Sunday, July 1, 2018

Prague, Czech Republic: A Favorite City

Have you been to Prague?  No?  You must put it on the list.  Yes?  Then our infatuation with the city will be no surprise to you.  For us, it was all about the architecture.  Splendid buildings around every corner from the Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque eras.  Apparently the city was not rebuilt in the 18th and 19th centuries like many other European capitals because it was only a provincial town.  Although it was bombed during World War II, it was not leveled like many other cities, notably Dresden, Germany.

For three days we walked around the city from an AirBnB we rented in a bedroom community to the north. And we have some photos to prove it.  Enjoy!

Early morning is our favorite time to wander -- nice light and few people.  The Old Town Square is surrounded with interesting architectural treasures.

Churches are abundant, squeezed in between other buildings and often shrouded in some kind of scaffolding. 

The core of the old town is a canyon of stone buildings.

We did a tour of the Municipal House, a public cultural center built at the turn of the 20th century in art-nouveau style.  It was decorated by artists of the day and celebrates the Czech nation.  There is great attention to detail everywhere, like the embroidery on these drapes.

Earlier in the day we had visited the Mucha Museum, a gallery with just a sampling of the prodigious work of Alfons Mucha.  His work may be familiar to you, especially the posters he produced while living in Paris.  The Lord Mayor's Hall in the Municipal House was decorated by him, with the characteristic penetrating stares of figures from Czech history and mythology on the spaces between the arches.

Love, love, love the style of art-nouveau!

Just another tremendous building on a wedge-shaped piece of property.

We took in a free organ concert on a Sunday morning in the St James Cathedral.  The organ dates from 1705. A beautiful sound in a beautiful space.

The chandeliers in the church sparkled with Bohemian crystal.

A good place to sit and ponder.

Crossing the Charles Bridge is an obligatory thing to do when visiting Prague.  We had a clear morning to see it from the south before we ventured across.

It is also a thing for many Chinese couples to have photos taken in iconic locales in European cities.  We saw more than a few on the Charles Bridge when we were there.

There are 30 statues mounted along the sides of the bridge.  The originals date from the 1700's, but only replicas remain.  The pigeon, however, is real.

The Charles Bridge crosses the Vltava River, and on the west bank is the neighborhood of Mala Strana.  There is a castle and a few cathedrals, but most impressive was the massive Wallenstein Palace which houses the Senate of the Czech Republic.

I am collecting pictures of doors, which I call the "Portal Collection".  This one is particularly nice, don't you think?

Inside the Senate building was this wallpaper made from tooled leather.  That is a lot of cows.

We clanked around on the trams which provide great access to most corners of the city.  Some were very modern and sleek, others vintage.  I kept trying to get a good picture of some of the old ones, but they were almost as elusive as a deer in the forest, stopping and taking off before I could whip out my camera.

We spent a good half hour sitting in this garden space and taking in the open-air cathedral ceiling.

Paddling up and down the Vltava River by the Charles Bridge is apparently a fine thing to do on a clear summer day.
And paddling in a whimsical boat is even better!

Ok, just one more impressive building .
Our final afternoon we spent in the Czech Museum of Music. There were many old instruments -- pianos, strings, woodwinds, and brass -- and recordings of pieces played on those instruments.  The piano collection was quite impressive, as in the craftsmanship of this one with wood and mother-of-pearl keys. 

One thing we learned is of the various different piano designs through time.  We think this space-saving upright might just fit in our living room.

The museum is housed in a former 17th century church, and includes this performance hall which nicely blends new and old architectural elements.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Karlstejn, Czech Republic: Castles Across Bohemia

After Vienna the Danube River takes a more east-west path, cleanly separating the top third of Austria from the more mountainous southern part. The river goes through what is known as the Wachau valley, winding through steep hills dotted with vineyards.  We stayed at a couple of odd campgrounds, both with just small grass areas for tent campers.  The bathrooms were on the other side of the road, so one had to be sure to look both ways if in a hurry.   It was enjoyable, but the flat bike path was getting a bit dull, so we soon left the course of the river to head north to a new country.

The village of Dürnstein in the evening light, across the river from our campground in Rossatzbach.

Floods are a way of life along the Wachau section of the Danube.   This house commemorated recent "Hochwasserstand" (high-water lines). 

Along the way is the Melk Abbey, which looks directly down on the village of Melk and the Danube.  We gave the monks a few Euros to be able to see the inside of the abbey and to have this view. 

But the view looking up from the river to the abbey on the rocky high point is free.

After a spell of almost three weeks of hot and humid weather, overcast skies hung over us on our last day on the Danube.  We climbed out of the river valley at the village of Mauthausen.  We weren't sure where to camp, but a Google search found a castle that had camping and rooms for rent.

We arrived at Schloss Riedegg, which has a variety of functions.  It is a museum, medical offices, home to a missionary group, and a youth hostel.  It took a bit of searching to find someone who could direct us to the camping, and when we found her she graciously walked us over the the lawn area.  It was set up for big camping groups, spacious and quiet, but she offered to let us stay in the hostel bunkroom if we wished.  The group occupying it the night before left early, and we could have it to ourselves.  So for the price of a campground on the Danube, we had 50 bunk beads, a kitchen, and tables fit for an abbey full of monks, all to ourselves.  So check off another one off the bucket list -- sleeping in a castle.

The history of the castle dates back to 1150, but was nearly destroyed by fire in the 16th century.  A new structure was built next to the ruins and that is the part of the castle we stayed in.

We were given a ring of keys to access our dormitory.  I went on an exploratory mission, following signs to the "Ruine".  I tried one of the skeleton keys on the entrance door, and lo and behold, it opened into a little room with a museum.  There was a second door with a lock, and I had a key for that one, too, and it opened to the old part of the castle, the ruined remains from the original castle. 

The next day we left Austria and entered the Czech Republic.  No longer could I converse in my elementary German.  Once again, the signs and the language were totally unintelligible to us. 

After going up and down a few hills that were almost mountains, we ended up in the valley of the Vltava River.  This river flows eventually to Prague.  But in a particularly picturesque bend in the river is the old town of Cesky Krumlov.  It has it all -- castles, churches, tour buses.  We were happy to be there on a brilliantly sunny day.

The 13th century castle tower is a prominent feature visible from many directions.

It seemed like half the youth of the Czech Republic were floating down the Vltava the day were were there.  No need to worry if the boat gets capsized -- the river is quite shallow, and we saw guys just stand up and walk to the bank.

If our bikes could float, we could have followed the Vltava River all the way to Prague, too.  But we instead went west and north into the heart of Bohemia in search of forests, castles and beer.

We approached Pilsen from the south along a river trail.  Our initial impression was that it was quite industrial and a bit gritty.

We stayed an extra day to explore the old part of Pilsen, which was a compact area.  The central square, however, was quite open and large so we could get a nice view of the old church.

Lining the square were these sherbert-colored Baroque buildings.

We spent a couple of hours in the local brewery museum, learning all about the beer making process and the history of beer in Pilsen.  The Pilsner Urquell brewery has been operating here since 1842, and produces 50 percent of all the beer consumed by Czechs.  And the Czechs drink a lot of beer -- the most per capita in the world

And then we went on a tour of the brewery.  What a blast!  It was first-rate, with lots of history, a good amount of audio-visuals, and sampling of malted barley, hops, and, of course, beer.

So here is what we learned on the tour:  the Pilsner Urquell beer is the world's first pilsner, a blond lager.  It is bottom fermented and triple hopped with Czech-grown hops known for low bitterness and high aroma.  Fermentation is done in copper vats shown here, which they claim adds an extra dimension to the flavor.

Up until 1993, however, the final lagering was done in a series of cooled tunnels, a network almost 6 miles in length.  Most of the tunnels are empty now, but one section is reserved for making beer in the traditional way.

The brewery still employs craftsmen to fabricate oak barrels which are used to brew the beer the old way. Here our tour guide is standing next to one where water, grains, hops and yeast are bubbling and forming a thick foam on top of the developing beer, forming a cap to protect the developing liquid below.  It is then transferred to barrels for the final lagering.  The finale of the tour was to be served a full glass of unfiltered and unpasteurized beer directly from the barrel, with a thick foam head.  Lip smacking good.

We cycled for three more days through a deeply rural area of Bohemia.  There were deep forests on the hills, and wide fields of grains in the flats.

We took one country road that terminated at a river.  The ferry marked on the map was for some reason not operating, although the cable and barge were in place (could not make out the words on the signs!).  A group of canoers camping at the dock graciously shuttled our bikes and gear over to the other side, saving us many kilometers of backtracking.

Rivers criss-cross this area, and canoeing is the sport of choice in the summer.  Grassy campgrounds supporting those on multi-day trips appear periodically on the banks, although we chose to wild camp in the forest.

Approaching the castle at Křivoklát.  Ho, hum, another Bohemian castle.

We paid the fee to take a tour.  We could not access every part of the castle because they were filming a Czech TV show in the courtyard.  Kind of funny to see the extras walking around in their Medieval costumes looking at their smartphones.

We did see some of the rooms inside, including the library from the previous owners containing 52,000 volumes.

One of campsites in the forest, on our last night before cycling into Prague.

Just one more little castle.  Karlštejn is heavily visited because it is close to Prague.  We opted to just look up on it, since we had many more kilometers to get to Prague and it was beginning to rain.  Many people rent a bike and ride from Prague to the castle and take the train back.  Maybe we should have done that...we were a couple of drenched rats by the time we got to the city.

The bike path led us under this freeway overpass, as impressive as any column we have seen in many European cathedrals.

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