“Turon gave birth to me, Krakow polished me with the arts.”



Attribution Creative Commons 2.0 by Jorge Lascar

Many see Krakow as Poland’s preferred destination:  an engaging, traditional city pulsating with history, charming vistas, tourists, and college students.

In the late 10th and early 11th centuries, Krakow became rich through commerce.  Traders who passed through this Polish town were required to stop for a few days to sell their wares at reduced prices.  In turn local merchants sold these goods at higher prices, driving Krakow’s prosperity.  In 1038 Krakow became Poland’s capital until 1609 when it moved north to Warsaw.  In spite of that shift, Krakow remained Poland’s cultural and intellectual center.

In 1241, Central Asian marauders overran Krakow, leaving the city in shambles.  But the Krakovians soon rebuilt their town in grid-like fashion––in contrast to the ambling paths that defined most European towns in the Middle Ages.  Krakow’s restoration also made way for Rynek Glowny, Europe’s largest Main Market Square, today still the heart of city life.

In the 14th century, the reign of King Kazimierz, the Great (also called King Casimir), who ruled from 1333 to 1370, launched Krakow’s Golden Age.  He was seen as a progressive, tolerant ruler, establishing in 1363 Jagiellonian University, the second oldest university in Central Europe.  Today it still brings stature to the city and numbers Copernicus and St. John Paul II among its former students.

In the 14th century when other nations were expelling their Jewish citizens (for example, in 1290 about 16,000 Jews were ousted from England; in 1306 more Jews were banished from France), the opened-minded Kazimierz instituted laws that gave Jews greater opportunities and better recognition, thus making Poland a sanctuary for Jews in Europe.  By the middle of the 16th century, about 80 percent of world Jewry lived in Polish lands.  Our guide told us that in Yiddish the name “Poland” is said to mean “I shall rest here.”  By 1930 Jews in Poland consisted of about 3.5 million people, encompassing about 10 per cent of the total population of the country.  By the start of World War II about 65,000 Jews lived in Krakow.

The Nazis invaded Poland in September of 1939, with the goal of making Krakow the nation’s capital. They renamed the aforementioned Main Market Square “Adolf-Hitler-Platz,” and imposed industrial development––in many cases seizing factories and other businesses from Jewish owners.

Soon thereafter, in an effort to console the Polish people, Winston Churchill announced before The House of Commons, and thus to the world, “The soul of Poland is indestructible . . . she will rise again as a rock, which may for a spell be submerged by a tidal wave, but which remains a rock.”

During our visit to the campus of Krakow’s famous Jagiellonian University, our guide recounted a harrowing tale from the World War II era:  On November 6, 1939, the occupying Nazis assembled the university’s professors as if for a meeting.


Attribution Jan Melich

With nearly 200 academics gathered unsuspectingly in a lecture hall, they were suddenly herded into trucks and taken to a concentration camp for execution.  Recounting this tragic event our guide added, “You destroy a culture when you destroy its intelligentsia.”

Just 50 miles west of Krakow lies the village of Oswiecim, from 1941 to 1945, the site of the infamous Auschwitz Concentration/Extermination Camp, today for much of thoughtful civilization a symbol of the unspeakable tragedy that was the Holocaust.


Attribution Creative Commons CCO Liscense

Before going there a friend asked me, “Why even go there?  Isn’t it too much horror to take in?”  I could only answer, “To pay homage. . . to pay respect . . . .”

As I stumbled through the grounds of the revulsion that was Auschwitz, and the overall catastrophe that was the Holocaust, I couldn’t help but ask, “How could this happen?” and “Where does this kind of evil come from?”  All that came to mind was a quote by the art historian, novelist, and journalist Lain Pears [1955-], who said,

“The point of civilization is to be civilized; the purpose of action is to perpetuate society, for only in society can philosophy truly take place.”

Hitler so totally missed the point.

When the war ended, only a few thousand Krakow Jews had survived the war.  Today Krakow has only about 200 Jewish residents.  As foretold by Winston Churchill in 1939, Poland survived the Nazi tidal wave.  It now enjoys one of the most dynamic economies in the European Union.  It offers its citizens free university education, state- funded social security, and a universal health care system for all citizens.  It belongs to NATO.

Throughout the centuries, Krakow has produced its share of luminaries, among them:


Attribution Public Domain

The already mentioned Nicolas Copernicus [1473-1543], the Renaissance era mathematician and astronomer, who formulated a model of the universe that placed the sun rather than the earth at the center of the universe;

St. John Paul II [1920-2005], head of the Catholic Church and sovereign of the Vatican City State from 1978-2005; and

Helena Rubinstein [1872-1965], cosmetician, business executive, and philanthropist.  In addition to her business acumen, she was also known for her quips, among them: “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.”


Attribution Creative Commons

Poland as a whole has given the world such giants as Fryderyk Chopin [1810-1845], composer and virtuoso pianist; and Maria Sktodowska-Curie [1867-1934], Polish and naturalized French physicist and chemist, who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity.  She was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, the first person and only woman to win twice.

During a free afternoon in Krakow, a fellow traveler and I slipped away from our group to take in Schindler’s Factory Museum, once the complex where Oskar Schindler [1908-1974] and his approximately 1200 Jewish employees worked.  As just about everybody knows, the Oskar Schindler story was made famous through the 1993 Steven Spielberg Oscar-winning film Schindler’s List.

Initially the factory produced metal pots and pans that were dipped into protective enamel.  In time Schindler and his workers manufactured grenades and rocket parts, which were later revealed to have been mysteriously defective.

Oskar Schindler asked to be buried in Jerusalem, where he has been named one of the “Righteous Among the Nations.”


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


The Czech Republic

“Prague doesn’t let go. Either of us. This old crone has claws. One has to yield or else.”

Franz Kafka,1902.


Attribution Wikimedia Commons

“A jewel in the heart of Europe” is how some people describe Prague, others say it is “the Rome of the North, Kafka’s city, the city of a hundred spires.”  Praguers themselves like to say their town is “the Mother of Cities,” suggesting an era in the 14th century when Prague was the capital of the Holy Roman Empire.

Prague’s location in Central Europe has long made it a political and commercial crossroads.  The city, which today is home to about 1.3 million people, sits on the banks of the Vltava River, which flows into the Elbe, which in turn flows into the North Sea, affording even more avenues of commerce.  By the 10th century, Prague had grown larger than Paris or London.  But the ensuing centuries were not always kind to this thousand-year-old city with its treasure-trove of Gothic and Baroque architectural gems.  World War II, for example, brought untold misery to the people of Czech lands, some of which I’ll touch on later.  A silver lining is that Prague was spared the saturation bombing that annihilated so many other European cities of that era.  Those of us who visit Prague today are the lucky beneficiaries of one of Europe’s best-preserved cities, which attracts about 8.5 million visitors annually. Our local guide was proud to tell us that Prague is the fifth most visited European city after London, Paris, Istanbul and Rome.

Prague’s most sought-out tourist sites are:

the Prague Castle, a hilltop fortress in the Gothic style, looming above the Vltava River and crowned by St. Vitus Cathedral, the largest church in the Czech Republic and the land’s spiritual hub.  The Cathedral’s cornerstone was laid in 1344, and construction was finally completed in 1929.  The premise of Prague Castle consists of a complex of churches, towers, halls and palaces from every period of the land’s history. Our guide referred to it as “the cultural and historical heart of the Czech Republic.”

Squeezed in among these castle sights is the Golden Lane, a colorful series of artisans’ cottages along the inside of the castle wall, built in the late 16th century for the castle’s guards and gunners.


By Estec Co Ltd, Prague Hotel Owner, Wikimedia Commons

A century later goldsmiths made this their home.  More recently, celebrated writers, such as Franz Kafka (1883-1924), author of two important 20th century novels, The Trial and The Castle, settled in this quaint neighborhood.  Today the current president of the Czech Republic has his office in the castle area.

The nearby Old Town Square is also a major attraction, dating back to about the 11th century when it was first a marketplace. In 1338 King John of Luxembourg granted Prague’s burghers permission to form a town council.  This prompted the building of the Old Town Hall with its distinctive trapezoidal tower.  A point of fascination in the Old Town Hall is the Astronomical Clock; its 600th birthday was commemorated in 2010.  Our guide referred to it as a giant cuckoo clock, that not only tells the time, but also shows the movements of the sun and moon through the signs of the zodiac and the planets around the earth.


Wikimedia Commons Authority Control:40033193

As we strolled through Old Town, we learned how in the distant past, town fathers dealt with dissension.  They simply hurled dissidents from high story windows! It was called defenestration.  The first recorded instance occurred in 1419 during a struggle between Protestants and Catholics.

Some say that the Charles Bridge, built between 1357 and 1402, is Prague’s quintessential landmark.  It spans 1,700-feet and is supported by 16 graceful arches.  Among its celebrated features are 30 statues, some with religious motifs that were installed with the hope that they would lead


Attribution Creative Commons By Sergey AshmarinAlike 3.0 Unported

burghers back to the church.  Today all the statues are copies, with the originals safeguarded in museums throughout the city.  The bridge is typically mobbed with artists, tourists and instrumental groups.

Prague’s long history produced a diverse array of personalities, among them Rudolf II (1552-1612), who carried such titles as Holy Roman Emperor (1576-1612), King of Hungary and Croatia (as Rudolph I, (1572-1608), King of Bohemia (1575-1608/1611) and Archduke of Austria (1576-1608).  He was a member of the House of Hapsburg and aficionado of the Renaissance, which strove not to match the works of antiquity, but to equal and possibly top them.  To the neglect of politics, Rudolf II liked above all else collecting art and studying the sciences. He had no qualms about transporting large quantities of Italian art across the Alps and inviting the age’s most adept thought leaders into his realm.  These thought leaders included alchemists and goldsmiths, who were charged with enhancing Rudolf’s quest for magical or medicinal potions that would enhance life.  He was a “connoisseur of the bizarre,” our guide said, citing, as a case in point, the vegetable portrait of himself by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1590).

The Czech statesman, writer, and former dissident Václav Havel (October 5, 1936-December 18, 2011) is another celebrated figure from the past.  He served as the last President of Czechoslovakia from 1989 until the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1992 and then as the first President of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003.  Havel is known for his plays, essays, and memoirs.  On November 19, 2014, a bust of Havel, created by Czech-American artist Lubomir Janecka, was unveiled at the U.S. Congress, commemorating the 25 year anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.  Havel is the fourth European ever to be honored by having a bust of himself in the U.S. Congress, after Winston Churchill, Raoul Wallenberg and Lajos Kossuth.

An important part of Prague’s past is the Old Jewish Cemetery, a memorial to the once sizeable Jewish community in Prague.  Before viewing the Cemetery itself, our guide touched on the history of Jews in Prague that dates back to the 9th century, when Jewish merchants traded in the city’s commercial areas. At that time Jews were free to live in any of Prague’s neighborhoods, but this changed after 1215 and the Lateran Council, when the Pope declared that Jews must be separated from Christians.  After that, Jews could no longer own property or belong to guilds––they even had to wear identifying marks on their clothing.

By the early 13th century, Prague’s Old Town had become the city’s commercial district. It was here that the Jewish Quarter came to be, in time becoming an enclosed ghetto with about 11,000 residents.  The persecution of Jews eased in the 19th century into the 1930s until Hitler annexed the Czech Sudentenland.  Of the 55,000 Jews living in Prague in 1939 just 10,000 survived the Holocaust.

For over 300 years the Jewish cemetery, founded in 1478, and enlarged only slightly through the centuries, was the only permitted burial ground for Jews.


Attribution Wikimedia Commons

Because of this lack of space, people had to be buried on top of each other, sometimes 12 layers deep. Today over 12,000 gravestones are visible, but it’s believed that about 85,000 dead are buried there.

Near the cemetery is Pinkas Synagogue, today used as a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.  The main attraction of this synagogue are its interior walls, inscribed with the handwritten names of 77,297 Czech Jews sent to their death at Auschwitz and other camps.  Most died without grave markers, but are remembered in this synagogue.

If shopping in Prague is of interest, consider these traditional products:  puppets, glass, crystal, and garnets.

In my family, we’ve long sought out Czech glass and crystal.  From vast, ornamental vases to fragile glass figurines, they’re usually ranked among the finest in the world.  If you’re wondering why glass and crystal gained prominence in Czech lands, it’s because Prague and its environs were for hundreds of years the seat of royalty, who commanded such excellence.

While Czech glass comes in four main color groups––red, blue, green and brown, I’ve always gravitated toward red.  Below are a few pieces from my collection.


The Czech Cuisine:  Prague Soups

Traditionally, soups in the Czech Republic have served either as a first course or as a meal unto themselves.  They’re believed to be a cost-effective way to feed several mouths or just one.  When our local guide discussed the Czech cuisine, she told us that traditionally the bountifulness of a soup was gauged in part by the number of beads of fat floating on top of the soup, the more beads, the greater the host’s largess.  While Czechs like fat, and soup broths made with meat, they also appreciate soups made with water and root vegetables, such as potatoes, carrots, parsnip, celery roots, and potatoes.

Below is a basic soup recipe from Peter Trnka’s The Best of Czech Cooking.  I modify it with a medley of other green vegetables such as kale, mustard greens, zucchini, or Swiss chard.

Green Soup with Potatoes


  • 1/2 green cabbage, preferably curly or Savoy, shredded
  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter or lard
  • 1 tablespoon caraway seeds, crushed salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 2 medium potatoes
  • 8 cups meat broth or water
  • 3 slices dark bread, cubed


  • Finely shred the cabbage.
  • Melt 3 tablespoons of the butter or lard on medium-low heat in a large pot.  Add the cabbage and fry for a few minutes, stirring well, until wilted.
  • Add the caraway seeds, and salt and pepper to taste.  Add the potatoes and the broth.  Bring slowly to a boil, then reduce the heat.  Simmer, partially covered, until done, about 30 minutes.
  • Serve with croutons made from cubed dark bread, fried in the remaining 1 tablespoon butter.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment



 “If you come from Paris to Budapest you think you are in Moscow. But if you go from Moscow to Budapest you think you are in Paris.”

György Ligeti 1987


Attribution: Dirk Beyer via Wikimedia Commons

As I noted in the Vienna blog, four world capitals, including Budapest, are situated on the banks of the Danube River, the great waterway in Central and Eastern Europe.  The city’s annals report that the first permanent settlers in the area date from between 4600 and 3900 BC.  They were induced to put down roots in what would become Budapest when they noticed a particular narrowing of the Danube precisely there.  This narrowing would facilitate crossing to the other bank for trade, defense, and communications. For millennia, foreign powers had besieged the area––among them, the Romans, Magyars, Turks, Hapburgs, Germans, and Communists––occupying and exploiting the region until 1990 when today’s Republic of Hungary was born.


Attribution: Bergadder via Wikimedia Commons

Budapest is considered a 19th Century city, because technically it didn’t exist until 1873. The final merging of Buda and Obuda on the western side of the Danube with the town of Pest on the opposite bank came about through a complex series of events.  Most important was the construction of the Danube’s first bridge––the Chain Bridge, built between 1842 and 1849, which to this day represents an important thrust toward 19th Century Hungarian nationalism.

After my fellow travelers and I had walked across the Chain Bridge, we learned that until the bridge existed, crossing the Danube was a perilous endeavor.  In the winter the river often froze, making it easy to cross the waterway on foot. But then came the thaw–the melting of ice that made the crossing by even small vessels precarious. In the summer a pontoon bridge was laid, but this temporary structure blocked river traffic, so it was dismantled and reassembled at different hours of the day. It wasn’t until the 1830s when Istvan Szechenyi, a Hungarian nobleman, later described as “the greatest Hungarian,” received permission to construct the Chain Bridge, uniting the two sides of the Danube, thus laying the groundwork of what would eventually become the vibrant metropolis of Budapest.

In spite of the fusing of municipalities on both sides of the river, both towns continue to retain parts of their former identities:  Buda has preserved elements of its past, while Pest has embraced the future, especially in matters of commerce.

In spite of Budapest’s convoluted past, impressive landmarks survive, offering insight into Hungary’s history:

(1) THE PARLIAMENT––constructed between 1885-1902 along the Danube in Pest in Neo-Gothic style. This location was to serve as a counter to the Royal Palace on Buda Hill, a one kilometer long plateau on the opposite side of the river, overlooking the Danube.  Symbolically apparent, royalty was being upstaged by an institution that spoke to the nation’s future, one that lay with popular democracy.

(2) THE CASTLE DISTRICT––includes the aforementioned Royal Palace, home since the 13th Century to royalty and occupiers.

(3) FISHERMAN’S BASTION––built in 1905 as a viewing platform offering unmatched vistas of the Danube and Pest.

(4) MATTHIAS CHURCH––represents Castle Hill’s iconic church, dating back 500 years.  This place of worship has an elegant spire, exquisite stained glass windows and frescoes.

(5) THERMAL BATHS AND SPAS––praised by some of my fellow travelers, who indulged.  They commended the Gellert Baths, in particular.  My guide book reports that a dip into these waters is good for joint pains, arthritis, and blood circulation. Each day 18 million gallons of richly mineralized water gush out of the city’s natural hot springs.  They have existed since Roman times and were especially popular with the Turks during their occupation.

(5) THE CENTRAL MARKET HALL––Budapest’s popular produce and meat arcade, also a treasure trove of indulgences such as silk scarves and leather gloves.

Another gift Hungary has given to posterity is its classical music.  One artist stands out:

(6) FRANZ LISZT (1811-1886).  He established the Ferene Liszt Music Academy, still the leading performing center in Budapest.  Liszt liked to say that he was “part gypsy,” and some of his compositions, such as the Hungarian Rhapsodies, suggest the Roma people’s time-honored music.


Attribution: Fred Romero

(7) THE HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL is a sculpture of a weeping willow by Imre Varga, unveiled in 1991 in memory of the 600,000 Hungarian Jews who fell victim to Nazism during World War II.  This memorial was partly funded by the Hungarian-American actor Tony Curtis.  Our local guide told us that Jews had lived in Hungary since about the ninth  century, contributing substantially in science, the arts, and business. However, in the early 1940s, Hungary, an ally of Germany, was pressured to impose certain anti-Semitic laws on the Jewish community that progressively took from them such rights as owning property, entering certain professions, and marrying non-Jews.  Beyond undergoing restrictions, large numbers of Jews were deported to death camps such as Auschwitz.  When the war ended, the Jewish population of Hungary had been reduced by two thirds.

But there were humanitarian figures such as Raoul Wallenberg (1912-1947), a Swedish diplomat, who in 1944 was sent to Nazi-occupied Hungary by the Swedish Foreign Ministry to help save Jewish lives.  He and a colleague set up safe houses in Budapest and secured forged Swedish passports for them, saving, it’s estimated, as many as 35,000 Hungarian Jews.  Following the liberation of Hungary by the Red Army, in January 1945 Wallenberg was detained on suspicion of espionage and subsequently disappeared.  His ultimate fate is uncertain.  Hungary honors his memory with the Raoul Wallenberg Monument and an honorary grave.

Attribution: buck lava. Via Wikimedia Commons

Hungarian cooking represents a blend of the many cultures that have occupied the land, thus making it one of Europe’s most flavorful cuisines.  I was especially attracted to its stews such as Hungarian Goulash, which was a mainstay in my German grandmother’s kitchen. Over the  years, for convenience’s sake, I’ve simplified my grandmother’s Goulash recipe. I now use a slow cooker recipe, which has reduced prep time to about 15 minutes.  The recipe below was inspired by Terry Grieco Kenny, but I modify it by adding more vegetables such as shredded cabbage, a few potato slices, and maybe some tomatoes.


2 slices bacon, cut into strips
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 large onion, chopped
1 small bell pepper, diced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons sweet paprika
1 tablespoon minced garlic
¾ teaspoon caraway seeds
½ tablespoon salt
1 cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons minute tapioca
2 pounds boneless beef chuck cut into chunks
½ cup sour cream
4 cups cooked egg noodles


  1. Cook bacon in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat until crisp, about 4 minutes. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and place in medium-size slow cooker (about four-to-five-quart size).
  2. Melt butter in same skillet over medium heat. Add onion, pepper, tomato paste, paprika, garlic, caraway seeds and salt and cook, stirring frequently, until onion is golden and tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in broth, scraping bottom of pan to loosen browned bits.
  3. Pour into slow cooker. Stir in tapioca, then beef.
  4. Cover and cook on low 7 to 8 hours or until beef is very tender. Season with salt to taste.
  5. Serve over noodles and top with sour cream.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment




Attribution: Hagen Schnoherr via Wikimedia Commons

“The streets of Vienna are paved with culture, the streets of other cities with asphalt.”
Karl Kraus (1874-1936)


Once the frontier of the Roman Empire, today Vienna is celebrated as a city rich in historical, musical and artistic legacies.  In the 19th century it was equal in size and prominence to London and Paris; today, with a population of about 1.8 million, it’s ranked along with Vancouver and San Francisco as the world’s most livable cities.


Attribution:  “Fooding Around” via Wikimedia Commons

Vienna’s hub is skyscraper-free, criss-crossed by trams, punctuated by parks, and dotted with elegant cafes. Many of the coffee houses attempt to compete with Café Sacher, the birthplace of the “Sacher Torte,” thought by some to be the world’s most acclaimed cake––two layers of chocolate separated by apricot jam and covered in dark chocolate icing. The great Danube River ambles through Vienna’s midst, showcasing on its banks such landmarks as St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Schönbrunn Palace, and the Ringstrasse.  If we were to follow the Danube from its origin in Germany to its drainage into the Black Sea, we would have meandered 1,770 miles through four national capitals: Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, and Belgrade.  I learned that most major world cities are situated on river banks, facilitating such life-sustaining systems as trade, defense, and communication.  Among Vienna’s many achievements, it’s also home of the world’s oldest zoo––Tiergarten Schönbrunn.  Vienna’s language is German, but with a delightful, laid-back “Wienerischer” dialect.

As those of you who are familiar with my earlier writings know, I was born in Munich, just four hours by train or car from Vienna, but somehow life always steered me elsewhere.  My rationale was, “With Vienna practically next door, I can see it anytime.”  But anytime never came.  Finally, I decided to end my procrastination by embarking on an organized tour of Eastern Europe, with Vienna an early stop.  A pleasant Hungarian named Laszlo served as manager of our tour, a group, comprised of equally pleasant souls. In each city Laszlo introduced us to local guides, well grounded in their city’s lore.   At an early orientation on Vienna, we learned that the Viennese think of themselves as Central Europeans and their city as the gateway to Eastern Europe.  Since most Viennese are English-speaking members of the European Union, electronically adept––it made sense.


Attribution: Gustav Klimt via Wikimedia Commons

From the late 19th century to 1938, when Hitler annexed Austria, making it a part of Nazi Germany, Vienna epitomized culture, serving as home to an array of luminaries:  Among notable musicians born in Vienna are Arnold Schoenberg, Franz Schubert, Johann Strauss I, Johann Strauss II.  Among famous musicians who came from other parts of Europe to work in Vienna are Joseph Hayden, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Liszt, Johannis Brahms, and Richard Strauss.  Vienna was also the locus of giants from other disciplines, including Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the founder of psychoanalysis, and Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), Austrian painter of the female body with eroticism as a particular focus. Klimt’s most famous painting is generally thought to be The Kiss (1907-8) in which two lovers are enveloped in a gold and jeweled mantle of bliss. It was during the turn of the century that Klimt’s paintings included gold leaf.  It’s thought that visits by Klimt to Venice and Ravennna, both famous for their beautiful mosaics, many in gold, probably inspired the gold technique and his Byzantine imagery. The Kiss is displayed in the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, one of more than 100 Viennese art museums, collectively said to attract over eight million visitors a year.

Those of you who have seen the film Woman in Gold know the story of Maria Altman, a native of Vienna and, when we meet her in the movie, an elderly Los Angeles refugee, who seeks to regain an acclaimed Klimt painting [Portrait of Adele Block-Bauer I (1907)] of her aunt, plundered by the Nazis during World War II.  The film tells of her brave quest for justice.


Attribution: Byron Mercury via Wikimedia Commons

The name Strauss seems to go hand-in-hand with Vienna, which nurtured three musical greats by that name:  Johann Strauss I (1804-1849), born near Vienna, who drew from rustic Viennese peasant dances to create such works as the “Viennese Waltz.” His son, Johann Strauss II, (1825-1899), building on his father’s successes, became Vienna’s famed “Waltz King,” leaving for posterity 500 waltzes, polkas, and quadrilles, not to mention such compositions as “Tales of the Vienna Woods” and Die Fledermaus.  Lastly, there was Munich-born Richard Strauss (1864-1949), no relation to the earlier Strausses, who as a composer/conductor became a musical icon.

In Richard Strauss: An Intimate Portrait, his biographer, Kurt Wilhelm, describes him as “a prince of the musical world.”  Among Richard Strauss’s many compositions are the operas Der Rosenkavalier and Salome. His final completed work was Four Last Songs, his Lieder, composed shortly before his death.  Before World War I, Richard Strauss built a summer home in Garmisch, an alpine retreat in southern Germany.  Some fifteen years later, while conductor of the Vienna Opera, he built a Viennese winter home, filling it with art treasures given to him in lieu of flowers by admirers on his international conducting tours.  So completely nurtured by Vienna’s creative environment, Strauss hoped to spend the rest of his life there, but in 1938 with the aforementioned Nazi annexation of Austria into the German Reich, Strauss’s plans collapsed.

As the war progressed, Vienna suffered increasingly from bombing raids, making living there difficult. This reality caused Strauss to move his family to Garmisch, removed somewhat from wartime aggression.  Of particular concern to him during the Nazi years was his only child, Franz, who had married in 1924 a Jewess, Alice von Grab-Hermannswörth.  They  produced two grandchildren, Richard and Christian, who were considered Jewish, making all three targets for Nazi persecution. It took Strauss’s considerable influence to keep them safe.

Garmisch was liberated by the U.S. Army on April 30, 1945, without a single shot having been fired. Strauss was soon befriended by American soldiers, and as a tribute to his cultural contributions and his efforts to secure the safety of Jews, was assured that his home would not be requisitioned by the occupation forces.  A sign went up outside his house that read, “Off Limits.”  When the GIs found him and his family, they had been without food, heat, and such basics as soap.  The soldiers did what they could to help.

In 1945, in a private memorandum, Strauss left behind some thoughts on Hitler’s regime.  From Kurt Wilhelm’s Richard Strauss: An Intimate Portrait:

“On March 12 the glorious Vienna Opera became one more victim of the bombs. But from May 1 onwards the most terrible period in human history came to an end, the twelve-year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany’s 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom and irreplaceable monuments of architecture and works of art were destroyed by a criminal soldiery.”`

Strauss died in Garmisch on September 8, 1949.  About his death, Wilhelm quotes Egon Hilbert, the then director of the Vienna Opera: “’Richard Strauss has entered eternity, and his music immortality.’”

While Vienna teems with cultural sights, our little band of travelers enjoyed occasional breaks that took us into the rich heritage of Viennese cafés.  A friend and I dropped into the Sacher Stube, relishing a slice of the fabled Sacher Torte that came with dollops of whipped cream.

Our local guide explained that in the minds of some, Viennese cafés serve as an extension of their living rooms. Patrons are welcome to spend hours lingering over their coffee, reading the newspaper or working on their laptops.  The Viennese, it seemed to us, represented better than most the German concept of “gemütlichkeit,” which in broad terms suggests a coziness, geniality, kindliness, sociability, and charm.

We learned that in the late 1600s, the Turkish armies had invaded the country.  When they were finally sent packing by the Imperial Army, they left behind many riches, amongst them coffee.  Until then, the Viennese had been unfamiliar with the beverage.

Early coffee houses were accessible only to male patrons.  But, in the late 1800s they were open to women and families.  Viennese history reports that in 1913, Stalin, Trotsky, Tito and Freud all lived within a few miles of each other in Vienna, with some of them being regulars at the same coffee houses.

Once cafés had assembled a wider customer base, they began to offer light meals and an assortment of sweets and pastries to accompany their drinks.

Since I am a native of Munich, I will share with you the Munich version of the famous Viennese Apple “Strudel.”  The recipe comes from the cookbook titled Bavarian Cooking by Olli Leeb (1919-2017), Bavarian chef and family friend.

Munich Apple Strudel


Attribution: Arnold Gatilao via Wikimedia Commons

In comparison to Vienna’s famous Apple Strudel, which is baked on a baking sheet, its Munich cousin is a juicier variation and is prepared in a baking pan or fireproof dish.  Apple Strudel can be frozen.  It is therefore recommended to double or triple the recipe, saving some for later use.

Strudel Dough (Basic Recipe)

½ pound flour
2 eggs
Pinch of salt
2 tablespoons oil
½ cup water

Sift the flour onto a pastry board and make a well in the center.  Break the eggs into the well, add the salt, oil, and water, mixing all with the flour, working outwards from the enter. Then knead the dough until it becomes smooth and silky.  Let it rest for ½ hour, covered with a warm saucepan.  Then roll it out on a floured cloth and stretch it to the desired thickness (ideally very thin).

Munich Apple Strudel

Prepare Strudel dough, following instructions as in above recipe.   As dessert for 4 to 6 people allow two Strudel recipes, or as a main dish allow two recipes for 3-4 people.

3 pounds tart apples
Juice of 1 lemon
5 ounces raisins
5 tablespoons rum (soak)
3 ounces butter
1 cup thick sour cream
Sugar (to taste)
Cinnamon (to taste)
1 cup milk
1 cup heavy cream
Confectioner’s sugar

Peel, core and quarter the apples.  Using a vegetable slicer, cut them into thick slices; sprinkle with lemon juice to avoid discoloration.  Brush the stretched strudel dough with warm melted butter, dab the sour cream over the butter and distribute it evenly.  Spread the apple slices over the dough in an even layer, stopping about one inch from the edge of the dough.  Sprinkle with the rum-soaked raisins, sugar and cinnamon.  Fold in the edges of the dough and, with the help of the tablecloth, loosely roll up the strudel.  Slide the strudel into the well-buttered baking pan.  Proceed in the same manner with the second strudel.  Pre-heat over to 470°F.

Bring milk and cream to a boil, and pour over the strudels in the pan.  Bake on middle rack or oven for 45-60 minutes, diminishing oven heat to 20°F.  Cut into portions before serving and sprinkle with sifted sugar.  Serve hot or old.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Dear Reader:

As those of you who have followed my blogs probably guessed, I took a hiatus from posting new adventures.  I was out there living them!  Below, please find impressions of four discoveries—this time on St. Petersburg, Russia, and pearling, horse racing, and falconry as found in the Dubai area.  During my time away from blogging, I also had some powerful encounters with Rome and vicinity that seem worth sharing with you.  As I turn recollections into blogs, I’ll post them.  Like before, what I share was inspired by true events.

Posted in Travel | Tagged | Leave a comment


Experienced on


“The desert nomad clearly flew his falcons because he wanted to hunt and eat; he did not go hunting because he wanted to see his falcons fly.”

— Mark Allen
     Falconry in Arabia


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I first became aware of falconry when I flew from Dubai to Cairo for what would prove to be a fairy-tale encounter with Egypt:  the Pyramids, the Sphinx, Luxor, Aswan, and Abu Simbel—all by air and in a week.

All Giza Pyramids

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

As I settled into my seat just before take-off, I noticed a tall, middle-aged Arab in dishdasha (a white long-sleeved collarless garment), ghutrah (traditional Arab headdress), and black thob (cloakcoming up the aisle to take his place.  There was nothing unusual about that, except that on his arm perched a large, brown hooded falcon.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

At first I thought that maybe the bird was stuffed, a toy perhaps for a child—Arabs adore children and lavish them with affection which often translates into material gifts—but no, the creature on his arm was fully alive.  Though hooded, it moved its head in the direction of sound and appeared content in the company of its owner.

The man and his falcon took his assigned aisle seat directly across from me where they stayed for the entire flight to Cairo.

Perhaps aware of my covert glances, the man volunteered in perfect British English that he was on his way to Egypt for a falconry hunt, adding that falconry is no longer so much about securing food, as the thrill of the chase.

I asked if the bird might become distraught during the flight—the sounds, the sudden movements of the plane—but the man assured me that a falcon unable to see will sit quietly, that hoods are used whenever a handler wants to have his bird still and at ease, such as in travel or even a visit to the veterinarian.

Indeed, during the entire flight, the bird sat peacefully on its master’s arm—even during the meal service.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Once back in Dubai, I mentioned my falcon encounter to my English friends Nigel and Heather, aficionados of what is often referred to “the sport of kings.”  That inspired an invitation to a falconry hunt with them and their Emirati friend, Qadir, an ardent falconer.  The outing would take place in the late afternoon, when the heat of the day had abated, in the Dubai desert, beyond the oasis of Al-Aweer, about 35 kilometers west of Dubai proper.  “This will give you a taste of the art and practice of Arab hawking,” Nigel gloated.

A prerequisite for falconry is a vast open space which the Dubai desert amply affords.



Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Qadir and his son, Amir, picked us up at Nigel and Heather’s hotel, arriving with two four-wheel drives.  His two hooded falcons rode with us in the forward vehicle.  In the support vehicle, driven by Amir, sat a couple of greyhound dogs (saluqis), trained to run down the prey.  Dasras, a member of Qadir’s household, and for this outing a much-valued extra hand, rode with Amir.

Jovial and talkative, Qadir was clearly pleased to have three new candidates to interest in his passion, which he said, in the eyes of many, is now considered a refined art form.

With a guttural tilt to his English and schoolboy enthusiasm, Qadir defined falconry (sometimes also called “hawking”) as “the art of training falcons, hawks, or eagles to go after game.”  He said that the part of the Arabian Peninsula where falconry thrives extends from the southern part of the Arabian Gulf well into Saudi Arabia.

Falconry reaches back at least 4,000 years—to China where it provided food for its people by letting the bird snare game such as hare and even gazelle.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

This activity eventually spread via the Silk Road to the Middle East where it became an important hunting method of Bedouins, supplementing their diet with meat such as houbara or Macqueen’s bustard, stone curlew, or Arabian hare.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Within the last hundred years, the motivation to become a falconer shifted from providing meat for the table to that of a social pastime—one that affords the falconer the exhilaration that can come from watching his bird of prey (sometimes also called raptor) chase quarry.

When we asked Qadir what prompted falconry’s shift from a means of providing food to sport, he said it was the introduction of firearms.  But, he noted, the shift had a silver lining:

The world’s addiction to oil brought about an inevitable blending of the outside world with traditional ways.  Settlements of coral houses and palm-frond sheltersgave way to space-age cities. With such radical change, one-time desert dwellers felt a need to preserve aspects of their thousands-of-years-old heritage.  In the 1990s a movement got underway to preserve, restore, and honor Gulf traditions. Falconry became an enshrined link to the Gulf Arabs’ nomadic past, reminding them of their bond with the desert.

Qadir said that because the sport of falconry now thrives in the Arabian Gulf region, the UAE has established a successful breeding program, guaranteeing that this pastime will not eradicate the houbara species.  So honored is the sport of falconry that the UAE even has a falcon hospital, staffed with international specialists.

As for the region’s preferred species of hawking birds, our host said that in the UAE it’s safe to say that the saker and peregrine are generally the raptors of choice.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

According to Qadir, “Some consider the gyr x saker cross to be the master of the desert. Traditionally, it was what the Bedouins liked best.”  His favorite falcon is the peregrine-gyrfalcon hybrid.  It’s a flying machine that can dive for prey at 320 kilometers per hour.

Because the region’s extreme summer heat precludes much local breeding, raptors come mainly as migrants from the more moderate climates of eastern Europe and central Asia, while traveling to and from their winter habitats in Africa.  In the fall and spring, the migratory seasons, the Gulf overflows with raptor life.

Historically Bedouins had intricate ways to catch raptors, but Qadir personally secures his hawking birds through professional suppliers.  (During my recent trip to the UAE, I learned that a top peregrine can now cost more than $250,000!)

Qadir did share one traditional way of capturing a bird of prey:

Imagine a man buried in sand with only his head and arm above the surface.  A bush serves as camouflage for the arm, to which a live pigeon is tied.  Attracted to the movements of the pigeon, a falcon swoops down only to have the man throw a cloth over its head, effectively rendering it immobile.

Then comes the taming and training process, but there are professionals who help with that too. “Quite naturally, we have purists who like to do this kind of work themselves, but it requires lots of time,” Qadir told us. The falcons are often released in the spring, when the migratory season ends.  The process begins anew in theautumn with the capture of more falcons.

When we neared our desert destination, Qadir and Amir strapped bags around their shoulders. When I asked what they contained, they replied, “Fresh pieces of meat to reward our falcons after a kill.”

“What’s the actual incentive for these birds to kill?” Heather asked.

“Food,” said Qadir. “A falcon only kills when it’s hungry.” He paused for a moment, then added, “By the way, whatever we kill, we eat for dinner that evening.  Nothing is wasted.”

As we approached Al-Aweer, Qadir slowed his four-wheel drive to just a crawl as if looking for a safe place to park a car.  The sand around this oasis is deep.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It’s easy to get stuck, even with a four-wheel vehicle.  He found a sandy, but recently traveled, lane.  Amir parked behind us, promptly releasing the two impatient saluki dogs who were only too eager to explore the terrain.

Then Qadir, Amir, and Dasras gathered together their elaborate paraphernalia––the gloves, the bags, the safety leashes, the list went on and on.  Father and son each took a hooded falcon.  Both falcons had bells attached to their feet—a method that lets falconers track them while they fly freely.  Dasras carried a bag in which to store the game.  The saluqis scampered under foot.  And Heather and I followed behind.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

As we marched across crusted sand, often dotted by scrub, I was struck by the serene expanse of desert landscape that the setting sun had bathed to a golden glow.  An afternoon breeze caressed us gently.  It was an exceptional moment, except we were on a hunt that might well take a life.  But again, Qadir reminded us that whatever quarry he captured late that afternoon would be prepared in his kitchen that night.

As we walked along silently, Qadir suddenly paused, sensing prey.  Without a word, he signaled Amir that he should let his peregrine fly first.  With a few deft hand gestures that included removing the falcon’s hood, Amir released the bird from his leathered arm.  It soared high above us, reveling in its freedom.  The falcon circled for some time as if to orient itself and then plunged into a breathtaking dive.  Spotting its prey, it went after it with authority.

Without prompting from their masters, the saluqis mobilized and raced after the quarry, reaching it long before we did.  When we came upon the peregrine, it had caught a hare. Amir rewarded his bird with a piece of fresh meat from his falconry bag.  Dasras gathered up the kill, wrapping it carefully for delivery to the family kitchen that evening.

Qadir and Amir let both their falcons fly two times that afternoon.  Each time they secured their prey.  Each time the falcons were rewarded with fresh meat.  And each time Dasras preserved the falcon’s bounty.

I asked Qadir how many runs a falcon can make in a successful day.  He replied that typically four kills is considered good, but because of our late start that afternoon, two was all he wanted his birds to attempt.  Qadir knew of some birds that killed seven to ten times in one day.  “But then they’re exhausted,” he added, explaining that a traditional Gulf remedy for exhausted falcons is a touch of aspirin dissolved in water.  “That tends to revive them.”

It was now nearly dark and time to head back into Dubai.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Posted in Dubai | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment



“Drinkers of the Wind”



“To create the horse, God spoke to the south wind:  ‘I will create from you a being which will be a happiness to the good and a misfortune to the bad.  Happiness shall be on its forehead, bounty on its back and joy to its possessor.’”

— Early Arab Expression

From my earlier writings you know that in the 1970s, I spent several years living on the Arabian Peninsula, near Dubai. Once the fabled hub for eastern and western Silk Road traders, today it is the product of an electrifying rise from near-poverty to sophisticated urban giant.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

On return visits, I’ve always come away full of wonder at the land’s mystery, ancient ways, and daring innovation. Occasionally, I’ve shared bits and pieces of my discoveries with you. On a limited basis, I’ll continue to do that, spotlighting aspects of this region’s rich, five-thousand-year heritage.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Recently, I was in Dubai again where my friends from the 1970s, Aziz and Yasmin, introduced me to the much-honored Arabian horse, said to be the oldest breed of horse in the world—revered for its beauty, speed and endurance. Archaeological evidence in that part of the world suggests that horses that resemble modern Arabians date back 4500 years.

Arab tradition goes so far as to say that the first person to actually train horses was Ishmael, the son of Abraham, progenitor of the Arab people. (Abraham is thought to have been born c.2166 BC and died c.1991 BC., so if the above tradition is true, the Arabian horse has enjoyed a long tenure on the Arabian Peninsula.)

Since I had last seen Aziz and Yasmin, they’d taken an interest in Arabian horses, especially the racing component, which includes the Dubai World Cup. Since 2010, this event has carried a purse of USD 10 million.

One evening en route to dinner in downtown Dubai, Aziz and Yasmin drove me past the city’s famous by-invitation-only Zabeel Racing Stables. The 200-acre urban compound houses about 120 horses in training, among them Dubai’s World Cup contenders.

Surrounded by gleaming urban skyscrapers, these state-of-the-art, horse-friendly stables consist of an 1800-meter dirt training track, a 100-meter straight pool, and over 90 fully air conditioned stables plus about 60 outside stables. Aziz said that around six in the morning, visitors could watch these magnificent creatures being exercised for about an hour each, depending on their particular personal training program. I learned that the facilities strive to provide a tranquil environment—even visual stimulation for horses that are likely to become champions. Aziz seemed pleased to say, “Here there is no gambling involved.  Our sport is clean.”


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Since we had time before our dinner reservation, Aziz and Yasmin stopped their car near the stables to let us watch an elegant, though distant, Arabian trotting.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Aziz offered some historical context, taking us back to the Bedouins (the nomadic wanderers whom I describe in 7 ½ Places of Wonder). In days gone by, they employed this breed of horse as a weapon of war.

At that time, Bedouins liked to patrol their territory on horseback; if they felt threatened, they attacked, exacting goods and money in exchange for safe passage through their land. The Bedouins’ strikes required stealth, but also quick getaways—something the nimble, fleet-of-foot Arabian horse could provide.

While highly effective in desert warfare, the Arabian horse was an animal of luxury; it suggested wealth. Its care and feeding was always a challenge. Were it not for the camel, which carried food and water, the finely bred, mostly coddled Arabian horse would not have survived the harsh desert conditions. (On the subject of water, Aziz said that horses tend to drink eight times the amount of water needed by a camel.)

So prized were Arabian horses that in traditional settings, Bedouins made an effort to feed them before themselves. If a desert camp was short of water and the owner’s children begged for a drink, the master was known to pour the last cupful into a bucket to place before the horse.

While the Arabian is highly versatile, the Bedouins preferred mares over stallions because they were smaller, requiring less food, which, when pasture and water were unavailable, often consisted of nothing more than dates and camel’s milk.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Mares were also gentler, more agile, and adapted more readily to the hardships and privations of desert life. And, they were quick to learn. For example, they could be taught not to whinny, thereby avoid compromising their owner’s location to potential foes.

To offer protection and shelter to their prized Arabians, Bedouins often allowed them to sleep in their master’s tent. This might explain the pleasure Arabians seem to derive from human companionship and their ability to remember horse friends after years of separation.

As an Arab poet observed:

“Good horses are few, like good friends,
Though they appear many to the inexperienced eye.”

“Arabians are generally small horses,” Aziz pointed out, “standing usually only 14.1 to 15.1 hands tall.” (A horse’s height is calculated in units called hands.  A hand equals 4 inches.)

In color they’re mainly bay, gray, and chestnut, with the bays often having “stockings” on their legs. Aziz and Yasmin both commented on the Arabian’s handsome wedge-shaped head, with wide forehead and large, dark eyes.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The area just below its forehead is called the “dished face”—where the head curves inward.  Its muzzle is small and ends in a pair of large nostrils. My human friends called my attention to the animal’s gracefully arched neck and its silky, high set tail.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

When I asked about the Arabian’s acclaimed capacity for endurance, Aziz speculated that this had something to do with the animal’s large nostrils, which allow large quantities of air to spill into well-sized windpipes and lungs deep inside its chest. He also said that Arabians have lean muscles, not large, bulky ones, allowing them to run long distances without overheating.

As we eventually drove on to dinner at Le Royal Meridien on Al Sufouh Road, Aziz said that the Arabian’s renowned capacity for staying power has made it a natural for the newly rekindled sport: Endurance Racing, especially in Qatar, Bahrain, and the UAE.  The UAE is now generally seen as the breeding ground of equestrians engaged in a rapidly expanding discipline: A top-notch endurance race is a two-day contest that can require that the competitor cover a grueling 200 kilometers (125 miles) over rugged desert terrain.

Yasmin, always with a feminist bent, was pleased to tell me that in the UAE a number of traditional cultural barriers are now breaking down. “These days more than 40% of registered endurance riders are women!” In the past it was unimaginable that a woman would ride a horse.

When I asked her if she might eventually become an equestrian herself, she said, “Yes. I’m taking riding lessons.”

Posted in Dubai | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Diving for “White Gold” in the Arabian Gulf

Diving for “White Gold” in the Arabian Gulf 

In the “Dubai” chapter of my book 7 ½ Places of Wonder, I touched on the region’s ancient pearling industry—for centuries an economic lifeline for those who eked out a living on the barren lands along the Arabian Gulf.


Image: Wikimedia Commons

Since earliest recorded times, Dubai was a hub for eastern and western Silk Road traders.

As early as A.D.800, Arabian Gulf merchants were trading with India, Ceylon, the East Indies and China in such prized goods as spices, silks, ivory, aromatics, wood, paper, and saddlery.  Additionally, pearls, sometimes called “white gold,” harvested from the Arabian Gulf, were highly valued and a widely traded commodity.


Photo: Rose Marie Curteman


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Dubai attributes its initial fortunes in the pearling industry to the “Creek,” an 8.7-mile inlet from the Arabian Gulf that allowed this then-seemingly-forsaken-community to become a strategic and profitable port of call.

While sandbars tended to form around the entrance of the Creek, obstructing the passage of large oceangoing vessels, they also pacified the tides, creating quiet oyster beds that proved ideal habitats for pearling.

For centuries Dubai’s local men had labored as pearl divers in the quiet oyster beds of the southern Gulf.  From mid-May to mid-September they’d searched for Al Jiwan, the perfect pearl.  But then oil struck.  The pearl-buying merchants found more profit in gold, textiles, or even cigarettes, and the divers found themselves more lucrative jobs in the oil fields. Besides, Japan’s cultured pearl industry offered too much competition.

Pearling made cruel demands on divers.  Typically, owners of pearling boats insisted that their divers plunge into the Gulf’s oyster beds without oxygen tanks.  They were given one-meal-a-day rations of rice and dates, while enduring the ever-present danger of attacks by sharks and jellyfish.  The boat owners took most of the profits.

Jellyfish copy

Photos: Wikimedia Commons

Even when I lived among the inhabitants of the southern Arabian Gulf in the 1970s, I heard tales about older, but by then disabled, locals who had survived vicious shark attacks suffered during their diving years.

The pearling industry flourished until the early 1930s when the global economic depression and the Japanese discovery of the cultured pearl killed off the Gulf’s pearling industry.  Ibitissam, a friend from my years in the United Arab Emirates, sometimes wore a rose pink-colored pearl necklace that her then fiancé, now husband, gave her when they were courting.  She refers to it as a “Gift of love, but also as a symbol of the changing times—the Gulf’s rapidly disappearing past.”

Posted in Dubai | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment



Sankt Pieter Burkh


St. Petersburg is Russian—but it is not Russia.”
— Nicholas II, the last Czar


Image: Wikimedia Commons

St. Petersburg exists because of one man—Peter the Great, Tsar of All the Russias (1682-1725), who on May 27, 1703 founded the city he initially called “Sankt Pieter Burkh,” in honor of his apostolic patron saint.

Peter the Great, by Pieter van der Werff

Image: Wikimedia Commons

By 1712, Peter made his city the capital of the Russian empire, which spanned continents and multiple time zones.  By the time he died in 1725, Peter’s new port city had 40,000 inhabitants and was set to become a major seafaring power like Holland, a country the young tsar admired.

A critical successor to Peter the Great and all he had set into motion was Catherine II (1729-1796).  She had no legitimate right to the throne of Russia, but her ingenious way with people thrust her to power.  The poet Pushkin said about her:  “Her brilliance blinded, her friendliness attracted, and generosity attached.”  The French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778), with whom Catherine the Great corresponded for years, called her “The Star of the North.”  Many consider the time of Catherine the Great’s rule to have been the Golden Age of the Russian Empire.


Image: Wikimedia Commons

Catherine the Great is remembered for many innovations, among them the founding of the Hermitage Museum, which was opened for the public in 1852.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

This museum houses 3.5 million artistic/cultural exhibits in five magnificent buildings, including the iconic 3-story, green-and-white Baroque Winter Palace.

Its only rival is the Louvre in Paris.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons


Image: Wikimedia Commons

It would take about 9 years even to glance at each of the objects on display in the Museum’s thousand rooms.  Among its riches, the Hermitage collection contains forty Rubenses, twenty-five Rembrandts, more than twenty Van Dycks, two of the ten or twelve authenticated paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, along with dozens of paintings by Italian Renaissance geniuses such as Botticelli, Fra Angelico, and Fra Filippo Lippi.

The art that Peter the Great bought for his personal enjoyment while traveling in Europe formed the base of the collection.  Then Catherine the Great and her successors added to Peter’s treasures by acquiring entire private collections from European monarchs, aristocrats, and auctions.  When Nicholas II, the last tsar, ascended the throne in 1894, he inherited the greatest art collection in Europe.

The St. Petersburg area teems with palaces.  One of my favorites is Catherine Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, just fifteen miles outside of St. Petersburg.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Once inside Catherine Palace, we seemed to float through an array of stately rooms.  Most dramatic was the Amber Room, sometimes called the “eighth wonder of the world.”


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It contains amazing quantities of magnificent inlaid amber (dried resin from prehistoric trees) in warm hues: every variation of yellow, ranging from shadowy topaz to vivid lemon.

Under the reign of Friederich I, between 1701 and 1709, this room of singular beauty was created in Berlin for the city’s extravagant Charlottenburg Palace.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In my book 7½ Places of Wonder, I recount the rather charming story of how it fell into Peter the Great’s hands and made its way to St. Petersburg.

By June of 1941, when the German Wehrmacht bulldozed its way across the Soviet Union toward St. Petersburg, the Amber Room had found sanctuary in Catherine Palace at Tsarskoe Sela.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The advancing Nazi armies knew that and were determined to reclaim this one-time German art treasure.

As the Wehrmacht neared Tsarskoe Sela, Catherine Palace curators scrambled to spirit its contents to safety, but many prized objects were left behind, among them the Amber Room.  To complicate the crisis, curators who were to secure remaining treasures were unexpectedly reassigned to support municipal defenses.  One recorded in her diary:  “We carry out the work of guards, office workers, cleaners.”

With the Wehrmacht nearly within earshot, the curators decided that their only recourse was to try to mislead the Nazis by hiding the amber panels in situbehind fake walls covered with ordinary wallpaper.  But the Nazis found the panels and within thirty-six hours had dismantled them.  Soon they were shipped to Königsberg in East Prussia and displayed for a time.


Image: Wikimedia Commons

Then these coveted panels disappeared.  Of the many theories about the disappearance, our Russian guide favored the view that the Amber Room was probably destroyed in 1944, when Königsberg Castle was bombed in Allied air raids.

In the 1980s the Amber Room was reconstructed by Russian craftsmen, using black-and-white photographs and staff recollections.

Posted in history, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment



“The Northern Star.”
  – Time (July 4, 2011)

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikipedia Commons

     The Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (1909), spoke of Stockholm as “a city that floats on water.”  Indeed, Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, a country about the size of California, stretches across fourteen islands, draped in greenery and red brick buildings.  In June the water surrounding these islands glitters, the light above gives off a brightness that makes one cry out for shade.  Flowers, birdsong, and mosquitoes abound, while salmon-stocking programs make the inner-city waterways a fisherman’s dream.

Old town Stockholm. Near the palace.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

     Gamla Stan (Old Town) rests on one of the small island mentioned above.

     Stockholm’s history began here, around 1250, as an encampment for fishermen and hunters.  This early settlement soon grew into a trading post and fort whose purpose was to cordon off the inland waterways from Baltic Sea interlopers.  By the 17th Century Sweden had mushroomed into one of Europe’s leading naval powers, with territories throughout the Baltic Sea.  For a time Sweden even had a colony in the New World—on the mouth of the Delaware River, where Wilmington stands today—but that was short-lived, soon falling into Dutch hands.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

      To many visitors Gamla Stan is a maze of cobblestone lanes; yellow, orange, and red buildings; and old fortified walls sometimes etched with ancient Viking Runestones, written in Old Norse, listing Swedes who had participated in Viking expeditions.

     While its history reaches far into the past, Stockholm also struck me as a place on the cutting edge of innovation.  The city powers its buses with bio-gas and uses rainwater for irrigation.  In 2010 it was named Europe’s first green capital.  Stockholm aspires to be a fossil-fuel-free city by 2050.  In the interim, it hopes to export this “outside the box” way of thinking to the world, thus also “turning green into gold” as my Swedish friend Maj once said about her country’s ambitions.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

     Konserthuset provides the venue each December 10 for the Nobel Prize presentations in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, economics, and literature.  (The Nobel Peace Prize is presented in Oslo’s City Hall on the same date.)  This celebration is followed by a banquet in the Blue Hall of Stockholm’s Stadshuset (City Hall), today considered the symbol of the city.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

     The Vasa, the ill-fated, top-heavy oak vessel that capsized and sank unexpectedly just 1400 yards into its maiden voyage, on August 10, 1628, killing 50 people.  The pride of the Swedish fleet then languished for more than 300 years on the bottom of Stockholm Harbor in 110 feet of cold, brackish Baltic Sea waters.

     In 1956, a Swedish marine archaeologist’s persistent search led to the discovery of the nearly forgotten warship.  It was painstakingly raised, towed to a dry dock, and restored to 95% of its original form.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

    Today the reconstructed Vasa, inaugurated in 1990, is Stockholm’s most cherished historical relic and most popular tourist destination.  Historians today value the Vasa (originally designed as a propaganda tool with 64 bronze cannons and 450 men) not only for her status as the planet’s oldest preserved and identified vessel, but also for what it reveals about everyday 17th Century life.

Posted in European Travel, Stockholm, Sweden, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment