Beers, Blood and Bones
Trip Start Sep 20, 2009
11Trip End Ongoing
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Beware readers; this is a very long blog entry, and it may take a while for those who dare to try and read it all. Sorry all, we got a little overexcited. Hope you enjoy, for those that can be bothered, for those that can't, no offence taken, we probably couldn't be arsed either! Spare a thought for us though, the poor bastards writing it all down....
Leaving Berlin was a sad experience, both of us feeling quite shitty that we had came and seen, but not really conquered, and vowed to do Prague justice.
Our bus trip to Prague was an interesting experience, as Prague is only about 4-6 hrs away from Berlin, yet we were delayed by a good 2 hours due to what we initially thought was just a garbage truck doing its morning rounds, but slowly became more of a delay, literally moving maybe 5 metres every half hour
Our rest stop turned out to be an unexpected (for us) but planned tour of the Terezin concentration camp. To orientate you, Terezin is the camp that Hitler organised for the Red Cross to investigate when they became concerned regarding his reported treatment of the Jews. He cleverly requested that he choose when they got to view a camp and which camp they could view, and had at least 1 yr to make Terezin 'look nice'. He had rooms specially created ie nice bathrooms, so that if viewed, the Red Cross would not think the Jews were being mistreated
As we had been delayed, sadly we weren't able to have a detailed tour with our Czech guide, who was very informative. The camp was very different to the one in Berlin, as it appeared that the majority of the quarters and barracks remained intact, as the Soviets had not used it following the finish of the war. In some ways it was even more difficult walking through this camp, as we were shown the actual living quarters of both the political prisoners, who were treated "significantly" better than the Jewish inmates, ie the political prisoners had bunks to sleep on and toilets, whereas they crammed as many Jews as they could into a very small empty cell, without any bunks or toilet facilities. Hence why typhoid and other disease spread very quickly and effectively took out many people. Standing inside these cells was hard.
Finally we were taken through an underground tunnel (the actual site of Terezin was originally a fortress for the royalty to hide out, in case of war, complete with a moat surrrounding it) which stretched for approx 500m - 1km, which was a very eerie experience, both of us suddenly feeling slightly claustrophobic.
We finally arrived in Prague and located our hostel with relative ease, thus far the most informative hostel reception (Sir Toby's) ever!!! Really nice chick who mapped out all the tram routes, sites and any other information our hearts desired. If only all hostels were set up like this! They even had a board with suggestions of local restaurants and directions on how to get there! The same chick helped us multiple times and taught Dani how to say thank you in Czech - "djikooyi" - (phonetic, no idea how to spell it properly!), which would become the only thing we could say in Czech! The chiky's cute and very clever doggy "Hugo" who roamed the reception communal area, made us miss our respective pooches... love ya Munch and Rocky (mind you, he didn't bark once!)
We decided to jump right in and sample some of the local Czech delicatcies for dinner that night, excited to see how far the money conversion of 15 Czech Krownes to 1 Aussie dollar would stretch
Incidentally, both of us were unaccustomed to being surrounded by smokers during our meal, you can smoke anywhere in Czech and it made things interesting..
Anywho, we decided to right the wrongs of Berlin, and dove in headfirst the next day for our walking tour. We deftly utilised the public transport system, tramming our way to the 'old town' city square, marvelling at the beauty of the surrounding countryside and canals. We rounded a corner and arrived at the centre square, and stood with our mouths agape. The buildings and the surrounds in the square, were like something out of a movie set, slightly unreal. Being surrounded by so much history and beautiful architecture literally took our breath away...
We were smart this time, and did the 'free tour' offered in many capital cities around Europe. Although we had been told they weren't so good, we've decided as poor backpackers, this is the way to go! They work on a tip basis and given that we started with a group of around 20 people and ended with approx 60, the majority of which tipped, we figure they do pretty well for themselves!
Our tour guide this time was an Aussie from Sydney who had come to Prague after he met his Czech wife travelling in Costa Rica - now married 4mths and trying to master the very complicated language - 7 different elements ie female alive, female dead, male alive, male dead...he said talking to somone, was like playing chess, you had to think 5 moves ahead
1) One of the many beautiful buildings in Prague is the concert hall. Apparently Heinrich Himmler (3rd in charge after Hitler) was actually stationed here and used to frequently play his violin all by himself inside the hall (a scary image as apparently both Hitler and Goebbels were slightly scared of Himmler)... anywho on top of this concert hall are stone statues of various famous composers including Mozart etc... The Nazis apparently instructed the Czechs to get rid of the one Jewish composer up there, don't remember his name unfortunately. The Czechs thought to get rid of the one with the biggest nose and ended up destroying the one of Wagner, who just happened to be Hitler's all time favourite composer. They claimed not to have realised, but our guide reckons this is a perfect example of the cheekiness of the Czechs
2) During the communist rule over Prague by the Soviets, they decided to tighten their control over the Czech inhabitants and sent a number of Soviet platoons to Prague to refortify their hold over the Czechs. The Czechs got wind of the impending attack and cleverly took down all the street signs and distinguishing elements of each town. They then put up plaques everywhere with the name "Dubcheck" (spelling???) pronounced doobcheck, which was the name of one of the local towns, so when the Soviets in their tanks tried to find out where they were in Czech, they'd ask a local man, who would reply Dubcheck, and 2 hrs later of travelling, they'd ask someone else and they'd be confused to find out they were still in Dubcheck! Apparently it worked for about 3 days until the Soviets communicated with each other and figured it out, but a fair effort nevertheless. Ps. We've now started calling each other 'Dubcheck' if we do silly or stoopid things. ie 'you're such a dubcheck', ironically we guess we should be using it for smart things, but anyway, we're only silly dubchecks. Hehehe.
Very interesting nation though, the've invented a lot of things that others have since taken credit for ie they invented the first proper beer called 'Pilsner Urquell' which is the same recipe as the American's Budweiser beer (court case over the rights to the name etc is apparently still raging on), they drink the highest percentage of beer in the world - which is fascintating given the relatively small population, although given they invented it makes more sense, they have been taken over at various times through history by a bigger nation/people but still managed to survive it each time and eventually became a republic after splitting from Slovakia, in the velvet revolution (velvet because it went so smooth)
One of the coolest and most random sights on our walking tour was "the Astronomical Clock", a large tower (which we later climbed during the week) with this very cool clock on it that goes off every hour. Basically it has 2 clocks on it, one has all of the 365 days of the year on it, complete with the corresponding name of the Patron saint for each day (as the Czechs name their children according to what saint day they were born on, they also celebrate this as another birthday, called your "name day", however on this one, you have to buy everyone drinks, rather than the other way round). It also has all the star signs and a lot of random info with circles and stuff, that if we knew more about astrology we would really appreciate. The second clock shows the months, but rather than the names Jan Feb etc, it has pictures following the path of the seasons, ie a pic of harvesting grapes is June. Apparently if you know your astrology, the combined info from the two clocks tells you a shitload. Ah well. The only thing these clocks don't do is ironically tell the time, which is why a third clock was put on the other side of the tower. Hilarious!
Above the clocks there are puppet figurines which on the hour do a little show
The old town square itself is really interesting, with a very bloody history between the protestants and the catholics. Our guide explained that the term 'defenestration' was acutally invented here, when a whole group of protestants, broke into the giant church in the square (see photo) and literally threw the priests and bishops out of the window. This became an effective way of resolving your conflict issues. However this method was deemed inadequate as some bishops randomly survived a toss out the window, miraculously landing on some garbage left on the street
Another fascinating point of interest on our tour were 2 examples of Cubist architecture being used. Quite cool, but not so practical. One of the buildings is now a coffee house which has the statue of the 'Black Maddonna' on the outside, which was used as an identifying feature prior to street names and suburb numbers.
Our guide told a cool story from hundreds of years ago, about a thief who had broken into the Sistine Chapel and decided to steal the gold necklace from the Virgin Mary statue. He supposedly waited hidden, until all the vistors and priests had left for the night and then went to grab the necklace, when the statue came to life and grabbed hold of his arm in a vice-like grip. It then froze again and the thief had no choice but to remain there all night, as he couldn't get free
Once we arrived in the Jewish quarter (segment of the town allocated to the Jewish inhabitants, back in the Medieval times), our guide followed this story up with another mythical tale, the story of Rabbi Low and the infamous 'Golem'. Basically, the Rabbi had created a man out of clay, with the strength of 10 men, and was made to protect the Jews and the Rabbi's synagogue. Apparently the Rabbi brought him to life by placing paper with spells and Kabbalic prayers on it in his mouth, this would control the Golem while the Rabbi was around. However, when he wasn't, the Golem was getting up to all sorts of mischief, wreaking havoc throughout the town. When the Rabbi discovered this, he removed the paper from the Golem's mouth, rendering him lifeless and the story goes that he left him in the attic of the synagogue, ready to be rearisen if there was a need
Other non mythical highlights of the tour included a walk through the 'new town' square, much more modern and commerical, yet still retaining a lot of the original architecture. We got a glimpse of the Historical Museum, a stunning and humungous building at the end the long main road.
Our guide also pointed out the Communist Museum, which ironically enough is located directly next to a McDonalds and has a casino right on top it. Karl Marx would be rolling in his grave, to see two such obvious signs of capitalism present, let alone next to his theories.
We also saw the gorgeous Opera House, where Mozart's famous opera, Don Giovanni debuted. There is a marionette puppet show which still re-enacts the opera every day! (Marionette puppets are very big here - shops full of them everywhere!)
We also saw the statue of Franz Kafka, the famous Jewish author, in the Jewish quarter
We also saw a number of other sights on our tour, which we decided we would revisit later in the week, most pertinately the Jewish quarter, which contains a number of different synagogues, that were created centuries ago. After seeing so many beautiful churches, it was a very different experience venturing into such ancient and well preserved synagogues. Having said that, most of these ancient synagogues resembled churches, rather than the modern day synagogues we are familiar with. They were filled with stained glass decorative windows, and large arches at the front, some with huge mosiac pictures throughout, with one even resembling a mosque in its architectural design, which apparently originates from the Moravian Jews, who were living harmoniously with the Islamic community, centuries ago in Spain.
One synagogue served as a memorial to the 80,000 Czech Jews who were assinated during the Holocaust. To commemorate their lives, the remaining community has written the name and date of birth and approximate date of death of every single one on the walls of the synagogue. It fills the entire synagogue and was a very surreal experience, walking through and looking at the many walls and even parts of the ceiling, filled to the top with names of those who had perished. As our guide had said, its hard to imagine 80,000 people, as its such a huge number, but seeing their lives on these walls really helped illustrate the enormity of this number
Our guide explained that during the war, the children in the ghettos and concentration camps became very depressed, understandably and it was negatively influencing their parents and therefore reducing their work output. The Nazis couldn't have that, so they brought in a renowned Jewish female artist/teacher, who used art therapy as a way to help the kids express themselves and in many ways divert their attention from the unimaginable situation they were in. Unfortunately many of the children were later sent to Auschwitz to be exterminated, along with their teacher. However, she had forseen her future and had managed to hide two suitcases, full of approx 4000 of these children's drawings, paintings and artwork from the Terezin camp (which we had visited earlier) and other concentration camps, which were later discovered after the war. A number of these drawings and pieces of artwork are on display and exhibited in this synagogue/museum. For some of these children, it is the only evidence that they existed. Walking around and viewing these pictures was another very moving experience, as many of the drawings were of trains, the concentration camp sites, life in the ghetto and even executions of their family. To have gone through so much at such a young age is unfathomable.
A final component of our visit to the Jewish quarter was the cemetery (where the famous Rabbi Low is buried). The cemetery is centuries old and takes up only a small area, but apparently there are approx 10 layers of graves on top of each other as space was very limited and they were denied any more space to bury their dead
One of our other days in Prague was spent visiting the massive Prague Castle, which is one of the oldest and largest medieval castles in Europe! Walking through the grounds, we couldn't get over the size and the amount of detail that had gone into the construction of such a magnificent structure. Apparently, according to our guide, the patron saint of the castle (forget his name), was a cool guy and hilariously was the saint protecting comedians, artists and epileptics.
We finished up our sightseeing with a visit to the famous Charles Bridge, which had been built 3 times (as the first two washed away). It was a little bit of letdown, as it was basically a cobblestone bridge filled with market stalls - which seemed very tourist orientated. The only real highlight of the bridge itself, filled with statues at many points, was that one of them was an original statue from the bridge's original construction back in the 1500's. Nowdays, tourists touch the gold on the statue to bring them luck in their travels, as this statue was representational of good fortune
Later in the week, we climbed the Astronomical clock tower and were lucky enough to time it when the puppet show occured. We were fascinated to watch the crowd slowly gather to watch the show, gradually doubling and tripling in size, and as the tour guide had previously predicted, the global look of disappointment and their crabby sigh as the hourly show concluded, was definitely worth the climb up the twisting cobblestone ramp to the top!
In the old town square, we sampled many local delicatcies (we assumed local, but we decided delicious!) including:
potato pancakes with saurkraut
freshly made giant crepes with lemon and sugar
chicken skewers from a giant bbq in the middle of the square
Lewey even tried a famous Pilsner Urquell beer
The food in general was very cheap, one night we sampled some of the local Italian fare (couldn't resist) and got a full size large pizza for a mere 115Krownes, equivalent of around 8 Aussie dollars! Dani sampled some of the shopping, requiring Lewey's help to convert as she was initially against the idea of paying 700Krownes for a pair of jeans, but when she realised it was a mere 50bucks, she was delighted and went on a mini shopping spree (poor patient Lewey!).
Unfortunately our gusto with sightseeing, experiencing all that Prague had to offer and making the most of time, backfired slightly when Lewey began to get a flu on the second last night of our stay. However, we soldiered on and decided to perservere with our day trip plans to the famous Kutna Hora.
We mastered public transport in Prague, trams and even trains on our adventureous day out to Kutna Hora to see the Bone Church. Dani had an amusing start to the day, whilst on the tram, a plain clothed ticket inspector approached her (not what you would expect on a Saturday, city was quite dead), sporting his inspector badge
We got off the tram, at what we thought was the main train station. Turns out it wasn't (a big thanks goes out to the poor woman at the tiny ticket office, who tried to explain this in broken english, but gave us no directions to the main one!) After consulting our tired map, we eventually located it. The station was very interesting, all shmancy and new. After trying unsuccessfully a second time to purchase train tix, we went to the 'detailed information desk', where a very sweet lady organised us tickets and some detailed instructions, as we had now missed the direct train and would have to change trains at Kolin station
We arrived at the Kutna Hora station, a tiny place where we then boarded a tiny tiny tram/train to Kutna Hora Mesto (main town area). Our ticket inspector looked like Kurt Russell, circa 1980, complete with dodgy mullet and random facial hair. Kutna Hora Mesto was a teeny tiny station, very one horse towney and quite deserted. We were thrilled to discover it was pissing down with rain, not like Melbourne rain at all, very drizzly and constant (Dani had just washed her hair and was so happy, as it had come out straightish, using her travel hair dryer, but it didn't stay straight for long!), our gortex jackets were certainly earning their keep, both of us feeling grateful for the investment.
After walking around town in the rain for a good 30mins, trying to locate the bloody information desk to find a map (various conflicting signs led us up and down the cobblestone streets), we quickly realised that Kutna Hora was completely deserted and we mean completely
We went on a wild goose chase trying to find a chocolate shop that one of the Ipod travel guides had recommended served amazing hot chocolate, only to realise that the guide must be old, and that the shop had moved location up the road, and was now more of an office with a tiny stand of chocolates. Not happy Jan!
Gritting our teeth and pursuing onwards, we crossed roads that were not existent, obviously they are in the process of building new roads, so we literally jumped down from the cobblestone footpath, crossed over the muddy construction zone and jumped back up to the footpath on the other side, hopefully if you look at the photo it will make more sense. Anywho, rapidly getting wearier, we eventually found the info centre and a map leading to some of the sites. The scenery was quite magnificent and though we were tired already from our slightly stressy journey in, was totally worth it! Between the views of the town below, the varied colours of the gorgeous autumn leaves and the 5 different churches in the city (lots of religious folk here we figure!) the place was pretty awesome
Cold, hungry and sleepy, we tried our luck at an Italian restaurant (a guy had approached us with flyers on route to giant Church), as we couldn't be bothered being picky. Turned out to be a very good decision, a yummy hot chocolate and some of the best pasta ever tasted! This little gem of a place was the perfect antidote to the cold; hot carbs and choc have a way of doing that. The menu was in 8 different languages, obviously everyone ends up there eventually!
Emboldened now, with our tummies full and our bodies warm, we started out the walk from one side of town, to the other, to get to the infamous "Sedleck Kostnice" (Sedleck Ossuary) or better known as 'the Bone Church'. When we got there, we found a large Church and a small building surrounded by a relatively tiny graveyard. At the large Church, was a crowd, which we realised was for a funeral, an ominous start to our visit...
The small building surrounded by the graveyard was the actual Bone Church. Words cannot really describe how this building was. The story goes tha the cemetery was founded in the middle of the 13th Century, during which the abbot in charge went to Jerusalem and brought back some of the sacred soil of Golgotha which was dispersed all over the cemetery grounds
Directly above the bone cathedral is an annex which is very plain, with seats and again a relatively plain altar (no bones in here). Supposedly the idea is that the bones below are 'reborn' above in the afterlife (or something to that effect), they're really into the whole Messianic Christ concept. Hopefully the photos will help to explain. We know it sounds morbid, but it really was a fascinating, once in a lifetime experience. Defintely worth the shlep (arduous journey) to get there!
We spoke to the guy working at the Bone Church, apparently the proceeds from the entry fees, have enabled reconstruction and renovation of other churches that are used in the town (ie the one where the funeral was being held). He said that 30Million Krownes were used just recently for this purpose, pretty impressive when entry for the 2 of us was only 80Kr (roughly $5.50 Aus). We asked him if he found it creepy working in such an 'interesting' venue and he said that he saw it as the dead contributing to the living, rebirth and all that jazz, very cool guy.
It is worth noting that on our walk to the train station to take us out of Kutna Hora, not one, but two cars pulled up to ask for directions. What Dubchecks! We didn't even vaguely resemble locals...
And thus our stay in the lovely city of Prague was over and we left in the morning for the bus to Cesky Krumlov, soon to be blogged near you!
(PPS - if you made it this far, 10 points, the Patron Saint of the epileptics blesses you!)