Back in Berlin

It was a grey, drizzly morning and we had serious stiff leg muscles from all that walking. After checking out we dumped our bags at the train station and went to the national museum after getting some gifts for the ResidentTeenagers (who both actually liked what we got them). The soccer exhibition was all in Czech, so we spent an hour in the café.

It was decorated in 50s style GDR-charm, with deep, brown leather sofa seats and paneling on the wall. They didn't have cakes, but it was quiet, warm, non-smoking, and we only paid 70 crowns for a latte - done to perfection with three visible layers - and a tea.

We got on the train, found our seats, and settled in for the trip back. It was uneventful, except for almost all of the bathrooms being out of order. I walked through to the 1st class to find one working. On the way I checked the dining car. They were suggesting the "special offer of the day", which was by the way the only offer of the day, in a musty old car. I really thought I was in a time warp back to GDR-days.

We arrived on time (something worth reporting these days!) in time for some soccer on TV. Prague was really very nice, wouldn't mind going back some time!


I just want a cake

After re-shoeing we decided to hop the next tram and look for some lunch. We first hit Kafka's haunt at the Grand Hotel Europa café - no way. The place reeks of smoke and there is no non-smoking section. We find a nice ice cream place that has great cake - but the seats are vintage plastic McDonalds and the smoking section is not divided from the non-smoking section by anything more than an invisible line drawn through the room.

The guide books lied. They said that smoking was prohibited everywhere.

Okay, so we'll just find another cafe with good-looking baklava and a non-smoking area. Nope. We comb the Václavské náměstí, but there is nothing to be found. Oh, there's Starbucks, but they have American cake. Or the place is packed, or full of smoke. We are beginning to think we won't get anything when we find Dobrá čajovna.

It's a tea room that must have 50 different kinds of tea on the menu. They give you the thick menus and a little bell to ring when you have decided. There is also something to eat - no cakes, but after all this walking we are happy with smoke-free.

It was very refreshing, and I've never had a blue-green tea before. I think I could have spent the rest of the day there if the weather was not so good (mostly because they have free Internet, I suppose).

But the sun was shining, so we headed back out. WiseMan spied a sunny park, the Františkánská zahrada, and occupied a park bench. I got ice cream and we enjoyed it in the sun before I took off to check out the shops and the church of the Franciscan cloister nearby, the Church of Our Lady of the Snow.

The church was strangely proportioned - about as long as it was high. I later read that it was supposed to be a very large church, but they ran out of money. There is so much gold all over the place, no wonder they have alarms set up. Why the church has all this prunk and ornament is really beyond my comprehension.

In the evening we decided to try a Czech movie with English subtitles, Odcházení (Havel's Leaving). The film is from Vaclev Havel, playwright and former premier of the Czech Republic. It is a filmed surreal play about a head of state trying to adjust to not being head of state any more. I guess we missed a lot of the Czech cultural hints, although the audience wasn't laughing much, either.

WiseMan had purchased a book by Havel in the afternoon, he asked sarcastically if he could perhaps return it.

We chose a nice, quiet Czech restaurant for dinner. It was surprisingly comfy and the food was good, but the wait for the food was horribly long.

Tomorrow noon we head back to Berlin, there are still a million things to see here....

Looking down

Instead of heading out to the Hrad?any with all the other tourists in Prague this morning, we climbed the Vyšehrad fortress, which is just behind our hotel. We took a shortcut that ended up being a very steep set of steps. We ended up at the foot of the fortress and were faced with a decision: left or right? We spied a hoard of young people coming up the street to the left, so we went right - and hit a dead end. It turned out there was a hidden door in the wall between us and the group.

They didn't charge any entrance fee! We climbed up to the path around the top of the fortress. The sun was just coming out, so we sat on a park bench in the sun to catch our breaths. Prague is indeed a city of spires - churches and fancy-topped houses everywhere. Across the river there's a very large stadium. We can see the Hradčany, but since it is quite hazy we can't take very good pictures.

Hradčany in a haze
After a bit we went down to the cemetary. There are very old and very ornate graves here. We soon puzzled out the consonant pattern for "Grabstätte". There are ones for the Franciscan friars, a separate one for the sisters, the Benedictines are by themselves, and there are some we can't figure out - no family name or common death date. We found Antonín Dvořáks grave and many other composers, conductors, artists, lawyers, and doctors. Some of the graves had ornaments missing - probably metal stolen and sold for scrap metal value.
Tombstone made by Ladislav Šaloun
I went into the church (entrance fee 30 crowns). I don't know what I paid for - it was very dark, extremely cold, and all of the pews were roped off. There were big signs announcing that everything was under alarm, but who would want to steal any of this? So I was back outside pretty quick.

We continued our walk along the perimeter, now on the other side looking up the Moldau River. A wide and lazy river, with an almond sliver of an island in the middle. And it is a very steep cliff the fortress is perched on.

We decided to cut the wandering short and headed back to the hotel to change shoes - flat shoes with thin soles hurt on all of these cobblestones, I need my hiking boots on. How the Czech woman manage this terrain on high heels is beyond me.


The Beatles

After lunch we walked through the Kempa park and around some twisty streets to find the Lennon Wall. This is where some young people put up a commemoration graffiti about the death of John Lennon. The secret police decided this was a cover for planning terrorist plots to overthrow the government and filmed everything, then painted over the graffiti. Which reappeared. And got painted over again. And reappeared. Da capo.

All the tour books said this was a must-see. But it was just a wall full of graffiti, we have lots of these in Berlin. Many older folks had their pictures taken in front of the wall. Whatever.

We continued on to the music museum. They had extended their exhibition on the Beatlemania in Czechoslovakia. I gave the exhibition a quick run through and continued on upstairs with the musical instruments collection. WiseMan enjoyed every single detail of the exhibit on the Beatles. We then watched some private footage of John Lennon. I fell asleep, I hope I didn't snore too loudly.

Back out on the streets, the question was: what now? We decided to head out to the cemetery where Kafka is buried, it's a good piece out, but we have 3-day passes. We found our way to the subway and out, only to have the gates close in our faces. Ah well, maybe tomorrow. WiseMan thinks not - it said on the sign that men have to wear a kippa, and he's not going to do that. Darn, I'd love to sneak a photo of him in the hat.

We just got on a train to see where it went. The Prague outside the city center is just a boring town. We decided it was too boring, and got off to go back. I spied a post office open - at 18.30! I went in to get some stamps - had to first make sure I was allowed in! Mobile phone? Off. Dogs tied up? Don't have one. No smoking or ice cream? Check. Gun removed? Gun???? They have a sign telling people no guns in a post office? Do Czechs normally carry guns? Do they not know enough not to brandish a gun in a bank when buying stamps? A mystery.

WiseMan has consulted the tour books, there's a great outlook just one tram station on. So we continue, except they are building a subway and the place is all dug up, full of cranes, and has lots of boards blocking the view. We walk to the next tram station - seems to be about a kilometer - and hop a train back into town.

We were planning on seeing a Czech film with English subtitles, but we can't find the theater again. Ah well. WiseMan heads back to the hotel and I am out looking for a light supper. How wonderful to find a small cafe with food and WiFi!

Getting off the tram back at the hotel I spy a nice place to try for a night shot of the town in a distance, all lit up. I fuss with the settings, but indeed - I get a few very nice shots of Prague by night, here's one:


Kafka and more

After a good breakfast - WiseMan enjoyed an English breakfast (who wants beans for breakfast?) and they even had soy milk for my cereal - we jumped on the next tram to pass our way. We had to change trains in order to get up to the Jewish part of Prague. It was cold, but the sun was shining as we walked aimlessly through the streets. The houses are often very ornamental and there are lots of nice little cafe and bakeries and stores. What a shame we had such a good breakfast, or we could have eaten in Madonna's favorite bakery (or so the sign said).

Madonna's exclusive kosher food supplier
We turned a few corners and finally landed at the Karl's Bridge, one of *the* tourist traps in Prague. The bridge was filled with artists selling stuff and beggars begging (until police strong-armed them away) and throngs of tourists pushing through. There seemed to have been a sale on trips to Prague in China, there are literally hoards of them pushing through the streets.
The three gentlemen from the police kindly request that the beggar quit begging.
We lingered on the bridge, I rubbed the saint for luck, and we headed off looking for the Kafka museum. Just follow the Chinese tourists.... They congregated outside taking pictures of the sculpture of two men having a pissing contest standing in a puddle rather shaped like the Czech Republic, but luckily there was no time for them to go into the museum. It was all in Czech and German, anyway.
Sculpture by David Cerny in front of the Kafka Museum, with Chinese tourists in the background.

It is an excellent exhibition - if you can read one of the two languages. You learn so much about Franz Kafka's life and writings. There are many excerpts from his letters and books, and after having wandered through the part of town he lived in just that morning, it was all so vivid. He really was a master of words, torn apart in the schizophrenia of a day job as an insurance company lawyer and his night-time passion as a writer. He died in 1924, mercifully missing the pogroms that killed so many of his relatives and friends. We definitely want to read some more Kafka when we get home!

After the museum we were hungry. I had read about a Czech restaurant on the water down the smallest street in Prague. It is so small, people can only walk in one direction, so you have to wait for the light before descending. We had a perfect seat right on the water with a little bit of shade. The boats passed right by us and we each had a nice - but different - view. I had the roast beef with dumplings, have to have some local food!

When the bill came, though, it was a hand-written deal although the menu said only to pay for what the official cash register strip says. But we just shrugged and paid. Then I recalculated - the bill was 100 crowns too much. Oh well, that's just 4 €, although we didn't get our change back, either, just 1€. As we were leaving, the waiter is all agitated, he forgot the second beer, could we pay another 50 crowns? I ask to see the bill again, and now we re-calculate exactly. And indeed - they added in 100 crowns tip. Nice. Okay, I said, give me back the 25 you still owe me, and I'll give you another 25. They didn't like that, but reluctantly agreed. Then they tried to pass a 50 crown bill on as change. No deal, they passed out brochures at the train station that these are no longer valid! What a shame, it was such a lovely lunch!

So, cafe with free Internet is closing - off to bed!

P.S. I found a link after getting home that explains that the peeing statues are actually writing letters with their water - you can send an SMS message to a telephone number and they will "pee" it for you. 


I had mentioned to WiseMan that it might be nice to take a short trip to some place we haven't been before, maybe Prague, as he was there on a school field trip many moons ago. He didn't let this chance slide by, 30 minutes later he had the hotel booked and the train reservations done.

And so we got up early Wednesday morning and got the train just before 9am from Südkreuz. I's just around the corner, and there's a non-stop train to Prague that stops here. It was a beautiful, sunny spring day. Rather boring until Dresden, and lots of ruins still along the tracks. But the train soon picks up the River Labe, and chugs along the banks beneath steep cliffs. The water flows lazily, the big houses change style, and suddenly there is a flurry of signs and "Cheap this" "Buy that now!" across the river. And we are in the Czech Republic.

We make our way down the Elbe, turning off at the Moldau (Vltava, the Czechs call it) and continuing on down towards Prague. About 4 1/2 hours after we started, we debark at the hypermodern Prague main train station. We sort out train tickets - 3 daily tickets are cheaper than a 3-day-pass, but all are so cheap we decide to buy the 3-day one and just forget about tickets - and get some Czech crowns out of a machine.

We walk out into the sunshine, and really enjoy the walk to the trams. We manage to find the stop for the tram we need out to our hotel, now the question is: what is the name of the stop?

Czech is a language that either has a tax on vowels, or sold half of them to the Finns for a good price. They joke about the sentence "Strč prst skrz krk!" (Stick your finger through your throat) that needs absolutely no vowels. It is strange to be in a country where I can't quickly puzzle out what signs mean, so we have to turn on pattern matching mode. Being over 40, reading the map is hard enough when I can remember the sequence of symbols for longer than 5 seconds, it was far too difficult to try and figure out the name of the stop. And anyway, most of them are not marked, and who can understand what the lady is saying on the PA system?

We made it to the hotel - the Park Inn, which used to be a printing house. There's a Tesco's downstairs, and we have a lovely room. We're not even paying 50€ per person and night for this very nice place. We dropped our stuff, shed a layer of coats, and off we went!

I find the place reminds me a lot of Vienna, although I haven't seen any horse-drawn carriages yet. There is a sign, however, forbidding horses in one bit of town, so they must be here too. We are looking for someplace for lunch. Many places are darkish inside, in many people are smoking (although the travel guides said that the Czech Republic is now smoke-free), and lots have menus outside only in Czech.

Building with Art nouveau element on top
We pass Italian, Chinese, French places, nothing Czech-like. We finally give in to hunger and enjoy an Italian restaurant. After lunch we walk around, looking at the stores, the tourist junk, the tourists, the lovely Jugendstil (Art nouveau) buildings. We head for the Lucerna movie theater that WiseMan remembers. It is a funny, old, indoor mall, and there is a cafe with live piano - but ashtrays at every table. Even though the cake looks great, we truck on and have a coffee and tea at a cozy little place inside a bookstore. Cappucino is cappucino, and we figure out that Čaj, pronounced chai, is tea.

I look at some nice clothes afterwards - good price, but none exactly what I want. And then we hit the trams, pick up some stuff at Tesco's and munch in front of the TV before turning in. tomorrow will be another nice day!


The King's Speech

Even though I seemed to spend all of last week answering more or less silly emails, I was technically on vacation. I went for a walk, went swimming, visited with friends, shopped, and went to a movie (gasp!). WiseMan had announced that was having no truck with the silly Oscar-winning show, so I would have to go myself.

Since I missed the English version in Berlin (and it absolutely must be seen in English, dubbed versions don't work), I decided to catch up on it in Sweden and give the films "Norwegian Wood" and "How many Lingonberries are there in the world?" a miss.

For a film that has been out for a while, the cinema was well-filled for an early Thursday evening. There were the obligatory strange Swedish advertisements for obscure things, and then we got settled in. Colin Firth really does a great job job portraying Bertie, both the stutterer and the king.

The world is teetering up to war again, and the Prince of Wales prefers parties and the company of a twice-divorced woman to silly governmental stuff. When their dad dies, David becomes king, but not for long. He turns everything over to Bertie, who is trying to learn not to stutter. Lionel, from Australia, is helping him with some unconventional methods.

As they practice for the coronation ceremony, the Archbishop of Canterbury is not amused - Lionel is a fraud, hasn't studied, has no degrees, is an Aussie. He'll get the king fixed up with a proper speech coach. The king doesn't want another one, though, he wants Lionel.

The funniest scene is when the king and queen are visiting Lionel at home and his wife comes home early - and is completely shocked at the company in her living room.

Continuity errors on the elevator obviously going down, but the consultation room being clearly on the top floor. Otherwise, a nice way to spend the evening if you don't expect too much depth in the movie.


Nowhere Boy

Since most of the zu Guttenberg excitement has died down, we actually made it to a movie last night: Nowhere Boy. It's the story of John Lennon as a teenager, growing up in Liverpool at his Aunt Mimi's and restarting a relationship with his birthmother. It's the story of an angry young man, a rebel not willing to let himself be pressed into a particular mold. And it's a very sad story at times - except you know that there will be a happy end after he travels to Hamburg with some new friends and a new band.

I'm not a big Beatles fan (WiseMan, however, is a fanatic), but it was a nice film. One wonders if John Lennon was growing up today if he would be considered an Intensivtäter, a youth in deep trouble with the authorities. I guess they didn't call the cops constantly back then.