Today's journal title is a little misleading, because it only partly describes events in Germany. In fact, astute readers will recall that we haven't even made it out of Italy yet. But you know what? I committed to this naming scheme a long time ago, buddy. I'm not changing it.
This entry contains a very serious section about the Holocaust, an subject which deserves to be considered separately from what is otherwise a frivolous account of fifty American kids running around looking for good times. I've kept my brief thoughts on the subject in their original context for the sake of continuity, but separated them out from the rest of the text in order to emphasize their gravity. There is nothing to say about the Holocaust that has not been said by wiser, more experienced people, but I will do what I can.
Apart from the first day, all of these entries took place in countries where German was either the primary language, or otherwise widely spoken. When you get settled into one foreign tongue, however, switching out can be difficult. I don't know how many Germans, Austrians, and Czechs I said "grazie" to, but I would like to apologize to them all. Now, without further ado...
Day Fifteen: Venice
We had an early morning ferry scheduled to take us into the city, in order to beat the crowd and get our official tour in fast. Unfortunately, our scheduled wake-up call either did not occur, or was simply too quiet; in any case, nobody was awoken by it. By lucky chance I stumbled out of bed ten minutes before the appointed meeting time, and quickly roused my roommates, who then roused the others.
Miraculously, we all managed to assemble in time and make it to the local port. There we boarded a small open-deck ferry (groan) and set out for the famous Venetian lagoon. The city of Venice is actually built on a number of small islands in the lagoon, and as you approach them the city gives off a romantic, quasi-Atlantean feel. As there is very little evidence of a natural coastline, the effect is much like buildings rising directly out of the waves. It's unsettling but pretty, in a classical sort of way.
We disembarked and took a short walk to la Piazza San Marco, Venice's historic main square. There's a clock tower there, which shows not only the time of day but the phase of the moon and the current part of the astrological year. It's similar to the clock inside Florence's main cathedral, but absurdly bedecked in sculpture and other decorations.
The two most important buildings in the square are the Doge's palace and the Basilica San Marco. The palace is not too exciting from the outside, looking mostly like a big box of...Doge? The Basilica of St. Mark, on the other hand, is tacky by comparison. The exterior is completely covered in columns of different colors and materials; the spoils, we were told, of the sack of Constantinople during Fourth Crusade. I have to wonder what the current residents of Istanbul think of The Venetians' continued flaunting of such ill-gotten gains.
Our local guide led us through the streets, where I was struck by the complete absence of cars. Motor vehicles are obviously impractical on such a crowded island, but they're such a common sight in other European cities that it still comes off as odd. Fortunately, the guide told us, Venice proper is only about twice the size of Central Park; everything is in walking distance, unless you choose to go by gondola.
We saw yet another cathedral, this one devoted to Moses, (unusual for a Catholic Church), and built in the Baroque style, making it several centuries younger than the medieval St Mark's. Across the square from the Moses Cathedral is the city's famous Grand Canal. I must be honest, I found it underwhelming, as it was neither very wide nor very ornate. Not that impressive!
Our tour ended at a glass blower's shop, where we saw first hand the process of blowing and shaping glass. Much like the leather studio in Florence, we were given the opportunity to shop for discounted glassware. The choices were all extremely expensive, and in any event I didn't relish the thought of transporting delicate, precious glass.
Afterward, Jacob set about organizing gondola rides for the group. Even with his super-guide-powers, he could only talk the man down to sixteen euros. Sixteen euros, for a ride through fecal-green waters bearing the cat-sized corpses of rabid rats. I decided to set out and see the rest of the city on foot.
My plan was to walk the perimeter of the primary island, but I soon found it impossible, because there is no road that conveniently encircles the city. The buildings are built right up against the water along most of the coastline, so I had to retreat inland, into a complicated maze of side streets. At one point I came across a spectacular wooden bridge leading to the secondary island. I climbed up to its apex, but decided not to cross over, lest I get completely sidetracked and lost.
After passing through some lovely squares and parks, I found myself entering a narrow-laned residential zone, packed so tightly I thought I was in some sort of sketchy lower-class Whoville. Fearing the prospect of getting shanked, I abandoned my mad schemes of circumnavigation and made a beeline for the Piazza.
By the time I got back, the city's famous pigeons were out in full force, flocking to and fro to eat from the hands of bird lovers from all around the world. Rich folks were dining outside the grand museum/arcade, being entertained by an orchestra and looking disapprovingly at people desperately looking for shade. I decided to check out the interior of St. Mark's.
The inside had an atmosphere like a grotto, as though it were carved out of stone like a sea cave, which was pretty awesome. In one of the side chambers, a ceremony was taking place that might have been a wedding, or something else. As in the Sistine Chapel, there were thick-headed boors taking pictures in spite of strongly-worded prohibitive signs. I wondered how they'd like it if I walked around through their churches taking pictures.
Denied from seeing the Cathedral's more secretive (and expensive) corners, I took a peak at the Doge's palace, which is actually fairly swanky on the inside, and has a number of noteworthy features. There were the famous golden stairs, an impressive looking armory (swords and halberds everywhere!), and the old city council building, which a sign informed me was one of the largest rooms in all of Europe. Interesting if true! There was also a connecting passage to the old prison building, which another helpful sign informed me was one of the first stand-alone prisons in European history. Way to go, Venice?
Mostly, the palace was a fine museum of the city's municipal and national history, along with a few excellent artifacts, like the Doge's own gondola in the courtyard. I was disappointed to find out later that most of the group did not also do the palace tour, but I'd grown used to their philistine ways.
The other big museum in the square, stuffed with Venetian art, was neat, mostly for its own sake, apparently having been built in the days of Napoleon when he was busy conquering cities of immense cultural value. I finally ran into some group members at the entrance, and together we toured the galleries, with all their old books, maps, weapons, statues, etc. Upstairs was a portrait gallery, mostly consisting of images labeled "Madonna with Bambino." You would be very surprised to find the number of variations on this theme that exist - perhaps more so to see the number that involve breastfeeding.
With the museum conquered, I had nothing interesting left to do, and two and a half hours to do it again. Desperately bored, I did a complete second run through of the art museum with some girls. After some more aimless wandering, we spent the rest of the time sitting by the dock, eating delicious gelato and agitating for more reasonable departure times. In fairness, however, Venice is a special case among European cities, and if we were anywhere else, we could have easily called some taxis.
Back in Jesolo, we bade goodbye to our trusty Italian driver, who gladly loaded and unloaded our bags every day like a champ, and in conversation usually came across as significantly less creepy than the average European male. His "creep factor" rose slightly when he joined us for drinks and a quick dinner, but why emphasize the negative?
A word about Venice: I honestly would not be surprised if it were not abandoned within the next one hundred years. Yes, it's lovely, but strictly in the abstract. Putting aside the filth of the celebrated canals, it's sinking into the lagoon, a situation that global warming is not going to help. To top it all off, the population is collapsing due to an unbearable rise in the cost of living. I can't believe that a city like that can be maintained forever without a massive engineering endeavor, and as the population shrinks further, it will become exponentially less practical to keep it up.
Another word about Venice: I took one hundred and twenty dollars to a currency exchange in St. Mark's square, and was thoroughly ripped off, receiving only sixty three euros back. Regardless of what you may have heard, the conversion rate is not two to one, or at least it wasn't when I was there. That's crap.
Day Sixteen: Austria - Into the Alps!
Two countries in two weeks? Clearly it's time to pick up the pace. In the morning we met our new driver, contracted to haul our lazy asses all the way to Amsterdam. We drove north to the famous Alps, bound for the Tyrol region of Austria.
It was one of the longest drives yet, almost seven hours by my count, long past the time when headphones begin to make our ears feel like they're going to fall off. The latter half of the journey was spectacular, however: if the German language signs didn't tell you you were in Austria, the majestic green slopes of the mountains would. They are, without any question in my mind, the most beautiful mountains in the world, and no picture you've ever seen could do them justice.
To make a dreadfully long story short, we reached the river Inn for what turned out to be a dynamic highlight of the tour, white water rafting. Rain or shine (rain, as it turned out), we would brave the chilling waters and jagged rocks in blatant disregard for safety or sanity. Conditions necessitated wetsuits, which were neither comfortable nor flattering. It was not my finest moment.
I got a seat on the forward-left part of the raft, owing to woefully misplaced gender stereotypes concerning upper body strength. Paddling left handed did not make matters any better. Having been on the Kern river in California only a few weeks prior, I knew I could do better than that, but my companion on the right side wouldn't switch with me until the very end.
Our guides were a merry band of Scotsmen (and Scots-ladies) who, while thoroughly competent boaters, seemed suicidally preoccupied with making obscene paddle gestures at one another and pulling innocent people from other rafts and into the water. I was nearly pulled in myself, but held tight, defending myself with some furious oar-work. When I wasn't being endangered by crazed Scots, I marveled at the scenery, which looked all the more rich and green under the rainy grey sky.
In spite of my left-handed deficiencies, we made it through some hairy rapids with minimal death and dismemberment. The river tour lasted only about an hour and a half, but it was still great fun, though the same cannot be said for the soggy shuttle ride back to base.
Still soggy despite all best efforts, we got back on the bus and drove to Steinach am Brenner, a very small skiing town near Innsbruck. There was no snow, of course, but there was a surprisingly awesome hotel (with free Wi-Fi, for heaven's sake!) and some excellent local restaurants. I had my first dinnertime experience with a German dish known as "Grillteller," which can best be described as a pile of meat. Italian food, you say? How quaint.
Being in a remote mountain town (and with the moon conveniently in its "new" phase), we had a spectacular stellar view that night. Sometimes, even the sky seems better abroad.
Day Seventeen: Munich and Dachau
Scrambled eggs for breakfast!? Forever, I will love Steinach.
The Alps in the morning, shrouded in clouds and mist, are even more evocative than the in afternoon, flagrantly defying the label of "picturesque" by being impossible to render in any medium known to man. Really, I was quite impressed; at times, daydreaming through the windows, I thought of the Misty Mountains of Middle Earth, feeling like I'd finally seen them in a meaningful way.
It only took us three hours or so to enter Germany and the city of Munich, the capital of the old state of Bavaria. Officially, we had a free afternoon, which didn't sit well with most of us, as we were passing within a few miles of a Nazi concentration camp, with no official stop planned. A few group members took the initiative and organized a special trip to the Dachau camp on short notice.
Before we left, I took a short walk through the city, seeking an ATM to replenish my desperately dwindling supply of euros. When I finally found one, it was stashed behind some market stalls, dusty and obviously underused. I hesitated at first, not convinced that it wouldn't eat my debit card, an outcome of truly devastating proportions. But I took a leap of faith, and everything turned out alright.
The Dachau memorial site is located in the town of Dachau, a short distance from Munich. The setting is leafy, green, and lovely like a college campus. The camp itself is mostly preserved on site, and resembles a military barracks. Most of the old buildings, however, no longer stand, particularly the prisoners' housing and infirmaries; only foundations remain in place. At the far end from the camp headquarters are two churches, one Protestant and one Catholic, and a Jewish memorial structure. Outside, a tour group from Israel was gathered, paying their respects. To the left, a small bridge over a canal leads to the infamous gas chambers and crematoria. Visitors can walk the same path that the prisoners did, with one stunning difference: they can walk out again, and contemplate what they have seen.
It was like visiting an ancient crime scene, obscured by careful landscaping and the passage of time, but horrible in its depth. It was more arresting and numbing than any memorial I had ever seen, as I realized the extent to which I knew everything, and nothing, about what really transpired there. I strolled the grounds with my sister, discussing history and philosophy and speculating about the precise function of various structures; we avoided our other companions, and took few pictures.
I was unsettled in the pit of my stomach by a deep sense of identification, which cut me in harsh and uncomfortable ways. When we are taught about the Holocaust, we are taught first and foremost about the suffering of the Jews and other people imprisoned and murdered in the Nazi camps. It is perhaps a credit to our species that we cannot help but identify with those who suffer, because we all suffer. Behind the barbed-wire fences, it's not difficult to imagine yourself a prisoner. It is extremely tempting to do so.
It is not that simple. As palpable as the presence of the past is, the here and now is unmistakably close at hand. The old headquarters is packed with exhibits and information, modern impositions on old walls which speak for themselves. The religious memorials have flowers and other offerings. Somber, yet disturbing, sculptures can be found at various points, and of course there is the famous plaque, reading in many languages "Never Again." Dachau was home to the sufferers, and it is now home to the mourners, and the camp solicits us to join their ranks. "Never Again" was inscribed with proactive intentions, but in light of recent as well as distant history, it almost rings hollow. We identify with the mourners: powerless to help, trying vainly to preserve, trying hopelessly to prevent.
And it gets worse. We have not truly understood Dachau, or Auschwitz, or any such place, until we have identified with the Nazis as well. Just as we suffer, and mourn, we inflict: humanity has terrifying capacity for cruelty, hate, and moral blindness. The cruelty of Adolf Hitler was not the work of the Devil, but the work of a man; the construction and the administration of the death camps was the work of many such human beings, no different in substance from you or I.
At Dachau, our capacity to endure suffering comes face to face with our capacity to cause it, and how is anyone supposed to feel about that? I don't have the words to guess. But I know that we who are like the Jews are also like the Germans, and likewise they were always all like one another. That is the tragedy of genocide in today's world, that humans would destroy themselves, and thus be destroyed.
That night, in search of levity, we took taxis downtown to the famous Hofbräuhaus am Platzl, perhaps the most tourist-friendly of the city's historic beer halls (Why are they historic? Let's not get into that now). Do you like huddling around big wooden tables with intoxicated strangers who shout and sing so loudly, you can scarcely hear your own thoughts? Such is the essence of Hofbräuhaus. The key to surviving such insanity, is as it turns out, at least two liters of beer. You can guess how that turned out.
Feeling disoriented upon departure, I asked my roommate to lead me back to the hotel. He agreed, but (he being equally drunk) instead led me to a strip club. I might have forgiven him, but there was a ten euro cover charge, and we weren't even in Amsterdam yet! I had better luck finding my way home in the company of some girls, where I promptly passed right out.
Day Eighteen: Munich, Neuschwanstein
We had another guided tour this morning, this one mercifully conducted by bus: Munich is a very large city, and its significant sights are spread far and wide. Admittedly, it was tempting to fall asleep and miss what the local guide had to tell us about this and that unpronounceable structure, but we had the benefit of a robust speaker system, and we covered a lot of ground.
The most impressive stop on the bus tour was Schloss Nymphenburg, the summer residence of Bavaria's former royal family, the Wittelsbachs; although the building is open to the public, it technically remains an official residence of the Wittelsbach family. Is it typical for deposed monarchs to keep their castles? These dudes have a pretty sweet deal. Wikipedia also tells me that the current Wittelsbach-in-chief, Duke Franz, is also heir to the thrones of England, Scotland, France and Ireland, according to the Jacobite succession. So, he's got that going for him too.
Other buildings built by the Bavarian Kings, state houses and the like, were present on the tour route as well, but to be honest, I don't remember most of them clearly. More memorable were the under-construction pavilions for the upcoming Oktoberfest; it being late July, I wondered just how long it took to build a pavilion. Finally, we left the bus and proceeded on foot to Munich's famous Rathaus-Glockenspiel, arriving just in time to watch the wooden figures dance to the music at eleven o'clock in the morning. In this instance, "dancing" refers to "spinning slowly in a circle." Whoopee!
Back to the hotel, then back on the bus for an optional excursion to what nobody could help but call "Sleeping Beauty Castle," the world-famous Schloss Neuschwanstein ("New Swan Stone Castle"). The castle was built in the 1880s by King Ludwig II, noted opera enthusiast and probable homosexual (Quoth a friend: "No wonder his castle's so pretty!"), and was the aesthetic inspiration for the castle design in Walt Disney's classic Sleeping Beauty.
Neuschwanstein is situated on top of a tall hill, backed by a lushly forested ravine. As a result, access requires a thirty minute hike up a relentlessly steep grade. Fortunately, desperately needed water was for sale three quarters of the way up; by the time I reached it, I was seriously dehydrated, and felt sick to my stomach. The whole group needed a fifteen minute break at the top before we felt ready to enter the castle itself.
Belying its gorgeous exterior, Neuschwanstein is not actually finished, construction having halted upon the king's death. Ludwig was (probably) murdered, along with his psychiatrist, shortly after being deposed on highly suspicious insanity charges; the pair drowned on the small Alpsee lake in the glamorous castle's "back yard." In any event, the guided tour led us through all of the rooms that had been completed, which were certainly impressive enough.
Two themes dominate Ludwig's castle: Swans and Richard Wagner. Swans are everywhere, from doorknobs to bed posts to chair backs. Meanwhile, nearly every room is painted with scenes and motifs from Wagner's operas; Ludwig even installed a performance chamber designed specifically for Wagner's use. Finally, the throne room, which is complete except for the actual throne, is in a glittering, Byzantine/Greek mosaic style, with a huge portrait depiction of St. George slaying a dragon. The man certainly had his taste. Neuschwanstein is often described as a "fantasy" or "fairy tale" castle, and it's easy to see why: when you're surrounded by swans and gold and forests and paintings of ridiculously attractive Nordic-types, it's easy to forget that it was technically somebody's house.
Another interesting fact: along with several other of Ludwig's construction projects, Neuschwanstein was one of the first buildings in Bavaria to be built with electricity. The king took great pains to electrify his realm, alongside a general modernization plan, perhaps in an attempt to go down in history as the most fabulous monarch of all time. He's got my vote!
Way down below, from the castle's lofty swan-perch, you can see the town of Hohenschwangau, a small village whose sole purpose appears to be as a tourist service center, with excellent sausage restaurants. On the other side of the village is Schloss Hohenschwangau, a castle built by Ludwig's Father Maximillian II on the ruins of a 12th century fort. Before we left, I took a peek at it, but did not find it nearly as impressive. Like the Nymphenburg castle, Hohenschwangau is still technically a Wittelsbach residence, while Neuschwanstein is owned by the state. Comparing the two, it's plain that Bavaria got the better deal.
Exhausted from the demanding walk, I had every intention of having a light dinner and staying in for the evening back at the hotel, to catch up on my journal, read my book, and regret none of my choices. God, it seems, had other plans for me that night. A gaggle of girls asked me to accompany them again to Hofbräuhaus; being constitutionally incapable of saying no to females (a policy that is clearly wise and effective), I soon found myself back at that devilish place.
It turns out that crowded beer halls are even more obnoxious, loathsome, and idiotic when you are sober. After imposing a one-liter limit on myself, I drank it as quickly as humanly possible; but if I was to feel any liberating effect from it at all, it was surely canceled by the swiftly swelling, anxious rage I felt as the evening wore on. It wasn't one thing, but many things: the general sensory overload; the tuba band; the obnoxiously smiling, singing patrons who surrounded us on all sides; the smarmy German assholes who "shared" our table; and especially the fact that it took over forty five minutes for the thick headed waitress to settle down and agree to take my order for some mother loving schnitzel. I felt like a colossal idiot for allowing myself to be dragged there, and I spent the majority of the time with my hands covering my face, paralyzed, praying to hear my own thoughts. Most of the girls were too busy drinking to notice my silence.
I left with four of them at the first possible opportunity, desperate to save face and get the hell out, but I only seemed to get angrier and angrier on the cab ride home. To my regret, I curtly said goodnight to the girls who had enabled my escape, and impatiently retreated to my room. Once there, I exploded, punching the door and walls, throwing objects on the floor, and kicking furniture. If my roommates had been there, I probably would have screamed my head off at them. I had not been less in control of my emotions in a very long time, and I was so distressed that, upon later reflection, it seemed I had come disturbingly close to a full-blow nervous breakdown.
Not knowing what else to do, I put on my headphones, cranked the volume up, and listened to Pinkerton. At the very least, it calmed me down enough to go to sleep. I'm disappointed to report that this night, which had begun on such clearly positive note, became the undisputed emotional low point of the summer, and even of the last year.
Day Nineteen: Regensburg and Prague
In the morning, I felt crummy and sick with myself, and I had to take a walk around a few city blocks before I felt alright getting on the bus for the Czech Republic. I was feeling distinctly un-talkative, and probably looked like a wreck, too. What a nightmare it was.
Our usual pattern on long "traveling" days was to stop for a quick lunch at some godawful truck stop, but this time we had a better deal: two and a half hours to do what we would in lovely Regensburg, a city of significance for some reason or another. I had lunch at a Chinese restaurant with my sister, who I told of about my recent state of extreme distress. I feel extremely lucky to have had her there, because she understood me much better than anyone else there, and did a great deal to help me cheer up and get back in a positive state of mind. The restaurant itself was pretty good, too: I had a roast duck in some kind of miraculous wonder-sauce, and even the mushrooms (which I typically hate) went down well.
We didn't get a formal tour, apart from a few brief sentences from Jacob about the history of the city, so the two of us decided to do our own brief bit of independent sight-seeing. Since we didn't have very much time, we made the local cathedral our priority. In spite of the structure's formidable size and pointiness, it proved difficult to actually find amidst the sea of buildings and narrow streets. We found it, and then we found the best deal on gelato I had ever seen. Success!
Rolling across the border, Jacob (a native Czech) did us the honor of singing the national anthem. It was nice, as anthems go, but the song (along with the abrupt change in the readability of the street signs) drove home the realization that getting a handle on the Czech language would be tough. In Germany, I at least had a rough idea of how to pronounce all the words I didn't know the meaning of. Czech signs, however, are even more obscure-looking than Greek ones, and at least Greek signs are usually bilingual.
Prague is a beautiful, joyful looking city. You can appreciate its distinctive, "whimsical" architecture from quite far away, and I wish I knew nearly enough about the art of designing buildings to discuss it intelligently. I saw a large number of people doing some recreational boating on the Vltava river, which looked like a lot of fun; give me a week in Prague, and it's something I'd love to do at least once.
Our newest home base, Hotel Ibis, ranks as one of the best hotels of the tour. In addition to huge rooms with unprecedented floor space, it has free and unrestricted Wi-Fi, and is conveniently located a block away from both a tram and a metro station. The rooms also had working TVs, another comparative rarity in our journey. Flipping through channels, I found the European version of MTV, which against all odds still plays videos.
In particular, I watched an oddly captivating video of a German folk-alt-rock singer, singing a song which seemed to be about leaving the city behind and chilling all day in a sweet little cabin by a lake. Sadly, within fifteen minutes, I'd forgotten not only the melody, but the name of the song and the artist. I can only remember that the title and chorus ended with the German word "See:" anyone who can identify this song for me will have earned my eternal gratitude.
Some of my companions noted how odd it was that the windows in the hotel did not open fully, but merely twisted at an angle to let air in. I speculated that this was to prevent further defenestrations. Nobody got it.
That night, a few adventurous souls set out to see the local puppet theater, but I hunkered down and played it cool, checking my e-mail, reading my book, and having dinner at an Italian place across the street called Vesuvio. I had a ham, corn, and pea pizza, a combination of toppings which by all rights should not exist, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't tasty. Without thinking, I accidentally left my trilby hat on my seat when I left, and didn't miss it until just after the place closed. Fortunately, the man inside recognized me, and deduced from my frantic waving at his door that I wanted my hat back. What a nice city this is!
Day Twenty: Prague
The first stop on the morning tour was Prague Castle, which is supposedly the largest castle complex in the entire world. Many of the buildings within the complex are currently being restored to their original, more colorful appearance, after decades of Communist ideology called for a more muted palette. At least, I think that's what the guide said; he had a very thick accent and was prone to rambling. There were a lot of sweet classical/medieval looking buildings there, and the roads leading in and throughout were made with cobblestones, so it feels like a setting right out of the middle ages. The upbeat troupe of jazz-playing troubadours near the entrance was a little bit incongruous, but that's just the kind of place Prague is.
Guarding the castle's gates are a pair of soldiers who, much like their British counterparts, will neither move, smile, nor acknowledge you in any way, no matter how much like a raging goof you act. We were also fortunate enough to arrive in time to witness a changing of the guard ceremony, and we marveled at this most proud, dignified display of synchronized silly walks.
Inside the complex is a massive Cathedral, properly dedicated to St. Vitus, but also named for two other saints: St Wenceslaus (of Christmas carol fame, and the patron of the Czech state), and some obscure dude called Adelbert. This was the first gothic cathedral I'd had the opportunity to enter, so it was pretty exciting.
St. Vitus' Cathedral is actually a composite building, with the older part built in the gothic style, and the newer part built in neo-gothic style (no, I couldn't tell the difference). Little chapels are arranged all along the walls, and each one is decorated with statues, paintings, and spectacular stained glass windows, each done in a variety of styles for which Prague is famous. There's also a crypt in the basement, but unfortunately it was closed that day for "technical reasons," which I presumed to be official jargon for "vampire infestation." Finally, jammed in the midst of of the pews is the tomb of a Habsburg ruler from centuries back (or something, I have no idea what the guide actually said). Apparently, his last wish was to have really good seats at church?
The next stop in the complex was "the Golden Way," which I utterly failed to see the significance of. All I understood from the guide was a snippet of an ancient legend about an alchemist who promised to turn all of the stones in the road into gold. It sounded like an awesome story to me, but between the hustle and bustle and the Czech accent, I couldn't make it out. My most significant memory of the Golden Way will probably remain the extraordinarily creepy sculpture of an enormous skull sitting on the back of a prostrate man. WTF, Prague?
Re reconnoitered outside the local Toy Museum, which was hosting a 50th Anniversary celebration of Barbie. Pink playhouses aside, it sounded like a fun place to explore, but there was no time; we were en route now to the Charles Bridge, the most popular historical bridge in the city.
Unfortunately, the bridge is so popular (read: crowded) that our group was roughly split in half by the teeming masses. To make matters worse, half of the bridge's width was closed for renovation, creating a crushing bottleneck and pick-pocket's dream come true. Trapped on the bridge for a while, it took us a while to realize that the rest of the group had already crossed the river, and we had to catch up quickly. This meant passing by the scores of local artists selling caricatures and other souvenir works, a scene for which the bridge is very well known.
The tour ended in Old Town Square, ground zero of all things whimsically Prague-ish. There's a monument to Franz Kafka, the great Jewish writer, in one corner; in another stands an impressive looking church dedicated to St. Nicholas. There is also a Starbucks Café.
The tour disbanded for an afternoon of free time; I had a pleasant lunch with my sister and some other girls, at a restaurant with tofu that is apparently so good, it tastes exactly like meat. At least, that's what the vegetarians said. When it came time to pay, however, I realized that I still had not acquired any of the local currency. The Czech Republic is one of the few EU members not to have yet implemented the euro; they will take it, but they will mark the price way the hell up.
I sprinted out of the restaurant to a nearby ATM, and pulled out a thousand Czech crowns. Why so many? The conversion rate is kind of screwy: it takes about eighteen crowns to make a dollar, and twenty four to make a euro. A thousand crowns, then, works out to be around fifty bucks. A nice novelty, but these guys should really hop on the euro-train.
After lunch, I split off to do my own thing, which turned out to be a trip to a small-ish art gallery in the square, hosting the work of one Salvador Dalí. Since I am a great fan of the artist who once declared "I do not take drugs, I AM drugs," I enjoyed the collection very much. In addition to the paintings, there were also sculptures, prints, and several (thoroughly bizarre) photographs of the artist himself. The centerpiece of the show seemed to be a series of small, mostly abstract paintings and drawings, depicting scenes from Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. There were of course plenty of grotesque images from Inferno, but I was equally fascinated by, and more attracted to, the gracefully odd pictures representing Paradiso.
I have to admit, however, that my favorite piece in the exhibit was a small green replica of the Venus de Milo: up close, you could see little bureau drawers with little handles, which could be pulled out from certain (read: hilarious) places on her body. It sat behind glass, to keep sophomoric types like me from getting carried away, but let's be honest: getting carried away is precisely the point of any Dalí exhibit.
Back outside, I saw three guys with acoustic guitars on a bench, singing "Bike," from Pink Floyd's first album. An obscure Syd Barret-penned song in Prague is one of those things that is simultaneously out of place and absolutely, one hundred per cent right. Shortly after they finished playing, a large truck drove through the square, spraying water into the air in huge rainbow-arcs, which people would run and play under. I don't know if that's what it was for, but it was a fantastic idea, because it was getting quite hot. After chilling in the square for a bit, I decided to pack it in.
To my dismay, I realized at the tram station that I had absolutely no idea which tram to take. Rather than risk getting on the wrong one and ending up on the far side of the moon, I took my chances and elected to walk back, in what I assumed to be the general direction of the hotel.
After walking for about forty minutes, I was out of water and thoroughly lost in the weird borderlands between suburban and quasi-industrial parts of the city. It was time, I decided, to hire a taxi. I flagged one down, but more complications arose when the driver informed me, in barely adequate English, that there were actually FOUR Hotel Ibises in Prague. I had a sinking feeling that before I got back, the man sitting next to be would be about a thousand crowns richer, or worse.
After an elementary conversation concerning the hotel's whereabouts, we managed to find the right one. It turned out that we weren't very far from it at all; if I'd known which way I was going, I probably could have walked there in another ten minutes. Still, I was immensely grateful for the lift.
I had it in my head to see a classical music concert that night, but I changed my mind; partly out of laziness, but also partly because the larger group was arranging a trip to a show the following evening. The "official" plan for that night called for a pub crawl, but I was still raw from Munich, and was having absolutely none of that. Instead, I grabbed dinner at a quiet little pan-Asian restaurant, and spent the evening indoors.
Day Twenty One: More Prague
In all honesty, my prior knowledge of Prague was sparse compared to my knowledge of Western Europe's great cities. However, one story of legend from the city's history had always fascinated me: that of Rabbi Loew and the Golem. For readers unfamiliar, Rabbi Loew was a Jewish leader from the 19th century, reputed to have had magical powers. As the legend goes, he built the Golem out of clay from the Vltava river in order to protect the Bohemian Jewish community from anti-Semitic persecution. With magic, Loew brought the creature to life, until at last the security of the Jews was guaranteed, or else the Golem went insane and went on a crazed killing spree (sources vary), and the Rabbi turned him back into clay. Cool story, eh?
So I bought an all-day metro ticket and train-hopped my way to the Jewish Quarter of Prague, and I didn't have to wander very far before I found a ticket office, selling admission to a set of museums, cemeteries, and synagogues. The district itself is largely a tourist attraction, as most of the Jews of Prague either fled or were deported or murdered by the Nazis during World War II.
The first synagogue was a memorial to the members of the community lost in the Holocaust. Thousands of names in black and red were written on the interior walls; it was a solemn place, which momentarily brought me back to the contemplative mood I'd experienced in Dachau. I didn't make an effort to remember any names, not knowing what exactly I would do with them; it was enough to see that there were a lot of them, and that the list was far from complete.
The next spot on the tour was the Old Jewish Cemetery. This was not a relic of the Holocaust (the Nazis could hardly be bothered to give their victims a proper burial), but rather goes back several centuries. In fact, it dates to the time of Rabbi Loew, and I saw his tomb (or what I assumed to be his tomb, as I cannot read Hebrew) standing prominently among the headstones. The stones themselves are all crammed together tightly, and they show their age. Many of their inscriptions are worn down to illegibility, and most of them are twisted or leaning from their original positions. The profile, as it were, of the graveyard is jagged and sharp; this plot had clearly been filled to capacity and beyond.
Outside the graveyard, a kiosk was selling ceramic golem statuettes. I bought one, in spite of my usual hesitancy toward souvenirs, thinking it would make for a great story. I did worry a bit, concerned about breaking it in my suitcase before I reached the USA, as it looked quite fragile (thankfully, it remains in one piece to this day).
I visited another synagogue, this one filled museum-style with artifacts, treasures, and information about local Jewish history and practices. It was painfully obvious that the "synagogue" was no longer actually used as such, owing to the severe depopulation of the Jews. It was, however, meticulously maintained.
Since the "tour" was not guided, I decided to go inside only one more big spot: Prague's famous Spanish Synagogue, billed as "the most beautiful synagogue in Europe." This building actually stands apart from the rest of the Jewish Quarter by several blocks. Like many of the local churches, it hosts classical music concerts in the evenings. That evening's program was Gershwin, which would have been sweet to watch, but I already had entertainment plans for the evening. In any event, the interior was very beautiful, with lots of gold leaf and other ornate decorations. It is interesting, however, to note that Europe's most spectacular Jewish house of worship is easily dwarfed in magnitude and opulence by the average Christian cathedral.
Back at the hotel, I whiled away the mid-day hours by checking my e-mail and showing off my new golem. This meant relating the ancient legend to my compatriots about four or five separate times, as few of them had ever heard of such a creature. What a shame!
Finally, it was time for the big outing: an evening at one of Prague's black light theaters, the TA Fantastika. "Black Light Theater" is a traditional local stage style, with the stage divided by a series of black curtains and screens, with very precise lighting apparatuses and UV-lamps allowing for the creation of elaborate optical illusions, like floating objects and dancing fires and lights. What better way to bid adieu (or "sbohem!") to such a quirky city?
On the way to the theater, Jacob showed some clear signs of being seriously ill. Most of us (myself included) had been battling coughs and sneezes all month, but Jacob was doing worse by far that night, and only hung around long enough to buy us our group-discounted tickets, after which he retreated to his hotel room.
The show that night was called Aspects of Alice, a psychedelic and unsubtly Freudian interpretation of Lewis Carrol's Alice books. It wasn't a straight adaptation, and didn't really have much of a plot at all, partly because it was performed almost completely without dialogue. It was basically a sequence of fantastical dream sequences, illusions, and vignettes, culminating in Alice's eventual transformation from a naïve, innocent girl into mature young woman. I can't say the form was a revelation to me: as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, some of the illusions got easier to see through, and it detracted from the "magical" experience. Furthermore, the soundtrack was appropriately mysterious and unsettling, but could have stood for more diversity. I did, however, greatly enjoy the show, though the segment with the dancing evil clowns was perhaps a little overlong.
On the way home I bought a water bottle and a cup of gelato, finally using up all of the paper crowns I had. I kept some coins for the sake of souvenirs, as it would be a waste to try exchanging them for euros. Fortunately, I did a pretty good job of estimating the amount I needed, so I didn't waste much. As for the walk home, I must say that if downtown Prague is lovely during the day, its appearance is positively dreamlike at night. One might even call it "whimsical."
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