I set out on August 18, and flew from Boston to New York to Prague. It might have been wiser to fly from Boston directly to Europe, then taken a train to Prague. A plane trip isn’t as pleasant as a train trip, so if you can’t fly directly from your local airport to the European city that you’re aiming for, it might be better to add a train trip in Europe rather than a plane trip in the U.S. I was much impressed with European trains: they don’t make you wait long, they waft you quickly to your destination, they’re not expensive, you can see interesting things from the window, and I met more interesting people on the trains than anywhere else. I particularly enjoyed chatting with young tourists; they were eager to listen and learn, and asked lots of questions.
I arrived in Prague, somewhat weary, on August 19, and rode a bus from the airport to the city. I wasn’t sure how to pay for the bus, so I just got on and got off, and didn’t pay (I expected a knock on the door in the middle of the night). This was a recurring problem for me, in both the Czech Republic and Germany. It was clear how to buy a train ticket, and it was evident that the train-conductor checked your ticket, but I was never comfortable buying a bus/subway ticket, and it wasn’t evident that anyone cared if I had one or not. In Germany, the bus drivers didn’t seem to care at all if you had a ticket; they seem to allow several classes of people to ride the mass-transit system for free — the elderly, the unemployed, etc. — so the drivers can’t ask you for a ticket without discussing your personal life, so they don’t bother asking anyone for a ticket.
Though I was somewhat weary when I arrived, I intended to stay awake the first day; I thought that if I slept the first day, Jet Lag would have me in its grip (I would be awake at night, and sleepy in the daytime), but if I stayed awake during the first day, I would defeat Jet Lag. The only flaw in this strategy is that, when I’m weary and exposed to various foreign germs, I often become sick; for me, travelling goes hand-in-hand with illness. Sure enough, I came down with a cold that lasted for about half of my trip.
My initial impression of Prague wasn’t favorable, but after a few days, I became a fan, and would have liked to stay longer. I met an Australian who was on an extended European excursion (Australians are tireless travelers), and he said he was always somewhat disoriented in a new city; perhaps this is one reason I didn’t like Prague immediately. You don’t like a new city until you can walk around without constantly referring to your map and your compass; you don’t like a new city until you have an internalized map. When you first arrive, you don’t know how to get to your lodgings (even if you’ve reserved lodgings), and all your luggage is on your hands. Later, you can leave your luggage in your room, you come to know the neighborhood around your hotel, you find a favorite restaurant, and perhaps you help other tourists to get oriented. Every door in the world unlocks differently, every toilet in the world flushes differently; unless you’re an experienced traveler, accustomed to small challenges, your initial experience of a foreign country may be one of frustration. So perhaps you should reserve judgment about a city until you’ve been there for a couple days.
One thing I didn’t like about Prague initially was its popularity: it has become the place to go, the city that everyone wants to visit, and it has hordes of tourists. I thought that the crowds would diminish in late August, but August 19 may not be late enough, and September or October might be better than August.
I took a walking tour (as is my wont), and it was the largest tour I’ve ever been on — around 50 people — so it was difficult to ask questions, or talk to the guide. The guide had to shout to be heard by her large flock. It was the latest kind of tour — the so-called “free” tour that makes more money through tips than other tours make through charges. The tour company uses the free tour to promote its paid tours; for example, it will offer a free tour of Prague’s main sights, then paid tours of Prague Castle, Kutna Hora, etc. I wasn’t impressed by the Prague tour, but I enjoyed the same company’s Berlin tour — in fact, it was one of the highlights of my whole trip.
One of Prague’s chief attractions is its Jewish quarter (called Josefov), which boasts one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries, and one of the oldest synagogues. My free tour included a walk through the Jewish quarter, but didn’t enter the famous sites, so I would have liked to spend more time in the Jewish quarter, and perhaps take a tour that concentrated on the Jewish quarter, and entered the sites. Unfortunately, the best-known guide to the Jewish quarter, Wittman, charges 880 Czech crowns — about $44 — for its tour of the Jewish quarter. High prices are one of the effects of Prague’s popularity. (Yes, the Czech Republic uses its own currency. To convert crowns to dollars, divide by 20.) Wittman also offers a tour of a concentration camp called Terezin, which is about 35 miles north of Prague. At least one of Wittman’s guides is a survivor of Terezin, so it might be a great tour — worth any price.
I said that Prague has high prices, but I need to qualify this. Prices for major tourist attractions might be high, but prices for lodgings are average, and prices for food are low — both restaurants and food stores offer good value.
I met tourists who said they liked Prague, but I met residents who said they didn’t like it, perhaps because of the crowds and the commerce. One resident said his favorite Czech area was the Sumava Mountains, in the southwestern part of the Czech Republic, along the border with Germany/Bavaria.
Not every resident is a native, some were born in other countries; Prague has a community of “expats.” For more about this community, visit expats.cz.
I’m getting ahead of myself; I need to return to my first minutes in Prague. After much wandering in the rain (next time, I’ll bring an umbrella and waterproof shoes), I found the hostel where I had reserved a bed. But since it wasn’t yet check-in time, I couldn’t leave my luggage in the room, I had to leave it in the “luggage area.” The luggage area was only about 4 feet by 6 feet, and it seemed like everyone in Australia had left their luggage there. Giant backpacks were piled high, and if your luggage was at the bottom of the pile, you needed divine assistance to extract it. (Later I stayed at a Berlin hostel that had a similar problem.) So my initial impression of hostel life wasn’t favorable.
I found that most travelers had either a giant backpack, or a suitcase on wheels. Then they used a little day-pack when walking around the city. I had neither a giant backpack, nor a suitcase on wheels, nor a small day-pack. Perhaps one reason to travel is to learn how to travel; we learn by making mistakes.
I divided my time between single rooms, and dormitory-style rooms — both in hostels. Though I was generally satisfied with the hostels, I’d like to try something different next time — perhaps an inn, or a bed-and-breakfast. I met two musicians from New Zealand who were traveling around the world with their instruments, playing in bars, etc. They insisted that “couch-surfing” was a great way to travel. To couch-surf means to connect with someone via couchsurfing.org, spend the night on their couch for free, offer to do something in exchange (such as play music or clean the house), and perhaps make your own couch available to fellow couch-surfers when you get back home. A related concept is using the Internet to find people who want to rent a room in their house/apartment; certain websites specialize in room-renting, though I don’t recall the web-addresses.
One night, I went to hear the New Zealand musicians play, then walked back along the river. I had a good view of Prague Castle, with St. Vitus Cathedral rising above it. Though a traveler is usually tired after a day of walking around, you should save enough energy to see a city at night; many cities look best at night.
I paid about $25/night for a shared room, $50/night for a single room (the single rooms generally didn’t have their own bathroom). My favorite place was the Tyn Hostel in Prague, which has a great location, a great vegetarian restaurant next-door, free computers, and a kitchen (other hostels claimed to have Internet, but it didn’t work well, or wasn’t free). I would happily have spent the rest of my life at the Tyn Hostel. The cheapest hostel was in Naumburg, Germany, where I slept in a room with several bunk beds, but since they were all empty, I had what amounted to a single room. It was only about $18/night, and they gave me a nice bike for free; they were part of an association called Bed and Bike.
The Vltava River runs through Prague. It flows north, through the western part of the Czech Republic, joining the Elbe River in the northern Czech Republic. Meanwhile, the country’s other major river, the Morava, flows south, through the eastern part of the Czech Republic, eventually joining the Danube. The Morava gives its name to the region: Moravia. The western part of the Czech Republic, including Prague, is called Bohemia, though that term can also be applied to Czech lands as a whole.
Prague is sometimes called the belly-button of Europe; it’s the intersection of East and West, North and South. So perhaps it’s fitting that some of the rain that falls on the Czech Republic flows into the North Sea (via the Elbe), while some flows into the Black Sea (via the Danube).
Prague wasn’t always the famous city that it is today. It wasn’t part of the Roman realm, so it developed much later than Paris, London, etc. Prague is east of the Rhine, and north of the Danube, while the Roman realm was west of the Rhine, and south of the Danube. And Prague wasn’t part of the Grand Tour taken by English aristocrats. Shakespeare traveled to France, England, Germany, and Italy, but not to Prague. Ruskin made numerous visits to France and Italy, and saw the Swiss Alps and the Rhine falls, but never (as far as I know) made it to Prague. Now, however, Prague is part of the “standard tour”; one might say that Prague has a higher profile now than it has had for centuries.
In 2002, the Vltava overflowed its banks, and flooded Prague. The zoo was inundated, and the sea lions swam away; one sea lion swam all the way to Dresden before dying there.
In German, the Vltava is called the Moldau (you may have heard of a musical piece called “The Moldau,” by the Czech composer Smetana). Czech places often have both a German name and a Czech name. For centuries, Germans made up a significant part of the Czech population, especially in the border areas (the “Sudetenland”) and in Prague. In Kafka’s day, Prague was a multi-ethnic city — part German, part Jewish, part Czech (in this respect, Prague reminds one of Budapest, which was also a multi-ethnic city before the world wars).
Being a small nation (the population of the Czech Republic today is 10 million), the Czechs couldn’t maintain their independence, and became part of the Austrian (Habsburg) Empire, based in Vienna. Later, the Czechs were swallowed up by Hitler’s Germany. One might generalize and say, “small nations can’t maintain their independence in the neighborhood of large nations.” One might compare the Czechs to the Poles, who were squeezed between Germany and Russia, or to the Koreans, who were squeezed between China and Japan.
When Germany seized the Czech lands, they expelled the Czechs from the Sudetenland. When the Czechs repossessed those areas, they expelled the Germans, who had been there for more than 500 years. Today, some Germans complain that the Czechs owe them something for the lands/houses that they seized. I spoke to a young Czech who said that this was a sore point in Germany, but the Czech government refused to discuss the matter.
He said that, when the Germans controlled the Czech Republic, his grandfather was sent to work, without pay, in a German factory. He wasn’t mistreated, though; in fact, he had some good memories of his years in Germany. Later, he received compensation for his work (from the German government or from a German company).
Just as Germans were expelled from the Sudetenland, so too they were expelled from lands on their eastern border, their border with Poland. Stalin moved Poland’s border westward, and the Red Army expelled Germans from areas where they had lived for centuries. Some of these areas became part of the new Poland, others became part of the new Soviet Union.
Tensions between Germans and Czechs go back a long way in Czech history. One Czech hero is Jan Hus, whose statue can be found in Old Town Square. In the early 1400s, Hus preached at Prague’s Bethlehem Chapel, where sermons were delivered not in Latin or German, but in Czech. Hus was a proto-Protestant; like Luther, he was outraged by the sale of indulgences. Hus was influenced by John Wycliffe, an English proto-Protestant, active around 1375, who translated the Bible into vernacular English.
At Charles University in Prague (one of the oldest universities in Europe, founded in 1347), German scholars remained loyal to the pope, while Czech scholars supported Hus and his reform agenda. The Bohemian king (Wenceslaus IV) sided with the Czechs, and gave the Czechs more power over university affairs. This angered the German professors and students, who left the university en masse, went back to Germany, and started the University of Leipzig.
Hus was invited to defend his ideas at the Council of Constance, and received a promise that he would not be harmed. But the council decided that his views were heretical, and Hus was burned at the stake in 1415. His angry followers attacked Catholics and Germans (this is sometimes called “The First Defenestration of Prague”). The pope launched a series of crusades against these Bohemian heretics; the ensuing hostilities are called the Hussite Wars.
When I arrived in Prague, one of my first goals was to take a Kafka Walking Tour. My hostel was near Old Town Square, on the west bank (right bank) of the Vltava. Much of Kafka’s life was spent around Old Town Square, so my hostel was well-positioned for a Kafka pilgrimage. Kafka lived in, or went to school in, various stately buildings in Old Town Square; clearly, his family was well-to-do.
Like most of Prague’s Jewish families, Kafka’s family chose not to live in the historic Jewish neighborhood. In earlier times, Jews were forced to live in that area, that ghetto, but in 1781, the enlightened Habsburg emperor Joseph II allowed Jews to live elsewhere, and most availed themselves of the opportunity to move out (the ghetto was named Josefov in honor of Joseph II). The Jewish neighborhood gradually declined into a slum, and was finally razed in 1895; only a few buildings, such as the synagogues, were left standing.
If you read Kafka’s works, you might think that Kafka’s world was a grim one, but if you walk in his footsteps, you might think it was idyllic. He lived in a prosperous, cultured city, went to cafés and salons, enjoyed German theater, Czech theater, and Yiddish theater. In 1911, Einstein became a professor at Prague’s Charles University, and participated in some of Prague’s discussion societies; another participant was Rudolf Steiner. When Kafka was 29, he read his story “The Judgment” before one of these societies. As for music, the Czech composers Dvorak and Smetana were active in Prague during the late 1800’s.
Though Kafka usually lived with his parents around Old Town Square, he once rented a place on Golden Lane, near Prague Castle (Golden Lane is a cobblestone street of small, quaint houses that has become a favorite Prague postcard). Perhaps this location, near the castle and the cathedral, influenced Kafka’s novels, The Trial and The Castle.
Old Town Square was once a marketplace and even today, a variety of snacks and goods are sold in the square. Before there were stores, there were peddlers and market areas. A peddler might be defined as a walking store, a store carried on someone’s back, a store pulled by a horse. Old Town Square was once a marketplace where various peddlers and traders offered their wares; perhaps the market was there before houses were there. Perhaps the city grew up because there was a market, rather than the market developing to serve the city; Prague was originally built at the intersection of trade routes.
Perhaps every city began as a market; one of the Chinese words for “city” is “market”. Another major Prague square, Wenceslas Square, was once a horse-and-cattle market. When I was in Germany, I found that there, too, most towns have an open space in the middle, a marketplace. Houses surround the marketplace, then a city wall surrounds the houses. (Another Chinese word for city is “wall”.)
Kafka’s father started out as a peddler, and often told his son about the hardships he endured. When I was at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, I learned about itinerant Jewish merchants who kept a calendar of holidays and fairs, so they would know where and when they could transact business.
All the cities that I visited (Prague, Dresden, Naumburg, and Berlin) are on rivers. Some European cities are at a ford over a river (Frankfurt, for example, means “ford of the Franks”), some cities are at the junction of two rivers, some started on an island in a river.
While Kafka is a prominent figure in Prague, another prominent figure is Alfons Mucha, the Art Nouveau painter and designer. One might say that Mucha was the creator of Art Nouveau (known in Germany as Jugendstil); certainly he was a pioneer in the style, and his work was an overnight sensation in Paris. Mucha’s influence is everywhere in Prague: a stained-glass window in St. Vitus Cathedral, murals in the Municipal House — even postage-stamps and banknotes for the Czech nation. Just as Prague has a Kafka Museum, so too it has a Mucha Museum. But Mucha fans don’t just look around Prague, they travel to the southeastern part of the Czech Republic, to a town called Moravsky Krumlov, which has what Mucha regarded as his masterpiece, a series of paintings celebrating the Slavic peoples.
|This is the poster that made Mucha|
famous in Paris.
I like Mucha, just as I like William Morris, whose floral patterns were one of the inspirations behind Art Nouveau.1 Both Morris and Mucha were interested in a “total style” — a style that left its mark on furniture, jewelry, and other everyday objects, as well as on architecture and painting.
Another prominent figure in Prague is Mozart, and there’s a Mozart Museum, just as there’s a Kafka Museum and a Mucha Museum. Mozart spent much time in Prague, and his music was warmly received in Prague — sometimes more warmly than in Vienna. “My Praguers understand me,” Mozart said. No tour of Prague is complete without a glance at the Estates Theater, the only theater still in existence where Mozart performed. It was here, in 1787, that Mozart conducted the premiere of his opera Don Giovanni. The Prague house where Mozart often stayed is now a museum (the museum website says that the museum closed in 2009, but Wikipedia’s article on the museum says it re-opened in 2010). Many of the scenes in the Mozart-movie Amadeus were shot in Prague; the movie’s director, Milos Forman, is Czech. You can hear live music in the Estates Theater, and perhaps in the Mozart Museum, too. There’s lots of live music in Prague; almost every church has concerts at night, and as you walk around the city, people often hand you concert-advertisements.
I wanted to go to Prague partly in order to cycle north, along the Vltava and the Elbe, into Germany; I had heard that the ElbeWay was Germany’s most popular bike-path, and that it started in Prague. Most people, however, don’t start the ElbeWay in Prague, they start in southern Germany (Dresden or Bad Schandau2). I went to a Prague bike shop, and was told that there were bike paths along most of the Vltava and the Elbe between Prague and Germany, and that some people did indeed ride from Prague into Germany. A more popular route, though, is from Prague to Vienna; this route is 300 miles — longer than the route from Prague to Dresden. The route from Prague to Vienna isn’t a bike-path, it’s a “Greenway” — a mix of country road, bike-path, etc. You can also ride along the Danube from Vienna to Budapest, a distance of about 150 miles; this route takes you through Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia.
After you’ve been in Prague for a day or two, you’ll start to recognize Czech when you hear it spoken. Despite the large number of tourists in Prague, you hear Czech more than any other language. Many of the tourists are themselves Czech (Czechs from elsewhere in the Czech Republic), just as many tourists in Berlin are German. Perhaps all Slavic languages sound somewhat alike; when I heard people speaking Polish, it sounded like Russian.
Czech signs are often in only one language: Czech. So it helps to know a few words of Czech, such as these (I’ve omitted accent marks):
|Karluv most||Charles Bridge|
|namesti (abbreviated “nam.”)||square|
|Namesti Republiky||Republic Square (near Municipal House, Powder Gate, and Palladium shopping center)|
|Nove Mesto||New Town (built by Charles IV outside the old city walls)|
|Stare Mesto||Old Town|
|Staromestske Namesti||Old Town Square|
|Staronova synagoga||Old New Synagogue (Europe’s oldest active synagogue, built in 1270)|
|Vaclavske Namesti||Wenceslas Square|
|Narodni Galerie||National Gallery|
|Narodni Divadlo||National Theater (one of Prague’s major theaters, located on the east bank of the Vltava)|
|Mala Strana||Little Quarter (the neighborhood below Prague Castle, south and east of Prague Castle)|
|Hlavni Nadrazi||main train station (located about a half-mile southeast of Namesti Republiky)|
|Letiste Praha-Ruzyne||Prague Airport|
One of the glories of Prague is the Charles Bridge, which was begun under Charles IV in 1357, and has withstood the siege of time. At both ends are Gothic bridge towers. For a fee, you can climb to the top of the tower on the east end of the bridge (near the Old Town); according to my guide-book, “The view from the top is in many ways the finest in all Prague, embracing the Old Town, the Little Quarter [near the Castle] and a grand sweep of the Vltava.”3 The east tower also shows a movie about the bridge, describing the “number mysticism” of its construction. (Charles IV laid the foundation stone in 1357, on the 9th of July, at 5:31 a.m.; this moment forms a rising-and-falling series of odd numbers: 1 3 5 7 9 7 5 3 1.) Charles Bridge is reserved for pedestrians, and it’s lined with statues, mostly in Baroque style.
In fact, the Baroque style is all over Prague. Though I’m not a Baroque fan, I am a Prague fan, perhaps because Prague architecture has various styles, including Gothic, Art Nouveau, and even Cubist. Prague has style, Prague has taste. The buildings in Prague are consistently old, consistently attractive. Many have ravishing colors and illustrations. If you’re looking for modern architecture, if you’re looking for buildings that thumb their nose at tradition, if you’re looking for buildings made of glass, concrete, and steel, you won’t find many in Prague. You’ll find lots in Berlin, but few in Prague. In Prague, even shopping centers are built in a traditional style. Prague has skyscrapers, but they aren’t in the historic city center; like Paris, Prague has relegated skyscrapers to the periphery. Even Prague’s pavement has charm; instead of using asphalt, they make streets and sidewalks out of blocks of stone, and they use various colors/designs. Several times, I saw workmen tapping blocks, making a road from sand and stone.
Charles IV is a key figure in Prague history. He founded Charles University in 1347, and played an important role in the construction of Charles Bridge, Prague Castle, St. Vitus Cathedral, and Karlstejn Castle. In addition to being King of Bohemia, he was also the Holy Roman Emperor, and made Prague the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. He made Prague more than it had been before his reign, and more than it was after his reign. To the Czechs, Charles IV is pater patriae, father of the country.
Charles’ son, Wenceslas IV, was deposed as Holy Roman Emperor, and barely maintained his hold on Bohemia. Wenceslas IV should not be confused with Wenceslas I, who ruled Bohemia in the early 900’s, and is called “good king Wenceslas” in the Christmas carol. After he was murdered at his brother’s instigation, Wenceslas I was canonized, and he’s now the patron saint of the Czech nation. Wenceslas Square is named after him, as is Wenceslas Chapel in St. Vitus Cathedral.
While the reign of Charles IV is one of the high points of Czech history, the reign of Rudolf II, in the late 1500’s, is another high point. As Charles had made Prague the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, so Rudolf made Prague the capital of both the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburg Empire. Rudolf was a retiring, scholarly monarch. He brought scientists like Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler to Prague. Rudolf had a keen interest in the occult, and brought alchemists like John Dee and Edward Kelley to Prague; Rudolf even had his own alchemy lab. He was in contact with Nostradamus, who drew his horoscope. Rudolf was also an art patron, commissioning works from Veronese and other painters. Rudolf collected interesting plants, stones, animals, etc., and his collections were a valuable resource for scholars.
As Prague declined under Charles’ successor, Wenceslas IV, so Prague declined in the latter years of Rudolf’s reign, and by the time Rudolf died in 1612, his brother had ousted and imprisoned him. Vienna once again became the Habsburg capital. In 1618, Bohemian nobles rose up against Habsburg rule, and threw three Habsburg officials from the windows of Prague Castle. This is called The Defenestration of Prague (sometimes the “second defenestration”), and it started the Thirty Years War. The Bohemian revolt was suppressed, and 27 of its leaders were executed in Old Town Square; today you can see 27 crosses in the pavement near Old Town Hall. Prague suffered much from the Thirty Years War, its population declining from 60,000 to 20,000.
Tycho Brahe died in Prague, and is buried in Tyn Church. He died of a burst bladder, after respectfully holding his pee in the presence of Rudolf II.
I enjoyed my visit to St. Vitus Cathedral. From the river, it’s a long climb to the castle, then you pass through some courtyards before you reach the cathedral. The cathedral is inside the castle complex, which is the world’s largest castle complex. The cathedral is named after St. Vitus because it claimed to possess a relic of that saint (an arm). (Vitus is a saint from Sicily who was martyred in 303 AD. He’s the patron saint of dancers, and of Bohemia.)
The cathedral was begun in the 1300’s, but construction was often interrupted, and the cathedral wasn’t completed until 1929. It has numerous coats-of-arms, which are colorful and charming, as well as ancient and historic. It has some old tombs, but it also has some modern carvings, modern stained-glass, etc. (Likewise, the famous medieval cathedral in Naumburg has some modern art-works.)
The first thing that caught my eye in the interior of St. Vitus cathedral was the Mucha window. But the high point of a visit to the cathedral is Wenceslas Chapel, which is said to contain the tomb of St. Wenceslas; most of the Chapel was built in the 1300’s (unfortunately, you can’t enter, you can only look from outside).
My guide-book used terms like “chancel” and “triforium,” and didn’t have a glossary, so I needed a guide-book to the guide-book. You can enter the cathedral for free, but if you want to walk through it, the price is $12, and if you want an audio guide, that’s another $12.
Perhaps a tourist should go, not to the most interesting sights, but to the sights that have the most interesting guides; a good guide makes a big difference. If this is true, then Karlstejn Castle might be a better choice than St. Vitus Cathedral, because Karlstejn offers English-language tours.
When you’re outside the castle complex, you’re in an elevated position, and you have a good view of the river and the city. Guards stand at the edge of the castle, since the government of the Czech Republic is based there. You might see the changing-of-the-guard. I noticed that one guard couldn’t help smiling, and seemed on the point of laughing; the Czechs aren’t characterized by discipline and order.
I began my trip with 2 days in Prague, then spent 9 days in Germany, then returned to Prague for my last 2 days. My first destination in Germany was Dresden. As I rode the train to Dresden, I chatted with a young Czech, Martin, who was from Brno, the Czech Republic’s second largest city; Brno is the birthplace of Czech novelist Milan Kundera. Martin said that there was some rivalry between Prague and Brno, and that Brno complained about its tax dollars being spent in Prague. Martin became a hockey fan, and a hockey player, when the Czechs won the hockey gold medal at the 1998 Olympics, led by their stars, Jagr and Hasek. We also discussed another Hasek, the Czech novelist who wrote The Good Soldier Svejk; this Hasek was born in the same city (Prague) as Kafka, and in the same year (1883) as Kafka. Both Hasek and Kafka died of tuberculosis, Hasek at age 39, Kafka at 40.
Our train from Prague followed the Vltava northward, then followed the Elbe (after its merger with the Vltava) to Dresden. We could see bikers pedaling along the Elbe bike-path near Bad Schandau, one of the first German towns that you reach when coming from the Czech Republic.
I was so busy chatting with Martin that I almost didn’t get off the train in Dresden. When I finally got off, I looked for a bathroom, and saw the symbol of a man with two arrows, one pointing up and the other down. I took this to mean, “There’s a men’s room one floor up, and one floor down,” but after going both up and down, and finding nothing, I decided the sign meant, “You can go up or down, you won’t find anything either way.” I tried asking a train-station employee where the bathroom was, but as soon as he heard one word of English, he shook his head. I tried one of the few words of German that I knew: badezimmer (bathroom). But his mind had closed, his head continued to shake. (Later I learned that Germans also use the words “toilet” and “WC” for bathroom.)
Throughout my stay in Germany, I was struck by how many Germans don’t speak English. When I was traveling in Ireland, France, etc., I met Germans who spoke good English, and I concluded that, in general, Germans speak English. Now I realize that there’s a difference between the travelling German and the average German. The average German speaks little or no English. But Germans like English-language music, T-shirts, graffiti, etc.; the English language is everywhere but in people’s mouths.
If my arrival in Prague was difficult, my arrival in Dresden was more difficult. I was poorly prepared, I had neither local currency (euros) nor a hotel reservation. So I trudged to the Tourist Office, guide-book in hand, sagging under the weight of my luggage. (The avenue leading to the Tourist Office was pedestrian-only; I found such avenues throughout Germany.) When I reached the Tourist Office, I was given a map and the name of a hostel, but in order to reach the hostel, I had to retrace my steps, under a hot sun, then wind my way through unfamiliar streets. And I still hadn’t found a bathroom. As I lugged my bags toward the hostel, I remembered Tycho Brahe, who had died of a burst bladder; what had seemed just a historical curiosity was now becoming a real danger.
After settling into my hostel, I began to explore Dresden. Dresden was badly damaged during World War II, though not as badly as Berlin (as for Prague, it emerged from the war almost unscathed). In Dresden, most of the damage was confined to the left bank (south bank) of the Elbe, the so-called Altstadt (Old City); the Neustadt, on the right bank, suffered less damage.
I visited two Altstadt churches: the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), perhaps Dresden’s most famous edifice, and the Kreuzkirche (Church of the Cross). The Kreuzkirche is known for its Boys Choir, which dates back to the 13th century. Dresden did a remarkable job of rebuilding; it’s hard to imagine that, as recently as 1990, the Frauenkirche was just a pile of rubble.
Neustadt is more artsy, more Bohemian, than Altstadt. Neustadt has a series of courtyards (called Kunsthofpassage, or ArtWalk) decorated by contemporary artists. Altstadt has a Baroque walkway, overlooking the Elbe, called Brühl’s Terrace (sometimes called “The Balcony of Europe”).
Dresden is known for its art galleries, especially the Old Masters Gallery in the Zwinger palace. This gallery has a painting made by Canaletto around 1750, showing the Boys Choir standing outside the Frauenkirche. (This Canaletto should not be confused with his uncle and teacher, also called Canaletto, who is known for his paintings of Venice.) This gallery also has a painting by Claude Lorrain, “Acis and Galatea,” which mesmerized Dostoyevsky during his stay in Dresden. I wasn’t able to find this painting, however; Claude eluded me in Dresden, just as he had in Paris. (If you want to take a Dostoyevsky pilgrimage, Dresden is said to have a Dostoyevsky library, a Dostoyevsky statue, and a German-Russian cultural institute.)
Another popular museum in Dresden is the Hygiene Museum, which illustrates the working of the human body. According to Wikipedia, “The museum’s Transparent Woman, showing the organs of human beings as a see-through sculpture, became world famous.”
While I was in Dresden, I became fond of a restaurant called Aha (or “Ladencafe Aha”). I often ate a bowl of “Saxon Potato Soup,” and a plate of pancake with applesauce (Apfelmus). Their menu contained a long lecture about the virtue of whole grains; Germans are interested in health food, especially whole-grain bread. Their menu said that a mill in Hungary was the first to develop refined flour (white flour). Though it had little nutritional value, refined flour became popular because it lasted longer — it could sit on the shelf for months without spoiling. Their menu also said they were committed to Fair Trade (helping farmers, the environment, etc.).
Germany is more pedestrian-friendly, and also more bike-friendly, than the U.S. Bikes are everywhere, and you often see older people riding. Germans often ride without a helmet, and they laugh at the American habit of wearing a helmet.
Though some Germans are interested in health food and cycling, not all Germans have these interests; smoking is quite common, and quite a few Germans are overweight. I often saw people pushing baby-carriages; there doesn’t seem to be any fertility crisis in Germany. It’s not unusual to see minorities in Germany — Turks, Orientals, blacks — and Chinese restaurants are everywhere.
A word on German mannerisms. One might say that the Germans have a thick skin; each of them is in his own skin, his own space. If you sneeze, don’t expect them to say “Bless you,” or anything of that sort; they don’t readily enter your space. Their expression is often serious, even severe. If you ask them for help, though, they often extend themselves generously. The Germans work hard, and keep things clean, but German businessmen don’t often solicit business, perhaps because they’re too proud, reserved, self-sufficient.
In the next issue, I’ll discuss Naumburg and Berlin.
|1.|| Morris, in turn, was influenced by my old favorite John Ruskin, who sung the praises of Gothic art, including Gothic floral motifs. back|
|2.|| There’s a bike shop in Dresden called RollOn. back|
|3.||Blue Guide Prague, by Jasper Tilbury. Another Prague guide-book is PragueWalks, part of a series that includes ViennaWalks, FlorenceWalks, etc. back|