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“Portugal has a tradition of fado, the idea that one’s fate or destiny cannot be escaped, and it’s the name given to a form of traditional Portuguese singing that’s been given UNESCO World Intangible Cultural Heritage status. You’ll often hear fado in bars, cafes and restaurants – melancholic songs of love, loss, hopefulness and resignation – accompanied by soulful guitars, mandolins and violins.”
The very reasonably priced IBIS hotel was not as grand as the Conde de Ferreira Palace in Tomar but was in a perfect central location situated on the River Mondego with the historical centre of Coimbra rising up in dramatic style behind it like a sheer mountain face and perfectly placed for a short walk to an attractive and vibrant square busy with restaurants and bars basking in the sunshine.
From there we made our way to the old town and the University district and quickly discovered that Lisbon isn’t the only hilly city in Portugal. Coimbra is built on the top of a hill, not all of it of course, because it is the third largest city in the country but the bit that we wanted to see was certainly on the top of the mountain.
It was hot again and the climb was a bit of a chore but as well as getting our bearings and seeing some of the sites we needed to find somewhere suitable to eat later and after our successes in Lisbon and Tomar there was a lot to live up to. We found one or two likely looking places but none really stood out and then we tired of examining menus and made our way to the very top.
Kim wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about visiting the inside of the University today so we concentrated instead on the exterior and agreed that we might come back tomorrow (a certainty for me but doubtful for Kim). There were some wonderful views from the top and we strolled around the ornate courtyards and admired the Palaces and the churches and the two cathedrals and it occurred to me that Coimbra could easily be tagged the Florence of Portugal.
There was a lot of activity at the University because this was first week of new term – ‘Freshers Week’. I remember ‘Freshers Week’ when I pitched up at Cardiff University in September 1975. With hormones raging in overdrive I thought this was going to be opportunity to meet new girls but I quickly realised that this is the week when second and third year students turn up in force and get all the girls before a new student gets a look in and it looked very much like it was exactly the same procedure here in Coimbra.
University students in Coimbra wear a black uniform complete with a cape, they are known locally as ‘the cloaks’ and if I hadn’t known it was a University I might have mistaken it for a convention of Vampires.
We weren’t going to visit anything today that had an entrance fee so we made our way back to the river and I became interested in a sign outside a small building that was advertising a Fado show, traditional music of Portugal. I was keen to go along but I couldn’t persuade Kim to join me so I bought a single ticket and would return later alone.
On the way back to the IBIS I spotted a small restaurant that looked traditional and welcoming and had a reasonable menu so I suggested that we try this one. Kim agreed and I worried then that my bad luck with recommendations might strike again and I would come to regret ever having mentioned it. As I have said before I prefer to leave restaurant selection decisions to Kim and then no blame can be attributed to me in the case of a bad one.
Later I returned to the centre for the five o’clock Fado show and after only five minutes or so I realised that Kim had made an absolutely brilliant decision in declining to accompany me. I didn’t enjoy it at all, it was terrible; if had had the sense to consult Wikipedia before impetuously buying the ticket I am certain that I too would have rejected the idea…
“Fado is a form of music characterized by mournful tunes and lyrics, often about the sea or the life of the poor, and infused with a sentiment of resignation, fatefulness and melancholia”
… this, let me tell you is music to get seriously depressed to. There was zero chance that I would buy one of the CDs on sale at the entrance. If I could have sneaked out then I would have left there and then but I was in the middle of a row quite near the front and it would have been impossible to leave without drawing a lot of attention to myself. I had no alternative but to stick it out, thankfully it only lasted for an hour and there was the consolation of a complimentary glass of port wine when it finally came to an end.
Now it came to restaurant time and I worried that my poor judgment might continue but it turned out to and it turned out to be excellent, so good in fact that we agreed that we would return there again the following night. Once we find a place we like we don’t like taking unnecessary risks!
In a survey in 2010 75% of the population of Poland said that they were practising Catholics. Nearby Italy (where the Pope lives) only registered 74%. Malta had the largest positive response at 95%. The least religious countries were all in the north where 80% of respondents in Estonia, Norway, Denmark and Sweden all said that religion isn’t important.
Interestingly this survey didn’t seem to include the Vatican State where there is a population of only about five hundred official citizens and three-quarters of these are clergy so I imagine the response would surely have been no less than 100%.
I wasn’t surprised by this high response in Poland because there are twenty churches on the map of the old town area of Wroclaw and three of them have towers to climb and I do like climbing towers and we set about tackling them in a sort of church tower triathlon!
We started first with the Cathedral of St John the Baptist, Ostrow Tumski, on the Cathedral Island which at ninety-seven metres Island is the tallest of the three.
The most common Christian Church dedication is to Saint Mary but dedications to St John the Baptist are also quite common. There are almost six hundred in England alone and I used to go to this one every Sunday in the village of Hillmorton, near Rugby in Warwickshire where I grew up…
Yes, I did go there every week – honestly, that’s me third from the right, about 1970…
During the Siege of Breslau in the last days of World War Two the Wroclaw Cathedral was very badly damaged with about three-quarters of the building being destroyed by heavy bombing by the Red Army in what amounted to the Russian contribution to the end of war demolition of Poland.
The initial reconstruction of the church lasted until 1951 and in the following years, additional aspects were rebuilt and renovated. The original, conical shape of the towers was restored only as recently as 1991.
Although it is the highest of the three church towers it is also the easiest to ascend (I say this with hindsight of course) because after only a few steps there is a small museum of African Art (a bit weird) and a lift to the top.
It is one of those curious lifts that you can still find in Europe with an open space next to a blank wall which flashes by as you ascend to the top and would cause serious injury if you were to lean against the moving brickwork. Luckily there was an attendant who stood perilously near (in my opinion) to the wall and stopped visitors from getting too close!
After a couple of circuits of the top the chill wind sent us straight back down again and before we left we walked around the interior of the Cathedral and enjoyed the decoration and the stained glass windows.
Next stop was the Mary Magdalene (a follower of Jesus, but not a Disciple, because only men could be Disciples) church near the Market Square which is quite ordinary except for the tower and the Penitent Bridge (Mostek Pokutnic) which is a footbridge between the two towers of at the height of forty-five metres.
According to the legend it is possible to see the ghosts of young women, who, instead of taking care of their homes and children, preferred to go out on the town and party with men.
As a penitence, they had to cross the bridge between the towers.
Legend also says that if an unmarried couple walk the length of the bridge while holding hands, their love for one another will never fade and they will marry, which for me is a lot better than a nasty love lock on a bridge!
This was the shortest of the three and an easy walk to the top up modern concrete zig-zag steps and we walked the bridge taking care not to hold hands and after looking out over the market Square we returned to ground level and made our way the short distance to nearby St Elizabeth’s Church.
Saint Elizabeth was the mother of John the Baptist. The church dates back to the fourteenth century. The main tower was originally one hundred and thirty-six meters tall and from 1525 until 1946 was the chief Lutheran Church of Breslau and Silesia. In 1946 it was expropriated and given to the Military Chaplaincy of the Polish Roman Catholic Church which I suppose accounts for its rather plain and austere interior compared to the Cathedral of St John the Baptist.
The reconstructed main tower is now ninety two meters tall and with three hundred and four steps up and down a stone spiral staircase is the most difficult of the three to reach the top. But the climb is well worth the effort because the reward is the best view of all from all three with a panorama of the surrounding countryside and a bird’s eye view of the Market Square. Well worth the 5 zloty fee!
After three towers we agreed that we had earned a beer so we retired immediately to the Drink Bar and prepared ourselves for our final night in Wroclaw and an early morning flight home the next day.
We had enjoyed out time here. Wroclaw doesn’t have the historical swagger or confidence of Krakow or the raw edge and the buzz of Warsaw but it has a quirky charm of the more manageable city. When it comes to Poland whilst I might consider returning to Krakow and Wroclaw, once in Warsaw I think is probably enough.
In my previous post I wrote about oppression in Poland after World-War-Two and the struggle for freedom and this reminded me of a visit to the capital city of Warsaw the year before.
Walking in the city centre we approached the heavily guarded Presidential Palace and on the pavement outside there was a display commemorating some previous uprising or other and as a backdrop there was a huge canvas poster of Gary Cooper as Marshall Will Kane in the film High Noon.
I had no idea why until I looked it up later:
In 1989 there were some partially free elections in Poland and this was the official poster of the Solidarity movement and it shows Cooper armed not with a pistol in his right hand but with a folded ballot saying ‘Wybory’ (elections) while the Solidarity logo is pinned to his vest above the sheriff’s badge. The message at the bottom of the poster reads: “W samo południe: 4 czerwca 1989,” which translates to “High Noon: 4 June 1989.”
Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa explained it later:
“It was a simple but effective gimmick that at the time was misunderstood by the Communists. They tried to ridicule the freedom movement in Poland as an invention of the ‘Wild’ West, especially the U.S. But the poster had the opposite impact: Cowboys had become a powerful symbol for Poles. Cowboys fight for justice, fight against evil, and fight for freedom. ”
In 1953 Gary Cooper won the Best Actor Oscar for High Noon and in 1990 Lech Wałęsa became President of Poland. The Soviet Force of Occupation (The Northern Group of Forces) did not leave Poland until 1993.
After the popular uprising in 1989 which overthrew Communist rule and following independence Poland planned to demolish around five hundred Soviet-era monuments and a mass demolition of reminders that are relics of the country’s Communist past which are seen as reminders of Soviet Russia’s invasion and subsequent decades-long political dominance of the eastern European nation until. Thirty-five statues of Lenin and two of Josef Stalin were removed from towns and cities across Poland.
Sadly, Russia being an authoritarian, militaristic state seems unable to understand a desire for independence and to be free of strutting jack boots from the East!
The picture above is ‘Stalin’s Boots’ a symbolic statue that stands in Budapest in Hungary. Before it was torn down in 1956 it stood eighty foot tall and was clearly too big for its boots!
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union hundreds of statues of Lenin have been removed and demolished but there are still some to be found in more remote locations. See this web post for details of Lenin Statue Spotting – Lenining.
Most are in old Soviet Russia and its previously oppressed territories of course but there is a statue of Lenin in Montpellier in France, Potsdam in Germany (how bizarre), Athens in Greece and most surprising of all, Seattle in the USA.
“When Pope John Paul II kissed the ground at the Warsaw airport he began the process by which Communism in Poland – and ultimately elsewhere in Europe – would come to an end.” – John Lewis Gaddis, U.S. Cold War Historian
On a recent visit to Iceland we learnt about the elves and trolls that live there in the mountains and the valleys but we didn’t see any because they are invisible but here in Wroclaw we very soon came across the dwarfs because they are not nearly so shy and can be found posing outside buildings and along the footpaths all over the city.
Dwarfs have long held a place in Polish folklore and their current iconic status as symbols of Wrocław has political and subversive origins. Under communism they became the rather unlikely symbol of the Orange Alternative – an underground protest movement that used absurdity and nonsense to stage peaceful protests. Armed with paint cans the group specifically ridiculed the establishment’s attempts to censor public space.
During the communist era any anti-establishment graffiti or troublesome public art was quickly painted over by the authorities but upon seeing fresh censorship the Orange Alternative quickly painted over them yet again…with dwarfs. The first in its modern statuette form was placed on a busy crossroads near a subway where Orange Alternative demonstrations often took place in 2001.
We began in the Market Square and at first it all seemed incredibly easy and within a few minutes we had spotted at least twenty or so using our guide pamphlet as a sort of ‘I Spy Book’ that we used to have when we were children but then the going got tougher as we were forced into the adjacent streets to go in search of our quest.
To the south of the Market Square we walked as far as the old city moat and then back to the centre via the Four Temples District and then we went north again back towards the University searching high and low for the little fellows.
We walked to the river and then walked east but there was a chill wind blowing down the river valley so we abandoned the route almost as soon as we had started and headed back to the centre and along the way came across ‘Jatki’ which is the only preserved medieval street in Wroclaw and has a corner of bronze sculptures of animals, a pig, piglet, goose, duck, rooster and a rabbit at the entrance to the street.
As well as the dwarfs we were looking for a sculpture called ‘The Anonymous Pedestrians’ and found them at a busy road junction where there are fourteen statues of ordinary people going about their daily business but on one side of the road they are sinking into grey obscurity into the pavement and on the other are rising back out into the sunshine in a form of social resurrection.
It is a wonderful piece of street art and I am prepared to say that for me it was one of the highlights of Wroclaw.
The statues are a reminder of the introduction of martial law in Poland on December 13th 1981 and a memorial to the thousands of people who disappeared (‘went underground’) in the middle of the night courtesy of the militia. In a symbolic statement the fourteen statues were erected in the middle of the night in 2005 on the twenty-fourth anniversary of the introduction of martial law.
In 1981 the Polish Communist Government was having a hard time, there was a troublesome Polish Pope who had visited the country two years earlier and given people hope of liberation, there was a severe economic crisis, workers were striking and there was the growing influence of the workers movement Solidarity, and under pressure from the USSR, General Jaruzelski decided on a brutal and violent solution.
Early in the morning Martial Law was declared, several thousand opposition campaigners were interned, it is estimated that approximately one hundred people were murdered and strikes were crushed with the help of the army and special riot police units. Many members of the opposition and underground trade-unionists were sentenced to prison terms, others were forced to emigrate. Normal life was severely restricted with curfews and rationing, the independent trade union Solidarity was banned and its leader Lech Walesa was imprisoned.
Although martial law was lifted in 1983, many of the political prisoners were not released until the general amnesty in 1986.
Jaruzelski and the other instigators of the martial law argued that the army crackdown rescued Poland from a possibly disastrous military intervention of the Soviet Union, East Germany, and other Warsaw Pact countries similar to the earlier ‘fraternal aid’ interventions in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 but history generally disagrees with this defensive interpretation and even today some of the leaders of the action await formal trial and punishment.
This is probably the most striking and powerful memorial depicting ordinary people that I have ever seen that perfectly captures the moment and visually records the suffering and the inhumanity, the desperation and the hope of the time and the military regime.
Humbled by this memorial and growing tired of looking for dwarfs it was just about now that we abandoned our search and returned to the Market Square to find a bar with tables in the sunshine and to settle down with a beer.