The Search for Kafka
05.25.2009 - 05.29.2009 55 °F
Right before I left home some of our friends gave me an unexpected Bon Voyage party at Ferrando's, and it was a wonderful send off! I would like to thank the Brickmans - Joey, Amy, Will, Zach, Aaron and Ethan; the Smiths - Don, Margaret and Fleming; the Cokers - Keith, Grace and Mary Beth; the Dillards - Pam, Doug, Mary Glenn, and Hannah, and of course Emily and Anna Kate! Your hospitality was wonderful! Thank you!!
I got packed and repacked for the trip over the period of several days, nervously eliminating all kinds of odds and ends. The few days before I was a nervous wreck - it is a bit scary traveling alone in Eastern Europe for a month! When I was ready to leave, I got Will, my expert chess partner, to take a picture of me packed for a month, complete with money belt pouch around my neck. Anna Kate said I looked like I was wearing some kind of bulletproof vest!
Atlanta's Hartsfield Jackson International Airport. It's the busiest airport in the world, and also happens to be my home airport. When I checked in at the Delta gate, the attendant made an announcement asking for volunteers to get bumped for a later flight for a flight voucher. I have been in this situation before, and have always kicked myself for not taking the deal. I am traveling alone and my plans are flexible this time so my hand shot up! Instead of flying me directly to Frankfurt they routed me 2 hours later to Amsterdam and then on to Frankfurt, arriving at 11am instead of 7am. Plus, I got a free meal voucher and a travel credit worth $600! Ka-ching! What a great way to start a trip!
I am always amazed at how people traveling together bond so quickly. On the plane I was sitting next to Sonny and Kim. None of us knew each other before the flight, but we had great fun talking.
Sonny, who lives in Kennesaw GA is a manufacturing consultant. He spends two weeks in Atlanta and then flies to Europe for two weeks. He has been keeping up this grueling schedule every two weeks since 2004! Sonny meets with companies to show them how to make their manufacturing processes more efficient (painting, software, auto panels, etc.) His father is Nigerian and he speaks five African dialects in addition to English and German! Kim is a 17 year old student just finishing up a year as an exchange student in the U.S. in the Springfield, MO area. She loved her time traveling around America between school terms, especially going to California, Las Vegas, and New York City. She is studying travel and wants to become a flight attendant. Her biggest complaint about the U.S. was that she couldn't drive a car there! She was really looking forward to going home to the Amsterdam area and her family's annual vacation to an island off the coast of France. It was great meeting you both!
I had a smile on my face as I fell asleep listening to Miles Davis' album Kind of Blue, with nothing but empty sky and adventure before me.
Switching planes in Amsterdam I met another traveler, Matthias. Matthias had been bumped like me, and while we were talking we began to wonder if our bags would make it to Frankfurt at all. Matthias, who is from Germany, has a PhD. in Chemistry and lives with his family in Atlanta. He returns to visit his relatives in the Frankfurt area 3-4 times a year.
He invited me to stick with him, and when we got to the Frankfurt airport he whisked us from terminal to the baggage office and back to the train station, speaking his perfect German, in record time! Without him I might still be looking for my luggage! He put me on the right train to Prague at the station, and waved as his train drew away in the opposite direction. Goodbye, and thanks again Matthias!
When I got on the train in Frankfurt bound for Dresden I really had to go to the bathroom. Being nervous about the trip combined with fast food on the go definitely was not agreeing with me. So I put my bags above my seat and went to the restroom. I was sitting there a few minutes later when I hear a 'bang' 'bang' 'bang' on the door. "Tickets! Tickets!" "OK! Hold on!!" I shouted back, thinking he would go away. But I far underestimated the German conductor's persistence. 'bang''bang''bang' "Tickets!! Tickets!!!" "OK, HOLD ON!!" I shouted back, but to no avail. I started to hear the rattle of keys, and before I know it, he slams the bathroom door! The German conductor stepped through the door looking like a walrus, looked on the counter at my charging phone, and then looked down at me, still sitting on the toilet. His expression never changed. He took a deep breath, thrust out his hand and bellowed "TICKETS!!!" I hurriedly fumbled in my shorts pockets for my German Rail Pass (which had been properly validated and stamped, by the way). I finally found it and held it up to him, sheepishly. "Ticket?" I asked. He took it, inspected it closely, and handed it back. "OK," he said matter-of-factly, stepped back, and closed the door. Still sitting there on the toilet with my shorts around my ankles I stared dumbly at the rail pass in my hand. Had that actually just happened, or was I currently live on German National TV's answer to Candid Camera?
I transferred trains in Dresden and took this cool shot of the train station.
At the train station I went into Burger King (no, I am not proud of this fact) and got a "Long Chicken," Germany's answer to BK's original chicken sandwich. To make up for the travesty of eating at Burger King while in Europe I ordered my fries with extra mayonnaise. I hoped the Travel Gods would somehow be appeased.
On the train from Dresden to Prague I met Troy, who had just graduated from the engineering program at Oklahoma State University. He said he plans on staying in Oklahoma because of the low cost of living, but he thinks he may have a hard time finding a job right now with the poor economy. Troy thinks he might join the Air Force if his work plans fall through so that he can pay off his student loans.
Troy was traveling for a month on his own too, as a graduation gift from his father. Troy was going to Prague without reservations, and had had luck everywhere else on his trip just showing up at hostels. I invited him to come with me to the Hostel Elf, where I had reservations for 4 days. We talked most of the way into Prague, and stuck together once getting off the train. We found the Metro station from there, took it to the Florenc station, and got the 133 bus from there. We were at the Hostel Elf in no time!
The hostel was a really cool funky place where I seemed to fit right in. It had a great terrace where everyone gathered on warm nights...
and a cozy common room where we gathered on cold nights.
One of my favorite front desk clerks at the Hostel Elf was Boris. Everybody say hello to Boris!
Boris worked the night shift, from 8pm until 8am, and enjoyed sitting up late talking about his girlfriend problems. I'm sure Boris and his girlfriend will work it out eventually!
Youth hostels are not at all limited to youth. Most of the people at the Hostel Elf probably ranged from 18 to 25 years old, but all ages are welcome. All you need is an open attitude and an appreciation for the energy of your fellow backpackers. I paid $16.60 a night for 4 nights at the Elf, and absolutely loved it. The bathrooms/shower rooms are down the hall...
and I slept on the top bunk in a 6 person dorm room (that's my bed on the top left).
Everyone I met there was very quiet in the sleeping rooms, considerate of your things, and fun to talk to. I met more people staying there than at all of the regular hotels I stayed in last year! Plus, you can't beat the price. It even came with breakfast!
On my first morning I grabbed a cheese and pepperoni sandwich from the breakfast table (hey, I said it was free), and headed out on foot with my trusty Rick Steves' Eastern Europe travel guide to see Prague. I walked past several music posters - it was interesting to see who was still popular in the Czech Republic....
It was also interesting to see casinos in this former Communist bastion.
I walked down to the Old Town Square, photographing interesting sights along the way. A building in Wenceslas square.
These cool electric trams run all over town.
B.B. King is coming in July! I love B.B.!!
The Czech and Slovak surfing championships! In France!!
Powder Tower, the Gothic gate of the town hall, built to house gunpowder.
The Municipal House, built as a ceremonial palace "to reinforce the self-awareness of the Czech Nation." It features Prague's largest concert hall.
A cool Communist-era gas mask!
I finally reached the Old Town Square, and it was an absolute gem.
In the center of the square is the huge Jan Hus Memorial. The Memorial was erected in 1915 on the 500th anniversary of Hus' martyrdom by fire, and is a symbol of the long struggle for Czech freedom.
Hus stands between the victorious Hussite patriots and Protestants defeated by the Hapsburgs in 1620. One of the patriots holds a chalice. According to Rick Steves, in the medieval church, only the priests could drink the wine at Communion. "Since the Hussites fought for their right to take both the wine and the bread, the cup is their symbol."
Hus looks at beautiful Tyn church, which became the headquarters and leading church of his followers. "A golden chalice once filled the now-empty niche under the gold bas-relief of the Virgin Mary on the church's facade. After the Hapsburg (and, therefore, Catholic) victory over the Czechs in 1620, the Hussite chalice was melted down and made into the image of Mary that shines from that spot high over the square today."
The Astronomical Clock and Clock Tower, where hundreds gather to watch the striking of the hour.
Here I am in front of Jan Hus and the Tyn Church.
A strange meridian line embedded in the cobblestones of the square reminded me of something fom the Da Vinci Code!
The Twenty Seven Crosses, marking the spot where 27 Protestant nobles, merchants, and intellectuals were beheaded in 1621 after rebelling against the Catholic Hapsburgs. I am always amazed at the amount of violence attributable to religion.
I then spent time inside Tyn Church, where no cameras are allowed. It was originally very simple and plain inside, until the Catholics took it over and added the ornamentation. It was a very moving sight, and I exited with tears in my eyes.
Behind Tyn Church is Ungelt Courtyard, where merchants would store their goods and pay taxes before setting up stalls on the Old Town Square. Pictures while strolling through the square. Some waitresses chatting outside a cafe.
Pinocchio sitting outside his namesake shop!
The marionette theater.
Some cool punk rockers in front of the Hus Memorial!
A cool building facade.
The Franz Kafka bookshop. Kafka was a famous resident of Prague.
A classic Czech car for hire.
The Hard Rock Cafe - Prague. Notice the fork in the window!
The Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments! Awesome!
Approaching the Charles Bridge. This is the Klementium, the Czech Republic's huge National Library.
Inside another marionette store.
The world famous Charles Bridge. "According to medieval record, the founding stone was laid in 1357, on the 9th of July at 5:31 (it's a palindrome: 135797531)." This precise moment coincides with a favorable positioning of the Earth and Saturn. It was also discovered that the end of the bridge on the Old Town side aligns perfectly with the tomb of St. Vitus in the cathedral across the river, and the setting sun at summer solstice. Fascinating!
I climbed to the top of the Charles Bridge tower to get this shot of the Castle Quarter over the Vltava river. Note Prague Castle in the upper right.
The rooftops of Old Town, Prague.
Crossing the bridge on foot, I ran into the Bridge Band, playing Dixieland Jazz music! American jazz is very popular here. Notice the washboard player using egg beaters!
A cool statue on the Charles Bridge.
Approaching the Little Quarter gate.
A steak restaurant on Mosteka Street, the Little Quarter.
Petrin Tower, high above Prague.
The changing of the guards at Prague Castle.
Inside Prague Castle, this is a shot of the exterior of St. Vitus Cathedral. According to my travel guide, it is a Roman Catholic Cathedral symbolizing the Czech spirit, and contains the tombs and relics of the most important local saints and kings, including the first three Hapsburg Kings. It is hard to do it justice in a photograph. Simply unbelievable.
Interior of St. Vitus Cathedral, one of the finest sights in all of Europe.
The stained glass in the cathedral is simply amazing.
A close up of one of the intricate stained glass panels.
More of the cathedral interior.
The tomb of St. John of Nepomuk in the cathedral, rumored to contain more than a ton of silver. "John of Nepomuk was was a 14th-century priest to whom the queen confessed all her sins. According to a 17th-century legend, the king wanted to now his wife's secrets, but Father John dutifully refused to tell." He was tortured and eventually killed by being thrown off the Charles Bridge! St. John of Nepomuk is a saint of the Czech people.
Wenceslas Chapel in the cathedral, containing the tomb of St. Wenceslas surrounded by precious 14th century murals showing scenes of his life. This is the "Good King Wenceslas" of Christmas carol fame.
Another exterior of St. Vitus Cathedral.
14th century mosaic on the outside of the cathedral of the Last Judgment. "The Czech king and queen kneel directly below Jesus and the 6 patron saints. On coronation day, they would walk under this arch, which would remind them and their subjects that even those holding great power are not above God's judgment."
The Old Royal Palace was the seat of Bohemian princes starting in the 12th century. The Large Hall was built to be a multipurpose hall for the old nobility. It was big enough for jousts - even the staircase was designed to let a mounted soldier gallop in!
Scott on the balcony of the chapel overlooking Prague!
Rick Steves says that the Basilica and Convent of St. George is Prague's best preserved Romanesque church. St. Wenceslas's grandmother, St. Ludmilla, who had established this first Bohemian convent, was reburied here in 973!
The Basilica interior. Note its beautiful simplicity.
The gallery inside the church has double windows, and the walls are made from limestone, the stone underlying most of Prague.
Walking out of the castle and back down the hill I took the Golden Lane, a street of old buildings originally housing goldsmiths. This house, Number 22, is where Franz Kafka once lived. It is now a gift shop!
A really interesting statue at the base of the castle, but I don't think I would want one in my living room....
Na Valech Garden, at the base of the castle. I sat down on benches here for a while to rest my throbbing feet.
The Prague Metro is extremely easy and dirt cheap. After being in the city for literally 24 hours I was switching trains and transferring buses with ease. No trip that I made, including transfers, cost me more than 18 Crowns, or 1 dollar! Another feature of the Metro stations was that they were extremely deep underground. I noticed this in Moscow too. They must be designed as bomb shelters. The escalators were the fastest I have ever ridden on. Step on one and hold on for your life!
Watching television in the Prague subway.
The next stop was Prague's Museum of Communism. The cool thing about it was that it was located right next to a casino and a McDonald's! I can hear Lenin spinning in his grave!
There were several fascinating exhibits in the Museum of Communism. One was a reconstructed interrogation room, and another had a piece of the Berlin Wall on display.
Also featured were huge statues of all of the Communist All-Stars. Here is Comrade Lenin.
Back in the Old Town Square I saw these horses. I guess their grandmothers didn't want their ears to get cold....
Looking for something to eat for dinner I found the Franz Kafka statue. I love it!!
Mission accomplished. I finally found dinner at a convenience store. $4 for two sandwiches! These are chicken. I think.
After enjoying my dinner on a park bench with the pigeons I went to see a performance of the Image Black Light Theater. Black Light Theaters, popular in Prague, are kind of like Cirque du Soleil with black lights. It featured pantomime and dancing with glowing objects seemingly flying on their own all over the stage. It was fun and interesting to try and figure out.
Walking back to the Metro after the Black Light Theater, I took this picture of the Jan Hus Memorial with Tyn Church in the background at night. This one is my favorite.
Back at the hostel I met Dori and Jessi from the Denver area. They are going to be traveling together for 5 weeks, and had just arrived in Prague from a week in London. Dori graduated this year, and she and Jessi, who have known each other since they were 4 years old, made a pact in the 3rd grade to backpack the Czech Republic together! Jessi was a journalism major, but is worried about her future in the print media. They are now planning on doing Eastern Europe together, but the cold weather may force them south to Croatia. Good luck guys, and have fun!
This is a photo of me taken by Dori, who said that she was a yearbook editor in high school!
The next morning eating breakfast on the terrace. I love all of the cool signs left at the hostel by travelers.
The goal for the day was the Jewish Quarter, thought by Rick Steves to be the most interesting collection of Jewish sights in Europe. Seven different sights make up the Jewish Museum, and I visited them all. First was Pinkas Synagogue, a site of Jewish worship for 400 years. The walls are covered with the hand-painted names of 77,297 Czech Jews who were sent from Prague to the Nazi death camps. While reading the names you can see that many families perished together. There is also a recording of a reading of the names playing, with a cantor singing the Psalms in between. When the Communists moved into the area they erased all of the names, but when the Czech Republic regained its freedom in 1989, all of the names were rewritten.
On the top floor of the Pinkas Synagogue was the Terezin Children's Art Exhibit. I left this room literally in tears. It featured various artworks done by Jewish children imprisoned at the Terezin Concentration Camp during WWII. Many later died. Works included "The Train" by Lea Lenka Pollakova (d. 5/18/44), "A Terezin Shower" by Ruth Klaubaufova (d. 10/19/44), "A Children's Playground With Notice 'Entrance Forbidden'" by Hana Turnovska, and my personal favorite, "Deserted Table," showing a table surrounded by empty chairs and one small, lone figure sitting alone. It was drawn by Blanka Metzlova (d. 5/18/44).
Outside the synagogue was the Old Jewish Cemetery, one of the most unique places I have ever seen. From 1439 until 1787 this was the only burial ground allowed the Jews of Prague. Because of the Jewish belief that the body should not be moved once buried, and because of the limited space available, the bodies were literally piled on top of one another in several layers. The crowded tombstones are askew from the settling, providing an eerie, powerful landscape. I will never forget it.
Many of the stones had handwritten prayers placed on them.
The next stop was the Ceremonial Hall, which described Jewish Death, burial traditions, and medicine.
I also visited the Klaus Synagogue, the Old-New Synagogue (the oldest synagogue in Eastern Europe, built in 1270), and the Maisel Synagogue (which served as a warehouse for the stolen treasures of the Jewish community that Hitler planned to exhibit in his "Museum of the extinct Jewish Race." I also saw the beautiful Spanish Synagogue. The Jewish Quarter is one of the most moving and well-done exhibitions I have ever seen, and I very highly recommend it for everyone.
I next set out for the Museum of Medieval Art, and I took these two pictures along the way. Two boys playing.
A Peruvian Restaurant - in Prague!!
The Museum of Medieval Art is at the St. Agnes Convent and has been called one of the best in the world, and I believe it. The first photo is the herma used to serve as a casket for the skull of St. Ludmila, again the grandmother of St. Wenceslas, the Czech parton saint. It was wrought of silver and guiled in fire. It is dated 1360.
A series of paintings depicting the 12 Disciples plus Jesus and the Mary.
An exquisite silver piece.
AQs I walked back across town the cold rain came and driving wind began to blow. It was cold! I just kept marching, though. I happened to be right there at the very moment this lady's umbrella blew inside out!
Once again I had forgotten to eat, so I grabbed another sandwich. As I was walking down the street in the cold, driving rain, I caught a view of myself in a shop window. I was soaking wet, eating a sandwich while walking down the middle of the street, with a huge smile on my face! I thought it was so funny that I got the sales clerk at a shoe store I was passing to take my picture right then! She shook her head sadly. Crazy American!
My last morning in Prague I went to Wenceslas Square to see some very important things before I left. First off was the square itself, the gathering spot for 300,000 Czechs and Slovaks in 1989 who were protesting for their freedom. This was also the spot where the Soviets put down the 1968 Prague rebellion. The creation of the Czechoslovak state was also celebrated here in 1918.
These are the pillars of the National Museum. The light spots are from the plaster intentionally mismatched by Czech repairmen patching the bullet holes left over from Soviet troops putting down the 1968 Prague Spring Rebellions. The masons didn't want people to forget what happened. They haven't.
This Communist-era building now houses Radio Free Europe, rented out to the for 1 Crown per year. It now broadcasts deep into Islamic countries.
A memorial commemorating the victims of Communism, such as Jan Palach, who set himself on fire on the National Museum steps in 1969 for the cause of Czech independence. He died a few days later.
The National Museum and the St. Wenceslas statue at the top of the square. Wenceslas was credited with "Christianizing the nation and lifting up the culture."
Just off the main square is this statue, Wenceslas Riding and Upside-Down Horse, by David Cerny.
The beautiful rose bushes in the Franciscan Garden just off the square.
Vendors at a hot dog stand on the square!
I then walked back to the Little Quarter (again in the cold, driving rain). This is a nice view of the city across the river.
The Monument to Victims of Communism Who Survived is a compelling statue showing people who are gradually atrophied by the totalitarian regime.
I then took the funicular railway to the top of the hill in the Little Quarter to climb the 400 steps of Petrin Hill to get one last view of this amazingly beautiful city, full of the power of youth planting the seeds of a new future.