Some of the painted fragments of the Berlin Wall

Some of the painted fragments of the Berlin Wall

artsignSymbol of a  History Theme

We have just returned from an extended trip around much of Eastern Europe. Besides sampling the foods and wines, and enjoying the usual sightseeing attractions, we followed a common historical thread: all of these places have been affected in one way or another by multiple invasions and wars on their soil.

The Romans were one of the first to occupy these lands, and later the Mongols swept through. Some, like Bosnia-Herzegovina, were occupied for more than 400 years by the Ottomans, which has shaped that region’s modern history, with, for example, the comparatively recent Srebrenica Massacre.

Many places were ruled for a long time by the Hapsburgs and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Some were touched briefly by France and Napoleon Bonaparte.

One of the painted cars---a good symbol of freedom

One of the painted cars—a good symbol of freedom

Car and wall paintings

Car and wall paintings

More recently, the Balkan region was much affected by the First World War, and a chain of events from that and the Second World War led to the creation of Yugoslavia, with Tito’s version of Communism. The death of Tito and the breakup of Yugoslavia led to some horrendous wars and massacres.

The more northerly countries in the region, such as Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, suffered in World War 2 under the Nazis and then under Communism—eventually leading to revolts and revolutions to gain their independence.

So, it was interesting for us to discover a small outdoor exhibition in Paris, where we started the trip. It was in the plaza outside the front of the Gare de l’Est, and was linked to the fall of the Berlin Wall—a symbol of Communist power in East Germany.

The exhibition was the brainchild of Sylvestre Verger, who put it together with the help of Street Art, an international urban artistic movement. They got together 30 fragments of the Berlin Wall, and this is a new collection that pays homage to artists who painted about, and on, the Berlin Wall before its fall. Three of those artists are Christophe-Emmanuel Bouchet, Kiddy Citny and Thierry Noir.


"Chorus 11" (yin yan)

“Chorus 11″ (yin yan)

This new collection is called “Art liberté”, celebrating art, the city, the history and liberty. The 30 works are fixed on metal structures that are arranged in two lines in the plaza. Each one has an information board, plus a QR code, and there’s a catalogue plus films of interviews with the artists, available from a caravan-office in the corner. The artists also painted “Trois Trabant”—vehicles that are emblematic of East Germany. It seems to us that being able to paint them however n artist wishes is a very clear symbol of freedom.

All the paintings are very interesting for different reasons. I randomly picked 3 to highlight here.

The first, by Peter Unsicker (1947-) is “Chorus 11”, May 2014 (plaster on concrete). The text says, “X-ray of a yin-yan brain, accumulation of masks, memorial of the absurd.”

"Evasion" in center

“Evasion” in center

"Continental Climate C"

“Continental Climate C”

The next, by Frank Pellegrino is “Evasion”, April 2014 (acrylic on concrete). The text, “all Berlin’s symbols set in aerosol on the penitentiary remains, cuffing the wrist of humanity.

And, finally by Daleast is “Continental Climate C”, April 2014 (acrylic on concrete). The text, “The zeppelin exploded. The liberated birds have taken flight. The city has been sown with new seeds. We are growers of freedom and the harvest is ready.”

We really enjoyed browsing this for a while and it got us pondering on the link between art and freedom—so very true, as in a repressive regime artistic expression is also curbed/limited/repressed.

Approach to Wawel Castle Hill

Approach to Wawel Castle Hill

In the cave system (the Dragon's Den)

In the cave system (the Dragon’s Den)

Krakow is arguably one of Poland’s most beautiful cities (maybe even top of the list), with a long and complex history (as have many European cities). I’ll cover more of that in the months to come.

For now, this is part history, part myth, part legend—who knows for sure. Krakow has a dragon story, which is woven into the history of the city. Head for the Dragon’s Den (Smocza Jama), below Wawel, the Castle complex on the hill overlooking the River Vistula. Formed about 25 million years ago, the spectacular limestone formation of Wawel Hill is not the solid piece of rock it appears to be. Rather, it is riddled with caves, cracks, crevices, and crawl spaces, and as you walk through a small section of them you can easily imagine that various creatures have lived/might still live in here.

Sonya D, Rod M, Nathalie M in the caves

Sonya D, Rod M, Nathalie M in the caves

Part of the caves

Part of the caves

Exit the Dragon's Den at river level

Exit the Dragon’s Den at river level

The story goes that these craggy chambers below Wawel were once home to Smok Wawelski, or the Wawel Dragon, a particularly nasty creature that loved to gorge himself on sheep and local maidens. Legend has it that, as the village ran out of local virgins, the King promised the hand of his only daughter to the hero who could vanquish the evil beast. One after the other of many brave knights fell to the dragon’s fiery breath.

Eventually a poor cobbler called Krak tricked Smok into eating a sheep stuffed full of sulphur, which instantly ignited inside the dragon’s throat. This gave the dragon an unquenchable thirst, so he ran and drank half the river, causing his extended belly to explode. Thus, the town was freed of the dragon and Krak married the princess. Krak later became king and built his castle on the dragon’s lair. The people built a city around it, named Krakow after their savior king.

Nice story. At the exit to the Dragon’s Den near the river, these days there is a large sculpture of a dragon that periodically blows out a fiery plume. The dragon is part of Krakow culture now, an unofficial emblem, and we saw a dragon on all kinds of items—-from flags, to T-shirts, to mugs, small statuettes etc. Interesting how a legend can become a city mascot. As we traveled around Eastern Europe we came across other dragon stories, which I’ll try to unearth.

Breathing fire!

Breathing fire!

Dragon statue

Dragon statue

Miffy, by Florentijn Hofman, with Sonya D

Miffy, by Florentijn Hofman, with Sonya D

IMG_1590Who remembers Miffy?

In different cities over the years, I’ve experienced Cows on Parade, Bison on Parade, Lippizaner Horses, St Louis ‘Birthday’ Cakes, and other fanciful and colorful creations. And now comes a cute story-book character!

The Netherlands’ most loved, and loveable, bunny Nijntje (or Miffy as she’s known to the rest of the world) turned 60 on June 21, 2015. This rabbit’s youthful looks and attitude to life haven’t changed since Dick Bruna first created her in 1955 and she continues to be very popular.

The name “Nijntje” is a short form of “konijntje”, which means “little rabbit”. This little rabbit has featured in around 30 picture books written and drawn by Bruna. They have been translated into more than 50 languages and over 85 million copies have been sold. Each book is a story with 12 pages, and is about things that children can understand, and situations they will face, like going to school or hospital. There are Miffy clothes and toys, a TV series and in 2012 even a movie was released, “Miffy the Movie”.


To celebrate her 60th, 60 artists from the Netherlands and Japan each changed a plain white 1.8-meter Miffy statue intoIMG_6037 a colorful creation of their own. Forty-five of them will be dotted around Amsterdam, The Hague and Utrecht until September 30th, and the other 15 are touring Japan.

The Centraal Museum in Utrecht will be presenting “Celebrating 60 Years of Miffy” with all kinds of fun activities for young children and their parents. June 20-September 20, 2015: www.centraalmuseum.nl

If you’re not lucky enough to be in Netherlands before September, you can follow the Miffy parade online at www.miffyartparade.com ; a new statute is shown each day.

How wonderful that a classic story-book animal is being honored in this way, one that is sweet and innocent, unlike many other creations these days. Just saying!

These pictured Miffy statues were on the Museum Plein in Amsterdam —found by Nathalie M and Sonya D. Thanks for sharing!

This bright Miffy by Mies van Hout

This bright Miffy by Mies van Hout



What’s In A Name?

Split, Croatia
In Split, one lunch time we saw a drink advertised on the menu.
It’s name was Pipi—an unusual name to say the least, but what was it? We were not quite brave enough to try!
Well, later we saw a big add that explained the mystery. Just goes to show how easy it is to judge something based on our own language, doesn’t it?!

A rose---umm, a drink---by any other name

A rose—umm, a drink—by any other name

Welcome to Maastricht

The Euregio Meuse-Rhine is the three-country area where the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium meet, an area that acquired legal status in 1991. It’s home to about 4 million people and four different languages, and Maastricht is at the heart of this area. We were there recently for 5 days, our first visit to this lovely old city, and we loved it. I’ll cover Maastricht more fully later (probably when I get back home in July), but these two images serve as an introduction.
The famous Treaty of Maastricht was signed here in 1992. Representatives of 12 European countries signed it, paving the way for the introduction of the Euro as currency.
MaastrichtThe bronze statue is called the “Mestreechter Geis”, or “Spirit of Maastricht”, by artist Mari Andriessen. The artist has tried to capture the characteristics of the local Maastricht character: charm, playfulness, a healthy dose of humor, and a zest for life.
The statue is in a small square at the end of old Stokstraat, near the pedestrian Sint Servaasbrug and the entrance to the Old City.
I found two of these red stars in the city: one is just outside the entrance to the main train station, and the other is close to the River Maas (Meuse), behind the famous, and very old, Onze Lieve Vrouwebasiliek (Our Lovely Lady Basilica).

Cork Oak Tree in Israel

A great Israeli white wine

A great Israeli white wine

treeEver wondered where that cork stopper in your bottle of wine came from?
Well, it’s from a very special tree, a Cork Oak or Quercus suber. These trees produce most cork products in the world, including wine bottle stoppers. They mostly grow in countries along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, where there’s lots of sunshine, low rainfall and high humidity. The countries producing the most cork are Portugal, Algeria, Spain, Morocco, France, Italy and Tunisia.
But it also grows in Israel and we found a marked tree at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, just in front of the Weizmann house.

Such thick bark

Such thick bark

South Africa makes wonderful wines

South Africa makes wonderful wines

We wondered why the cork oak has a thicker layer of cork bark than other trees. It appears that the tree evolved to protect itself from the harsh conditions of the forests near the Mediterranean.
Cork has been used as bottle stoppers for more than 400 years. The thick outer layer of bark is used and it’s probably the best-suited material to use as a bottle stopper as it contains a natural waxy substance, called suberin. This makes cork impermeable to liquids and gas, and prevents the cork from rotting.
More and more wineries are now using screw caps instead of corks on their wine bottles, so next time you have a bottle with a cork take note and imagine a special tree.
An Israeli red wine

An Israeli red wine

The Weizmann house at the Institute

The Weizmann house at the Institute

Up To Masada By Cable Car

Looking up to Masada

Looking up to Masada

From the cable car we look down to the Visitors Center, and the Dead Sea in the distance

From the cable car we look down to the Visitors Center, and the Dead Sea in the distance

Cable Car to Masada, Israel’s Old fortress

While at a conference at En Bokek (Dead Sea hotels area) in Israel, we took a side trip to Masada, about a 20-minute drive north. All the international conference attendees were determined not to miss this sight, so we took a taxi-van for 7 people. Thank goodness we made the effort, as this really is a not-to-be-missed place, one that is on many people’s “bucket list”.

It’s huge, it’s impressive, it’s symbolic, and it’s quite difficult to access. The old Roman fort was approached by three, narrow, winding paths leading up to fortified gates. Today, visitors can still walk up two of those paths—the Ramp Trail on the west side, or the Snake Path on the east/Dead Sea side—or they can take the cable car, which leaves from the Visitors Center. The cable car, built in 1998, whisks you along, for almost a kilometer (0.55 mile), with an altitude increase of 950 feet (290 m). If you are young, or fit, or have a lot of time, it’s possible to walk up, but many people rely on the cable car (or aerial ropeway). We all went up in it, but three of our party (young and fit) walked down the Snake Path. They said it took about 45 minutes but that it was a bit slippery in places, especially at the top, and that it was very crowded, especially with large groups of high school students on a field trip. It must be much worse at peak season, as we were there in February.

From the cable car we look across the mountain desert

From the cable car we look across the mountain desert

The cable car arrives at the top

The cable car arrives at the top

At the top of the cable car lift, you arrive at the Snake Path Gate and ahead of you is a sloping plateau, roughly oval in shape and more than half a kilometer long. Much of what you see is ruins, but enough still exists to give a really good idea of what a magnificent place this must have been, a remote gem in the desert. Besides getting an idea of what was up here on the plateau and trying to visualize the story of the rebels, you get absolutely stunning views out to the Judean Hills and the Dead Sea.

The cliffs of the hills and mountains right next to the Dead Sea are spectacular in a brown-gold desert way. The bright blue of the Dead Sea on one side and the sculpted brown and cream crags, peaks and hills on the other, make for a dramatic place to have a palace and then to stage a major rebellion. Add to that, the day we were there, huge inky-black rain clouds over the north side of the Dead Sea, and the picture becomes almost dream-like with the haze in the air. The wind picked up and we even had some light rain—imagine that in the desert!

What an amazing view!

What an amazing view!

Exit to the cable car down through that doorway on the left

Exit to the cable car down through that doorway on the left

Besides this setting, the site is full of symbolism, which is why it attracts so many tourists annually. We are told it’s Israel’s #2 tourist sight (after the Western Wall), and it’s easy to see why.

People come to see where Jewish rebels stood up to the Roman Legion in a bid to free Israel from the Romans, and almost succeeded.

A Bit of Background:

King Herod the Great built this ancient fortress on top of an isolated natural rocky plateau with cliffs more than 800 feet high (like a huge mesa), on the eastern edge of the Judean Desert, overlooking the Dead Sea. Herod built grand palaces for himself up there between 37-31 BC, partly because he thought it was impregnable and partly so he could enjoy the health benefits of the Dead Sea (see my earlier post on the Dead Sea here: https://viviennemackie.wordpress.com/2015/03/24/dead-sea-salts-and-suchlike-the-dead-sea-is-dying/ ). In addition to the natural defensive cliffs, Herod added fortifications with a casemate wall and towers.

What is the Story of the Rebellion?

The 1st-century Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus wrote that in 66 AD a group of Jewish rebels, the Sicarii, overcame the Roman garrison at Masada (so-called because they carried small knives called sicaris). After the Jewish Temple was destroyed in Jerusalem in 70 AD, more of the Sicarii escaped Jerusalem and settled on Masada after massacring the Roman garrison. A Roman legion surrounded Masada in 73 AD and the Romans built an enormous siege system around Masada that we can still see clearly today. The Romans built a ramp up to the plateau and eventually breached the walls with a siege tower and battering ram in 73 or 74 AD. Rather than surrender or be killed by the Romans, the 960 rebel inhabitants on Masada supposedly set all the buildings on fire and committed mass suicide, their last stand against the Romans.

Viv M, Dead Sea in the distance

Viv M, Dead Sea in the distance

This dramatic event has become a symbol of the fight for freedom from oppression. Thousands of Israeli soldiers now swear their oath of allegiance here. However, there are discrepancies between archeological findings and the writings of Josephus, plus the remains of only 28 bodies have been found.

But, for us and for most other visitors, the truth or otherwise of this mass suicide doesn’t detract from the power of this place. The siege did take place, after the Jewish rebels captured Masada. The Romans did slowly wear down the rebels and breached the fortress and some people died. Whether 28 or 960 died, it’s still a story of bravery, tenacity, and strong belief—on both sides, both determined to win.

From this vantage point you can see the 3 levels of Herod's Palace

From this vantage point you can see the 3 levels of Herod’s Palace


Some people come on a day trip from Jerusalem, or from En Bokek, or you can stay in a guesthouse up there. You definitely need a minimum of 4-5 hours, so you can visit the Museum too, and more if you decide to either walk up or down the Snake Path rather than use the cable car. It’s very hot in summer, so take lots of water, and wear comfortable walking shoes.

Entrance into Masada (including the museum at the bottom), plus return cable car was 96 NIS per person (roughly $24).

We are very glad we went—it would have been a great pity to be so close and to miss it. And I, for one, am very grateful that there’s a cable car to whisk us up to the top of Masada painlessly!

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