Slideshow

Prague Part I

So much to share it will take two posts!

Early Tuesday we left Vienna and took a ride through beautiful farm country and small towns to our final destination, Prague (Praha to the natives). 

After a quick lunch at our hotel, we set out on a walking tour of the "Old City" area. Prague has been a thriving city for over 1,100 years. It is the home to Franz Kafka and the Golem; two of the strangest characters of all time. One of the city's great charms is the architecture. There was never any thought to tearing down old buildings (as in our "urban renewal"), so entire blocks are a fascinating mixture of Romanesque, Baroque, Rococo, Renaissance, and modern architecture, often, a "new" building has been built right on the foundation of an older one! The buildings are also decorated (via color, statues, ornamentation) to be unique. Here are some examples.


There used to be 13 huge towers surroudng the city (part of the wall); now only two remain. We saw an astronomical clock which has been keeping the correct time (plus moon phases, month of the year, etc) for 600 years (with, one would assume, some adjustments for leap year, etc.). It puts on quite a show every hour from 9 am - 9 pm and must really be seen to be believed.

Later, on our way to a wonderful dinner at Kampa Park restaurant, we crossed the Charles Bridge. This iconic structure was built beginning in 1357.

Along the 650 foot bridge are 30 stautues, most with religious significance (and yes, those are Hebrew words surroundig the cross in the picture below).

Then, dinner overlooking the Moldau River at Kampa Park restaurant (more on that in the next post).

It was still light out when we walked back at 9:15, and there were a lot fewer tourists around.  The main street of this area is totally full of tourist stores, ranging from the cheapest t-shirts and bumper stickers to the most expensive crystal and garnet (both local products). In a sense, it reminded us of Venice; the old buildings with the capitalistic catering to the tourists. However, instead of the Venetian masks, many of Prague's stores sell marionettes. We thought this was just a gimmicky thing, but our guide told us today that these hand-made puppets were actually used over a hundred years ago for a very good reason. At that time German was declared the official language and it was forbidden to speak Czech. German was taught to the children in the schools. But the people did not want their language to die, so they used the puppets to teach the children old folk tales in Czech! This is also a reason why Prague was not bombed during the war; Hitler felt that this area was really part of Germany, so he did not want to destroy his "own" territory. This is also why there are only a few war memorials in this city.

Wednesday began with a tour of the Prague Castle and St. Vitus' Cathedral. According to Guiness, this is the biggest castle in the world! ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prague_Castle and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Vitus_Cathedral) It is a huge complex of buildings actually built over many centuries (and again, in many different architectural styles). It is currently used as the President's offices, so we were not able to go in. But we were able to tour the Cathedral. Its beginnings date from the 15th century, but much of the work was not completed until 1929 in honor of the 1,000th year of St. Vitus. Even today, there are many parts of the exterior that are not done, but they spend so much time and money on just maintaining the rest it is questionable whether it ever will be finished. We have visited a lot of churches, but this one has to be one of the most amazing. The structure is an immense Gothic stonework, and the walls have the most beautiful stained glass windows (one exception is a rare painted glass window done by Mucha - see below).

From this, you can only imagine what it looks like in person.

Then we took a tour of the Strahov Library ( http://www.strahovmonastery.cz/ ). And it was actually a tour thanks to Tauck (our tour company). All other mere tourists can only look inside from the doorway. OK, so big deal...it's a library. Well, this IS a big deal! The library building itself dates from the 1700s and has beautiful frescoes on the walls and ceilings. But the 30,000 volumes(and antique globes) are much older than that! The oldest is the Strahov Gospel (the library is part of a monastery) from 860. No typo there: 8-6-0!  The books are in 22 languages; the 22nd being represented by a solitary bible in an Eskimo-Lappland language!



After the visit to the library, Wendy went to Terezin (Theresienstadt) and Wayne continued to explore the city.

Terezin was an altogether different experience from Auschwitz.  A transit camp in a repurposed medieval fortress, Terezin also is well known as the Nazi’s showcase camp for a Red Cross visit in early 1944. In preparation for that visit, the camp was scrubbed and manicured (with the center square beautified) and prisoners not only gave a musical performance but were instructed to “be happy.”  It worked. Ironically, Terezin was named in honor of Maria Theresa, the Hapsbourg empress, who actually had promoted a new tolerance of all religious faiths, including the jews.
Because the camp was only meant to be a temporary stop, Nazi censorship of the prisoners was minimal so there was significant underground cultural activity—theatre, painting/drawing, poetry and other writing, and music.  Indeed, you may be familiar with the book I Never Saw Another Butterfly, a collection of children’s poems and drawings from Terezin. A friend had told me told me that he was more touched by Terezin than Auschwitz and I was not quite sure how to interpret that.  After having visited, I understand because Terezin put a much more human face on the Shoah. Auschwitz/Birkenau was raw and Terezin was refined, but nonetheless just as horrific.  There is a relatively new museum with galleries of the artwork, musical compositions, and poetry—as well as re-constituted living spaces (complete with clothing and luggage), and very moving memorials in several locations.  But what was most moving was the beginning of the exhibit—dedicated to the children of Terezin.  When I saw the name of a child (under her butterfly painting) with whom I share a birthday, I started to shudder.  In the next room were the names of children with their birth dates and dates of death (or departure from Terezin) listed; I could barely catch my breath.  These precious children were contemporaries of my parents.  Their crime was being born Jewish.

(The caption on the original picture reads
"A Bohemian paradise 300 miles south of Berlin in Czechoslovakia")

The design and storyline of the exhibit were so powerful, professional, and respectful.  The visit to Terezin, in juxtaposition with the visit to Auschwitz/Birkeau truly provided me with the additional emotional intelligence I was searching for on this journey. 
Meanwhile, back in Prague, first off for Wayne was lunch at an outdoor cafe: the traditional goulash with dumplings and a beer, Then a subway ride to get close to the Mucha Museum. Most of you have probably never heard of Alphonse Mucha (we know we hadn't), but you have all seen his work. This Czech born artist was a leader of the late 19th century Art Nouveau movement and created (among other works) the captivating Sarah Bernhardt posters. Here is one of the most famous ("La Samaritaine").


Dinner was at another famous restaurant, V Zatisi "V" in Czech means "in". A lot of restaurants are called "V something". (See the "Prague for Foodies" post for details.)

Thursday was our last official day on the tour (we are staying through Saturday).

We began with a tour of the Estates Theater. This theater was built in 1781 - 1783. In 1787, Mozart himself conducted the premiere of his opera Don Giovanni there. And we have tickets to see the very same opera there on Friday night! (Not sure if Mozart will be conducting or not.) Before we left, we were treated to some period music played by a 7-piece ensemble of the theater's musicians.
We’ve had some type of Jewish tour in each city; the tour in Prague was the most complete.  The Prague Jewish community is over one thousand years old –with the Golden Age occurring in the 16th and 17th centuries. Per the explanation given earlier, Prague was spared extensive bombing during WWII because Hitler considered Czechoslavakia to be part of Germany. Many of the old synagogues and Judaica were left unharmed because Hitler wanted to create a museum on the “extinct Jewish race.”  That  aspiration aside, there was a lot to see including, but not limited to: the Pinkas Synagogue (now serving as a Holocaust memorial to Czechoslavakia and Prague victims of the Shoah), the 13th century Old/New Synagogue (an orthodox synagogue that, with only a few exceptions, has been in use continuously since it was built; even all through WWII), The Spanish Synagogue (given the name because of the Moorish design; Reform Ashkenazi Jews worshipped here—it is now used as a concert venue; they were having a Gershwin concert Thursday evening), the Jewish Town Hall (complete with Hebrew letters on the clock), the Maisel synagogue (repurposed as the main building of the largest Jewish museum with many beautiful examples of Judaica), the chilling yet impressive Jewish cemetery where over 100,000 people are buried in 12 layers (from 1489-1737), and the Klausen Synagogue.  The buildings were remarkably well preserved and the visit was extraordinarily moving.
There is also a "New Cemetery" (in use since the late 1700s). The people were buried there moving from one side to the other. In one area there is a large swath with no graves. This represents the missing graves of the two generations of people wiped out during the war.
Our final stop on the tour was the farewell dinner. Once again, Tauck came through with an amazing treat. The dinner was held at Lobkowicz Palace. The Lobkowicz family has been nobles in this area for 700 years! We were given an introduction by the current head of the family William Lobkowicz ("Mr.", as all titles were abolished in 1918!), who was actually born and raised in Boston!
To read more of this incredible story, see http://www.lobkowicz.cz/en/.
We had a private audioguide tour of their "collections" which included paintings of most of the old family members, a room full of exquisite and one-of-a-kind china, a weapons room (guns, chain mail, swords), and other miscellaneous artifacts. But the most amazng was the Music Room, which contained (among other things), the original hand-written scores, of Beethoven's 3rd and 5th symphonies, with personal annotations by the composer! This was not just "obtained" somewhere along the way.....it was the 6th Prince Lobkowicz who actually commissioned these works! The Eroica is dedicated to him!
As if this weren't enough, the castle is on a high hill overlooking Prague. So we were afforded an outstanding view as we dined in one of the Palace's rooms.....but more on that in a later post.

All for now,
love, w&w

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