Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Eight Things You Shouldn't Bother Doing in Eastern and Central Europe

Tourism in Europe: A World of Fun

"Come to Europe! It's full of history." What this really means is that Europe is full of old things supposed ipso facto to exude importance. This is analogous to an old person insisting on their right to teach history by virtue of being older than most people. Old stuff can, of course, be very interesting, but this happens only when it's hammered into meaningful shape by someone who knows something about it.

So with this in mind, here are eight thoroughly uninteresting places you shouldn't bother visiting in Eastern and Central Europe. Uninteresting not because of something lacking in themselves (not usually at least) but because no one has bothered to make them interesting.

1. Prague Public Transport Museum

"Oddly pedestrian," was my (unfairly ignored) quip. A run through tram history is only ever going to command a niche audience, but I'm - potentially at least - among that number and was still left wanting. A dull shed of 120 years' worth of old trams, it's literally made for tram-spotters. Unfortunately the most recent 20 have been left off (because, I suppose, they're still being used). 1990 appears to have marked the point at which tram evolution sped up, so almost all the exhibits are very similar. The inspection of very minor differences this entails is what I imagine watching evolution in real time would be like: that is, a kind of cosmic paint-drying process.

2. Rynek Underground, Krakow

A big budget spectacular (holographs projected onto curtains of mist!) which fails to hide the fact you're really just walking around some old foundations. Unlike other entries in this post, it's essentially dull, not just dull in execution, and the show-off designers know it. Full of reams of incomprehensible statistics about column widths and periodical fires, no amount of interactivity can rescue it. The original investors wanted to open a subterranean mall, which would at least have served a penetrable function.

3. Bastion Tunnels Museum, Tallinn

A short film (confusingly fronted by a friendly cartoon worm) whizzes through all of Estonia's history, then a stentorian, glazed-eyed guide marches you below ground where you take a "train to the future" (essentially a Stannah stair-lift placed horizontally down a narrow, unadorned tunnel). The train was broken when we went, so we looked at it and then walked. At the end of the tunnel was a TV showing possible futures of Tallinn. Then we walked back, listening as the tour guide vented her frustrations at the city's homeless (selfish enough to take up residence in the tunnels in winter). Next we were shown some dressed up shop dummies in various states of medieval contortion and finally kicked into the mid-day sun, blinking dizzily.

4. Museum of Czech History, The National Monument on Vitkov Hill, Prague

Vitkov is home to a glowering Jan Zizka, eyeing up the city below him from horseback. But the museum in the building behind him lacks any of his stern atmospherics. Another confusion of showy exhibits, garbled translations and lack of direction, there's some great stuff hidden in here. The problem is, with its jumping from one point in historical time to another, its lack of decent writing, and its strange pacing, it manages to make modern Czech history at once boring and dispiriting. Then it starts on about sports uniforms. Thoroughly unenlightening despite the spectacle.

5. Funicular Railway, Budapest
Ok, it might seem churlish to get angry with transport (twice), but this is appallingly dull. You can't really see out of it, it doesn't go very high or fast, and it costs a lot of money. The fact you're riding something old adds nothing to the experience, and certainly the terrifying staff won't make things better. Save the money and go on Budapest's much more entertaining Metro Line 1 - the second oldest in the world, complete with little tiny trains and platforms that look like some Georgian nostalgist's living room. Excellent.

6. Design Museum, Helsinki

By no stretch is this either eastern or central, but it is boring. Like everything else in Scandinavia it's very cool and not at all hateable. In fact, I really wanted to enjoy it. But there's just so much of it. This is a real case of quantity over quality. Eventually the comparative novelty of seeing different types of the same thing (scissors with square handles; scissors with round handles, and so on) wears off and you start to feel like you're just wandering around a warehouse.

7. The Biggest Church in Gdansk

Once the biggest Lutheran church in the world, it's spacious enough for 25,000 worshippers to fit in. Pews aside, there's not really much there, however. It's capacious and echoey, but with its white-washed walls it feels more like a badly painted waiting room than a site of God's magnificence. It's also completely open, meaning there's no point walking around it because you can see it all from the entrance. Where's the Mystery in that?

8. Prison Museum, Brno

Finally, Brno. Not a city known for its abundance of charm, this is the literal pinnacle of its mediocrity. In the heart of the hilltop castle Spilberk, this museum promises a re-creation of daily life in the underground warren of tunnels (again!) that once made up the local prison. Except here the typical badly posed shop dummies in silly wigs are decidedly thin on the ground. In their place is - well, nothing actually. An occasional plaque bearing a number guides your feet. Apart from that you are left in semi-darkness pondering blank grey walls and your own existential pointlessness. No info cards, no real clue as to what went on, no pictures, just the sound of your own foot-steps in the dimming twilight. 

And two honourable exceptions...

DDR Museum, Berlin

Good exhibits, proper lighting, a sense of historical place and time, and a prodding sense of humour, combine to genuinely illuminating effect. I left not only knowing more, but also entertained and a tiny bit baffled. Which is exactly how a tourist attraction should leave you.

Rakvere Castle, Estonia

You'll almost certainly never go there (it's in a provincial Estonian town with all the tourist pull of Gillingham), but it is a very good day out. No convincing sense of history or research (budget limitations probably pertain here), but it does make the most of its limitations. People bound about on horses, there's a re-creation of a medieval red light district, and a haunted chamber in which a grizzly old man assaults you in bad German. Great fun.

Monday, 14 October 2013

The Sea King

On the big day he said, 'Her excellence
yields to the discerning eye.'
So, who could expect much on the
wedding night?

Who could expect much of his cool pastures,
his sallow buttocks (spied juddering
from a luke-warm tub)?
She let herself have what there was of him.

The Revolution came as a relief - in the
village somebody said the Palace was
happily stormed, and now there was
a scuffle going on.

It was no time at all before the small-holders
were liberated of their proprietary concerns
(niggling though they were)
and the good word spread:

the threshold of the interval between liberation
and freedom had, on tip-toe over ice,
been crossed.

This (indefinite) perspiring interval - the hard-work of whetting the blade,
of poising the sword - liberated first
the fallow earth. And next, till such a time as tendencies
were trusted, so much else was to be suppressed.

The birth of freedom was to be gratuitously midwifed,
and so they found externalized the very
prison of their marriage: the submission
of individual desire to the rigours of discipline.

He, of bookish anti-Semitism, took to wrestling
with a tumbler or two of whiskey, and a friend,
in a shed. She got on
with it, hoping not to have a child.

Life plus electricity, plus the banning of this
or that, trampled over dogged habit,
but failed to extinguish it too thoroughly.

Like the sea king, subject to barnacles and the
battering of the tide,
all the rape and boredom of daily life,
didn't go away, it just took on mutant forms.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Debt and Architecture

Read my article on 'Debt' from the Prague Revue here

And then have a look at this lovely archive of Prague buildings.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Dubrovnik, Aug 2013, and Memories of Mostar

Perhaps I should preface this by saying I'm on my first proper summer holiday since we drove to Center Parcs in France about fifteen years ago. My only ever buckets and spades affair was in Tunisia, a sweltering two weeks spent flustered and dodging the heat. Disappointed with the general malaise and discomfort the sun inflicted on Tunis, I stuck to either the pool or the hotel room. The congested beaches I gave a miss.

The sun was always something of an unknown quantity in our family, at once rarely sighted, unpredictable and vicious. These in concert led to awful anxiety and obsessive over preparedness. I once met a (decidedly modest, British) heatwave with the exasperated cry, "Well, this is how the Sahara started."

So arriving in Dubrovnik, stepping off an aggressively, eye-itchingly air conditioned coach, I was likewise unimpressed. It is an experience I would liken to being punched repeatedly in the face by a scolding bath. No wonder nobody here seems to do anything - at least none of the men do. They sit in cafes half-reading the tabloids, occasionally mustering the energy to smoke a fag. Meanwhile Brits lie incapacitated on deckchairs. Italians - almost totally at home - do their endless standing up chatting.

No such indolence for us. Siobhan's tactical approach to holidays is at once simple and brutally effective: march through as many activities as you can. Actually, as we're doing this on a tatty, threadbare shoestring of a budget, this mostly entails just marching - from one sight to the next.

Still, there are worse places to be broke and on holiday. A compact Baroque maze (like one of those round plastic games you have to tip up and down to get a little metal ball around), Dubrovnik's Old Town carries off its swamp of tourists with surprising panache. Its warren of alleys siphons off the worst of the foot-traffic, sequestering pedestrians in a hidden world of white stone rivulets and jumbled roof tiling.

On our first visit we scale the City Walls, Siobhan noting - at regular intervals - that this very place was where Games of Thrones was filmed.
'Just imagine,' she says, 'Eddard Stark walked through here.'
'Which scene was that?' I ask, peering over the high ridge of the Pile Gate.
'No, just imagine it. Geoffrey looked out from the Red Keep here, over this view.'
'So this bit was in the series?' I ask, pointing at a nearby house.
'I don't know if that particular house was in it. But this is where they filmed it...'
'Which series...?'
And so on, me persistently literal and failing really to imagine anything at all; Siobhan undeterred in her marvelling.

Partly on the promise of air conditioning we march over to the baldly titled War Photo Limited, which - despite its title - is a permanent exhibition of photography taken mostly during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. It combines this section with other, temporary exhibitions - on this occasion Cedric Gerbanhayo's excellent and shocking coverage of South Sudan. The pro-Croat (or more precisely anti-Serb) bias of the permanent exhibition was more than offset by Wade Goddard's pictures of Mostar (the capital of Herzegovina).

Untitled, Goddard, 1993

Giving ample time to both the peculiar Bosniak-Croat alliance against Serbia and the subsequent bombardment and siege of the city by Croat nationalists (supported by the main Croatian military) in 1993, Enclave reproduces the struggle of daily life in the war-torn city. Moments of high drama (one UNICEF volunteer is shot trying to rescue a fatally injured civilian from sniper fire; she lies in a shallow gutter, one eye visible and staring into the sky, anticipating the next shot) are interspersed with snapshots of apparently everyday domesticity. These are of two orders: the first shows an ordinary activity taking place in extraordinary surroundings (a woman calmly making coffee in a devastated apartment); the second elevates ordinary settings by punctuating them with extraordinary details (a young man smoking in his apartment, tobacco paraphernalia strewn around him - and amongst it a gun). We walked around it pointing out the burnt bones of structures we had seen ourselves just two years earlier. The sight of the collapsed Old Bridge remains a truly devastating sight.

Mostar, 2010

Mostar, 1993
Untitled, Goddard

This is representative enough, and it's fair to say any war exhibition's job should be to be honest. But the permanent exhibition still participates in that familiar, troubling competition for victim status that characterizes relations between ex-Yugoslav states. Though the "apartheid" of Kosovar Albanians, and Milosevic-instigated ethnic cleansing, are rightly collected in the catalogue of sufferings, no mention is made of the contemporaneous bombing by NATO of Belgrade - a grotesque and strategically useless intervention which cost civilian lives. As much as anything, there is pragmatism here: funding priorities need to be considered after all. But there's still more than a touch of anger involved.

In Croatia there is still a calculated refusal to flatter Serbs with the halo of victimhood. By resorting to an active politics of victimhood, Balkan and ex-Yugoslav states risk elevating national majorities to the level of martyrs, inspiring further vicious nationalism in future.