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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Weekend #3: Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia

Note:  I apologize for the length, but a fantastic trip deserves a bit of elaboration!

Despite the fact that everyone has told me how amazing Prague is, I was still amazed by the city.  We arrived relatively late at night and took the metro from the airport.  We then took the longest (the DC Zoo metro stop isn't in even the same league) and fastest escalator I have ever seen.  When we arrived at the top we had in view the dramatically lit Cathedral of St. Vitus within Pražský hrad (Prague Castle) from across the river.  It was absolutely amazing.  Unfortunately, none of my pictures turned out well...

We then walked to our hostel which was just off of Old Town Square.  Equally impressive to the Prague Castle was the Týn Cathedral.  Within that 10 minute span, we were all sold.

We then started the next morning with a free 4-hour walking tour which covered just about all the sights and history of the city from Old Town Square to the Jewish Quarter to Charles Bridge to Prague Castle.  It's absolutely amazing how much fascinating Czech history can be learned in 4 hours which was never mentioned through countless hours of European history classes...

One of the big tourist sights we saw was the Prague Astronomical Clock on Old Town Hall.  Honestly, it was the most disappointing aspect of the trip which is a phenomenal statement to the city because it was quite impressive.  What is impressive is the fact that this entirely mechanized clock which conveys time, date, solar and lunar positioning, name day, and many other things I didn't fully understand or remember, as well as offers an hourly Walk of the Apostles show (again fully mechanized) all operates with the machinery designed and built in 1410 AD.

Prague Astronomical Clock (1410)
One of the next destinations was the Jewish Quarter which has a fascinating history.  It began in the 13th century when Jews were mandated to leave their homes and sequester themselves within this ghetto.  Heavy restrictions were placed on all Jews including requirements such as wearing a visible yellow Star of David and special hat at all times.  They were also not allowed to live elsewhere or bury Jews outside of the neighborhood.  As more and more died, they were forced to bury within the same cemetery necessitating 12 layers of burials.  Much later, in the early 20th century, the neighborhood was redesigned with a "much nicer" French theme featuring fancy Parisian houses and cafes.

This is the 13th century Old-New Synagogue within the Jewish Quarter which is the oldest preserved synagogue in Central Europe.

Old New Synagogue (13th Century)
We then proceeded to the Charles Bridge.  While our guide was giving us the historical background of a nearby statue, I was looking out on the bridge somewhat unimpressed.  Then, however, she turned our attention to the bridge and asked us how old we thought it was.  I was very surprised to hear it was constructed (over the course of 45 years) in 1357.  There is an interesting feeling in crossing a 700 year old bridge that served such an important role in the history of the city and country for so many years.  Not to mention the fact that it spans a very fast moving large river which frequently floods.

Charles Bridge (1357)

Shops adjacent to Charles Bridge

We then arrived at the Prague Castle we had seen from across the river for the past several hours.  Not only is it the largest castle in the world, still home to the Czech government, and still the location of the Bohemian Crown Jewels, but it has its origin in the year 870 AD.  Over the years, it has housed the Kings of Bohemia, Roman Emperors, and Presidents of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic.  The architectural highlight is, of course, St. Vitus Cathedral constructed, in present form, in the year 1344.

"New" French Facade to St. Vitus Cathedral
"Old" St. Vitus Cathedral

The topic I learned most about over the course of the tour is the fact that Czechs historically love to throw people out windows and otherwise execute others.  It was an interesting sensation to stand in a window from which numerous individuals had been thrown to their deaths as well as to stand in a number of marked areas throughout the city where large executions had occurred sometime throughout the city's history.

The next day we then proceeded to our next destination, Wien (Vienna, Austria).  We found that the city does very much live up to its reputation.  It is an incredibly clean and safe city, but it is also an older group of people.  Our primary tour of the city was my own 4 hour walking tour (unfortunately without any history on window executions).

Dating from the 12th century, St. Stepen's Cathedral was our first destination.  It was sad to see what air pollution has done to it over the years, but nice to see the massive restoration project underway.  It is a very impressive Gothic cathedral with a spire which is the tallest structure in Vienna.

St. Stephens Cathedral (12th Century)

Next on the tour was the Votive Church which was also phenomenal.  Unfortunately, it too suffered severe pollution damage and was under exterior restoration but it's spires were still very intricate and held a large presence on the neighborhood.  I really wanted to climb the open spiral stairs within the center of the spires.

Spires of Votive Church

Next was Rathausplatz. Interestingly enough, that's linguistically very similar to the Danish radhuspladsen.  Both of which mean city hall square.  We still appreciated it's verbal similarity to "rat house". 

Vienna City Hall (Rathus)
Vienna Parliament

Of course, one of the most famous claims to fame for Vienna is that it was the location of most of Mozart's work.  Classical music is still very prized in the city.  This is the modest memorial to their largest celebrity.

Mozart Statue and Garden

Our next destination was Budapest which was an incredibly pleasant surprise to each of us.  In other words, it captured our hearts nearly as much as did Prague.  Interestingly enough, we hadn't been able to locate a map of the city (having run out of time to print one before we departed).  We had to rely on my ability to use sign language to communicate with various Hungarians who spoke no English to determine which metro stop we should use for our Hostel.  We then chanced to find a map folded into a paper boat which we used for the duration.

We arrived, again relatively late at night, to our hostel situated right down the street from quite a view:

Szt. Istvan Basilica

We then took another Sam-directed night tour of the city which was about the best decision we made.  First up was the Széchenyi Chain Bridge which was built in 1849 as the first permanent link between Buda and Pest.  The speed of the muddy-brown water was yet much more impressive than what we observed in Prague.  Pictured first is the bridge at night with the Mathias church in the background and second the bridge with the Castle in the background.

Széchenyi Chain Bridge with Mathias Church in Background
Széchenyi Chain Bridge with the Castle in Background
The Széchenyi Chain Bridge

No less impressive were the Castle and the Parliament.  The Parliament is in fact the largest parliament building in Europe.  

The Castle
The Parliament
The next morning we took a similar stroll to observe the sights in daylight.  They were no less impressive.

The Castle
The Castle and Széchenyi Chain Bridge

We then proceeded across the city to the Vajdahunyad Castle.  We were very disappointed they had drained the entire moat, lake, and pools in order to, in my best estimation, install additional fountains.  Nonetheless, it was an interesting mix of architectural periods.  

Vajdahunyad Castle
Vajdahunyad Castle

On our walk back we stumbled into a reminder of the recency of Democracy for these ex-Soviet states.

Iron Curtain Memorial

We then said goodbye to beloved Budapest and proceeded back to Prague.  The weather this time decided to be in our favor so we spent the day taking various photographs of the beautiful city.  We also stocked up on inexpensive foods which are incredibly expensive in Copenhagen (eg, beef, ice cream, chocolate).  

We, of course, found ourselves back in Old Town Square.  That weekend, however, brought many changes.  First off was a beautiful rose-pedal giant illustration in the middle of the square.  The second was Prague Fashion Weekend.  As my first fashion show, I was interested to realize that they are as much of a caricature of themselves as movies such as Zoolander.

Rose Pedal Display in Old Town Square
Old Town Square Aerial View
Prague Fashion Weekend
Prague Fashion Weekend Runway

The remainder is a summary (14 photos out of hundreds) of the beautiful sites throughout the city:

Old Town Square
Castle view westward from the Town Hall Tower
Aerial Narrow Street View
Cathedral from Tower

Church from Tower
Mozart's House

Across the River
Charles Bridge and Prague Castle
Charles Bridge and Prague Castle from Cafe
Eastward on Charles Bridge
Residential Canal way
Houses along Riverfront

Through Charles Bridge Gateway
Charles Bridge Gateway