Today, all that has changed. I walked out of the grungy, grimy train station in Krakow, Poland and through a tunnel into a huge three-story mall as big as the Grand Traverse Mall in TC. It had your typical mall babes walking around in the latest styles and many of the same stores found in the U.S. If it werent for the great Polish food and generous beer steins in the food court, youd swear you were in Grand Rapids.
Ive spent the past two weeks barnstorming around Central and East Europe on an extended trip around the world. Vienna, Austria. Prague in the Czech Republic. Krakow, Poland. And now, Budapest in Hungary. The streets of each town are filled with invaders -- foreign tourists from all around the world. In Prague, I heard more American voices downtown than those of the Czechs. East Europe is the new in place to visit, owing to the (slightly) cheaper prices than France, Britain or Germany.
And if anyone needs a break, its these people. The blini-flat plains of Poland
and other countries made them an ideal target for invading armies over the centuries -- the Mongols, Tartars, Crusaders, Turks, Vikings, Swedes, Habsburgs, Napolean, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Nazis and the Communists -- all have taken their bite out of this place. It makes you wonder that theres one brick lying on top of another after all that bloodshed.
But in fact, there are enough palaces, churches, grand plazas and mad statues of sword-swinging heroes here to pound the most resolute walker into the pavement.
As was the case in Ireland, I see many people seeking their heritage here. They are Jews, eager to wander the old Jewish quarters of Prague, Krakow and Hungary. But theirs is a bittersweet journey due to the horrible events of the Holocaust, not so long ago.
In Krakow, for instance, the Old Jewish Quarter is filled with the citys finest restaurants and nightspots. In the High Synogogue in town, I see photos of the happy families who once lived here in the 1930s. But the Jews who once lived here are long gone -- 65,000 of them were murdered by the Nazis. Some 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland in the 1930s, but today there are only 200,000.
Southeast of town is Auschwitz, now a museum and major tourist attraction, with dozens of buses making the trip each day. There are one million visitors here each year -- the same number of people who died here. Some say the number was far higher -- nearly four million.
It would take an encyclopedia to describe all the horrors of Auschwitz and the nearby Birkenau concentration camp. Suffice to say, I left feeling sick at the depths of cruelty the human race is capable of. Yet our guide -- who lost three of her own family members here -- said that many Jewish persons tour the camp, and even survivors come for reunions.
Krakow was barely a blip on the tourist map until Stephen Spielberg filmed Schindlers List here in 1992. That, and the fact that Pope John Paul II served as a cardinal here for 14 years and is considered a saint by the locals.
Theres a lot to recommend in East Europe -- the beer is cheap, the food is fattening, and many locals speak English in the tourist zones. Here are some observations from a guy passing through:
Every hostel room in the world seems to have at least one guest who snores loud enough to blow the roof off a barn. Last night, my dorm of 10 endured a guy who sounded like he was strangling cats at the volume of a jet engine. The only one who slept through it was the other snorer.
Dont know why, but the Europeans dig corn on their pizza. They also see nothing odd about having co-ed showers in the hostel in Budapest.
Theres nothing quite like the sensation of walking bare-assed through the ancient Turkish bath in Budapest. They give you this little white apron to wear on the front, with the idea being to switch it around to the back when you sit in the sauna. Can only imagine the old switcheroo gets pretty interesting on Fridays when both men and women share the baths. I felt more comfortable in another sprawling, Romanesque thermal pool where folks wore their swimsuits under sunny skies.
My tour guide in Krakow was born in Russia and grew up thinking communism was A-OK. He was a member of the Young Pioneers -- a kind of patriotic Boy Scout group. We shared the propaganda we learned about each others countries in junior high school -- enemies then, friends now.
After Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring uprising in 1968, dissidents started writing protest messages on a wall on a quiet side street. When John Lennon was murdered 30 years ago, someone painted his picture on the wall, which has been known as the John Lennon Wall ever since. Today, his face peers out in bas-relief sculpture on a wall covered with graffiti and peace-ful slogans. Its a thoughtful, reverential place, and feels holier than any of the gold-plated cathedrals Ive visited.
With that said, its also true that a chill is descending on Europe -- literally. Poland is bracing for the coldest winter in its history, possibly due to global climate changes. So Im happy to be on a jet tomorrow for a city in a far warmer climate that has been a tourist destination for the past 5,000 years. Will let you know how it goes...