Two and a half days in Prague, half a day in Dresden

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Circumstances have militated against blogging for the last couple of days, so this will be a rather scattered catch-up post.

The other day at dinner we recognized the song that was playing, something in English, but couldn’t quite place the singer. I used the Shazam app on my phone to identify it: Andy Williams. For the entire rest of that dinner we were treated to Andy Williams covers of such entirely inappropriate sixties classics as “Killing Me Softly” and “Fire and Rain.” Kind of head-‘splodey.

We have seen a lot of castles in the last couple of weeks. You know the expression “good fences make good neighbors”? It’s the same with castles… or, perhaps, “bad neighbors make good castles.” This hunk of the world has been a border region, coveted by German-speaking and Czech-speaking peoples (with occasional incursions by the Turks, Swedes, and Russians) for many centuries, which means that every good defensive point has a castle built on top of it. If you like castles, I can recommend the Czech Republic as a place to visit. A lot of these castles have been used as locations for fantasy movies.

We toured the Museum of Communism, which was extremely informative if a bit depressing, then walked through Wenceslas Square where so many demonstrations took place in 1968 and 1989. Seeing those videos made me think about our 1960s demonstrations and the Occupy movement. The oppression those protests were against was mushier than the oppression the Czechs suffered, the protests less unified, the results more ambiguous. The Iraq War protests may have eventually led to Obama’s election, but the results of that election have not been as much as we (progressives) had hoped. Fundamentally, I think the difference is that the US is more diverse and decentralized in both good and bad ways.

At the Mucha Museum we learned about Alfonse Mucha, the greated Art Nouveau artist you’ve probably never heard of. A contemporary of Toulouse-Lautrec’s, Mucha produced some brilliant lithographs and advertising posters, particularly for Sarah Bernhardt, with a delightfully lively line and expressive faces. I liked his earlier funnier stuff, i.e. the commercial work he turned out in Paris and New York, more than the nationalistic stuff he did after he returned to his homeland and worked to develop the Czechosolvakian state. He even designed the money, as well as a fabulous window at St. Vitus Cathedral.

We visited the House of the Black Madonna, a cubist building, and I was surprised to find it appeared quite conventional to my eye. I suppose it may have been more of a shock at the time. Had coffee at the cafe there, along with a “cubist pastry” which looked rather more Escher than Picasso.

At the Communist Museum and also at some junk shops we stopped in, we bought some Communist-era pins, including one commemorating the Lunokhod-1 moon rover (it landed in 1970) and another from the Tesla lightbulb factory. This Tesla company was a major Czech electronics manufacturer during the Communist era; it was named after the inventor, not founded by him, but the pin is still a very cool thing to have. I also bought an old Czech identity document, like the ones in the Czech movie Identity Card (Obcansky Prukaz) that we saw in the Portland International Film Festival the other month.

Kate’s knee is much improved.

Our favorite restaurant in Prague was probably the Cafe Lounge (yes, that’s its name), where we had a dinner so lovely we came back for breakfast the next day. Also some of the best coffee we’ve had on this entire trip, and that’s saying something. They even made me a flat white, a coffee drink I haven’t seen since Australia! Other good meals were at Pizzeria Grosseto (Italian) and Noi (Thai). Most of the Czech restaurants we ate at in Prague were, unfortunately, not nearly as good. Or maybe we’re just getting a little burned out.

By the time we left Prague I knew and could use reliably the Czech words for yes, no, please, thank you, excuse me, and hello, though I never got a handle on the word for goodbye. I could read and recognize many more words on signs, including men, women, bakery, cafe, restaurant, exit, and danger, and sound out a lot of words that turned out to be cognates or near-cognates from English, French, or German. I could even pronounce words that would have seemed impossible before, such as zmrzlina (ice cream), and spot typos in signs. However, all of this was mere politeness on my part, as just about everyone we dealt with in Prague spoke English. I was not too surprised to get English from the clerks at the hotel and train station, but it was surprising to me how many waiters and waitresses had very good English. I guess there have been a lot of English and American tourists here since the fall of Communism, because it’s still pretty darn cheap.

At one point in our perambulations we came to a police checkpoint, where bored policemen were searching every car trunk and looking under each car with mirrors before allowing it to proceed. The cause turned out to be the American embassy, a block away, which made me sick to my stomach. This kind of oppression is more suitable to the Russians than the Americans, and the more we do it the more it is necessary. But even if I were President, I have to admit that once you’ve started this kind of pointless repressive “security” it’s difficult to stop. The improved public opinion that results from the relaxation of security will not appear for some time, producing a window during which security has been relaxed but public opinion is still low, making a security incident more likely. Kind of like starting medication for depression — there’s a window during which you’re still depressed, but now have enough energy to actually do things, creating a risk for suicide.

Prague’s Municipal House, a concert hall and civic center, is a beautiful Art Nouveau building, well worth a visit. The old part of the train station was also clearly beautiful in better days but is currently in very sad shape. I hope they get it fixed up soon.

We had reserved tickets to a play on Thursday night via the web, but when we went to pick them up we found that we were supposed to have picked them up within one week of ordering them and our reservation had been canceled. After a certain amount of kerfuffle (it’s not at all clear whether or not we actually paid for them in the first place) I finally wound up just buying two new tickets; the balcony (with the best view of the English supertitles) was sold out, but after consultation with her manager the box-office clerk sold me two orchestra seats with the seat number crossed off and “extra seat in balcony” hand-written in. And, indeed, that’s where we were seated, in two folding chairs at the end of the first row… though when the curtain went up the front row was almost completely empty and we and the one other couple there moved closer to the middle. Whatever.

The play, The Builders, was one we’d seen before, in Glasgow, and were looking forward to seeing again, albeit this time in Czech with English supertitles. At least that’s what we thought. However, as we entered the theatre we noted that the program book and posters all featured large splatters of blood, which didn’t suit the charming domestic comedy we remembered. As it turned out, what we got was a completely different play, a blood-splattered charming domestic comedy. Alice and Manfred, a normal though somewhat neurotic couple, are slowly driven mad by the illegal and dishonest Russian workers who are taking forever to renovate their house. The action escalates from hiding a body after an accidental death, to killing a worker in a quite legitimate fit of passion, to cold-blooded murder, to a gleeful killing spree… with lots of laughs, and the audience applauding the last few deaths quite vigorously. Much of the comedy was physical (including a very impressive swinging-from-the-chandelier bit) and although the supertitles were sometimes missing or out of sync with the action, together with the performances they were good enough for us to appreciate a lot of the verbal comedy as well. We enjoyed the performance greatly.

And so we bid farewell to the Czech Republic. I’ve enjoyed my time here but it will be good to get back to a place where I can kind of speak the language. We’ve been on the road for three weeks now, with one more week to go, and we’re tired but still enjoying ourselves.

Shared a second-class compartment on the train to Dresden with a Czech family, and got picked up by the van from our hotel as arranged by email the night before (though we had to call them to figure out where the van was waiting for us). Our room at the Hotel Privat (AKA Das Nichtraucher Hotel) is clean and tidy, a bit bigger than the one we had in Prague, and the Internet is free though it’s provided through a dongle that plugs in the electical socket rather than via wireless. Fortunately I can set up my Mac to rebroadcast the signal via wifi to our other devices.

Once we arrived and got our bearings, we asked at the front desk if they would call and make a reservation for a tour of Volkswagen’s “glass factory.” As it happened, there was an opening on the 5:00 English tour so we headed right there, with a stop on the way for a quick bite of sausage and bread.

The Volkswagen factory in downtown Dresden is the final assembly plant for the Phaeton, their most luxurious car. Every Phaeton is built to order, hand-assembled in a calm, quiet, and efficient factory with wood floors and indirect lighting for the employees’ comfort. Driverless carts shuttle parts and tools from place to place, and the assembly line consists of a sliding floor, which moves the car under assembly continuously and sedately from one station to the next. At other points in the process the car is gently picked up and carried from above by a monorail. I could describe it as the factory of the future, but it’s really more like the factory of the past, updated, because everything is done by hand. The whole thing, including the very impressive factory building itself and the guided tour we took, is marketing for Volkswagen but I enjoyed it a lot. Our tour guide, a German-speaking Texan from Pflugerville, was a hoot.

At the Texan’s suggestion, we took the tram a couple stops to Weissgasse, which turned out to be a kind of high-end food court right off the Altmarkt square — many restaurants all in one place, though outdoors and each of them independent. We chose the one that had the biggest crowd and had a very nice dinner, “fitness salad” of grilled turkey on grilled vegetables for me and a scampi tagliatelle for Kate. On our way to the tram stop after dinner we found ourselves in an American-style shopping mall, where Kate had fun browsing in a large book store.

You’d never guess that this entire town was basically reduced to rubble in 1945 and spent the time from then until 1989 under the Communist boot. About which more later, I’m sure.

Photos later.

Prague Castle

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For the first day or so after we arrived in Prague, I felt as though we had entered another country (probably Poland) and that we needed to use a different language or change money or something. But no, it’s still the Czech Republic. Though I still speak very little Czech, I can say yes, no, please, thank you, and hello, and I’m beginning to recognize many common words like danger, exit, menu, and potato. And, as is typical for me, my accent is much better than my vocabulary or comprehension. It really makes me cringe when I hear American voices right now, especially when they attempt to speak Czech.

Kate woke up way early this morning, so when I woke up she was rarin’ to go. After a quick hotel breakfast, we headed out to Prague Castle early so as to beat the crowds. Today is a holiday here, celebrating the liberation of Czechoslovakia from the Nazis, and we expected that would bring out the Czechs in droves, never mind the usual mobs of tourists.

Prague Castle is the castle that all those other castles we’ve visited so far were just training for. Imagine if Buckingham Palace also included Westminster Cathedral, Number Ten Downing Street, and Parliament, plus several other churches and administrative buildings. It’s an ancient fortress, the site of the holiest relics of Czech Christianity, and the current seat of government (though Vaclav Havel refused to live there when he was president). There are numerous museums, a couple of significant art galleries, and tons of restaurants and shops on the castle grounds, and four tram stops along its length. You might think it’s a long way down to the corner to get a packet of crisps, but that’s just peanuts to Prague Castle.

I’m glad we had those other castles and churches to warm up; they gave us the background and context of Christian and Czech history we needed to understand what we were seeing. We knew who Wenceslas was, both as a monarch and as a saint, and also have learned to recognize St. John of Nepomuk, who was thrown off a bridge in Prague and hence has a statue on just about every bridge in the country. St. Wenceslas’s remains are in St. Vitus’ Cathedral at the heart of the castle, as are St. John’s (in perhaps the gaudiest tomb I have ever seen). We understood why the enormous tiled stove in the Old Diet Chamber had no visible door for adding fuel (stoves in palaces are stoked by servants moving between the walls of the rooms) and who the Rozemberks and the Habsburgs were. We sought out and found the window from which the victims of the Second Defenestration of Prague were flung (a fall they survived, thanks to either the Hand of God or a fortuituously-placed pile of manure, depending on who you listen to).

But there is plenty of unique stuff here as well. We saw burial garments — actual clothes from the 14th century! — and King Ottokar’s scepter (which will make the heart of any reader of Tintin go pitter-pat), and a bookcase of land records from way, way back, and a creepy statue of Vanity (a rotting, skeletal figure in green stone, being eaten up by snakes and lizards) and a grand staircase with very wide steps which was used by horses entering the grand ballroom for tournaments (the same grand ballroom in which kings were crowned and Czech presidents inaugurated).

There’s more to Prague Castle than any two tourists, no matter how dedicated, can cover, and after seeing the steet of tiny houses — formerly peasants’ residences, now a mix of historical exhibits and souvenir shops, where Kafka lived for a time — we found ourselves at the far end from where we’d come in and decided to declare victory and pull out. After a long walk downhill, we found lunch at Hostinek U 3 Zlathych Trojek (Pub of the Three Golden… well I’m not sure what they were… ampersands, maybe), an unprepossessing establishment offering good solid Czech-style pub grub.

God knows how, but at that point we still had energy, so we hopped a tram to the funicular. This steep little train line runs up the hill to a big park overlooking the city, and was included in our transit passes. There was a line to get on, due to the many locals wanting to picnic or what-have-you in the park on the holiday, but it moved pretty quickly. This is, I believe, the only funicular railroad in the world with a stop in the middle. Each of the three stops was identified by a large sign, just like in the subway, which I’ve never before seen on a funicular (usally it’s pretty obvious whether you’re at the top or the bottom).

At the top of the funicular we found the Petrin Tower, a sort of miniature Eiffel Tower offering even better views of the city than the park itself. I climbed it, leaving Kate to rest her wounded knee on a bench. There was a smashed penny machine on the first level but, sadly, it was out of order. On the way to the top I began to sense a slight but disturbing sway, but the tower’s a hundred and twenty years old and hasn’t fallen once so I pressed on. The top level was crammed with teenagers, but I was able to snap a few photos and retreat without serious incident. Another of the park’s sites, the Mirror Maze, was also supposed to have a penny machine but the admission charge was in the vicinity of fifteen bucks and there didn’t seem to be a gift shop or any other part of the structure that could be accessed without pay. We walked partway down the hill, on a very pleasant tree-lined path, to the midpoint station, and after failing to get onto a couple of standing-room-only trams we finally managed to cram ourselves into one and got to the bottom.

Somehow we were still not too tired to tourist further, so we took another tram to the Charles Bridge, which could be seen from the tower to be heavily touristed but we wanted to know what the fuss was about. It turned out to be a pedestrian-only stone span, featuring many sketch artists, souvenir stands, and statues of saints (and a marker at the exact point where St. John of Nepomuk was martyred) and though there was a crowd it was a pleasant one. At the far end we found the Old Town Bridge Tower, with a great view, a film on the history of the bridge, an upper room with the original timbered ceiling and a small museum of objects of dubious authenticity, and no penny machine (there used to be one, the staff said, but it had broken down and been removed some time ago).

(How do you ask about a penny-smashing machine when there’s no word for it in the phrase book and gestures are ambiguous? You do a Google image search on your smart phone and show the clerk a picture of some smashed pennies. We paid a bunch up front for 8GB of data for our iPhones in Europe — expensive, but not as expensive as paying by the megabyte ad-hoc — and it’s been amazingly useful. A smart phone is a universal translator (Google Translate app and a couple of bilingual dictionary and phrasebook apps), a map of a strange city that’s labeled in English, covers the entire city including the obscure or untouristed bits, and has a blinking you-are-here dot (Google Maps app), a communication device with the rest of your party (we use text messages, much cheaper than voice calls), and an intelligent guide to the local transit systems (most cities have at least one free transit app, which provides routing advice, up-to-the-moment timetables, and often a map to the nearest transit stop) and restaurants (bigger cities have a variety of restaurant guide apps, some in English).)

Okay, now we were pooped. From the bridge we walked a few blocks to a restaurant that looked good in the guidebook but, as so often happens, failed to impress from the sidewalk. But on the way we passed the restaurant Rainer Maria Rilke, which had lots of positive reviews pasted in its window, and decided to stop there. My main dish, a spicy melange of beef, peppers, and mushrooms, was very good, though not as good as some of the meals I’ve had in Europe (which sets the bar pretty darn high); Kate’s trout was not quite so good. But the desserts, honey cake and apple strudel, redeemed the meal. It was probably the most expensive meal we’ve had in the Czech Republic, but at about $75 for the two of us it was not completely out of line and I don’t regret it.

And with that, and a stop at a convenience store on the way home to pick up kleenex and a few other necessities, we finally called it a day.

Museum of an Extinct Race

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Today was our first day in the Czech Republic without Monika, or as I put it “the day the training wheels came off.” However, most of the waiters and other service professionals here in the Big City speak at least some English and/or German so we haven’t had any serious difficulties.

There are as many people in this hotel as in some entire towns we visited with Monika. Breakfast was not of maximal quality but had a fabulous selection, including chocolate granola.

The first order of business today was to do laundry, and rather than run several cycles through the tiny sink and festoon the room with wet undies, we took the subway to one of Prague’s few laundromats, located in an American-style shopping mall in the city center. Unfortunately, there was only one working dryer. So rather than wait an hour and a half for our turn at it, we took our wet wash back to the hotel and festooned the room with wet undies.

By comparison with the charming little medieval and Renaissance towns where we’ve spent the last week, Prague is dirty, noisy, crowded, and dangerous. But it shares with Vienna a capital-of-empire vibe, a plethora of shops and restaurants, and endless stunning architecture none of which you have ever seen before (except perhaps in a movie, pretending to be someplace else).

Lunch was at Cafe Savoy, which taunted us with a menu in which the dishes were titled in French but described in Czech. However, we had a delicious (albeit somewhat expensive) lunch in exquisite surroundings.

After lunch we decided to hit the Jewish Museum, a loose-knit collection of sites in the former Jewish quarter. Most of the Jews were kicked out and the buildings torn down at the turn of the 20th century, but a handful of synagogues and an old cemetery remain. Even these survive to the present day only because the Nazis decided to keep them as a “museum of an extinct race.”

Our first stop was the Pinkas Synagogue, whose walls are covered with the names, dates, and towns of residence of 80,000 Bohemian and Moravian Jews killed by the Nazis. Eighty thousand names — three large rooms with every wall covered in quite small writing. Twenty thousand names more than the Vietnam War memorial wall in Washington DC. Most of them came from Prague. Most of them died in 1941 and 1942. Only 10,000 Jews returned to Prague after the war.

The Pinkas Synagogue was turned into a Holocaust memorial in the 1950s. After the Prague Spring in 1968, the Communists erased the names. Following the fall of communism, the eighty thousand names were again hand-written on the walls. It took four years.

Kate and I have suffered some tragedies recently — two close friends passed away unexpectedly earlier this year. If two deaths hurt this much… how could anyone possibly inflict this unimaginable level of pain?

Exhibits in other parts of the distributed Jewish Museum hint at how it happened. The Jews were never more than tolerated in Prague, their rights to live and work and marry always restricted and often curtailed. The Old Jewish Cemetery is crammed with stones, which hints at the bodies buried ten and twelve deep because the Jews were not permitted to bury their dead elsewhere. Documents on display in the beautiful Spanish Synagogue record how the Nazis required Jews to turn in their gramophones and skis, each properly packed and with a copy of Form C. The noose was tightened and tightened and tightened, and the illusion was maintained right up until the last minute that the Jews would be allowed to return home.

Looking at the many artifacts of Jewish life and religious practice on display, I realized that the prohibition against graven images means that most Jewish objects are decorated with Hebrew text and very little else. To the non-Jew, everything in Jew Town was opaque and mysterious, densely covered with unreadable, perhaps even mystical, symbols. This may be part of why they hated and feared their Jewish neighbors.

In the bathroom mirror of the restaurant where we had dinner I saw a face very much like some of the photographs of Czech Jews we’d seen in the museum (Sigmund Freud was one).

Two of my grandparents were born in the US, and the other two came here from Russia well before WWII. I don’t know of any relatives who died in the Holocaust, and I’m not a very observant Jew. But I think all of us, Jew and Gentile, black and white, gay and straight, need to remember that human beings did this to other human beings, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Finding dinner was a bit of a goat-rope. First we went to a restaurant right near the museum that sounded great, but it was not yet 6:00 and the menu only included some uninspiring sandwiches and salads. The next place we tried, a bit of a hike away, was smoky and unappealing. To get to the third place we walked all the way back to the first one and past it (though it was now after 6:00, we didn’t want to go back in), but the third place was not only a smoking zone, it looked closed. Fortunately our fourth choice, a Burmese/Thai/Indian place called Orange Moon, was right across the street, open, nonsmoking, and smelled good. Service was quick and friendly, prices reasonable, but, alas, the two Burmese dishes we ordered were merely okay.

Took a tram back to the hotel. Shortly before boarding, Kate’s knee went out on her (it has done this before) so she limped back to the room. I hope it’ll be better after a good night’s rest.

Most of the laundry is mostly dry. I hope it, too, will be better after a good night’s rest.

Menhirs, marionettes, and museums

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The light in the hall outside our room stopped working some time yesterday, meaning that we had to use a flashlight to get down the stairs to breakfast, but nobody seemed to notice. For this and other reasons, we thought we might be alone in the hotel but there were two middle-aged British ladies at breakfast, and they said a friend of theirs had tried to book and been told it was full. (?) Certainly there were many more rooms and tables than we saw people. Maybe they only staff up to a certain level out of season?

Bread rolls here are long and narrow (I keep thinking they’re bananas), rather hard, and tightly curled inside, like croissants though not so rich. If you get a hot dog from a street cart, they spit one of these rolls lengthwise on a 1″ diameter spike and then put the sausage in the hole. I broke a roll open at breakfast and suddenly felt the physicality of the old expression “to break bread with someone” for the first time…

“Letni” (summer), seen often on signs, seemed vaguely familiar and I couldn’t figure out why… until I realized it’s Intel spelled backwards.

For our first stop this morning, we visited a stone circle near the town of Holasovice. I thought it was fascinating until we discovered that it was built by hippy-dippy neo-pagan “psychotronic technicians” in 2008. Nuclear reactor cooling towers on the horizon provided an interesting contrast. Next we visited Holasovice itself, with its “Farmer’s Baroque” village green. This is what a typical village square would have looked like in the mid-1800s, with its fish pond, frogs, scale for carts, tiny church, and enormous maypole. (Okay, that last would only have been there in certain months of the early 1800s.)

Next we went to Prachatice, with its fancy-pants medieval town square (they had a lot of money and power back in the day — salt traders from Salzburg were required to stop here, by royal decree) and National Museum of Czech Puppets and Circus. There we saw a great collection of puppets both old and new (including a family puppet theatre with its own painted orchestra pit, a king and queen very reminiscent of the ones from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and many many devils) and quite a bit of historical circus and magicians’ equipment (including a life-sized wax mermaid who breathed).

We considered stopping for lunch in Prahatice, but pressed on to Pisek, where Monika inquired of a local as to what might be open on a Sunday and we were directed to U Reineru (The Reiners’). Their English menu had a sense of humor, including sections labeled “All Breaded Up and Fried in Oil” and “From a Bull or a Cow, or maybe from a Hog” (I’m pretty sure these were deliberate, not errors). I ordered the “Reiner Cutlet” because I figured that if they put the family name on it, it’s probably good. Also ordered spinach, because, hey look, a vegetable! Took forever to arrive, but it was good when it did: breaded fried pork cutlet with ham and cheese inside and more cheese on top. Num.

I realize that everything I’ve been eating in Europe is delicious because I’ve been allowing myself to order dishes prepared with copious quantities of The Miracle Ingredient. (“Fat! It makes everything taste better!”) God knows how much weight I’ll have gained by the time we get home (4-7 miles of walking every day will help, of course) but I’m confident I’ll be able to get back on the eating-right horse and get in shape fairly quickly. Well, after Wiscon, anyway.

Pisek has an excellent museum with an eclectic collection of regional history and prehistory, a Gothic hall with the original black tile floor, a lapidarium of local stones, and — for some unknown reason — an extensive collection of coffeemakers. It’s a good thing we had Monika because the text was all in Czech; also, she was able to give us some essential background info. We gave the museum a “quick canter,” as suggested by the Rough Guide, and it was well worth it.

Drove to Prague, said goodbye to Monika and Peter, and checked into Hotel Petr (room quite small, otherwise nice). Walked a couple blocks to the nearest Metro stop, where we bought transit passes and looked in a bookstore for a good restaurant guide, since we’d found no Prague restaurant app and Yelp doesn’t know about this place. (TripAdvisor has some info but the app is not very well designed.) The Time Out book we bought agreed with other info we’d seen that Bar Bar, an artsy bar and restaurant, was good, so we took the tram two stops to that. Cool artsy decor, nonsmoking area, menu with many vegetarian options, and in the men’s room I used a urinal identical to Marcel Duchamp’s infamous “Fountain,” the like of which I have never before seen in the wild. Kate had tagliatelle with zucchini, sun-dried tomatoes, arugula, and capers; I had ratatouille with grilled polenta. Vegetables, yum.

After dinner we returned to the room to plan out our time in Prague. Tomorrow, I think, we will do laundry. Oh, the adventure.

Cesky Krumlov

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A few stray notes from yesterday… As we walked around the town, we saw many, many young people (many with large bottles) flowing toward the music festival. It’s very clear that we made the right decision to switch hotels. Also, although the hotel desk clerk told us she didn’t know this was happening, it’s just today, maybe it will end this afternoon, we got a copy of the program: the festival has been going on for three days already and runs until 1:30 AM every night. So… nice try, lady. I’d like to think that even without Monika we might have managed a solution, but Monika certainly made everything better and easier. Well worth the fairly large amount of money we’re paying for her services and Peter’s.

I also ought to note that wherever we have traveled in the Czech Republic we’ve found clean toilets, good toilet paper, plenty of hot water and water pressure, and free wi-fi. (The only hotel we’ve stayed at so far in this trip that lacked free wi-fi was in Bologna.) This definitely does not feel like a third-world or second-world country.

Breakfast was what we are coming to realize is a fairly standard Czech breakfast (rather similar to the Dutch, actually): corn flakes, yogurt, bread and rolls, an assortment of meats and cheeses, good coffee. The breakfast room was well hidden at the back of the restaurant, and our waitress was the same blonde from last night. Still no decaf.

After breakfast, drove to Cesky Krumlov, an amazingly picturesque medieval castle town, thoroughly infested with tourists. Every few steps revealed another beautiful vista, often with a castle or church tower perfectly framed at the end of a narrow alley. Perched on steep slopes at a tight bend of the river, you’re always rounding a curve or looking down on some other part of the town. It’s a popular place for weddings, and while we were there we saw many bridesmaids, and a bride arrived in a fabulous antique car. Also, there are bears (named Franz Josef and Maria Theresa) living in the moat.

For lunch: “wild goulash” with bread dumplings at the Hotel Barbora. Very tasty, but… wild WHAT, exactly? Fruit dumplings for dessert, with crumbled cheese.

After lunch, wandered around the town on our own, then met Monika for a tour of the Baroque castle theatre. This theatre is a real treasure, unique in the world — built and equipped in the late 1700s, used once, and then apparently never used again, it’s the best-preserved theatre of its vintage anywhere. Many of the original sets, costumes, props, and other equipment are here as well. The light in the theatre simulated candlelight and was astonishingly dim. Given that these operas were 4-6 hours long, it must have induced a rather dreamlike state. Also, I realized that opera glasses not only magnify, but like a telescope they also gather more light, thus giving the viewer more of a chance to see the performers’ expressions (this is, admittedly, just a guess on my part).

Our tour (in English, with an excellent guide) included the under-stage area, with the mechanisms that could affect a complete scene change in 6-10 seconds. Because candles were used for illumination, blackouts were not possible — instead they used fireworks to blind the audience briefly, and when their eyes cleared the new scenery would be in place. It must have been spectacular. It also explains why so many other theaters of the period burned down…

When we came out of the theatre it was beginning to rain, so we bid a fond farewell to lovely Cesky Krumlov and drove to Hluboka castle, the second-biggest castle in the Czech Republic. Hluboka is the seat of the Schwarzenbergs, whose arms include a severed Turk’s head with a raven plucking its eyes out, a gruesome symbol of a famous victory over the Turks which appears on many Schwarzenberg properties. A Schwarzenberg is today the Czech Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Hluboka is a national treasure, very popular with Czech and foreign tourists (and, apparently, another popular site for weddings, though we didn’t see any during our visit). The exterior is remarkably white and clean and well-preserved, festooned with deer heads (stone heads with real antlers, each with a label indicating who shot it and where). The inside is a dark and overwhelming gnarl of densely carved wood, paintings of nobles, Murano glass chandeliers, tapestries, suits of armor, and all that other castle-y stuff. It was very impressive and, again, showed more taste than San Simeon (at least it was consistent), but dark and oppressive — I’d much rather live at Schoenbrunn.

It was raining pretty hard now, so we declined a walk around the castle grounds and drove back to our hotel. After a short nap, I looked on TripAdvisor and found a nearby restaurant called “Life Is Dream” (in English) with exactly one review, but that review said “one of my favorite restaurants in not just The Czech Republic but in all of Europe.” The restaurant’s online menu seemed a little strange, maybe even over-the-top, but it promised vegetables so I talked Kate into it. After some difficulty getting ourselves into the non-smoking section (most restaurants in Ceske Budejovice are smoking, so this was a plus) we managed to order… we’ll, I’ll just quote from the English-language menu. Appetizer: “Rocket spring rolls: Rocket leaves with parmesan, peanut butter, rolled in Parma ham and sprinkled with pine nuts.” My main dish: “Leni’s dream: For all those conscious of a healthy diet, we take the opportunity to offer you a protein bomb. Fat free turkey meat prepared in a spicy yogurt crust served on a bed of red lentils with lots of excellent but often forgotten vegetables — beetroot, celery, white radish, soybeans and buckwheat.” Kate ordered a lamb pilaf and corn on the cob.

I must say that I have never eaten anything quite like that dinner. A very unusual combination of flavors, but tasty.

The check arrived in a tiny leather treasure chest surrounded by hard candies and cough drops.

Crisis averted in Ceske Budejovice

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Woke up 6:00 or so. Down to breakfast a bit before the official opening hour but they accomodated us anyway. Packed up, met Monika, dragged the bags out to the car while she took care of the bill, drove away.

Passed fields of bright yellow canola and gleaming solar panels, both due to EU renewable-energy regulations.

Stopped in Pehlrimov, “town of records,” to visit the House of Records and “Czech Golden Hands” museum. This museum displays many of the world’s biggest, smallest, most, etc. objects (well, maybe only the Czech Republic’s biggest etc.) as well as a collection of unusual items made by Czechs, such as dozens of objects made entirely of matches (including a playable guitar!), a working steam engine made of glass, and many Muppet-like crocheted dolls of figures from Czech history (including the Golem of Prague)! The photos below show me standing in front of the largest macaroni mosaic, and Kate adding a few stitches to the longest scarf (138 kilometers and still growing!).

Next, a brief stop at an incredibly cute little red castle, on an island in a manmade lake, called Cervena Lhota. This is the Pond District of Bohemia, where the land was too swampy to farm, so hundreds of years ago the water was diverted into many manmade ponds, thus creating a large carp-farming culture and a great deal of usable dry land. Carp are ever-present here, both on the menu and in the art. In Nativity scenes here, one of the shepherds is typically bringing the baby Jesus a carp (!?).

Traveling with Monika and Peter, our guide and driver, is like having a mom and dad who will take you to Gator Land, stop for ice cream whenever you want, and never make you kiss your stinky old aunt. They deal with navigation, parking, hotels, admissions, etc. for us and we do the fun stuff. One could get used to this…

In Trebon, we ate at a very nice restaurant, one of a pair called “Supina & Supinka” (Fish Scales & Little Fish Scales), where they claimed something identified on the English menu as “carp chips” was the speciality of the house. Somewhat dubiously, I ordered it. It was amazing! You could put this fabulous seasoned breading on a rock and it would be delicious.

You know how you finally figure out where everything is in the con hotel right around the time the con is over? That’s how it is on this trip with the streets, the transit system, the language, etc. in each new city.

Also, I’ve really been feeling the truth of the adage “No matter where you go, there you are.” Here we are in this very strange place and yet I am very conscious that I’m still me, with all my neuroses and attitudes, breathing air in the same way and otherwise interacting with my environment in the same way. Also, the birds are still birds, the trees are still trees, and the people are fundamentally still people. Not a unique insight, but it’s what I have to offer today.

After lunch we touristed in the little town of Trebon: visited the castle (mostly archives inside, not open to the public), climbed the bell tower, walked around the town, strolled around the pond and across the dam. Then drove on to Ceske Budejovice (aka Budweis, home of the original Budweiser beer) — at 100,000 people, the largest town we’ve visited in the Czech Republic. Its town square was large and bright — exactly what the town squares in all those small towns we’d visited (nice though they were) want to be when they grow up.

Our hotel, Solne Brany, was lovely, centrally located… and right across the river from a major music festival which, we discovered (and despite the desk clerk’s professions of ignorance) goes until 1:30 AM both days we’re here. Even with the windows shut and with the (probably sedate by comparison with later) afternoon music it was too loud to think straight. After considering the efficacy of earplugs, we called Monika and asked her to deal with it, then went for a walk. 45 minutes later, just as we were about to check out a restaurant for dinner, Monika called: they found someplace else. We decided to check the restaurant before heading back to hotel #1, and were intercepted by someone (a local? another tourist?) who said two other places nearby were much better.

Back at hotel #1, we found that Monika and Peter had already snagged our bags… except for the CPAP bag. Fortunately (“Ave Maria!” cried the desk clerk) it was eventually found. Hotel #2, Hotel Zatkuv Dum, was just a few blocks away as the crow flies or the pedestrian walks, but a half-hour drive due to one-way and pedestrian streets. We inspected the room before committing, it passed muster, and we were out the door heading for dinner while Monika and Peter were still doing paperwork at the front desk. They get a BIG tip.

At dinner I proposed a toast to Kate: “here’s to surviving a crisis.” “It was a problem, not a crisis,” she replied. “We have Staff, we sic’d ’em on it, and they dealt with it.” One could, as I say, get used to this. Of course, maintaining staff like this on a daily basis (and in the US, as opposed to Eastern Europe which, though it’s not as cheap as it used to be, is still pretty darn cheap) is more than even we could afford.

For dinner we wound up at “U 3 Sedlaku,” a pub that’s been on this spot since 1897. With Pilsner Urquell on tap and a menu in German featuring lots of schwein und wurst, I would describe it as a typical Bavarian beer hall, but I do get the impression it is actually a very typical Czech beer hall. I had poppy-and-sesame-crusted pork medallions with grilled vegetables, which was fab, and — though I don’t usually drink beer — a Pilsner Urquell, because how could one not.

After dinner, wandered the streets for a bit in search of our bearings and dessert. Wound up at the very pleasant terrace restaurant of our own hotel (#2) where we noted one of the dessert options was “zakvicky”, which all of our sources translated as “coffins.” Naturally, we had to order it. It turned out to be two small, indeed coffin-shaped, pastries made of a stiff light batter having a lot in common with meringue, topped with whipped cream and chocolate syrup. Alas, there was no decaf.

If that was the worst problem we face this trip, we’re doing great.

A day in Jindrichuv Hradec

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Got two short story acceptances in yesterday’s email, but I think I need to admit I’m not going to get any more writing done on this trip. Just too much mental energy is consumed by traveling.

Awake a bit before 7. Breakfast in hotel: corn flakes, muesli, and yogurt laid out on bar; plate of ham, sausage, and cheeses and basket of breads brought by waitress. Something smelled really good, probably roasting pork for tonight’s dinner. (The frying fish later in the day was not nearly so appetizing.)

After breakfast we walked to a nearby bakery to pick up some local treats, and saw the Prettiest Sandwiches Ever in the display case. I’m very glad we have German, it’s far more common than English here. I think I know the Czech word for “thank you” now, let’s see if I can add “good day” without losing it…

Met Monika outside the hotel at 9:00. Walked around the town, saw the outside of the castle (3rd largest in the country) and the pond (a manmade lake from the 10th century, where carp are raised), and visited the town’s brand-new museum of tapestry. They repair ancient tapestries here as well as making new ones, as they have done for centuries. Similar techniques of cleaning, spinning, and weaving to what we saw yesterday, but even more old-fashioned and hand-made. All information was presented in Czech by the guide but Monika translated the important bits.

For lunch, after considering several options we went back to the bakery next to our hotel for a couple of those pretty little baguettes, plus a cappuccino and a strawberry milk, then had a brief lie-down before we met up with Monika at the castle for the 1:00 tour. The interior of the castle is all Renaissance and Baroque, with many portraits of the former residents (it was owned by a total of 3 families in its history, but was grabbed by the state along with all the other nobles’ property in 1945), electrical fixtures dating from the 1880s, an impressive decorative grille covering the well, and an amazing circular concert hall. In this case the Czech guide was supplemented by a handout in English as well as Monika’s translation. After that we needed another nap.

We met Monika again at the city museum at 3:30. We started off with their famous mechanical Nativity, the crown of their collection of Nativity scenes, the holder of the record for world’s largest mechanical Nativity. It dates from 1935, I believe, and is almost fifty feet wide all told, four or five feet high, and populated by hundreds of figures three or four inches high, most of them moving. It was like those Christmas shop-window displays with the moving elves, only raised to the third or fourth power. Tacky, yes, but actually quite charming.

The rest of the museum was also rather charming, an idiosyncratic collection including artworks by local artists, information on local famous people including artist Holub Ludens and opera singer Ema Desinnova, two rooms showing typical homes of the bourgeoisie and farmers in the mid-1800s, a collection of guild signs, a couple dozen stone saints, an entire 19th-century pharmacy interior, a room full of smashed airplane bits from a WWII air battle that took place near here, and an extensive collection of Lada sewing machines. We never even saw the collection of painted marksmen’s targets. In this museum we had an English-speaking guide, but most of the artifacts were fairly self-explanatory… and for those we did not understand, the guide generally responded “we don’t know what that is either!” We’re always the ones to ask the difficult questions…

After the museum, we had an early dinner at an Indian restaurant, very good Indian for a small town in the Czech Republic. Yes, we should be partaking of the local cuisine, but we’ve been in Europe for two weeks, we’ll be in the Czech Republic for another week, and we wanted VEGETABLES.

Spent the evening blogging and lazing about. Tomorrow we hit the road again, to Ceske Budejovice (aka Budweis)!

Slavonice, Telc, Strmilov, Jindrichuv Hradec

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Awake 7:00. Very nice breakfast provided by hotel, table service with choice of Continental, British, American, French, and “Fitness” (muesli, yogurt, corn flakes, fruit). “Butter is ‘maslo’ and cream is ‘smetana’. What’s yogurt, ‘nietzsche’?” “Yogurt is ‘yogurt’ in every language. It’s a loan-food.” Huge disparity in size between teaspoons and tablespoons (all over Europe, but really noticeable here).

The overall flavor of Czech is not that dissimilar to German. I keep feeling at some level that if I just listened harder it would start to make sense.

Met Monika at 9:00; she presented us with a couple of prune kolachky (Danish), which were delicious. Drove off through pretty country on another gorgeous sunny day; stopped briefly for pix of a gorgeous castle over a river valley. Passed many lovely small villages and a line of bunkers built in the 1930s to defend against the Germans and/or Austrians — they were state-of-the-art and might have held, but the area was ceded to Hitler without a shot being fired.

Stopped in Slavonice, a Renaissance town with Baroque facades on all the buildings (a local noble had his castle re-done by an Italian architect and everyone with money in the region decided to copy him). The facades tend to be quite flat, with black-and-white graphics depicting either the facade of a much fancier building or biblical/mythological scenes (in one case, Genesis verses linked to the New Testament). Inside the tourist info office you can see some of the original wall frescoes. Passed Dacice, with not just one but three statues honoring the sugar cube, which was invented here (this is beet country, though due to EU regulations there is today no sugar production here). Saw maypoles in each town square we passed, each looking like a Christmas tree on a stick.

Came next to Telc, another Renaissance town, this one with porticoes like Bologna, and visited the castle there. It had an interesting little rococo sepulchral chapel, and many fairy-tale movies have been filmed here. Did a little shopping in downtown Telc; Kate bought an amber bracelet and earrings. We also looked at garnets (“Granat” in Czech) — Czech garnets are small, that and their color explains the name, which is clearly related to “pomegranate.”

For lunch, according to Google Translate, we had pizza with ketchup, floodplain, and ermine. No idea what the last two were in reality, but the tomato sauce was indeed very much like ketchup… pretty good though. (Later: niva (floodplain) and hermelin (ermine) are both cheeses.) I keep seeing the word “potreby” (necessities, gear, supplies) on signs and being reminded of “Potrzebie” (non-word from Mad Magazine). It turns out the words are, in fact, related (see Wikipedia for details).

Drove to Strmilov, an otherwise-unremarkable town which is the home of the only remaining weaving mill in the Czech Republic. Kate learned of its existence from someone’s blog and asked Monika to set up a tour. It’s a family-run mill with only 4 employees and equipment from the 1930s. We got a tour from Dad (5th generation) and son Philip (6th generation), all in Czech with Monika translating. Many of the Czech spinning and weaving terms were unfamiliar to her, but from context we could tell her the English terms. It was very similar to Pendleton and other mills we have visited, but smaller and a lot more old-fashioned. Also they roast their own coffee. We bought a lovely blanket for 980 CKR ($50).

As we drove to Jindrichuv Hradec, the largest town we’ve seen since Vienna, a light drizzle began to fall. Our hotel, “Penzion Na 15. poledniku” (“Pension at 15 degrees,” named for the latitude line a few dozen meters away) is a smallish guest house, our room tucked under the eaves on the 2nd (US 3rd) floor, with a great view of the church. We spotted a stork in a nest atop a chimney nearby.

TripAdvisor and other websites were very little help in locating food nearby, and there was not a lot of foot traffic downtown. One hotel restaurant looked good but was full with a Chinese tour group. We didn’t want pizza or Chinese. We finally found the White Lady hotel restaurant, which looked good. As seems to be fairly typical in these tourist towns, the waiter had a smattering of German and English (mostly German) and the menu was multilingual (Czech, German, English). Appetizer: potato pancakes with smoked meat inside, nummy. Main course: I ordered the “Devil’s Bite,” which was described as pork with spicy peppers wrapped in a potato pancake and served with shredded cabbage. What arrived was pork and mushrooms in a (curry?) cream sauce with caraway seeds, no potato, no vegetable. Perhaps I would have been better off if I had not tried to order in Czech? Weirdly, when we looked at the menu again (thinking it might be the thing next to what I’d pointed to) we could not identify anything on the menu that might have been what I got. It was tasty though, I’m satisfied, and dinner for two cost only 350 crowns ($17). Hey, what would be the point of travel if it didn’t include a few surprises? The whole production did take quite a while, we didn’t get back to the room until 9:00.

Welcome to the Czech Republic!

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Awake 7:00. Yogurt for breakfast, finished packing, cleaned up apartment, whipped out a quick blog post (no time for photos though), locked up, downstairs right at 9:00 just as our Czech guide Monika (and Peter the driver) showed up.

Some adventures getting out of town through May Day parades and associated traffic. Passed Hundertwasser’s incinerator on the way out of town. Many windmills (of the modern, power-generating variety) and cute little dorfs in the Austrian countryside. Tchaikovsky and Strauss on the CD player, later pop (but NOT American pop for a change, unless you count a heavily-accented “Girl from Ipanema”). Czech border had a structure but no staff, we drove right through.

This is Lichtenstein country; the same wealthy family that now owns the country of that name originated and made their fortune here, largely by sucking up to the Habsburgs (and by being cunning financiers). First stop was a Lichtenstein colonnade with a view of the countryside below. This whole area was known as The Garden of Europe, lovingly managed by Lichtenstein gardeners since the 1300s and a major horticultural school. It was a Lichtenstein hunting range between the summer and winter palaces.

We then visited both palaces, one in the town of Valtice, the other in Lednice (on its own extensive grounds). At the former I entered the bathroom and was asked by the lady in the booth for 5 crowns (25c). The smallest thing I had was a 100-crown bill ($5) and she could not deal with it. Fortunately Monika (on the other side of the same booth!) could cover for me.

Our visit to the summer palace in Lednice began with the Baroque (!) stables, which were not kept up well by the Communists (who seized all the nobles’ property in 1945), then proceeded to the main house, in “English Gothic” style (looking rather like my college campus except that it was uniformly stuccoed in an unfortunate golden/peach color). We also saw the extensive gardens, greenhouse, decorative Oriental outbuilding, 19th-century faux Roman aqueduct, and faux Moorish minaret, and happened on a couple of very large birds (one a golden eagle) and a mob of about 20 very large dogs (Irish wolfhounds).

Lunch at “My Restaurant” (associated with “My Hotel” which seems to be a chain). With the help of an English menu, managed to order salad with grilled goat cheese, lamb with spinach, veal with peas and carrots; a little heavy (this will be par for the course, I think) but good. Standard operating procedure here seems to be that after you order you receive a plate with your napkins, forks, and knives. We had no idea how to tip until Monika appeared and told us it’s 5-7%.

After lunch we proceeded to Mikulov, a delightful old town with medieval and Renaissance elements, where we visited the castle and the old Jewish quarter and stopped for ice cream. All so very picturesque! I took over 200 photos and couldn’t bear to cut them down to less than 20 (below). It was a very sunny and warm day, but with a nice breeze that kept it from getting too hot. These little hill towns are reminiscent of our time in rural France.

In Znojmo (pronounced “znoymo”) we took an underground tour of the extensive crypts that were carved out under the town beginning in the middle ages, used for food storage and retreat from invaders. Today they are basically completely empty, so the tour has dressed up some rooms with skeletons, giant papier-mache bats, etc. Interesting combination of genuine historical interest with cheap tacky tourist trap.

After returning to the surface, we walked through mostly empty streets (due to the May Day holiday) up to St. Catherine’s Rotunda, a fortress and chapel dating from the 900s, with a fabulous view of the town (including unique town hall tower and two picturesque churches) and the river valley below. Then to our hotel, Althansky Palace, which shows every sign of having been an actual palace in the last century — a lovely hotel, with wifi and everything. Monika checked us in and then said goodbye until 9:00 tomorrow. I think we have enough Czech to get us through until then. Monika and Peter keep carrying our bags for us… I feel kind of weird about that.

Had a bit of a lie-down, then looked into dinner. TripAdvisor and others recommended Na Vecnosti, a vegetarian(!) restaurant nearby (the “(!)” is because Znojmo is not a large town by any means). We found it and it was open (despite the holiday — which, come to think of it, explains the shortage of staff we’ve been seeing). English menu, German-speaking waiter, our minimal Czech, it all worked out… though it took a while to figure out that the “special menu” card was not a set menu of five courses but the daily specials for the five weekdays. Anyway, we had an “Arab salad,” halubky (Czech gnocchi) with cheese and fried onions, and a couscous dish with tofu, stewed plums, and cashews. All quite tasty, though even at a vegetarian restaurant the side dishes on offer were all potatoes, bread, and rice with not a green vegetable in sight. Also, for future reference, one cider for the two of us would have sufficed.

Vienna: photos from the last two days

We have wifi at today’s Czech hotel, so I’m posting these photos from our last two days in Vienna while I can. No telling what kind of connectivity we’ll have going forward.

I haz a snake. Also a skull.

I think it’s a hair dryer, but I wouldn’t put my head in it.

Goofus and Gallant, 15th-century style.

Kate contemplates the world from a Vienna cafe.

Corridor at the Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der bildenden Künste. The shadow on the stairs at the end makes it seem much longer than it is.

Austrian Parliament.

Everyone wants their picture taken with the Goddess of Justice.

St. Stephan’s Church, known as “Steffie,” ensnared in a web of tram wires.

Bathroom at Kunst Haus Wien, AKA the Hunderdtwasser museum.



Rolling courtyard in front of Hundertwasserhaus. (What’s that British phone box doing here?)

Box seats at The Sound of Music. (I think our seats, in the orchestra, were better.)

Curtain call at The Sound of Music.