Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Day 10: Homeward Bound

After the organ concert at Saint Giles, Dear Husband and I returned to our hotel. We had packed between returning from Terezín and heading off to dinner with the group, so all that was left to do was to prop up our feet and turn on the telly. You see, we were in Europe while group play for the European Men's Soccer Championship being held in Poland and the Ukraine, so every evening there were two games on. If you've never watched television in Europe, they only show commercials at the ends of programs, not in the middle. Can you imagine a ref having to stop the play of a soccer match for a tv time out? Us, neither. Now, DH and I are not soccer hooligans, but we are general sports fans, and unlike most Americans, we appreciate a good Fussball match. I frequently seem to be in Germany during World Cup matches, so I associate abundant soccer with Europe, and the Euro 2012 is one of the things that made this trip so enjoyable for me.

Something else, which gave me Heimweh (homesickness) for my time living in Germany to do research, was sleeping with a Bettdecke (comforter). DH is not a fan, because he frequently gets too warm when he sleeps, and these were the real deal. I, however, find them comfortable and snuggly and just regulate my body temperature by increasing or decreasing the number of appendages exposed to the night air.

We turned in early that night, because we had to pick up our boxed breakfasts in time to get on the bus at 6am to ride to the airport for our flight to our flight to a bus back home. The boxed meal (really more of a lunch, with a cheese sandwich, a meat sandwich, fruit, and juice) couldn't hold a candle to the excellent breakfasts we enjoyed at our hotels. I was actually rather amused at the surprise and delight our trip-mates expressed when they saw the spreads at each new hotel. There was typical cold/European fare: breads and rolls, whole and chopped fruit, meats and cheeses, veggies, yogurt and muesli, hard- or soft-boiled eggs. And there was hot/American fare: scrambled eggs, pancakes, bacon or sausage, hash browns, cereal with milk. We generally can't afford to stay at places with breakfasts as nice as these were--and I snub my nose at American hotels that call coffee, muffins, and some whole fruit a "Continental breakfast"--but I sure do enjoy them when we get the chance. The photo is from Prague, on a morning when I had orange juice, Bircher-Benner muesli with yogurt and rote Grütze (whole sweetened and preserved berries), pink grapefruit slices, and a piece of dark bread with spreadable cheese and a slice of ham. The roll, cucumbers, and salmon salad were for the bus ride to Terezín. DH generally had fruit and some kind of pastry or bread; he tried the pancakes one place and reported they weren't any good, unfortunately.

The other photos are from the evening of Day 8. After we got back from Ta Fantastica, in the lobby we met other group members planning their alternative day of touring (instead of the trip to Terezín). They had been interested in sampling the local liquors, and I just had to recommend sliwowice (slivovitz). DH and I shared a glass of this Czech plum brandy in honor of my paternal grandfather, whose voice we can both hear in our heads saying, "Nastrovje!" ("Cheers!") Oh, but it buuurns going down. (See before/after snapshots above.)

The journey home was pretty uneventful for us. We were able to find group members willing to trade seats so we could sit together, the plane was not unbearably hot, and no luggage was lost--although I did succumb to a nap between the airport and home. Nevertheless, I had no difficulty falling asleep that night, as I've always found coming back from Europe easier than going over. We've long since unpacked, done loads of laundry, cleaned the house, and moved on. Writing this blog posts was the last thing to do, to chronicle a really wonderful working-vacation.

In conclusion, thank you for reading! It was fun to relive our trip for you. Postings will definitely slow down now, as I'm trying to get a third dissertation chapter drafted by the time classes start in August. Or by Sept. 1. Or Labor Day... Please continue to share here or elsewhere how you and your family are doing. I love to keep in touch.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Day 9: Terezin

Ladislav Chochole, "nameless"
On our last full day in Europe, most of the group took a day trip on the bus an hour north of Prague to Terezín, originally a garrison town, then a Jewish ghetto, and now a tourist attraction. Emperor Josef of Austria did not trust his neighbor to the north, so from 1780-1790 he had a fort built on the Ohře River near Bohemia's border with Prussia/Germany. You can see the grassy dry moat on the left; I think our guide said it would take 24 hours to completely fill the ditches from the river. He also took us through about a mile of some of the subterranean tunnels designed for communication, storage, and defense. However, the fort was never used defensively, because 15-20 years later, the enemy became France, first under the Revolution and then under Napoleon Bonaparte.

Instead, the fort was used as a military prison, all the way into the 1930s. The photo on the right shows Dear Husband exiting a dark, solitary confinement cell next to the famous one (#1) in which Gavrilo Princip died of tuberculosis in 1918. He did not survive the war he "started" by assassinating Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914.

Sometime after the Anschluss of Austria into the Third Reich, the Nazis began using the fort at "Theresienstadt" as a concentration camp, mostly for political prisoners, later for POWs, and also for Jews. We saw the simple wooden bunks and scant toilet facilities dozens or hundreds of prisoners shared. The newer solitary confinement cells (which were lit) seemed positively luxurious by comparison. Below is the shaving room that was specially constructed for a visit by the International Red Cross and was used exactly once for that purpose.

We were also shown the embankment used for executing Gentile prisoners and the gallows for the Jewish prisoners. I found that extremely disturbing and chose not to take any photographs. I did leave a stone at the gallows, though, as I learned to do on my first visit to Buchenwald. 
Around the corner was the memorial by Ladislav Chochole, "nameless," the photo at the head of this entry.

Theresienstadt is of course most famous for the Jewish ghetto on the other side of the river from the fort. The SS removed the 7,000 Czechs who were living there and turned the town into a way-station on the way to the extermination camps. The population at any one time was easily 50,000 internees. Here are some other numbers:
Total number of inmates: 150,000+
Died of disease, malnutrition, mistreatment: ~33,000
Deported to Auschwitz, Treblinka, etc.: ~88,000
Survivors: 17,247

While at the visitors' center, we watched a documentary about the ghetto that included excerpts from the propaganda film the Nazis made about the village Hitler had given to all those happy Jews. The center also has a display of the children's artwork and poetry, and a very long list of the names of the ones murdered. The museum, meanwhile, displays artifacts, with one room set up like a women's quarters, one room devoted to the musical scene in the ghetto, and quite a few rooms showing artwork by prisoners, both that commissioned by the Nazis for reports and illicit artwork depicting the realities of life in Theresienstadt. One of the most chilling was an official illustration in the style like many I find in my research on the German Hygiene Museum, only this one champions the removal of unproductive mouths (i.e. those belonging to anyone over the age of 65). The children's opera Brundibar is only the most famous piece produced in the ghetto, as many talented artists passed through, as well as engineers, doctors, lawyers, and other educated Jews.

Back at the fortress across the river, one room has been turned into a chapel of sorts (left). I believe the statue in the background is of a grieving woman or mother. In each of the recesses along the wall, a little dish holds ashes from one of the six extermination camps: Auschwitz, Chelmo, Belzec, Majdanek, Sobibor, Treblinka--and Theresienstadt. I didn't notice it at the time, but the lighting and the gold lining produces the glow of seven furnaces in the photo. Finally, the cemetery: a large cross was erected shortly after the liberation, but the Communist propaganda erected after that has since been taken down. The star of David mounted on a pile of stones is relatively recent.

It was a short hour's ride back to the city, but DH and I were glad I had pilfered little sandwiches from breakfast that morning, as no plans had been made for lunch. I will conclude my narration of our trip in the next post.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Day 8: Concert at St. Giles

When last I left you, Dear Reader, Dear Husband and I were scarfing down a decadent dessert and rushing off to the organ concert I had promised him. While I like organ concerts well enough, and he enjoys art museums, I won't rule out the possibility that our itinerary involved a bit of compromise.

Of all the churches we visited on our trip to Central Europe, St. Giles in Prague may have been the most decked out. We're talking seriously baroque here: gold, accents on everything; rich folds in the "fabric" of statues' robes; helical marble columns that must have been super expensive, because they had to purchase larger chunks of marble so that half of them could be chipped away to make spirals; fancy woods on the side altars; everything decorated with spirals and curlicues--and did I mention the gold? To the left is the view of toward the main altar from our seats in the back pew, whence we slipped, as quietly as possible, as the concert had already started while we wound our way through the streets of Old Town Prague to Husova street. Because we were running late, I did not stop to consider the price we paid for the tickets. Not only was it more than I expected, once I had done the math in my head, but it came out to about $23 for each of us. That much wasn't in my budget, so we hope the musicians were well compensated, after the ticket-taker, program printing costs, etc. Apparently the church has hired a company to promote these nightly concerts, which are supposed to raise money for renovations of the organ.

The evening we were there, we heard an organist, a violinist, and a wonderful soprano perform a variety of mostly religious pieces by a veritable Who's Who of Baroque, Classical, and Romantic music: Bach, Vivaldi, Albinoni, Mozart, Franck, Dvořák, Schubert ("Ave Maria"), Gounod ("Ave Maria"), Tchaikovski, and Widor ("Toccata"). All the musicians were quite talented, but we agreed that the flashy finale was really a let-down. You see, DH has taught himself to play the organ, he's very good at it, and he knows how to play the famous organ part from Widor's "Toccata." Lots of churches advertise organ concerts in Prague, and he noticed that they all seem to end with that piece, probably to impress the tourists. It's fast and sounds tricky. Unfortunately, St. Giles has lots of marble and not so much sound-absorbing material in it. So when the organist played the "Toccato" all fast and flashy like, the sounds just washed over and into each other, completely losing the momentum of piece. (We laughed about that on our way to the Metro later, that the organist had ruined the momentum of the piece by taking too quick a tempo!) In addition, he didn't play the coda, which has my favorite part, in the pedals. After the sound finally ebbed away, I turned to DH and said, "Grab your rubber ducky, and let's get out of this bathtub!"

The promotional literature boasts St. Giles has the "Greatest Classical Organ in the Town." It dates to 1733, with an extension in 1888 and more work in 1969. DH notes that much of the impressive music played on the organ probably required those improvements, so it's not exactly authentic. It's got 3 manuals, 50 ranks, and 3500 pipes and certainly sounded impressive. The wooden carvings on its casing are said to be very ornate, but it was too dark and back-lit for either of us to get a good photo after the music ended, and we could get up from our seats to look at the organ loft above and behind us.

While listening to the concert, of course I looked around a lot. For 641 years old, the Church of St. Jilji is looking pretty good. The flyer we got notes more than once that the church was founded in 1238, but of course the existing structure isn't that old. Consecrated in 1371, the building has Gothic architecture to go with the Baroque interior. Before he went over the bridge and into the river, John Nepomuk was probably active in this community, and there is a side altar to him. Since 1625, the building has belonged to the neighboring Dominican monastery (except during the Communist period). The most damage it has sustained was a lightning strike and fire in 1432 in the north steeple, which is still shorter than the south steeple. Click on the link above if you want to see more/ better photos of interior.

To the right you can see (sort of) the absolutely beautiful fresco work done on the ceiling, which was supported by striking white Romanesque pillars topped in gold work. The paintings show the celebration of the Dominican Order, the victory of faith over heresy, and the legends of Sts. Giles, Dominic, and Thomas Aquinas. As I learned later, St. Giles (c. 650-c.710) was a hermit of Greek extraction living in what is now the south of France. His only companion was a red deer, who may have supplemented his vegetarian diet with her milk. Anyway, one day the king was hunting in the forest, pursued the deer back to Giles's hermitage, and accidentally wounded the saint while aiming for the animal. Giles later founded a Benedictine monastery. His symbols are a deer and an arrow; his feast day is 1 September; and he is the patron saint of hunters, the shipwrecked, beggars, nursing mothers, and those with disabilities like leprosy and mental illness.

Our last full day in Europe was considerably more somber, as we took a day trip out to the prison and ghetto at Terezín/Theresienstadt.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Day 8: TRA la la la, LA la la la

Having been set free to explore the capital of the Czech Republic after our afternoon concert, we gathered in the evening at an art nouveau-style restaurant. Hopefully above you can see part of a colorful mural of a bucolic rural scene. The windows were of beautiful stained glass, and there were decorations on the walls, which were blue below and white above. A strolling accordion player and "his wife" the bassist came around in "traditional costumes" to serenade us. At one point, Dear Husband and I and another couple got up to dance a polka in the aisle. When they figured out we were a singing group, they played a couple of tunes for us to sing along to. Funnily enough, even "You Are My Sunshine" sounds like a drinking song, when played on an accordion. For their last number, they invited us to "sing in Czech"--i.e., the "tra la la las" of the chorus of a popular folk ditty. Imagine my surprise when it turned out I had learned the song at Sokol gymnastics coaching camp in Barryville, NY, the summer I turned 13! I still remembered most of the first verse and then joined in heartily on the chorus, which DH captured (below, left). I dug my singing manual out of the closet to find the words again. They go like this:

Tancuj, tancuj, vykrucaj, vukrucaj, vukrucaj. Len mi piecku nesrucaj, nesrucaj. Dobra piecka na zimu, na zimu. Každy nema perinu, perinu. TRA la la la, LA la la la, ...

"Dance, whirl around. Just don't knock over the stove! The stove is necessary for winter. Not everyone has a feather quilt for sleeping. TRA la la la, LA la la la..."

Dinner began, of course, with soup. The entree was chicken, peeled boiled potatoes, and--gasp!--mixed vegetables (below). Dessert was a delectable crepe with whipped cream and chocolate sauce, and below is all that was left before I remembered to snap a photo. But we were trying to finish our food as quickly as possible, so as not to be late to that organ concert we had been trying to find the night before, and which is the subject of the next post.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Tickling the Ivories

Look, Ma! No keys!
If irregularly timed and vegetable-less meals were one irritation of our choir trip through Central Europe, the other was generally poor instruments. Being a conservatory-trained musician, Dear Husband, DMA, was looking forward to sharing music inspired by the places we went and some of the famous composers who worked there. Alas, it was not to be. Every time we arrived at a venue (with the exception of Vienna), the question was, What can DH play? Is there a working organ? Will he be allowed to use it? How big will the keyboard and pedals be? How many stops will it have? Is there a piano? Or at least a keyboard?

In Budapest, DH could not use the recently refurbished antique organ, and there wasn't a piano, but both the modern organ and the keyboard were decent replacements. For our scheduled but informal concert in Eisenstadt (above), there was no instrument on the stage whatsoever, although DH had seen a grand piano in promotional images. Turns out it was locked on a lift behind the curtains, so that concert was a capella, and he sang with the group.

Things went well enough at the Karlskirche in Vienna, but the St. Nicholas church in Prague turned out to be a disappointment. They don't let outside groups use their beautiful, refurbished, antique organ (photo in the last post). No matter that DH has a doctoral degree (in piano) and decades of experience (on the organ): no exceptions. Instead, there was a weak electronic keyboard (the black rectangle in the background the photo, right) and a sorry excuse for an organ, a single electronic keyboard attached to a set of pedals. DH used it for the one song for which the audience really needed to hear the piano/organ part and the keyboard for everything else; there was no organ music on this concert.

Now, I can understand the organizers' hesitancy to allow just any Joe Shmoe off the street play the organ, especially after its refurbishment. But if I were an audience member, I would have been appalled to think the church promotes itself as a venue for concerts, brings in groups that (supposedly) have talent, and then I have to listen to such "machines," as the maestra calls them. As if to salt the wound, after the concert, the man running it presented the choir director with a CD...of a recital on the organ!

After we got back to that States, I happened to meet some doctoral students in composition, one of whom has had works premiered in Prague. I told him our story, and he agreed that the venue operators in the city and at St. Nicholas are protective of their instruments. So it wasn't just us.

Our tour guide must have felt sorry for DH, because he used his organization's connections to get DH a half hour of "play time" on the mechanical pipe organ from 1702 at St. Francis of Assisi, a beautiful baroque church at the foot of the Charles Bridge. The church belongs to the Order of the Knights of the Cross with a Red Star, the only knights order founded in Bohemia, and it wasn't destroyed by Hussites in the 15th century because of the order's charitable work with the poor and sick. The building's architecture is interesting, having a tall cupola with a fresco of "The Last Judgment" and underground chambers of the earlier, Gothic iteration of the church, visible through three "peek holes" in the floor.

To the right you can see the keyboard that Mozart himself supposedly once played, when he was in Prague for the opening(s) of his opera(s). DH joked he wasn't going to wash his hands anymore, lest he wash off what he was sure was oil from the fingertips of the genius himself. It wasn't a very big organ--like the one in the Karlskirche, not big enough to play most Bach organ works. But the designers did use a clever little trick to increase the lower range of the keyboard. Take a look at the photo to the right. You might have noticed that the white and black keys are reversed. DH says he doesn't know when the convention switched to lower keys being white and upper keys being black. Now, if you look just above his hands on the lower manual, and to the right on the upper manual, you can see a couple of "double-decker" white keys. They're for playing a short, broken octave with split keys. I would try to explain it to you but it would be a disaster, so just click on the link in the previous sentence and scroll down to "broken octave" if you're interested.

Directly above DH's hands are a couple of turned wooden knobs. (There's also one in the upper foreground of the shot.) Those are the stops. Pulling one of the fourteen stops engaged the mechanism that regulated air flow through the pipes. What was neat is that the part of the console above the manuals has a carved wooden screen in front of it instead of being solid. Every time DH hit a key, we could watch the thin wooden dowels shifting up and down, making a clickityclackety sound that probably wasn't loud enough to disturb listeners down on the floor.

If you can believe it, there was yet more music in store for us on Day 8, so keep reading!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Day 8: Concert at St. Nicholas

The Saint Nicholas church in the Old Town Square is a small but gorgeous example of baroque architecture in white and gold. On the right you can git a dim idea of the ceiling painting in the chancel, while on the left the sky is a deceptive blue; it was really a rather grey and cool day. This building dates to the 1730s and is a smaller, less ornate version of the Cathedral of St. Nicholas in the Lesser Town Square we had seen (from the outside) the night before. And no wonder: shortly after its completion (a fire had destroyed earlier buildings), it was closed down as part of Kaiser Josef II's enlightened reforms, the decorations sold, and used as a granary(!). The Russian Orthodox Church was allowed to use it from 1871, and they installed the glorious Bohemian crystal chandelier (below). In 1920, it became a Hussite Church and got new, Neo-Baroque ornamentation that remains today. St. Nicholas was the site of our scheduled Prague concert, on the afternoon of Day 8.

The hour of rehearsal before the concert was a little hectic, because Dear Husband was figuring out the limitations of the two instruments there (a keyboard and an electronic "organ"--more on that in the next post), and I was figuring out how to choreograph the dance since the concert organizers had filled the aisle with chairs! The woman in charge was very friendly and had two of the rows removed so that I could get down the aisle without excessive danger of whacking someone in the head as I danced.

Chandelier in St. Nicholas Church, with organ up in the loft.
The time to change was very quick, and then suddenly we were all walking out to opening applause. The choir sang quite well, although again, not as well as I think they did in Budapest. The audience was receptive, especially to the spirituals. My dance went off almost without a hitch--I did mis-time a few steps and found myself in line with one of the audience member's chairs instead of staggered for arm room--but it worked out. I had also lengthened and slowed the end to better match the choir's parts. Back in my seat to turn pages, I even sang along on the tunes I knew--like "Here I Am, Lord"--but softly, because I was off-key. And zoom! the whole thing was over.

Afterward, it turned out the guy in the chair was a young American tourist was Ohio who, naturally, understood the lyrics and the maestra's explanations, and who greatly enjoyed the concert. I also had an older woman come to tell me in a combination of Czech, German, and maybe English that I reminded her of her daughter, who studied and dances ballet in Vienna, and how appreciative she was.

Day 8 was only half-way gone at this point. We spent the afternoon at the Charles Bridge and the Old Town Square, had a charming dinner (next post but one), and finally made it to that organ concert (the post after that). The very next blog entry will be about the musical instruments Dear Husband got to play during our tour of Central Europe, including one that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart himself used!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Day 7/8: St. Vitus Cathedral

grotesque gargoyle
St. Vitus Cathedral is an art-history buff's wonderland. I've chosen just a few of the images we took there the evening we were looking for the organ concert (Day 7) and the next morning during our guided tour (Day 8). The seat of the local archbishop, its official name is St. Vitus, St. Wenceslas, St. Adalbert Cathedral. Although rarely used for worship, it is an extremely popular tourist destination. The cathedral now stands in a courtyard surrounded by the castle, so it is nearly impossible to get a photograph of its full height from the front (below left). To the right is the "butt" of the cathedral with external flying buttresses around the nave.

organ loft
According to Church lore, St. Vitus was a Christian boy who lived in Lucania, Sicily, in the fourth century. He supposedly healed the emperor Diocletian's son of a demon but was tortured to death for his faith, along with his tutor and his nurse. He is often depicted as a young boy, unscathed and haloed, in a cauldron of boiling tar or lead.

St. Vitus (Sveti Vid) became particularly popular in Slavic and Germanic parts of Europe, where he replaced the pagan cult of Svantovit, a god of light and/or fertility. "St. Vitus Dance" comes from the late medieval practice of frenetic dancing in front of his statue and was historically applied to the motor disorder renamed Sydenham's chorea in the 17th century. (It's a delayed sequel to acute rheumatic fever, caused by Group A beta-hemolytic streptococcus, and mostly seen in children.) St. Vitus is the patron saint of dancers, actors, comedians, and epileptics. (Wikipedia also tells me he is said to protect against lightning strikes, animal attacks, and oversleeping--a particular woe of actors?) Below is the altar to St. John of Nepomuk (patron saint of bridges, as you may remember).

In 925 C.E., King Henry I of Germany presented the reputed hand bones of St. Vitus to Wenceslaus, Duke of Bohemia. They are now kept in a reliquary in the third and current iteration of the church founded at that time and on that spot. The Gothic phase of construction began in 1344 and was greatly promoted by Charles IV of Charles-Bridge fame. Deaths and insufficient funding kept the project moving along very slowly, but the cathedral was finally consecrated 585 years later, in 1929. Along the way, Czech kings and queens were crowned there, and a hidden room with seven keys holds the Bohemian crown jewels, which are brought out for display only when a presidential election causes one of the keys to be handed to the successor.

St. Vitus is the patron saint of Bohemia, and his saint day is June 15, the day after we visited the cathedral. According to folklore, "If St. Vitus Day be rainy weather, it shall rain for 30 days together." It did not rain the next day, but I understand from the news that much of central Europe has since suffered from a heat wave (like the East and Midwest here in the US).

In the image to the right you get a little idea of the height of the nave, with tall skinny windows to let in the light and the repeating motif of peaked Gothic arches. The photo was taken from the center of the building looking toward the famous rose window at the front. The stained-glass window to the left is one of many unique windows in the cathedral, each designed by a different artist in the 20th century to replace the ones lost over hundreds of years. It's by famous Czech artist Alphons Mucha in the Art-Nouveau style he made so popular. Completed in 1931, it depicts "Good King Wenceslas" and other Slavic icons. (This traveler [not in our group] had a much better camera; click for really good close-up images.) 

First we gathered in the center of the cathedral to hear a bit of history. Then, the group sang an impromptu concert--there, in the middle, among the tourists. It was special to listen. Then, we split into two to go around the chancel area and hear about just a few of the more famous installations, including an old wooden relief of the town and a peek into the lavish St. Wenceslas Chapel. Then we gathered on the bus for the long, slow ride down the hill through the rain and traffic to the Old Town Square. Still left on Day 8: two concerts in two more churches, and a folksy dinner.

DH took the four small photos, while I snapped the three large ones.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Day 7/8: Sights Around Prague

There is plenty to see around Prague, not the least because the city was largely spared destruction during Europe's many wars. Right is my favorite vista, from the heights of the castle looking down to Malá Strana, the Vltava River, and the rest of the city in the distance.

The show we saw at Ta Fantastica, "Aspects of Alice," combined the Lewis Carroll story with Czech popular culture and the famous Prague skyline. I heard about Ta Fantastica from the website of the local guide whom Rick Steves interviewed the weekend before we left.

There are about half a dozen black-light theaters in the city, and the others I researched seemed to present something more on the order of neon "cirque d'soleil"-style acrobatics, but Ta Fantastica does more literary performances. This was a fantasy about the adult Alice that included flying, clowns, a handsome priest, and full female nudity. Because the action happens in mime and to music, words are not necessary, so the performances are open to tourists from all over, no knowledge of Czech necessary. However, we didn't catch all the cultural references because it was our first night in town and we hadn't been taken on a city tour yet. But other references--like those to a 1988 Czech film version of "Alice in Wonderland" (Neko z Alenky)--probably would have gone over our heads anyway. I've just discovered my university library owns a copy of this film, so we'll add it to our list for the summer.

Photo credit: MAH
The special effects depend on the fact that the human eye cannot see black on black. So some of the actors wore black robes over their costumes and manipulated props in the dark. For instance, in one scene, as Alice interacted with a menorah, the flames left the candles and floated around her. At one point five of them circled her head--like the halo of St. John of Nepomuk, patron saint of bridges with his halo of five stars. (We saw him in St. Vitus Cathedral and on the Charles Bridge the next day.) The next scene paid homage to Prague's Jewish history, as Alice danced with two larger-than-life puppets dressed like Orthodox men. Later scenes portrayed Alice's marriage and first child. (In that respect, the show was fairly conventional.) It was an interesting show, but we wondered whether the theater is sustainable, considering the fact that most of the seats were empty at our performance, and they give 14 performances a week. 

Two more famous sights in Prague are the Charles Bridge (Karlův most) and the astronomical clock (Pražský orloj) in the Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí). King Charles IV began the bridge in 1357, and for 250 years, the only decoration was a crucifix. In the Baroque Period from 1660 to 1800, 30 statues were added. There are now 75, but most are replicas. The oldest is the aforementioned statue of John of Nepomuk, who supposedly heard the queen's confession but refused to divulge what she said to the king, who had him thrown off the bridge in 1383. (Actually, he had sided with the local archbishop and the pope in Rome against King Wenceslas IV and the illegitimate pope in Avignon and so ended up in the drink.) The statue was erected in 1683.

The clock was installed in 1410 and is the oldest one still functioning. It was severely damaged in May 1945 and laboriously restored to working order in 1948. Every hour, the skeleton rings his bell, the twelve apostles parade in front of two windows, and the cock crows. According to legend, the king put out the clock-maker's eyes out of jealously, so he couldn't make a similar clock for another municipality. Out of revenge, Hanuš  supposedly threw himself into the gears, to stop the clock from working for many years. We gathered with the crowd twice to see the clock strike, once on our way to dinner (the subject of a future post), and once on our way to an evening organ concert (subject of the post after that). Next up: the churches of Saints Vitus and Nicholas.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Day 7: Traveling to and around Prague

Photo credit: SS
As we drove along the river on the way out of Vienna, our tour guide played us Johann Strauss, Jr.'s "Blue Danube Waltz," and Dear Husband and I enjoyed a little dance in our seats (left).

Out the windows, we could see the beautiful green countryside. I have always thought the German countryside looks like a patchwork quilt, with swatches of various greens punctuated by little villages of houses capped in reddish tile roofs. Karel explained that this is the case in Central Europe, because the land belonged to the aristocratic ruler, who rented it out to the commoners. They lived in villages with their land spread around around them in irregular strips as they were divided among heirs. In the American Midwest, by contrast, there are laaarge fields with individual farmhouses in the middle of them and connected by straight country roads at right angles, reflecting the way land was acquired (and, I might add, the way it is farmed today). He showed us the difference using Google maps, so I have included some links, the first to the place on the Austro-Czech border where I believe we crossed, and the second to a rural area in downstate Illinois.

"Hear ye, hear ye! Please check
your weapons at the door."

At this point in the trip, we were again crossing a border that used to be heavily guarded, with "barb-ered wire" fences and checkpoints during the Cold War. In fact, there are few modern highways over the Austro-Hungarian and Austro-Czech borders, because when those kinds of roads were being built after World War II, travel over those borders was discouraged. So we spent some time on small windy roads going through little villages before joining up with the national freeways. On one of those was the themed rest-stop pictured at right. In this restaurant/convenience store, everything had a "medieval fantasy" theme, from the inflatable dragons on the roof to the clock with a sword for a minute hand to the shopping carts (made to look like they were made of wood) to the "Viking" gal out front in a totally contrived Xena-Warrior-Princess get-up. Down the way was an enormous planet earth with a restaurant shaped like a jet plane, and in between were bumper cars for kids and a laundromat. I guess it was supposed to be a family-friendly place for vacationers to stop while on long drives, although I didn't think Europeans were as fond of roadtrips as we Americans.

Finally, we arrived in Prague. My family had been to the capital of the Czech Republic twice before (once when it was still Czechoslovakia), but this was DH's first visit. My first two impressions were a) disappointment that I could not read the signs and billboards and b) delight that the old streetcars look just like how I remember them (above). It was a treat to be in Austria, where I speak the language, but I know only half a dozen words in Czech.

After dinner, DH and I decided to head out into the city already. We were hoping to catch an organ concert. I hadn't been able to figure out the location of the church online beforehand, but the concierge at our hotel directed us to the castle, Hradčany. So we bought some tram tickets and hurried off. The tram was easy to catch and took us up the river (Vltava) to the square in Malá Strana (Lesser Town). Then we got off and hiked up the steep street, lined with shops and pubs, to the castle hill. (I'll share pictures of what we saw there in later posts.) We finally did find the church the concierge had indicated--but it wasn't the right one! No organ concert for us that night.

It was still only 8pm and light out, so despite the fact that we were traveling super light (no map and none of my planning materials), we decided to try to find the black-light theater that had daily 9:30pm performances. I knew it was on the other side of the river, but not more than that. Asking at one of the boutique hotels only got us a tram stop in the area, but I hoped there would be signage. Once there, we stopped at what looked like a theater but turned out to be some kind of hang-out joint. Neither the fourteen-year-old working the front desk nor the bar staff upstairs had any idea what we were talking about. As we set off down the street anyway--there, on the other side, was a large neon sign for a black-light theater! It turned out to be one of the half-dozen other black-light theaters in Prague, but next door was an (expensive) internet cafe, where I looked up the right place, which was within walking distance. Happily, we made it to the theater with plenty of time for a bathroom break and a snack from the concession stand. More on the show in a later post.

To the right have been snapshots of the various styles of tram for all you train and public transit geeks out there. Below is the view from part of the way up the looong, steep, subway escalator--something else I remembered from earlier trips. On our way back to the hotel about 11pm that night, Germany had just defeated the Netherlands in group play of the Euro 2012 championship, and there were German Jungs wearing football jerseys and carrying flags taking the same subway as us. They were in high spirits, chanting team songs, cheering when the subway arrived, and holding their flags up to flutter in the rush of on-coming air. As far as partisanship and national rivalry go, theirs was pretty mild compared to rioting Russian fans or "barb-ered wire" fences.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Other Vienna Memories

Before we move on to Prague, here are some other memories from our quick stay in the capital of Austria, in no particular order.

The Albertina Museum*--we had plans to see the Austrian Theater Museum one afternoon, but my intel was out-of-date, and it turned out they are closed on Tuesdays now. So we went to the art museum down the street, where we had just missed a Klimt show. So we looked at modernist artwork with a strong interwar representation. Some of Picasso's early work obviously required thought and skill, but Dear Husband and I agreed that some of his later sculpture just looked like he wasn't trying anymore. Maybe that was the point, but it didn't appeal to us as much. The highlight of the visit was deciding to  check out the Prunkräume, rooms of the palace that maintained some of their original decorations and a few furnishings but that also contained works of art from Dürer onward. It's worth going to the website to check out the 360-degree virtual tours of the rooms.

*--Not to be confused with the Albertinum Museum in Dresden, named for a different Albert.

The Belvedere Palace/Museum--the morning had been rainy, but the afternoon was surprisingly beautiful, as the above picture attests, looking north toward the Ring and the center of town. Too bad we needed neither of the umbrellas I lugged around in my bag the whole time... Inside, we wandered through one wing of each floor, taking in Secessionist works like Klimt's _The Kiss_, an exhibit on the differences between Realism and Impressionism, and interwar modern art by the likes of Egon Schiele.

Credit: MAH
Right is "Tafelspitz," Kaiser Franz Josef's favorite meal: boiled beef, creamed spinach, and roasted potatoes.

Left is the "Riesenrad" in the Prater amusement park in Vienna. It was dedicated 105 years ago today, on 3 July 1897 for Kaiser Franz Josef's 50th Jubiläum. The ferris wheel was almost totally destroyed by bombing and fire during WWII and due to reasons of stability only rebuilt with 15 of the original 30 wagons. For a long time it served as a symbol of Austria's reconstruction after the war. Today there is also a museum. We did not get to ride on it this trip but now have something to do next time we're in Vienna. I hear the view from the top is great and also that the ride is slow, so you really get your money's worth.

There was a lot of art to look at in Vienna. The apartment of our hostess, Jutta, was full of paintings. Below, the group gives a short concert in her living room. Next, a select group of tenors, who had been holding secret rehearsals, sang the beautiful love song, "Annie Laurie," which one of them had dedicated to his girlfriend--and then he proposed! She accepted (i.e. "gave her promise true"), and there were few dry eyes. I couldn't actually see the proposal because of the crowd of people, so I marked up this "before" photo.

[Text on photo: He put a ring on it.]