Saturday, December 6, 2008


By luck, my folks were on their last day in Budapest when I arrived on the overnight train from Krakow, which provided a convenient place to stash bags and a free breakfast (and dinner, for that matter). We managed to fit in some culture at the gallery, where a pianist was banging out emotional Hungarian music while we perused the art. Dad was typically charismatic at dinner, so much so that the over-zealous waiter gave us a bottle of red to take home, which was later put to good use.
For the most part, Budapest was spa-central: 3 of the 8 days there were spent at thermal baths. Why has it taken me 30 years to discover this hedonistic paradise? With a combination of indoor and outdoor pools, saunas and healing mineral waters at varying temperatures and steaminess, it's relaxation heaven. Szechenyi, in the city park, was the favoured location and was rewarded with two visits. My momentary concern that a bikini might not be acceptable attire was immediately dismissed when I was faced with walls of ancient flesh lolling about in small strips of spandex. Confident people, the Hungarians. The first day we went it was cold and drizzling, so the steam rising from the pool made it impossible to see more than about a meter in front of you, which was occasionally a good thing; a bizarre circus of characters frequent the spas - a film populated by these people would seem wildly fictitious. Old local guys set up their chess boards on the steps of the outdoor baths for a day of heckling in healing waters, ignoring the signs suggesting 20 minutes is enough in the steamy 38 degree pool. What a way to retire. Above, the exterior of the House of Terror, a fantastic museum dedicated to the atrocities committed by the fascists and communists up until the 1990s both in Hungary and specifically in this building. At the right time of day, the sun casts the shadow of 'terror' across the building. Typographic metaphor ... clever Hungarians. The exhibition design was equally powerful inside, with an actual tank in the foyer, dwarfed by a wall of photos (some sort of metal relief casting) of victims of the 'terror'.:
The contrast between the lists of victim's names running around the walls in solemn metal type, the seemingly endless number giving a sense of the magnitude of the genocide here, and the photographs of individual faces, bringing you back to the fact that these victims were all individuals, was an emotionally powerful technique. Verbally, our guide did this in Auschwitz, constantly quoting unimaginable numbers of victims, then reminding us that they were all, like us, unique personalities. The room of shoes at the first Auschwitz camp hammering this home.
More to come ...

Thursday, December 4, 2008


Following the joy of apartment living in St Petersburg, we organised a 2 bedroom apartment in Krakow just five minutes walk north of the Old Town area. We had news in English for the first time in weeks, and were able to watch the painfully uninformative coverage of the Mumbai siege as it unfolded. And an indescribably awful Learn English channel with Todd from Neighbours: "Is there floppy disc with the computer? Yes, there is a floppy disc with the computer." 'Floppy disc' ... an essential word for aspiring English speakers in 2008.
The Christmas markets opened in the main square (Rynek Glowny) while we were there, and the cheap but very drinkable mulled wine -- served by people sitting inside over-sized barrels -- was an instant hit. That stuff really sneaks up on you, but it's the quickest way to get your toes warm from the inside I've found. I ate pierogi six nights running. Too many dumplings are never enough. I loved Krakow. Having 7 nights in one place was bliss and what a beautiful place to spend them. The castle and old town square are overwhelmingly charming, but the 'dragon' of Wawel was more hilarious than intimidating, intermittently burping blasts of flame into the sky.
Aside from drinking mulled wine, feasting on dumplings and chuckling at the dragon, Krakow was the base for a few day trips.
My Grandma, who passed away about this time last year, came from a town called Kielce, 3 hours north of Krakow, before she was taken to Germany to work for a family during the war (she was 16). A few years ago, I lived in the Sydney suburb of Erskineville. G-ma worked in a factory in Erskinville when she was not much older than me at the time. While I lived there, I briefly worked at the local pub and the old punters propping up the bar remembered the immigrant women from the factory well. It amused me, in an uncomfortable way, that these same men who leered at me after a few too many schooners of Toohey's had possibly cast their eyes over my Grandma, two generations ago. We walked the same streets in Sydney without ever having lived there at the same time, and now also Kielce. There was a museum and cathedral to explore, and not a great deal else, but in the main park there was a 'mini zoo' with a dozen bizarre types of peafowl, unlike any I'd ever seen (except the peacock, of which I've been a fan for some time).

It was a harrowing day trudging through icy mud puddles and a constant, cold drizzle at Auschwitz and Birkenau (below). In one hall way, rows and rows of photographs with arrival and death dates under them were, en mass, a sickening thing to behold. Two months was average. And all those shoes. Piles and piles of shoes. As we left, a devastating sunset finished the day.
Salt Mines
Down as far as 134 meters below ground level, the salt mines are amazing. Our guide was a quirky old bird with a string of pre-rehearsed gags ... one of the (salt) sculptures shows the Seven Dwarfs working away, but Snow White was absent because women didn't work in the mines. The cathedral was the most spectacular part, with everything, we were told, made entirely of salt. Even the chandeliers! (Well, if you don't count the light bulbs, wooden frame, string and presumably electrical wiring). The wall relief carvings were incredible. There was, of course, a large statue of John Paul II (who appears where ever possible in Poland), which I tried to get Kat to lick for a photo, but she wouldn't play.

I spent a long afternoon drawing teapots and lovely objects in the Decorative Arts rooms at the fantastic art gallery.

Flea markets, Krakow
See the angry man staring at me, in the middle? Zoom in, look at the hate in his eyes. A nano-second after this shot, he stared screaming at me, and I mean really raging, in Polish. I don't know what he said but the woman in front of me actually clutched her hands to her heart and gasped, and everyone backed away around me. A curse, perhaps? No more photographs from the flea markets.