Archive for August, 2007

somewhere in Denmark…

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

Of course there will be full entries, with pictures, when we get home and have time to write them up. I just want to quickly note, though, that we just got back to our hotel after a day at Legoland. They sell Legos in bulk there. Want to guess what Ted’s doing right now?

a visit to Rotterdam

Monday, August 13th, 2007

Prague pictures and writerup are right below; scroll down if you haven’t seen them.

Yesterday, I got to see the Netherlands from a different point of view: a native’s. Unfortunately Ted was out of town and couldn’t go with me, but I got to visit Squirrel (frequent commenter here but I don’t think she has a blog) in Rotterdam. We’d met once years before when she was on a visit to LA, but hadn’t been able to line up a time to meet again until now. It’s been a busy year for both of us.

We met at a restaurant by the train station, where we sat and ate and talked about theology and Harry Potter (together and separately), about mutual friends and acquaintances, about history and travels and our country. The beautiful day we’d started with clouded up and got cold, but fortunately we’d both brought jackets; we shrugged them on and I put my hair in a ponytail to keep it out of my mouth, but otherwise we just kept talking and didn’t notice much. We visited the Maritime Museum because it was closed for Monday last time I was there. It’s OK, but not spectacular and seemed to be very heavily subsidized by a couple of the Dutch shipping companies; my favorite part was a film about the poor immigrants to America, who went on the Holland America line in steerage.

Next we took a water taxi over to the original Holland America headquarters building, now a hotel and restaurant. The ride over was a joy in itself; a small enclosed boat on the rough Maas, with spray flying up onlto the windshield and roof. The Holland America restaurant is one of the best seafood places in town, Squirrel says, and we watched a chef preparing a plendid seafood platter. (Rudder has been taken there to eat – one benefit of working in Sales and Sustomer Support!) But there are also tables outside and the prices there are suprisingly reasonable. For 6 euros apiece we each had 3 enormous crab claws, with the hardest shells I’ve ever put a nutcracker too, as Squirrel told me about problems with some of the introduced species of shellfish and we discussed problems with volunteerism in a world where more and more people have full-time jobs.

After that, we went back to the nice old house she lives in with her twin sister, and we had more talk and more food. Her sister is an historian so I got some of my questions about European history answered. After a glass of beer and some nibblies, they wanted to begin with something “very Dutch” so we started with smoked eels. I’ve been trying to get myself to like more kinds of fish in recent years, but I’m still a bit timid about trying new ones; of course, this time politeness meant I had to venture a taste. They were wonderful! A smoky tang, nicely balanced by being eaten on flatbread crackers spread with butter and lemon juice. I wish Ted had been there to try them; I may have to go buy some. That was followed by a a juicy Guinea fowl (we weren’t sure of the translation, but it’s parelhoen in Dutch and the dictionary agrees with Squirrel’s guess), a special kind of potatoes (overdubbel?), green beans with bacon crisped in something more like the American way than other Dutch bacon I’ve had, and salad. There was just time for a cup of tea after dinner, then Squirrel kindly gave me a ride to the train station so I could get home by bedtime.

It’s been a busy year for both of us, but I’m so glad I got to see Squirrel again before we leave. I wish Ted had been able to come too.

Prague photos

Saturday, August 11th, 2007

As promised; photos from Prague. For more details about our trip, scroll down to the previous entry.

The castle stands high above the town – whether protectively or ominously depends on the politics of the time, I guess. On this day the haze made it look even farther away:
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With all those spires and towers to climb, we took a lot of photos of the red roofs of Prague:
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And a rooster watching over them:
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Also, lots of pictures of the spires themselves:
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Heree are some statues and architecture. In order, that’s one of the vaulted ceilings in the Old Royal Palace, a very spooky representation of the Virgin Mary, flying buttresses from St. Vitus Cathedral, and two of the city’s greatest scientists:
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St. Vitus Cathedral towers over the rest of the castle, which in turn rises high above the city:
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The Old Jewish Cemetery:
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The Astronomical Clock and Tyn Church in Old Town Square:
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The National Museum at the end of Wenceslas Square and some of its contents. That’s a dodo on the left, but I have no idea what the fanged animal is. It’s not some kind of deer: all of the labeling was in Czech, but they did manage to make it clear that the animal and its relaties have toes rather than hooves.
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They take their parking laws seriously in Prague!
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Prague

Friday, August 10th, 2007

Prague is called the City of Hundred Spires, among other nicknames, but the guidebooks say it’s actually more like a thousand spires. If I’d known that ahread of time, I’d have realized that Ted may not be the best person to visit Prague with, unless for some reason you actually wanted to climb up nine hundred of them. He did restrain himself, though; I don’t think we actually went up more than five or six. You have to love a city whose most famous historical events include not one but two defenstrations. (This is much funnier if you happen to know what a defenestration is. Especially because the second one involved a pile of horse manure.)

The Prague airport may have set a new record in my experience of slow baggage return. While waiting for our bags, and also on the rest of our trip, we noticed that there doesn’t seem to be one distinct Czech look. We saw people of all shapes and coloring; of course a lot of them were tourists, but even the locals varied a lot. A lot of the locals were plumper than we’ve seen elsewhere in Europe, too; a high proportion of the restaurants served traditional food, which seems to be heavy on the pork and goulash and dumplings, so that may be part of why.

Another thing I realized at the airport was that I’d forgotten the advice I’d been givine to bring my own toilet paper. It wasn’t that they didn’t have any (as in Korea, where apparently you’re supposed to carry your own) it was just that the paper used as tp and the paper used as paper towels is pretty much identical in texture. And is fairly effective as paper toweling.

The visitors from other countries were as dense as they are in London or Amsterdam. Last time I heard so many American voices in one place, I was in America, and we heard several varieties of English as well as French, Spanish, German, Greek, Hebrew, a few Asian languages, and of course Czech.

Our hotel was in a great location, right on Wenceslas Square (really more of a boulevard, named after King Wenceslas, yes, the Christmas carol guy) near the National Museum. The historic parts of prague are large for a medieval city, but it was still possible to walk everywhere we wanted to go, though we did take a tram up the steep hill to Prague Castle. Hotel prices aren’t bad in Prague and this one was very nice, a stylish boutique hotel at about what I’d expect to pay for a Holiday Inn in a medium-sized US city.

That first afternoon, we just walked around a bit, first to Henry’s Bell Tower, which of course we climbed (there is an escalator, but it’s only 10 floors). It’s been restored, essentially by building a new tower inside the old one, and there’s a wonderful restaurant on the 7th and 8th floors. We continued on by way of the Powder Tower – we didn’t go into this tower, but took a look at the theater it’s connected to. Unfortunately, though we were allowed into the building we weren’t allowed into the theater itself. The architecture of the rest of the building promised it would have been spectacular. We got a little turned around then, and instead of walking east to Staremesko nameste (Old Square) we ended up walking north and came to the river. We followed its curve back to the Charles Bridge (Karlmost), which has two more towers, stoping on the way to look at the stands of artists selling watercolors and drawings of Prague. We climbed the one on the Old Town side, then walked across the bridge. It was crowded with other sightseers, and lined on both sides with stands selling more Prague paintings, photographs, drawings and etchings, as well as some other things – turned wood, leather, and metal jewelry and ornaments, mostly, and a few caricaturists. I bought a painted barrette but (probably fortunately) didn’t have the money with me to buy all of the trinkets I liked. We ate at our hotel restaurant that night – not great, not bad.

The next day, we took the tram up to the castle (Prazsky Hrad). This turned out to be a very good idea; not only is it on a steep hill above the city, but there are a lot of things to do in the castle, and a lot of walking to see them all. We took the train to a couple of stops above the castle and got off there. There’s a monastery that’s supposed to have wonderful views but we never quite got into it. Instead we walked along the bottom of a steep wall, then curved behind a hotel and down to the Loreta, where we stopped to see the church there and take some pictures looking down over the city. At the castle, we stood in a slow-moving line, and decided to buy the long tour tickets because they let us see the History of Prague Castle exhibit. Good choise, because the stuff on display there was phenomenal; thousand-year old codices burnished as bright as yesterday, 800-year-old burial robes that were faded but otherwise perfect, scraps of cloth worn by long-dead kings and queens, swords, early guns, skeletons of bodies that had been bound or weighed down with stones to prevent their return among the living, and most of it labeled in English as well as Czech. We walked through the rest of the Old Royal palace, which has tall ceramic stoves to heat each room and the most unusual vaulted ceilings I’ve ever seen, in the shapes of flowers or spirograph-patterned shapes. We also visited St. George’s Basilica and St. Vitus’ Cathedral, and of course climbed to the top of the tower of the latter. Unfortunately we skipped the treasury there, not realizing that it holds the national crown jewels. We also skipped the national Gallery in the Castle, but that was deliberate.

There are restaurants everywhere in Prague, including ones tucked away in odd corners in all of the historic buildings. We grabbed some lunch in one of the several restaurants in the castle, then walked through Golden Lane, which now has small shops but formerly held the laboratories of alchemists seeking the philosopher’s stone.

We left the castle and walked down steep steps toward the city stopping again to take still more birds-eye photographs (honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever in my life taken a trip where so many of the photos were of roofs). This time we crossed back on the next bridge north of the Karlmost, then went to Old Town Square (Stare mesto nameste) to see the Astronomical clock. I’d have to agree that the mechanical procession on the clock that takes place every hour is, as one of the guide books says, much less cool than it sounds.

It turns out that every Prague street has three restaurants and two art-glass / crystal stores. Apparently glass is the favored souvenir to buy. I’d known some of that, because American bead stores are full of Czech fire-polished glass beads,and I’d been hoping to buy some during our trip. Oddly though, the few times I did find beads, the prices were much higher than imported ones int he US. On the other hand, prices for beautiful handmade art glass vases and paperweights and other pieces are much lower than elsewhere, and glass art is one kind we both like. On our rambles around the city we ducked in and out of a lot of glass stores, and ended up each buying a vase with glass flowers to put in them.

Saturday night Ted had the brilliant idea of eating at the restaurant in the Bell Tower we’d seen the day before and it turned out to be fantastic, though pricy. The food balanced right between Czech traditional and modern foodie tastes; Ted had wild boar meat and I had chicken “veiled” in bacon, tender and smoky, and we both had dessert. Recommended, if you want to splurge.

We spent Sunday seeing the Jewish Quarter (Josefov) – of course it was closed on Saturday. The area was torn down and rebuilt a bit before 1900 as a slum clearance measure, but most of the synagogues and the old cemetary were left intact. After we finally figured out where to buy a ticket, we began with the Pinkas synagogue. It is full of empty rooms with names painted on the wall, a memorial to those who died in or after passing through terezin (Theriesenstadt). The names are organized by town or origin, and just about every town lists people with my last name generally with an extra ‘n’ but close enough for Ellis Island purposes). Reason again to be glad my great-grandparents left Europe when they did. We also visited the ornate Spanish synagogue (based on the Alhambra), the Maisel synagogue and the Ceremonial Building – these all have exhibits of objjects from daily and religious life, as well as history about the Jewish community in Prague. There wasn’t as much to see in the stil-active Old-New synagogue, but it is astonishing to be in one that has existed and been a center of worship continuously (except from 1941-45) since 1270. The Old Jewish cemetary is also unique; with 300 years of burials and nowhere to expand outside the ghetto, they brought in dirt and layered later burials on top of earlier ones, with the result that the cemetary is a messy hill, with stones poking through inches apart. And all around the edges, wherever a visitor can reach, there are little pebbles placed on the gravestones to show that people have visited.

After a rest at our hotel, we ate dinner in the Stare Mesto – there are restaurants lining the square across from the Astronomical Clock. Dinner was excellent again; I had shrimp in a rosemary-cognac sauce, with mashed potatoes contained in a vertical cylinder of something like a tortilla. (Why do fancy restaurants always want to pile food vertically, anyway?) We walked home by the water, regretting that we hadn’t brought our camera to capture the night views of the city.

We had to fly out Monday afternoon, so we spent the morning at the National Museum, right near our hotel. Several guidebooks told us that the museum building was glorious, but the contents were mediocre. They were wrong. What they saw, I think, was that it’s mostly not a modern-style museum, with touchscreens and activities and interactive exhibits. There was a well-done temporary exhibit on mammoths, showing both the mammoths themselves and how humans lived then, using the mammoths for food and skins and bones, but other than that the collections were exhibited in the old style, with case after case of stones and bones and stuffed animals and mounted insects and cultural artifacts. And the collections were splendid. There were cases of minerals and gems to rival those in the Smithsonian Natural History Museum (along with replicas of famous diamonds including one in the Smithsonian and a few I’ve visited inthe Tower of London); there were animals I’ve never seen before (including a dodo!); and there were artifacts from the area that let us see how the complex objects used in daily life seemed to sumplify after the time of the Romans and then to grow more ornate again as the Holy Roman Empire gained power and stability. It was immense and wonderful, and the building was glorious as promised.

There are limitations to old-style museums, but advantages too. I don’t think this one would be a great place to learn about things you knew nothing about, especially because most of the labeling is in Czech only. But I can imagine a kid with a passion for minerology or ichthyology or paleontology or archaeology coming back again and again to study the objects she loves, where she’d be bored with a more modern museum that explained more but had less stuff. We liked it a lot.

Prague’s no Old Europe theme park. It’s beautiful, but it’s been through some harsh history and still suffers some of the consequences. There are those names on the wall inthe Pinkas synagogue. that first defenestration wasn’t so funny – the people thrown out of the window landed on spears, not horse manure. And whilte everyone survived the second one, it began thirty years of fighting all across Europe (the Thirthy Years War). Franz Ferdinand, Royal Prince of Bohemia, met his wife in Prague; it was his death that started WWI. Some of the years under Communism were pretty grim, though apparently things loosened up well before the fall of the Iron Curtain. Today there are some particularly upsetting beggars on the street; kneeling or crouching on their knees with their face to the cement, frozen in position all day with one out cupped to appeal for coins. It’s a beautiful place, with the beauty of a fairy tale but now and then you sense the grimness of a fairy tale behind it. It’s got wonderful things to see (and to buy!) and great places to eat; there are hordes of tourists and expats but it envelops and accepts them effortlessly. (We had to wait in line to buy tickets for the castle and to visit one cathedral, but that was it.) It’s a welcoming place, with English spoken everywhere and English and German signs, and we never had a a problem finding our way around.

Photos are coming in the next day or so; since this entry is so long, I’ll post them in a separate one.

the Grand Prix, Eindhoven-style

Thursday, August 9th, 2007

Still working on the entry about Prague last weekend, but I wanted to mention what happened last night. W hadn’t known any events were scheduled, but when we went out to the Indian place around the corner from our flat, they had a course set up with hay bales along each side. The restaurant people wanred us it might get loud in a hour or so due to a “Grand Prix” event. After dinner, we hung out and watched for a little while; the race was with teams of two people, some in costumes (a clown, a couple of monks, a guy all in “leather”). One person had to pedal a four-wheeled vehicle down the course, then at the other end the other team member switched in and pedaled back. There was an announcer and a small inflatable course with a bunch of different 3-wheeled vehicles for kids to pedal around, as well as one of those blow-up jumpy things (I mean, for kids to jump in). It went on fairly late, but we didn’t go back out to see if anything different happened later on. We ended up having to go to sleep with earplugs in, but they don’t really have loud events in the Centrum very often, and I can’t say how glad I am that we chose to live right in the middle of things. Even if it does get a little strange on occasion.

More surreality

Wednesday, August 1st, 2007

We had a coupld of odd shopping experiences last weekend. On Saturday, there’s a small market in our town – not a regular market with food and fabric and clothing, but just a few stalls with books and music and jewelry and knickknacks. At the music stall, I noticed an object I really don’t understand. They have a lot of LPs, old 33 RPM vinyl record albums. The mind-boggling thing is that they had a Britney Spears album. I have no clue why such a thing would exist; I don’t think she was even mborn before CDs mostly replaced LPs. I know some new ones are made for audiophiles who prefer them to CDs, but I have a hard time picturing serious udiophiles listening to Britney.

Anyone who’s been reading for a while may remember our Great Popcorn Quest. We did finally find some in the new organic grocery, and it’s better than nothing but it’s not really very good popcorn. It doesn’t pop up all that well, and there are lots of kernels left over. We brought about 3 pounds back from the US last month. On Saturday, Ted found excellent popcorn here, finally. In the hardware store. Isn’t that where you’d expect it?

(OK, OK, it was a home-building supply store, much like Home Depot in the US. They had popcorn poppers for sale, with the popcorn supplies there beside them. Still, I think I’d be a bit leery of buying a popcorn poper in a country that doesn’t have actual popcorn (except microwaveable) in the markets.)