29 May 2010

A City Divided...and Reunited

Berlin is a city of contemporary culture more than tradition. In contrast to southern Germany (where biergartens rule), trendy bars, ethnic restaurants, and high-end shopping are what tourists encounter. With a feel and beat much like Chicago, and a top of the line public transit system, Berlin has come back with a vengence from its post-WWII division. But despite its rebirth, remnants of its past pay tribute the strength of the German people and their friends, family, and beloved city that were divided.

At the end of World War II, Europe was split into Eastern and Western blocs, under the auspices of communist and democratic ideologies respectively. Berlin – being an important city both politically and economically – was also divided into British, American, French, and Soviet blocs. But the reality of the situation, and what made Berlin so crucial to the post-WWII political schema, was that Berlin lay right in the middle of Soviet territorial control.
Until the early 1950s (before the Berlin Wall was built), the border between East and West could be easily crossed. So easy in fact that subways still ran between East and West Berlin making visits and emigration logistically uncontrollable.

But what makes Berlin's story so poignant was not the existence of the wall itself; rather, it was the manner in which it was erected and the reality that it symbolized.
At midnight on August 13, 1961, Eastern bloc troops were ordered to close off the border between East and West, and by the morning a barbed wire fence spanning almost 125 miles surrounded the entire city, literally overnight. Friends and families, in just a matter of hours, were separated for what would become almost 30 years.

I was lucky to visit Berlin with my father whose last visit pre-dated the wall's fall. Last time he visited Checkpoint Charlie, he was on a tour bus to East Berlin being scrutinized by border guards and keenly aware of the tense political situation in existence. Now the checkpoint lies on a non-descript thoroughfare through the heart of Berlin's tourist district. Last time he saw the Brandenburg Gate he stood facing the back of it...the Berlin Wall stopped him from accessing a front view. Now, it is the main attraction on Pariser Platz and is surrounded by embassies, tourists taking pictures, and even a Starbucks on the former East side. Last time he traveled down Unter den Linden, East Berliners would not look him in the eye and the only cars he saw were Trabants. Now the famed street, whose entrance is the Brandenburg Gate, leads anyone and everyone to probably the best museum district in the world.

The city today is a testament to Berliner pride and German
Gemütlichkeit. A city once divided, and now reunited.

25 May 2010

An Eastern European Easter

In the United States, Easter tends to fall low in rank – somewhere between MLK day and Cinco de Mayo I'd suspect. Not even as anticipated as Fourth of July, this step-child holiday comes and goes without outrageous commercialism or holiday-time parties. But in Eastern Europe, the Easter Season puts even our Christmas celebrations to shame.

Krakow’s Easter Market engulfs the main square. Towers of flowers decorate for festivities and reach high above the Easter crowds. Banners announcing Easter concerts invite even the most apprehensive
to join the celebration. Piles of handmade baskets pour out of vendor stalls enticing buyers inside, while neighboring stalls sell anything from ceramics to woodwork to crocheted egg toppers. Even the malls take part in the celebration with Easter displays and decorations strategically placed in windows, stores, and common areas.

Palm Sunday Mass is no small production either. With organ-led melody, the Passion is recited in solo song with two choirs (in the choral terrace and behind the alter) volleying in strategic accompaniment. Carrying braided straw decorated with ribbon (instead of our traditional palm sprigs), Mass attendees vie for standing-room-only. Those lucky enough to find seats must still be herded slowly from pew to portal at Mass’ end.

But end of Mass doesn’t mean end of celebration. Reenactments of Christ’s Palm Sunday procession head toward the main square while Krakovians join along in traditional dress holding torch-like flower arrangements above their head. Easter music floods the square, and local vendors offer a spring-time specialty,
Ocsypki – salty, grilled ewe's cheese served with a side of cranberry sauce.

Prague joins Krakow’s Easter celebration with as much eagerness or more. Church bells from the hundreds of Catholic, Hussite, and Orthodox churches announce Easter Sunday Masses. St. Vitus, Prague's national cathedral, invites celebs like cardinals and bishops to conduct the sacred sacrament. Full choirs sing angelic praises and
low timbre organ music makes you think the Lord himself is entering, vibrating the pews and the people in them. And staying true to Prague international reputation, the Cardinal welcomes the congregation in four different languages and translates his homily into three.

Prague’s own Easter markets speckle main squares around town selling handpainted eggs in every color and design imaginable. The sweet smell of baked dough and almond (from spiraled, sugary pastries) fills the air. Local men (and tourists, too) purchase straw whips for their Easter Monday tradition – whipping the ladies in exchange for Easter eggs, candy, or brandy.

You haven't truly celebrated Easter until you've seen it in Eastern Europe.

22 May 2010

Prague Pointers

Despite the droves of tourists and the propensity of thievery, there are tricks of the trade for tourists wanting to make the most of their visit. Though magnificent from the outside, the castle's inside leaves much to be desired. The short tour at about $13 is all that is needed, if anything at all. A bit underwhelming on the inside, the outskirts of the castle complex is free to roam around. And the tourist highlight (St. Titus Cathedral) can be visited free of charge any day, or for Mass on Sundays.

For the music-lover visiting Prague, buy concert tickets at the Estates Theatre box office rather than street-side vendors. Not only will the performance be better and cheaper, but the inside of Estates is truly a memorable experience.
Opened in the late-1800s, this theatre saw Mozart’s premiere of Don Giovanni in 1787. Sitting in the velvet seats and leaning over cushioned balcony barriers truly transports you to a time when powdered wigs were the fashion and classical music ruled.

Also worth a wander is
Vyšehrad: Prague’s second largest castle complex. Though the castle itself has since been destroyed, the views from here are outstanding and you won't battle crowds like the other Prague attractions. Also housed there is one of the most picturesque cemeteries I've ever seen, where national heroes like Dvorak and Capek are buried. And if intricately carved headstones and mausoleums aren’t your cup of tea, a must-visit are the rampart casements at Vyšehrad. Spanning over 2 kilometers, tourists can climb through these tunneled passageways much like the way soldiers would in the case of a surprise attack. And the large room at the casement’s end offers a true surprise: the original statues of the Charles Bridge are housed here. That’s right, folks…those which currently stand on display on Old Town’s most prized attraction are mere replicas. (The tourist bureaus like to conveniently keep that under wraps.)

While Prague may frustrate travelers with pickpockets and crowds, there are plenty of ways to enjoy Prague people-free and pocket-friendly.

19 May 2010

Czech Your Checkbook

Over the past two decades, Prague has earned itself an international reputation as tourist-friendly and tourist-desirable. With awe inspiring skyline views and ease of navigation, the curious come from far and wide to “czech out” the Czech Republic for themselves. But travelers beware: there are countless ways to lose and use your money unnecessarily.

Pickpockets thrive in the Czech Republic. Scouting tourist areas, crowds, and crowded trams, all guidebooks give extensive warnings about the tricks of the pickpocket trade. But it’s not just pickpockets that need to be heeded. Count carefully your change (I saw even locals doing this) as many an entrepreneur will seek out opportunity to “miscount” what is owed back.

If the pickpockets and vendors don’t get you, the tourist traps will. Being the home to Dvorak (and home-away-from-home of Mozart), seeing a musical performance is a must. Unfortunately, every building with any sort of ambiance (and there are a lot of them in this well-preserved medieval city) advertise no-name performances at $25 per person or more. Sold on practically every street corner, they seem hardly worth the time or money.

Even Prague’s most celebrated attraction can be a rip-off if you’re not careful. Ticket vendors at Prague's castle push the audioguide as a necessity. As one vendor explained it to us, there are no signs or labeling inside making it impossible to navigate without a guide. Seeing that it doubled the price of an already steep admission, we took our chances. And to our surprise and relief, English descriptions were available in each room.

Yes, Prague has enthusiastically embraced the tourist industry on which it thrives. But along with it are the tourist traps. So heed my advice: czech your checkbook and hone your tourist savvy before embarking on your Prague adventure.

16 May 2010

City of Fantasy: Part II

It's not just the architecture that exudes fantasy in Prague. The cultural and artistic heartbeat of the city historically leans toward the surreal.

Though his name may not seem familiar to some, his work and style are. A native of the Czech
Republic, Alphonse Mucha is the father of Art Nouveau. In the same vein as Gaudi's fantastical architecture, Art Nouveau is noted for taking the hard and fast lines of neoclasicism and softening reality with curves and flow. So much was Mucha's style celebrated in Prague even the national cathedral, St. Vitus, displays a Mucha-made stained glass window.

Like Mucha, Franz Kafka pays tribute to his home city of
surrealist fantasy through his writing style. Most famous for his book The Metamorphosis, Kafka utilizes stylistic devises akin to magic realism. He blends a realistic atmosphere with magical elements and explains them as normal occurrences (like waking up as a bug). Even Prague's Kafka monument reflects this seemingly normal yet magical style:

Today, Prague still nurtures a bit of surrealness for its lovers of the arts by offering performances in the historic Estates Theater. The white neoclassic facade and roman columns pose a dominating air as one looks up. Inside, the creaky stairs that are far apart and a shallow grade give away the buildings true age. And the theatre salon itself appears much as it did when Mozart's Don Giovanni premiered in 1787.

Truth be told, Mozart felt more at home with audiences in Prague than his homestead. And who wouldn't with a theatre like the Estates. Its powered blue velvet chairs, overly ornate gold accents, and a chandelier that drips crystal over the center audience gives an air of aristocracy and wonder. Leaning over the velvet sided balcony rail and peering down onto the stage where Mozart himself conducted, the anachronistic surrealness of the experience overwhelms.

Through time and space, Prague has managed to maintain this artistic surrealness – a surrealness only fit for a City of Fantasy.

13 May 2010

City of Fantasy: Part I

You don't believe it until you actually see it. I'd been told by many that Prague was like Disneyland...but real. And they couldn't have been more right. Pastel facades intermingled with medieval architecture, and niceties that seem extravagant for the practicality of buildings. It is a Fantasyland in every sense of the word.

The train and metro stations were our arrival points to the city. And while Prague's main train station (Hlavni Nadrazi) was very much urban, our metro stop (also our grand entrance to the streets of Prague) did not disappoint. A beautifully baroque courtyard lined with manicured trees, white ceramic pots, and plastered sculptures provided us a Renaissance-esque welcome. Outside the courtyard walls, cobblestone streets led us past well-preserved buildings a couple hundred years old. Even our hotel in the Little Quarter played the part well, with hardwood flooring, creaky stairs, and a gothic cellar where breakfast was served each morning.

Lacking the more modern grid-system only added to the city's charm. Serpentine streets wind their way down toward St. Charles Bridge, across (the Vistula River, that is) to Prague's Old Town, or up to St. Vitus Cathedral. Prague's crowned jewel, however, isn't the view from above, its from across. Perhaps the most magical skyline in the world, day or night, St. Vitus Cathedral and the Royal Palace sit pinnacled in the Castle Quarter surrounded by spires, domes, and colorful roofs.

But perhaps the most fantastical wonder of this Fantasyland is Old Town's astronomical clock. Dating back to 1410, this clock was designed to measure the 24-hour day, sunlight hours (which obviously vary throughout the year), hours after sunset, zodiac positioning, and lunar phases. Adding to this mechanical wonder are 16 animated statues (the 12 apostles, Vanity, Death, Greed, and Infidelity) that perform on the hour. Though
still mesmerizing tourists today, 600 years ago the clock, its mechanical capabilities, and its hourly "show" must have seemed a bit like magic.

And Prague truly is magical...a City of Fantasy even today.

09 May 2010

Old World Charm

Stepping into Krakow is like stepping back in time. With much of its medieval architecture surviving, you truly get a sense of the Old World. Red-roofed buildings with dominating facades tout a mixture of baroque, Renaissance, and Gothic styles. Coupled with cobblestone streets and impeccably preserved architecture (even the McDonald's opens its Gothic cellar to diners), one could easily lose themselves in time and space.

The Old Town and its square (Stare Miastro) are still lined with shops and bustling with vendors and consumers mu
ch as it was centuries ago. Though now people barter with money and trade for trinkets, you truly get the feel for what this market square once was. Dominating the square is Krakow's Sukiennce – once a major center of international trade and business negotiations, this Cloth Hall still functions today selling items of superfluity rather than necessity.

Seeing much prosperity during the Renaissance, Krakow still boast remnants of its Golden Age. Krakow embraced with alacrity the art, architecture and free thinking of this era. And who better to put Krakow on the map as the center for European Renaissance than the proponent of heliocentricism himself – Nicolaus Copernicus. Educated in Krakow at one of Europe's oldest university's, you can still visit the courtyard of Collegium Maius where Copernicus once studied and roamed.

Medieval charm and Renaissance resplendence will entice the curious and apprehensive alike. In fact,
the only thing lacking charm is the city's name – Krakow literally means "City of Krak" (and the most expensive real estate in town – the top floor of the "Boner Palace," a mighty erection indeed).

06 May 2010

Luck of the Polish

Unlike Warsaw that saw most of its history and everything that stood for it razed to the ground, Poland's former capitol suffered little damage during the world wars and appears much as it did centuries ago. Why Krakow was spared, no one knows for sure. But German immigrants did build much of what stands today, so perhaps a feeling of entitlement and good German pride were enough to save it from destruction.

It wasn't just German occupation either that threatened thi
s city's history and charm. After all Krakow didn't gain complete independence until after World War II despite its long history. After nearly being destroyed by Tartar raids in the 13th century, it was imperiled by foreign king succession and rule, a Swedish invasion, and numerous partitions by Prussia, Russia, and Hungary. By the time the German's got to it, it was a small miracle the city was still standing!

Krakow hasn't just survived these times discord and potential destruction; it has come out of this harsh history practically unscathed! The inner wall of the city, which protected Krakow from the Tartar invasions, still stands. Jagiellonian University's
Collegium Maius has educated its students since the late 15th century. Kings have been coronated on the historic Wawel Hill since 1320. And the prominent Barbican, built in 1499, was never tested in battle.

Perhaps divine intervention played a role in protecting the city for so long. Krakovians actually have a saying that if Rome weren't Rome, Krakow would be Rome. With so many churches – and of course Krakow being the city where Pope JP II's academic, linguistic, and spiritual propensities blossomed – it's difficult
not to believe the good Lord had a hand in its survival.

Or perhaps we've simply misjudge European luck all this time. I mean the Irish may have been fortunate, but I think "Luck of the Polish" is a bit more apropos.