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.

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