Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
On a promontory in Oslofjord, a short ferry ride away from Oslo’s city hall, two parallel edifices encase two famous boats and commemorate their respective creators.
On one side is the Fram, the world’s first polar exploration ship, custom-ordered by Fridtjof Nansen specifically to withstand the pressure of ice that would crush any other ship at the time. On the other is the Kon-Tiki, the balsa raft that Thor Heyerdahl built in 1947 according to traditional Native American methods for him to attempt to sail from Peru to Polynesia.
The contrast as well as the parallels between the two men are presumably why the Norwegians have chosen to commemorate them side by side.
I didn’t plan to go to the Aeolian Islands. Then again, I didn’t plan to go to Sicily either. Then again, I’d more or less stopped making plans.
From Malta, I had made a last minute decision to head to Catania, Sicily’s second city on that island’s east coast. It turned out that Sabrina, a German friend I’d made over two years ago when I was traveling in Turkey, was also visiting Sicily and nearby. We met up, along with her friend Susanne, and went up Mt. Etna.
“Where are you going after this?” I asked.
“Lipari,” Sabrina said, the administrative center of the Aeolian Islands.
Anyone who has watched season one of Netflix’s “The Crown” surely knows that Queen Elizabeth II, back when she was Princess Elizabeth, lived for a while in Malta. At the time, Malta was still a British possession and an important base for the Royal Navy, and Elizabeth accompanied Prince Philip here during his naval service.
But most of us are likely unaware, not before visiting, of the other historical personages connected to this tiny island country.
First up, St. Paul. In 60 A.D., Paul set sail from Crete to Rome to face trial. A storm blew the ship off course. The Acts of the Apostles (Acts 27:27—28:5) tells the story:
Not all of Chisinau (pronounced key-she-now), the capital of Moldova, screams former Soviet provincial city. But its central bus station surely does.
It’s not properly a station, and at the same time it doubles as a market. Dozens of minivans (marshrutky, to use the Russian word in the plural form) are parked along several intersecting streets. Signs are displayed behind the windshields stating the destinations in the Latin alphabet of Romanian or the Cyrillic alphabet of Russian, or both.
Due to its complicated history, Moldova, one of the least visited countries in Europe (and once alleged to be the least happy), is bilingual. The principality of Moldavia was historically in the Romanian orbit, and the eastern section of modern Romania is still called Moldavia. But the Russian empire annexed eastern Moldavia in the early 19th century after the Russo-Turkish War and renamed it Bessarabia. After the 1917 revolution in Russia, Bessarabia or Moldova reunited with Romania, only to be ceded back to the Soviet Union in 1940 in the wake of rapprochement between the USSR and Nazi Germany. So even now, after independence in light of the collapse of the USSR, Moldovans almost all speak both Russian and Romanian fluently.
The woman at the tourist information office in Larnaca was not encouraging.
I had asked her about crossing the “green line” or UN buffer zone in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus. She was not amused. “If you go across,” she said, “you go at your own risk.”
“As my own risk?” I was a little taken aback. “There’s not any actual risk, is there?”
“It’s an illegal government up there,” she said sternly. “It’s occupied territory. There are no embassies, no consulates. If you have any problems, no one can help you.”
One thing my late professor of art and architecture Vincent Scully taught me is this: Just as music is the silence between the notes, so architecture is the dialogue among the buildings and the landscape.
Professor Scully’s deeper scholarship is beyond my ability to engage with intelligently. But being in Budapest makes me mindful of a more obvious level of dialogue among buildings and monuments, the representation of a nation’s history.
Much of Hungary’s difficult modern history is told along a 700-meter stretch of Budapest from Szabadsag ter (Liberty Square) to the parliament building. At the center of the semi-circular northern portion of Liberty Square stands a obelisk-like monument with a Cyrillic inscription dedicated to “Soviet heroes” who liberated Hungary from Nazi occupation. It is a testament to Hungarians’ historical memory that they chose not to demolish this monument after the Cold War.
Being in Budapest again right now allows me to indulge in one of my pet obsessions: John Hunyadi, or Hunyadi Janos in Hungarian, or Ioan de Hunedoara in Romanian.
His is not a name widely remembered today outside of Hungary and Romania. And yet his role in history was such that Europe, and Western civilization as a whole, would likely look very different today had he never lived or taken a different path.
Both Hungarians and Romanians claim him as one of their own. John’s father Voyk was born in Wallachia, today’s southern Romania, perhaps of Wallachian aristocracy. King Sigismund of Hungary granted him a demesne in Hunyad in Transylvania. In his lifetime, John, though a member of the Hungarian nobility, was often referred to as a “Vlach” or Wallachian or Romanian.
Jana, my guide on the walking tour of Bratislava’s old town, had a way of movement that reminded me of a great blue heron. She also reminded me that right around here was once the western extremity of the Mongol Empire.
We were standing at the foot of the hill atop of which stood Bratislava’s white-washed castle and its four towers. Jana pointed at it. “This castle withstood the Mongols, the Ottomans, and Napoleon’s army. But in 1811, a group of Italian soldiers garrisoned there decided to cook pasta. They started a fire, the fire got out of control, and the castle burned down. We didn’t start reconstructing it until 1953. So, in Slovakia, we like to joke — it’s kind of sad — that our castle withstood the Mongols and the Turks and Napoleon but couldn’t handle an Italian dinner.”
Yes, of course. Bratislava is only an hour’s drive from Vienna. And Prince Batu’s siege of Vienna marked the high-water mark of the Mongol Empire’s western expansion.
Thor (the Norse god, not the Marvel character) is remarkably similar to its Chinese counterpart, Leigong, so much so that I intuit a long-lost cultural connection, even though I am unaware of any scholarship establishing it. If the distance between Scandinavia and the Far East makes you skeptical of this possibility, I’ll note that the Hellenistic inspiration for Asian Buddhist sculptural art is well-established.
Leigong, literally “Lord of Thunder,” is an important figure in the Taoist pantheon. He is, like Thor, depicted as a strong warrior type who wields a magic hammer with which he can send thunderbolts. He is a positive but blunt character, broadly on the side of right but sometimes blunders in rushing to judgment. Much as Thor stands opposed to Loki, Leigong is opposed to characters of mischief such as the Monkey King (who, incidentally, has been shown to be derived from the Hindu monkey god Hanuman).
In the past three years I have visited three cities in three very different parts of the world that somehow nonetheless call each other to mind: Dubrovnik, Croatia; Khiva, Uzbekistan; and Pingyao, China. Each is a historic city with medieval walls that fortunately have been preserved. None is a grand imperial capital like Istanbul or Beijing or Rome, with all the attendant wars and conflagrations and changes in political power that inevitably paint over those cities again and again as palimpsests.
Below, then, is a point-by-point comparison of three wondrous places that you should visit when you get a chance.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."