Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Visiting Middle-Europe, May-June, 2006.

1. Vienna
3.Croatia: a) Zagreb, b) Split, c) Dubrovnik.
4, Venice.

Introduction: THE ICJW FAMILY.

One of the fabulous advantages of belonging to an international group such as the International Council of Jewish Women is that we make friends and have contacts with friendly people all over the world. Therefore when we take holidays abroad, away from Australia and also within our own countries, we can always rely on someone to welcome us and show us around their city, particularly around their Jewish community. This is naturally reciprocated whenever we have visitors to our country as well.

After leaving Montevideo, Uruguay, we made a short stopover in Madrid but we did not want to bother anyone there. We took a short tour to Toledo, which we had visited some 40 years earlier and remembered the Synagogue/Mosque/Church being very dirty and neglected. We were happy to see it now painted and clean and maintained as a historic site and museum. Toledo has been reconstructed and it is altogether worth a visit.

ICJW's Gerda Frey had recommended the hotel Stefanie in the Jewish district for an intended reunion with some of my mothers' 'landsmanshaft' from Bukowina (ex-Austro-Hungarian Empire district of Romania,- now Ukraine). The Czernowitz-list members however chose to meet in Czernowitz instead, before our arrival in Europe, so we couldn't join them. We hoped to meet some of them however on their way back from Czernowitz and we were very happy to meet up with Dr. Cornel Fleming (London) who was able to fill me in on the events in Czernowitz at the reunion, which was attended by some 70 people from around the world.


I have fond memories of old Vienna through having been brought up on the "tales of Vienna...from my Bukoviner (Austro/ Romania) experiences. We had visited the city and Austria a couple of times before, so we know it quite well and it does have an air of cultured elegance and "gemutlichkeit" (genteel leisure) about it.

It was a pleasure as always to meet and be hosted by Gerda Frey, ICJW's NGO at the UN Commission on the Status of Women (formerly in Vienna, but in NY) and her husband, over coffee and cake. Gerda had recommended the Hotel Stefanie where we were supposed to have a reunion of former Bukoviners on the Czernowitz e-mail list.

Since they decided to go to Czernowitz instead, without us, we did not have a general reunion, but we did have the pleasure of meeting Dr. Cornel Fleming on his way back from the reunion and who was able to fill us in on the happenings there. Cornel has an Australian connection, having finished his medical studies in Sydney, before flying off to London where he now lives with his family. Another list member whom I met in Vienna was Claire Bourne of Brisbane, Australia. Claire has an interesting family history with connections to Bukovina through her father and to Vienna through her mother, but she herself was born and grew up in New Zealand. Claire visits Vienna frequently and I was very pleased to meet with her and we spent a pleasant few hours together.

"Insight" bus tour of Central Europe and the Dalmatian Coast.

We met our guide and our 32 fellow travellers in Vienna on Saturday evening and interestingly, we were about 40% Aussies, a sprinkling of New Zealanders, 5 South Africans, a couple of Singaporeans, one English, and a couple of Americans. Altogether it made for an interesting group, as most of us had quite a lot in common travel-wise!

Early Sunday morning, after 5 days in Vienna we were off to Budapest, our first 2-night stop at the Hilton Hotel W. It was nice to revisit Budapest after 15 years and to see it much more prosperous than when we first saw it. This time we were able to visit the refurbished, beautiful main Synagogue in Dohany Street, the second largest in the world with a total capacity of 6000 people, (far too large to be used except on special occasions),- the neighbouring Jewish Museum with some beautiful old artefacts and a Holocaust Section; the Holocaust cemetery outside where thousands of bodies were buried in a mass grave when the Russians liberated Budapest and found the bodies piled-up in front of the Synagogue;- the Raoul Wallenberg Memorial and the 'Tree of Life" (donated by Tony Curtis). We lunched at the Café Spinoza in the Jewish Quarter nearby, while the rest of the tour group, inc. some non-J. tourists, continued on a guided Jewish Heritage walking tour of Budapest,- as advertised in all the main hotels. (Bookings required.)

One evening we cruised down the Danube listening to Operettas and observing the beautifully illuminated old buildings along its banks. The next morning we were off to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, travelling along lake Ballaton,- in the rain!

In Zagreb we were again fortunate to meet up with a friend, Dr. Helen Babic, whom we met in Montevideo.
We went to the Jewish Community Centre and Synagogue with her, where I was pleased to meet up again with Melita Svob of ICJW. They gave us an insight into the workings of the small local community which is struggling to maintain its unity. The anti-Semitism is still there, but the only actual attack came during the civil war when the former Yugoslavia split up. Nevertheless, the usual strict security is in place and they run a small mixed kindergarten where even the President's grandson attends (probably because of its strong security!).
Zagreb is a typical European city, with a hill in the centre and main Church /Cathedral atop of it. We visited an art & crafts museum and lo and behold,- in the hall is their main attraction,- the Davis Cup,- Croatia being the current holder of the Cup.

Split, on the Adriatic coast, was our next destination with an overnight stop. Here we again met up with a friend from Montevideo, Ana Lebl, the leader of her tiny Jewish community. Split has a very interesting centre, with a large Roman stone "palace", so well built that successive civilizations just built a city over, through its grounds and around it and people still live inside its narrow, twisting streets. There are even hotels there, an old Church and the old ghetto streets where the old Synagogue and the community's couple of meeting rooms are situated. We were sad not to spend another evening with Ana, as we originally thought, as being Friday, she had prepared a Kabalat Shabbat at which we were going to be their special guests.

Driving down along the Adriatic coast next day was very spectacular scenically. There are many old fortresses and small fishing villages, now turned into holiday resorts, where the Europeans from near and far come to spend their summer holidays. Dubrovnik was our next stop where we spent the next 3 nights. The 5-star Hotel Excelsior, right on the foreshore with a view over the old city walls, lit up at night and across to the islands and cruise liners almost on our doorstep, was a surprise change in our itinerary. We could walk everywhere from there and the local guide gave us an insight into the 4-months' siege of he city by the Serbs during their recent civil war. They were being shot at from the sea and from the hills surrounding them, roofs were set on fire and people were being killed, but they resisted and have now repaired the damage and throngs of tourists descend on the city by road and from a stream of cruise liners. Dubrovnik once had a Ghetto, then a thriving Jewish community of 10,000 who were decimated in the Holocaust. Most of the 2000 or so survivors then emigrated to Israel and the tiny old Synagogue in the "Jewish Street", with its attached Museum does not have even a Mynian, but it is open to visitors. Intermarriage is rife in all these communities, but a modicum of tradition has been reawakened through the work of Zionist Emissaries and organizations such as the International Council of Jewish Women's European Regional Committee.

I could not help thinking of Prague, where the Nazis preserved the old Synagogues as an example of an "extinct civilization". In a way,- they succeeded in these communities,- the Jewish communities are but a shadow of their former self and all that remains are the tourist sites of skeleton communities! Israel is our revenge on Hitler and his allies!

A side tour to MONTENEGRO was another scenic wonder in a very poor backwater of the former Yugoslavia.
After a beautiful, though harrowing drive up a narrow, winding road across the mountains, we reached their capital city and visited the main tourist attraction, the Royal Palace. The King of Montenegro was known apparently as the father-in-law of European Royalty,- having married off 5 of his 9 daughters to Royals from England to Russia, right across Europe! The modest Palace had quite a few beautiful items which were gifts from his various in-laws!

Our tour after Dubrovnik saw us retracing our route along the coast, then to Slovenia. This was by far our favourite former Yugoslav republic which we visited. Lush and green, prosperous-looking, Austrian-type countryside farms and cottages, up to the famous Plitvice Lakes and Lubljiana, the Capital. Unfortunately we experienced drenching rain while walking along the beautiful national park of the lake system, with its numerous waterfalls and lush vegetation. Lubljiana, a very small city, nevertheless had some beautiful modern shops stocking the best range of consumer goods which we had seen so far. The first of the Republics to be included in the E U Common Market , one could see that it must have enjoyed a far higher standard of living than the others, even in the days of Yugoslavia.

The bus tor was heading back to Vienna, with an optional side-tour to LAKE BLED for half a day. This is where we departed from the group and remained over the weekend to recuperate from the strain of bus touring. It is a beautiful part of Europe, bordered by the Austrian Alps, with a rich history and a favourite resort, winter and summer, of the rich and famous,- in the old days and still today!
There are many hotels, beautiful parks and gardens right around the lake with its famous island and church in the middle. The lake is used for ice-skating in winter and rowing regattas in summer,- also the home of a couple of gold-medallists at the Sydney Olympics,-proudly promoted on billboards! We walked around it as well as climbing up to the castle on the hill for a magnificent view of the surrounding mountains. Bled boasts 2 golf courses as well, just out of town which we visited on our way when we left. Our two bus companions, Anne and Dawn of Sydney also remained in Bled and we all teamed up for dinner one night, which was very pleasant
Our itinerary allowed 2 days to reach our next destination, Venice, in Italy, so we hired a car, drove to the huge and beautiful Postojna Caves and then back to the coast, to the Slovenian Adriatic towns of Porta Rosza and Piran. This turned out to be a hugely popular resort area, full of big tourist developments, fabulous hotels, and a thriving, lively and very popular western-style coastal tourist strip which we had not expected.

Next day we were driven by a local driver in our rental car across the border to VENICE in Italy where we had booked on the internet a "pensione" on the mainland, Villa Gardenia. Thus we got door-to-door transfer with all our luggage which was a great relief! Venice island is not the easiest to access if you have too much luggage,- and by then we had plenty! Interestingly, many of the other guests during our week-long stay there were also Australians who were touring by car and picked this establishment for its easy accessibility and parking facilities. The bus across the road took us in 3 stops across the big bridge to the central Piazza Roma, on Venice island, from where the "vaporettos" fanned out wherever we wanted to go. We were able to explore Venice thoroughly, on foot as well, looking at the museums and art galleries, as well as the outlying Lido, Murano (glass) and Burano (lace) islands.

One day we took the train to Montegrotto and Abano to see the spa areas where many of our friends seem to go for their European holidays. We cannot see why one would go there, unless the treatments are so special. After the beautiful coastal and mountain resorts which we had visited, Abano seemed hot, flat and very boring,- very dull,- just for the elderly and infirm, although the hotels seemed big and luxurious.

From Venice we boarded the cruise liner, "Millenium".

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