Monday, May 3, 2010

Benvenuto, Roma

That morning Bob left Frankfurt Int'l for DFW and I flew to Rome. I took the Leonardo Express train into the city from the airport and got checked into my hostel, which was conveniently just outside the Roma Termini station. My first and only thing on my agenda was to head to the Vatican to pick up tickets for the papal appearance that Wednesday. Tickets are free, but since seating is limited Monday - and occasionally Tuesday - are the only times you can get tickets before they're all gone. I met a Canadian girl in the hostel who was interested in going with me, so we left our hostel and headed toward St. Peter's, a good hour and fifteen minutes walk away. We passed Santa Maria Maggiore - the cathedral closest to us - and walked down Via Panispara down to the Vittorio Emmanuelle monument. This colossal structure was built in 1850s to commemorate the first king of united Italy. Now, it's the most neoclassical piece of Roman architecture the city has. The plaza featured an amazing view of the Colesseum just down the street; in the 1930s Benito Mussolini ordered that a massive street (Via del Fori Imperiori) be built to link the Colesseum to the Vittorio Emmanuelle monument. Along the way, a whole string of Roman ruins were uncovered and excavations continued until WW2 took the focus away. Anyway, after taking quite a few pictures here, I headed north on Via del Corso, one of the main north-south axes of the city. Before too long, we'd reached the Tiber and headed west toward the dome of St. Peter's. We crossed over the Tiber at Pont Saint Angelo, this iconic old bridge lined with sculptures leading up to Castel Saint'Angelo, the prison/fortress of Vatican City, and then headed up toward St. Peter's Square.

St. Peter's Square was simply brilliant. It supposedly holds 2 million people when it's packed and is flanked by two semi-circular colonnades designed by Bernini and topped with statues of something like 180 saints and canonized popes. We walked around for awhile taking pictures and trying to figure out the "great bronze door" where the tickets to the papal audience were given out. We asked a security guard and he pointed us up to this massive door guarded by Swiss guard with long halberd axes. No one was even going close to this place, so it didn't really feel right, but I went up there anyway. The one with the axe lowers it in front of you, while a second one with a machine gun appears in the doorway and asks you your business. I told him I wanted tickets to the papal audience, he asked how many, and I said five; he then vanished, reappeared, handed me the tickets, and saluted me as I scampered down the stairs. We then spent some time walking through St. Peter's basilica, which was by far the most awe-inspiring and beautiful building I'd ever seen in my life, but I'll save the description and pictures for the Vatican Day post.

We headed back to the hostel and I got a shower and changed for dinner. I used my trusty Frommer's Guide to Italy that made our trip to Florence such a success and found a good relatively inexpensive dinner place in the heart of the city near the Pantheon. I had myself a fantastic mussels scampi dish and a chianti with some chocolate mousse for dessert. After dinner, I walked around the Pantheon area, made my way to Trevi fountain, and then headed back to the hostel so that I could get up early the next morning and be productive before my friends arrived from Florence.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

WW2 Tour Pt. 4: Maginot Line

We woke up in Luxembourg for our last day of our WW2 tour. Our first stop was the American Cemetery in Luxembourg, where General Patton is buried. Luxembourg was the headquarters for him and the U.S. 3rd army he commanded. The cemetery was very similar to the one in Normandy with the white marble Latin crosses and Stars of David, but this one was dug into the middle of the Ardennes forest; a fitting setting for the Battle of the Bulge casualties. Patton actually made it through the war but died in a jeep accident in December of 1945. We walked around the grounds for awhile, looked at the maps of the Battle of the Bulge, and then packed up to head back into France to take a look at the Maginot Line.

The Maginot Line was a string of forts and other defenses on the French/German border dug into the side of hills facing Germany. However, the French didn't think to reinforce the French/Belgian border in the same fashion, so the Germans just went around the Maginot Line through Belgium, came around from the rear, and then captured the French fortresses from the undefended French side. The good news for tourists is that, after seeing such miraculously little action during the war, the defenses are all in relatively good condition. We first went to the village of Cattenom, where there are five of these forts all within walking distance. We drove around a little bit in there, but because some of the dirt roads were muddy and we were in a little VW, coupled with the fact that all the forts were closed and you couldn't get inside them, we didn't spend much time there. Instead, we drove farther East to the village of Veckering, where the largest fort of the entire Maginot Line, the Hackenberg, is located. We knew from our internet research a few days before that the Hackenberg was open for tours on Sundays, so we knew we would be able to get inside as opposed to just looking at the entrance.

We got inside and were amazed at how intense the interior of the fort is. The Hackenberg comprised 10 kilometers worth of underground tunnels with a munitions entrance and personnel entrance on the French side of the hill and two combat blocks, with 6 combat stations each, on the German side. We toured the non-combat zones on the French side like the munitions bay, barracks, and kitchen, before moving (via train car, it was so long) to the combat blocks on the other side of the mountain. At that point, we were about 180 meters underground and had to climb a narrow stairway all the way from the complex floor to the gun systems above. But, when we got to the top, it was totally worth it; we were standing inside one of the three-story gun turrets that was still 100% operational. The tour guide turned it on, raised the turret, spun the guns around, and repeated so we could see how the gun worked from the inside. Then we went outside and took a look at the gun emplacements facing Germany and was able to see the same gun we'd just seen but operated from the outside. We then walked from combat block 8 over a bluff to combat block 9, where there were some longer-range guns placed to complement the short-range mortar cannons that we'd just been inside. It was funny that the only damage to the forts was done by the Americans when the retreating Nazis used the Hackenberg as a fallback position.

After we left the Hackenberg, we headed out of France for the second time in three days and made for Germany. As soon as we got into Germany, we found our way to the autobahn and blasted toward Frankfurt. We got checked into our fourth hotel room in just as many days and then found a little German/Greek restaurant for dinner and a German pub afterwards for a beer. Germany is so good about giving you the beer glass that actually belongs with the beer - and so many of them were really cool - that we asked the bartender if we could buy a few of his glasses. He responded in broken English that "no, but, if you leave...I don't look." So, after we finished our beer we walked out with some Schoffenhauser glasses in our jackets and left the guy a 300% or so tip. We went back, I rearranged the stuff in the various suitcases Bob was taking home the next day, and we got ready for an early trip to the Frankfurt airport the next morning. For Bob, it would mean a trip home, but for me, it would mean my last adventure: this time, to Rome.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

WW2 Tour Pt. 3: Belgium

We woke up in Brussels and plowed out of town to tour Battle of the Bulge battlegrounds. We made first for La Gleize, which was the northernmost point the German army made it into Belgium during their surprise counterattack during Christmas of 1944. We were navigating the relatively tiny country roads on either side of interstate E25 all day - without GPS, mind you - and so we took our time and got a little lost en route to La Gleize, but saw a whole lot of Belgian countryside in the meantime. We had lunch in the village of Stoumont, La Gleize's neighbor, because it had a tourism bureau where we were finally able to get real directions to our destination. When we made it to La Gleize, we found the Koenigstiger Tiger II tank that the German commander Piper had left behind in his hasty retreat as the Allies started to repel the German counterattack. We decided that the museum there wasn't really worth it, so we decided to wait for a museum until we got to the bigger and better one in La Roche en Ardennes, our next stop.

La Roche en Ardennes was a bigger town in the Ardennes forest that swapped hands numerous times during the liberation of Belgium and the Battle of the Bulge later in 1944. It was a quiet resort town that had a beautiful river running through it and a medieval castle on the hillside (that was conveniently placed for German snipers to use during the two times the Allies had to push through the town). We went to the Battle of the Bulge 1944 Museum there, which was actually pretty good, and then stopped by the castle on the way out for some pictures.

The capstone destination for our Battle of the Bulge tour was Bastogne, the town that the Germans completely encircled and was held only by the determination and grit of the 101st Airborne Division and, specifically, Easy Company (the one featured in Band of Brothers). We went first to the Woods of Peace, which is a monument located northeast of the town, right where Easy Company was encircled. The woods were dedicated just five or six years ago, when all Battle of the Bulge veterans were invited back to Belgium. Anyone in attendance had a tree dedicated to them. We spent a little while walking through the forest there before we headed back toward Bastogne to stop at the Mardasson monument, which is the overarching Battle of the Bulge monument built in the 1950s to commemorate all the Americans that died liberating Belgium.

After Bastogne, we drove the hour or so into the nation of Luxembourg and checked into a hotel in the capital city there. We walked across the town to have dinner in an outdoor piazza and then retired for the night to get ready for our last day of our tour: into Eastern France and then into Frankfurt for the night.

Friday, April 30, 2010

WW2 Tour Pt. 2: Normandy Cont.

Our second day in Normandy wasn't quite as action-packed as our first. We started off by going back to the American Cemetery in Normandy for me to lay out the flowers I'd bought the day before. Since we sort of stumbled upon the cemetery without trying, I'd left the flowers I'd bought in the car and we never made it back that afternoon. So we made a quick trip back to Colleville-sur-Mer for me to pay tribute to the soldiers there. I put a white rose next to the first Texas soldier I found and then put the rest on the unmarked graves for those missing in action or never identified.

After the cemetery we headed to a couple sites I'd found the night before that are relatively unknown. Our first stop was Longues-sur-Mer, to the East of Juno beach (far East of Omaha beach). Longues-sur-Mer was where the Germans had placed a number of huge anti-naval guns that we discovered where, with the exception of one hit by an American shell, where remarkably well-preserved. It was a very wide-open and beautiful landscape, but there was an annoying amount of French youth eating lunch and hanging out on the guns and running around the pillboxes.

Our last stop in Normandy was the seaside village of Arromanches, where the other temporary harbor was built to bring in troops and supplies in the weeks and months after the initial invasion. Unlike in Vierville-sur-Mer, however, the harbor at Arromanches survived and parts are relatively still intact today. We drove down to the waterfront and just walked their seawall for a few minutes. You can still see many of the sunken vessels that the engineers used to stop the breakwaters and establish a relatively calm harbor.

After Arromanches, we got in the car and headed for Dunkirk, the city on the French/Belgian border that was where 320,000 French and British troops were evacuated from when the Germans encircled them. However, Dunkirk was not the sleepy village that all of our other siteseeing places had been, and without GPS or knowledge of the sites in Dunkirk we were forced to keep on going. We continued all the way to Brussels and checked into our hotel. To end the evening, we just got a good Belgian restaurant recommendation and then had a drink at some famous pub bar that features a couple hundred beers on tap.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

WW2 Tour Pt. 1: Normandy

Bob drove in from Munich on Wednesday to pick up me and my things from Rue Quincampoix. We loaded all of my belongings and plowed out of town – without a GPS or map, mind you – toward Normandy. We checked into a little hotel in Bayeux that night around midnight and got ready for our four-day World War II history tour that would take us across four countries in just as many days.

The first morning, we drove out of Bayeux and headed toward Colleville-sur-Mer, the Eastern edge of Omaha beach. We found a place to park and just started wandering the beach until we started seeing the Nazi pillboxes on the bluffs and cliffs above us. We stuck close to the water, though, until we saw a decent walking path that led up the beach and to the bluffs. Once we were at the top of the bluffs, we were astonished at how far out from the landing sites these pillboxes were. When we were standing there, the ocean was at high tide and there still would have been a good 200-300 yards for the Allied troops to cover, up-hill, through obstacles, and under constant fire. However, we landed during low tide and there would have been anywhere between 200 and 400 extra yardage to cover. How anyone made it off that beach alive was completely mind-boggling. I had expected to see some of the x-shaped landing craft obstacles still stuck into the beach, so was a little bit disappointed in the absence of those things, but it was quickly overshadowed by the feeling I got when we headed into the cemetery immediately behind us.

The American Cemetery at Normandy in Colleville-sur-Mer is right off of Omaha beach at the top of the bluffs. It holds over 9,000 graves of Americans that died on D day and shortly thereafter, and is absolutely breathtaking to behold. The site is meticulously groomed, and all 9,000+ graves are in exact line with one another. All are either a Latin cross or Star of David cut from the same pristine white marble. We spent about an hour walking the grounds and traversing the lawns just looking at all the names. There were a significant amount of graves just marked “Here lies in honored glory; a comrade in arms; known only to God.” At the front of the site was a large memorial with some pretty detailed maps of the Allied Expeditionary Force’s operations in Normandy, Northern France, and beyond. After checking pretty much the entire site out, we walked back down to the beach toward our car, stopping at the German pillboxes we’d passed before on our way. These ones were primarily for longer-ranch anti-infantry guns that were aimed down toward Omaha beach from the Eastern endpoint of the sector.

After the cemetery, we drove along to coast to Vierville-sur-Mer, the Western edge of Omaha beach. We went down to the water where the temporary Mulberry harbor was constructed to accommodate 1.5 million men and equipment that passed through Normandy’s beaches in the 7 weeks prior to the invasion. A big hunk of the pier was still lodged against the sea wall. We explored a few of the German pillboxes along the shore and then had lunch at a little restaurant there in town. From Vierville-sur-Mer, we drove about 20 minutes West to Sainte-Mère Eglise, the town where the 82nd and 101st airborne divisions parachuted into in the early morning hours of D day. In the early morning hours of June 6, one of the biggest houses in the town caught fire, so the entire sky was illuminated while the paratroopers were sailing in and a good majority of them were gunned down before they could even hit the ground. The church in Sainte-Mère Eglise still has a paratrooper mannequin hanging by his chute from the steeple to commemorate the American airborne soldier that got caught there and had to play dead for several hours to avoid being shot by the Germans. We went to the Airborne Museum there in the town and then headed back toward Bayeux.

We stopped at Pointe du Hoc, where we'd attempted to go after Colleville-sur-Mer but the rain made up keep on going to Sainte-Mere Eglise. Pointe du Hoc was where these big guns were placed that could swivel and hit Omaha beach to the East and Utah beach to the West. 225 Army Rangers were given the mission to rappel up the sheer cliff face using Batman-style rope launchers and then to disable the guns. It is also a miraculous piece of WW2 history because after the war we left everything exactly how it was post-invasion. The German pillboxes, gun emplacements, and even the bombing craters left by the Americans are still there. We explored there for awhile and then stopped by the German Cemetery en route back to Bayeux.

Back in Bayeux, we ate dinner at a little steak restaurant and then retired back to our hotel, where I sat down to write my seniors wills for the banquet I was going to attend in Austin first-thing getting back from Europe.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Auf Wiedersehen, Berlin!

We didn’t really have much on the agenda for Tuesday, as we had to get back to the airport for our flight back to Paris in the late afternoon. We u-bahned down to Wilhemstrasse to go to the Berlin Jewish Museum with our last couple hours. It was a very modern building – a lot of steel and glass – shaped like a lightning bolt (or potentially a broken Star of David) that tracked the history of Germany’s Jews since the diaspora. It was a good and informative end to a trip that focused so much on recent Jewish history and persecution.

After the Jewish museum we went back over to Kurfurensdamm in Charlottsburg and found a German restaurant for lunch. I had a pretty fantastic black forest cake there too. Not as good as the apple strudel in Prague, but good nonetheless. From there, we just headed back to the hostel, got our bags, and headed to Tegel for our trip home. The public bus to the airport was running late, and then got stuck in 5 o’clock Berlin traffic, so we once again barely made it to the airport in time. We ended up sprinting down to our terminal from the bus stop and checking in with just a few minutes to spare. A fitting way to end our trip of miracles and failures.

I got back to Paris and, after packing for a little bit, realized I didn’t want to spend my last few hours in Paris nostalgically in my apartment. I took my last bottle of chianti down to Pont Neuf on the Seine with a friend and spent the night that way.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Biking Through Berlin

We woke up and had breakfast at the hostel before heading out for our bike tour threw Berlin. We headed due south to Alexanderplatz, the sort of unofficial city center for Soviet East Berlin. Although the administrative things were closer to the East/West division, Alexanderplatz is really where the Communist architecture and such is most apparent. We did our bike tour through the Fat Tire Bike Company that my roommate Lauren works for in Paris. We got these big, goofy looking bikes and started heading south from Alexanderplatz. Our first stop was Marx-Engelsplatz, a big open area dedicated to founders of Communism Marx and Engel that the Soviets built in an East versus West city beautification program. We got a kick out of taking pictures with Marx and Engel highlighting our Ray Bans sunglasses, Burberry polos, and other designer items. We then headed across the Spree (the river that runs through Berlin) onto Museum Island. This place was interesting because it features – in addition to Berlin’s most famous museums – a massive open lawn where the Prussian royal palace for central Berlin used to be. However, it was so devastated after World War 2 that the Soviets decided to tear it down since it represented the old aristocracy that Communism despised so much. In its place they built a massive concrete cube that was a big civic union flush with restaurants and housing. When Berlin was reunited in 1989, the Western interests didn’t want a massive Communist cube building to be at the heart of reunification, so they used an asbestos problem as justification for ripping the whole thing down. At present, the site is a big empty lawn while the city of Berlin raises funds to rebuild the old Prussian palace from absolute scratch.

We then headed to Bebelsplatz, which is more in the center of East Berlin, and the site of the historic Nazi book burning in 1933. The plaza is bordered by St. Hedwig’s cathedral – for a long time the only Catholic church in Berlin, the law and judicial library, and Humboldt University, where the majority of Germany’s intellectuals – from the brothers Grimm to Einstein – studied. In the middle of the ground of the plaza is a memorial to the book burning, a sheet of glass looking down to a room of empty bookshelves, enough to hold the more than 20,000 books by un-Aryan authors burn that night. Next to the memorial is a plaque with a famous quote by Heinrich Heine from 1820: “Those that would burn books will soon burn people.” Ironically, Heine’s books were probably at the top of the pile since he was both Jewish and a homosexual.

We then rode to the French plaza, home to dual French and German protestant churches and the symphony hall where the Berliner Philharmoniker performs. Here we learned that Hitler saved all the sculpture in this square by having the statues removed shortly after coming to power in 1933. The statues were wrapped up and sunk in the various lakes around Berlin to protect them, and ended up being about the only thing truly original in this square when it was rebuilt. From there we rode to Checkpoint Charlie and checked out of the few remaining segments of the Berlin Wall, which was right next to the former Luftwaffe and later Stasi headquarters. By now we were straddling the former East / West division and so we biked up north through the former “no man’s land” and saw the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Brandenburg gate, and the Reichstag. We biked through the massive Tiergarten and had lunch in a beer garden there next to the zoo. We then made our way back to Alexanderplatz via the Tiergarten’s main street that Hitler envisioned would be the East-West axis of his new Berlin.

It started to rain on us when we were biking back to Alexanderplatz, so we decided to stay close to home that night and just went down Rosa Luxembourgstrasse for a nice German dinner. I got a Stolzer Heinrich (or “proud Henry”) that was a sausage, potatoes, and sauerkraut dish, and a delicious schoffenhauser hefeweissen brew - certainly enough to put me into a food coma before bed for the second night in a row. I love German food and beer.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Beers and Brats (Berlin Pt. 1)

Sunday morning we took an early morning train out of Prague bound for Berlin. The countryside was phenomenal and from outside of Prague through Dresden we followed the Elbe and watched kayakers and fishing boats go by. When we got into Berlin, we took the S-bahn from the Hauptbanhof train station to Alexanderplatz in East Berlin and then the U-bahn up to Rosa-Luxembourg Platz where our hostel was. Our hostel was an awesome place with a restaurant and bar built into it downstairs; and although we were in the 10-bed room the four of us only had one other roommate. We knew were planning on doing a city tour the following day, so we decided to look up the sites we would see tomorrow and then do something on our own that wouldn’t be covered on the tour. Since the majority of famous sites were right along the East/West Berlin border, we decided to go far into West Berlin and just explore the area known as Charlottsburg.

We S-bahned down to the Berlin zoo at the far West end of the Tiergarten, the massive garden that occupies the entirety of Central Berlin, and then walked up through Charlottsburg to Charlottsburgschloss, a baroque castle palace built for the Prussian royalty back in the day. We found it interesting that in the parks leading up to the palace, just about everybody was engaged in games of bocce ball. As we passed one such game, I heard a woman say “Das ist gut, ja!” which is probably the most German thing anyone can possibly say, so that made me really happy. We didn’t feel like paying to go inside the palace, so we just lounged on the grass in the garden outside and took a little power nap. Afterwards we strolled back south through Charlottsburg to Kurfurensdamm, Berlin’s version of the glitzy Champs-Elysees in Paris. Since I was with three girls, making progress down Kurfurensdamm past Louis Vuitton and other boutiques was slow. I was admittedly glad when everyone’s feet starting hurting. We went clear across Berlin via U-bahn and came out in the far North of East Berlin. For dinner, we had an absolute feast at the Prater Biergarten there. I had at least two full meals of bratwurst, Polish sausage, pork loin, corn on the cob, potato salads, and above all, some amazing hefeweissen beers. Everyone was pretty exhausted from our post-pub crawl, early-morning traveling, so we basically went back to the hostel and passed out from a food coma.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Pamatkin Terezin

With the afternoon of our second day in the Czech Republic, as opposed to seeing the castle a second time, we wanted to take a bus about an hour outside of Prague to the town of Terezin. The town of Terezin was built into an old Czech fortress built to keep the Prussians out, but we were more interested in the smaller fortress 1000 meters to the East of the bigger one: the Pamatkin Terezin concentration camp. We wanted to go to it primarily because we didn’t think we would have another opportunity to visit one of the camps; there was just too much to do in Berlin to spend an entire day or half-day at Sachsenhausen. I also wanted to visit Terezin especially because it was the camp featured in our 8th grade play at Country Day, “I Never Saw Another Butterfly.” The camp was originally established as a prison for Czech political prisoners, but it became increasing inundated with residents of the Jewish ghetto that had taken over the town of Terezin just down the road. The camp had large populations of Jewish children and the intellectuals that the Nazis couldn’t afford to be seen killing (yet); this lead to what a Jewish historian called “the greatest education system of all time” in which lower- and middle-school age children were being instructed by Nobel prize-winning physicists and virtuoso musicians.

Built within the ramparts of the old medieval Czech fortress, the concentration camp was an especially daunting site. Walking up to it from the town, you pass through a massive cemetery containing the remains of the prisoners who died there. Only a couple thousand graves existed, so they must have only found or accounted for a small percentage of the 33,000 estimated to have died at Terezin. We walked through the single tunnel leading in and out of the camp and started our tour in the administrative yard. In front of us were the lavish SS barracks, the camp Kommandant’s mansion residence, and other amenities like a swimming pool and cinema for the Germans. To the left was the processing yard and prisoner yard A. We passed underneath the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ so characteristic of the Nazi camps and set about exploring the prisoner accommodations of the yard. Since Terezin was a sort of propaganda camp built to fool people, we also saw the doctor’s office, barbershop, and hospital wings that were rarely – if ever – used in real life. We passed through a super creepy tunnel that snaked through the original ramparts of the castle (which was constructed as like a 20-side star, basically) and led from prisoner yard A to the execution yard, where there were walls pocketed with bullet holes and concrete basins for bodies to fall into. We passed through the fields of mass graves before finally coming back into the interior of the camp to see more prisoner yards, some with mass cells that would hold anywhere between 400-600 prisoners in a single room (with two toilets and four sinks to accommodate the lot of them). It was all pretty disgusting and was a very humbling experience overall.

We left the camp around 6:00 in order to catch the 6:30 bus back to Prague. The only problem was that no one told us the 6:30 bus only operates on Sundays. After waiting at the bus stop for over an hour, we started walking toward the town – clueless as to what we should be doing – with our arms outstretched and thumbs up. No one stopped for us, so we wandered into the old fortress and the town of Terezin to try and find something. Maybe because the town’s predominately Jewish population never recovered after World War 2, or maybe because it was Saturday and thus the Shabbat, but – whatever the reason – the place was a ghost town. We finally found a hotel that was open and one of the women having a drink at the bar spoken enough English to tell us there was one last train that comes through Terezin en route to Prague in the evenings. We hightailed it to the train station and luckily bought tickets. Once again, flying by the seat of our flaming pants. When we got back to Prague, we were pretty exhausted and mentally drained from the whole afternoon, so we decided a pub crawl was in order and absolutely necessary. We got a quick bite to eat at McDonald’s to save money and then headed out with the pub crawl group for a night on the town.

Prague Pt. 2

The next morning our only plan was to catch the free walking tour of the city that we’d missed the day before. We had done one of these before in Amsterdam and we liked the company that managed them. We met in the old town square just north of our hostel and started the tour there. Our guide, Michael from Germany but with a British accent when he spoke English, gave us the run-down on 800 years of Czech history in a solid ten minutes as an introduction to the tour.

He led us around the square and told us about the various Cathedrals and municipal buildings that line it, and also all about Prague’s famous astrological clock that has been a figurehead on the city hall since the 1500s. The old town square was flooded with people, so I was glad to move out of the old city – passing the original university and Mozart’s concert hall on the way – and out into the “new” old city. Prague was really interesting to walk around in because there were so many different looks to the city: the Gothic architecture from around the reigns of the Charles and the Winceslases, the baroque architecture from the first Czech Republic, the Communist architecture from the post-war years, and finally a Neoclassical style that accompanied the reemergence of the Czech Republic from the USSR. So it was very aesthetically pleasing in an odd, occasionally jumbled sort of way.

We eventually headed back into the old city and into the Jewish quarter. We passed Franz Kafka’s house, the new main synagogue, and the old Jewish synagogue and cemetery. The cemetery is significantly above ground because the kings of Bohemia would routinely deny the Jews a second cemetery, and since Jews are required to bury their death within the Earth, they would have to cart in soil and pile it on top of the old layer to put an additional layer of coffins down. In some parts of the old Jewish cemetery, there were 13 coffins on top of each other and an unfathomable web of tombstones on top. We then passed down to the river and saw the concert hall, but when Michael started leading the group toward the castle, we split off and went back to the hostel.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Prague Pt. 1

Friday morning, the 23rd, I packed up from Paris and left for Prague, Czech Republic. I was traveling with three girls from the University of Wisconsin. One of them had stayed at our apartment after the Texas Independence party the night before so she wouldn’t have to go to the airport alone, so the two of us took the first 5:30am metro out of Châtelet Les Halles toward Charles de Gaulle. When we were just about there, we realized that SmartWings, the airline we were taking, operated out of one of CDG’s more obscure terminals, so we tried to get a hold of the two other girls – Katie and Melanie – that would be traveling with us. The first couple of tries were unsuccessful and went to voicemail; the third try was more successful, but with a catch; my phone calls had just woken Katie and Mel up in their apartment in Paris. With a little over an hour before the plane was scheduled to take off, those two leapt out of bed, sprinted to Gare de Lyon to find a taxi, and sped to Charles de Gaulle as fast as they could. They had to have an airport employee convince the ticket agent to re-open her booth in order to check them in and then lead them through security to bypass the line. We all four made the flight, but so began a trip of miracles and failures, in which we would be constantly flying by the seat of our pants. Oh, and the seat of our pants would be on fire the whole time.

We got into Prague and exchanged our Euros for the Czech monopoly money, the Kraun, before getting onto a bus destined for the city center where our hostel was. It took us awhile to get our bearings, but we made it to our hostel and checked in around noon. We’d missed the free walking tour of the city that we planned on taking at some point, so we just decided to explore Prague a little bit on our own. The Vltava (or Moldau, in German) splits the city in two, and we spent the majority of our time on the East bank where we lived. We were staying in Prague’s old town square, which is on the more Western side of the East bank, if that makes sense. We decided on Friday, however, to cross the river and head up through the embassy district to Hrad Praha, or Prague Castle. We found our way to the famous Charles Bridge, which is flanked by old Gothic towers and guards in traditional Czech garb, and decorated across its length with a lot of religious sculpture and iconography.

The castle was more baroque than it was medieval, so palaces and gardens really took the place of ramparts and defenses. We wandered the gardens and then the interior grounds of the castle, going inside the Cathedral of St. Vitus. St. Vitus wasn’t that much different from any other Gothic cathedral I’ve been inside in Europe so far, but it was perfectly situated to catch the rays of the setting sun through the primary stained glass window in the sanctuary. That made the whole interior of the building lit up with a bunch of vibrant colors that reflected off the walls and floor like a disco ball, almost, which was pretty cool and really beautiful.

After getting back down from the castle area, we headed to the West bank of the Vltava to find an outdoor patio where we could get drinks. We found this one little place that was only accessible through an alley so narrow it had pedestrian traffic lights to tell you to proceed or to wait. I’d never seen one of those before, so that was pretty entertaining. We all got a round of Czech beers, Pillsner Ursquall, as a pre-dinner happy hour before heading back to the hostel. After getting cleaned up, we went out to dinner at a traditional Czech restaurant right in our neighborhood. I got another Pillsner Ursquall, and then a braised beef plate, salad, and the best damn apple strudel I’d ever had in my entire life. We then headed back to our hostel, had a few drinks, and went out to a club on the Vltava called Lazne, where we spent the remainder of the night.