Monday, 27 July 2015

Stop 8: Wrocław

Now let's practise the pronunciation: Wrocław .... no, NOT Rocklaw!  Try again ... Vrohts-wahf ... better.

This is a largish town, across the border from the Czech Republic and into Poland. It's a city on a river and delightful both for that vista, and for what its streets and squares and museums have to offer. We crossed into Poland via minor roads and a couple of stops: the small town of Kraliky as our final stop in the Czech Republic (for its pleasant market square) and then Klodzko, which turned out to be a larger centre across the border in Poland ... where we tried to stop, but were deterred by intense traffic and the lack of an easy park, so drove on.

In Wrocław, we'd booked at the WenderEDU Business Centre ... yep, a University conference centre!  When not booked out for conferences, they apparently operate as a small simple hotel, with rooms spread over the upper levels of a building on the river bank in the Cathedral Island area (Ostrów Tumski). (The building on the right in the picture below.) So our room (top floor in the white facade; window on the right) was large, simple, comfortable ... with a great view over the Odra River.  Unfortunately up three stories ... without a lift!  But a good breakfast provided and parking (paid for but reasonable) securely within the Centre's yard.

One of the particular sights we'd come to Wrocław to see was the Panorama of Racławice, a 360 degree painting of a 1794 battle in which a Polish peasant army defeated Russian forces. This is housed in a special circular building, right across the river from where we were staying ... an easy walk.

There are regular tours of it, with audio-guides in various languages. Because most of the tourists visiting at the time we saw it were Spanish, the broadcast description was for them, and English, Polish and other languages were via the headphones. You enter via an upwards spiral ramp, emerging in the centre of this vast painting ... 114m long and 15m high. It's a brilliant depiction, with sand and grass running right from the barriers and merging into the curved canvas, so there's an almost 3D effect. This is enhanced by some clever lighting, so the sun seems to come out and then go behind clouds ... and the scene lives! The description provides background, but then walks you through the essential parts of the painting, describing who the figures are and what they are doing.

The ticket for the Panorama also includes a visit to the nearby National Museum, and here there are three floors of art from various areas. Some very interesting examples, including some modern local work, but we're a little art-weary at this point!

But the whole city (well, the old central part at least) has a beauty that rivals much of what we've seen so far in other cities. The Odra (river) provides a unifying and locating thread, with some great churches and cathedrals on the islands just to the north of the old centre. We could walk into town fairly easily, crossing several of the bridges along the way.

We also took an orienting trip on a small boat, which cruised through some of the smaller branches of the river, and looped along the main stretches.

It was also useful to get an orientation to the city via one of the city tours, and here was a new phenomenon that we'd immediately seen around the streets: small golf buggies, with a limited passenger capacity, that quietly (electrically) bumped around the town.  So we did - and took a fairly expensive (by local standards we suspect) tour with a knowledgeable young women, through the old quarter, around the churches, out to the zoo etc. But we saw parts of the city that we maybe wouldn't have thought to visit and learned a little of its background - including the existence of an unexploded shell still embedded in one of the Cathedral's towers.

The city market square (Rynek) is Poland's second largest (after Kraków's), and is very attractive, with Gothic and baroque style facades. But a large set of buildings (themselves quite attractive) have been placed in the middle of the square, which sort of breaks up its impact. It's fine to have some fountains and plague columns, and even a town hall with astrological clock in the centre of the square, but here there are many buildings, with streets and lanes running through them. So the square can almost be reduced to four connected wide spaces, rather then having a homogeneous whole. The smaller towns, with their defined and uninterrupted squares, seem more pleasant.

On one corner is the old Salt Market (Plac Solny), which is now a 24-hour flower market.

The other enticing aspect of the town is its gnomes. Arising from the Orange Alternative, as a symbol of resistance to censorship of dissent and graffiti, and now transformed and marketed as a symbol of the town, there are over 300 small brass gnomes scattered around the town, on the riverbank, in little alleys, very publicly in squares, and obscurely up lampposts etc. You can play 'Spot the Gnome' with a map from the Tourist Office ... we saw a few before we bought the map, but felt no inclination to be 'completist' about tracking down the other 290!

Another sculpture is further south of the old town, and is called Passage. It is across a fairly major street, on an ordinary corner, and consists of life-size figures who descend into broken pavement on one side of the road and emerge on the other. A great concept, and done really well.

We also climbed to the top of one of the steeples of the Cathedral, aided by a lift for most of the journey, for a vertigo-inducing view over the town, and dropped in on the obligatory couple of churches including one that had a lower church for the peasants/workers and an upper church on top of this, for the nobles.

Ate at some interesting and enjoyable places ... a vegetarian Thai place literally through a hole in the city wall and up a tower; a modern marina with air-conditioned comfort (it was still very hot) overlooking the well-lit old university on the river; a Turkish kebab shop in the newer town; etc.

This is a most enjoyable city, larger than previous centres we'd visited, but easy to be in and get round. Add it to your list!

Friday, 24 July 2015

Stop 7: Olomouc

Once we had the pronunciation sorted out, it was plain sailing!  It's Olomo-uts ... or something similar. It's our final stop in the Czech Republic before we cross into Poland.

Olomouc is in the east of the Czech Republic. It is relatively close to Ostrava where there's just been a big music festival happening: Colours. We know that Anna Cinzia Villani was there a few days ago with Nidi d'Arac, as was Canzoniere Grecanico Valentino. We weren't.

It was great to arrive in this largish city - the 5th or 6th biggest in the Czech Republic - and find that, by and large, we were off the tourist trail. We could walk down the centre of the old town streets and across the huge old town squares without any fear of being run over or of being swiped by selfie sticks. There were no bus loads following a raised umbrella.

We drove there from the aforementioned ČK, stopping briefly in the large and lovely main square of Telč for an ice-cream lunch. This meant that most of this trip was on small roads, through villages and small towns.

And then on, via a bumpy motorway, to our Pension Angelus, in Olomouc.

This was a lovely old building on the edge of the old quarter. It has just three rooms, with ours being a one bedroom apartment on the ground floor (after the entrance stairs): a large bedroom with quaint old furniture, a bricked up bread oven and a vaulted ceiling; a small kitchenette that was also the entrance passageway; a large bathroom with spa bath (which may or may not have worked) and a large area of inexplicable and pointless tile work. And access to a large, though overgrown and unswept, terrace with a view of the Cathedral.

Unfortunately all this was right on a fairly busy road into and past the old town, and trams rumbled past and shook the house fairly regularly. However, double glazing reduced the impact a little - and it was reasonably cool inside. And the people running it were friendly ... and there was secure parking provided in a church yard (we think) about half a block away.  And it was very close to the original centre of Olomouc, where there's St Wenceslas Cathedral, the Archbishop's Palace and the Archdiocesian Museum ... and it's not too far to walk to the city square.

We left the car locked away and spent a couple of pleasant days wandering around the old part of the city:
  • looking at the old astrological clock on the town hall, which has been updated with socialist realist figures of workers, who come out and parade at 12 noon;

  • taking an audio guided tour of the old town for a couple of hours, peering at plague columns and fountains;

  • doing a guided tour of the Archbishop's Palace ... very personalised, and with overshoes that meant we shuffled and slid our way through rooms in which wars were planned (against Napoleon for example), treaties were signed, rulers abdicated and emperors announced;
  • toured the Archdiocesian Museum with an audio-guide, from cellars to galleries and chapels (again doing the overshoe shuffle for part of this) - and then on to the associated modern art museum;
  • peered into Cathedrals and churches.

We're travelling slowly, partly because of the heat (lots of rest stops and siestas), partly because just 'being there' is the important part. So we can drift slowly back to our pension through the riverside gardens, and shrug when the Nepali restaurant in an Irish pub in a Czech city says the kitchen is closed (at 7.40 pm) - and spend a restful time in the main square with Czech and Chinese food ... and local beer.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

The Veneration of the Chook

I started noticing the images in churches and royal castles, in paintings, murals, and sculptures, as we visited Metz Cathedral in NE France in the second week of the trip.

A chook!

Lambs yes, but the humble chook hadn't really meant anything to me until we were guided to it in an audio on the amazing St Vitus Cathedral in the castle in Prague. So the hen and rooster represented love, shelter, devotion, caring. All those good things with which one would want to be associated.

Sometimes the chook or rooster is as bold as, well, as bold as brass really. Centre stage in the iconographic depiction.

Other times, more subtle, a softer depiction.

Then they pop up in Astronomical Clocks from the Middle Ages, and of course, heralding the passing hours makes sense.

But then I found the chook used in wall paintings.

In advertising, of course.

And outside the entrances to fresh food markets.

I now enjoy hunting out these images. But sometimes other animals are just as compelling to photograph.

But then there is this: