Monday, 15 December 2014

Soviet chic? Exploring Eastern Europe's statue dilemma

When it comes to Soviet-era sculptures in Eastern Europe, the only collective noun that suits is "an embarrassment of statues". After the fall of the Iron Curtain, what could be done with all these furrowed brows, towering Stalins and farm maidens toiling in the field?

In some cases, where Soviet sympathies simmered beneath the surface (or indeed where statues formed a structural part of a building), the mighty sculptures stayed put. Elsewhere, statues were hauled out of cities into "statue graveyards"; no longer colouring the city's character with their raised scythes and righteously pointing weapons, they became a snapshot of the era, to be considered from a safe distance.

A sky-piercing statue in Budapest's Memento Park. Image © Anita Isalska
These outdoor museums can be fascinating places. Budapest's Memento Park presents its Soviet-era statues with one eyebrow firmly raised. You can buy a scented candle in the shape of Lenin's head in their gift shop; perhaps you'll take it home to add some fragrance to a relaxing evening spent watching Vlad Ilyich's cranium smoulder into a shapeless lump.

Soviet salutes in Budapest's Memento Park. Image © Anita Isalska
Where the statues are abstracted, like these stylised Hungarian soldiers, it's easier to admire without feeling awkward. For all that they represent, they are anonymous enough to be appreciated as artwork. They call to mind knotty Futurist sculptures, there's a pleasing uniformity, and we can gawp at them without feeling the full weight of history.

Lenin gesturing towards... a flock of peacocks, probably. Image © Anita Isalska

Statues of Soviet leaders are another matter entirely. The figurehead of a regime who brought pain and misery to a country can't easily be viewed with detachment. To make these statues palatable, eyebrows need to be raised ever higher. Like in Grūtas Park near Druskininkai in Lithuania, where saluting Lenins jostle with zoo animals in what must be one of the world's most surreal days out.

A nonchalant zebra in Grūtas Park. Image © Anita Isalska
Grūtas Park's mission statement is "to provide an opportunity for Lithuanian people, visitors coming to our country as well as future generations to see the naked Soviet ideology which suppressed and hurt the spirit of our nation for many decades". Some of this is done with unflinching exhibitions and chilling reminders of the era's repression and coercion, like watchtowers dotted around the park. But whether intentionally or not, the zoo animals juxtaposed with looming Lenins undermine the regime with a whiff of the absurd.

One of several watchtowers in Lithuania's Grūtas Park. Image © Anita Isalska
Things get more complex where post-Soviet humour mingles with nostalgia. Prague's Museum of Communism is scathing, yet the souvenir shop is filled with delightfully stylish postcards and postcards, that capture a feisty, optimistic spirit. Tucking into a hearty plate of food at Lenin's Mating Call in St Petersburg, Russia, it's hard to tell if the Soviet decor is poking fun or wistful homage.

Zov Ilicha ('Lenin's Mating Call') cafe in St Petersburg. Image © Anita Isalska
Statue graveyards and Soviet caricatures can be ways of processing past trauma, by containing these loaded symbols or giving them an absurd context. What could deflate the hammer & sickle more than reducing it to a trimming that hangs over your plate of pelmeni? But the whiff of nostalgia you're detecting is real. And the coexistence of revulsion for the Soviet era and nostalgia for it is the most troubling dilemma of all.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Centre-stage cadavers: a tour of the Anatomical Theatre in Bologna, Italy

There are gold embossed crests and splashes of colour all over the walls of the Biblioteca dell'Archiginnasio.

The inner courtyard of the palazzo is neck-strainingly beautiful. Look up for the best sights.
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You wouldn't expect anything less than regal scrolls and vaulted corridors from one of Europe's oldest seats of learning, the university of Bologna in Italy.

Angels and hallowed academics gaze out from the biblioteca's courtyard.
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Learning comes at a price, though; and chances are if you were staring at this next exquisitely carved ceiling, you weren't long for this world.

These wooden figures look incredibly imposing in the high-ceilinged anatomical theatre.
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Welcome to the Teatro Anatomico, where operations and autopsies were performed for an eager-to-learn audience of Bolognese medical students across the centuries. If you were gazing up at these flayed wooden figures - notice the skin-crawling care with which their partially dissected bodies have been carved - then it's likely you could expect the razor-sharp bite of a surgeon's saw any moment soon.

You're so vein: the sinewy carvings in the Teatro Anatomico.
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But mostly it was dissections of bodies that took place here. They were usually performed under the watchful eye of a priest, presumably to ensure no immortal souls were at risk. This wipe-clean marble slab would be centre stage for an audience of students.

Looks comfy... The marble slab where cadavers were placed for dissection.
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This centre of learning played a crucial role in the history of medicine. The first public dissection at the University of Bologna was performed in the year 1315 by Mondino di Liuzzi, who penned the world's first modern dissection manual, Anathomia corporis humani, a year later. (There's an interesting timeline of dissection's history here.)

One of the inner rooms in Bologna's Biblioteca Communale.
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Gruesome as it seems to modern sensibilities, learning by directly observing a dissection was the most reliable way for medical practitioners to understand the human body. Corpses weren't always easy to come by (legally) because of taboos surrounding dissection, so it made sense for an entire audience of students to be present when they did take place.

Bicycles lining the studenty streets of Bologna's centre.
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Back among Bologna's ochre-coloured buildings and dramatic towers, it's easy to miss the dark side of the city's intellectual heritage. And in a city famed for its food, the Teatro Anatomico is one gut-churning sight best explored on an empty stomach.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Three dark sights in Czech Moravia

This criminally underrated region of central Europe is crammed with colourful Old Towns and lush green scenery. But Czech Moravia also has some intriguing dark sights. Here are three of the most fascinating ones I've seen on my travels.

1. Mummified monks in Brno's Capuchin Crypt

The peach-coloured building conceals curious cadavers... discovering Brno's Capuchin Crypt.
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Unique dry air currents flowing through the belly of Brno's Capuchin Church resulted in the remarkable preservation of monks laid to rest there. You can visit them in person by wending your way through the darkened passageways into the main vault. Two dozen corpses bedecked with rosaries, still wearing their monastic robes, lie exactly where they were placed over a 300-year period (until the 18th century when the practise was outlawed). Brno's macabre sights don't end there: an enormous ossuary was rediscovered in 2001 and opened to visitors during summer 2012.

2. Olomouc's Communist Clock

Communist workers go about their business on Olomouc's clock.
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Astronomical clocks are common in Europe (Prague has one of the most famous). Usually they show clockwork dignitaries, royals or religious figurines to mark the hours. The astronomical clock in Olomouc was no different until the Communists destroyed it in 1945. It was rebuilt to show Communist workers instead: labourers, scientists, farmers and factory workers march out to chime the clock bells. There's a video here where you can see the clock in action.

3. Třebíč's Jewish Cemetery

The tranquil Jewish Cemetery in Třebíč.
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The Jewish quarter in Třebíč might just be the best preserved in all of Europe and is listed as a Unesco heritage sight. The cemetery is also protected, and for good reason. It dates to the 15th century but despite half a millennium of erosion and political turmoil - including the Nazi occupation of  Czechoslovakia - it is one of the best preserved Jewish graveyards I've seen in Europe. 

View Olomouc in a larger map

Sunday, 16 February 2014

The sad stuffed zebras of Poland's Niepołomice Castle

Heard of Marius the Danish giraffe? Worldwide outrage greeted the news that despite protests, this long-legged inhabitant of Copenhagen Zoo had been killed and fed to the lions. Euthanasia isn't uncommon among zoos but Marius' death and dissection were a PR disaster for the zoo.

And no wonder. Modern revulsion over killing exotic animals is well established. We're conscious of our destructive impact on ecosystems and feel intensely squeamish when reminded of how we've driven animal populations towards extinction in the past - especially when it's for frivolous reasons.

So it's unsettling to visit Poland's Niepołomice Castle (; Polish only). This 14th-century castle served as a hunting lodge for game expeditions around Niepołomice forest. In its rebuilt Renaissance form, this lesser-visited sight is well worth a halfday trip from Krakow (it's only 30 minutes' drive away). 

Taking a tour of the rebuilt Niepołomice Castle. Image © Anita Isalska.
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But the hunting display rooms don't half make for uncomfortable viewing. Tours of the castle invite visitors to explore rooms full of exotic game: springbok heads are mounted on walls, entire stuffed zebras jostle for space next to bears and gnu, and mounted moose glower from the gables.

Try not to make eye contact... some of the exotic game in the castle. Image © Anita Isalska.
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At one time, these rooms would have had pride of place. Some are local animals, other shot abroad and brought back to the palace. The trophies were evidence of the hunters' prestige. Being able to hunt for leisure, rather than necessity, demonstrated wealth. The exotic creatures spoke of worldliness and power.

Native Polish wildlife: deer, bears, European elk and grouse. Image © Anita Isalska.
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But to modern visitors, the rooms represent decadent waste. This is no natural history museum, intending to educate, but the work of hobbyists.

Of course, we're judging them by modern standards. Hunters of centuries past weren't privy to information about declining animal populations and fragile ecosystems. They couldn't predict the revulsion their trophies would rouse in the future. Instead of being pride of place, these sad stuffed zebras are a relic of a past we'd rather guiltily forget.

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Monday, 18 November 2013

Is it morbid to visit Auschwitz?

Tourism to Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum has been under the spotlight recently. The former concentration camp had a staggering 1.3 million visitors last year. A debate has been raging over how best to preserve the site, which slowly begun crumbling. And concerns continue about how travel agents promote tours to the site, and how tourists behave when they get there.

The notorious 'Arbeit Macht Frei' sign above Auschwitz's gate - 'work will set you free'.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr stream.
Auschwitz is the site where an estimated 1.1 million people met their deaths. It has attained a grotesquely mythic significance, so it's no surprise that visitor numbers continue to rise. Some go to trace the history that shaped their own families. Others are grimly curious to see the Second World War's most notorious site. Plenty of visitors arrive on educational school trips, and still others might visit on a dark day trip from Krakow. And undeniably there are visitors who are simply fascinated by the Holocaust.

A sign reading 'Stop!', warning prisoners that they'd be shot if they advanced any further.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr stream.
For me, there can be no question that visiting commemorates the atrocities committed at the camps. I've never met a visitor to Auschwitz who didn't emerge powerfully moved. But its emotional impact is still only a shadow of the brutal experiences of those who were incarcerated, tortured and murdered there - which leads some historians to believe the site would be better left to decay.

Empty cans of Zyklon-B.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr stream.
For camp survivors and their descendants, there can be an uncomfortable disconnect between the pain of Auschwitz's prisoners, and vicarious sorrow experienced by travellers touring the site. Do some visitors treat Auschwitz like an emotional theme park where they can gawp at a tragic past they're untouched by, before returning to Krakow to hit the beers? Is visiting Auschwitz just plain morbid?

A tangle of prosthetic limbs, all stolen from prisoners killed at Auschwitz.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr stream.
I sympathise with discomfort about visitors who rubber-neck, rather than pay tribute, but the distinction isn't clear-cut. Visitors navigate a complex emotional maze when they explore the site. On my own visit, I went from thoughtful contemplation to grim fascination; Auschwitz made me furious, and then hopelessly sad. The arbitrary factors dictating survival or non-survival of the war - location, luck, or the flick of a camp commandant's wrist - were chilling.

'Hunger' statue at Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr stream.
The sympathy and sorrow of visitors to death camps is a whisper of the suffering experienced by those who went through the camps, but most visitors complete tours of the site in a thoughtful and reflective way (in my experience at least - although I did see one individual taking a grinning selfie in the gas chambers). And the vast majority of tour operators seem to get the tone of visits just right.
Seemingly endless corridors of prisoner photos on display at Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr stream.
But what about those who are riveted by Holocaust history? There's a dark corner of the human brain that just can't look away from horror; why else would there be endless re-runs of documentaries about Nazi atrocities, a churn of books about the 'Final Solution'? There's a thirst to learn every detail of the ghastliest crimes of the Second World War.

Barbed wire fences inside Auschwitz.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr stream.
Critics would call it history porn, but while it's outwardly unsavoury to want to pore over the detritus of a death camp, it's a mistake to dismiss it as morbid. Gruesome fascination is always accompanied by questions: what happened? Who caused it? How could it happen? Why did people let it happen?

Watchtower on the fringe of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr stream.
Groping for answers to these questions is uncomfortable, and picking through what's left of Auschwitz isn't for the meek. But dismissing visitors to Auschwitz as morbid rubberneckers - or worse, allowing the site to crumble into dust - won't lay the past to rest. It would silence our urgent interrogation of human cruelty.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Peering into Sydney's past at Hyde Park Barracks

A sunny day in Sydney has a way of distracting visitors from the city's dark beginnings. But if you're lucky enough to spend a little time in New South Wales' dazzling capital, I'd urge you to explore a couple of sites paying tribute to its history: in particular, visit Hyde Park Barracks.

Sailing past the iconic Sydney Opera House on the way to Manly. Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Visiting Australia's convict sites elicits complex emotions. It would be impossible not to sympathise with the harrowing conditions suffered by convicts transported from the British Isles and then enslaved. However, there are flashes of hope in the stories of those who finished their terms (or escaped) and then began new lives.

The red-brick exterior of Hyde Park Barracks Museum in Sydney. Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page. 
Hyde Park Barracks was built in 1819 to house convict men and boys. Thirty years later it would also be the first stop for women immigrants fresh on Australia's shores. It later went through various incarnations -- a shelter for homeless women, even office space -- but is now dedicated to the history of the convicts who passed through.

Traces of barracks' original signs and papers remain, despite repeated attempts to give the building a makeover.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Convict labour was backbreaking, and punishments for even minor infractions were grim. Being flogged until you bled with a cat o' nine tails, or flung into solitary confinement, was a lucky escape. Something as serious as trying to escape your assigned labour would land you in painfully heavy leg-irons for months on end. Worse still, you could be shipped to the notorious Port Arthur.

Inmates slept mere inches from each other in rough hammocks.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
But amid the miserable grind of life at Hyde Park Barracks, ingenuity still thrived. Convicts carved dice and game pieces out of bone, sheltered from the sun under hand-woven cabbage-leaf hats, and fashioned gambling tokens out of wood. Even in a place that saw as much pain as Hyde Park Barracks, there were glimmers of joy and hope.

Find it: Hyde Park Barracks Museum, Macquarie Street, NSW 2000 Australia
Learn more:

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Thursday, 5 September 2013

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria: an unexpected trip to Hell

Sometimes, you arrive at a darkly disturbing travel site when you least expect it.

Standing in the courtyard of Rila Monastery. Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
I had wanted to visit Rila Monastery in Bulgaria for a long time. I saw pictures of its striped columns and enormous domes, a strange and beautiful contrast with the vast Rila Mountains, and wanted to see this dramatic sight for myself.

Riotous colours in the archways of Rila Monastery. Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
What I didn't expect was how macabre the artwork at Rila would be. The initial impression of most visitors is to be dazzled by the colours in Rila Monastery. But look closer and you'll see tortured souls adorning the walls, being drowned in lakes of fire, swallowed by dragons, and ushered down to Hell.

A gruesome depiction of sinners being dragged to Hell (while long-dead believers awake in their coffins to be summoned to Heaven). Note the livestock with body parts in their mouths. Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
St Ivan of Rila, who founded the monastery in the 10th century, was a recluse in the ascetic tradition. In the solitude of the Rodopi Mountains, Ivan Rilski had plenty of time to ponder the Fall of Man.

This unusual ceiling fresco shows King Herod's soldiers butchering babies, per the New Testament story of the Massacre of the Innocents. Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Faced with isolation, it's hard not to be confronted by the uglier aspects of human nature. But Ivan Rilski is known mostly for his affinity with the natural world, numerous miracles, and taking on a life of cave-dwelling hardship to purify his soul. It would be hundreds of years after his death, in 1846, before the monastery's remarkable murals would be completed.

What's worse, a river of fire or being gobbled by a monster? Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
The very best of Bulgaria's painters and architects perfected Rila Monastery, and their inspiration draws heavily from the Bible's most nightmarish content. Strolling around the monastery today, you'll chance upon bloody scenes from the New Testament, such as the Massacre of the Innocents, right through to the surreal horror of the Book of Revelation - multi-headed dragons, beasts from the sea and an agonised angel of woe.

Almost like a comic strip - another of Rila's murals.  Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
This remote monastery is a place of peace and retreat, but it is also an unflinching insight into believers' terror of the final judgement.

Find it: there are buses to Rila village from Sofia, Blagoevgrad and Dupnitsa. Alternatively, Sofia is full of tour operators willing to take you on a day-trip. Rila Monastery Shuttle will throw in an excursion  to Sofia's Boyana Church.
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