Tuesday, November 25, 2014
Finally, we walked back through the Old Town once again admiring the colourful, old buildings. Sadly, it was now time to head to the airport for our trip home.
Today the Square is well known for its role during the Velvet Revolution, following the events of November 17, 1989. It was in Wenceslas Square, where thousands of Czechs held up and rattled their keys, telling their communist leaders, "The time has come for you to go home." The National Museum is at the top of the Square, which is surrounded by big chain stores. In fact there was another demonstration in the Square, two days after we left, people demanding the resignation of the present leader, Zeman, who they feel is too close to the Russians.
We had an interesting encounter in the nearby M and S coffee area. I asked an older lady sitting reading a book at the bar-type chairs if she could move her coat from the chair next to her so I could sit down and drink the coffee I was juggling. She was really quite hostile and didn't want to move it but I finally prevailed. We had another problem in the hotel, where the light from the hallway shone through a red blind high up on the wall covering a window. It shone right in my face at night and in fact I felt like I was sleeping next to a brothel, it was that red. The man at reception told me several times that in four years he had never had a complaint about the room. I didn't really see this as my problem. The maintenance person put something translucent over the window but of course it still let the light in. We were offered two different rooms, one smaller and one with stairs up to the bathroom, which we didn't think would be great at night. The good side of this was that in that room we got to see the wooden, painted, so-called decking ceilings with various ornamental scenes. These wooden ceilings have been covered for almost three hundred years. Empress Marie Theresa issued a decree that all combustible constructions had to be covered, — at least by plaster – so that they were hidden from sight to those who came later, but were preserved for centuries.
Finally, I solved the problem by tying a pair of new socks together and using them as a sleep mask. Perhaps these are just two examples of grumpy people but our Australian friend did tell us that some of the people weren't that friendly, and suggested that not all business people had fully grasped the concept of customer service.
It was quite interesting to see how people were dressed. Most of the men were in suits and the ladies were in very nice clothes and a very few in fancy dresses. I had expected to see the ladies dripping in finery but it wasn't the case. In fact I didn't see one woman in the six inch stilettos that are so popular now. They were wearing flats or shoes with very small heels.
The concert was magnificent especially Beethoven's 9th with the Prague Philharmonic Choir. The Ode to Joy was particularly moving. The audience truly loved the concert and showed it with a ten-minute standing ovation. We were very fortunate to have been part of this celebration of the Velvet Revolution.
We started off on our walking tour of Josefov neighbourhood, site of Prague's Jewish Ghetto — and still one of the most evocative Jewish districts in all of Europe. For a thousand years one of the leading centres of Judaism, the neighbourhood is studded with thought-provoking museums, fascinating synagogues, and a Kafkaesque, dream-like cemetery. Some of the synagogues are still used for their original purpose, while others are museums showing the history of the religion, neighbourhood and its people.
The Old Jewish cemetery is the largest and best preserved Jewish cemetery in all of Europe. It is a mass of higgeldy-piggedly gravestones. The oldest preserved gravestone dates back to the 1400s. More and more land was acquired for the cemetery but it was still not enough and the terrain covers many layers of graves. There are twelve thousand tombstones in the cemetery but many more graves. The oldest gravestones are made of sandstone while in the 16th and 17th centuries this was replaced by marble. Eventually a new cemetery was opened nearby.
After a lovely lunch in an Italian restaurant overlooking the Old-New Synagogue it was time to head back to the hotel. Fortified by a salad, pasta with shrimp in a delicious wine sauce and for Seamus pasta with freshly grated white truffle, a glass of red and an excellent espresso it was definitely time for a vigorous walk and rest because we had a busy evening ahead of us.
Arriving early we had a drink in the beautifully decorated lounge complete with very high ceilings and comfy chairs. It was time to enter the main hall for our concert with the Parnas String Ensemble. It was lovely listening to Mozart, Vivaldi, Bach, Dvorak, Bizet and Brahms. The group enjoyed themselves as they were playing and so did we.
Now it was time for a change of pace. We headed to the the Ungelt Jazz Club for a live concert. The Club was housed in a building almost a thousand years old. Throughout the centuries all goods imported from abroad had to pass through this area where tradesmen paid the duty called "Ungelt." As the importance of the area declined it became a warehouse in communist times. The current owners have attempted to restore this ancient architectural jewel to its former glory.
We went down into the basement of the club, where we sat at a trestle table. It was quite a different audience from our last concert. The concert was actually R and B with the band, Eric Stanglin and the Juke Joint Heroes. The music was pretty good but Eric was a bit intimidating, becoming somewhat angry at a group of young Italians, who were having quiet conversations while he was singing. The drummer was a Quentin Tarantino look alike, while one guitarist played with a completely blank expression on his face while the other guitarist, who played really well, looked like he had just rolled out of bed. All this and a drunken German, who tried to conduct the band, made for an interesting but fun ending to a busy day.
Today Prague Castle, besides being the seat of the head of state, is also an important cultural and historical monument. We saw the Crown Jewels and relics of Bohemian kings, precious Christian relics, art treasures and historical documents. Events important for the whole country have taken place within its walls. Hence Prague Castle is the embodiment of the historical tradition of the Czech state, linking the present with the past.
My favourite part was the Golden Lane, an ancient street within the castle complex. Golden Lane dates from the 15th Century and has a beautiful, olden world quaintness about it. It comprises 11 tiny historic houses, inside which period scenes have been created to show the life of the artisans who once worked, ate, drank and slept in them.
In its early years Golden Lane consisted of even smaller dwellings. Eventually, as each fell into disrepair they were replaced by the tiny houses we see today. It is amazing to think that people lived in these confined spaces. The beds were probably only as wide as a skinny body.
After admiring the views over the town we headed back down the hill walking on the same side of the river as the castle. We stopped by the river, as we had spotted a whiteness of swans waddling ashore to be fed by delighted tourists.
In keeping with the music that we would hear everywhere we went, we took a tram trip across the river to see a movie with a musical theme but a different type of music, Get On Up—The James Brown Story.
Legends about the origins of the Prague Astronomical Clock are many. The most famous one, however, is that it was built by Master Hanuš in 1410. The city councillors at that time were so delighted with the clock that they later began to fear that Master Hanuš would build one like it for another European city. Therefore one dark night they had him blinded, and thus the wondrous clock remained only in Prague. Whether or not this legend is true, what is certain is that at the top of every hour figures on the sides of the clock become animated and two windows open up to reveal 12 apostles greeting the city. On the sides of the clock we saw a skeleton ringing a bell, a Turk shaking his head, a miser with a purse full of money, and Vanity looking in a mirror. The whole performance ends with the crowing of a golden rooster and the ringing of the huge bell at the top of the tower. It is also said that at the first cock-crow in the morning the ghosts and devils flee from Prague. It was a spectacular performance.
Sunday, November 23, 2014
Upstairs on balconies all around the hall were various restaurants and food stalls serving sausages, goulash and of course cabbage dishes. There were stalls selling lovely leather purses and belts, traditional tablecloths and linens and my favourite were the stalls selling scarves in lovely colour combinations. In fact I bought three for €5 each and they are beautiful.
We were reluctant to leave the market but it was time for us to take the tram and train to the picturesque town of Szentendre, which sits at the foot of the Pilis Hill, on the Danube bank north of Budapest. It was quite an adventure buying the tickets at a booth in the Metro but the next person in line kindly helped us buy our tickets. You could say that the ticket machine wasn't terribly intuitive.
The town was destroyed by The Mongols in the 13th century and again by the Turks in the 15th and 16th centuries. It was rebuilt in Baroque style in the 17th century and it is this version of the town that visitors can enjoy today. After the Turks left, the area was settled by Serbian refugees, and then Hungarians, Slovaks, Germans, Greeks and Romanians. Each ethnic group established its own town part adding a versatility to the townscape. In the Main Square a Baroque cross was erected in 1763 to commemorate the lucky fact that plague had avoided the town.
We walked along the promenade beside the Danube before heading back through the town. Here there were some lovely little shops with traditional tablecloths, locally designed clothes and some confectionary shops. We did stop at one and bought a little piece of chocolate covered marzipan, which was delicious. It helped fortify us for our trip back to Budapest.
Our evening ended up with a trip on the oldest Metro in continental Europe over to Buda to see a Liam Neeson movie in English and as a bonus there were only four other people in the cinema.
Saturday, November 22, 2014
Next we decided to go to an outdoor pool. We found that the wave pool and another pool were closed in the winter but after running around in our bathing suits in the freezing cold we found another hot spring pool. It was lovely, especially since it was outside. From here I climbed a few steps and eased myself into a barrel filled with extremely cold water. I had a really lovely tingling feeling when I got out but quickly raced to the nearby sauna. After another barrel experience it was time to find the old thermal pools.
It was a lovely experience to visit these baths. If we had wanted to make a day of it we could have opted for massages, facials and everything else that a spa offers. I was quite content with our visit.
At the end of the tour we returned to one of the bars with a very high ceiling and ornate decorations. Behind some thick velvet curtains was a room that resembled a wide corridor with seating all along it. This was the smoking area and also the area where secret assignations were made. Then we were treated to a female opera singer singing from Madame Butterfly and a second song, a waltz, during which she picked a man from the audience to dance with her. He got right into the spirit of the song and it was a bit of fun.
Our afternoon ended in a coffee house across from the opera. Budapest is filled with these beautiful rooms, all with high ceilings and ornate decorations, where you sit in very plush chairs, to drink your coffee. Of course the whole experience wouldn't be genuine if you didn't have a pastry with your espresso, a raspberry tart and some apple strudel. Lovely.
Crossing the Danube we climbed to Buda's steep Castle Hill for bird's-eye views of ‘twin city’ Pest across the river, and viewed Budapest's greatest church: the sumptuously-gilded Matthias Church.
Our ride continued up the river to Margaret Island established in the twelfth century by the Knights of St. John. Throughout the ages it was the site of several religious organizations. Today it is a huge park complete with a hotel and several sporting venues. The boat was even colder than the bus so we were happy not to stop there, and return to Pest, where we stopped at our favourite cafe, Anna, for a welcome espresso.
Things were much nicer on the train, where we sat in an old fashioned compartment watching the countryside flash by. First of all it was quite flat with lots of fields full of cabbages. All the graves in the cemeteries we passed were covered with white and yellow chrysanthemums, probably because it had been the day of the dead not long ago, a special day when people visit their departed relatives. We enjoyed seeing the trees in their fall colours, yellows and golds, something we don't see in Spain. The old villages we passed were quite lovely with lots of charm. I enjoyed some onion soup in the dining car. I thought I had ordered some kind of salad with cottage cheese but it turned out that it was a very moist little cake with fruit. What a nice surprise.
Our walk took us through a big main square with a huge barbecue area in the middle. It was a restaurant where you could order cabbage rolls, various types of roast potatoes, grilled vegetables, huge sausages and pork knuckle. The smell was amazing. Seating was at nearby outdoor trestle tables.
Later that night we walked along the Danube for quite a distance. The view was stunning with the brightly lit castle dominating the skyline. This was a perfect ending to our first day in Budapest.
Wednesday, November 19, 2014
World War II left Bratislava a damaged husk. Following the war, the communist leadership showed little interest in preserving the city’s heritage, razing the Jewish quarter to make way for their ultramodern New Bridge, erecting a highway that slices through the Old Town — though this at least will soon be replaced by a tunnel beneath the Danube — and even selling the city’s medieval cobbles to cute German towns, which were rebuilding after the war and trying to restore some of their elegant Old World character. We knew that Bratislava was turning things around. A decade ago, the city centre was grim, deserted, and dangerous. But we encountered a lovely old town, largely traffic-free and perfect for strolling. We stopped for a very late lunch at an old bar restaurant, where I had some traditional potatoes grated and grilled along with a small sausage. It was delicious and only €3. This was accompanied by a small beer from the part of the menu for people who didn't like to drink much. It was refreshing and had a unique fruity taste.
With the fall of communism in 1989, the new government began a nearly decade-long process of sorting out building rights and returning them to their original owners. By 1998, most of these property issues had been resolved, and owners were encouraged to restore their buildings. The city also did its part, replacing all of the street cobbles, sprucing up public buildings, and making the Old Town traffic-free. Bratislava was reborn, and life returned with a vengeance.
The buildings that surround Main Square date from different architectural periods, including Gothic and Art Nouveau. When these buildings were restored, great pains were taken to achieve authenticity, each one matching the colour most likely used when it was originally built. The impressive Old Town Hall, with its bold yellow tower, stands at the top of the square. Near the bottom of the tower, a cannonball embedded in the facade acts as a reminder of Napoleon’s impact on Bratislava. Another reminder is the cartoonish statue of a Napoleonic officer bent over one of the benches on the square. With bare feet and a hat pulled over his eyes, it’s hardly a flattering portrait.
This is just one of several whimsical statues dotting Bratislava’s Old Town. Most of these date from the late 1990s, when city leaders wanted to entice locals back into the town. Standing outside Kaffee Mayer, a jovial chap doffs his top hat. This is a statue of Schöner Náci, a poor carpet cleaner who, dressed in a black suit and top hat, brightened the streets of Bratislava during the communist days, offering gifts to the women who caught his eye.
Later in the evening we had dinner in Cafe Roland, a large restaurant with very high ceilings and lots of Christmas decorations. Everywhere we went we could hear live music, whether out in the street or inside the restaurant. In Cafe Roland a lady was pounding on the piano, perhaps a little too hard, and entertaining the diners with modern show tunes. I had something to eat with cabbage and Seamus had a pork stew covered with a potato pancake, topped with cheese and accompanied by spatalese. I found the food quite stodgy. Thank goodness we did even more walking after dinner.
Friday, November 7, 2014
Things are becoming very exciting here in the Port. Sunday is the day that people in Catalunya "vote" to become an autonomous country. I say vote but it isn't going to be a legal vote because Spain will not permit it, rather it will be a symbolic vote. For the past three years the momentum has increased with mass rallies, linking of hands across Catalonia and torchlight parades. This has given the Catalunyan government incentive to push ahead with the vote.
The government views the vote as illegal and has forbidden it with the threat of sending the head of the Catalunyan government, Arturo Mas, to jail. The vote is going ahead anyway. Last week the communities did not have access to the voter lists but this week they have managed to do this. The vote will be held in the community ballroom on Sunday or at least that is the hope.
This vote will be non-binding since Spain's constitution does not allow it. Here the people have taken hope from Scotland's constitutionally sanctioned independence vote. We have heard people say that they do not feel that they are part of a democracy because Spain will not allow the vote. Some people do not even consider themselves Spanish at all.
The vote is not supported with government money but by revenues coming purely from members' subscriptions and selling merchandise — such as the masses of red and yellow T-shirts worn in its last mass rally on September 11th.
So far we have enjoyed the many activities showing support for Catalunyan independence but now things may be turning more sinister. Forty troops were on exercises above the town at the Monastir de Pere de Rodas. Above the monastery are the ruins of the castle, from which a Catalunyan flag has been flying in recent weeks. One of the soldiers wrecked the flag, I think by burning it. Apologies were made to the town and the mayor but it does raise the questions, "Who burns a flag? Where were the other 39 soldiers and where was the commanding officer?" Rumours have it that additional Guardia Civil and perhaps even military personnel will be sent to Catalunya on Sunday, perhaps trying to prevent the vote. Even if all these people don't come it is felt that there will be some government presence. Certainly this will be the case in larger towns.
For anyone who knows anything about Spanish history this is quite alarming. Passive resistance is the order of the day for the Catalunyans but what happens if hotheads stir things up?
Everyone is positive about the voting. Everywhere you go balconies, bridges and roundabouts are festooned with yellow plastic bunting and the red and yellow Catalunyan flags signifying support for Catalunyan independence.
We wonder what will happen on Sunday but unfortunately we will be traveling so we won't be here for firsthand reporting of the events.
Monday, November 3, 2014
Continuing on the theme of animals, we had a bird fly into the living room and terrorize us before it perched high up on the ceiling. Seamus managed to catch it and take it outside. It was slightly shaken but it managed to fly away.
And of course there has been the perpetual problem of the tiny, tiny little ants in the house. They managed to live outside in the summer but they have returned. Sometimes they are looking for water, sometimes protein and sometimes sugar. Once a can of coke burst in the garage attracting thousands if not millions of these tiny bugs. We can't figure out what they are looking for right now. However, the worst thing is when you feel them crawling over your face at night. If they went in your ear could they reach your brain? Sometimes they respond to ant traps, taking the bait back to the nest, while other times they ignore the traps. Then it is time to spray and leave home for a while. You can even buy spray to spread around the outside of your house once a year but we have never resorted to that.