Czech Republic

06/24/98 (Wednesday)

Brno, Czech Republic

Yesterday on the train from when the conductor said we had to pay a supplement.  Apparently for being on an international train.  The conductor went to get another conductor, and together they discussed our situation.  They told us that we had to pay 550 SK each, about $12.  Then they both left without collecting anything from us.  The first one later returned.  He said in halting English if we paid 550 SK for all of us, “It would be better for us, and better for him.” Sounds to me like he was going to pocket the money.  That he did not give us a receipt confirmed my suspicion.  He also said that this “supplement” was for the Slovakian portion of the trip only.

Later we saw him and the other conductor escorting a stunning blond with a fabulous figure toward the first class section of the train.  I figured that she was paying her supplement with a contribution to the mental health of the conductors.  A short while later she passed us again as we were sitting in the bar car.  Her expression was revealed nothing about what she had or had not revealed moments before.

We arrived without further supplemental payments in Brno.  Our room, located via the accommodations bureau, is in a private house a few hundred meters from the train station.  To get there, we walked up the slight incline of the main street for about 20 minutes through most of  the business section of the town.  The ATM at the station produced the necessary local currency.  A mid-30’s gent greeted and settled us with practiced ease.  Our room is large and connected to Kay’s and Nic’s room.  There are small w.c. across the hall, recent additions.  We share the bath with the washing machine and the family. Our street is busy only with pedestrian traffic, near the center of the old town.

The buildings in the area are adorned with statues.  The best are the figures, called the Four Ninnies, who try to hold onto their loin cloths while bearing the load of the building.  There is a fountain that glorifies Europe at the expense of ancient Persia, Greece and Babylon.  The City Hall has fabulously carved draperies decorating the front.  The architect the city hired to do the Hall became angry when he thought the city was mistreating him and so he made the tower above the statue of Justice crooked.  At least, so legend says.

Today’s tour begins with the 13th century Spilberk Castle overlooking the town.  It has served both as a fortress and a prison where torture was carried out over the course of many centuries.  The Nazis used it during WWII.  After the steep and long walk to the top for the great views, we entered the museum.

Best collection of torture tools that I have ever seen:  thumb twisters, finger smashers, spine stretchers, and more.  Most of the instruments are medieval, while a few were from the Nazi occupation.  In keeping with tradition, the Gestapo used the facility for prisoner interrogation. There are extensive exhibits discussing the evolution of Czech criminal procedures, including those in effect during the Austro- Hungarian Empire.  The corridors are damp and dark, so dark that without light getting lost would not require much effort.  Prisoner cells could be heated. The accommodations for the guards were not much better than those for the prisoners.

During the afternoon Nic and I went to the nearby reservoir via tram.  I hoped to rent a motor boat.  The tram ride is 7 kilometers and takes about 30 minutes for about $.20.  Finding a boat turns out to be a challenge.  We wandered about until I decided to ask at the nearby hotel.  The clerk directed me across the lake where they had rentals. If we had a boat, it was only 1/2 mile.  We walked about two miles along the road in the cool, sunny weather.  There were no signs so I had a point and click conversation with a woman who pointed the way.

They had no power boats.  They had rickety rowboats.  It was not long before we lost interest.  Along the way back to the tram we ate cherries from trees at the side of the road.  The cherries were sweet and flavorful, the best I have eaten.  In the meantime, Peg and Kay went to Moravsky Krumlov.  Here there is an extensive collection of the work of the Czech Alfons Mucha.  He was born nearby, and is famous for his posters.  His fame resulted from the posters advertising Sarah Bernhardt’s plays in Paris, in the 1920′, I think.  He is also famous for his depictions of Slavic history and was a strong supporter of the Czech Republic between the wars;  he designed the postage stamps and currency.  By the time the Nazis came, he was an old man, but they arrested and questioned him nonetheless.

06/25/98

Telc

Small roads through gorgeous countryside take us to Telc on the bus (115 koruna).  The walk to town is about a mile long.  The rough sidewalks make hauling a wheeled bag very difficult.  Telc is clean and quiet.  We find the huge main square after we cross the stream on a bridge.  Peg wanders about and in a shop finds someone whose friend has a B&B very nearby.  He appears quickly in his car, and drives us two minutes to his house.  A connected building houses three rooms, all in excellent condition.  700 korunas (crowns) per night at 34.5 to the dollar, so that’s about $20, including breakfast.

The friendly man in his 50’s speaks a little English.  He just sold the attached shop and is now semi-retired, just caring for his guests. Many of them are Austrian day-trippers visiting the town.  The square is the main attraction and we were there again before long.  The square is about 150 yards long and about 75 yards wide, I figure, and is on a north-south alignment.  The walkways are gothic, while the facades above are baroque.  Many buildings are painted in a pastel green.  Some perhaps all of the peaks have facades extending well beyond the roof line.

At the north end is the castle (hrad).  We are in time for the tour. Our petite, friendly guide speaks German fluently and English haltingly in a faint voice.  The interior is richly decorated and furnished.  I did not make notes and do not have anything in writing to refer to.  It’s worth another visit at a later date.

Dinner on the square is hearty, tasty, filling and inexpensive (108).

06/26/98
The friendly host delivered a mighty breakfast of cold sausages, bread, cheese and coffee.  Everyone but me is off for Prague.  They miss the bus and take the train.  I spend the day sketching, resting and enjoying this town.  I particularly liked gazing at the bridge, stream and castle from a bench behind the castle.

06/27/98

Praha

Our friendly host drove me to the station, as he did Peg et al. yesterday.  At the station there are about a dozen stands where the various buses land to embark passengers.  The friendly travelers respond affirmatively when I say, “Praha?”, so I am sure I am on the right line.  The big bus cruises through beautiful countryside.  There are more teenagers than I have seen before.  The summer vacation must be beginning.  Most people sit quietly, reading or staring out the windows.

It takes us about four hours to get to Prague (Praha).  My bus lands at the Florenc metro/bus station.  I am supposed to meet Peg at the Hlavin Nadrazi.  It takes me a while and some long walks inside the station, but I finally figure out how to get to the meeting point via metro.   A young and inexperienced traveler might have had a panic attack.  I had a beer instead, focusing on it while the little gray cells did what they love to do, when left alone long enough.  Even managed to buy a day ticket from the machine, and confirmed with the clerk that I did not need a ticket for the damn back pack.  She happily answered my gestured question. They have big signs saying in English, German and other languages that if your bag is bigger than 70 cm in length (and they gave the two other dimensions, but I do not recall them), you have to pay extra.  I was not sure of the size of my pack in metric measure.  Were there such signs in Brataslava ,but just not where we bought the tickets we used?  Perhaps that is why we did not know.

The next round in the battle is with the lockers at Hlavin Nadrazi. After ten minutes trying to find them, I then spend another five minutes looking for the instructions.  When I finally find them, they are in Czech.  I ask a fellow backpacker.  Following his instructional gestures and grunts, which takes another five minutes, I lose 10 kroners.  Then I have to find more change.  That takes another five minutes, not including the time it took to eat the sausage.  So back to the lockers.

Finally I figure it out.  There are numbers visible from the front of the locker and another set visible from the back.  You choose your own combination.  It makes the most sense if you choose from the inside; it is easier to hide the combination from your neighbors.  But how does the machine know what you chose if the outside set has differing numbers from the inside set?  You have to put the coins in after you close the door, otherwise you lose your money.

There is some really neat stuff nearby and I have time, so off I go. Flying right past the Pizza Hut, McDonalds and KFC, I make for the Staromestske namesti, the Old Town Square.  It is an enormous and beautiful plaza.  Here are Tyn Church where Tycho Brahe’s tomb is, the Jan Hus monument, House by a Stone Bell, Powder Tower, King’s Way and a gigabyte of tourists.
After walking about 500 meters toward the Plaza, it dawned on me that after closing the door to the locker, I did not move the tumbler.  It might be possible for someone to just open the door!  The computer! No insurance!  A brisk ten minute walk back revealed that there was no problem.

The Staromestske namesti is an impressive sight.  I have never seen so many attractive centuries old structures gathered around a plaza of  this size.  Most buildings appear to have been recently repaired, renewed or cleaned, or all three.  I could easily imagine Tycho pondering bodily motions from this spot, as celestial and earthly bodies both would look more magnificent with this plaza as a setting.  If I knew more history and architecture, I would love to say more about Staromestske namesti.
Some British women told me where to find an internet cafe called the Terminal Bar.  Along the way I pondered an old, thick, squatty tower not far from the station.  By time I found the cafe, a high-tech, cavey looking joint, it was time to meet Peg.  She was waiting for me at the station.  When I returned with the backpack, she was gone.  It took me fifteen minutes to find her seated on the opposite side of the kiosk, not five feet from me.

06/28/98

Last night’s accommodations had some unusual features.  It wasn’t that the showers down the hall were odd in appearance or location.  It’s odd that you can’t get out of the hotel before 8:00 A.M. without getting someone sleeping in a room on the other side of the locked exit door to let you out.  To arouse the gatekeeper you have to bang on the door.  They don’t want you to leave in the middle of the night without paying. This could mean that leaving in an emergency could be a problem. I guess the fire department does not do safety inspections here, or their exit standards are a bit low.

Their restaurant offers good dining at lunch and dinner (400k for Peg and me including beverages), but breakfast is not served.  We have to go about a mile to get a cup of coffee, and then the only choice is McDonalds.  Nothing but burgers and the rest of the regular menu is available there.  First time I have been in an American fast food place since I left the states.  We assembled breakfast with the McD’s coffee and various roles and sandwiches from a little store in the metro station.  Convenience may not be a household word here.  But who cares when you are in a city as charming as Prague in June?

We found another B&B on this end of town but on the other bank, not far from the river, well served by tram and bus.  Nearby are various camper/tenter B&B’s.  These are odd combinations of backyard campgrounds for tents and caravans and regular rooms.  Some of them serve breakfast and other meals as well.  Our rooms are in an older house.  Our room overlooks a garden and pool.  The bath is across the hall, the homeowner’s living room next door.  Kay and Nic are in a neat basement.  The walls are lined with hunting decor, the usual horn and stuffed body, along with a few swords, hovering over us.  Also not far away there is a boat doc for river cruises, and a renovated mansion shining pink in the sun.   We walked and walked and never found the boat doc.

Prazsky Hrad (Prague Castle)

Today is Kay and Nic’s last day in Wonderland, so it is fitting that we are visiting Prazsky Hrad, Prague Castle, the medieval center of the city.  The Castle is actually a complex of buildings, some of which are museums, and monuments.  There are many sharp spires and steep roofs, defining features of the City.  Here you find the Royal Palace, Vladislav Hall, St. Vitus’ Cathedral, St. George’s Basilica, Zlata ulicka (ulicka means ‘street’).  The latter is full of tiny houses built into the castle wall, and the offices of the President of the country.  The castle complex has three major courtyards.  Wandering about takes a few hours.  It would transport you back in time, except it is too clean, well cared for and not smelly enough to be medieval.

St. Vitus’ Cathedral is a fine example of Gothic architecture, even though it was not completed until 1929.  Its windows are flamboyant, very flowery and free-form.  Inside there is a room that contains a tomb of someone famous, but I failed to write his name down.   This room is the most bizarre one I have seen to date.  Peg says that the ceiling is elaborately carved wood, the walls painted with an enamel made the room look like it was decorated with mosaics.  The enameled colors were bright and rich.

The current structure is the third one to stand on this site.  First was a rotunda built in 929, then a basilica in 1060.  The current structure was started in 1360.  There have been 30 coronation ceremonies, and fifteen kings are buried here.  We wandered about in this part of the city, outside the castle complex using the trams.  Peg likes to just take off without really knowing where she is going, which is not my favorite thing to do in a new city.  If I know we are going to be doing this in advance, I can more easily go along with it.   But since this was not part of the plan, we ran into our usual conflict.  We resolved it by heading back into the main part of the city.  I argued that where we were headed did not look too interesting.  But I was not sure.

06/29/98

Peg goes with Kay and Nic to the airport.  I go with the laundry to the laundromat.  That journey takes about 45 minutes in each direction via metro.  Laundry facilities are rare here.  There are machines a block away at the B&B/campground where we had breakfast but they were available to their guests only. A woman helped me with the laundry, although this is the self-service section.  Apparently lots of English speakers come here because there are many books and magazines laying about for you to read while waiting.  She came and got me when the washing machine was done.  Then you put the clothes into a heavy-duty centrifuge that lowers drying time to fifteen minutes per load.

When Peg and I reunited, we visited Staronova Synagog, the oldest synagogue in Europe (1270).  They gave me a yarmulke to wear while in the temple.  The columns are of a bluish marble.  The presence of stained glass in the ceiling and on the walls surprised me.   It made the place look more like a church, an effect also produced by the rows of wooden pews.  It occurred to me that I have never been in an actively used synagogue.  I do not know what they look like.  Maybe they all look like churches.
From about the 900’s Jews have been seeking refuge in Praha from persecution elsewhere in Europe.  By the 18th century, one quarter of the population was Jewish, living in Josefov, the ghetto.  In the 19th century, much of the ghetto was razed, including synagogues, to widen thoroughfares.  By the second war, there were only 35,000 Jews living in the ghetto.  At the war’s end, 13,000  or more had died.  Only 1300 returned to live there.  There are several Jewish museums here.   We did not go in any of them, although they sound worthwhile.

06/30/98 (Tuesday)

The decorative arts museum features an exhibit entitled, “Czech Art Deco:1918-38.”  It is housed in a beautifully art-deco decorated building shared with the symphony.  The symphony was rehearsing for its “Best of Mozart” concert as we climbed the marble staircase, itself used for part of the exhibition.  Hearing some sections of the Magic Flute while added to the great pleasure this museum provided.

Inside: cabinets, chairs and other furniture, 1920’s high heels, sequined dresses, decanters, drinking cups and more.  The art deco movement in the Czech Republic started in 1918, “…and constituted the backbone of artistic work during the early years of the Republic…” (on-site pamphlet).  Art deco fell out of favor when the communists took over in 1948.  Too rich, too decadent, too wasteful, too non-functional for their taste.

At 1:30 we boarded the river boat (40k).  It disembarked upstream from our B&B, on the opposite bank, and went downstream toward our residence.  The 90 minute cruise takes us through two locks, a great view of Charles Bridge and its many statues, as well as of Prague in general.  Some areas we passed by contain large warehouses.  Children were swimming and kayaks maneuvering in a part of the river isolated from boat traffic by an island.  If the river did not seem dirty and was safe, a swim would be attractive.  The temperature is in the mid- 80’s and there is not a cool spot on the boat, and very little to
drink.  We disembark near the zoo, not 25 yards from where we were the other day when trying to find this boat.  We see no sign anywhere advertising the boat’s presence.  Here’s another business opportunity wasted, one that would not take much to fix.

Under threatening rain clouds we walk to a Portuguese Restaurant.  Hot in the dining room.  Slow service.  Decent food, more Italian than Portuguese, and good wine (50k for a liter of red). Tomorrow we leave for Poland on a 7:45 a.m. train.

Prague is definitely worth another visit.