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December 27, 2011

The fantastic world of South Tyrol

Clouds on the Etsch/AdigeIt is a proof of my weak national identity that my favourite Italian province – the one I visit most often just for pleasure, for no ulterior motives like family or work reasons – is the least Italian of all: Alto Adige, which I call with its original German name, Südtirol.

South Tyrol has, to name just three things, the most beautiful mountains (the province itself is a geological museum, with the Dolomites as masterpiece), the best apples and the best white wine in the world: Gewürtztraminer comes from here (from Tramin, as the name says), while Riesling achieves here very distinctive results, and the Sauvignon from Terlan is just about the only wine to go with asparagus. It is not that the red are worse (especially the local Lagrein grape), they just have stronger competitors elsewhere. This is the Italian region with the highest percentage of quality wine on the total production: the usable surface is so narrow that there is no point focusing on quantity over quality, so that, here, you run little risk of finding bland or bad wines, unlike in the rest of Italy (not a scary risk anyway, when prices start at 1€/bottle).

The famous Vinschgauer ÄpfelIt also has some of the best ski slopes in the world (the mythical ones in Gröden/Val Gardena), but this year so little snow has fallen to make them hardly skiable. A strong foehnkept all the clouds and snow just on the other side of the mountains, in the Austrian North Tyrol, keeping the Italian side sunny but dry. No big deal. We still spent a splendid weak in the Mutöfen – high mountain alms – overhanging 1,000 meters above Meran, the largest majority-German speaking town in the region (South Tyrol’s capital, Bozen, is now majority Italian-speaking), hosting marvellous thermal spas. Alpine pastures and farms are so high-cost today to be economically viable, and are among those activities that fully deserve European subsidies on the grounds of their positive environmental and cultural externalities (it is the implementation, not the idea of Common Agriculture Policy that is wrong). Most alms, to survive, combine agriculture with tourism, like our Muthof, dating back from the early XIX Century, when Tyrol, under the leadership of Andreas Hofer from the neighbouring Pustertal, rebelled against Bavaria, Napoleon and the Enlightenment. I guess that the let of our cosy apartment, with its breathtaking view, produces as much added value in a day as the fourteen cows put together.

Schloss TirolHere, it is as German as it can get. Pustertal is still tied to Hofer’s anti-Enlightenment views: men on important occasions still carry their huts with feathers indicating their marital status, and are the most opposed to any accommodation with Italian rule. Here in the Muthöfen, children speak only German: they do have some Italian at school, but with whom can they practice up here? On TV, a wide range of Austrian, German and Swiss-German channels, but the reception of Italian channels is too bad. And one can live in South Tyrol without speaking Italian: like the octogenarian landlady of the Meran’s B&B where we stayed a couple of years ago, who, with no hint of irony, moaned that Italians coming to live in Meran learned no German.

Nowadays, South Tyrol’s autonomy is often advertised as a model for minority rights and inter-ethnic relations, for instance in Northern Ireland. But the path to the current situation had its nasty moments and the reality is not as glamorous as the Alpine views and the current economic wealth. The four parts of Tyrol (East with Lienz, North with Innsbruck, South, with Bozen, and the Italian-speaking Welschtirol or Trentino with Trento), whose unity dates back to the middle ages under the castle of Tirol just below our Muthof, were split after the First World War. Austria had come to accept the idea to cede to Italy Trentino already before the war, as a concession to avoid Italy changing sides, but Italy profited of Austrian collapse to move the border till the Alpine dividing range, the Brennerpass, which made geographicbut no cultural sense: South Tyrol was then 90% German-speaking. Italy did not comply with Wilson’s criterion of self-determination, and instead started a program of forced Italianisation, building in South Tyrol industrial zones for Italian immigrants and forbidding German-language education. Soon, Mussolini pursued Italianisation with an even heavier hand. It is to some extent understandable, then, that the South Tyroleans made their own historical mistake in 1939, when 86% of them, under Goebbels propaganda, opted to relocate to the Third Reich within the framework of the Hitler-Mussollini pact. The war interrupted the relocation plans and after it the Italian Prime Minister De Gasperi, himself from Trentino, exploited this pro-Nazi episode to delegitimize the South Tyroleans and create a united Trentino-Alto Adige region where the German speakers would be a minority. This situation led to an international dispute in the UN between Italy and Austria and to the rise of South Tyrolean resistance. Under the leadership of Silvius Magnago, the Südtiroler Volkspartei (SVP) became the assembly party of all German speakers. In 1957, a historic demonstration took place in the Sigmundskron castle under the ‘Los von Trient’ (Away from Trento) slogan. After waves of bombings by South Tyrolean extremists, negotiations led to the ‘Paket’ agreement on autonomy was reached in 1969, narrowly accepted by the South Tyroleans and implemented with characteristic slow pace by the Italian state: only in 1992 it was fully implemented and the Austrian-Italian dispute ended. With autonomy, South Tyrol has achieved the ‘Los von Trient’ goal, and only marginal minorities nowadays want the further step of ‘Los von Rom’. Last week, the Northern League’s leader Bossi was in Bozen try to tempt the SVP into an anti-Rome alliance, but he was coldly rebuffed: for the SVP, Milan is no better than Rome.

Today, also thanks to wealth coming from hydroelectricity and tourism, Südtirol is a peaceful and happy place. The Austrian access into the EU also opens the perspective of a united Tyrol, if not as a country, as a ‘Euroregion’, although Trentino is still to be convinced.

Is this a model, though? The German-speaking majority and the Italian minority (alongside a smaller Ladin minority) live peacefully, but separated by sectarian education and employment systems. Politically, on the German side the SVP, supported by the Athesia media empire and the only German-language newspaper Dolomiten, maintains its hegemony and is still to lose its absolute majority (only recently threatened by the extreme-Right Freiheitlichen, spillover of the FPÖ), while the Italians have often supported the neofascist Right. Lack of alternative and vote along ethnic-linguistic lines do not make a good polity. While the meeting of two cultures and languages has produced interesting results, especially gastronomically (try the Sissi restaurant in Meran by Langhe-born but Tyrol-adopted Fenoglio), this is arguably the least multi-cultural part of a non multi-cultural country. For most German-speakers, any multiculturalism is tantamount to surrender: in many ways, out of reaction and survival instinct, the South Tyroleans are more Tyrolean than their counterparts North of the border (but no more Austrian: as they say here, if anything South Tyrol can be above Austria, because its Ortler, at 3,905m, is heads and shoulders above any Austrian mountain).

Oberegghof

Schloss Tirol

The force that has done most to turn South Tyrolean protectionism (embodied by the Schützen) from what is no longer to defend (a unified mono-cultural Tyrol) to what is to be defended (a unique natural environment) are the Greens, who in this region reach the best results of the whole of Italy (2nd party with 17% in Meran last year). The leading figure of the South Tyrolean Greens was, until his shocking death in Fiesole in 1995, Alex Langer, a leader of the 1968 movement and an active pacifist. The best-known one, is the most famous of all South Tyroleans: the climber Reinhold Messner, first man to climb all world’s 8,000 meters, founder of the Mountain Wilderness movement and of the Messner Mountain Museum, and an MEP in 1999-2004. Among is numerous books, many translated into Italian and some also into English, there is Gebrauchsanweisung für Südtirol (2nd ed. 2010), for the non-touristic and no-nonsense German-language series Gebrauchsanweisung. A great climber unfortunately does not make a good writer, and Messner views are often contradictory, but the book express well his frustration for the SVP-Dolomiten power monopoly that has effectively defended the region from Italian intrusion, but unfortunately also from new ideas.Meran at night


December 02, 2011

Mont Blanc, by Fabio Viscogliosi

Follow-up to Geneva, Mt Blanc and European borders from Around Europe 2010-12

Mont Blanc

Review of: Fabio Viscogliosi, Mont Blanc, Paris: Stock, 2011

Last September, coming back from the Mont Blanc, I commented on the tunnel tragedy of 1999. In the same month Fabio Viscogliosi, French artist, musician and writer son of Italian immigrants, published a book on exactly that: it was the first book I bought once I arrived to Paris and I read it within a few days.

It is not an informative book, but a very personal one. Viscogliosi’s parents were driving to Italy on that 24th March 1999, and they died with other 37 people (or more? as with 9/11, the number does not include possible unclaimed dead, such as undocumented migrants, and the bodies disintegrated) in the middle of the tunnel, under 3,000 meters of rock, exactly at the border between their country of origin and their country of adoption. As the fire started, they managed to leave their car and walk some 500 meters towards the exit - but the smoke prevailed when they had another 8km to go.

The book is in the form of sparse intimate notes, like a diary. Only the first twenty pages describe the fire, with very human details on the victims. The book is more about a personal itinerary to come to terms with the unbelievable news of his parents burnt in the Mont Blanc, which he got that night from an estranged aunt, and to grieve the unexpected and strange loss. It also reports the trial (which ended with condemns for manslaughter), but with little detail, because the author could not concentrate during it, as well as the erratic reporting by the media (at that time, more interested in the NATO bombing of Serbia). Most entries are about the connections he keeps making whenever he hears about tunnels or about the Mont Blanc. It is a very different contribution to the literature on the Mont Blanc. And a touching reminder than when crossing the Alps, we should take our time.


September 25, 2011

Geneva, Mt Blanc and European borders

Chamonix Valley

The European Sociological Conference took me to Geneva, on the week the Swiss central bank, to stop the over-valuation of the Franc, committed itself to a minimum exchange rate of 1.20 CHF per Euro. This made my stay some 8% cheaper, or, better, 8% less horribly dear. Let’s see if the Swiss Central bank has the power to do what nobody apart from the Chinese seem able to: commit to fixed exchange rates in a time of wild international speculative flows.

The price of my stay was slightly moderated by other two things. First, Switzerland entered Schengen two years ago, and the public transport is largely integrated with surrounding France, so one can just take the bus to escape to the Eurozone – the problem is that there isn’t much on the French sides. Secondly, I was staying in the Paquis, the multi-ethnic inner-city cum-red light district stacked in between rail station, UN & international district, and lake. As with many of such inner cities in Central and Northern Europe, it is livelier than the other aseptic neighbourhoods, very practical logistically, and cheaper. Switzerland has the highest share of immigrants in Europe, and it in quite a schizophrenic combination of openness and withdrawal. In successive referenda the Swiss have voted to open the labour market to the Poles (not sure the Brits would have done it, even before the crisis), and to ban minarets (notoriously dangerous weapons of mass destruction). We Italians tend to be hypersensitive of how Italian immigrants used to be treated, but Geneva at least looks to me rather welcoming. As long as you are not too poor: if you dare sleep rough or beg on the streets, Schengen or not Schengen, you are immediately arrested or repatriated.

A side-reflection for the UK: the populist press argues that it cannot enter Schengen or it will be flooded with immigrants from the rest of Europe. Well, look at Switzerland, which is much more attractive to immigrants: higher wages, more jobs (unemployment around 3%), large immigrant communities, and well, just prettier views. No flood has occurred since entering Schengen.

After the conference I was free to flee Geneva for the Mt Blanc. It’s just two hours by French train, which you catch in the extra-territorial SNCF (French railways) station of Genève Eaux Vives. There is no ticket office, nor ticket machine, nor nothing in the boarded station: it was vandalised last year and the French and Swiss cannot agree on who has to pay up, or even on how payments should be treated from a French ticket machine on Swiss soil... oh, financial globalisation can’t cope with such complex issues even in its own cradle.

Mid-September, weekdays, is the best, and nearly only window of opportunity to enjoy the famous high walks of Chamonix Valley. Until early-July there is too much snow, then too many people; and later, it will be too cold and days will be too short. In September weather can be as changeable as ever, and I was very lucky. One big storm the first night, which the my Northern Face tent, with declining waterproofness after surviving mountain storms on three continents, struggled to survive – but four glorious days to follow, with just the condensation clouds from the valley making views more interesting.

Glacier BossonsLac BlancThe Mt Blanc is at the intersection of three countries. I have walked and skied the Italian side many times, but only rarely ventures on the others. There is no doubt that the views are best from the Chamonix side. The summits are closer, and the North side has fourteen glaciers – even if some of them now reduced to little more than ice bucket. The best walks in the Chamonix Valley are those on its North side, i.e. not on the Mt Blanc itself, but in front of it. However, I realised, the French side is also much less natural: too many ski lifts and cableways, too many woods vandalised by ski slopes, water cannons looking at you from all corners. And now, even the little footpaths that avoided the ski slopes are taken over by Mountain bike tracks. In terms of wilderness, then, the Italian side is still a bit better: civilisation is concentrated in Courmayeur, and the ski slopes are bit further away. Under the mountain, the two valleys of Veny and Ferret are still very sparcely populated, and left to walkers and crosscountry skiers. And also, as I am at it, there is more wildlife than on the North side, and the mountain architecture is prettier. Mind you: I like skiing and I appreciate mountain bikes, but there is a limit to everything. In particular, I do not like summits to be violated by cableways. It is always a bit depressing walking and climbing up a mountain (like Mt Brevent, which also involves a small bit of Via Ferrata), just to find a cableway arrival station and a restaurant.

Rampons and axe needed!This is also the case of Aiguille de Midi (3842m) and its spectacular cableway. It originally arrived to the avant-cime (lower summit), but recently an internal lift allows to reach the real summit, just some 30mt above. A good way to make money, sure (the lift cost 3 Euro per person, and on the top there is a restaurant), but the views are exactly the same as from the lower balconies. And more, major building works are ongoing at all cable stations... I refused to take that lift, but for the first time, profiting of a cloud-free day, I splashed out (98€!) for the whole cableway crossing from Chamonix to Italy, and returned by bus. It is the most spectacular cableway in the world, made of three main segments: Chamonix-Aiguille de Midi; crossing over the glaciers to Punta Helbronner (Italian border); and on the Italian side Punta Helbronner – La Palud, with intermediate stops at two refugi. It was build just after the war, by an Italian-French consortium. No use of helicopter at that time: the cables were carried and unrolled by climbers. Which is striking not only physically but also politically: only few years earlier, winter 1944-45, the Mt Blanc was the site of the highest-level battle of World War II (a small one, but with its life toll nonetheless). The most interesting part is the middle one, the only way you will be on a glacier without needing rampons, while if (unlike me) have no reason to over to Italy for a couple of years, the descent on the Italian side is not that interesting: it is cheaper and nicer to just return from Punta Helbronner to Chamonix with a cableway return ticket.

TFlowers under the Mt Blanche Mt Blanc summit has been long disputed between French and Italians (compare Italian and French maps and the border is not in the same place!) but the whole cableway remains an interesting case of Italian-French collaboration. Nonetheless I could not miss that instructions and exhibition information are bilingual (Italian and French) on the Italian side, but in French only on the other... which is only partly justified by the fact that the Valle d’Aosta region on the Italian side is an autonomous, bilingual one. The Savoy region on the French side is also historically peculiar, annexed to France only in 1860 and with a more Catholic presence (in Chamonix even a huge statue of Christ King – the least républicain monument you can imagine), but it does not enjoy any administrative autonomy.

cableway allowed going from Chamonix to Courmayeur at a time when the road tunnel still did not yet exist. Although there have been accident at the cableway, the 11km tunnel built in 1965 has a worse history. In 1999, a lorry took fire causing the death of 39 people: the temperature reached 1000C and cars melt into the asphalt. The tunnel was then closed for three years for works. I remember visiting Courmayeur at that time and finding the whole valley magical: it was silent. The continuous river of lorries on the motorway, filling the valley with smog that can’t blow away, wasn’t there. Locals hoped the tunnel would never open again... The transport issue on the Alps is a very sensitive one, with currently mass violent protest against the high-speed train through Val Susa between Turin and Lyon. But surely road transport is the worse one, even if trains could well slow down over here.

Mt Blanc at sunset


September 18, 2011

Catalan pride

While in my recent three months of study in Spain I did not have one single day of holiday, I now finally had almost two weeks of free browsing, with H, through Catalan natural, cultural and gastronomic heritage. All while the deepening economic crisis forced Spain to a rushed constitutional reform, in a few days and without any real debate, to appease the European Central Bank and the market: the Spanish Constitution of 1978 had only been amended once before, in 1992 to implement the Maastricht Treaty, and whenever Catalans asked for amendments it was replied that it was too important to be touched without years of deliberations...

Drawing on a pinch of ancient Roman and even ancient Greek legacies, Romanesque art, now so well displayed in the re-opened wing of the MNAC, is the first ground of pride for Cataluña. In the booming first Century Catalunya was arguably the most advanced place in Europe. I like Romanesque even more than Gothic, as it actually combined with classic architectural heritage well before the Renaissance, and it merged Eastern and Western influences: it is less pretentious, but more universal and certainly more spiritually Christian than Gothic. And so is the Romanesque heritage of Catalunya, dispersed from the coast to the green Pyrenees valleys. Catalan tourist promotions tend to say that Catalan medieval villages and towns are like Tuscany, but I’d even say that this is an understatement. Many of them are even better, and while equally well-kept and somehow exclusive, they are not as posh, nor as flooded with tourists as their Tuscan counterparts, whose heyday, by the way, came a little later. The setting is also more spectacular in Catalunya, whether on the coast (the St Pere de Rodes monastery on Cap de Creu) or in the mountains. Besalu

Cataluña was also strong in Gothic times, and the churches of Girona and Barcelona are impressive. But by then the centred of European art had moved north and east. This is particularly evident in the fresco painting by Ferrer Bassa in the St Michael Chapel of the Pedralbes Monastery in Barcelona: fascinating, but a long shot from the Giotto’s ones they wanted to imitate.Sant Pere de Rodes

Then Catalan power declined, with Aragon and Castilla taking over, and Columbus’ discovery of America, together with many other disgraces, brought about the decline of Barcelona, relegated into the backwaters of trade. But I’d say that the dark periods of Catalan history help highlighting the glorious periods. Industrialisation in the XIX Century is the other one, with economic, social and political turmoil, modernist architecture and an orgy of artistic experiments. The rest is too well-known: civil war, Franco’s oppression, revival.

The economic success of Catalunya is very visible along the Costa Brava and inlands, but it becomes clearest when you cross the border into France – or what the Catalans call ‘Catalunya Norte’. While we are used to consider France richer than Spain, the French side of Catalunya (for the French, Roussillon) is actually poorer: while the Spanish side was the driving region of industrialisation, and produced a very rich bourgeoisie, the French one is just a rural peripheral region. Add to this the EU cohesion funds for Spain, but not for France, and possibly a better self-government in Catalunya (Sur) than the centralised French administration of Roussillom, and it becomes clear why as soon as you cross the border northwards the roads are worse, more houses are empty or run down, there is less economic activity and overall you feel going back in time. Take Prats de Melló, a pretty medieval village once linked to Melló on the South Catalan side: there are Catalan flags here too, but there is no press in Catalan language, and despite good wine and local produce, there is little of the pulsating innovation of (South) Catalan cuisine (I will get back to this in another blog). In a way, Prats is more atmospheric, exactly because not as neat and revamped as the (South) Catalan villages. But when you drive back South, admiration strikes you again.Prats de Mello

Maybe the best proof of Catalan civilisation is not even the heritage itself. It is how accessible the heritage is made. All is explained in at least three, often four languages. Even more, nearly all of the many Barcelona’s museums are accessible to disabled, including the blind, and in many cases those with learning disability. Having spent some time, long ago, accompanying learning disabled through Milan’s museums, I remember how great experiences they may be, but how little support there was – now this is starting to be available, for the benefit also of an emerging category of visitors, people with Alzheimer.

Then there’s the language. For me, fighting to get my Spanish to acceptable standards, Catalan is a bit of a turn off: written, it is perfectly intelligible, but the sound is not to my liking, although it makes a good ingredient to chansons, also thanks to its similarity to French. Still, I admire its centenary resilience and its respectable production: Jaume Cabré’s Jo Confesso is the book event of the year in Spain. His previous Les Veus de Panamo got eleven translations and sold millions across the globe, this one should also get an English one and reach the depressingly insular British bookshops.

The Catalan language, right in the days I was there, was however the target of a ruling by the Catalan High Court, deciding that Castellano should also be offered as medium language in Catalan schools. Imagine a Belgian court imposing French in Flemish schools or a Canadian one imposing English in the ones of Québec, and you can guess the uproar. All Catalan parties protested, with only the rightwing Partido Popular welcoming the ruling, which in turns threatens the Catalan ruling coalition between them and the Catalan nationalists (CiU). The Catalan government has appealed the decision and refuses to move an inch, saying that there already three hours of Castellano per week, and that anyway Catalan children already get better exam results in that language than those of many Spanish-only regions. Not only: education in Catalan is indispensible for social cohesion and to avoid the segregation of immigrants in second-class Castellano ghettoes. Castellano defenders reply that it is actually Catalan teaching that marginalises Castellan speakers, whose educational attainment in Catalunya is much lower than for Catalan native speakers. I’d say that social cohesion is more important than attainment, and long live linguistic variety. Even when it means defending the language I don’t speak.


September 13, 2010

Kraków & Zakopane 21 years later

I had spent some important time in Kraków and in Zakopane, in the Tatra mountains, between 1989 and 1994, but I hadn’t gone back to the former Polish capital since 2001. I am more familiar with, and partial to, the new but (Krakovians would add) ugly, rude and corrupt capital, than with the picturesque but (Warsavians would add) conservative and stingy old one. Now, Kraków is considered as a serious rival to Prague on the good and ugly sides of tourism. The Prague – Kraków comparison is actually meaningless whichever way you look at it: in the Renaissance Kraków was a capital of a major European power, while Prague had to wait until the XX century to be capital of a serious state; but then, in the XX century Krakow was no capital of anything. As a result Krakow wins hands down on Gothic and Renaissance (not just Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine), but Prague is head and shoulders above it from the XIX Century onwards; the physical setting is also hard to compare: Prague’s is more picturesque, but Kraków has better surroundings. The competition makes some sense only on Baroque & Rococo, and I’d say it’s a draw.

Twenty years ago, exiting the pre-war Kraków Główny station I would be met with the messy state of the station square, including the ugly coach station and a variety of jumbled kiosks. In the evening, I was also struck by darkness, given the very feeble public lighting: a warning to keep my eyes well open; and in winter, by the sharp coal burning smell, from household heating and from the nearby Nowa Huta steelworks (on Nowa Huta I recommend Vera Trappman’s and Alison Stenning's research). Today, I leave the platform of the new station and directly enter a huge shopping mall, with the disappointing feeling that it’s just like in Birmingham New Street Station: what’s the point of travelling? Once out, the square is smart clean and the bus station has been moved to the other side of the railways. And on the other side of a large communist-time subway, one is immediately in the Old Town.

Here is the good surprise. Despite the stag and hen parties and the coach tours, not much has changed, and the city has kept a very clear focus on cultural tourism. Renovations have gone on, but rather than simply repainting every single inch in pastel colours as in Prague, they have focussed on the important bits as the Central Market’s Sukiennice (Cloths Market), whose first floor will be open soon. Streets and pavements still have their share of potholes, but they are not entirely covered with tables for tourists. The historical artist café Jama Michalika, whose predilection for hard currencies was visible already in 1989, hosts folk shows for tourists in the evenings, but it looks exactly as it did and remains a café-museum, with its unbelievably slow service.

Kosciol MariackiChange is more visible in the Jewish quarter, Kazimierz. In 1989 it was just derelict, Poles having little interest in Jewish heritage. Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) put it on the tourist map, and cafés, restaurants and museums have multiplied since. During Schindler’s List’s production, Spielberg recruited hundreds of locals for walk-on parts for the concentration camp scenes, and offered a very attractive pay for anybody ‘Jewish looking’. Transition crisis-struck Krakovians queued for the posts but, reportedly, most of them started by saying ‘I’d like the job, but I’m not Jewish’ (by the way, I don’t think they were well selected, given how many of them looked overweight). Similarly, I doubt that any of today’s Kazimierz ‘traditional Jewish’ cafes and restaurants is actually Jewish. On the other side, if any tourist is so ignorant not to know that Kraków’s Jewish traditions were violently and radically interrupted, they deserve to be conned.

Like in Prague, food is not much value for money in tourist areas such as the Old Town and Kazimierz, but interesting places are only a couple of tram stops away, including, unthinkable 21 years ago, vegetarian or nouvelle Pologne ones. Some very good (Vega, ul. Krupnicza), some with mixed results. At the very Polish-sounding, recently opened Restauracja Kowalska, after an un-Polish sounding amuse-bouche I was recommended quail, only for the waitress, twenty minutes later, to tell me that there was no quail. Had it flown away? No, she admitted, there was ‘something wrong with it’ – which suggested the chef was incompetent either with supplies, or preparation. Worse, she went on to claim that the dish could be prepared in the same way with veal – a replacement that reminded me of shortage economy era recipes calling for ‘prawns, or in their absence frankfurter sausages’. But then at least, she asked how I wanted the veal done: in the past, nobody asked in Poland, because meat would invariably come in one way, i.e. overdone. And this time, the veal was as rare – and delicious – as I had ordered, something that happens rarely in England (I will comment another time about the ethics of veal farming and eating).

Krakow’s investment in culture is visible in a range of new museums (including Schindler’s Factory) and the New Opera, and is accompanied by more popular investment in the form of two new football stadia (Euro 2012 is approaching, although they won't play in Kraków). All this investment, combined with an efficient management of the city defence during this summer’s floods (floods make and unmake elections: ask Cimoszewicz why he lost in 1997, and Schröder why he won in 2002) gives mayor Majchrowski a near-certain re-election this Autumn. Majchrowski (last time elected for the Left) is an apparent anomaly for traditionally right-wing Kraków, but actually represents a trend in popular, independent mayors who successfully distance themselves from national politics. Majchrowski has left the party and rules with opportunistic coalitions. In April, he organised Lech Kaczyński’s state funeral and disputed burial in the Wawel castle alongside Polish kings and heroes, but since then he has carefully avoided the war of religion over the Presidential Palace’s cross that is consuming the national parties.Zakopane

From Kraków, it’s 110 km to Zakopane, up in the Tatra mountains. In the 1930s, the Torpeda Podhalańska locomotive, pride of Polish engineering, covered the distance in 132 minutes. Today, the train takes four hours (progress is not linear), so I took the coach. Thanks to road works and a couple of horse-powered vehicles, I arrived at the same time as the train. In the XIX-early XX Century Zakopane was considered as the cultural capital of (then inexistent as a state) Poland, being a meeting point of poets and artists. The extravagant Witkacy’s theatre is the best surviving memory of it. But now Zakopane is more and more overcrowded, and house pricesKasprowy Wierch are no cheaper than in the Alps: the High Tatra do look like the Alps, but cover a very small area and are the only high mountains for a country of 40 millions (plus 5 million Slovaks: their side is a bit less crowded, and better for skiing). It’s only because of low labour costs that tourist services are still cheap: at least in September, you can get a decent room for 20 Euros, and eat well for 10. The national park fights an impossible war against path erosion. In these conditions, the enduring dream of hosting the Olympics (despite defeat for the 2006 ones) is madness: Zakopane has not enough water, enough space, and a sufficiently long downhill slope for the Olympics. But Poles are romantic dreamers, and speculators exploit this. On this occasion, heavy snowfalls prevented me to reach the summit of Świnica (2301m), but the views from walking along the ridge separating Poland from Slovakia were a sufficient compensation, only disturbed by my mobile phone continually receiving the texts "welcome to Poland", "welcome to Slovakia", "welcome to Poland", and so on.

The gastronomic pride of Zakopane is the smoked sheep cheese Oscypek, for good reason. For the rest, the little town is now full of ‘Karczmy’, fake mountain inns where waiters in traditional mountain dresses serve rather dull food, at the sound of folk music. I am left wondering what Wyspiański, the neo-romantic poet who in Wesele (The Wedding) metaphorically described the impossibility of consummating the marriage between Polish peasantry and intellectual revolutionaries, would make of the marriage of convenience that is now consummated everyday between peasantry and tourists, in Kraków and Zakopane.


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