Continued from Czech Republic part I.
After much deliberation I decided that Moravia would be my destination this extended weekend. The Czech Republic is composed of Bohemia to the west and Moravia in the east. So far all the places I have been in CZ have been in Bohemia. Friday I took a train to Brno, Moravia's largest city. This city is usually just a transit stop for tourists and has a reputation for being boring. But come on "there must be enough to amuse myself for a day", I thought. Additionally it would be a convenient jumping off point for other locations. You always got to be making the most of travel time. My trusty Lonely Planet guidebook didn't disappoint! Rick Steves probably barely makes a mention of the area.
The train ride to Brno was cramped and uncomfortable. I spend the first third of the trip standing in the Communist Era coach until a spot on a bench seat opened up. Then at least I could read for the remaining 2.5 hours. Fifteen minutes out from the main station I started circling things in the guide. Hmmm. Only one hostel listed and is says that it is only open July - August (converted student dorms). At the toursit office I picked up a map and found out that there was "nothing" available. Hmmm. I walked around and found Hotel Pegas. It is one of those times that I'm really glad things worked out like this. The hotel is small and above a microbrewery in the center of town. My room is really nice and overlooks what appears to be an archeological dig in the street. All this for 1000 Kc or less than $50. Forced luxury is nice sometimes. After settling in I went out for some Brno evening / night photos. There was some sort of food-wine-music gathering in the main square. This place is great! I'm so glad I came to visit. Although Czech wines aren't considered very good there are in fact some entirely enjoyable vintages and they were probably all represented in the little wooden shacks set up. Something I had never seen before was Burcák. I found out in my phrasebook that this is young wine. I tried 2dl cups of white and red. It is very juicelike.
The next morning I had time to stop on the way to the train station to visit the ghoulish Cappuchin Monastery Crypts. Monks and many non-monks make it their final resting place. The well ventilated crypts made natural mummies of many of the bodies. Some of these remain to this day. Coffin lids have thoughfully been replaced with plexiglass covers so that anyone willing to spend $3 can stare at the ghastly sight. The monks in the rear of the crypt didn't use coffins for themselves in keeping with their vow of poverty. They were carried downstairs in a reusable one. Once at their final resting place the bottom was opened and the monk corpse fell out. He was straightened up and given some bricks for an eternal pillow and left lined up with his brothers. Some of them still clutched rosaries and wore hooded robes.
The other reason for my being in the area is the 1,100 caves in the Moravian Karst region. I don't have my cave gear or any contacts in the area so I headed to the public, commercialized caves. There are four and I had time to see the two best. Incidentally there was a vintage car rally which was pretty interesting surprise addition to the trip. The hills are beautiful and the winding roads are a wonderful drive. I don't think I'll upload any of the car pics but there had to be twenty.
I didn't have much information about either the town or the castle but it was a convenient sidetrip so I thought I would check it out. Like much of Moravia this little town is an industrial working class place and that was clear from the beginning. It's good to see that side of a country too. Since I didn't have directions I headed off in the direction that seemed likely and was rewarded with a nice walk to the main square and the castle beyond. Although the whole castle isn't open to the public many rooms were. The self guided tour cost 60 Kc and they even had some information in English for me to read. The castle was founded in the late 1200s but as usual received a couple refurbishments - Renaissance and Romantic in this case. The tour covered rooms on two floors with historic interiors from Gothic to Baroque. It was an interesting stop and the little town had a few nice buildings of its own.
Last night I stayed in the MOST 1970s ROOM EVER! Note that the picture here is one I took of the main square right after getting my room.
My guidebook suggested that Olomouc (pronounced Olomoats) remains an undiscovered gem and one of the country's best value cities. As a bonus two castles are not far away. I saw one yesterday and didn't have time for the other today though. I was lucky to have so much time today since normally I have Czech lessons around noon. Today though there was some scheduling conflicts at the school and I didn't have a lesson until 19:00! That's great since it gave me an extra day outside Prague. The trip back is 3.5 hrs plus 10-15 minutes in the metro.
Basically I followed a little walking tour laid out in my guide. I spent about two hours beginning in front of my hotel with the fountain at the pedestrianized street. This led to the best known feature of the city, Horní Square with its Central Europe's largest baroque sculpture the Holy Trinity Column. Inside there was a tiny little nun in the tiny little room who my guidebook claimed "will explain to you the meaning of the sculptures in a variety of languages". Well I don't know what languages she spoke but we made do with Czech and a few English words. I'll admit she was remarkably good at getting her point across with a stack of photos and postcards as aids. There were two extravagant fountains in addition to the column plus the large town hall with an unusual astronomical clock. The Commies remodelled the the clock "so that each hour is announced by ideologically pure workers instead of pious saints". I won't go into detail about everything I saw on my circuitous route to the train station but here is a short list in the same order as my Olomouc photo gallery: Dolní Square with Hauenschild palace, Marian plague column, and baroque fountain, followed by a St Michael church and the chapel of St Jan Sarkander then Republic Square with the church of St Mary of the Snows and finally Wenceslas Square with the namesake cathedral, St Anne chapel, and deanery. After that were a few interesting buildings on the way out to the train station. I would have liked to go inside the Premsyl Palace but that is closed on Mondays. I had to chose between missing out on Šternberk Castle Monday or the palace and I chose the palace.
Vyšehrad literally means High Castle. It is considered the mythological birthplace of the city and seat of its earliest rulers. Archeological evidences shows that the rocky promontory on the Vltava River had been inhabited long before the Slavs arrived. Only traces remain of anything before the 1300s. During the 1600s (Thirty Years War) and then again during the 1800s (Napoleon) there was extensive modernization of the fortress. What exists today is a very large star-like bastion fortress with some casements. There are a few gates and a cathedral built on the foundations of a much earlier church plus a bunch of miscellaneous buildings and a restored gothic cellar turned museum. I visited on Wednesday after class. It is convenient to the metro and was a great way to spend a couple hours. Join me at Prague's "Other" Castle. I also took some night photos later.
Josefov is Prague's Jewish quarter. There is a lot to see there and I made plans to visit with my new roommate. He arrived Sunday and so we met Monday afternoon after my last trip. He is here from Hamburg, Germany and wanted to spend a couple weeks with the language as he will be coming back to study in some months. We took the metro to the Old Town and walked the short distance over to all the synagogues. Prague used to have a thriving Jewish community until WWII. Now the area serves as an excellent museum of the religion and the holocaust. Because we didn't have that much time after my class we opted for the non-OldNew Synagogue ticket which gained our admittance into four other synagogues, the cemetary, and Ceremonial Hall. It was all interesting stuff with the highpoints being the Jewish Cemetary and the Spanish Synagogue.
For this weekend I decided to visit the much talked about Cesky Krumlov. Because I am getting tight on time I was tempted to skip this gem because I figured that while popular it is something I have seen plenty of before. Now that I have been there I can say it is a must do. This little town near Austria will be remembered as one of the best times in the country. As a bonus I met some some American girls Friday night at the train station as we were all trying to figure out where to go. They would be a recurring theme for the rest of the weekend and as they are all headed to Prague on Sunday I may be seeing more of them next week. Some of us went horseback riding together on Saturday.
Sunday afternoon I began sorting through my pictures. I stayed until evening and took a direct bus back to Prague which I almost missed. We hit some bad traffic though and arrived an hour late. It was midnight before I was in bed.
My last week in Prague. Boo.
Monday I decided on two quick trips. The first was back to Josefov to visit the Old-New Synagogue. It was started in the 13th century and is supposedly Europe's oldest working synagogue. Ever hear of the Golem? Legend has it that after its destruction the pieces were put under the roof behind a little door visible outside. Its creator, Rabbi Löw, is in the Jewish Cemetary, and I saw his tomb last week. That was in the morning. In the afternoon I paid a visit to the Museum of Communism. Ironic that it is located between a McDonalds and a casino. It is several rooms of communist era artifacts and a disturbing video of police beatings during demonstrations. The Lonely Planet guidebook author describes the museum as presenting a view that is "a bit one sided". I'm not sure of the author's point, but he is right I suppose. There was nothing good said about the poverty, food shortages, beatings, and show trials. At least people weren't obese. That had to be a health benefit. The joke goes "Sometimes there was no toilet paper in the shops. Luckily there was not much food either." It wasn't as good as the one in Berlin but still interesting - the propaganda posters especially. Here are a few choice Commie photos.
Oh I also uploaded a number of miscellaneous Prague Photos today.
Wednesday I had originally planned to visit the town of Lidice obliterated by the Nazi's as payback for an assassination of their man in charge of Czech during WWII, but the weather wasn't supposed to be good so I decided to stay in town. (The weather turned out to be okay.) I ventured to an eastern suburb to see the Czechoslovak Army Museum. It was typical of an military museum but all in Czech. Knowing that a Russian T34 tank was parked in front I was hoping for other vehicles but there weren't any save for a Nazi motorcycle. Free admission was nice.
This Thursday I made my sister jealous. While she was here, she wanted to see the miniature museum. Some guy who formerly made minute surigical instruments created (creates?) tiny little carvings in his retirement. The museum was closed when we tried to visit together and she had to be satisfied with peaking in through the window. All we could see were dark and seemingly empty display cases with microscopes positioned in from of them. The museum is two rooms and cost about $2.50. I walked over there in the morning and found it again with only a minor trouble. Once inside I was blown away by all the tiny little paintings and carvings. Really impressive. I told Dominic (my roommate, remember him?) that he has to see it. You too.
Saturday Dominic and I took the bus to Terezin. Terezin is a 17th century fortress that was repurposed during the Nazi occupation as an SS prison, transit camp, and also as a model Jewish relocation camp. To most Jews this was a transit point on the way to death further east. However a population was maintained with some semblence of self government to parade for the Red Cross when they came for inspection.
There are two fortresses split by a river. We visited the Lesser Fortress first. Although much smaller it actually gives sense of what the place was like back in the day. There is lots of peeling paint and prison cells. The museum is good and mentions a lot of individual prisoners and what happened to them. There was a short movie too using some original footage from a propaganda film. This is where almost all my Terezin photos were taken. In the main fortress is the town of Terezin. The earthwork fortress was originally a huge army garrison and because of this contains an entire town. Also because of this it doesn't feel the same as the Lesser Fortress. Here we went to the Museum of the Ghetto and Madelberg Barracks. The barracks contained recreated rooms plus some art and music exhibits. We stayed until closing and then walked around a bit trying to decide how to get back home.
Trouble was... we couldn't get back to Prague. No buses. So we walked 3 km over to Litomerice which was a little bigger to have dinner and found a great cheap room (actually a whole apartment) for the night. The bar next door was a nice touch too. Dominic made a new friend with a very drunk guy that could barely walk. The next day we had plenty of time to enjoy the town because the only bus to Prague was at 16:30. Litomerice photos.
Next is a loop through a small portion of Eastern Europe.