Sunday, September 30, 2018

V 8 N. 61 A 2018 Track and Travel on the Eastern Front by Paul O'Shea



Track and Travel On The Eastern Front  


By Paul O’Shea


Track and Field News, the trade journal for those of us who pay obsessive attention to
athletes who run, jump and throw, offered an attractive travel package this past summer.

I took advantage of their plan: Attend three prestigious track meets in three countries.
Wrap them with tourist-type visits to six cities (Brussels, Zagreb, Ostrava, Budapest,
Krakow, Warsaw) in five European countries (Belgium, Croatia, Hungary, Czech
Republic, Poland). Negotiate five separate currencies: kuna, koruna, florint and zloty,
in addition to the Euro. See first hand what the Nazis did in the most notorious of
concentration camps.


Ours was a well-traveled group of retirees, those still working, and other track and travel
enthusiasts.  The award for the most distant visitors went to a six-person group from
South Africa. Another contender came from Calgary.  Many were California and
Oregon residents. One tour member was retired from the National Security Agency, a
second was a homebuilder, a third a retired physician.


We had a city tour in each of the cities.  Most of our cultural and historical investigation
was done on foot, often on surfaces that were troublesome  bricks or cobblestones.
In Krakow, for example, we walked five miles, up and down to see the cathedral and
palace.  


Red-Bulled daily in the States by political developments, keeping up with the news
overseas was a challenge.  CNN was available each day but only covered a few
international stories. The New York Times has a truncated international edition, running
op-ed columns primarily, and I was only able to get half-dozen issues over the eighteen
days.  No PBS NewsHour.


At the onset of my travels, the overnight flight from Dulles to Frankfurt was uneventful.
Then, two hours later another flight to Brussels, the site of our hotel and first track meet.
But I arrived too early (about seven a.m.) and couldn’t get into my room to get needed
sleep until two in the afternoon.  


Hotel Pullman was adjacent to the Brussels train station, so I waited inside, watching the
travelers and suitcases march by.  My room on the seventh floor gave me a good view of
some 22 or so railroad tracks sprawled below. The station was the final stop for sleek,
long distance trains and shoebox-looking commuters.  It wasn’t unusual to see as many
as five or six trains coming in to or out of the station, slithering past each other.


Some sixty of us convened in Brussels, with one of the year’s premier events, a Diamond
League track meet, kicking off the schedule.  A Diamond League event ranks just below
the World Championships and the Olympic Games, with many world-class athletes
performing in a one-day recital.
The Brussels meet concluded a fourteen-city competition that brings together the sport’s
elite.  This promise proved to be reality when we witnessed the fourth fastest men’s five
thousand meters ever run, by a nineteen-year-old Ethiopian.  From my view it was the
outstanding performance in the three meets we attended.


Zagreb
After Brussels we flew to Croatia’s capital and largest city, Zagreb, the only air travel on
the trip.  The next morning we toured the city and had the rest of the day free. On the
following day I elected to go to the oldest and largest national park in Croatia, Plitvice
Lakes, about two hours’ drive. The property has sixteen large and small lakes, and a
stunning 78-meter  waterfall. To get to them we had to walk down and up about two
miles of slippery stones and wooden planking. The only rain we saw in the two weeks
fell that day just as we were ending the park tour.



That evening we went to the Zagreb IWC meet at the snug Sports Park Mladost stadium,
and watched Nigel Amos of Botswana
win the 800 and Kenya’s Elijah Manangoi take
the 1500.
Budapest


We motored a little over two hundred miles to our next destination, the beautiful city of
Budapest, split in two by the Danube River. Almost every evening we were on our own
for  dinner, so we sampled plenty of Eastern European cuisine, often meat and potatoes.
.
Gundel is reputed to be the city’s finest restaurant, and it does have some charm with its
Olde European décor, six-piece orchestra and  offerings of Hungarian Goulash Soup and
Breaded Quail. After a rhubarb and strawberry cold soup starter, I had venison.



At Gundel, I was joined by two other tour compatriots, and remarked how much it
resembled Luchow’s, the one-hundred-year-old restaurant with similar ambience, menu
and string orchestra I had come to know while working in New York City in the Sixties.
Sitting at the next table to us at Gundel were nearby diners who heard me suggest the
comparison, knew Luchow’s, and we talked about its demise in the 1980s.


Then on to Ostrava, a three hundred mile bus ride through the agricultural and light
industrial countryside.


Ostrava is the Czech Republic’s third largest city. There we saw the Continental Cup
track meet, an unusual competition with scoring that pitted continents, not countries
against each other.  The four competing continents were: The Americas (joining both
North and South), Europe, Africa, and Asia-Pacific. Internationally there is an unequal
distribution of track talent, so the principal competitors proved to be the Americas and
Europe, with the Americas winning over Europe, 262 to 233.


I have been to hundreds of track meets over the years, but the Continental Cup in
Ostrava provided a new experience: a glider passed over City Stadium a half-dozen
times. After conducting due diligence, with javelins jousting for air space, the pilot
decided it was not a desirable landing field.


Ostrava also provided one of the trip’s most unusual sites, Dolni Vitkovice.  After 170
years of continuous production, the manufacturing of pig iron was discontinued. The
rusty remains of the iron and coal industry were left as a site to be visited as huge,
abandoned industrial monuments.  It was the first in the Czech Republic to receive a
European cultural heritage designation.


Krakow


Our penultimate tour leg was about 150 miles away in Krakow, the second largest city in
Poland. Situated on the Vistula River, it is one of Europe’s loveliest. The hotel in
Krakow proved a lodging challenge when I read the room number on the room key jacket
as 326 when it was actually 324.  Three trips to the check-in counter finally solved the
puzzle and I didn’t have to sleep in the halls.
As soon as the trip itinerary was announced last year, tour members suggested going to
Auschwitz, about thirty miles from our stay in Krakow.  And so we did. I knew that it
was one of the most notorious of the concentration camps, with an unimaginable
1.1 million executed, about 90 per cent Jews.


After passing under its extraordinarily ironic signage, Arbeit macht frei  (Work Sets You
Free), we walked through the grounds and inside buildings that housed the prisoners
waiting to die of starvation, bullets or gas.  We saw the huge accumulation of hair, shorn
from women before entering the gas chamber. There were collections of empty hydrogen
cyanide Zyklon B canisters used to asphyxiate the prisoners, further evidence of the
enormity of the catastrophe.


Just a few hundred meters away were small towns and villages, seemingly unaware of the
horrors committed less than seventy years ago.


But it wasn’t until I saw the photos of hundreds who were doomed, captured for the rest
of time, that the genocide became real.  On each wall of a long hallway were individual
photos of prisoners. The photographer, himself a prisoner, took 70,000 photos of men and
women, all wearing triangular badges which identified them as political prisoners,
common criminals, gypsies, Jews, homosexuals. William Brasse’s autobiography was in
the gift shop.
Warsaw


Finally, to Warsaw, which I thought the most interesting of the six cities.  We toured the
Warsaw Ghetto, famed for its uprising, commemorated by a magnificent series of
monuments.
Warsaw Ghetto Today
We stayed at the Hotel Bristol, left undamaged because the Nazis occupied
it during the Second World War.
Hotel Bristol
 Chopin is revered here, and you can sit on a bench,

waiting for transportation, punch a button and hear his Polonaise.


Going home, on the first of two legs, I flew from Warsaw to Frankfurt with one of the
tour members, Michael Griffin.  When we disembarked from the plane in that city, a
pleasant surprise. Because we were flying Lufthansa and business class, evidently
Porsche has an arrangement with the airline, because idling next to the plane and awaiting
our arrival was a gleaming new Porsche Panamera (the four-door sedan),
deputized to

take the two of us about ten minutes away to our next gates. I resisted going to the Duty
Free and taking a Panamera home. Those overheads are always so crowded.

September, 2018

 I really enjoyed this piece because it coupled T&F with travel.  Most intriguing was their trip to Auschwitz, surely a grim experience at the world's worst death camp.  I visited Dachau near Munich which was set up for executions but not so much used for those purposes, mainly work and detention.  The pictures of those cities are spectacular but they are also places where most Americans, including me, have never seen.  The world is indeed a big and beautiful place.       Bill Schnier

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