We Czech out of Prague

Trip Start Jun 08, 2011
Trip End Jul 12, 2011

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Flag of Czech Republic  , Bohemia,
Thursday, June 23, 2011

I am writing this while on the R6/e48 from Prague to Karlovy Vary, so I don't know how long I will last. Today was another one of stories of exile and banishment and various other strategies to reduce the number of Jews. One creative plan during the mid 1700's was to grant only one marriage licence per family, meaning sons could not marry until the father died. If a family had more than one son, only the oldest could marry upon the death of the father.

Before heading out for the Jewish quarter, we stooped by the municipal building right beside our hotel. It is a fabulous piece of architecture dripping with art nouveau chandeliers, doorways, stairwells and more. The front entrance alone is dazzling, but if you take the tour, the offices in which people work are also quite beautiful. See my thoughts on the amount of art nouveau architecture that can be found throughout Prague below.

We visited the oldest extant synagogue in Europe, the Old New Synagogue which dates back to the last third of the 13th century. The stones from the bima date back to 1270 where the same stonemasons who were building the nearby Convent of St. Agnes worked. Morry could not get over the fact that boys 700 years ago were being bar mitzvahed on the Bimah. I found a gothic synagogue to be an oxymoron, but there you have it.

In the Jewish quarter is also the Ceremonial Hall (buying the pass to all the Jewish historical sites is definitely worth it for about 480 crowns, rather than paying separately.) which goes through the burial rites and rituals and the important role that the Jewish Burial Societies played in Jewish life. Part of the tour includes the oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe (I think) established in the middle of the 15 th century. It has 12,000 gravestones, but there are many more bodies as they are buried on top of one another. The famous Jewish scholar Rabbi Low, associated with the myth of Golem is buried there. This cemetery was fascinating and not tinged with the sadness and horror of the ones in Berlin, as these 3were people who led regular lives (yes confined to the ghetto) and for the most part died naturally.

However, the first place we visited was by far the most moving. Since no photographs were allowed, I am going to try to describe in words the impact of the Pinkus Synagogue. (I should add that it was very annoying in all of these sites to see how many people ignored the signs saying no photographs) Originally, built in 1535 by the Horowitz after the war it was turned into a memorial for the Jews of Moravia and Bohemia who were murdered. On the white plaster walls of this small square building are the names of every person from the various regions who perished. Hand painted are over 80,000 names in alphabetical order by city, town or village. Family surnames are followed by the male or female head of the household along with the names of each and every member of the family with birthdate, date of death if known or when last heard from. What is so chilling is that of course every single date of death/ last seen is 1941/42/43. To see so literally the names of 80,000 people and to see how many walls of the synagogue are covered in the beautiful calligraphy, contrasting so starkly with the ugliness of what it is remembering is overwhelming. The Vietnam memorial, which has a power of it's own has engraved 55,000 names. Imagine wall upon wall of a synagogue. While I was not allowed to photograph, I did buy a postcard which I have photographed here. It is only a tiny portion of what you see. Oddly, there are no pictures or postcards available at the millions of tourist traps depicting anything beyond this very small section, so it is hard to imagine the scope and power of the memorial, which by the way was not completed until the 1990's since the communists stopped the project before it's completion after the war.

Upstairs there was an exhibit of artworks by the children of this was especially painful to view, especially when the drawings were matched to photographs of the child. There were these gorgeous little girls and boys, trying to make sense of a senseless world before they were transported from Terezin to their deaths, mostly to Aushwitz ( where we will be in a few days). The adults of Terezin organized the children into groups and tried to normalize their time there as the Nazis lied to the world about their treatment of these people. Faking conditions before sending the inhabitants of Terezin to their deaths. This included continuing education as well as using art to help them deal with what was around them. There were a few people, a woman in particular who taught art and though she was murdered in Auschwitz, she managed to save over 4000 paintings done by the children under her supervision.

Some of the art is astonishing and the talent is so obvious among many of the children. What was lost is again hard to imagine in terms of the creative and intellectual talent that was obliterated in the gas chambers.

I was very glad not to have missed this beautiful and very moving memorial and exhibit.

The final destination on our 36 hours in Prague was the Jerusalem Synagogue built in 1905 and used as a warehouse for confiscated goods during the war, which ironically protected it. We walked via Wenceslas Square, which is really a boulevard. On the way we passed a thai massage place ( also big here) where in the window facing the street they had people with their feet in fish tanks, where the fish nibble your toes. In one window pictured here (will try to post to blog later) is a father and son who also has his hands in the tank. An odd enough spa treatment to begin with, but odder still to exhibit yourself thus as well! We were heading over to the train station to pick up our rental car and it is very near to the train station. Here's a depressing thought, in case there have not been enough so far. You always know when you are approaching a Jewish site, usually a synagogue, but could be a school, because there are always armed police nearby. We had walked past the street initially, but as we returned, we realized the two armed policemen should have been our first clue that we were nearby. It is sad that this is the state of the world.

The Jerusalem Synagogue is very beautiful, lavishly painted in Moorish Islamic and art nouveau style. Very ornate with magnificent vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows, this operating synagogue is very impressive and worth visiting.

As I write this, the gorgeous and perfect day is now accumulating threatening clouds as we head towards Karlovy Vary. Dad is commenting on the lack of quaintness in the town we drove through. The countryside of Bohemia is reminiscent of Vermont or parts of Ontario. While only 120km or so, the ride is on a two lane windy road frequently populated with large trucks one cannot pass.

We are driving a VW Passat, diesel and manual. The first car they were going to give us was a ginormous Mercedes the size of a rental car shuttle you see at the airport. We were able to change to a smaller station wagon, which is a good thing.

I am unsure what the Internet situation will be at our next destination. But I hope to continue to "live blog" offline at least (speaking of oxymorons!). We are only about 15km from our destination, so time to sign off.

So here we are at the Grand Pupp (or as I like to call it, the Grand Poop), famous for the movie with Queen Latifah. It is definitely a grand hotel in the old style...impressive art nouveau exterior and interior, more friendly staff, although less staff that speak English. As per the guidebook, Russian is the language of choice and the boardwalk is filled with Russian families. I keep forgetting that we are in the Czech Republic. I forgot one incident today that was another example of the lack of customer service, or perhaps it is either my North American egotism or simply the behaviour of two silly individuals. While Morry was waiting to change the rental car, I went in search of a sandwich. The first place I found was a 'bio' store, which I figured had organic stuff. I reached for a wrapped sandwich and was ready to race back to Morry, when I saw it was tofu. First time I have found tofu here! Anyway, I had to move on to another busy line, oddly the store selling wrapped tofu sandwiches was not busy! So I ordered what was marked as a Tuna/Americka sandwich. Apparently, this was two different sandwiches and when I tried to ask what the difference was, the very rude young cashier said, I don't speak English. That would have been fine, but then she OBVIOUSLY went on in a very exasperated fashion to her colleague clearly mocking me! Oh well...I can take it!

So here we are at the Grand Poop...Mom and Dad told us the story tonight that Grandma and Grandpa Mike visited here (when it was known as Karlsbaad) with the Schmers, who were the relatives that introduced Grandma Mae to the Schoenbergs and how Mom and Dad ultimately met. So Dad says he is really here on a pilgrimage. He also said that if it weren't for reasons of tracing some ancestral routes, he would never have come because he feels the history is way too depressing and he can't understand how any Jew could live here being constantly reminded of what happened. He is deeply disturbed by it all, and for good reason. Mom had a brilliant idea with regard to remembrance. She believes that monuments like at the Pinkus Synagogue, where the 80,000 names are written, should instead be written on every church and public square. She believes that as Jews we are aware of what happened and the horror, and that perhaps it is others who should feel the impact of 80,000 names written one by one...I think she has a point!

No free internet here...so it may be a few days before I post. Anyway, Morry and I walked along the boardwalk after we arrived. The big thing here is the recuperative waters in which you not only bathe, but also drink. There are fountains everywhere and people walking around with what I call "sippy cups", but are really this unique ceramic beverage container that you put under the spouts and walk around slowly sipping. The water that comes out is between 70 degrees celsius and 30. There is a enclosed room where the geyser spouts and the underground hot water springs heat the room. You sit in the warm room fully clothed, periodically filling your sippy cup with the metallic and salty hot water. I can't wait to try it tomorrow...either with my own sippy cup or just an old plastic water bottle. We may try the baths, but I didn't see them. I could use some healing waters for all my aches and pains. Morry says it helps with psychological problems too!

Dinner at the Grand Pupp was overpriced and disappointing, the double whammy, with poor service bringing us the trifecta. We thought the prix fixe menu would be a good thing. The appetizer is a cold buffet of pickled things. It was pretty slim pickings and Morry feels like we are in The Shining because there was virtually no one in the dining room. I was a bit odd. I had salmon, which was actually pretty good. A funny thing happened though, I asked for my salmon to be without the sauce but the waiter misunderstood and instead brought Mom's fettucine without sauce...in other words, they brought her a bowl of plain noodles. They were very apologetic and fixed it right away, but it was pretty funny when her meal arrived. Morry had schnitzel, it was ok, but not great and dad had some mixed grill that looked pretty uninspired. Dessert was also buffet style and it looked like others had already taken everything, but they had not. It was just a really slim choice of an ok coffee cake plus some other unidentifiable mousse or pudding like things, a sad fruit bowl of kiwi and some sad looking peaches. Then there were profiteroles...which may or may not have been filled and should have at least been accompanied by chocolate sauce. The meal came to 2600 crowns...which may be par for the course here in Karlovy Vary. We all think that if more North Americans came here the standards for the food might be a bit higher. The quality of the food at our hotel in Prague was outstanding. We shall see what tomorrow's breakfast holds. It will probably be more pickled items. At the end of the meal when we were truly the only patrons left in the grand room (it was only about 9pm), they started setting up for breakfast. The wait staff kept dropping and breaking dishes. Mom was so funny, she said that they must have misunderstood when their manager asked them to "drop everything and set up for breakfast" and instead they "set up for breakfast and dropped everything". It was pretty funny. Maybe they were trying to get us to leave, which we did, accidentally not paying for the meal. The young waiter came running after us, to our embarrassment, and we signed for the meal!

I will say that I love the non-carpeted flooring of many of the European hotel rooms. This one has a parquet floor. There are also carpets, but it is not wall to wall. I like that especially in the summer months I guess. Random thought. Our room here is very large and comfy. The bathroom has a deep tub (as did Hotel Pariz) as well as a separate shower stall. We have two large windows looking out over the front entrance to the hotel and up into the town of Karlovy Vary. It is very luxurious.

It is very pretty here, with the grand hotel nestled in the valley of the mountains. However, all the stores are really really touristy or pretty boring designers...from Boss to Zegna to Max Mara to many unknowns. Swarovski stores are ubiquitous all over Europe. And of course, Bohemian glass is everywhere.

What I found interesting and a bit confounding is the phenomenal examples of art nouveau that abound everywhere in the Prague and even here. None of the guidebooks elaborate beyond stating that a particular hotel, restaurant or public building is a fine example of the period... but do not go on to say how it came to be, whether it was an important part of the art movement of the time...really nothing more is said. I would love to know why so much of it remains and what the history of its place here is.

Well that's all for now. We have not retired to our hotel room this early since we started the trip. We tried to go for a walk, but just as we left the hotel, it started to pour, forcing us to run back inside. The weather seems to have improved and I hope it is not raining for tomorrow, since we hope to hike up the mountain.
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