Friday, October 31, 2014

Prague - Day 24

Saturday, September 27
This is the last day of my trip. What a treat to be awakened by the sun shining over the Vltava River! I was so pleased to receive my same room at the Clarion that I was in 10 days ago, with its little balcony and great views.
Since I had just been in Prague with the Tauck group, I opted out of the morning tour of the castle to fit in some things I had not yet done. I walked out of the hotel, which is only a block from the river, and walked along the waterfront, taking in the sights and smells of a city waking up.
It was only a few blocks to the Charles Bridge, which was almost deserted at this time of day, very different from how it will be in a few hours.
Only a few vendors had started to exhibit their wares. It was fun to photograph the main gates at either end without hordes of people. 
Walking across the bridge took me to what is known as Little Quarter, which is an area below the Castle Quarter. Stairs on the left of the bridge took me across another small bridge that was adorned with padlocks, the scourge of romantic spots throughout Europe, which contemporary Romeos think "clinches" their love. Unfortunately, these have sometimes weighed down the bridge fences, causing them to collapse. 
The small bridge led to Kampa Island, which was created from the rubble of the Little Quarter after a fire in 1540. The island is basically a park with pubs, lovely walkways and a contemporary art gallery (love these giant babies in front). 
The length of the island took me back into Little Quarter and directly at the foot of the Monument to Victims of Communism. These stark sculptural figures portray how communism eats away at the whole of the human being until there is only an insignificant piece remaining.
The statistics inscribed on the steps are chilling: from 1948 until 1989, in Czechoslovakia alone, 205,486 people were imprisoned, 248 were executed, 4,500 died in prison, 327 were shot attempting to cross the border, and 170,938 left the country.
From here it was a short walk to the foot of Petrin Hill, where I took a funicular to the top (you know how I love funiculars -- or maybe I just love saying it).
The ride was delightful (I was in front) and took me to a park from where you could walk to the Strahov Monastery. But my goal today was the Petrin Tower.
Built for an exhibition in 1891, the 200-ft tall tower is one-fifth the height of its Parisian counterpart, which was built two years earlier.
But because it is on this hill, this tower sits at the same elevation as the Eiffel Tower. You can climb to two different levels. The first after 200 stairs, gave the clearest views.
After a few snapshots, I walked the remaining 200 to the top where the panorama of the whole city was pretty amazing. Unfortunately, my camera went on the fritz and I have no photos at this level (but I really did walk it!).
From here I was able to walk back to the Little Quarter where I met my group for lunch at Tri Stoleti, very classy and one of the best of the trip. At this point, my iPhone had frozen and I was panicked about how to get it fixed. My whole life is on it. Our guide Luci looked up several iPhone stores and there were some nearby, so no problem. After lunch , I walked back across the Charles Bridge with the group and then bid them adieu while I searched out a repair store. One of them happened to be in the old palace morphed into a tri-level shopping center at Republic Square which I photographed on Day 13. Amazingly, no one was in the store but two very handsome "geniuses," who both spoke perfect English. One of them fixed my phone in 30 seconds, and I was on my way.
I still had some time so I walked to the Alfons Mucha (MOO-kha) (1860-1939) Museum. I didn't have time for the tour, but the gift shop had replicas of his posters and many other examples of his work, so it was almost like seeing the originals. He was a very popular Czech art nouveau painter and decorative artist, with a very distinct, almost fairy-tale like design. His work is characterized by organic backgrounds highlighted with ethereal looking women with angelic faces and flowing hair. 
From Mucha's art, it was only fitting to head to the Municipal Cultural Hall, which is the "pearl of Czech Art Nouveau."
Ed had said he visited here when he was in Prague in 2000 and was very impressed. The exterior alone is striking. It features a goddess-like Praha (Czech's word for Prague) presiding over a land of peace and culture. This image, as well as much of Mucha's work, was intended to instill national pride.
The one-hour tour was well worth it. And you could take photos! Built in 1912, it was one of the first electrified theaters. It was constructed under the Habsburgs, but later was the official scene of the creation of Czechoslovakia in 1918. In November 1989, Vaclav Havel proclaimed the country's independence from the USSR on the outside balcony. Fortunately, during its 100+ years' history, the Nazis and the communists did not destroy it - just left it in disrepair. EU money has been funneled to restore this gem.
The highlight of the tour is Smetana Hall, the main performance theater.
Interestingly, the seats are not permanent and the room can be used for dances and dinners.
In addition to this hall, there were several smaller ones, all of which are available for rental by private individuals or organizations.
Each of the halls has a lounge or a waiting area, which can also be reserved.
During the restoration, great effort was made to maintain the original design. In particular was the preservation of Mucha's paintings in the anterooms -- on the walls, the ceilings and windows. 
Tonight our farewell dinner was at Nebozizek Restaurant on Petrin Hill. To get there, our guide wanted us to experience public transit. First we took the subway from Republic Square to the National Theater. Then we took tram #22 and got off at the Victims of Communism monument.  From there we walked to the funicular and took it halfway up to where the restaurant was located. We were able to see the sun set over the Vltava River while we ate our dinner. A lovely way to bid good- bye to Prague.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Cesky Krumlov - Day 23

Friday, September 26
Anyone who has visited Cesky Krumlov will agree that it resembles a village in a fairy-tale with its combined Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque buildings, still intact after a tumultuous history.
Like many of the towns we have visited on this trip, its Golden Age was the 1500s, when artists and intellectuals from all over Europe made their way here and the Renaissance greatly influenced architecture and culture. 
The Habsburgs (remember Vienna?) bought the region in 1602 and ushered in a more Germanic period. After that, 75% of the population was German, until 1945 when the Potsdam Treaty-approved ethnic cleansing expelled most of them. Afterwards, it became a ghost town and many of the new residents were gypsies. During the communist era, it fell into disrepair and the beautiful Vltava River was polluted by a nearby paper mill. However, no money, no new construction, so the town basically cocooned for 40 years. 
In the 1990s tourists discovered the quaint town, and it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Money flowed in to preserve the buildings and it is now the second biggest tourist magnet in the CR. 
Foremost among the sites is Krumlov Castle. It is one of the largest castle complexes in Central Europe and the second largest in the Czech Republic after Prague Castle. 
It is situated on a rock outcropping high above the Vltava River, the same river that flows through Prague, 3 hours away. 
The complex consists of 41 buildings and palaces, grouped around five castle courtyards, and acres of gardens. 
The Lords of Krumau built a fortress on this spot in 1253. In 1302 one of the most important noble families in Bohemia, the Rozmberks (Rosenbergs), acquired the property. The 16th century was the most important period because it was owned by Wilhelm von Rosenberg (1535-1592), one of the last of the family. Inspired by his travels in Italy and the styles of the Renaissance, he had Cesky Krumlov rebuilt on his return home. Unfortunately, despite four marriages, he had no heirs. His fourth wife was Polyxena (her wedding dress was on display) who later married a Lobkowicz whom we learned about in Prague when we went to the Lobkowicz Palace. 
Since there were no heirs, the property passed to the younger brother. Deeply in debt, he sold it to Emperor Rudolph II in 1602. Thus the Habsburgs owned it for 20 years and then gave it to the Eggenbergs for their service in the Thirty Years War. This family died out, too, and the castle passed into the hands of the Schwarzenbergs in 1719. They undertook extensive renovations at the castle.
In 1802, the family line split (into the good and the bad). One line continued to live at Krumlov (the bad), although it was not their main residence and it suffered from lack of care. In 1939 Dr. Adolph von Schwarzenberg went into exile and his entire estate was confiscated by the Nazis. After the war ended, this families' assets were all transferred to the state, through a special legislative act that targeted only them (said they collaborated with the Nazis). At the time they were the largest landholder in the country. Imagine the US passing a law that targeted only one family!
The other side of the family lost their property to the communists, but they were able to get it back through restitution in 1990.
As you approach the castle, one of the most striking features is the colorful round tower built on the site of the first castle.
Its 16th century design features fancy astrological decor, terra-cotta symbols of the zodiac and 162 steps to the top.
(We did not do that.) we crossed the castle drawbridge  (now permanent) and into a series of courtyards, one of which led us to a side entrance to the castle.
Again, we were not allowed to take photos inside.
An attempt has been made to preserve some rooms from the time period of each of the three main owners. 
The Rosenberg rooms were decorated with dark wood furniture, frescoes and tapestries from Belgium, and the ceilings were coffered, like the ones in Telc.
The Eggenberg era had several highlights. They had an "antecamera" room containing a number of game tables where guests would entertain themselves while waiting for an audience.
The most unique piece, which was positioned in the Eggenberg Hall, was a huge golden coach, built in Rome in 1638. (Photo from internet)
The coach was to be used during the papal visit of Pope Urban VIII to Cesky Krumlov to meet the new Emperor Ferdinand III. Instead, it was used to transport gifts ceremoniously to the pope, a distance of about 5 miles. Afterwards it was put in storage and never used again. It is made of carved nut wood and drenched in more than 4 pounds of real gold, but the interior fabric was ripped out and used for other things. The uniforms of the "runners," who ran along the side of the coach, were also on display, and I enjoyed seeing the workmanship in the tunic style navy blue velvet jackets with gold embroidery work. I wondered what they wore on the bottom.
Other rooms of note date from the mid-18th century and most of the furnishings are original.
-- the Chinese Salon, with exotic Asian furniture, a Meissen porcelain chandelier and Delft tiles that covered the walls like wallpaper.
-- the Rococo Baldachin Salon with its red wallpaper and red furnishings with white and gold trim
-- the Masquerade Hall with brightly colored murals covering every wall, showing a festive crowd of carnival goers and figures from "Comedia de l'Arte. (from internet)
The most unique attraction of the whole complex is the Baroque Theater, where we headed next. It is one of only two still in existence - the other in Stockholm. Built in 1680, it was reconstructed by a Schwarzenberg in 1766 into the jewel it is today. Afterwards it was only used for 20 years and then shut down. When it was operating, family and friends often performed with the professionals who came from Italy. The lighting was all done with candles, so many of these theaters burned down.
What I found fascinating was the "trompe l'oeil" (fool the eye) design of the sets. The stage is roughly 70 feet in depth, and yet the paneled sets have just the right perspective to make the stage appear much, much deeper. There are no curtains. The scenes are changed by sliding differently decorated panels off and on the stage. These panels are secured in movable frames which slide along wooden tracks under the stage. The frames are connected by a trolley winch in the center floor. By turning the winch, backdrops from one scene are pushed back and the next are simultaneously rolled out. A scene change using this technique took between 6 - 12 seconds and required only 10 men. How did they know when to change them? A stage manager who understood Italian and knew the opera gave the orders to change the scene.
There were also some very primitive but effective methods for making sound effects such as thunder, horses' hooves and rain. Flying machines sent people soaring across the stage and stage trap-doors allowed the devil to pop up from below.
The theater still has more than 350 backdrops and sets, 600 costumes and the ability to produce 13 different shows. It seats 150 and there is an orchestra pit in front of the stage.  Only two things have changed since 1766: electricity has been added, but in a way to simulate candles, and the former dirt floors have been covered. The theater is now used twice a year for a special theater series.
Following our tour, we had lunch at a famous local brewery - the Eggenberg. 

Then we boarded our bus and rode 1-1/2 hours to Orlik Reservoir for a boat ride.
Unfortunately, it rained the whole time, but our boat was enclosed and it was a beautiful setting. We did see the castle of the "good" Schwarzenbergs which they have since reclaimed.
Then we continued another 1-1/2 hours to Prague, where we checked into the Clarion (my place from before and same room!) and walked to Hotel Opera for a delicious meal.

Cesky Krumlov area - Day 22

Thursday, September 25
In addition to castles along the Czech-Austrian border are a number of monasteries tucked in to the hills. I call this "religious day" because we visited a monastery and then hiked a trail that was punctuated by the 12 Stations of the Cross.
We drove to Vyssi Brod, which is almost on the border of three countries - Czech Republic, Germany and Austria - to visit the Cisterian Monastery Abbey.
Founded in 1259 by Peter Vok Rozmberk, it was amazingly well-preserved considering the events of the last century.
Once again, we were not allowed to take pictures so I can bring home only memories. I have mixed feelings about the photo thing. On the one hand, I'm sorry I don't have tangible images of these landmarks. On the other, it is refreshing and relaxing to be relieved of others jumping around snapping photos.
Designed in French Ghothic, the interior of the church was impressive for its stark, dark wood beams and pews, very high ceilings and the lack of colorful ornamentation. At the end above the alter was an impressive organ with 2000 pipes. Like many of the historic structures, this Abbey had evolved over the centuries -- high alter dated from 1650, windows from late 19th century.
Before WW II, it was inhabited by about 70 brothers; now there are only 10. During the war, they were expelled, then came back and were expelled again by the communists.
What is really remarkable about this Abbey is its library. It is the third largest in the Czech Republic -- the first being the Strahov which we visited in Prague. It is set up exactly like the one there. In three library rooms, there are 70,000 books, most in European languages and dating from the 17th century. The oldest book is from 765 and contains letters from St. Paul. Most of the books are about theology, philosophy and medicine. One thing that was different than Strahov is that the books were all bound in white and trimmed in gold. Apparently, this monastery did bookbinding.
I asked how the monastery, considering its location, survived the 20th century intact? During 1940-45, it was inhabited by German soldiers. The monastery was used as a storage facility for art taken from the Jews to be used later for a "Museum of Extinct Races" in Linz.
Why didn't the Germans burn the books to keep warm or just to be mean? Lada explained that if you told a German not to do something, he wouldn't do it, even if he was freezing to death. However, he said, if the Russians had been there, they would have trashed it for fun. I thought that was an interesting perspective from Lada about the two nations (or rather, peoples). When the communists took it over, they kept it intact because it represented culture. However, it was not inhabited or used for years during this era, especially because of its proximity to the border, and it fell into disrepair. It has since been reclaimed by the church and has undergone a restoration in the last 25 years.
Afterwards we walked around the grounds and got some great views of the surrounding countryside.
We then took the green bus to a picnic spot before we began our walk for the day. It was still cloudy and cool and we were hoping the rain would hold off while we ate our lunch. This was our last picnic and it made us a little sad.
From our lunch spot, we headed into the woods to walk the 12 Stations of the Cross. The rain had finally relented and it left the trail with a glow.
We originally had planned to do this in the morning, beginning at Station One and ending at the Abbey. But we flipped it now and started at 12. People still do this pilgrimage three times a year -- for the assumption, the immaculate conception and the ascension. Although it is part of the recatholization of the country, it is a very social experience and people enjoy doing it.
It was a beautiful introduction through the woods,
and we soon came to a small chapel, a shrine to Virgin Mary, with an outdoor podium, perfect for addressing larger groups. Some of our members even pretended to address the masses.
We dodged the rain and intermittent sunshine along the hike
and finally came to Station One.
We then walked out of the woods into a small village and past the remains of a "maypole." (We saw several of these on our trip.)
Young men cut down a tall tree and remove the branches and bark. Then the girls decorate it and the men erect it in a deep hole. Then the men have to guard it the night before the celebration because men from another village will want to tear it down to embarrass them. Sounds like lots of sexual innuendo to me.
Thought this house was so cute and typical of many of the village homes we saw. 
Then we returned to Cesky Krumlov, where we had a couple of hours before dinner to check out the town. I explored it first from across the river, capturing this view of the castle in the background.
Then I walked to the castle park and got some great views of the river and town from the other side looking down from the castle.

I'll save the rest for tomorrow when we visit the castle.
We had dinner at another local restaurant and hit the bed after a long day.

Slavonice Area - Day 19

Monday, September 22
Walking along the border between the Czech Republic and Austria, we are constantly reminded of the history of the area. Today was no different.
We left the Hotel Anton in Telc and traveled two hours to Stalkov Village where we began our hike.
Much of the trail was in a pine/spruce forest which was planted years ago for industrial purposes.
It wasn't long before we came upon a "pillbox," a small armadillo-like structure which resembled a tiny mobile home partially buried in the ground.
Our guide Lada, related a very sad story about the genesis of these blockhouses.
When Hitler came to power in 1933, Czechoslovakia, which was only 15 years old, became very nervous about invasion. The area around Slavonice was part of the so-called Sudentenland and was inhabited predominantly by Germans. Likewise, many Austrians along the border were sympathetic to the Germans  (Hitler was born in Austria, not Germany.)
Consequently, Czechoslovakia began constructing a line of fortifications along its borders -- a series of iron-enforced concrete bunkers connected by underground tunnels. Over 10,000 were built and were filled with 1.5 million mobilized Czechs and Slovaks. They were convinced that if they could hold the Germans at bay, the French and British would come to their aid, as agreed upon in the treaty after WW I. But instead, when Hitler met with the French and British in Munich in 1938, they gave into the dictator, thinking that allowing him to take the Sudentenland would appease him. The Czechoslovakian army, outnumbered 3 to 1, stood no chance, and were ordered home without firing a shot. Within 6 months, Hitler occupied the whole country.
Today there are about 100 of these still remaining, and they are not easy to find. Nature has taken over. Lada pointed out the small window, the hole for the gun, (see photo above) and, on the other side, the doorway (below).
Here we could see how thick the walls are. It is hard to imagine that 3 to 4 men lived here in 24-48 hour shifts in such small quarters. 
We continued on the trail for another couple of miles until we came to the ruins of Landstejn Castle.
Our first impression of the barren castle is that it was made of poured concrete.
Actually, it was built in the 13th century and was the biggest Romanesque castle in the Czech lands for many years. The second owners had ties to Charles IV, the famous ruler of the Czech lands, and held the property for 200 years. Then it had a series of owners. In 1771 lightning struck and it burned. The owner had no money to reconstruct, and it became a quarry to build other homes in the area.
The real treat for this visit is the climb to the top to see the views of the surrounding countryside.
After a brief walk, we were picked up by our bus and taken to the ecofarm of Mrs. Langova for lunch and a tour.
She impressed us as a very take charge woman and related her story. Her family had had a farm in a nearby village which was taken over by the state in 1948. After 1990, she petitioned for restitution, but the farm had been ruined by the communists. So she was given this farm "which was only partially ruined" along with her previous farm. Her sister now owns the other farm. Mrs. Langova and her family have worked very hard to restore these lands. She currently has "70 acres, 2 fish ponds, 60 goats, 2 children and 1 husband, who works as an electrician." Her children both have degrees in agriculture, and they plan to expand to 220 milking goats in the future. Her main business is making goat cheese and selling the young males for meat, especially around Easter. 
Then we took a tour of the farm, including the goat barn.
Ms. Langova is also the local guide for a water-powered sawmill that was still in use until the 1960s. She even demonstrated it for us.
Afterwards, our coach took us to the town of Slovenice, a charming enclave of 2,700 less than 3 miles from the Austrian border.
Founded in the 1200s, it was settled by Germans and named Zlablings. During the 14th-16th centuries, the main trading route between Prague and Vienna passed through here and the economy flourished. As a result, beautiful 16th century renaissance houses were built with figural "sgraffitties," many of which have survived - the oldest dating to 1545.
These are designs that are carved into the surface plaster of the buildings, exposing a different colored layer.
It was a very popular architectural treatment during the renaissance and can be seen throughout the country.
After WW II, the vengeful Czechs forced out the German residents - 90% of the population - and took over their residences. However, when the communists took over, the city was fenced in on three sides because of its proximity to the Austrian border, and no one could move or sell their houses. After 1989 when the woods of the military zones were opened, it became a mecca for hikers and bikers and has been dubbed "Czech Canada."
Then back to our hotel in Telc and to dinner at a restaurant across the street, also owned by the hotel, where we were treated to a whole fish - eyeball and all. It was bony, but quite delicious.