Monday, June 7, 2010

I look and feel like this pigeon

At least I did when I took the picture. At the time, we were both wet, cold, bedraggled, and at least a teensy bit miserable. But at least I could hold an umbrella.

I'm home now, so here's a distillation of Prague and Dresden.


A crush of tourists (including me). And yes, it's really pretty and crammed full of gorgeous buildings, statuary, and a million architectural and design details, but also spoiled by modern signs for whatever shop/service pinned over the door. I wish I had seen it before 1989. Also, there's not a lot of wasted space, at least not where I was. Some of the streets are so narrow, it's difficult to step back and appreciate the architecture. It's also quite gritty; pollution is turning the stone dark brown, dark grey, and black. It didn't help that it was cold, windy, and raining my first full day there, which are not conducive to looking up. I thought the Hrad (Prague Castle) was overrated as a tourist attraction. It's worth a visit for sure, but I wouldn't put it top on the list. Maybe if I had popped for the audio tour on top of my ticket I would have gotten more out of it, but at some point I grow weary of paying admission fees and extras. I think 90% of the admission tickets I've paid for on this trip have been over $10 each, including churches in Russia. I realize that after one has spashed out for airfare, hotels, visas, souvenir synthetic fur Russian hats, and whatnot, a $10 ticket is nothing, but after three weeks it becomes tiresome. Had I done my research before getting to town, I would instead liked to have day tripped to Kutna Horá and the ossuary at Sedlec. Next time. I wanted to see the Jewish Cemetery, but didn't because that also has an admission fee, which is rolled into a ticket to other sights in Josefov, and since I didn't have time to see all of them, I saw none of them. After spending the first full day first wandering the streets of the Malá Strana neighborhood, and getting steadily soaked as it started raining in the afternoon, I splashed back to the hotel and spent the evening at the bar, working through cappuccinos and dinner.

The Medieval Art of Bohemia gallery at the Anežský klášter (Convent of Saint Agnes) is worth it, not only because it's only 150 Kč ($7.50) admission, but there is good stuff on display. I think I was able to absorb the art since it was all religious in nature, and therefore repetitive; instead of several hundred paintings of different subject matter, it was several hundred paintings of limited subject matter. I could approach a painting, immediately know what it was depicting, and focus on its particular details in relation to the others, both in the gallery and elsewhere. Like how Bohemian crucifixion paintings seem to be more blood splattered than their more Western counterparts; blood dripping down Jesus' arms and spraying all over the Virgin Mary. And I get a kick out of odd depictions of saints and their respective methods of martyrdom - like Saint Margaret cuddling a housecat-sized dragon who's more cute than killer.

More cheap opera (Die Zauberflöte). It was a seat, but only 100 Kč ($5.00). I was hoping to see the inside of the Stavovské divaldo, which has a really pretty exterior:

but nothing was on, so I went to the Státní opera Praha, and it paid off with a great performance, and a really sumptuous interior. Opera doesn't seem like the big draw in Prague; at least a quarter of the seats were empty.

Church of sv Jakub - it was open, but all the lights were off, so it was a little hard to see the decomposing forearm on display. It's been there for over 400 years - apparently someone tried to heist some jewels, a statue of the Virgin Mary snagged him and wouldn't let go, and the local butchers freed him in the only way possible. Despite its almost inaccessible location - hanging on a chain, which is suspended from a bar, which is sticking out of the wall near the ceiling - I'm guessing at least a few creatures have nibbled on it; I only know it's a forearm because the guidebook told me so.

Walking around - since Prague's big draw is really its architecture, you need more than 2.5 days to soak it in, especially when one of those days was spent getting soaked.

Also full of tourists, but of a different flavor than Prague and Vienna. I'm gauging this by the amount of English and other languages I hear being spoken. In Moscow, virtually none; in fact, pretty much the only language I heard spoken in Moscow was Russian. It was jammed with tourists, and the vast majority were Russians, being patriotic and having their photos taken in Red Square. St Petersburg had a more diverse selection of tourists. I think a lot of foreigners will go to St. Petersburg, but not Moscow. Possibly scared off by the latter? Moscow has intimidating aspects, but it wasn't nearly as scary as the literature I read beforehand made it sound. Vienna - everyone from everywhere was there. Bratislava - not enough data; most of the English speakers were British party boys, so they throw off the numbers. I think Eastern Europe should start charging more for beer. Prague - everyone. Dresden - Germans.

Other than being a pleasant place to loll about on lawns and by fountains, the Zwinger has the Old Masters Gallery; taking a deep breath and steeling myself for another injection of fine art, I shelled out 10 euro (see?), and headed into the galleries. By the third floor I was just walking and staring, but it turned out to all be worth it for the extensive display of Lucas Cranach the Elder's stylized portraits, thankfully situated at the beginning of the tour. There's also a small altar by Jan van Eyck in one of the other rooms, so small it's easy to overlook. He has excellent technique in perspective and texture. The altar is one of those pieces that you could look at a hundred times, and find a new detail each time, although a magnifying glass would come in handy.

Dresden has a booming bike culture. Half the populace is zipping around the sidewalks on junky bikes, tinging their bells to warn pedestrians to get the hell out of the way. Bikes are barely locked up; sometimes the wheel is simply locked to the frame and it's leaned up against a wall, and piles of parked bikes are everywhere. The only helmets to be seen are the ones on display in bike shop windows, or on the occasional toddler. The prevalence of cobblestones precludes skinny tires. Or maybe all the skinny tires riders have been eliminated, due to lack of helmet.

Music for the masses - Dresden seems to have more street accordion players than average. Most of them were women, almost always accompanied by a small dog. But other than accordion pootlings, I saw one more opera my last night in Europe. For free, sitting in the Theaterplatz next to the opera house, with a soda and a bag of potato chips. The Semperoper was putting on a premiere of Gounod's Faust, and televised a live feed to a movie screen for the plebes. It was also the same night as the Nacht der Kirchen, where the churches stay open late. I had missed the one in Vienna due to lack of motivation (it was the same night I went to the Volksoper), so after the show I wandered over to the reconstructed Frauenkirche. Burned in the firebombing of February 13, 1945 and left for decades as a pile of rubble, it's been rebuilt using original stones where possible (the dark ones), and new light stones otherwise.

It's kind of tasteful on the outside, kind of ghastly on the inside. It's like a pink and baby blue frosted cake. The Blue Church in Bratislava also kind of looked like frosting, but at least there was a harmony between exterior and interior. Not so much with the Frauenkirche. Then I moseyed over the the Kreuzkirche since it wasn't too far away. The interior wasn't anything special, but at least it was plain and spartan, and not ostentatious. I walked back to the hostel through the weekend party that is Neustadt, on the other side of the River Elbe - everyone is just sitting on the sidewalks drinking beer, or spilling out of bars and cafes. I stayed in a hostel for my last two nights in Dresden, and fear I may have become That Person in the hostel, when I had to get my gear sorted out in the middle of the night. I tried to be quiet, but complete silence when dealing with a rucksack, and trying to strip linen from a bunk bed is impossible. I actually just got piles of stuff out of the dorm room, and sorted it out in the stairwell, managing to avoid the worst noise transgression - the crinkly bag. I'm pretty sure the snoring guy had already woken up a couple other girls, so I don't feel so bad, plus since I got back late and spent the night sitting in the common room, they didn't see my face, so my identity is safe. When I started walking to the train station at 4:45, it was already light outside, and people were still hanging around the clubs, and sitting right in the middle of the street. There weren't too many cyclists out yet, so I suppose they were safe for at least a little while.

And that's it. I flew home from Frankfurt, where Terminal A has poorly designed (shocking for something German) toilets throughout, and for once, I saw lines for the Herren instead of the Damen. Some of the gates have their own toilets secreted behind walls, so look for those if you're in need of a loo.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

day tripping in the wrong direction

Bratislava is an odd cocktail of a city. I'm not talking about the Old Town section, which, like most old towns in Europe I've visited, are a (at times woeful) mix of historic architecture, trashy souvenir shops, cafes, and ice cream stands. Outside of the old town is a juxtaposition of a dilapidated city emerging from the clutches of Communism, flashy glass office highrises, and various architectural eye candy. One of the more picturesque sights is the Blue Church of St. Elizabeth - located directly across the street from a gruesome Sovietesque apartment building which may or may not have been inhabited. Elsewhere in town were gutted buildings and piles of what appeared to have once been buildings, just a short walk away from a neatly manicured park along the Danube embankment.

I arrived in Bratislava at 10:30, and sometime around maybe 17:00 realized that my scheduled two days and two nights had been overly generous. I had placed a moratorium on museums, so there wasn't a whole lot to do except wander around the Old Town and its environs, and since Old Town is pretty dinky, even that didn't take a whole lot of time. The few hours after arrival even included sitting for a spell in the sun along the Danube embankment, detouring into a shopping mall for a snack and a pit stop, and catching a disco snooze when I checked into the hotel later mid-afternoon. Which is not to say Bratislava is devoid of charms, it was just a sleepy sleepy place after the Vienna whirlwind. Other than gaggles of tourist groups snapping photos of the weird statues dotting the town, the streets were kind of deserted. Maybe it had something to do with being Sunday, and it was also overcast and sprinkling all afternoon. By 19:00 I had made my way up to the castle, where I killed more time sitting on a wall, hiding from the rain under my umbrella, gazing out over the city, and contemplating my next move for the following day. As I had already paid for two nights at the hotel, options were:

a) day trip elsewhere in Slovakia
b) sit in a cafe all day
c) go back to Vienna

I had spent all my pre-vacation time prepping for Russia, and everything after that has been done on the fly. In other words, I wasn't prepared for anything post-Russia. None of the day trips suggested by my guidebook grabbed my attention. I'm not inclined to sit still on vacation, unless there's food or coffee in front of me. And I figured if I was going to sit in a cafe, I'd rather do it in Vienna where there was more going on to keep me entertained. Vienna and Bratislava are only a one hour bus ride from one another. After spending Monday morning trying to take in a couple of sights, I caught the noon bus back Austria-way. Most of the day was spent wandering the maze of streets around the Graben, which I went to specifically to search out the swankiest public toilet in central Europe, designed by Adolf Loos, and totally worth the 50 cent usage fee. I tried to take some photos, but none of them really came out; I was worried that the hefty matron would yell at me in German and/or physically remove me if I lingered too long in the stall, so all my pics came out fuzzy in my haste. I wish I could just transport one stall back home to be my toilet. After downing another whipped cream topped Einspanner coffee, I spent a final evening in the 2 euro standing room at the Volksoper (Die lustigen Niebelungen). I hadn't done my homework on the synopsis, and as this performance had no supertitles, all the dialogue was lost on me. It was oddly liberating, because all I could do was take in the action, listen to the music, and laugh at the cameo of two pugs dressed in green dragon suits. The written word can be a distraction. Sometimes I find myself going through museums and reading all the captions, but forgetting to look at the object on display. One the bus back to Bratislava I was the only passenger - an entire squeaky clean Eurolines coach and driver all the myself for a paltry 6 euro. The driver appeared slightly perplexed at my appearance at the VIB Stop 3 at 22:30. I was wondering if he was obliged to make the run if no one was aboard, but didn't know how to ask.

In conclusion...Bratislava is definitely worth visiting, but perhaps a day trip from Vienna would suffice. And as cute and car-free as the Old Town is, I found the area immediately outside the center more interesting.