Saturday, February 19, 2011

Praha: Day 3

We've been amazed at the empty streets of Prague over the first couple of days of our trip. We expected it to be low season, but low is an understatement of epic proportions. We actually started seeing the same people all over town. How is that possible? I guess there are only 50 tourists in the city and we all seem to be going to the same places. Well that changed today! The streets are packed. The bridges are packed. The shops are busy. I am so glad we didn't decide to come in the summer. I can't even imagine how miserable that would be. We also got a few snow flurries today! Not enough to stick, but enough to make it a little romantic.

We took in many of the more touristy parts of Prague today. We took a daytime trip across the Charles Bridge, along with all 500 new tourists. Then we headed down to the Old Town Square. Prague is unique in that both sides (Axis/Allies)decided not to bomb Prague during WWII. All of the architecture is actually original. Jan Haus, a national hero and Hussite church leader (he wanted everyone to be able to take wine at communion) presides over the square.

The Tyn (pronounced teen) church was where he preached, until the Catholics took it over after they chopped his head off. It looks like a monster church about to eat the square.

The other main feature of the square is the astromonomical clock.

Every hour throngs of visitors (and pickpockets) gather to watch the show. The clock was built in the 1700's and tells time in about 17 different ways: Bohemian time, roman time, the zodaic, and regular time. It must've been REALLY fancy in it's day. The show was about ten seconds long. While I'm happy I saw it, I'm ok not to do it again =) We realized quickly that you can climb the clock tower so guess what we did?! When we got inside we realized you can actually take an elevator (a first for climbing experiences), but we climbed anayway! The views were actually MUCH better than from the castle.
Attached to the clock tower is the old town hall. There is not much of it left as the Germans bulldozed it with their tanks as they left the city near the end of the war. Interesting to note that this was one thing that actually ignited cheers from the local Czech people towards the Nazis. Apparently, the building was ugly and was despised by many. You can see the jagged edges of the remains of the building on the backside of the clock tower.

After a quick Starbucks break, we wandered down to the "new town" and on the way stopped at Halveca Market. Let's just say we got a little sidetracked here. I got some new art for the house and some gifts. Everything is more fun when it's at a street market. One day we are hoping to find some original art at a street market that actually increases in value...still buying, waiting and hoping...
We headed to St. Wenceslas sqaure. We've been wondering where the "Real Prague" was with real stores, etc. and we found it.
There is a controversial artisist here in Prague named David Cherny. He likes to make really stragne controversial art. For example, this is King Wenceslas, nation hero, riding an upside down horse, hanging from the ceiling in a shopping mall. Evidently the prank is to steal the toungue.
And here a gigantic scary faced babies crawling around one of the national building. When CR had the EU presidency, he built a giantic work of art that was offensive to every country in the EU and hung it across the street from the EU building. VERY WEIRD!

Of course after all the walking I got thirsty and needed a beer. Kristen and I found a place called U Medvidku that had traditional Czech beers as well as several they brewed themselves.

If you are a fan of Anthony Bourdain, he went to this place and had a drink and beer cheese. Well, in Anthony's honor, I did the same. Kristen stayed away from the cheese and opted for onion soup. The Czech Budweiser (Budvar) is a dark lager, full of flavor, that complimented the cheese rather nicely. Kristen laughed and snapped a shot of the beer next to her coke. Can you figure out which is which? I know, me neither.

With fried bread, beer and beer cheese in my belly, we walked through the crowds and back across the river for some quiet time at the hotel before our next adventure, the opera. Kristen has talked about going since we arrived, so after a short nap we got ready and crossed the river to the Narodniho Divadla (National Theater) for "L'elsisir d'amore" (The Elixir of Love).
The story follows a sad sack of a man as he mopes about the beautiful woman in his town not loving him. Later, a "doctor" arrives in the town and begins selling elixirs to cure all ailments and talks this broken man into buying a love potion. Of course, it does not work and the woman decides to marry a Sergeant in the armed forces. So, in order to get more money for additional elxir, the sad man sells himself into the service. He buys more elixir, drinks it, and all of a sudden all ladies start loving him. Not because of the elixir, but because his uncle died and left him an inheritance that makes him the wealthiest man around. In the end, the love of his life decides to dump the Sarge and buy his contract out of the armed forces and they live happily ever after. Which leads me to the point of the opera, women love money, even if that money comes from a sad, overweight man that had been disregarded his whole life. Its all about the Benjamins...OUCH! Stop hitting me Kristen! By the way, the inside of the theatre was beautiful!
But seriously, the opera was enjoyable, more enjoyable than I believed it would be and it was cheap. Again, low season. Tickets in the first gallery, less than $20/each. World class entertainment at rock bottom prices. Not much better than that.
A late dinner at an Italian joint near our hotel (thanks for taking credit cards) after and we have decided to call it a night. We both need some sleep after the first three days of this vacation.

Sadly, tomorrow will be our last day in Prague. We have plans to meet with a personal guide to tour the Jewish Ghetto in the city. Much history to be discovered and understood. After the morning, who all a possibility! Until then...

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Day of Opposites

We had great plans of waking up at 7 am to head off for our day trip to Terezin, a Jewish internment camp. We got the wake-up call just fine, and we ignored it JUST as well! We woke up at 11:15...oh crap...the jet lag won! The train station itself is an hour away from our hotel, then it's another hour bus trip. Everything in Terezin closes by 4:30, so we started Amazing Race: Prague Edition!

Usually we're not intimidated by the subway or trains. It's a little different here because the language looks a little like someone sat on a keyboard. Going from tram stops at Ujezd to Malostranska to Vitavska is a little different than say even Paris where you would get on at Tour Eiffel and end up at Sacre Coueur. Even tonight, I was looking for a bar named Hospudka Na Cevtoce! What? My Spanish is broken, my French is limited, but my Czech is non-existent. After finally figuring out where to buy tickets and what general direction we were to go, we made our way down the river on the tram (which is an excellent way to travel by the way) and to the train station appropriately called Holesovice. We grabbed some sketchy pastry-looking lunch/breakfast (The ONLY thing we ate until 8 o'clcok) at the station and began the 30 minute wait for the bus.

We paid the driver, grabbed a seat and took off for Terezin. Now, Prague has been quiet. February is the end of the low season in Europe. But Terezin was desolete. Barren. Crickets. I think we had a second "oh crap" moment when no one except us on the bus to Terezin got off the bus at Terezin. Later, we would find out that it was probably the best thing that could have happened for the experience at the camp. It really set the perfect mood for viewing the site. This was Terezin's (empty) main square.
We walked in the Ghetto Museum, bought tickets and toured the history of how Terezin came to be. If you research the camp, you will find out that it was a holding facility for Jews before they were transported mainly to Auschwitz which was still under construction when the camp opened. Terezin, previously, was a walled city designed to keep out the Prussians, but the Nazis assumed ownership as they blew through CZ.
The history of the camp is of course, bleak, sad and troubling. The Nazis were cruel and sadistic. Most of those that were at the camp at some point did not survive the holocaust.

We left the museum and visited the barracks. Apparently, Terezin was a location that the Nazis brought Jews that they deemed worthy or valuable through their trade such as doctors, lawyers, writers, artists and other high profile positions. The Nazi's used Terezin as a propoganda tool during the war and even had a Red Cross visit about halfway through the war. The poor Jews had to beautify the camp, put on plays and sporting events, and pretend everything was ok. The Red Cross representatives bought it hook, line, and sinker. Even though they were encarcarated, the Jews there managed to continue producing amazing works of art, producing plays, magazines, and compsing music. It is amazing the concentration of artisits and creative people they had within the walls, and such a shame that most of them persished. A particualr focus was on the artwork of the children in the camp. They allowed the Jews to run schools and much of the children's art was on display. That was particularly hard.

There are places we've been that just feel as if they have ghosts. Walking around Terezin, you felt the sadness. The fact that people actually live here now is astounding to me. We took a hike outside the city walls to the "small fortress" or the Gestapo prison. Talk about ghosts. We were the ONLY people inside the entire prison.
There were rooms that when I walked in the hair stood up on the back of my neck.
The Nazi prisons and camps were often plastered with the words "Arbiect Macht Frie" meaning "Work will set you free".
Maybe it was the cold and the isolation, but the whole place just felt evil. This is a sample of the Red Cross efforts I mentioned above. The sinks were built, but the pipes were never run to make them work. It was all fake.
We kept the creepy up walking through solitary cells, group showers (where they got the Jews used to group showering so they would be compliant when they got to Auschwitz and subsequently gassed) and even saw the mass grave where they dug up 601 of the deceased and the execution grounds where they and many others were murdered. Outside the prison is a large cemetery. Most of the graves in the Jewish section towards the fortress walls just have numbers, unknown casualties of a horrible moment in the world's history...
After visiting the small fortress, we hauled it back across town to try and make it to the crematorium before it closed. We were too late, but we did see this. It's a remnant of the train tracks the Nazis forced their Jewish prisoners to build. The Nazis didn't want the Jews walking from the next town to the camp, so they forced them to build a railroad that came right up to the camp. Down these tracks was Auschwitz...
It was an amazing experience to get to see something like this. Even though it was a heavy day, it was something we won't ever forget. It's so sad to think of what these people might have done had they not met this fate.

To balance out the day, we decided to have a bit lighter night. We had dinner in our hotel's restauraunt, which is REALLY nice. Our taxi driver said our hotel looked like someone threw-up baroque and he was right. Look at how gaudy this room in the restauraunt is! The walls are mosaic mirrors. LOVE it! Dinner was A-mazing. I ate duck and actually liked it!
Since we have pretty much let the jet lag win, of course we weren't tired at 10:30. We headed out to look for a beer and for some reason the whole city is closed! We found this cute wine bar and of course, ate some more.
We tried the mulled wine, ate brie and honey, and you know Blake found some sausage.
So here we are, 2 o'clock in the morning and wondering what we should do. We're bound and determined to make it up in the morning for breakfast and some of the more toursity areas. I'm sure Blake will find some pig too....

Thursday, February 17, 2011

It's Been A While

It has been a year since our last vacation (I know, I understand, some of you have not been on vacation in a much longer time than that). It has been almost three years since we were last in Europe, together (again, I know, wah...wah...). Kristen has traveled to Singapore, Kazakhstan and Australia for work. So, in addition to the obscene amounts of money we spend on our Continental credit card for our cute little daughter (producing miles) and Kristen's work related miles, we decided to spend the additional amount it would take to put us in Prague via business class travel. I, of course have never travelled business class, but now I don't think I will ever go back to coach. How could you? Drinks when you want them. Hundreds of movies and music channels as soon as you set foot on the plane. Three course dinners. Hot breakfasts. A seat that reclines, really reclines, and opens to at least 165 degrees for sleeping purposes. EVERYTHING! Two movies, a few drinks, a good meal and a nice nap later, Kristen and I were feeling good and ready to tackle what Prague (pronounced Pra-Ha) had in store for us. We did not take any pics on the plane as we were trying hard to play it cool, act like we've been there before...other people were watching us...

We had made arrangements with a local shuttle service to pick us up and take us to our hotel. After first class service in the air, our driver holding the "Vacek" sign met us outside baggage claim and we were off through the streets outside the capitol of The Czech Republic. The Czech Republic, as many of you are probably aware, was home to a number of my family members before immigrating to the United States. Since booking this vacation, I have been interested in seeing how a local would pronounce my name, figuring that our version (VAH-sick) was the result of several manipulations along the way. The driver, being from Los Angeles, was of no help in this matter. But, arriving at the hotel, I finally heard it..."Good Morning Mr. VAH-seck." I was a little disappointed, expecting VAH-check, VAH-chick or some other variation, but VAH-seck is what I got. I am still not satisfied though and think I found a place that I can get a better pronunciation. Closed today when I found it, I will definitely be by there tomorrow (regardless of what a bio market is...)

The room key in hand, Kristen and I charged out into the streets as we always do ready to tackle a new adventure. Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral sit on a hill overlooking the city, so that was goal #1. In typical Vacek fashion we decided to climb a gigantic freaking hill first thing. We like to just go ahead and do the most physical activity first thing while we're jetlagged. Up and up we climbed through the windy streets.
Prague is unique in that almost every building is of different architecture. It's kind of a mismash of baroque, renaissance and modern. Up a "steeper than it looks street" (think San Fransico) and a million stairs (its obvious now that Kristen has assumed writing duties), we were finally at the castle. Notice that the Czech's also like the fuzzy hat look, just a little more understated.
After our self-guided tour we disagreed with Rick Steve's opinion. He gave the castle two stars. We gave it one. We were not so impressed. Sorry to Blake's ancestors, but their castle is a little lacking in almost everything. We did learn one new term today at the castle: Defenestration. Evidently there is actually a law in Prague that makes defenestration legal. It's actually the act of "Throwing someone out the window." Evidently when the old Czechs got pissed, they stormed the castle and threw whoever they weren't so happy with out the window. Hmmmm. Might come in handy at work.

While the castle, we felt, was below our ridiculously high standards, St. Vitus, the cathedral, was beautiful and enormous.

Since it's a little bit newer cathedral, it doesn't have the exact same feel as some of the ancient places we've seen in other parts of Europe. We DID however see Good King Wencelas of the least popular Christmas Carol Ever! Turns out his tomb is where the kings of old used to be crowned. The wallpaper in the chapel is encrusted with semi precious stones. For some reason they wouldn't let us in (I wonder why). Then guess what we did!? Duh, you already know.

We got our climb on. 287 steps puts this somewhere in the middle of our cathedral climbing adventures. The fog was rolling in while we were up at the top, but we still got some nice views of the city.

After all that walking up hills and steps we decided we were hungry and wanted to try "Traditional" Czech food for our first night here. Blake has been excited about eating massive amounts of pig and beer since we decided to come to Prague. Guess what he got!?

No, this isn't a mideveal torture device, it's a pig knee! Blake didn't know whether he should crown it after the waiters procession to the table with the mess of meat, but decided in the end to dig in Fred Flintstone style. Pair it with some Beer and Blake is a happy pig gorging camper. I had another staple, pot roast in cream sauce with dumplings. The dumplings are not like what you're thinking though. They're more big dense pieces of bread.

Since we had to walk off all that greasy pork, we decided to take a nightime stroll across the river. The government must've heard that we were coming because right as we got to the perfect spot over the bridge, fireworks set to classical music started. What a nice gesture. Ever one treats you better when you fly first class!

We wandered through the streets of the old town. Everything is always a bit more magical at night. Part of the city even look a little "disneywold." This is the gate the the Charles River Bridge with the castle in the background.

We look forward to our coming days in The Czech Republic. Tomorrow we plan on visiting a WWII concentration camp in the town of Terezin. Until then...