Thursday, July 22, 2010

Prague, Czech Republic

Prague is easily one of the best places I have visited. It has a lot to see and do, yet is compact enough to see on foot in two days. With over one thousand years of history and many recent conflicts, it is an interesting place. There are so many details and so much beauty, you feel like you could spend a lifetime noticing interesting new things. The buildings are covered with sculptures and detail. The shops have some very interesting souvenirs. And there is great beer at every turn.
The history of Prague started in the 900’s with the establishment of the first imperial dynasty, the Premyslids. A name perhaps forgotten by recent history, they ruled for four hundred years and were responsible for shaping much of the ancient history of Prague. Many years of religious and ethnic conflict shaped the city. Even recent history has been eventful with occupation by Nazis followed by many years of communist rule which only ended in 1989 with the Velvet Revolution.

The Vltava River passes through the center of the city. On one side is the old town, the Jewish quarter, and much of the active town. On the other side the town rises sharply uphill towards the castle overlooking the whole area. Several large parks frame some of the other hills. The Czech Republic is not yet on the Euro and is generally less expensive than you will find other cities in Europe to be. The people are very friendly and the food is excellent. Some of the key sites I really enjoyed include:

Old Town
The center of the city revolves around the section known as Old Town. This area is home to many of the most popular attractions. Many of the streets are closed to cars and the area is flooded with tourists. It is a good place to find a nice souvenir shirt or painting. On an edge of the Old Town I found the Powder Gate, which was built in 1475 and used to store gunpowder in the 1700’s. The ornamentation on the Gate is beautiful.
The Municipal House is home to many shows and performances. It is an excellent example of the Art Nouveau style you see throughout the city.
The center of the Old Town is the Old Town Square (Staromestske namesti). It is surrounded by incredible buildings. On the day I was there, the Hare Krishna’s had a music festival that made an interesting contrast to the very European buildings.

On one side of the Old Town Square stands the Church of Our Lady before Tyn. Started in 1363, this church really is very impressive. The many gothic spires immediately draw your attention regardless of where you stand in the city. Inside, the hundreds of paintings and carvings overwhelm your senses. It is a beautiful church well work a visit, even for those of you who feel like you can not stand another European cathedral. Old Town Hall was established in 1338 and has presided over many changes. You can climb up the stairs to the top of the tower for a great view of the area. On one side of the town hall is the Astronomical Clock. Build in 1490 and perfected over the next hundred years, it still attracts large crowds. The inventor had his eyes gouged out once he was finished, so that he could not build another one, and I am pretty sure there is nothing like this anywhere else. The lower clock tracks the days of the year. The upper clock shows the time of the day, the position of the sun and moon, and the current zodiac sign. At the top of each hour, the clock starts with a statue of a skeleton pulling a rope that reaches high into the mechanism of the clock. This triggers all sorts of movement, including various statues moving, the twelve apostles moving past open doors, and chiming. It is impressive and the crowd roars with approval each hour, even five hundred years later in the age of YouTube, MTV, and Generation Me.

Jewish Quarter
Home to the Jewish population in Prague, limited to a fairly small area to worship, live, and bury the dead. The population grew and thrived until the Nazi takeover of Prague. During that time over 60,000 Jews were killed in the many concentration camps in the area. The resulting Jewish population is much smaller, but determined to take care of the history that is here. They did not allow photographs in many places, so you will have to go there yourself to see.
The cemetery is the most impressive part, with layers of gravestones very close to each other. The Jews were limited to a very small part of the city, so they quickly ran out of room to bury the dead. They solved this problem by covering existing graves with layers of dirt and burying people on top of each other. Each time, they would move the existing gravestones up to the upper layer. As a result the cemetery is a riot of gravestones at all angles and ages. The oldest grave is from 1478 and the youngest is from 1787.
Jewish tradition is to place stones on the gravestones of those that you love. It shows that there are people who still remember you. Rabbi Low is buried in the cemetery and still attracts many visitors. Rabbi Low is associated with the story of the Golem.

There are many synagogues to visit in this area of the city. Many are quite plain, but they all are interesting. One was used as a storehouse of Jewish memorabilia by the Nazis in preparation for what was to be a museum of the Vanished People. The most ornate synagogue is the Spanish Synagogue, in the Moorish style popular in the 1860’s.
If you visit, be sure to stop by the Pinkas Synagogue, which has the names of all of the Jews killed by the Nazis etched on the walls. Room after room is covered with names, with birth dates and death dates. Whole families are listed. It makes quite an impression.

Prague Castle
The Prague Castle stands over the town and has been home to royalty for over six hundred years. Similar to London, there are guards at the main gate. The changing of the guards at the top of every hour is impressive and draws a large crowd.
Inside the castle is the St Vitus’s Cathedral, huge even by European standards. It is home to the tomb of Good King Wenceslas, who was murdered just outside the church. Ensconced in silver is the tomb of St John Nepomuk, who was a martyr that attracted a large following in Prague after his death.
Charles Bridge
Charles Bridge is certainly one of the most famous and beautiful in the world. Lined with statues and bookended by towers on each side, there is so much detail to see.
Midway along the bridge there is a bronze etching depicting the murder of St John Nepomuk, which is a lucky if you touch it. Consider me lucky.
Food and Drink
I would be remiss to not mention the food and drink in Prague. The food is heavy and leans towards meat dishes with dumplings and brown sauce. Of course, you can get Chinese or Italian or Turkish, but if you want authentic, it is meat and dumplings. I found a little café in a side street where I had goulash just like mom used to make. The total price was $4.50 including tip and a half liter beer.
This is a culture the reveres beer. Beer is everywhere and it is quite excellent. One night we found ourselves in the Golden Tiger. The Golden Tiger only serves one type of beer (Pilsner Urquell), and you do not even need to order. As soon as you sit, the waiter brings large beers. He proceeds to bring new beers until you place the beer coaster on top of your glass. You sit at large tables with other people and generally everyone has a very good time. We shared out table with some honeymooners from North Carolina and three German high school students.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Loket, Czech Republic

This was my first time in the Czech Republic, a notable fact since my last name and part of my family comes from here. I landed in the Prague airport and proceeded late at night to stay in a very small town with the name of Loket. Loket has a 12th century castle that was established here because of the excellent defensive position the natural terrain provides.
The wide, deep river forms an almost complete circle around steep sided mountains. At the top of the mountain is a beautiful castle with tall walls and a central keep. I can not imagine that it was every taken by force, the cliffs are so steep. Perched around the castle are a variety of houses, small pensions, and a couple cafes. At night it is completely silent here.
A stroll through town revealed much of that charm that I was missing so badly in Italy.
We stayed in the Cisar Ferdinand Hotel. It is an old hotel in the best of the European Grand Hotel tradition. The hotel brews a brown beer that is excellent for drinking while sitting on the side patio.
The breakfast room of the hotel is covered with old photographs of military officers. Some photos includes wives and family.

There is a crest that is repeated throughout the hotel, on the curtain rods, painted on the side of the building, over the bar, etc. I noticed in the breakfast room this crest created entirely out of beetles. Kind of nasty but certainly the product of a dedicated person who must have had a lot of free time.

Milan, Italy

I spent a weekend in Milan before proceeding to the west of Italy near the border with France. Milan did not charm me as it does many other people. Generally, I found it to be very warm and it lacked the old world European charm that really draws me to this continent. Even in the oldest parts of the city look as though they were constructed in the 1930’s. It is strange since I believe Milan escaped the bombs that changed the face of so many other European cities during WW2.
I walked all over the city and noted a few particularly impressive sights. On top of the list is the Milan Cathedral (Duomo). Very, very impressive, certainly one of the nicest I have seen. The view from the central plaza is incredible, with hundreds of spires reaching towards the sky. The church is a dazzling white and is covered in sculptures.
The inside of the cathedral was a but different from others that I have seen as it was lined with large paintings today that are worth a fortune. Under the chancel is the treasury which houses relics from a Saint.
I did stop by the La Scala opera house, famous the world over. It is named after my favorite restaurant in Columbus. It was not open, but it was interesting to see. It was not nearly as impressive from the outside as it was from the inside.
There is a large castle in the middle of the city, built to protect the city inhabitants in very different times (Castello Sforzesco). It is a very large castle, clearly meant as much for show as for defense. The dark black color contrasted nicely with the bleached look of the rest of the city.

I stayed in this very odd Golf Club over the weekend. It was very formal and I clearly did not belong. I was told that the grounds outside the hotel were restricted and I was only allowed to wander out after dark. The rooms were very dated, but my room did open to a roof top patio which provided a nice place to sit and enjoy the night sky. The food at the club was excellent and it was fun to be served by tuxedo clad waiters.