June 14, 2016
Our last day in Prague. We were packed, then down to breakfast, then running up the Fitbit steps before nine, to get to the Old Jewish graveyard. It was used for over 300 years, 1439-1787, but the land allotted to the Jewish community was never big enough. In fact, the area was so small it resulted in burial upon burial. Some graves are twelve deep. The pictures don’t do it justice; it has a beautiful serenity, in the centre of the Old Town, despite the ghetto backstory. Jewish gravestones tell a story, different images may indicate the character of the deceased or their profession. But for a goy like myself, discerning who was a musician, cantor or physician was “nigh impossible” to quote one web citation. We had a comedy of errors at first, splitting up, I was first in line at one ticket office, SS lining up then not having enough cash on hand at a different ticket office, but through the miracle of something called texting we sorted it out. I actually went to the Spanish Synagogue first. There is, on Trip Advisor, a review that reads “You must experience this experience.” I really can’t improve upon that. It is the “newest” synagogue in the old ghetto built on the site of the oldest. The design, which references the Alhambra, is as striking as it is detailed. Plus, bonus, I was the first tourist in. I was alone for about 15 minutes, immersed in this magnificent building. The existence of an organ in the synagogue caught me off guard, but according to placards on site the use of an organ to “inaugurate the Sabbath” dates back to the 17th century. Even the "lesser" intricacies in the stained glass geometric windows were astonishing. Beginning in 1942, inventory from "liquidated" synagogues was transferred to Prague "for safe keeping" under the auspices of the Nazis. Amazingly, these pieces are still in Prague, in one magnificent collection, on display. Mainly Torah crowns, shields, and other intricately designed silverware. We were back at the hotel and checked out just before 11. Although we spent five days in Prague and never took a tram, taxi or the underground once, we had booked a car for the airport. A spanking new tinted window leather interior Mercedes showed up. The driver had a client in the EU for which once a month he had to chauffeur him to Strasbourg. I like to feel like a rock star. Today's flight is PRG to MAD on Iberia. It was either Iberia or Czech airlines, and CZE didn't fly to Spain today. We checked in without much issue then went to the “lounge” which was small and eerily empty. In fact, half of the lounge was cordoned off. Three shots from the flight leaving the Czech Republic. (We didn't meet one local who preferred "Czechia.") Flying over the Pyrenees. Madrid's airport, picture worthy and groovy in a Matt Helm sort of way. A Stirling prize winner, I believe. Motion shot on the people mover. SS is checking his Fitbit! Futuristic arrival carrels. We are arriving in Spain on June 14. That means we missed June 13, the only day of the year in which the Spanish make Panecillos de San Antonio, small rolls marked with a cross, and, wait for it, Suspiros de modistillas which translates to Needlewoman's sighs, meringues filled with praline. So our loss. We'll make up for it with our hotel. This is the first "real" hotel of our trip, with door staff and desk staff and marked up mini bar. It's located in a renovated palace. "Not us, we live in a palace" I hear from an earlier blog entry. Our lovely second floor room (third floor in Canada) has hugely high ceilings, comfortable appointments, and a narrow balcony. This shot of the giant French door/windows is through the privacy screen. The bathroom isn't huge, but it has three components, the toilet (with a door), the shower, the bath. The marble staircase wraps around the archaic but gorgeous lift; stained glass runs along the stairwell. We went out for a long walk in the late afternoon heat (a whopping 29 degrees). The concierge recommended a close by neighbourhood describing it as having "the best shopping in Madrid" but what he meant was the most expensive: Tiffany's, Tod's, The Kooples. The Kooples? Iberico ham, wine, cheese, olives and olive oil. Western Europe is calling me. Oh dear. When will designers finally stop trying to get men to wear a short pants suit? It's the uniform of an Australian postie. That is, in case you're uncertain, a necklace. Comes with a warning of dowager's hump. Immediately we ran into the problem of any tourist in Spain: Getting hungry before nine in the evening (when restaurants open). As it was we stopped for tapas and that was more than sufficient. With the solstice approaching, we ended up back at the hotel by ten in a lovely dusk. Man in an expensive suit cycling. You know you're in Europe.
June 13, 2016
This morning we picked up laundry. Sooner or later on vac you have to suss out a drop off laundromat. Then we headed out to the southwest of the city, to an area called Vinohrady. The weather was crazy: First it was mild with a breeze, then it got hot, up to 21, warmer in the direct sun, at one point dark clouds rolled in and mid-afternoon 12 minutes of rain, then more sun. Very hard to dress for if you’re on foot all day! We walked out of the tourist centre into Riegrovy Park, a lovely, hilly spot which rises in behind the Central Station (in great disrepair and, as our driver from CK put it, an embarrassment to Czechs). Vinohrady is a leafy burb with not much to offer the gawker, but it has a series of secession houses, representative of architects embracing “spatial austerity.” I guess Adolf Loos in Vienna was its most famous proponent. They had a saying: “To the age its art. To art its freedom.” Bohumil Waigant designed Secession Style apartment from 1910, at Chopinova, No. 6. Although the neighbourhood is awash in many fine examples of earlier buildings. Beyond Vinohrady, in the Žižkov neighbourhood is the futuristic Television Tower built from 1985-1992. Love it or leave it or have dinner at its panoramic restaurant. It blots the landscape, sits on a park that once hosted a cemetery, and features a series of babies, by Czech sculptor David Cermy, crawling up the side. Comes with the warning “may inhibit chick embryonic development.” Just kidding; but it does look like one big EMF disaster. And a party to all the "hyperdimensional" hoopla on the www. Our next destination was by the river, several clicks away. We arbitrarily took a small detour to the Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord. The guide books don’t have much to say, tourists don’t make the effort. But it was astonishing from first view. It looks like a post-modern masterpiece of the Michael Graves sort but in fact dates to 1932. The architect was Josip Plečnik. The glass face on the clock, at 42 meters high, is nearly eight meters in diameter. As became a theme for the day, the church was closed. But I snapped a pic through the glass front door. Very interesting orb lights hang above the pews. Roman Catholic fun fact: This church has no pulpit. The bells on the church were taken by the Nazis and melted down for arms production. We soldiered on. At only 10:51 a.m. Fitbit alerted SS that we’d already walked 10,000 steps. We wound our way down to the Vlatava on a strange central street with a weird variety of mini marts “non-stop” (the Czech version of 24 hours), dodgy bars, olde worlde antique stores, decrepit buildings, interesting if hard to explain boutiques, bridal shops, a beer spa (take a hot tub and drink all the beer you want), coffee shops, up and coming renos, and boarded up windows. Seriously? We crossed the river and walked the other side past tony waterfront apartments and some of the many locks. We went into a pop up store which had Czech porcelain from the 1950s through 1970s. They had some very menacing, hand-painted Czech squirrels from 50 years ago. All I could think of is that we buy them, we display them, and the Irish Terrier attacks them. This is my version of what the dog would see if we owned the squirrels. Imagine if we also found Morocco Mole! There is a museum for pretty much anything in Prague. Some shops, instead of saying, say, jewellery, put Jewellery Museum. It's brilliant marketing. There is yes an Apple museum. Although we didn't go in, seeing a Plus in the lobby brought back a few memories. Speaking of apples: Apples fall under the EU’s “specific marketing standards” policy and must be “sound, fair and of marketable quality” meaning, essentially, uniform, meaning food waste. This is not a joke, even though it reads as one. Thank god for, e.g., Loblaw’s “naturally imperfect” produce. We had lunch at Paul, a European chain, just to keep it simple, then hit a couple final bucket list items which were, you guessed it, closed on Mondays. On my list was the Estates Theatre, an opera house dating to 1783 (and for which Mozart conducted the world premiere of Don Giovanni). And there wasn’t even a glass door for me to snap a pic, so I lifted a couple from the web. Late afternoon there was, what seems to be a daily occurrence, about 12 minutes of rain. Then the sun returned. We were getting ready for dinner, with the windows wide open, and someone down the street began practicing violin. Not a school age learner, a skilled player. It was really beautiful, sort of like a theme for the city. We headed out to dinner to one of the many wonderful local restaurants in the hood. Our hotel bar has an enticing design. Last night at Moods. Our hotel room is top floor, second and third window from the right.
June 12, 2016
This morning started mild, but quickly turned hot and humid. We took a very long walk to the south; in fact, we exceeded 10,000 Fitbit steps well before noon. Along the way we walked through Wenceslas Square, the largest and most central and most commercial square of the city, replete with any number of UK chains (C&A, Debenhams, Tesco, Marks & Sparks). The Grand Hotel Evropa, originally built in 1889, modified in the art nouveau style in 1903, has over time gone from posh to Lonely Planet status. Recently closed for “reconstruction.” As we headed out of the Old Town and into the New Town we came across the Hall Tower. Dating from 1456, its use wasn’t only against enemies outside city walls, but to spot fires or other internal strife in the city proper. We’ve done a lot of towers, the Galata Tower in Istanbul, the South Tower on the cathedral in central Vienna, the castle tower in Cesky-Krumlov, to name just a few. What’s another 70 meters? Being Sunday many church bells were ringing across the city, and you could hear them pealing clearly from the top, not as discordant as you’d imagine. From the height and with such a clear vantage it was possible to discern Prague's original layout: The “Lesser Town” with the castle and its walled fortress; across the bridge the Old Town with its walls; then the New Town, also originally walled, but to protect agricultural land. View south. Way way way in the distance you can see the tiny spire of a castle. View west towards Prague castle (the largest castle in the world so Google says!). View North. View East. The rabbit warren of stairs, platforms and fencing to reach the top. They had a world map with pins on the home cities of tourists who’d climbed the tower. With over five million visitors a year to Prague I guess it wasn’t a surprise to see a world teeming with push pins. Although Greenland and Siberia have yet to make the effort. After that we walked southwest towards the river, starting in the park shown in the “south” pic above. Oh, oh, someone lost a very expensive dog! At day four we are becoming inured to the architectural diversity and magnificence of the city, dilapidated apartments over a century old, magnificent palace like structures under scaffolding, one nouveau flat after another. Case in point: Random photo of two “typical” residential apartments, both built in 1905. We passed a run-down apartment building with an open front door almost off its hinges. A pale mural on the wall caught my eye. I went in to take a look. It was too old and marred to be picture worthy. But I looked up and saw a shockingly detailed ceiling work. Ah Prague. The further south we went the less touristy and more a livable city it became. There were, however, a few signs of the sort of things Prague is famous for… “d’Alternative”? “Fun for everyone” or so the package says. As you head “deep south” in Prague you hit a fort. A lot of tourist groups take a tram along the river to make the effort to see the citadel. It houses Vysehrad, the site of the original castle from the 10th century before the new castle across the river became the seat of the king, as well as the Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul. There's also a cemetery where Dvorak, among others, is buried. Of course that wasn't where we were heading. We were en route instead to a selection of cubist houses. It is rare in the world to see this unusual architecture, in its “working” form. As one guide book put it aptly, “Prague’s cubist architecture followed a great Czech tradition: embracing new ideas, while adapting them to existing artistic and social contexts to create something sui generis.” All the shots below are of buildings from 1912-1914, still being lived in today. Josef Chochol designed the apartment house above on Neklanova No. 30. This is Chochol’s “villa” at Libušina 3. It was a triangular shaped lot so the cube is set back from the street. The above two shots were taken from the rear of the villa, which is also a street. Chochol hadn’t anticipated satellite TV or WiFi… Both those homes were showing signs of age. The above is a three family home, Rašіnovo nábřežі 6-10. These are the earlier cubist buildings; they include baroque and neoclassical motifs. Of the remaining cubist buildings in Prague, these may be the best preserved, but they have been modified slightly without exceptional detail to intent. After that excursion, we walked back toward Old Town, first along the river, then into the New Town. There were interesting vintage lamp standards here and there. We went to the "Dancing House" or "Fred and Ginger" which is the Nationale Nederlanden building (aka ING); designed by Vlado Milunic in "cooperation" with Frank Gehry. I reserve judgement... What is of interest is that the plot is the site of a US bombing in 1945--which is of interest I guess because the Germans intentionally preserved the city (they say, true or not, that Hitler imagined "retiring" to Prague after "his work" was done). For lunch we did something unnecessary, a fancy meal. Two people can eat a decent meal here all in under $40 so there's no need to spend twice that, at lunch even, but we did simply to take in the Municipal House restaurant. This is their cafe, more reasonably priced, but no, we didn't go there. We went to the old school restaurant, waiters in waistcoats, cloth table cloths, crêpes Suzette cooked at your table. Built between 1902 and 1911, it was built as a restaurant, it's always been a restaurant, and all the fittings are genuine. Bonus: They do a fixed price weekend lunch. It was a riot. Of colour and Art Nouveau over the topness. Really old school Prague. The best bread we've had this trip actually.The set lunch main was a chicken in shredded pastry with really fresh pea puree. There were no men in top hats or women with boas, but I think over the last 100 plus years they've seen their fair share. The men's room had an atomizer of Bugatti cologne. We did a long after lunch walk but the clouds came in from nowhere and it looked ominous so we swung back to the hotel. After a period SS decided to go for another walk alone. Unfortunately, that was the 20 minutes when it finally rained full on. For dinner we did a splurge. I had done some research in advance regarding "one special dinner" and had chose a new-ish place called Field. The events in Florida sort of put a damper on our mood, but a day hasn't gone by on this trip without seeing at least one Uzi. There's a lot to be grateful for in Canada! I booked this dinner about six weeks ago not knowing anything about Field and certainly not knowing this: It had received a Michelin star. That just spells disaster the moment the cheque arrives. At any rate, we soldiered on. It was (according to Google) 398 meters from our hotel. A mural by artist Jakob Matuska is projected on the ceiling.The ambiance was spare, modern, and airy, more Nordic than Eastern European. Bread is served quirky, with house made butter on a stone, and fresh cheese on wood. This is, I kid you not, the amuse bouche. Macarons with foie gras and cheese balls in almonds. For starters SS had red mullet crudo with an avocado cream and I had duck in a million things including the most delectable Sherry jelly. My main was rabbit, served with turnip (sliced and pureed), beans, mustard, greens, and a delectable sauce from the braise. The sauces were in fact the star of the evening. The demi glace with my starter was lick your plate good. Stephen's main, beef brisket, came with a sauteed stick of breaded veal so tender and rich and addictive it felt like deep fried Mars bar. SS had cheese for dessert; naturally. This is a hazelnut sorbet on top of a dish of pure dark chocolate, passion fruit squares, cake, 100% frozen cream and flowers. Meanwhile, at the tables indulging in the degustation menu, they were getting dry ice treatment on sorbet and all sorts of other culinary tricks. We ate a la carte: two glasses of sparkling, two starters, two mains, two desserts, a bottle of Italian wine, tea and coffee. All in, including tax and tip, at a Michelin starred restaurant, it was, according to XE.com, less than $200 CDN. A steal I think. Cin cin Prague. We took a long walk by the river afterwards before returning to the hotel.
June 11, 2016
This morning dawned cool, under 20 degrees (!), with a light drizzle; not enough to get wet, but enough to irritate anyone who wears glasses. By noon it was dry and humid and by late afternoon back to summer, blue sky, warm. We were going to start our day with the Spanish Synagogue and the Old Jewish Cemetery. The first thing we discovered was that nothing Jewish is open on the Sabbath and that Sunday and Monday are Jewish holidays (Shavuot), so seeing any of these sites would be complex short of a return trip to Prague. I poked my nosed through the medieval cemetery gate and took a sneak pic. Keats and Yeats are on your side… for those that get the reference. We decided to walk to the House at the Black Madonna, the first cubist structure built in Prague. On our way we made a second discovery: It was breast cancer awareness day. There were thousands of participants in the centre, with bandstand events and volunteer booths and whatnot. We got through that without ease. The cubist “House” was built as a department store in 1911 although by 1922 it was offices. It incorporates a baroque statue of the Madonna, hence its name. There is still the original café on the first floor with original fittings. This piece is one of several specifically designed for an ophthalmologist's waiting room in, wait for it, 1912! Room for a lot of walking sticks. Hang your hat sir? Aside from all the cubist furniture and so forth, there was an exhibition of a photographer who shot a lot of architecture under contract. This is the villa the director of an Esso power plant in Koln owned, in 1932. After the cubist house we wandered through old streets to the far south of the city, leaving the centre, then crossing the river and walking north into the Kampo neighbourhood. Along the way we passed a lot of great buildings. Left to right: "Modern" and very old and just plain old. The city is about thirty years behind London in terms of “cleaning” the soot of centuries from heritage structures and many decades more in restoration. But on those buildings that are getting attention, you can see that eventually Prague will rival Paris in beauty. We stopped by the Botas concept store which sells communist era sneakers, but modernized (meaning they are now Vegan, seriously, but the same style and colour of the pre-Velvet Revolution years). Prague’s version of Vancouver’s “A-maze-ing Laughter” in Motion Park. (Anyone born and raised in Vancouver ever hear of the English Bay triangle parkette called “Motion Park”?) Hey buddy, nice park job. We walked through a memorial to King Charles IV, the king for which the medieval pedestrian bridge dating back to 1357 is named; he was the first Bohemian king to also be the HRE. At his funeral one eulogist was quoted as describing him “temperate amidst the epicures, virtuous and demure amidst the sultry.” Advice from his personal doctor read “Drink little, dine modestly, do not waste time at the table. Do not sleep by day, do not hold your water, nor your winds.” He also recommended rinsing the face daily with cold water in the summer, warm water in the winter, and lemon rind on the teeth all year. Better advice in the 1300s than you get today with national health. After navigating the breast cancer bandstand and meeting area, we ran into the breast cancer walk proper, as thousands upon thousands crossed the Vltava from old town. On what turned out to be a big day of discovery, we also found out that once a year dozens of the museums in Prague are free. That is today. And it starts, sort of weirdly, at five in the evening, running to one in the morning. So the plus is we can go to the Spanish synagogue. The downside is that the Sabbath ends at 10:30, so it will be a late night. We decided to re-orient our day in anticipation of the museums we'd see in the evening. We took an indulgent lunch at a table cloth place called Kalina. They get packed out at dinner but light at lunch. SS started with an elegant tuna tartare topped with dollops of avocado puree. I had a chicken breast main stuffed with foie gras, braised in chanterelle mushroom broth and topped (unfortunately) with chanterelle foam. Someone has to eat dessert in this world, so I ordered a Valrhona chocolate bomb. Inside is a frozen chocolate cherry mousse. They light liqueur on fire, pour it over the bomb, and it breaks apart gently. The result is a soft outer chocolate layer with frozen mousse, baked Alaska style. After lunch we wandered around town for a while then decided to take a river cruise. Cruise is a generous term. Basically, dozens of river boats ferry tourists up and down the Vlatava. The cruise was relaxing and fun but we didn’t see any sights we hadn’t already seen on foot. A few days ago in the blog I referenced St. Nicholas in the Lesser Town but posted a picture of St. Nicholas in the Old Town. Turns out there are two. My bad. We returned to the Old Town St. Nick this afternoon for a trumpet and organ recital. It started at five and lasted an hour; they key locked the front door! On the plus side the music was beautiful: Handel, Pachelbel, Corelli, Vivaldi, and six more. The downside is that in Catholic churches, old churches, the organ is at the top rear. So to see the musicians you have to turn around and crane your neck. Still, listening to it in a building nearly 400 years old was very special. Here is a short snippet of the concert: [audio m4a="http://www.herehare.ca/gcwp/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Organ-and-trumpet.m4a"][/audio] After the concert, and a bit more walking around, we took a break. We were going to face the culture crawl, which was a night-time affair, so it was time for a relax. We headed out for dinner after eight. We were eating at nine; in practice for Spain! We chose a simple French place with checkerboard tablecloths run by an Algerian in Prague. Good food, not costly. I had some lovely lamb chops; SS had a nicoise salad. Then we headed off to the Spanish Synagogue. If you think we're crazy to make such an effort, Google it; the design is in the style of the Alhambra. It's really spectacular. So, given that tonight was free, as part of the culture crawl, and given that Sunday and Monday it's closed, and given the volume of tourists in Prague, I guess it's no surprise that instead of dozens of people waiting to get in there were hundreds. And I mean hundreds. This was the beginning of the line. This was the middle of the line. This was sort of the end of the line. So, what the heck, we walked over to the Jewish museum. We set our sights lower. And here we found two sets of lines: So we said to heck with the culture crawl. The cathedral in the centre, the Church of our Lady Before Tyn (Tyn being town in Czech) was lit up beautifully. We called it a night, and made our way back to the hotel. Gosh, are we old or what?
June 11, 2016
We started our day as many tourists do, at the Prague castle (Prazsky Hrad). But unlike most, we walked there, which is mostly uphill and something of a trek from our hotel. There are ten different sites to see, you purchase “combo” tickets for a selection or go individually to whatever site hits your fancy. We decided six were enough. The first place we stopped at was the Old Royal Palace. The antiquity and lack of adornment were hugely appealing. The first room you hit is the Great Hall (in Czech, Vladislav Hall). The Romanesque slash Gothic ceiling soared on forever. Here is a (poorly shot) pic of hundreds of locals enjoying an official event in the hall--to give a remote sense of its enormity. Next we moved into the Diet Hall, a prototype parliament with the king on the throne, the archbishop on one side, the state (aristocracy, gentry, burghers, not exactly a democracy) on the other. Took its present shape from 1563. No one seemed to notice the doors, but they were one after the other exquisite. Upstairs from the hall is is the old land rolls room. The crests which adorned the ceiling and walls recorded significant land owners, a judge, scribe, chamberlain, etc. Books (tomes) contained details of land ownership. After the castle we went to the Basilica of St. George. It was founded in the 10th century. Was a nunnery in 973. The first church burnt, the current church was rebuilt in 1143. The purity of the form, the massive stone walls and flat ceiling were awesome. But not decorative enough, apparently, for most tourists. The baroque facade and chapel which adorn the front, dating from the 1600s, fairly destroys the intent. The third stop on our castle tour was the much trafficked St. Vitus Cathedral (i.e., Katedrala sv. Vita). The rose window. The organ. Detail on some columns. Not something of note for most. The light: As SS pointed out, the windows on the laity are clear, casting a blue, or cold light. The yellow windows close to the pulpit cast a gold light on the clergy. The stained glass, while beautiful, is far from original. As you leave the cathedral you pass through a chapel dedicated to Wenceslas (Duke of Bohemia, later assassinated, sainted, posthumously declared king and became, yes, the Wenceslas of the carol). The crown of Wenceslas; sapphire, aquamarine, pearls, and other gems. The next stop on the whirlwind tour was to the history of the palace. This is, geographically, part of the palace, in the rooms of the members of the court. The red Prada shoes of Benedict XVI were much in the news. But these twelfth century Papal slippers show it's always been vogue to be vogue. The ruins in this area date to the Pleistocene (e.g., woolly mammoths, of which there are some remains on display). Human remains to 3200 BC. This skeleton is a taste of the medieval ossuary. Prince Victor Amadeus of Savoy at the age of eleven. There is a book on the invention of childhood. It's a provocative idea for which there is interesting historical precedent. The pictures show that for centuries children were adults: They were dressed in adult clothes and painted, in portraits, as adults. I kid you not: This is a portrait of a four year old. Last stop on the castle tour proper was the Golden Lane, a rabbit warren of small rooms and narrow halls. The Golden Lane got its name because these tiny hovels allowed goldsmiths to avoid guild dues in town. Franz Kafka even lived here once. One large section was dedicated to armor, shields and weaponry. A perfect fit for Robert Downey Jr. My, what a big piece. Of metal. The Stig wore this on Top Gear. Instruments of torture. The "lane" had many small houses, some depicting the workers who had a place to stay next to the castle, some more contemporary. This is a pic of where Josef Kazda lived during the second world war. Kazda didn’t hide Jews in his attic nor was he a liberal, communist or anarchist in the resistance. But he still did something special: He collected and archived hundreds of Czech films during the war (the Cezch film industry had flourished pre-WWII). He hid them in his tiny home in the Golden Lane. It was well into lunch by now. Rather than spend a long time wandering around for a place, we had soup and mezze on a terrace in one corner of the grounds. The cafe was actually part of a private palace, the only privately owned area of the grounds. It required a separate admission which, I supposed, was a deterrent to the masses of tourists. We decided to have a look after lunch. The collection was a mix of interesting and blow-away. The picture above is an original version of Beethoven's Eroica. This picture is Mozart's hand written arrangement for Handel's Messiah. Both were in the "music room" which housed a huge display of antiquated fine instruments. There were definitely less captivating rooms, such as the "bird room"... ...and the "dog room" to name a few. The back story of the Lobkowicz Museum is that the family was extremely wealthy, with castles across Bohemia. They lost everything first to the Nazis, which sent the scion of the family to London, then the US. They got everything back after WWII only to lose it to the communists. In the 1990s, under Havel, they recouped a lot of their belongings. So this is either a good news story, whereby some incredibly rich people reclaimed their art and put it on display for the public, or a mistake of the state to cede such valuable treasures to a family who reaped the rewards of a feudal system. Your call. There was a stunningly restored 1700 grandfather clock keeping perfect time made by the inventor of the repeating watch and the portable barometer. The gun room was an exceptionally well-displayed collection. Particularly compared to the state funded castle displays. So another argument, perhaps, for private ownership. There are a couple of absolutely over the top amazing treasures. The first is a Bruegel who was the first person to paint pre-industrial rural life not as a backdrop for a Biblical scene but as a reality of daily life. This crappy picture which does no justice is Haymaking from 1565. In the next room, it gets even better with not one but two Canaletto's of London from 1746-8. These two details of Lord Mayor's Day, on the Thames, are an unbelievable record of London in 1750. The family has a Rubens to boot--but you have to visit one of their castles in the country! There was a special balcony with great views of Prague. Cost an extra $7.50 CDN! So I snapped the pic above, and the pic below, through the window, and saved the money. After an over the top hour or so in the Lobkowicz, we wandered through the castle gardens, which abut the current presidential palace. They were not as refined or structured as Vienna, but pleasant. The Belvedere is, apparently, "the finest example of the Renaissance style of architecture outside of Italy" although the Communist era gave it little love... There were good views back to the cathedral. We stopped briefly to listen to a woman in the garden with "tame" falcons and owls We decided to walk back to the hotel the long way, first "backwards" to Loreto Square where the church was under scaffolding, then down to the river. Along one of the many narrow, winding cobblestone streets we stumbled across Tycho De Brahe's home. We had seen the Senate garden from a distance, which looked interesting. But the "sculptured" grotto we'd seen at a distance was something of a failed attempt up close. For dinner we left the centre, and tourist area, and went "deep east" into a working class neighbourhood (Karlin) for a superb meal at a place called Nenjen bistro. Back at the hotel nearly night night we hear some very loud noise and weren't sure whether to panic. We both looked outside: There was, somewhere, nearby, fireworks. We watched about 10 minutes before calling it a night.
June 9, 2016
Our driver met us just before 10 a.m. in “CK” as he called it. He was an interesting guy, with two degrees, one in civil engineering and another in psychology. We had an unusually in-depth and considered conversation en route, considering the language issues, including Terence Malick, meditation, psychiatry and rural life. With nothing but a five minute pit stop we were in Prague in less than two hours. The Powder Tower, part of the royal route into the old town. We were able to check in early then hit the streets. We had a fresh and tasty lunch at a Whole Foods type of place, then wandered the old town, then crossed the Charles Bridge (construction began in 1357), went up the south tower, doubled back over the Manes Bridge, and continued our wandering through Josefov, the old Jewish Quarter, where our hotel is, now an area rapidly undergoing gentrification. Archway leading to the Charles Bridge. The central square in the Old Town. Yes, that is two actual live persons and one is balanced on a stick. We happened upon an inconsequential church on a side street. There were three people praying inside. It was St. Nicholas, a church with an interesting back story, but who can remember with all these churches day after day? Tourist hordes, on tour, at the Charles Bridge. View to old town from the bridge. At one end of the bridge is the South Tower. The climb upstairs is a little on the steep side. The views are good. You have an excellent vantage of all the tours and tourists. Can you spot the McDonald's? Prague castle, also the presidential palace, is in the distance. We spent a long time winding our way back to the hotel. The old Jewish quarter has some interesting buildings. The "modern" Intercontinental is a stark contrast with the older buildings; it has a socialist era modernist sensibility which is both boring and innovative. This is down the street from the hotel. There are high end boutiques and beautiful florists nearby. But really, as SS put it, someone needs to put Donatella Versace out of her misery. Versace wasn't the only tony fashion stop. You could also get a good ham. ...to say nothing of an oversized meringue: We’re at the Hotel Moods. We chose this hotel not because of its location, price or online reviews. We chose it because of its beds. Why? I have an unusual bucket list item; I want to sleep on a Hastens bed, a Hypnos bed and a Dux bed. Before I spend the rest of eternity sleeping. These hand-crafted straw filled Swedish mattresses start around $10k CDN and climb from there; I believe their top of the line king is over $100k. The plaid covering is the signature Hastens trademark. Bucket list item two is to then win the lottery and buy a high end bed. Sleeping on one of these expensive puppies is harder than you might imagine. But Prague offered us three options and we booked Moods, on a whim. SS says that, in terms of boutique hotels, we are nearing the end of our adult lives where they still fulfil an interest. But Moods has some interesting points. The room numbers are on the ceilings; stupid. The stairway is colour coded; sort of cool. The rooms have color changeable lighting; interesting. And the whole hotel has quotes from a book by Peter Sis. Petr Sis is a pretty famous illustrator, and you will know him (if you have a child under 10 in the house). You may know him, e.g., from his book Trucks, Trucks, Trucks (not to be confused with his earlier book, which was much more focused, Fire Truck). In his “exclamation point” quartet his thematic purpose contemplates looking up, Going Up!, looking about, Ship Ahoy!, looking out, Komodo!, and looking back, Dinosaur! What’s all this Sis? Bits of his text are reprinted on the walls here. Which is clever because one of his better books, for adults, is The Wall, where the drawings are about growing up in the communist era, then seeking political asylum in the US (not an American border deterrent, aka La Pared! Sabes qué?). As for the hotel room proper, it is in the end just a hotel room. But we are high up and there is a nice view towards the river. The city is lively and awash in half of Europe all either on a cultural crawl or a drunken sprawl. But we have actually seen more fashionable trends here than anything in Vienna. In fact, Prague has inspired me to adopt a new look. I was taken with the many options. SS has suggested the Lana Turner relaxing at home look. I'm giving it some thought. For dinner we went a couple of blocks to an appealing Italian place, Godfather-ish with its checkered tablecloths. They were full up with only reserves. As we loitered, a waiter told us they had one free table on the cobblestone square. What a hardship, eating outside on a beautiful evening. We took it! Had a relaxed meal then a long walk in the hood. Around nine we headed back towards the hotel. There was a hypnotizing ambient orange hue cast over old town. It was a beautiful end to a busy day.
June 8, 2016
Can you tell it was a beautiful day? Our pension put on a nice breakfast spread, toast, jam, fruit, yogurt, eggs, meats, cheese, cereal, coffee, tea, hot chocolate, crudités (?), salad and, for what reason I don’t know, dill pickles. On the way to CK I asked the driver (he turned out to be the mayor’s son, there are, according to him, over 100 drivers in the tourist season, just for the shuttle service he works for, and, he said, up to 16 buses a day from Prague to CK), I asked the driver which nationality visited CK the most. He said the Chinese and Koreans. I was surprised to hear that but not a) at breakfast, where seven of the ten rooms in our tiny pension turned out to be Asian, and not b) in CK today, in a sea of selfie sticks and parasols and the least sensible shoes to be wearing on medieval cobblestone. This ivy strewn home is adjacent to our pension. We did today what virtually all tourists do, the castle. You can’t just wander about, you must do a guided tour. This in itself was strange. The guide carried a wad of huge archaic skeleton keys: As you left one room, she locked the door behind you, then as you moved forward, unlocked the door in front of you. It was, apparently, to keep the group together and avoid theft, but in actuality it was less organizational and more Young Frankenstein. We had a wonderful tour, and although English was a challenge for her (the three syllable tapestry was the four syllable tapas-terry, and the word eaten was ate-in as in “dinner was ate-in at the table) it was enormously informative. We both particularly liked how each room was more or less configured as to how the aristocracy lived. The castle predates toilets; there were none, neither were there bathrooms. What’s the old saying? Queen Elizabeth I took a bath once a month whether she needed it or not. Not so in CK. No pictures were allowed on the tour. Shame. At the end, you visit the most extreme and extravagant "masquerade" hall where there were masked dances and royal entertainments. This "accidental" shot of the masquerade hall shows some of the inventive frescoe-ish drawings which adorn the room. The original candlelit crystal chandeliers have never been adapted for electricity. The moat is a bear pit. Has been for centuries. When the bears die they make a nice bear rug. I won’t weigh in on the habitat, although it is, thankfully, large. After the tour proper we paid about $2.50 Canadian to go up the tower. It didn't compare with Vienna, but it was still crammed and a difficult climb for most. The views were exceptional. When you're bored with the cultural slog, you can rent a canoe or raft for the river. Beyond the heritage city lie apartment blocks reminiscent of the communist era. After the castle tower we walked the gardens. I don’t know how to convert meters, 150 wide, 750 deep, but it seemed somewhere between 20-30 acres. The front, the parterre, has been largely reconstructed since 1996. The pre-restoration shots show absolute ruin. The back portion of the gardens are wild and lovely. Mature beech, elm and other trees frame the trails. We walked to the very end (alone, the tourists didn’t bother), and walked out the back exit. It was the middle of nowhere. From thousands of tourists at the start of the gardens... ...to empty fields and nary a soul at the other end. For lunch we ate on the terrace facing a public park in a place called Depot. As is often the case, we had some issues deciphering the menu. For example, beer came as a) beer, b) small cut, c) milk pour, d) smooth pour half a liter and e) smooth pour full liter. They had beer directly from the tank or beer from the keg. They also had wine. Wine from the box. Let me put it straight: The Czechs give wine from the box a bad name. The menu, in catering to the modern tourist, numbered major allergens, then put those numbers beside the food. So you had, e.g., wheat, eggs, fish, peanuts, soy, milk and nuts. Number 9 was celery. Number 10 was mustard. Number 13 was lupin. And, wait for it, number 12 was carbon dioxide. I had the schnitzel and I’m still going strong. Following that long lazy lunch under an umbrella, we went back to the castle complex for the theatre tour. Although the tour was just OK, the theatre was over the top. Have you ever seen those baroque presentations with floating sets, trap doors and candlelight? There are only two theatres on the planet that have the stage, the sets, the costumes of the baroque period in all their original glory; and the other, in Sweden, has many classical elements. The actual stage settings, costumes and even the impossibly uncomfortable wooden benches in the stalls, are all authentic at CK; restoration began (very slowly) in 1966 and continues today. It really is a treasure. Pictures were not permitted; a shame, because this was sensational to see. We got to see the restored theatre, some set pieces, make the sounds of thunder, rain and wind, and go under the stage to see the winches and ropes which rotated the sets, the prompter’s box, and the underside of the stage which controlled the “coulisses” or curtains. We didn't get to see the costumes, original footlights, or go into the royal box. This "accidental" photo shows some of the set pieces which would rotate on winches under the stage; the sound machinery is in shadows in the right foreground. Here's the rear view of the theatre. Baroque theatre fun fact: The restoration of the theatre has no Wikipedia entry. There were other museums and areas to see at the castle but we nixed them. SS said no to the smithery simply because of the grammatically incorrect signage. So sensitive! On our way through town we checked out the church, Non-retouched pic. They were some big windows! In the late afternoon we enjoyed the garden at the “villa” then took dinner along the river. There was, again, a gorgeous night sky lit by a bit of moon as we headed back to the room. So long Cesky Krumlov.
June 7, 2016
Well, so long Vienna: with your cool retro cars in mint condition... your ludicrous deserts, especially your ice cream pasta... your every second store selling chocolate... your literal translations... your cafe signage... ...your naked people running through the streets. This morning we hired a private driver to take us to the UNESCO heritage town of Cesky-Krumlov; fun fact--it was a favorite getaway for Egon Schiele. It was cheaper to get a driver than rent a car in Austria and leave it in CZ. En route we stopped at Melk, a Benedictine monastery. I don't know what I was expecting, something between The Sound of Music and Ask the Midwife, in terms of efficiency, minimalism and a general religious austerity. Not quite. First, it's huge. These two shots of models show you the area and scope: Has an amusing back story to do with an Irish monk making his way to Jerusalem who stopped in the area but the locals didn't take to his customs and, how shall I put it? Offed him; tortured and hanged in a town nearer Vienna. But the miracles followed and long story short he was sainted, St. Coloman, and the monastery became a shrine to his memory. His relics have been at Melk since 1014, with the abbey being established in 1089. The buildings you tour today date from the early 1700s. Relics of several Babenberg's (first ruling family of Austria) are also at Melk. A little bling. As SS put it, no wonder monarchs were always looting the church. Dining room. Only two Michelin stars. Dining room ceiling. Bib Gourmand. The library (no photos allowed) was a spectacular two level affair; the ante-chamber adjacent was nearly as captivating, as I tried to show in the pic above. Missing from the pic are the rococo stairs that wind up to the mezzanine level. As you walk through the library you descend down then enter the "chapel"--again, I'm searching for ways to express my low expectations. Keep in mind, this is a Benedictine monastery in rural Austria. The organ, no expense spared. The glass sarcophagus contains a "so-called" catacomb saint, who was given to the monastery in 1722 by the Viennese nuncio, Cardinal Crivelli. Here, he said, I give you some remains. After the monastery proper, we toured the extensive grounds. The farms and hamlets surrounding the monastery have a wonderful European rural ambiance. This bizarre mural in the garden building highlights the European view of the "new world" and its savagery. There were acres of manicured paths which were a welcome shady respite in the sun, One long brick wall with English roses was particularly beautiful. After our extended tour we hopped back in the VW to continue to the Czech republic. Rural Austria continued structured and glorious in its regularity. Then we hit the border and it turned into the real world, forests. streams, farms where the grass hadn't been cut within 48 hours of the previous trim. The Austrian Czech border crossing. If you can call it that. For the remainder of the journey we followed the Vltava river; the scenery reminded the both of us of Pemberton, north, through meadows then mountains, rustic and without the manicured Austrian touch. We pulled into the UNESCO heritage town of Cesky-Krumlov just after one. We're staying at a lovely "second republic" villa, from 1932, renovated in 2013 as a pension. Villa Beatika. View from the villa garden. For no apparent reasons, the ten guest rooms are all named after rock stars. For instance, on our floor, there is: Not bad. For the dissolute in all of us. OK, sounds good, I'm in a sort of retrospective mood. DOH! Two old white guys tuned into the FM dial for hits of the 60, 70s, 80s. I immediately felt ancient as we are, yes, room #10. The room, however, is quite pleasant. We went down to the town for lunch; our host had recommended a place by the river. This was the view I had while we ate... ...this was the view SS had. After lunch we took a long walk around the town and surrounding areas. We noticed part of the castle had been built on a Roman aqueduct. It was a gorgeous day, the town teeming with tourists, sort of like Cinque Terre. Or, perhaps a better example, Banff: A small town centre that attracts tourist hordes but quiets down in the evening. When we came back for dinner it was definitely toned down a notch. We had dinner again at a place on the river and watched a sliver of moon rise up against the surrounding forest. At dinner I took a pic of this antique on the bar. SS knew that it was an absinthe fountain. I'd never heard or seen one then, before I knew it, someone ordered absinthe. Now that is a procedure. On the way back to the villa we took in a long view of the town at dusk.
June 6, 2016
An absolutely priceless weather day: hot, but not scorching, a light breeze and a few fair weather clouds which offered periodic relief. We had some strawberries, cherries, yogurt and Nespresso at the apartment, then wandered into the centre. We stumbled across St. Peter’s (Peterskirche) by accident. It has an austere exterior, but inside it’s over the top baroque. We were two of about three people inside, except for an organist and trumpeter who were practicing Bach. It was serene and eloquent without pretense. The bland and unassuming exterior... ...the ornate baroque interior. The Bach on trumpet and organ was something ethereal. We moved on to St. Stephen’s (Stephansdom), a Viennese landmark for more than 700 years. The front façade and towers (Romanesque) survived a fire, the rest was rebuilt, high gothic; after being bombed out in WWII it was painstakingly rebuilt again. Part of the roof is the Austrian crest. There was an English tour at 10:30 so we left and walked about the centre. Pilgrimage to the Danube. Wow; nothing to report here. When we returned to the cathedral at 10:30 a sign was posted that the English tour had been cancelled. We walked up the south tower instead. The stairs up the south tower are "only" 67 meters, or, in layperson's terms, 343 stairs, spiral, narrow, stuffy. The up and down were teeming with grade school kids (and their sweat and farts and for some weird reason an endless humming of the first six bars of the Pink Panther theme). The views from the platform were exceptional though. You are not, I might add, at the very top. That would be a few hundred more steps. From St. Stephen’s we made our way to Karls Kirche (aka St. Charles’). Built over 20 years from 1716, it was Charles VI commitment to commemorate the end of the plague; it began life as a baroque church, then ended up with a lot of rococo, neoclassical and Greek references. The portico from a Greek temple in front, obelisks which look positively pagan but in fact reference Trajan’s column, the pillars of Hercules and the entrance to the temple in Jerusalem, look like pastiche. Inside there are a melange of styles. The original architect intended the only colours to be gold and white, a reference to the Pantheon. Despite the paintings, it is actually restrained, without stained glass or an abundance of frescoes. But here’s where things got tricky: There was a lift to the dome. It seemed innocent enough. In fact, it was an elevator installed in and supported by scaffolding which spanned the church. When you took the lift up, you were on a plywood platform. I immediately wanted to descend. But SS refused to take my camera, up the scaffolding stairs, four more levels to the dome. Imagine! So I persevered. It wasn't pretty. To say I found this daunting--first the lift to the suspended platform, then the umpteen stairs to the dome--is an understatement; each step creaked, and if the elevator went up or down the whole scaffolding wiggled. Tourists on the platform below caused a sway. And the higher you went the more flimsy the structure felt. This picture is the top, the dome, looking down several stories to the elevated platform. The views through the tiny windows in the upper dome were breathtaking, but the pigeon wire didn't make for good pics. After our holy morning we went to the Naschmarkt (yes, that is the correct spelling) an open air market of about three kms of stalls and restaurants, having its roots from the 1600s it now looks like any farmer's market, lush displays of decadent food and the occasional lush passed out. We had a decent lunch at Neni. Following lunch we walked to the Belvedere gardens. These surround the lower and upper summer palaces for the emperor. Looking across the gardens to the upper palace. Looking north back to the lower palace. The official entrance to the upper palace. These are the very fountains that inspired the designers at Plymouth. It had hotted up substantially. The spray from the fountains and shade of the west gardens provided some much needed respite. We zig-zagged back to the centre, stopping briefly for a sacher torte and coffee (it is, after all, the city of the 10,000 calorie day). For dinner we returned to the Naschmarkt, then to the Musikverein; if you’ve ever seen the Vienna Boys Choir Christmas broadcast, you’ve seen the Musikverein. The acoustics are beyond being a marvel; it has been a bit of a bucket list item for me. We were able to score tickets to Rudolf Buchbinder playing Beethoven Sonatas. It was an especial evening, I’ve never heard a Steinway sound like an orchestra. Although Czech born, Buchbinder is something of an Austrian hero. Sadly, he took five (count them, five) ovations, but no encore. We were in the tenth row, on the floor, or parterre; you cold see all the trills and heartfelt expression. Well... that's it for Vienna. Off to the Czech Republic tomorrow.
June 5, 2016
Six statues? Six statues? I asked for eight statues. This is a disaster! If there’s nothing to do in Vienna there’s a museum you haven’t seen. There is even a Third Man museum (which, alas, is open once a week or, and I quote, “any day for 120 Euros” so, sadly, we’ll miss it). Not unlike cafes in Paris or beaches in Sydney it’s really a question of which museum and how many museums. We started off at the Museum of Natural History. This is the entrance. And this is the entrance. And this. And this is, still, the entrance. New York is good, London is pretty interesting, Paris is the best, why go to another natural history museum? Perhaps because the collection here is outrageously extensive. And it’s in a purpose built palace (for lack of a better term) to house a collection originally purchased in 1750 and expanded on ever since. Recreation from a skeleton of a dodo. Did the zebra diorama have to include poop? Quirky paintings and theme windows adorn each room. A feather under a microscope. Ladybugs. Just heaps and heaps of ladybugs. Iron meteorites. So who cares? Here’s something interesting: Last week (like June 2016) they confirmed that one of King Tut’s knives, from his tomb, was from a meteorite. They knew it was iron, but he lived centuries before the iron age, so they never knew how or why until they could examine it under a special X-ray, then correlate its composition with known meteorite debris from Alexandria circa his lifetime. But in fact there was a history of watching the night sky for meteorite debris because it was well known that the debris was exceptionally strong. I imagine in a world without electricity, and in an age before iron, some people just stayed up all night, every night, hoping to cash in on something dropping out of the night sky. Fossil of a ichthyosaur, reptiles that lived in the sea but "laid their eggs" in the ocean, by flipping their tails in the air, and bearing live young that had to swim to the surface for their first breath. Animatronic life size allosaurus, and SS being chased by a “terror bird” from 17,000 years ago. Bronze rings from the Bronze Age. Symbol of wealth, once upon a time. Bronze necklace. This is the sort of 500 BC artifact you expect to see in a museum. But this, a ceremonial wagon, also from 500 BC, is not something you expect to see. Wow. The last room of the tour was a series of pictures from NASA. These were so incredible and impossible to explain that SS bought the accompanying book in the gift shop. This is the Adriatic at night from the space station. The conglomeration of light in the lower right is Milan. The hands ruining the pic are mine. Frozen dunes on Mars. And Elon Musk wants to be king of Mars. Good luck with that Elon. With time to spare before lunch we went into the Museum Quarter, which back in the emperor’s day was the royal stables, and looked at the myriad options. We settled on the Leopold Museum, based solely on its having the largest collection of Egon Schiele in a single gallery. We weren’t disappointed. This was a magnificent selection; I believe the Times in London lists the Leopold as one of the top 50 must see galleries on the planet. The oil above, not one of my favorites, has the back story parallel to the Klimt that inspired the movie Woman in Gold. However, one difference: After years in court, sufficient documents showed that the painting wasn’t illegally taken from a Jewish woman (Lea Bondi Jaray) during the war, but legally sold to a collector. So, no Hollywood movie here. I had no idea Schiele died in his 20s, given the volume of output; his wife got Spanish flu and passed, he followed days later. For lunch we wandered out of the centre and ate at a café with sidewalk tables. Sunday the shops are closed (when was the last time you were in a developed country with the shops closed on Sunday?) so the streets were quiet and the ambiance subdued. In the afternoon we went to the Royal Palace proper, where you can choose from about twenty different museum options, royal jewels down to the Lipizzaner stallions, but pay handsomely for each. For no good reason we chose the royal apartments, which in the end were more or less a tribute to Elisabeth, aka Sisi, the Eva Peron/Diana Princess of Wales/Princess Grace, of pre-WWI Austria. Pictures were not permitted. But if for some reason you ever needed to know more, I recommend saving the flight to Vienna and outrageous 12 euro entrance fee and watching Visconti’s Ludwig where Romy Schneider, Viennese by birth, plays the emperor’s wife. (Roger Ebert wrote of Ludwig that it was so tiresome audience members booed and whistled. Not having seen it I can’t weigh in, but it can’t have been as poor a representation of Elisabeth as the royal rooms…) We took an afternoon break in the Volksgarten, the rose garden abutting the Hofburg Palace. Parliament, seen past the rose gardens. It was past three at this point, Roland Garros had begun, so I walked back to the apartment while SS soldiered on to another museum. The temperature rose all day; by the time I sat down to watch the end of the first set, I had all the windows open and a fan on. But less than two hours later, in a not too memorable four set victory, thunder struck and it rained cats and dogs. We decided to have Pho in a neighbourhood spot, in between the showers. A touch of Canadiana.