German Encyclopedia Meyers Grosses Taschenlexikon (Meyers Big Pocket Encyclopedia), 1999, defines Central Europe as the central part of the European Continent with no exact borders in the eastern and western sides.
Mostly used to denominate the territory between the 350-kilometer long Schelde River in northern France, western Belgium and southwestern Netherlands to Vistula River in Poland, bordering on Austria’s Danube River and the Moravian Gate in Czech Republic – countries making up the region are Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and Switzerland. In a broader sense, it also includes Romania, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.
Upon the invitation of Czech Tourism Authority for Korea and the Philippines director Michal Prochazka, The Manila Times visited Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic particularly to get familiarized with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) World Heritage sites of said countries.
Sharing similarities with the Philippines is Poland – where the Catholics that make up at least 80 percent of the population considers the latter synonymous to the late well-loved Pope John Paul 2nd.
These two countries’ shared history and excellent food, especially that of N 31 Restaurant and Bar, would make Poland a home away from home for Filipino tourists.
Poland has a deep sense and understanding of its dark past wherein six million people—half of them Jews—died of extermination during the Holocaust.
To restore capital Warsaw’s glory before it got bombed by the Nazi regime, the Polish government restored the pre-Nazi era paintings of Warsaw by Bernardo Bellotto—an Italian painter from Italy who took his talents in other parts of Europe due to stiff competition in his home country and was eventually commissioned by Poland’s former King Stanislaus Augustus as court painter.
Bellotto’s paintings are displayed in the Canaletto Room of Warsaw’s Royal Castle.
As a result, everything in the Historic Centre of Warsaw has been significantly restored to its original form, making it a Unesco World Heritage Site due to impressive restoration efforts – may it be the old town market, the town houses where the Polish royals used and the interiors of the Royal Castle, where a portion of it also served as a former parliament building.
While Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Sciences was ordered built by the Russians as supposed gift to Poland, the Polish people did not destroy the edifice as its construction was funded by people’s taxes. Now, the eighth tallest building in the European Union is occupied by cinemas, offices, bookshops, museums, universities, and auditorium, among others.
City frozen in time
If Warsaw was rebuilt from the ashes of World War 2, Krakow—somehow spared by Hitler from the bombings since it served as the second capital of the Nazi regime where the Nazis and their families also lived—maintained its structures – a city frozen in time.
The Royal Cathedral of Sts. Stanislaus and Wenceslaus, the venue for crowning Poland’s kings dating back to 11th century also was where then newly-ordained priest Karol Wojtyla celebrated his first mass in the Royal Cathedral’s St. Leonard’s Crypt in November 1946. The future Pope was also installed as archbishop in March 1964 and as Cardinal in July 1967 in the same locus.
Krakow’s treasures include The Salt Mines, which has been in existence since the 1600s and produces one million tons of salt every year. It also serves as a museum of Poland’s history, with structures inside made of rock salt. Most impressive of all is that of Polish astronomer Nicolas Copernicus, Poland’s King Kashmir, and the St. Kinga’s Chapel which houses the rock salt sculptures of Pope John Paul 2nd, the birth of Christ, the Last Supper, grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, Jesus Preaching at the Temple, among others.
Above all these preservations that the Polish people made, the most striking of all is the institution of a policy that no one will be persecuted based on religion or race.
People are welcome to practice their faith in Poland—whether they are Muslim, Catholic, Jew or any other religion. To some it up, a former journalist and one of the tour guides put it succinctly, “we all come from the same jar.”
Hungary and Slovakia may not be as popular as France with its capital Paris or Italy with the eternal city Rome as its main attraction.
But Budapest, Hungary’s capital, is a Unesco World Heritage Site. Standing magnificently is the Catholic Matthias Church in Budapest, built in the 11th century and rebuilt in the 15th century. Named after Hungary’s King Matthias who led Hungary’s resistance of the Ottoman Empire invasion, the gothic-styled, powder white church also sports a colorful roof made of tiles, resembling a glossy puzzle.
Around the vicinity of the Church is the sculpture of another Hungary’s former king, St. Stephen—Hungary’s first king and the one responsible for spreading Christianity and succeeded in defending Hungary from the Roman invasion. Interesting as well is the Fisherman’s Bastion, where it offers the best view of Hungary’s capital of Budapest—with Buda (hill) and Pest (flat).
For “Hunger Games” fans, the Hero’s Square in Budapest reminds one of the Capitol Arena where the contestants and victors were paraded. It was also in the Hero’s square where the music video of the legendary singer Michael Jackson, “History,” was filmed.
Hungary also has a Statue of Liberty, ordered by the Russians to be built, as a reminder that Hungary was saved from the clutches of Nazi Germany at the end of World War 2.
Slovakia’s High Tatras Mountains has earned a spot in Unesco’s list of World Heritage Sites for its alpine character and rare endemic flora and fauna.
The country is perfect for people dreaming of winter wonderland. An interesting landmark is the Church of Hronsek in Hrebienok, just an hour and a half hour away from High Tatras.
Built on wood and shaped like an amphitheater, the Protestant Church, declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in July 2008, can accommodate at least a thousand people, and features six altar pieces of same size and shape, as well as an organ with no pedals and six sounding registers.
The re-Catholization of Habsburg territories, including Slovakia, back in 1550 and in the aftermath of Council of Trent, restricted Protestants from building churches made of concrete and instead limited them to building it with wood, to be completed in a year and should have no direct access from the road.
Czech Republic’s capital, Prague, is a Unesco World Heritage site in itself since 1992 with the Charles Bridge as the main attraction.
Built in 1357 and crossing Vltava River, it is the most exquisite and elegant bridge one can ever pass in a lifetime.
Thirty different statues adorn both sides of the bridge including Jesus’ Calvary, Madonna, St. Francis Xavier, St. Dominic de Guzman, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Anne, St. John the Baptist and St. Anthony de Padua.
The swans passing by the Vltava River below the bridge is also a page straight out of a fairy tale book.
What also makes the Charles Bridge a must-see stop is the fact that it provides the picture perfect view of the Prague Castle complex – seat of power of Czech Republic – with the St. Vitus Cathedral styled in Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque style as the most prominent feature.
For Catholics, the Church of the Infant Jesus of Prague, where the original statue of the Infant Jesus of Prague is displayed, is one site that could strengthen one’s beliefs.
Another attraction is the Wenceslas Square, not only for the eye-catching Municipal House which houses malls and restaurants, the National Theater building and even branded retail shops, shopping area, but also for being the venue of the students-led 1989 Velvet Revolution that eventually toppled the communist rule of the Russians.
Nearby town Karlovy Vary, home to 52,000 people, is also a Unesco World Heritage Site since 2008 for its natural spa. Literally meaning Charles’ bath, since it was King Charles 4th who discovered the spring water in Tepla River in 1352.
The town also hosts the 71-year-old Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, the second oldest international film festival in Europe behind Cannes.
Communist Russians may own 60 percent of Karlovy Vary properties, but it also hosts the Catholic Churches of St. Mary Magdalene as well as the Orthodox Church of Saints Peter and Paul. In fact, there is the One God monument built as a reminder that all religions are the same because humanity follow only one God.