengefully hacked the hotel’s internet computer so I could do hours of mail and blog-updating for free, and decided to move on to Vienna rather than spend another night in Slovakia.

Critics will quite reasonably and justifiably point out that this puts me in no position to talk about the country’s art and culture. And they’d be right, so I won’t.

No, wait a minute; that would be churlish. The head of Bratislava’s contemporary arts organization A4 was extremely helpful and informative, even though I arrived unannounced, and I will be following up the contacts he gave me. So thanks, Slavo! You rock!

Oh, and they say that Bratislava is a happening place. Well, I walked around town for a couple of hours, and what I saw of it was very impressive. There were loads of beautiful buildings and people were clearly spending money on art and entertainment. And now that SkyEurope is putting on such ridiculously cheap flights, you can all go there and find out for yourselves. Just don’t stay at the Hotel Jurki Dom.

eating out in Budapest

8 January, 2007

You can buy a bürek for a euro or two, or you could go to Macdonald’s, but don’t: in Budapest, take the trouble to eat out properly. Budapest has great food and it’s cheap, too.

Here are the lovely film-makers who took me out to uberhip 70s-style-decor restaurant Menza:
Klara and Jano

with two friends and an itinerant eating companion from Holland

This is a Hungarian dish, pörkölt (meat stew) and galuška (noodles):
porkolt and galushka. Mmm, yummy!

It may not look that appetising in the photo (OK, it doesn’t – taking appetizing photos of half-eaten meals is obviously harder than I thought) but it was unbelievably delicious. And the starter (pumpkin soup) was superb, and the wine was fabulous, and there was a fantastic dessert, and the whole lot came to less than €20.

Which reminds me… in Budapest I saw lots of cripples eating out of dustbins. I mean this quite literally. People who put their crutches down in order to rifle methodically through the contents of street bins and house bins right by the front door and eat what they found on the spot. I saw this happen on three or four occasions. Nobody batted an eyelid.

You’d like a photo, wouldn’t you? Admit it. I’d show you a photo, but I couldn’t find the nerve to take any. I wouldn’t make much of a war photographer, then, I suppose.

Budapest baths

8 January, 2007

Having just a couple of hours to spend getting to know and admire Budapest, I had naturally decided to spend the entire time visiting one of its thermal baths. It was an interesting experience…

I opted for the famous Széchenyi Baths, a huge complex of saunas, baths, and sulphur pools. The entrance hall is as grand as you’d expect
Széchenyi baths - the entrance hall

with ornate plasterwork and statues everywhere
Széchenyi baths - statue

but my goodness, they have a thing or to to learn about communication. There are almost no signs, and none of the routing is intuitive in the slightest, so it was a miracle I ended up anywhere near the changing rooms.

And here the fun begins. There are lockers, but they have no keys, so you get changed, bung your clothes in the locker, and then start looking for an attendant, while keeping an eye on the group of thickset Hungarian lads who you just know have got you marked as a stupid rich tourist whose money is now in the (still open) locker.

There is no attendant, so you wait for one to appear. Five minutes pass. It’s getting cold; the changing rooms are on a draughty corridor underground and the prospect of actually getting a hot bath seems to be receding by the minute. Maybe you should be somewhere else? But that would mean getting ripped by the lads for sure. When a man in white trousers and shirt does appear, your initial euphoria is immediately quenched: it’s clear from the start that he wants to have nothing to do with you. Ever.

I’d been warned that Hungarians are a pessimistic lot and usually looked taciturn, but this was actually scary. The man’s facial expressions and body language were saying just one thing: I will ignore you completely, and if you try to attract my attention, I might decide to kill you with one well-placed blow to the side of the neck.

However, I had no choice – I had a good camera and some money in that locker. I hazarded a gesture in his direction. He scowled and grunted. “I close.”

Well, he was there, and the baths were open till late. I prayed that he meant that he would close my locker when I was ready.

“Ah yes, well – I’m ready.”

He turned on me with a look of fury. “I close!”

This was going to be tricky. I would somehow have to juggle with his anger, his impatience, his incomprehension and and his xenophobia.

“Yes, thank you, I’m done. I’m ready. My clothes are in the locker… would you close it, please?” I gave him what I hoped would be a placating smile.

Now he was really furious. His face contorted with rage. I was clearly going to die. Here, in Budapest. It was all going to end here, on this cold and filthy tiled floor. Like a morgue, I suddenly realized. Why had I not learned the Hungarian for ‘please’? Or for that matter, for ‘please don’t kill me?’ He leaned towards me threateningly and shouted. “I close! I close!”

“Yes, yes, you close… you close! Good! Dobro! You close now, please? Look, my clothes are in the locker…” I pointed, still babbling. The lads were laughing openly now. Jesus, what would it take to get this done? Surely he had seen that I was in my swimming trunks?

Perhaps he thought I’d suffered enough, but to my relief he grunted, pushed past me, wrote something with chalk on the inside of the door, and gave me a numbered aluminium tag to wear. I was going to be allowed to live, after all. I stumbled up the stairs towards the light…

first view of the baths

OK, obviously I stole this photo before getting changed – I’m not the kind of dude who takes a camera to the sauna, right? So you’ll just have to take my word for it from now on. Well, I can quote:

“The Széchenyi is one of the biggest bathing complexes anywhere in Europe, whose hot spring – both the city’s hottest and deepest – was discovered in 1879. The neo-baroque building containing the thermal baths dates from 1913.”

It was fantastic – a maze of different pools at different temperatures, inside and outside, large and small, some malodorous and green with sulphur. The main outside pools were deliciously hot and most people congregated there. Groups of men floated around waterproof chess games, young couples cuddled and kissed discreetly and passionately, kids ran around as kids will, and numerous old people were quite obviously fast asleep. Perhaps they lived there in the winter months?

I went to find a sauna. It was down at cellar level (closer to the spring?) and wasn’t that hot, so I spent 20 minutes there very comfortably. Then it was out, through a freezing shower and back to the pool. Night had fallen, which lent the whole scene an even more surreal aura. I floated around with everyone else – you don’t actually swim there, just kind of drift slowly around like seaweed – and got chatting with some English speakers, who turned out to be Romanian/Hungarian and Greek/Turkish film-makers, just back from making a documentary about an old woman’s spartan life and simple philosophy in the Carpathian mountains of Romania.

So I got out and got dressed, and stole this photo before I left…
Budapest thermal baths by night

…and the film-makers took me out to a great restaurant, and gave me a bed for the night, but that’s another story. 🙂

impressions of Budapest

8 January, 2007

This post has a rather literary title to cover up the fact that I arrived at Budapest in the dark and spent too little time here to really get a good picture of the place. As usual, this report will be partial, ill-informed, and shamelessly subjective. You have been warned. 🙂

I was put up (thanks a million, Andrew and Gabor!) in a downtown apartment that was reached through a short passage into the heart of the block. I was a bit startled by the entrance foyer:
the entrance hall of my mate’s flat

And the staircase was rather good too:
Budapest staircase

Turns out it was built by a king, or something, but my hosts were very pooh-pooh about the whole thing. The district had the narrowest roads and the most magnificent buildings:
a University Library

The air was dirty, thanks to the narrow streets and heavy traffic, and perhaps these two-stroke East Bloc stalwarts – they were everywhere – were doing more than their fair share:
a Budapest Trabant

Budapest is huge, and is home to almost 2 million (20%) of the country’s inhabitants. It’s the centre of everything. There were imposing buildings everywhere:
some imposing building or other

the same imposing building, a bit closer up. I think it might have been a post office

I wanted to go to one of Budapest’s famous hot baths, but my mates were on a mission. They steered me on up the hill to the castle. They knew a back way that led through some tiny streets high on the hill…

on the castle hill

…and past the pockmarked walls that marked where the Russians had liberated Budapest at the end of WWII…
bullet-holes are real and shown actual size

…and right into the castle domain itself, thanks to a cool tip: if the car is there for less than 10 minutes you incur no charge. So we had a lightning-quick tour – the courtyard
castle courtyard behind the walls

with the bloke on a horse (this is Europe, there’s always a bloke on a horse)
bloke on a horse
Oh all right, all right, this is (Saint) Stephen I, the first king of Hungary (1001-1038) and founder of the state of Hungary, and the statue is by Alajos StrĂłbl, 1906.

The battlements gave fab views over the enormous city, as one would expect:
Budapest from the castle walls #1

Budapest from the castle walls #2

Budapest from the castle walls #3

But we had no time to gawk, the clock was ticking. We crawled (well, obviously we didn’t actually crawl, I just drove the DS very slowly) through the castle district, soaking up the atmosphere: fab old doors…
fab old door. I love fab old doors

…beautiful statuary…
a charming statue - ancient Greek, judging by penis size

and this touching portrait of the love between a shepherd and his flock:
a shepherd’s love

Our time was up! It was off to the baths. We drove through town, which was block after block of huge neo-classical buildings – shops downstairs, apartments above – and which therefore felt very much like Paris, except for the unbelievably aggressive drivers. I mean, seriously, guys, you have an attitude problem there. (Perhaps it’s having to pay off all those policemen). But it’s grand all right. Here’s a random square:
a random square

And this is why Amsterdam will never be grand until it devotes at least one large space to people (no cars or trams, flat paving slabs, proper benches) and to expensive expressions of civic pride (big statues, nice fountains, and no cheap tack).

a criminal in Budapest

8 January, 2007

Nothing had prepared me for Hungarian…
Petrol station sign

And the 200 km of apparently abandoned countryside between the border and Budapest – no house lights, almost no streetlights – were pretty unnerving too. But I met a friend of a friend in a downtown eatery and then everything was OK again.

Except… I bribed the police.

Now as an Englishman born and bred I am still amazed that this event took place at all. But it happened, I promise. I took a left turn where it wasn’t allowed and within ten seconds I had a police car after me. I stopped, he came over, asked to see my papers, and in a mixture of broken German and all but entirely demolished English he explained that he would write me out a ticket; I would have to go to the police station and pay a 10,000 crown fine (about 40 euros) the next day.

I begged his forgiveness, citing my ignorance of the city’s traffic rules, and after a little toing and froing he bent forward and said “ticket, receipt; pay me now, no receipt”. It was the only clear sentence he had spoken so far. And then he went back to Hungarian. It was all very confusing.

At a given moment he suddenly put away the ticket book and said “OK, no ticket”. I thanked him effusively, took back my passport and driving licence, and only then realized that he was still just standing there. What was he waiting for? No, he wasn’t waiting – he was looking hard at the 20-euro bills in my wallet.

We exchanged a look, a very thoughtful and interesting look. He took a step closer to the car. He looked to the left and right. And I reasoned that he was giving me a break – that if I didn’t do this, he would definitely write the fucking ticket anyway. As if in a dream I pulled out a 20 and showed it to him. “Is this OK?” He nodded, plucked it out of my fingers and palmed it in a single, clearly practiced move. The man could have been a magician. “OK.” And then he was gone.

So there you are: Budapest is different.