Brussels: European Capital, Art Nouveau, and a melting pot of cultural heritage

First and foremost, I have to admit that I have not only traveled to Brussels as a tourist but that the city has indeed become my current hometown in the last few months. Contrary to its many stereotypes of being an ugly or dangerous city given the social problems, I absolutely love Brussels. Why? 

  1. Brussels is incredibly green with loads of parks. To fact-check, 50% of the city is classified as green space. 
  2.  Cultural exposure: Strolling around Brussels, you are constantly exposed to historical monuments, sites, and beautiful architecture. Needless to say, Brussels prides to have gastronomic delicacies from everywhere. In addition, you find the multicultural confluence of heritage from different countries. A statue of Nasreddin Hodja of Turkey surprised me while strolling through the Turkish district of Schaerbeek (near Gare du Nord). A piece of the Berlin Wall can be found next to the European Parliament.

However, despite its international residents, I have felt that the city is an ethnically segregated one.

The well-known gems: Grand Place and the Atomium

Undoubtedly, the Grand Place is Brussels’ most important gem, exposing the city as a world heritage site and attracting thousands of visitors daily. 

I am meeting Paula, who is in charge of the restoration of the Grande Place.

She shows me around the neo-Gothic “La Maison du Roi,” which perfectly reflects the heritage of the city and is probably the best starting point to fully understand the history of the place and how it has transformed throughout the last decades.

Musee de Roi

You can truly feel how the people working there, and their tireless efforts  foster the preservation of world heritage. Seven bronze UNESCO logo plates e. The grand place line is indicated bye pinpoint towards the grand place.  Do not miss out on the little, narrow streets and hidden, picturesque bars around the square.

Another must-see is definitely the Atomium, constructed in 1958 for the Brussels World’s Fair; it is located outside the city of Brussels. Yet the futuristic structure shall not be missed. 

Preserving European history

Another interesting aspect of the city is its “center” of European history. Immerse yourself by not only visiting the European district’s institutions but also participating in cultural activities. Here you will also find the museum of European history.

It is a very visitor-friendly, interactive museum—definitely worth a visit. This museum explores the paradoxes of Europe and its many facades. In addition, the horrors of war are discussed. … This aspect of the museum very much appealed to me because it prompts us to consider the question, “What is Europe?”

Another must-do is The Parliamentarium in the European Parliament, which takes you through European history and integration and looks into what the world and work of a European politician could look like.

I am talking to my contact, who works for the Commission on Cultural Policy.

We discuss the city of Brussels, and she explains its specific role as a world heritage city. She argues that in Brussels, cultural heritage is constantly renegotiated and is home to different communities. Given the political landscape and the impact of the organizations’ presence, youth in Brussels are generally much more active in the sphere of heritage. This simply makes world heritage more accessible and easier to follow.

During my time in Brussels, I hope I can take part in it and contribute to it. 🥰🤗

 

 

Heritage through the eyes of the locals

Throughout our travels we were exploring, discussing and thinking about how relationships with heritage differ from region to region. It’s not straightforward or universally the same. People’s relation to their heritage depends on many factors – the way a country industrially developed, their place in the world hierarchy of power, the prevailing political ideologies and religious beliefs and much more.

Since we’ve been travelling for more than 17 months in the past 2 years we could compare this relationship throughout Europe, the Middle East and Asia. For the purpose of this article, however, we’ve decided to only focus on the regions we travelled to within our OWHC travel scholarship.

Since we began our travels in Slovenia and Germany, let’s start at home. As we’ve observed, Europeans mostly see their heritage as something which has to be preserved, “locked” away, studied and maybe exhibited to tourists. Just think about how many churches also serve as tourist attractions, how many old royal buildings are now museums or galleries and how the historical centres of European cities mostly only serve tourists.

On the other side, however, we had a completely different experience in Turkey and Iraq. There, history and the present go hand in hand. Historical centres are usually home to very traditional and conservative communities and are less developed than modern outskirts. Citadels, old architecture, bazaars and mosques are sometimes reconstructed, and sometimes not. However, an underlying theme to all of these places is that they are still deeply woven into the daily lives of the inhabitants of the city. Be it shopping at centuries-old bazaars, bathing in historical hammams, dining in traditional restaurants or praying in mosques from the early days of Islam – history and the present day are not separated.

At this point a question arises – is heritage something which has to be locked down and preserved, or is it something which changes with every society inhabiting a certain time and space? We hope we will gain more answers to these questions while we continue our 10-month trip from Germany to Taiwan!

 

Similarities in Ohrid and Berat, through an architectural prism

When we see a panorama from Ohrid and Berat side by side, we can clearly form an idea that both share really similar, if not, the same architectural language.

I’d say that is mainly a product because both of the cities were in the late Ottoman empire, even in the same Ohrid-Epir region. Both cities have a similar climate, are built on terrain with an elevation, and share a rich historical image from ancient times. Today they’re both UNESCO-protected regions and have aspirations to be growing touristic centers.

 

UNESCO Sights on the Way

After visiting the Safranbolu, the next UNESCO Heritage city on our list was Bam in Iran. However, because of the protests taking place in Iran after the death of Mahsa Amini as well as the limited internet access that followed, we decided to change our plans and skip visiting Iran. Nevertheless, instead of Iran we then unexpectedly visited the Kurdish region of Iraq and also travelled to Saudi Arabia sooner than planned and have already visited quite a few new UNESCO Heritage sites.

Even before leaving Turkey, we managed to see two new Heritage sites, Göreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia and Diyarbakır Fortress.

We’ve wanted to go to Cappadocia for some time but were afraid of the high prices and crowds of tourists during this peak travel season. The Capadoccia region actually has 7 different valleys easily accessible by foot. Because most tourists come for just a few days and drive only to the main sights, they are completely empty and more beautiful than you can imagine (photos or videos really can’t capture the extraordinary nature). The fairy chimneys or phalluses, as some describe them, were made by wind and water erosion and the holes and caves were built during the Roman times for living, storage and churches. All in all, we had a great time and were surprised by how beautiful and tranquil nature is, and how few people explore the region behind the museum and the air balloons.

In Diyarbakir, we took part in a Youth Exchange about Islamophobia for 10 days, together with peers from Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria. It was a great experience exploring this historical city! It is the “capital” of Kurds in Turkey, with a conflicting past. The last clashes in 2016 left the old city centre, including much of the UNESCO-protected fortress destroyed, but it’s rapidly coming back up again. The site includes the 5.8 km-long city walls of Diyarbakir with their various towers, gates, buttresses, and 63 inscriptions, as well as the Inner fortress, also known as çkale and featuring the Amida Mound. It is really magical to sip tea and watch the people strolling and the children playing as the golden light illuminates the fortress and the city walls which are supposed to be the longest complete defensive walls in the world after the Great Wall of China.

Leaving the beloved country that is Turkey, we made our way across the border with Iraq, to the northern Kurdish region of the country. Our first stop was Erbil, the biggest city in the region, where we met some new friends who took us to an opera concert in the old citadel, organised by the Czech consulate there. Located in the historical city centre of Erbil, on a hill overlooking the always lively main square and the enchanting old Bazaar, it was a magical thing to experience on our first evening in the city. The 5th millennium BC is the first indication of human settlement in the area around the citadel. The citadel’s original fortifications were eventually replaced with homes, but the continuous wall of tall 19th-century house façades still gives the appearance that an unassailable stronghold dominates the city.

From Iraq, our journey continues to Saudi Arabia, more specifically, its Eastern province, which is home to the biggest oasis in the world, the Al-Ahsa Oasis. The oasis is an important area in terms of its unique nature and geography, historically and economically. It is actually home to the largest conventional oil field in the world, the Ghawar Field and with 2.5 million palm trees it is also responsible for a large amount of Saudi date production, with the country being the second largest date producer in the world. The mix of oil production facilities and neverending palm forests is truly a unique sight.

Economics aside, the oasis presents evidence of human settlement in the Gulf region from the Neolithic until today. It possesses unique historical evidence of the continued human habitation in the area with the unique construction of fortresses, mosques, wells, and a network of open-air canals, which show a unique way of distributing water through the centuries. The historical buildings somehow act in harmony with a truly outlandish-looking geography of huge orange rocks scattered around the desert landscape. We were even lucky enough to join a tour to a hard-to-reach Al-Asfar lake, which is surrounded by sand dunes and nothing like we’ve ever seen before.


Changing our plans and leaving Iran out was a hard decision to make. Nevertheless, it’s definitely a country we plan on visiting when the situation allows it. Taking everything into account, our spontaneous adventures in Iraq and additional time in Saudi was an opportunity that we otherwise wouldn’t have and the Heritage sights that we saw before on during this time are memories that will undoubtedly not be forgotten.

5 * VIENNA: 31 – 2 Sep

Fifth stop: Vienna! The capital of Austria is a city of culture and history. By the Danube, the city’s first traces of human settlement trace back to 500 BC. From the 15th century onwards, it was also the house of the Habsburgs, a royal dynasty that ruled for hundreds of years and played a pivotal role in the history of Europe. Its marvelous Baroque beauty hides hints of the impact WWII had on the city and on the country. 

[A view of the historical city center of Vienna]

* DURING WWII *

Vienna was annexed by the Nazis in 1938, right before the beginning of WWII, in an ostentatious parade that counted with the presence of Hitler, who was himself austrian born. The occupation – known in German by Anschluss – lasted until the end of the war and brought tremendous suffering and loss. Local jews were persecuted and deported and the city was besieged and bombed a couple of times both by the Americans and the British, specially by the end of the conflict. 

After the end of the war in Europe, similarly to Berlin, Vienna was divided and governed by the winning allied forces – which is depicted in the famous 1949 movie The Third Man – for ten long years, until 1955.

[Karlskirche by Fischer von Erlach]

* WORLD HERITAGE 101 *

The Historic Centre of Vienna was classified by UNESCO in 2001, as it beautifully showcases the medieval and Baroque architecture and urban planning that characterizes central european cities. Vienna, for many years the capital of the long lasting Austro-Hungarian Empire, is also an important place when it comes to intangible heritage since it has been a major focal point for musical creation since the 16th century, being the city of famous composers like Mozart and Beethoven.  

 

* JOURNAL *

DAY 10: The Ringstrasse

In the latter part of the 19th century, Vienna was in need to expand its dense urban medieval perimeter. The medieval walls of the city were demolished and a new, major boulevard – the Ringstrasse – was built, surrounding the historical town. This major project encompassed noble, representative public buildings and enabled the city to incorporate the developing suburbs, resulting in the quick enlargement of the capital.

I spent my first day in the austrian capital walking along this main axis and got the opportunity to visit some of the magnificent buildings and parks that surround it. I started at Karlskirche, a major example of Baroque and of the spirit of the counter-reformation. This church is a major project by probably the most relevant Baroque austrian architect, Fischer von Erlach. From the top of its cupula, it is possible to admire the Vienna’s city center and how it stays course and coherent in a beautiful overlap between the different architectural styles that shape the city.

     

[The magnificient Baroque decor inside the church]

Then I continued my trip around the Ringstrasse to admire other buildings like the Wiener Staatsoper – the famous opera house, destroyed during WWII and reopened in 1955 with Beethoven’s “Fidelio” -, the Austrian Parliament – currently going through works in accordance to its original project – or the Wien Rathaus – the magnificent city hall building in neo-Gothic style.

DAY 11: Traces of Annexed Austria

My second day in Vienna was dedicated to visiting traces of the Anschluss, a very challenging period of occupation for the city and its inhabitants. My morning started at the Augarten, a public garden in the northern limit of the historical center that used to be a noble property and today is a extense public garden. 

In the middle of the greenery, two massive structures disrupt the landscape: the Flak Towers. These enormous constructions were erected by the Nazis as anti-aircraft defense during WWII, resourcing to slave labour. Vienna was not the only city getting them: both Berlin and Hamburg were also equipped with a couple of them. Even though their immediate purpose was to block Allied offensives, there were plans to revamp and make them major symbols of Nazi power once the war ended.

     

[On my way to the Augarten / One of the Flak Towers]

Nowadays, it is interesting to reflect upon how each people and each city dealt and deals with this somehow “uncomfortable” heritage. The majority of these towers in Germany were either partially or totally destroyed right after the end of the war as they evoke the dark times of the war and the destruction it caused, while in Austria, most of them still stand, serving as a memorial and a public awareness tool for the harsh aftermath of conflicts in cities. 

In the afternoon, I strolled around the city center and entered the Stephansdom – the city’s cathedral. From there, I walked through the thigh knit and classically harmonious settlement surrounding the royal Habsburg complex, passing by the Judenplatz – that used to be the center of the Viennese Jewish community in the Middle Ages – to check the site-specific that was built there – a petrified library, where books cover are not readable and where it is impossible to enter, remembering the cultural loss and the identity attack suffered by the jews during Nazi rule.

     

[A passage in the city centre / Judenplatz]

I ended my walk near the Albertina museum, where I made a last stop to appreciate one of the Hrdlicka Memorials. These small sculpted ensembles, created by the homonymous sculptor, evoke the many ways Austria witnessed suffering during the occupation and the war. The ones in the picture, in Albertinaplatz, use stone sourced using forced labour in Mauthausen, a concentration camp near Linz.

     

[The Royal complex / The Hdrlicka Memorial in Albertinaplatz]

DAY 12: A Divided City

I could not finish my days in the Austrian capital without a visit to Schönbrunn Palace, the major summer residence of the Habsburgs. Together with its sumptuous gardens, the ensemble has been inscribed in the UNESCO list for World Heritage Sites since 1996. The building that can be seen nowadays has an original Baroque project, by same architect as the previously mentioned Karlskirche, Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, but the full complex nowadays is the result of a sum up of many interventions throughout the centuries.

      

[The Schönbrunn Palace / The Baroque fountains / The Gloriette]

Curiously, after the war and during the Allied occupation period that followed (1945 – 1955), the palace was used for both the British Delegation to the Allied Commission for Austria and for the headquarters for the small British Military Garrison present in Vienna, before becoming a museum again with the reestablishment of the Austrian Republic.

Back to the city center after lunch, I visited a beautiful church – Dominkanerkirche – that illustrates Austrian Baroque well – white and intricate. Before leaving for my next stop, I still had time to meet Regina Wiala-Zimm, the International Relations Officer for the City of Vienna that cooperates directly with OWHC, and a fellow traveler, Stefan Župan.

* HERITAGE HIGHLIGHTS *

– Heldenplatz – 

In front of the royal palace of the Habsburgs, the famous Hofburg, there is this significant square. In 1938, when the Nazis occupied Austria, Hitler did an impressive parade and speech here to show its power and announce the annexation of the country.

[Heldenplatz nowadays]

– Stephansdom – 

The cathedral of Vienna, a magnificent gothic church, suffered tremendously during WWII. Damaged during bombing, as Germans were retreating from the city by the end of war, intentional destruction was planned. Viennese german command Sepp Dietrich ordered the soldiers to “fire a hundred shells (at the cathedral) and leave it in just debris and ashes.” Luckily, a subordinate disregarded the order and more destruction was spared. After the war, efforts to reconstruct it started immediately.

     

[The Stephansdom / The Canova inside]

Fontainebleau, the hidden gem – your alternative to the obligatory Versailles visit?

Though I have been visiting Paris many times, I have heard about the mystical place Fontainebleau, but never managed a visit!

While approx. 1 hour away by public transport from Paris, Fontainebleau remains a hidden gem and is barely crowded.

fountainebleu

The little town feels magical, a laid-back place where time seems stuck. A perfect destination to escape the busy days of one’s big city life.

The main attractions of this cute little world heritage town are the Palace and Park of Fontainebleau.

While I am not most intrigued by French royalty, this castle has much to offer just by looking at its 800 years of history. 

With over 1500 rooms, it is the second-largest castle in France and extremely rich in history!

The Château de Fontainebleau is a royal and imperial castle of medieval, renaissance, and classical styles, and as Napoleon said, the Château de Fontainebleau remains a “true residence of kings, a house of centuries”.

Yet, Napoleon I himself:

“breathed new life in Fontainebleau after the Revolution. Visiting the château he restored, furnished and inhabited, you uncover the statesman, the military leader, the family man and the patron of arts.” There is also the only still-existing throne room of Napoleon.

Walking through the château, the zeitgeist of its past set me in awe. In comparison to Versailles, the castle is much fewer glamours and kitschy but more “practical” Hereby I want to showcase my favorite room of the palace which was the palatial library.

 

Palatial library

In addition, the palace and its surroundings are huge and I believe 1 day is not enough to study them with the care the place deserves: 130 hectares of parks, courtyards, and gardens of the Château de Fontainebleau Equally, I experienced the park to be truly magical and inviting to have a picnic, and do sports, amazing even some visitors have been picking mushrooms in the woodlands – many practical dimensions of a world heritage site 😀

The Fountainebleau forest with a surface area of state-owned woodland measures more than 22,000 hectares! Yet, I have to admit that I felt the cultural activities planned were barely targeted at a younger audience. Despite the presence of the Ranked #1 European Unicorn University INSEAD, we barely note “young faces.”

Talking to the receptionist in the visitor center, she reminded us about the importance of the awareness of world heritage.

 

Fountainebleau is the ideal place to daydream about the life of our ancestors and feel like being part of it at least for a day and coming back to the busy streets of Paris.

Yet, Fontainebleau is not an alternative to Versailles, but much different and an ideal gateway for a deep dive into french royal history, heritage, and nature.

 

 

 

 

 

Bordeaux, Port of the Moon – a city uncovering its “trade past”

bordeuax

The Tour de France continues in Bordeaux. A city that most people associate with one thing: wine! 

Yet my trip to Bordeaux was much more than exploring its wine culture. I was especially intrigued by:  How can urban spaces be used to commemorate the dark side of the past and educate the public/ visitors? 

But, to start with, I had the blast of meeting, exploring, and being hosted by a local, Eloise. She is a young world heritage ambassador for @opvm. Making her the best tour guide I could have asked for. Big thanks and shoutout to her and Moni for bringing us into contact.

 Certainly, Bordeaux has notoriously gained its appreciation as a world heritage city, namely of its harbor, “Port of the Moon.” Yet roughly 40% of the entire city’s area is covered as world heritage, marking the largest urban area inscribed by UNESCO within those incredibly breathtaking buildings (see photos: Miroir d’eau at the place de bourse)

miroir d´eau

The “innovative classical and neoclassical architectural trends” mark the beauty of the city center. The harbor has helped Bordeaux become infamous for its wine industry and as a global trading center for more than 800 years! Another must-see is the “Cité du Vin,” a high-tech museum teaching you about the history of wine 

Small villages nearby, such as Saint-Émilion, the Médoc, Canon Fronsac, Sauternes, and Graves, are ideal for exploring vineyards and learning how grapes become wine.

 Bordeaux’s glamour is often connoted by its wine. Its majestic buildings and grand buildings were heavily financed by the transatlantic slave trade, generating human tragedies.

The dark part of Bordeaux’s history remains problematic and is a difficult political issue. Even for the residents themselves, My guide says it is partly because of something people have been trying to escape from in the past or hiding behind the facade of being a glamorous wine city.

Yet, many, especially young people, have facilitated and lobbied for a shift towards a “just narrative” which also requires condemning what happened a few centuries ago.

“That story remained untold until recently,” argue the tour guides who aim to tell their visitors the dark and unspoken side of Bordeaux’s glorified past.

In 2019, some of Bordeaux’s streets, which were named after slave traders, have been modified “to add historical context” 

In addition, Bordeaux has created a “memorial route,” or exhibitions in the Musée d’Aquitaine.

Various statues and symbols mark Bordeaux’s public spaces, stimulating visitors’ thoughts and allowing them to listen to the untold stories of the then most vulnerable part of “society.”

One of my favorite statues was the one of:

Modeste Marthe Adélade Testas (1765-1870)

statues speaking for t

She was an Ethiopian slave, who was enslaved by Toulouse merchants and then transferred to the plants in the new world.

Despite the harsh conditions she must have undergone she became  105 years old! She was a popular figure and bequeathed land. Her grandson became Haiti’s first president. (Having tears in the eyes while writing this)

Another interesting encounter was at the embarquement gate of the spokesman of democracy, Thomas Jefferson, which marked the 5 days in Bordeaux of the wine-lover.

Undoubtedly, these statues/symbols do underline a certain political power and broadcast a particular message.

Given these interesting historic insides, Bordeaux has become one of my favorite cities: full of prehistory, the eclectic mix of architectural styles, and the feeling of liveliness and elegance. Only walking through the warm, quirky streets made me feel welcome in such an extremely beautiful city.

Every corner comes with its own beauty and uniqueness!

 

 

 

4 * PRAGUE: 27 – 30 Aug

Prague was the fourth stop of the trip: a marvelous and culturally rich city, with a peculiar story regarding war(s). Crossed by the Vlatva, it is known by its magnificent city center that depicts very coherently all the periods the city went through. From being the official residence of several Holy Roman Emperors, to witnessing the first signs of the Reformation and being a bubbly cultural hub in the late 19th century, the city has a vast number of heritage sites worth a visit.

[A view of Prague and of the Vlatva]

* DURING WWII *

As WWII was beginning, Prague was the capital and major city of Czechoslovakia, a republic formed in 1918 that used to unite the modern day Czech Republic and Slovakia. Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia started even before the beginning of the war. In 1938, with the signing of the Munich Pact, a compromise between Germany and England, Sudetenland, a bordering region with strong affiliations to german culture, was annexed, in the hopes it would satisfy Nazis’ expansion intentions. However, in March of the following year, the rest of the country was occupied as well, as Hitler only gave two options to the at that time president Emil Hácha – occupation or total destruction.  

The capital of the Bohemia and Moravia Protectorate – as Nazis called it – lived years under terror during the full duration of the conflict. Even thought it was mainly spared of mass destruction due to shelling, as it was only bombed once by the end of the confrontations – and by accident! -, Prague witnessed profound transformations and the loss of important heritage sites, specially after 1941, under the rule of Reinhard Heydrich, also known as the Butcher of Prague

The Jewish Quarter was tremendously altered with the creation of one of the biggest ghettos created during WWII and the old town severely damaged as a consequence of the Prague Uprising, an attempt to liberate the city from the Nazis, only a couple of days before the cease of the conflict in Europe.

     

[The main square in the Old Town of Prague, classified by the UNESCO since 1992, and its famous Astronomical Clock]

* WORLD HERITAGE 101 *

The Historic Centre of Prague was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1992 and it is a great example of urban coherence and quality, combining harmoniously medieval structures, baroque churches and Art Nouveau buildings. Nowadays, Prague is a city visited by copious amounts of visitors, having to cope with the challenges brought by mass tourism, but at the same time, it seems to have been able so far to keep an uniqueness that provokes amazement in each single neighborhood.

* JOURNAL *

DAY 6: The City Centre

My first day in the Czech capital started with a walk through the old townStare Mesto – the medieval settlement from where the city later expanded. Starting at the main square, I admired the Old City Hall building, where the symbol of Prague – the Astronomical Clock lies. It was heavily damaged by the Nazis as a retaliation for the uprisers at the end of the conflict and it took a couple of years to be repaired. However, and even though several architectural competitions were held in the following decades, the plot where the damaged part of the building layed remains empty and the wall that faces the square, clearly cut, speaks of that disruption and that event in czech history. 

     

[The main square in Prague / The Old City Hall, partially destroyed during the Prague Uprising, that was never rebuilt]

Walking through the organic medieval street network in direction to the river, there was still time to visit the Rudolfinum, the building where Dvórak premiered his famous “Slavonic Dances” and that nowadays hosts the Czech Philharmonic. It is a prime example of the not-so-obvious destruction that WWII left on the city: as a strategical point for Nazis, Prague and its buildings were often occupied by passing troops that used major architectural landmarks of the city in a way that often didn’t respect its richness, massively altering and altering its interiors. The Rudolfinum, for instance, was an entertainment hall for Nazis, where they would recreate plays and concerts inside to create entertainment and raise the spirits of high ranked German officers, while war was erasing Europe. 

     

[The Rudolfinum, now house to the Czech Philharmonic]

DAY 7: Bombed by Mistake

On my second day in the city, my daily exploration started with a visit to Malá Strana – also known as the Lesser Town – on the opposite side of Old Prague; a neighborhood founded in the Middle Ages and that was historically home for many ethnic German and Italian inhabitants of Prague. There, I admired a couple of beautiful churches, passed by the famous Lennon Wall – where locals used to creatively express their frustrations during the communistic period – and ended in Pétrin, the big green area of the city. 

     

[The Lennon Wall, used as an anonymous complaints during the communist period / The remains of the old walls of the city in Pétrin]

Back to the Old Town, I crossed the iconic Charles Bridge, whose construction was initiated in 1357, to substitute a previous wooden structure, by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. The statuary that adorns it is now mainly commissions from the Baroque period but additions have been made throughout the centuries. Even if the bridge survived the war structurally, it still suffered some damage during the conflict, since Nazis, as they were forcefully leaving the city by the end of the war, made a barricade to the Old Tower bridge gateway to slow the progression of opposing troops.

In the afternoon, I was lucky enough to join a group of local historians and architects from the University of Prague for a walk, as well as Mounir, a syrian architect that is finishing his PhD in the city and that sadly knowns firsthand the devastating and long lasting consequences war can have on cities, their heritage and people.

[Walking through the southern part of the city to check bombed buildings and its current state]

We walked through the southern neighborhoodsNove Mesto -, to visited the area that was affected by one of the few bombings Prague witnessed during WWII, when Americans accidentally mistook Prague by Dresden. We passed by the worldly known futuristic Dancing House – a deconstructive building started in 1992 and designed by the star architect Frank Gehry – that was actually built in a plot that remained empty for a couple of decades due to this precise shelling. However, the most illustrative example of reconstruction in this part of town is the Emmaus Monastery, a gothic structure whose vaults were destroyed in the previously described event and that after a couple of reconstruction projects, the decision to add a new contemporary layer, representing its time, won in the 1960’s. Now, a Gothic foundation and a Modernistic tower co-exist in a somewhat harmonious way.

      

[The Dancing House / The Emmaus Monastery]

DAY 8: The Jewish Quarter

My third day in the city started with a really nice walk around town, with a local historian, Lukas, to observe newer projects that have been built in plots either destroyed during WWII or dismissed by the communist regime that followed, resulting in a very diverse approach to reconstruction and heritage preservation led after the conflict, varying, for example, depending on the location in the city or the typology of the building. 

In the afternoon, I dedicated the majority of my time to the Old Jewish Ghetto of Prague, situated in the northern part of the city. A true city inside a city, even if the area is not very big considering the thousands that inhabited it before WWII, and that for many reasons throughout the centuries were forced to concentrate and keep to this part of town. 

[The cemetery in the Jewish Quarter]

Nowadays, the neighborhood, completely included in the remaining urban system, hosts a significant minor number of jews, as many were deported and killed during the Nazi occupation of the country and many of those who survived decided not to come back. Nonetheless, the majority of the main structures that characterized the Josefov – also called like these to celebrate the Toleration Act, issued by Joseph II in 1781, granting the jews from Prague many rights – remain and have been carefully reconstructed and preserved. Among them, the synagogues – six in total – allow the visitors to have a glimpse of the rich history of the quarter, as some stand for centuries and date back to the medieval times, served as hubs for the sharing of fresh ideas or as a refuge for the jewish community during persecutions or pogroms. 

     

[The Ceremonial Hall / The view of the cemetery]

I had the opportunity to visit the majority of them and was touched by how each one of them plays a role in understanding the neighborhood, as some remain religious buildings and others were turned into museums or memorials.

DAY 9: The Hill Over Prague

To end my stay, my last day in Bohemia’s capital was dedicated to the Prazsky Hrad, a fortified structure dating back to early medieval times; a place of coronation for the Czech rulers and of surveillance during war and occupation.

The castle started being built in the 9th century and since then has been a seat of power for the king of Bohemia, Holy Roman Emperors and Czech presidents. It has been reconstructed countless times after fires and wars and nowadays is a complex structure combining many different architecture styles, even if the predominant one is the Gothic.

      

[The view from the castle’s hill / The ceiling inside the oldest rooms of the castle / The main entrance of St. Vitus Cathedral]

Next to it, one can also visit St. Vitus Cathedral. The current structure, built upon an older rotunda by Wenceslaus – a king and patron saint – dates back to the 14th century. It is a marvelous Gothic structure, whose completion only ended in the 20th century. Original elements coexist harmoniously with newer ones: for example, a new decorated window by Alfons Mucha, a famous Art Nouveau artist.

To finish the walk around the hill and overlooking the city, the southern gardens of the castle were a later add-on. Its current state results from a project from the 1920’s, by the famous slovenian architect Josip Plecnik, for the first czechoslovakian president, T. G. Masaryk.

 

* HERITAGE HIGHLIGHTS *

 – Pinkas Synagogue –

Today a memorial, this synagogue speaks of the harsh chapter of history related to the Holocaust. Its walls are covered with all the names collected of deported Czech jews. Thousands died during WWII and in 1945, after the war, the jewish population of the city was reduced to less than a fourth. Apparently simple but impactful!

 – Spanish Synagogue – 

Before WWII, Prague had one of the biggest and liveliest jewish communities in Europe. The old ghetto had a couple of synagogues, being the last one to be built, the Spanish Synagogue, in the second half of the 19th century. Its Moorish Revival style is unique and speaks of the contemporary Jewish Enlightenment, which produced many famous books, marvelous music and works of art. During the historical Crystal Night, a pogrom in the prelude of WWII,  in 1938, that purposefully destroyed many synagogues and jewish property in diverse cities around Europe, and it served as well as a shelter for the jews of Prague.

     

[One of the walls in Pinkas Synagogue, where the names of deported jews are organized by family name and city of origin / The interiors of the Spanish Synagogue]

Mostar

I drive inland again, past the border and through Bosnia and Herzegovina’s faded little seaside town, Neum. The limestone hills, grey shrubs, and burnt, black trees of Herzegovina replace the blue sea, olive trees, oleander bushes, and Aleppo pines of the coast. The openness and quiet is a relief. It reminds me of driving through the desert.

After three hours or so, I meet up with the Neretva River, whose deep, abundant green comes as a shock. I follow it through the outer suburbs of Mostar, to my hotel, the Park Villa (much less glamorous than it sounds). I leave the car there and trace the river back by foot, past the old mosque, through the shopping district, to the Mostar Bridge, which arches impossibly high over the banks of the Neretva, like an an animal stretching its back. The old stone bridge, built by the Ottomans in 1566, destroyed in 1994, and rebuilt in 2004, connects the two halves of an increasingly polarised city. It reaches from the Bosniak ‘side’ to the Croat one. I don’t realise or recognise this while I’m there though. It’s only later, in Banja Luka, when a melancholy Serb veteran describes Mostar as a face ‘split in two’.

Even in late October, the bridge is full of visitors, who make their way across with tiny, tentative steps. I, too, am so concentrated on my feet that I barely register that I’m crossing the bridge at all. I prefer to look at it from a distance. The next day, I sit down on the river bank below and watch Croat teenagers leap from a nearby springboard and a group of Bosniak school children pick their noses and scratch sticks into the mud.

Slavenka Drakulić

I am very touched by Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulić‘s book, ‘The Balkan Express’ (purchased by accident in Dubrovnik), especially her essay about the Mostar bridge’s destruction during the Bosnian war. Written immediately after the bridge’s collapse, it speaks of an immense collective sadness, a void, something more unimaginable than death itself. I wish I could ask her for her thoughts on its reconstruction: What it meant for the broken country then, and what it means for the divided country now. Perhaps one day I’ll have the chance.

I have three photos of Mostar in front of me. One is a postcard, a sepia-coloured photo printed on poor, cardboard-like paper. It is dated September 1953, when my father sent it to us on his first visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina. In the centre of the photo is the Old Bridge— all postcards of Mostar have that bridge on them, of course— and a part of the old city. ‘I think of you as I walk over this beautiful bridge,’ he wrote to my mother and me in Rijeka, Croatia. I can imagine him walking there on a warm autumn day. Coming to the middle, to the place where young boys used to jump into the river to prove their courage, he must have leaned over the stone railing and looked into the Neretva below, quick and silent as a snake. He must have stopped there, overwhelmed by the elegance of the stone construction. When his hands touched the bridge, he must have felt its smoothness and warmth, as if he had touched skin instead of stone. It was as if the bridge had a life of its own, a soul given to it by the people who had crossed it in its almost four hundred years of existence. It was erected in 1566 during the Turkish Empire and, the story goes, the stones were stuck together with mortar that had been mixed with the whites of eggs. Serbs and Turks, Croats and Jews, Greeks and Albanians, Austrians and Hungarians, Catholics, Orthodox, Bogumils and Muslims— all had stopped at the same spot, rested on the same stone. I was four when he wrote that postcard, and I know that he was certain that one day I would see and touch the Mostar bridge, too.

My father was wrong. I did not make it. I foolishly thought the bridge would be there forever. So I never went to Mostar, never walked from one bank of the river to the other. The bridge that saw so many wars, survived so many years, no longer exists. It collapsed in a second on November 9th. All I have to remember it by are these three photos: before, during and after. And I wonder what my father, dead for years now, would have said if he had seen this other photo, the last before the bridge was destroyed. Would he recognise it, ragged and pitiful as an old beggar, with a makeshift wooden roof, black automobile tires and sandbags piled in a futile effort to protect it from the occasional shelling that had started with the war?

When the bridge collapsed, it was Tuesday morning. A pleasant, sunny day, much like the one when my father visited Mostar. The town is only about seventy miles from the Adriatic Sea, so winter comes rather late. The bridge had been shelled since Monday afternoon. People who saw it say its collapse did not last long: at 10:30 A.M. the bridge just fell. As I look at the second picture, I try to imagine the sound of the Old Bridge falling down. A bridge like that doesn’t just disappear; its collapse must have sounded like a swift, powerful earthquake, the kind that people in Mostar have never heard before. Or maybe it sounded like an old tree splitting in two— a hollow crack surrounded by a long silence. Whatever the sound, the river swallowed it in a single morsel. A while later, it was as if the bridge had never existed.

The third photo of Mostar is one I cut out of a newspaper and carry around with me. It is in colour and, paradoxically, the most beautiful of the three that I have. The sun shines over the rooftops of the old city, painting the stone houses white. The slightly swollen river, a rich, deep green, rubs along its banks like a lazy, satiated animal. Absent from this beauty, however, is the bridge. There’s the beginning of its long stone arch, but if that portion were only ten feet shorter, there would be no trace of the structure at all. Only the sheer logic of the place, a feeling that a bridge belongs there, over the river, between two halves of a medieval town, tells us that something is missing. It’s been a little more than two weeks, and I’m still surprised when I look at this photo. When I remember what is no longer there, I feel a spasm in my stomach, a knot in my throat. I feel death lurking in its absence.

I’ve heard that the people in Mostar, even adults, cried when they saw the bridge had fallen. I believe the reports, for I have seen people who are not from Mostar cry as well. An elderly journalist. A lawyer. A singer, who wept for the first time since the war started. Not so long ago the newspapers published photos of a massacre in the Bosnian Muslim village of Stupni Dol. One picture showed a middle-aged woman with a long dark knife cut along her throat. I don’t remember anyone crying over that photo or others like it. And I ask myself: Why do I feel more pain looking at the image of the destroyed bridge than the image of the woman? Perhaps it is because I see my own mortality in the collapse of the bridge, not in the death of the woman. We expect people to die. We count on our own lives to end. The destruction of a monument to civilization is something else. The bridge, in all its beauty and grace, was built to outlive us, it was an attempt to grasp eternity. Because it was the product of both individual creativity and collective experience, it transcended our individual destiny. A dead woman is one of us— but the bridge is all of us, forever.

The Josip-Broz-Tito Club

In a bullet-riddled building in a side alley of Mostar, I stumble upon the Josip-Broz-Tito Club. Unable to hold back my curiosity, I step inside with the pretense of searching for a coffee shop.

Four men sit in the half-dark, murmuring to one another. They are spread into the four corners of the room, one man in each. A fifth moves between them, getting up occasionally to shuffle to the back room. Through a cloud of cigarette smoke I see a huge red tapestry with Tito’s profile: his rounded forehead, his slightly hooked nose, his small, curved lips. Next to it, on the wall, a calendar with all the special holidays marked with a red star: March 8th, May 1st, November 7th. The men fall silent when I enter.

‘Dobar dan, do you have coffee here?’ I ask with an idiotic smile.

The fifth man gestures to a seat near the window, pushes an ashtray towards me, and disappears into the back room. He comes back with a hot cup of Nescafe. The other four study me for a moment from their corners. Then they resume their conversation as if I wasn’t there. I study the tablecloth.

Every once and awhile the man closest to me turns in his seat towards me, and I expect him to say something, but he looks past me, into the street. His eyes are wide. They do not look at anything in particular, they just stare. They have both the frightenedness of a boy and the calm of an old man who has become accustomed to being frightened. I find it difficult to look at them.

It’s on us, the fifth man says, as I get out my wallet to pay.

At Night

The sky becomes dark blue and the street becomes black. The beggars along the Brace Fejica get up from their places and sit together on a bench, talking, laughing and crying. The air is not exactly cold, but the smell of autumn rises from the river to  linger with the smell of roasting meat and freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. A nightclub plays Avril Lavigne. The Karadoz Beg Mosque sings the Koran. Pious men move in its direction and slip off their shoes at its door. I wall back to the Park Villa, slip off my shoes, and sleep for a long, long time.

Weariness

On the dashboard of my car is a cardboard icon of a saint purchased at an Orthodox monastery next to a half eaten pomegranate, parking tickets, and a modest pile of zlotys, forinths, marks, euros and kuna. In the trunk of my car are fifteen cabbages from a roadside stand, fifteen rolls of film in a plastic container, and a mountain of my laundry, washed here and there along the way. The car is covered in an inch of dust, even though I’ve washed it twice. On the dirty bumper, two Montenegran boys have scraped 200€. They tell me with kind smiles that that’s what my car would be worth in the Balkans. They ask why I don’t have a German car instead (they are much more popular here).

The car sags. I sag. Six weeks of hotel rooms, mechanics, border crossings, bazaars, restaurants, invitations, stray dogs, hand gestures, steep mountain roads, gas stations, graveyards and monuments have taken their toll. I try to reassure myself that it’s okay to feel both lucky and grateful for my trip and at the same time, exhausted and ready to go home.

A weeks before, in Poland, I found a book in the library of the house where I was staying titled ‘CENTURY’. The width of its spine was easily that of my outstretched hand. Before I had even opened it, the construction of the book itself seemed a marvel. I carried it (with both hands) to my bed and spent two nights flipping through it in amazement and horror.  It was a collection of 20th century photography unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The only question I could ask by the time I got to the last page was the following: How is it possible that so much happened in one little century?

I’ve asked a similar question (perhaps less consciously formulated) in every little village and in every ancient city I’ve visited on this trip. Except in the case of the cities and villages the weight of history was not limited to the twentieth century, but rather, stretched itself to include the nineteenth, fifteenth, sometimes the eleventh, tenth. Everything that played out in the twentieth: despotism, occupation, beauty, progress, recession, revolution, optimism, misery, and resilience seems contained in every century, every stone, every hotel room, border crossing, every face and gesture. That’s what makes me sag.

But I mind this much less than I expected. I think of Milan Kundera, who writes:

‘The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become…  the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?’

 


twenty – amsterdam – navigandum per hereditatem

Last day before Allegra’s departure! According to the plans we were supposed to go to Floriade, an international gardening exhibition held every ten years in the Netherlands in locations that change from edition to edition. Unfortunately, however, the plans were overturned by an unexpected setback. This morning Allegra woke up with a severe leg cramp and, after calling Gloria to her rescue, lost consciousness. The strangeness of the event startled us. Gloria immediately sought help by calling for help at the port. After we calmed down, we followed medical advice and went to the hospital.

In the emergency room, doctors did some assessment and concluded that it was syncope. Somewhat more reassured, we returned to the boat where we had a nice tomato pasta lunch. We then spent the afternoon quietly aboard Tethys and among Moses’ cuddles. We devoted ourselves to our creative project, listened to music and drank herbal teas. We relaxed and tried not to fret about what had happened in the morning.

It was a good time when we took stock of all the encounters, places, museums that filled our adventure. Here are some of our best memories!