31 May 2011

Piglet of the Sea

To be fair, carp doesn't really come from the sea. Most often they come from ponds, like this one, dubbed a "Medieval fishing pond," showing how long this brand of food production has been going on. Today, on a drive from South Bohemia to South Moravia, we stopped in to the carp capital of the Czech Republic, Trebon.
Fish consumption still holds no candle to pork here. Obviously. But apparently carp is a big Christmas Eve delicacy and all of it comes from Trebon. It's particularly amusing to me, because carp has always felt like a pork-like fish (if there is such a thing). It has white meat and dark meat and a skin that easily thickens up into a crunchy rind, complete with a scrumptious layer of fat clinging to the bottom of the crust.
The restaurant we lunched at was brimming with locals and had a menu which featured carp in multiple preparations. One of the items was "carp fries," whose Czech name translated more closely to "carp chips," and which I can assume was a fish version of pork rinds. All of the dishes came on fish shaped plates. Merlin's "Trebon-style carp cubes" swam in a sweet citrus-y sauce.
Mine was much more straight forward. Had it been meat, it would have been called "ribs" or maybe "breast" of carp. It was broiled to perfection, crunchy outside and fall-apart moist inside. Carp - the Czech Republic's other, other white meat.

30 May 2011

The Prettiest Town in Central Europe?

Český Krumlov was called - by our guidebook - the "prettiest town in central Europe." We were skeptical at first, of course, because that sounds like hyperbole. Now, we're not so sure. It really might be the prettiest town in the region. Interesting, too, Krumlov has a definite charm that wasn't diminished too much by the late spring crowds. This is the view from the top of Český Krumlov Castle's pink and green tower.
The town's center is a warren of small streets and colorful buildings arranged around a hillock that rises from the banks of the Vltava. Much of the old town is dominated by souvenir shops, cafes and hotels, which is typical of places like this. A pretty town cannot be left alone, and it is impossible, sometimes, to distinguish this type of place from the trappings of tourism that accompany attractiveness. Still, it wasn't as twee as some villages can be.
We had a local Eggenberg beer (not to be confused with the Austrian brew "Schloss Eggenberg") in this little tavern, where a few locals sat with beer and a slew of tourists sat with plates of fried stuff. They claim that nothing has changed in the pub for a hundred years, but I find that hardly likely.
In the castle museum there are some interesting rooms, a perfunctory display of armaments and this fascinating skeleton - the holy remains of St. Reparat. They were brought to Český Krumlov in 1769 from Rome, but I have no idea why. The bones were decorated by the sisters of Poor Clares, and the saint is clothed in an amazing brocaded robe. Neither of us have ever seen jeweled human remains before, and the thing was hard to take in. Most interesting, maybe, is that old Reparat now lies in a crowded little room in a secular museum, mixed in with displays of old typing machines and sets of china.
The castle is very large and we didn't explore even half of it. A multi-tiered bridge connected the tower to the main building, soaring above the ground. Another, smaller bridge accessed the main courtyard, and was crowded with people. There's a bear pit - with bears - beneath it, which seemed to be the tour highlight for many younger visitors.
Rafting and canoeing are popular, and we watched as little eddies of boaters floated past. This man was part of a group that seemed to be on a stag trip, and he wasn't very enthusiastic. Also, he had either lost his partner or was the only person who nobody wanted to be in a boat with.
The town, interestingly, was part of the Austrian empire for a period before the first world war. In 1910, the town was eighty percent "ethnically" German, and remained majority German even after it was included in the territories of postwar Czechoslovakia. Český Krumlov was then annexed by Germany in 1938, but all of the German citizens were expelled when America liberated the town in 1945. It's a complicated history, especially because it is so close to the borders with Austria and Germany and because Bohemia has such a convoluted national identity.
We get our groceries in Český Krumlov, at a huge Tesco supermarket, and it was interesting to look around the old town. Like many places, there is a whole section of town - in this case, just over the hill - where the locals live and shop. It isn't as picturesque, but it's not unlovely; the communist era apartment blocks are painted in cheerful colors and the people are a little more relaxed. On Saturday, there was a drag racing event, which we saw, but didn't attend.

29 May 2011

Castle Hunting: Zámek Orlík

Zámek Orlík is a great example of a common kind of building: the semi-fortified chateau, built in an area mostly protected by other, more warlike castles. Here, on the flooded banks of the Vltava river, the structure is a residence with a few fortifications - most likely included as much for cosmetic reasons as for defense. One thing to keep in mind about this edifice is that the water levels of the river at this point are much higher than they used to be. Because of a dam downriver, the zámek is now just a few feet above the surface - when it was built, the rear of the castle was protected by a one hundred eighty foot cliff and looked something like this. In fact, the name "Orlík" is derived from the word for eagle, as it was initially likened to an eagle's nest.
The current version of Zámek Orlík was completed in the 1850's, but little has really changed since the castle's first rebuilding. The original walls were erected in the 13th century, but were destroyed by fire in 1508. At that time, a period of relative peace had made impenetrable strongholds less necessary, and the lords of Švamberk decided that comfort - rather than protection - was their primary need. The Thirty Years War wouldn't begin for another century, and the Hussite wars - which were a major event in Bohemia - had been over for about eight decades. Regional barons were growing in influence, and their wealth and general stability made the lands south of Prague generally more safe than other parts of Europe were.
Adding to the sense of security was the presence of Zámek Zvíkov, a few miles upstream. The impressive fortress, which absolutely commanded the Vltava valley, was considered - at the time - unconquerable. Because the lands to the north were protected from attack by the fortifications around Prague, and because attack from the south seemed unlikely because of Zvíkov, the location didn't require extensive bulwarking. Still, a dry moat was cut into the rock, here, to add to the walls effective height and front trilogy of towers were designed with optimal firing angles in mind.
Notice here how the bank of unprotected windows, which once looked down nearly two hundred feet, are protected by the bulge of the third tower. The crenelations were redesigned much later and are not original - their tiny size seems almost comical atop the battlements. It reminds me, a little, of a Lego castle, with rows of little bricks topping yellow battlements.
There were dozens of cars in the parking lot when we visited. A very European bit of pageantry was being played out amongst the trees in the formal gardens: a wedding party was moving from lawn to courtyard to wall for a series of photographs. There are peacocks there, and their squawking rang out over the water as we climbed along the riverbank. It was cloudy, but there was intermittent sun filtering through and some of the photos came out alright.
At nearby Zámek Zvíkov, which was actually cooler and less populated (but impossible to photograph well), we had lunch. This was mine. I have sworn off unnecessary meat, but this was necessary. In fact, it was either this or deep fried cheese. It's amazing how a nearly fluorescent klobásy can seem like the healthy choice.

Bohemian Rhapsody in Blue

O, Bohemia! I rhapsodize your blues! Since a 'rhapsody' is song or poetry, a rhyme scheme I will use! (The form must also convey jubilation, hence my use of punctuation).
We began our journey here in Prague, where the tourist masses were agog. The Vltava River runs right through and on a day so bright and blue, they flooded the Charles Bridge like it was 1432. (The historic landmark also survived a bigger flood around 1785.)
But away from the main sites, we could wander around at will. Oh Prague! Of cafes, bookshops, art, one could easily have their fill. Each detail caught the eye, each molding, window, light. Its overloaded with eye candy...
...and so beautiful at night.
By day, the water bustled just as much as the cobbled streets. People in rented boats leaned back and pedaled with their feet.
The capital of Bohemia had character oozing out of it. Between the beautiful opulence leaked charismatic grit. It seemed to greet you with a smile, wink and bit of a sneer - it seemed to say, "Welcome! Enjoy yourself! But you're hardly the first person here." And in this way, more than Vienna, Amsterdam or Rome, it reminded me just a tiny little bit of home.Then, out into the countryside we drove! On narrow roads, through forests we wove! Pulling up to Orlik Castle, we paid a man here to park our car, which was nothing more than a tiny hassle. Our first Bohemian zamek so far!
And now Lake Lipno is our home base, where we enjoy this stunning view. Far from the crowds and tourist fast pace, in our tent, which - of course - is blue.

27 May 2011

Welcome Back to the Land of Pork

We guessed that it would be like this. It's comforting, in a way, to find a country this in love with one animal - Czech people are infatuated with pork and it's a monogamous relationship. Menus and butcher shops are crammed with body parts and dishes. Sides and heads leer suggestively under pink lights in store windows. This seductress was hung up on hooks, whole, to be purchased as-is or in pieces. It would be unsettling, except that this lust for pig has been so normalized here.
One popular dish that I had to order: "pečené vepřové koleno," or "roast pig's knee" - what would probably be called pork knuckle in America. Barely seasoned, the meat was nothing more than flesh, fat and bone. Served on a spit with a knife, fat dripping luridly onto the board, it was a masterpiece of simplicity and carnal excess. There wasn't much to cover up the lewd thing, only a few pools of mustard, ketchup and horseradish to smear it in.
Gruesome, of course, and enjoyable - to a point. It was my dinner on the first night in the Czech Republic, and it was a hedonistic reception. A hearty re-introduction. Pork is something I try to avoid, actually, so the reacquaintance was less welcome than it was inevitable. On this flat, old plain at the soft heart of the continent we encounter it all to much. A traveler here, if they aren't cautious, will end up with pork at every meal.
Czech people (according to allcountries.org) consume more pork per capita than the citizens of any other country except Denmark (which is a surprise). Poland, Hungary, Austria and Germany - all part of this mitteleuropean swineyard - are also in the top twelve, which I could have guessed. The United States sits at number seventeen, for comparison's sake.

26 May 2011

The Jewish Garden

A character in The Unbearable Lightness of Being describes Bohemian cemeteries as gardens - with grass and wild flowers growing between and on the grave stones, all but consuming the more modest markers. It turns out that was less of a well worded opinion or personal impression than I read it to be. In fact, an ancient Jewish burial ground, discovered in an excavation in Prague, was dubbed "the Jewish Garden." We visited its descendent, the Old Jewish Cemetery.
It had a fairly exorbitant entrance fee and a tour group moved in through the narrow entrance as we approached the ticket office. There will be other cemeteries in Bohemia, I thought, maybe I should skip this one. But it's Europe's oldest surviving Jewish cemetery and it's hard to pass up "Europe's oldest surviving Jewish" anything, to be honest. It, along with the surrounding synagogues, were preserved by the Nazis for a "museum of an extinct race."
Jewish law prohibits the destruction of graves and the removal of tombstones. So, when room inevitably began to run out in the cemetery, soil was layered atop the existing plots and the stones were moved up to the fresh dirt. This continued to happen for centuries, resulting in approximately 12,000 visible headstones and 100,000 graves beneath. Twelve layers of burials dating back to the 15th century.
Some clusters lean against each other, some are blown back or forward in unison, like a field of sunflowers bent toward the sun. The ones above reminded me of a family portrait. Rarely would you see any markings left on the weathered stones and something about the anonymity made it all less morose. Some sections looked like nothing but a rock garden.
It felt redemptive, somehow, to be here. When I attempted to visit family graves in Seda, Lithuania, the cemetery was nowhere to be found. The temple that I thought would help mark the spot was a loose structure of decomposing wood that a moderately big bad wolf could have blown right down. Time and time again, it felt like there were ways to connect to the memory of Holocaust victims and Holocaust survivors, but none of Europe's long line of Jews who didn't fall into one of those two groups. The cemetery in the Kazimierz neighborhood of Krakow, Poland was another wonderful exception, but something about this one was just so beautiful. Human history almost indistinguishable from nature.

Prague Trolleys

We drove straight from Vienna to Prague, stopping only to eat the sandwiches we'd packed. The quick transition put us in a comparative mood. When the streets of Praha didn't feel quite as Bohemian as they did well-trodden, I began to miss Vienna. A truth: the city of Kafka, Mucha, Kundera and Havel is touristy. Perhaps, though, it is also more accessible than Vienna - a thought that surprised me. Vienna was more closed to outsiders, except for the artifice of museums and chain stores. One got the feeling that the people there maintained some distance, that they kept a certain identity separate from the grand facades and Hapsburg finery.
Maybe because its tourist industry came of age more recently, Prague doesn't feel quite the same. There is more of a feeling - probably false - that the life of a citizen isn't quite so distant. It's been easy to find atmosphere (doesn't that word seem like the currency of this city?) and feel that the revolution is still echoing in the streets. It's an idea that is grounded, of course, in the mirage of Prague as wilderness, outside the bounds of travel normalcy. Sometimes that idea is all it takes to make a place feel more immediate, even when American and German voices fill the air.
The pictures are almost an illustrative aside at this point, but they do serve a purpose here. We've been so impressed by the trolleys, cruising the streets quietly and smoothly, making up the bulk of the excellent public transportation system. Politely, the drivers ring a little bell if they perceive that a pedestrian might be stepping into harms way - it's less bullying than the blast of a bus horn, I think. The routes run everywhere and trolleys are omnipresent - two things everyone wants from their trains.
There's something so much nicer about standing in the sun, waiting for a trolley, than entering into a subway warren. It has a democratizing effect, I think - with clear vision and a more accurate sense of direction, moving about in the streets is much easier than it is in a subterranean system, and it makes novices feel more at home amongst the commuters.
Of course, I'm sure it's not as nice if it's raining.

25 May 2011

Things Austrian People Like

Single-Serving Pâté. This is something that Merlin wrote home about the first time he went to Austria with his father and brother. Every breakfast buffet would serve these meat spread cups alongside jam, honey and butter. What surprised me was the variety. Even in the most humble of breakfast settings, there would be more than one liver pâté to choose from: calf, goose, chicken and sometimes "meat," which I imagine was some combination.
Dirndls. It's true. Austrian people really do like and often wear them. Lederhosen are around as well, but we didn't see them nearly as often. At first, there was something unsettling about them to me. I think it's the apron, which seemed to scream "gender roles!" It was hard to understand choosing to dress like this, in a sort of out-of-date uniform, for non-religious purposes. In the end, I decided it was just like the cowboy hats and bolo ties and embroidered denim of American Western wear. Like the red carpet at the Country Music Awards, it's just a way of keeping some cultural traditions alive.
Apple Strudel. You can have it for breakfast, at lunch, for a mid-afternoon snack, after your dinner or at midnight. No matter where you are, be it a gas station or a fine dining establishment, it will not only be offered, but ordered by everyone around you. It made me wonder if the phrase "as Austrian as apple strudel" exists here. If it doesn't, it should. The one above had the surprise addition of rhubarb, a rare break from tradition. "Topfen" (cream) strudel was another popular pastry, but definitely played second fiddle.
Walking Sticks. I am purposefully not calling them "hiking poles," because in Austria that didn't seem to be their most popular use. Throughout Germany and Switzerland (along with anyplace that had German or Swiss tourists), we saw people using these folding poles along trails. On a few big hikes in the Alps, we wished we had them. Here, though, we would hear the click, click, click of people walking just about everywhere. Merlin came up with the explanation that it must be an exercise technique. The poles make you move your arms and the clicks help you keep pace with your partner. (Most stick-walkers came in pairs). Somehow, that reasoning made us like them even less.
Mozart Souvenirs We get the importance of Mozart and the national pride involved, but the sheer number of items bearing his likeness was astounding. Wolfgang Amadeus 'endorsed' chocolates from the grave most often, but items ranged from edibles to porcelain dishes to pocket books. Even outside of touristy areas, you'd see the red and gold border and white powdered wig on something or other.
Maypoles or Maibaum. The first time we spotted one, we had no idea what it was. I guessed it was a dried out leftover from Christmas, but Merlin correctly reasoned that it wasn't that dry. Then, we realized May Day had just happened. It's been German and Austrian tradition to erect a Maibaum on the first of May since the 16th century. Depending on the region, it can stay up for one month or one year. We saw a few Charlie Brown-looking ones, so I hope those were only one monthers.
Pumpkin Seed Oil. It's nutty, delicious, has health benefits and is used to cook just about everything in the Styrian region of Austria. Once heated, it becomes much more of a neutral oil, but uncooked it packs quite the flavor punch. We grew to like Kürbiskernöl just about as much as Austrian people do - even if it does turn everything slightly green.

Viennese Green Spaces

Vienna is a city of parks and trees. Leafy and full of shade, it is a place where eighty-degree weather can feel tolerable and where there seems always to be a grassy spot to sit down for a rest. Beyond the proper parks, though, there are also surprising pockets of green - like the farmers market near our apartment. On saturdays, the already terrific Karmelitermarkt is filled with produce from the fields and pastures around Vienna. Usually a hot, crowded lot with hard angles and sweating cafe waiters, the market looked fresh and sumptuous filled with these leaves and roots.
The Danube runs by Vienna, but one might be tricked into thinking that it flows right through the center of town. In fact, the water in the city center is only a canal - the Donaukanal - and, although it's connected with the Danube, there is a big distinction to be made. Something I learned: "kanal," in German, is a word evocative of open sewers, and many people in Vienna want to change the name of the Donaukanal to make it sound more appealing. There are beaches and a bike path (above) lining the banks of the "little Danube," dressing up the concrete and cutting a pretty line along the ringstrasse development.
In the Augarten, in Leopoldstadt, a confusing labyrinth of hedged spaces is enclosed by walls and dotted with more formal baroque gardens. During the second world war, massive flak towers were built here to defend the city against allied bombers. One, still standing, is fenced off and grim. It's a huge thing, once able to house ten thousand people during an air raid. A prickly crown of gunning stations is visible from a long ways off, soaring above the treetops. The profile is foreboding and out of place in the garden, looming over laconic sunbathers and slowly-pushed baby carriages.
Nearby, there is a restaurant partly housed in an old bunker, open to the outside and hemmed in by trees. The name, "Bunkerei," called attention to an aspect of it I would have missed. Scraps of wartime Vienna are mostly hidden or painted over. Perhaps the most noticeable remnants of that time are actually voids - places where something used to be. A lot of Vienna's small parks are new, created after the war in the empty spaces where buildings had been destroyed.
Just outside the main city, the Danube lies in a long ribbon, stitched over with a few low bridges. It's wonderful - especially on a hot day - to walk across, taking in the fresh breeze and feeling a bit of elevation. Although they aren't very tall, the bridges give a feeling of height and space in a largely flat and horizontal city. Unlike other urban spaces, the buildings in Vienna haven't reached upwards much, and maneuvering through its landscape can feel almost too terrestrial.
We left town in love with Vienna - it was a city that seemed more cosmopolitan and unique than anywhere we've been in a long while. It was a place that invited urban trekking of the type we used to do in New York. Neighborhoods and avenues stretched into new territory and scenery easily, like a network of country trails. Walking here can be a meditative, aimless experience - uncrowded, expansive, interesting in an everyday sort of way.