Tales of travel and adventure in Central Europe

Sibiu: Revisiting a European Cultural Capital

Sibiusquare2The following article appeared in the Wall Street Journal in 2007, the year that Sibiu served as one of Europe’s two cultural capitals. Parts of the text are out of date, but the sections about the city’s history and sights still read as fresh as ever. Sibiu really is a great antidote for skeptics (are there still are a few) who somehow don’t believe Romania has earned its membership yet in the European Union.

Although Sibiu’s recorded history goes back eight centuries, a stroll through this city’s broad, handsome squares and neat, cobblestoned alleys, in many ways, feels like a glimpse into Romania’s happier future.

The sheer anarchy of a place like Bucharest makes you wonder if the European Union didn’t maybe bite off more than it could chew this time around, when it took in both Romania and Bulgaria as members in January (eds: 2007). The social fabric of the capital seems so shorn apart, you wonder if it can ever be knit back together. Read More →

Kotva: Of Carbuncles and Communist Memory

kotvascanThe following is from an article on Prague’s legacy of Communist architecture that I originally wrote for the publication ‘Hidden Europe’. The editors wanted me to focus on a couple of landmark buildings in the center of the city. The ‘carbuncle’ reference comes from Britain’s Prince Charles, who famously referred to that country’s stock of 1970s-era Brutalist architecture as, well, a bunch of carbuncles.

Prague’s Kotva department store (pictured left in a stock photo from the 1970s) just may be the ugliest building ever built in the Czech Republic.

It dates from the mid-1970s and was hailed at the time as a Czech example of “Brutalism” – then the reigning international architectural style – while meeting the special ideological demands of Communism.

In fact, by nearly any measure, it’s a classic Prince Charles’ carbuncle. Start with the exterior: It’s a hulking, dark-brown box, windowless on several sides. The façade, on close inspection, looks to be made of some type of corrugated sheet metal. Read More →

Prague Trams: Riding the Rails in the Capital

tramkiss2The following is an article I originally wrote for the ‘Wall Street Journal Europe’ in 2008, though they changed their minds after commissioning the piece and never ran it. I included parts of the text in a guide I wrote for Frommer’s, ‘Best of Prague and the Czech Republic’. Anyone who has a thing for public transportation (especially trams), as I do, will be able to relate.

I think you can learn a lot about a city from how its residents move from place to place. New York’s aging subways, for example, say that New Yorkers are a resilient bunch who are willing to tolerate nearly any indignity to live there. London’s tubes tell much the same story about Londoners. LA’s freeways are about personal freedom and the individual. By contrast, Tokyo’s overcrowded trains can be depersonalizing, in keeping with the notion that it’s the society, not the individual, that matters.

While Prague has a fine metro and an extensive bus network, it’s the tram – or tramvaj in Czech – here that sets the transportation tone. Any visitor to the city will be familiar with the sight of these (mostly) red- and cream-colored “whales on rails,” gliding smoothly over the cobblestones and pushing their girth through impossibly narrow streets – originally built to accommodate horses, but now packed with cars, trucks, buses, and an endless stream of streetcars. Read More →

Built in Brno: When Empire Met Modern

TugendhateditThe following is an article I wrote on modern architecture in Brno for the Wall Street Journal in 2007. Much of it still holds up as a discussion of Functionalist architecture and Brno’s role as the most modern and forward-looking Czech city in the years between World War I and II. The Vila Tugendhat, mentioned below, has now been thoroughly renovated and is open to the public in all of its original splendor.

It’s not easy being Brno, the Czech Republic’s second-biggest city. Paired uncomfortably with a world-class beauty like Prague, it’s a dowdy Birmingham to Prague’s imperial London. Then there’s the matter of the difficult-to-pronounce name (it’s “BURR-no”).

But for a brief 20-year period following World War I, the capital of provincial Moravia took center stage when it came to modern architecture, outshining its more famous Bohemian rival and establishing itself — fleetingly — as one of the Continent’s most exciting places to build and design.

A surge in what would become known as Functionalism produced several important buildings in Brno — from private residences to office buildings and even a crematorium. Read More →

‘Bydleni’ Magazine Comes for a Visit

My Place

My Place

In April the Czech interior design magazine ‘Bydleni‘ (‘House’) sent a photographer and editor to my apartment in Prague to take some photos. The plan was to make a photo spread for their June edition, which hit the stands in early May.

One of things of I love most about living in Central Europe is the architecture. Over the years, I’ve developed something of an eye for historical styles like Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque, but the styles I enjoy most are the early-modern and modern looks like Functionalism, Mid-Century and even ‘Communist’ (not sure too many Czechs would share my enthusiasm for the latter period).

While I can’t put my own apartment in the category of great architecture, I will say I was strongly influenced by modern styles when choosing a place to buy a few years ago, and then on how to design it.

Later, I intend to write a post about buying and remodeling an apartment in Prague (or Central Europe) for anyone wanting to (or foolish enough to) take the plunge, but for now I’ll just post a few words about what I was thinking and some photos from the Bydleni spread. Read More →

Poland’s Lodz Embraces Its Jewish Heritage

railcar2This story was originally commissioned and written for the ‘Wall Street Journal Europe‘ in 2008. Obviously it’s a bit dated now, but much of it — particularly Lodz’s ongoing commitment to remembering its Jewish past — remains pretty much accurate to this day.

“The Lodz ghetto was like its own country. It was the ‘first Jewish state’ if you will. It had its own post office, seven hospitals, seven pharmacies, a cultural center, a theater, and a symphony. It even had its own president: Chaim Rumkowski.”

Those are the words of Hubert Rogozinski, a local historian and volunteer at Lodz’s Jewish Community Center. Until a few years ago, Rogozinski made his living principally as a taxi driver. Now he’s a highly sought-after tourist guide, catering to an ever-growing number of visitors curious to learn the history of this industrial city of 800,000 people, 120 kilometers southwest of Warsaw.

Few people outside of Poland will know much about this country’s second-biggest city. Read More →