The Capital of Bohemia, Day Three

On our last day in Prague, we went to the castle.  It was crowded and expensive, but I saw some things that made it worth it.

Inside St. Vitus’s Cathedral was a magnificent stained glass window designed by Mucha.  I had never seen Art Nouveau stained glass in a Gothic cathedral before.  Pretty cool.

Inside the Old Royal Palace was the window from which the Second Defenestration of Prague occurred.

“Defenestrate” means to “throw a person or thing out of a window.”  I think it’s funny that such a word even exists, let alone that it is in the name of not one but two historical events.  In 1618, a group of Protestants got really angry at some Catholic officials and threw three of them out of the palace window.  Surprisingly, the men survived, but this action started the Thirty Years War.  Don’t ask me anything else about the war (except how long it was).

The Royal Gardens were a tranquil refuge after the intensity of the Castle.  We spent quite a bit of time relaxing in the shade.

Prague has a lot of green space, so after lunch, we visited the Wallenstein Gardens and Palace.  Designed in the seventeenth-century by a wealthy nobleman, they are presently occupied by the Czech Senate.  I took far too many photos of the peacock family that roamed the gardens, but they were a great source of free entertainment.

We finished our day by walking across Charles Bridge.

My advice?  If you get the chance, Go. To. Prague.

St. Vitus’s Cathedral

St. Vitus’s Cathedral

St. Vitus’s Cathedral

Mosaic on St. Vitus’s Cathedral

St. Vitus’s Interior

Stained Glass Window Designed by Mucha

St. George’s Basilica (Romanesque)

Jesse, Scared of Getting Defenestrated

Royal Gardens

Peacock in Wallenstein Gardens

Peacock in Wallenstein Gardens

Peacock in Wallenstein Gardens

View from Charles Bridge

View from Charles Bridge

View from Charles Bridge

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The Capital of Bohemia, Day Two

On our second day in Prague, we visited the Botanical Gardens.  The gardens are next to the zoo and overlook a seventeenth-century palace.  We enjoyed the beautiful spring day and although there were some fellow tourists wandering about, there were also a good number of local families.  We even saw a woman eating ice cream while walking a cat on a leash.

After exploring the botanical gardens, we went back to our hotel for a nap.  In the evening we found a delicious Indian restaurant in the city center.  After dinner we watched the sun set over the Vltava River.  Prague is just as beautiful by night as it is in the daytime.

On our way to dinner we had a bizarre experience.  We saw a bunch of smoke rising from a side street and spotted riot police standing on a bridge.  We thought maybe there was some sort of protest, but despite the smoke and the ominous figures on the bridge the crowd seemed mysteriously calm.

When we walked by again after dinner, we saw microphones and a camera crew.  The “riot police” were in fact extras in a movie that was being filmed!

It just goes to show that in Prague there is a surprise waiting around every corner.

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Art and Architecture in Prague

As my dedicated readers know, I am a museum addict.

One of the museums that I knew I wanted to visit in Prague was the Museum of Czech Cubism, which is located in the House of the Black Madonna.  I must say, I was hoping for something a little more exotic than this building:

House of the Black Madonna

The cubist architecture in Prague is unique.  Before WWI, nationalist Czech artists wanted to create pieces that were distinctly Czech.  So it has an interesting historical legacy.  However, applying the cubist style to a building is challenging.  I thought some of the geometric shapes were interesting, but overall I wasn’t impressed.  I much prefer the art deco style that came after WWI.

Cubist Chair

Cubist Furniture

Cubist Staircase

Cubist Lamp Post

The building that I really fell in love with is Frank Gehry and Vlado Milunić’s Dancing House.  Adding modern architecture to any European city is always controversial, but I think the Dancing House compliments its surroundings.

It was built on an empty lot that had been bombed in WWII (like I said, only about two bombs landed on Prague).  The lot was also next door to President Václav Havel’s house.  He was both a poet and a politician, and he supported the project, which was inspired by the dancing duo Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Gehry is most famous for his Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, which I haven’t visited, but I’ve seen his building on the Case Western campus in Cleveland and his pavilion at Millennium Park in Chicago.  His style is very distinct, and is always interesting to look at–if you’re not blinded by the sun reflecting off his shiny metal surfaces.

I am never content with just one museum, so we also went to the Alfons Mucha museum.  Mucha’s poster for Sarah Bernhardt’s “Gismonda” launched both his career and the Art Nouveau movement.  I love the way curves, plants, and flowers are incorporated into his motifs.  Art Nouveau was less about painting and more about applied arts: posters, textiles, buildings, and even mass-produced products.

Like the cubists, Mucha was a Czech nationalist.  In the 1930s, he ran afoul of the Nazis and contracted pneumonia while being held for interrogation by the Gestapo.  He died in 1939.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

After seeing cubist paintings and Mucha’s posters, we couldn’t resist a little more art.  The Municipal House had an exhibit called Tauromaquia, which included bullfighting paintings and sketches by Picasso, Dalí, and Goya.  Although I am opposed to bullfighting, I really enjoyed seeing the same theme depicted by radically different artists.  They also had a full-size cartoon sketch for Picasso’s Guernica.

Bullfighting Sketch by Goya (Source: Wikipedia)

With just a few brushstrokes, Picasso captured the violent energy of bullfighting:

Ironically, after seeing the Fred and Ginger building, my feet were too tired to walk, let alone dance.  We took the tram back to our hotel, heads spinning with all the beautiful sites we’d seen.

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The Capital of Bohemia, Day One

Since the fall of Communism, Prague has regained the sophistication and the splendor of its glory days.  Unfortunately, this also means that it is now swarming with tourists.  Perhaps because it was a holiday weekend, there were so many tourists that at times I felt like I was at Disney World.  I guess I’ve been fortunate that my experiences in Europe so far have mostly been during the off-season or at slightly off-the-beaten-path locations.  Witnessing the tourist mania in Prague has prepared me for true insanity in Paris and Rome in the coming weeks.

That said, Prague is amazing.

It escaped from WWII virtually unscathed.  Two bombs were accidentally dropped on the city, and the locals were actually glad to be rid of one of the buildings that was destroyed.  So, whereas Budapest’s crumbling Art Nouveau buildings stand next to communist era construction, there are almost no signs of communism in the streets of Prague.  Both cities are captivating in their own way.

The seven hour train ride between the two European capitals sped by.  We were tricked into buying accidentally-on-purpose bought first class tickets, so we had the six-seat compartment all to ourselves.

The countryside outside our window was glorious.

Friday night, we headed to a nearby restaurant for dinner.  Unfortunately, they weren’t serving food after 10:00 PM, so we had to get our calories from delicious Czech beer.  On Saturday morning, we gorged ourselves on the bountiful free breakfast then hopped on the tram to the city center.

Then we wandered.

I knew some buildings/sites that I wanted to see, but we veered down side streets whenever we spotted something interesting.  We spent little time in the popular Old Town Square.  Although it was beautiful, the tourists made me feel claustrophobic.  What I most enjoyed about Prague was gazing at all the details on the buildings.  I could have walked and stared for many more days.

Blossom in the Franciscan Garden

Our Lady of the Snows

Baroque Church

Tyn Church

Municipal Building

At the end of the day, my feet were sore, but my soul was content.  Losing myself in a new city is actually a way to learn more about myself.  As a traveler, I am curious about every aspect of the place that I visit.  When I open my mind to new experiences, I gain new insights about who I am and how I fit into the world.  I keep hoping that one of these days all of these experiences will connect to form a coherent picture.

Next post: An art tangent about Czech cubism, Alfons Mucha, a dancing house, and the beauty of bull fighting.

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Spring in Debrecen

May 1st is a holiday in Hungary, so we have a long weekend and are traveling to Prague.

In the mean time, here are a few spring images from around Debrecen: willows, tulips, pigs, and snails.

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Greek Theater in Syracuse, 4.7.12

On our last day in Sicily, we drove to Syracuse.  Jesse was really determined to see this city, however briefly.  We only had time to see one landmark, and the Greek Theater was an easy choice.

At one time, Syracuse was the most cosmopolitan city in the Mediterranean.  They produced the best theater outside of Athens, performing Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus .  The plays had to be pretty entertaining if people were willing to spend hours sitting on the uncomfortable stone benches to watch them.

Having seen cave paintings just two days before helped me appreciate how theater is also a part of a long human tradition.  Humans have been telling stories for thousands of years.  It seems inevitable that eventually someone built seating, a stage, and started selling tickets.

Two and a half millenniums later, my mom acts in community theater in Mansfield, Ohio.   Granted, she doesn’t do any Greek tragedies, but the themes are the same.  Audiences still want to laugh and cry about the successes and failures of characters–characters who have the same strengths and weaknesses as the Greek heroes.  Human nature doesn’t change.

After we saw the theater, we drove 3 hours to drop my mom at her hotel near the Palermo airport.  Then we had to drive 2.5 hours back down to our hotel near the Catania airport.  It was a long day in the car . . . all because Jesse wanted a t-shirt!

I think he fancied himself a Greek tragedian when he posed for this picture:

And why did Jesse want a Siracusa t-shirt so badly?  Because when we move back to the U.S. at the end of June, we are heading to Syracuse, New York.  Jesse is going to be an Orange Man, a.k.a. a PhD student at Syracuse University.  It seemed only fitting that we see the city which our new home is named after.

I’m not sure what the Greek playwrights would make of Syracuse University’s mascot, Otto the Orange:

We have about two months left in Europe, and a lot more traveling to do, but I find myself thinking more and more about moving back across the ocean.  My life has been full of transitions in the past three years, and I’m looking forward to really settling down in one city for awhile.

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Greek Temples at Agrigento, 4.6.12

We arrived in darkness and saw the temples of Agrigento illuminated on the hillside.  They looked like fake temple cut-outs, but they were the real thing.

I took an elective Ancient Civilizations course in high school, and I still remember my teacher telling the class how amazing the temples at Agrigento are.  “If you want to see Greek ruins, go to Sicily, not Greece.”   Mr. Conry was a bundle of contradictions: A slightly sexist football coach who looked 75 instead of his actual 55, he was well-read and had a passion for history, art, and travel.    And he told a great story.

Thanks, Mr. Conry, for encouraging me.  I took your advice and went to Sicily!

I visited the Hellenistic-Romano Quarter (the remnants of a Roman neighborhood built on top of the original Greek urban plan), the archaeological museum, and 4 of the 5 Greek temple ruins.

Columns in the Roman Quarter

Remnants of Roman Houses

Roman Mosaic

Rhombus Mosaic

Ekklasterion Mosaic

Gecko (The red color may be evidence of fire damage)

Flower among the ruins

Temple of Concordia

Temple of Concordia

Temple of Concordia and 500 year old olive tree

Spring in Agrigento

Temple of Juno

Temple of Juno

Temple of Heracles

Agrigento Wildflowers

Ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus

Fallen statue from the Temple of Olympian Zeus

Olympian Statue in the Archaeological Museum

View from Temple of Olympian Zeus

After hours in the sun, my mom and Jesse were tired, but I wanted to see the Temple of Olympian Zeus.  Jesse ran back up the hill to retrieve the car while I investigated one last temple.  It was the largest Doric temple ever constructed, although it was never finished.  Now nothing remains but huge piles of rubble.  I still could imagine how glorious it must have looked when it was built.

When Jesse rolled up in the car, I admitted to myself that I was tired, too.  We spent the evening relaxing at the Bed and Breakfast.

Seeing the temples was a fulfillment of a wish I’d had since high school.  It made history seem more real.  I can imagine the Greeks fighting battles to maintain control of Sicily and erecting the temples to express gratitude to the gods for their victories.

My next Greek history landmark?  Someday I hope to see the Parthenon!

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