Jewels of the east

30th April 2004 at 01:00
Our new neighbours are abundant in cultural and historical sights, where you could refresh your knowledge or take a school trip. Vera Rich is your guide

Poland is not joining Europe. Poland has been part of Europe from the beginning," declared Neil Acherson at the MB Grabowski Memorial Lecture 2004 at University College, London. The same, however, may be said of all 10 incoming EUnations. Some, like Poland and Lithuania, were among the major states of medieval Europe. Others have contributed to the common European vocabulary ("robot" from Czech, "coach", via French, from the Hungarian kosci). The Jagellonian University of Cracow, the Charles University of Prague, and Estonia's Tallinn (formerly Dorpat) University have contributed to European scholarship for centuries.

And all across Central Europe there are the former regional capitals of the Habsburg empire - Cracow, Prague, Bratislava, Ljubljana - and Budapest, the second capital of the "dual monarchy" of Austria-Hungary.

To historians of the future, the 45 or 50 years of communist rule will seem a brief aberration. But most British teachers today, who grew up and received at least part of their education before 1989, still tend to perceive Europe, or at least "visitable" Europe, as ending at the former Iron Curtain.

The entry of eight ex-Communist states into the EU should, one hopes, change this perspective. The travel agents and tour operators are well prepared, but their focus is, naturally, directed at the average holidaymaker in search of sun, sea or skiing. Teachers - whether to stretch their own knowledge or plan school trips - may have different priorities, centred on the region's rich history.

Poland, by far the largest of the "new 10" in terms of population and area, is particularly rewarding for cultural tourists. Warsaw, its capital, was largely destroyed during World War Two, but the Old Town and the adjacent Royal Castle have been lovingly restored, virtually stone by stone, and feature in all tourist guides. While there, you could visit the childhood home of Marie Curie (Maria Sklodowska), now a museum. Another home-turned-museum is Chopin's birthplace, an easy excursion from Warsaw, where throughout the summer there are recitals of his music.

The previous capital, Cracow, is even richer in history. "Musts" are the Wawel castle, burial place of kings and heroes; the Jagellonian university (whose alumni include Copernicus); and the Mariacki church, from the tower of which, in 1241, a trumpeter sounded the alarm as the Tatar horde approached - until he was shot down. His unfinished call, the Hejnal, is still sounded from the tower every day.

Excursion sites in the Cracow area include the Wieliczka salt mine, where statues have been carved into the rock to represent scenes from Polish folklore and history; and, very different, Oswiecim (better known under its German name, Auschwitz).

Further afield, but worth the effort, is the Bialowieza forest, straddling the eastern frontier. It is the last remnant of the primeval wood that stretched from the North Sea to the Urals and is home to the European wild bison. And, again if you have the time, in central Poland is Gniezno. The ancient capital has a cathedral with unique bronze doors. Another fascinating site is Biskupin, known as the "Pompeii of northern Europe", with its prehistoric lake village preserved in the peat. It hosts Europe's largest archeological festival each September.

Heading east of Poland is Lithuania. It is small now, but its name preserves the huge medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Ruthenia and Samogitia, which stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Its coast has, for millennia, been Europe's prime source of amber, and such souvenirs are widely available.

The capital, Vilnius, is enshrined in the history and culture not only of the Lithuanians but also of Poles, Belarusians and Jews (it is known as the "Jerusalem of the North"). Visit the Gate of Dawn, built in 1522 - its "pursuing knights" inspired one of the best-known poems in Belarusian (The Pahonia by Maxim Bahdanovich) and reproductions of its Madonna can be found all over Poland. Visit, too, the Tower of Gediminas (named for a medieval grand duke) and the Church of St Anne, a Gothic jewel that Napoleon reportedly wished he could "put in his pocket and take back to France".

East, again, to Latvia, and its capital Riga, whose Art Nouveau architecture somehow survived the wars and occupations of the 20th century.

In Town Hall Square, note the statues of Mercury and Neptune, symbolising the city's long history in trading and shipping the products of the hinterlandI and remember that Riga pine provided the masts for Nelson's navy and its flax made their sails.

Furthest and smallest of the Baltic states is Estonia. The capital, Tallinn, is just across the narrow gulf from Helsinki, Finland (there are plans for a tunnel). Proximity to Russia has left its mark: Peter the Great built the splendid 18th century Kadriorg Palace in Tallinn; and four and a half decades of occupation by the USSR (and briefly before that by Nazi Germany) are commemorated in the Museum of the Occupation and the KGB museum in Vilnius. Visit also Tartu, with its university (founded in 1632), whose 350th anniversary celebrations in 1982 became a focus of pro-independence feeling.

The Czech Republic (which, with Slovakia, made up what in 1938 British prime minister Neville Chamberlain notoriously called "a far off country of which we know nothing") has, under various guises and rulers, played a major role in European history and culture.

Scholarly "musts" in Prague include the Golden Lane (Zlata Ulicka), the alchemic capital of medieval Europe, Kafka's house and, of course, the Charles University. Wenceslas Square, in the city centre, has a statue of the Duke who, transmuted into a King, features in the well-known carol.

In the south-west of the country stands Cesky Krumlov, an outstanding example of a medieval town and gothic castle almost completely surrounded by the bow of the Vltava river.

The Czech "divorce" from Slovakia was famously "velvet" and many tours still link the two countries. The communist stress on industrialisation focused on the Czech territories, so Slovakia remains relatively rural and untouched. Bardejov, in the eastern part of the country, survives as a fine example of a fortified medieval trading town. Its New Town Hall dates from the 15th century and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Other attractions are the spectacular Tatra mountains and the Danube, which runs through the capital Bratislava; should you be going on to Hungary, it provides one of the most pleasant means of getting there.

Hungary, the "second capital" of the Habsburg dual monarchy, lives up to its history with an abundance of fine civic buildings. These include Parliament in Pest and, on Castle Hill in Buda, the 800-year-old Matthias church (Matyas Templom).

Budapest as a single entity was made possible by Scottish engineer Adam Clark. He is commemorated (in Hungarian style) in Clark Adam Ter, a small square on the Buda side of the Chain Bridge with which he linked the two cities.

The Danube was once the boundary of the Roman Empire. See the underpass at Florian Ter, where a development in the 1890s turned up Roman remains and was redesigned to preserve and incorporate them. Sample one of the thermal baths for which Budapest is famous.

A short train ride upstream from Budapest is Esztergom, the former capital, with a grandiose 1,000-year-old cathedral. Further afield, but still possible as a day trip from Budapest, is Lake Balaton, the largest freshwater lake in Europe (77km long and varying in width between 4km and 14km). You could also visit Debrecen, known as the "Calvinist Rome": even under Communism it could boast 35 "working" Calvinist churches, though the university church was converted into a concert hall. Not far away are the vineyards and cellars of Tokaj (France's Louis XIV called it "the king of wines and the wine of kings"). Any visit would be "strictly for educational purposes", of course.

Slovenia is the smallest of the ex-Habsburg accession states. Its links to Austria are apparent in the architecture of its capital, Ljubljana. For the visitor, its main attractions are those of wildlife (its fauna include bears and wild boar) and landscape, including that of karst-type - dry valleys, subterranean rivers and undergrounds - first investigated in the 18th century by Slovene scholars, who thereby gave to the international geological vocabulary such terms as "polje" (big, dry valley) and "dolina" (smaller valley).

The two island states, Malta and Cyprus, although never part of the Communist bloc, nevertheless may expect a rise in visitors as a result of accession. Cyprus can boast archaeological remains dating back to the Mycenean period (14th century BC), as well as classical Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Crusader remains. One of the most impressive ancient Greek and Roman sites is at Kourion, west of Limassol, with its Christian basilica and a nearby Crusaders' tower. The Troodos mountains boast nine frescoed Byzantine churches on UNESCO's World Heritage list, and Paphos is home to the Tomb of Kings, a 3rd century BCunderground necropolis.

Malta's medieval palaces of the Knights of St John are magnificent and may be termed almost modern in comparison with its other remains. An earlier generation of archaeologists attributed sites such as the megalithic temple at Hagar Qim (circa 3200-2500BC) to the Phoenicians. They were wrong. These remains date from Neolithic times and are among the oldest known human structures in the world.

Bon voyage!

Cyprus Republic www.czechtourism.comEstonia Hungary Latvia Lithuania Malta www.visitmalta.comPoland Slovakia www.slovakia.orgtourism Slovenia

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