Warsaw: An Old City

Names of cities evoke images. These pictures are usually connected with memories. Warsaw had reminded me of the Cold War. For my sister it means Polish dolls that she had played with as a girl. The images can only be replaced by new ones, if you visit a place. So it did in my case. We drove nearly 600 km due east from Berlin to reach Warsaw in about 4 hours. It took Hitler’s armies five weeks to occupy Poland in September 1939 to begin the Second World War. Warsaw is now part of the NATO and the EU. It is also integrated within the Schengen system of open borders but it has not accepted Euro as the common European currency. It still hold on to its Zloty.

Warsaw is an old city that has seen a lot of turbulence in the past. It has been occupied and reoccupied and it has witnessed uprisings and risings against forces of occupation. It gave its name to the military alliance created by the USSR to counter NATO. The USSR imploded last century but Russia is now resurgent and is not happy with either the NATO expansion eastward nor with the deployment of the US missile shield in their country. I saw a small demonstration outside a military HQ against NATO. I also saw a small honor guard marching to the tomb of the unknown soldier. They were not goosestepping!

The most famous Pole of modern times has undoubtedly been Pope John Paul II. The first non-Italian to occupy the highest seat in Roman Catholic Christendom.  The other person grabbing headlines during the end of the Cold War was Lech Walesa, the port worker in port city of Gdansk. Poland unlike many other European countries has not been a colonial power. Its coastline is too small in comparison but it has produced many men and women of knowledge.  Copernicus, the astrologist that first came to the conclusion that all the planets revolve around the sun in our universe was a Pole. Also Marie or Maria Curie who discovered the elements Polonium (named after her native Poland) and Radium; and the phenomenon of radioactivity was a Pole. Curie was the first woman and indeed the first scientist to have been twice awarded a Nobel Prize in two different subjects. A small statue overlooking the banks of the River Vistula. Across the Vistula is the famous zoo that is the centerpiece of the recently released movie The Zookeeper’s Wife.

While in Warsaw, it is a must to see the old city with its amazing square and churches and spires. Despite the fact that Poland during the Cold War was a part of the religion-less system, it now appears to be a deeply religious society. Religious symbols are everywhere. One interesting piece of information that I found towards one end of the square was the pictorial history of the Poles, who went to Manchuria towards the beginning of the twentieth century to establish factories, businesses and yes spread religion.

If you are in Poland, you must sample their dumplings or pierogi. You can ask for one with vegetable filling. If you are on a budget, you can survive by taking your meals at a milk bar or bar mleczny. Food is relatively inexpensive in Poland and so is petrol but if you’re travelling on the main road be advised that you’d be frequently required to pay toll. The public toilets are neat and well maintained but people do not speak English and you rarely find any instruction or information in any language other than Polish. Incidentally the Polish language does not sound remotely close to either to English or German.

If you enjoy travelling do visit Warsaw or other places in Poland like Krakow.marie curie

 

 

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Portugal

There is a distinct possibility that I might have been writing this blog in Portuguese instead of English. That is if the Portuguese had not restricted themselves to their coastal holdings in Cochin and Goa and had decided to move inland. They had ‘discovered’ India before the English. Vasco de Gama set sail for India in 1497. This was even before the Moghuls arrived in the subcontinent. Remember Babar, the first Moghul defeated Sultan Ibraheem Lodhi in the battle of Panipat in 1526. Fortunately or unfortunately the Portuguese decided to build their colonial empire in South America and where they successfully destroyed the ancient civilization of the indigenous people with the Spanish conquistadors and replaced it with their religion and culture. The English did much the same in our parts of the world. Portugal held on to its colony in Goa till 1960, when they were forcibly evicted by the Indians. This long toehold in India allowed the Portuguese to leave their mark in the shape of their brand of cuisine, names and their particular form of Roman Catholicism. Cyril Almeida, the journalist better known for the infamous Dawn leaks carries a Portuguese name.

There were a number of reasons to visit Portugal besides being the birthplace of Vasco de Gama. It is also the native country of António Manuel de Oliveira Guterres, the new UN Secretary General and I believe that my second term roommate Christopher Khalid Saleem was also a Goan Christian. Army was not Christopher’s calling and had decided to call quits. So he did against his mother’s wishes and went back to Karachi. Once he sent me a box full of old books purchased from the thriving old book bazaar in Karachi but thereafter we moved on our separate paths and there has been no contact ever since.

Back to Portugal, our daughter, who had traveled to Portugal and written a travelogue that was widely read and appreciated had booked us in the Belem House in Lisbon, a bread and breakfast joint owned by Mavilde, a sixty five year old pensioner. The landlady and her husband Julio, a retired economist were on hand to receive us. Both spoke good English and explained to us the various facilities that their House had to offer. It was a good place. Two rooms, a lounge, kitchen and bathroom. The kitchen had modern gadgets and was stocked with the minimum essential groceries. The place was well located in the district of Belem and was near a number of places such as the monastery, the monument of discovery and the Belem Tower.  The River Tagus is just a walk away.  A ferry ride on a moonlit night was magical to say the least. The other rides to remember in Lisbon was on the iconic number 28 tram that chugs up through the narrow alleyways to the Castelo Sao Jorge. The return journey to Belem on a tuk tuk was also fun. The rickshaw driver, a man with a pony tail claimed that the ride was funny but safe.

We went to Sintra by taxi that cost us 25 Euros. The hill town was shrouded in early morning mist that gives it a magical touch. The mist was not a onetime phenomenon but happens every day and is marketed in the postcards showing the mist clad Pinela Palace. The most exotic sight in Sintra is the Moor’s castle high up on the mountain. A bus ride through narrow roads gives you a chance to visit four historic sites in the small but extremely pretty city. Portugal was part of the Iberian empire that was ruled by the Arabs for 800 years.   The kingdom of Granada fell in 1492. All the Muslims were converted to Christianity and officially none remained after 1501. It was around the time that the Portuguese had landed in India.

Porto in the north was also on our itinerary. It is famous for the Port wine but for me personally it was the Livraria Lehlo that was fascinating. This library is small when compared to Saeed Book Bank in Islamabad but is known for its exquisite woodwork. It is also the place, where JK Rowling sat and wrote the first Harry Potter novel. She taught in the Porto University next door. The students still wear capes that was the uniform that Rowling gave to the students of Hogwarts.

Portugal has been part of the EU since 1975 but now has an ailing economy but suffice is to say it has thriving tourism.FB-Sintra-Castle-of-the-Moors-Sintra-Portugal


Victoria Park by night

A half-moon hung low in the sky casting a diffused light on the victory monument on the hill in Victoria Park. The environment was surreal as people barely visible in the low light cast semi shadows in the semi darkness that covered the steps surrounding the Gothic800px-Berlin-Kreuzberg_Postkarte_079 structure. In the pleasant summer evening a number of people were lying or sitting hidden from public-gaze gazing out at the sprawling city of Berlin. In the distance the TV tower, the monument that the East Germans had erected to celebrate their technology, emerged from the darkness as a symbol of a bygone era.

In this twilight zone, when everything was not clearly visible, the monument to victory stood out pointing to the sky. The cast iron monument of 1821 was dedicated by King Fredrick William III of Prussia to the liberation wars fought at the end of the War of the Sixth Coalition against France in the course of the Napoleonic Wars. It provides an excellent viewpoint over much of the central and southern portions of the city. In summer an artificial waterfall originates at the foot of the monument and continues down the hillside to the intersection of Großbeerenstraße and Kreuzbergstraße. A historic wine-growing area, today the park is neighboring two small vineyards, one in the northeast founded in 1968 and owned by the Senate of Berlin and cultivated by the adjacent market garden, the other one established in summer 2006 within the Victoria Quarter on the southern slope of the Kreuzberg Hill.

The waterfall was given a trial run for the first time on 14 October 1893. Gas motors in a neighboring machine house (now the venue hall of the restaurant in the Villa Kreuzberg, the former engineer’s home, an ensemble built 1892–1893) pumped up the water. Since summer 1894 13,000 L (2,900 imp gal) per minute are cascading the 24 m (79 ft) down to the small lower pond. Between 1898 and the First World War the waterfall was electrically illuminated at night shining in light resembling Bengal fire. However, the operation of the waterfall was interrupted between 1914 and 1935, and again 1938 and 1961. On the occasion of the festive days firemen re-flooded the idle waterfall for one day on 19 August 1955 by pumping the water uphill with their firefighting devices replacing the war-ravaged pump house.

Since 1949 the annual late summer funfare Kreuzberger Festliche Tage (Kreuzberg festive days, founded as Kreuzberg-Festwoche, i.e. Kreuzberg festival week) is held in the park, accompanied by more events also in other locations. In August 1953 a memorial stone was added in honor of the victims of the communist suppression of the Uprising of 1953 in East Germany. In November 1958 the smashed southern edge of the socket octagon was reconstructed again.

Today the Victoria Park on a warm autumn night reminds you of the ghosts of the past.