Posts Tagged With: king

Déšť, Déšť, Go Away

That would be “rain”, which is what is falling from the sky in Prague today. It didn’t really slow us down because in the wake of yesterday’s ambitious touring, we decided to take it easy today. Our first stop was the National Museum of Decorative Arts for the purpose of seeing the photography exhibition of Josef Koudelka, an outstanding and near-legendary Czech photographer whose name you may never have heard but whose work you have seen. He’s the guy who took all those famous street photos of the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968.

It was an enormous exhibit displaying hundreds of works — all in black and white — from over Koudelka’s 60+ year career. He’s currently 80 and still working… and collecting awards by the bushel.


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(I don’t know who the visitor is in this picture; Alice was in another room at the moment.) If you have any interest in photography at all you owe it to yourself to learn more about Koudelka and look up his work. He’s amazing.

Our second and final stop was a return to the Franz Kafka Head, which frustrated us a couple of days ago by stubbornly sitting there inert instead of doing its metamorphic act. But today we got lucky, and I filmed this:

Alice correctly observed that it was a lot cooler in motion than standing still.

And that’s about it for today, which was our last full day here. We return for a stopover overnight in Reykjavik late tomorrow evening, then return home Tuesday afternoon. For our penultimate dinner in Prague tonight, we went to…. a Thai restaurant. Czech food is fine but is heavy on things like lamb and venison and wild boar and such, accompanied by five different kinds of bread and potato dishes. We were getting a little dumpling’ed out so went to a Mexican restaurant last night, one run by actual Mexicans, which was excellent. If you’re wondering how and why Mexicans came to Prague to open a restaurant as opposed to, say, San Diego or Omaha, the answer is complicated. Some of the owners and staff came as students and stayed; others skipped over the US (I can’t imagine why) and emigrated to Canada, then came to Prague from there. Restaurant prices, by the way, are about 20% cheaper here than they are at home in the DC area. So Prague generally seems like a bargain.

Some final random notes about the city that I was too tired to include in yesterday’s entry:

  • St. Vitus Chapel at Prague Castle contains the sepulchers of both Saint/Sorta King Wenceslas and Saint John of Nepomuk. You’ve never heard of Nepomuk but he’s got a good story: in the late 14th century he was said to be the confessor for the queen of Bohemia. (This is unlikely to be true for reasons that I will not bore you with.) The king was the jealous sort and demanded that John reveal the queen’s secrets. But unlike Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen, John of Nepomuk refused to dish to the authorities. So the king had him drowned. Three centuries later, his body was exhumed and his apparently intact tongue — the one that he held, so to speak — was found in his skull. Wow! Miracle! Canonize this guy right now! So they did. Three centuries after that, the Catholic Church — who should have known better — allowed a forensic analysis of the tissue and it was discovered not to be a tongue at all, but rather a mummified glob of brain tissue. But hey, once you’re a saint, you’re a saint. No take-backs.
  • Speaking of Catholics, there aren’t enough of them here to fill the churches. Nearly 80% of the Czech population either identifies as “no religion” or refuses to answer the official survey questions about it. 30% declare themselves full-on atheists. The Catholic population, nearly 40% of the population as recently as 25 years ago, is now down to 10%. So this translates into a lot of empty churches: one that we visited had been donated by the local diocese to their Greek Orthodox counterparts, who were apparently able to make better use of it.
  • I mentioned earlier that Prague is a popular movie filming location: Amadeus, a couple of  Mission Impossibles, Yentl, The Bourne Identity, the Vin Diesel action movie “xXx”, and a number of others. Our wanderings happened to bring us to a number of the sites, including the courtyard of Prague Castle, which played the role of the Kremlin courtyard in Mission Impossible IV. Or III. Or some other number. Here’s a street corner that shows up in Amadeus:

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  • Prague loves to claim Mozart as a sort of adopted favorite son, even though he never really lived here. He did visit several times for extended stays of a month or two. But interestingly, Prague contains one of the very few harpsichords that is known for certain to have been played by Mozart. It’s a “George Washington Slept Here” sort of thing.

Weather permitting, probably the last thing we will do tomorrow is visit the highest point in Prague: the Petřín Tower. At 63.5 meters (208 ft) tall this would not seem to be a strong candidate for the designation, but the trick is that it sits on top of a 318 meter (1043 ft) hill overlooking the city, so its observation deck is actually 382 meters (1252 ft) above the river. That’s taller than the Eiffel Tower… which is not a coincidence, because the Petřín Tower is a nearly exact model of the uppermost 64 meters of the Eiffel Tower! This bit of architectural weirdness gives the Czechs an opportunity to thumb their collective nose at the French.

Since we are flying out tomorrow evening, I expect that this will be my last blog post from this trip, which began nearly three weeks ago. It’s been another great trip. Next up is a visit to our friends in Arizona in about 6 weeks, followed by our return to Hawaii in February. Life is good!



Categories: Czech, Europe | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Agog in Prague

Prague is a strikingly beautiful city, albeit a little heavy on the whole Medieval Catholicism thing. It has park areas like this:

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…as well as densely packed looming Gothic edifices like this.

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The bridge in that night photo is the Charles Bridge, the main pedestrian thoroughfare between the Old and New Town areas on the east side of the river, and the more modern areas to the west. It is lined with ominous saintly statues and throngs of tourists.

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But it is not the only bridge into the old city, and by crossing a little further to the south you get a great panoramic view of the river and the Charles Bridge connecting the two halves of the city.

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The river is dotted with pedal boats, as you can see; the unseasonably warm sunny weather brings them out in droves, a celebration of the most inefficient form of transportation known to man.

Our first destination of the day, about a 20 minute walk from our flat across the Charles Bridge, was the Jewish Quarter. Tiny — perhaps 700 meters on a side (less than half a mile) — it houses five synagogues and an ancient Jewish cemetery. The usual starting point when touring the Jewish Quarter is the Maisel Synagogue, because the tickets are sold there and because it houses a display of artifacts and an historical narrative of the history of the Jews in Bohemia. Short summary: restrictive laws and humiliation, occasional easing, relocation, re-imposition of restrictive laws and humiliation, enlightenment and false hope, expulsion, return, pogroms, re-relocation, re-enlightenment, World War II. Today there are somewhere between 4,000 and 10,000 Jews in the Czech Republic, about half of them in Prague.

The most venerable of the synagogues is the Old New Synagogue, so named because it was the New Synagogue in 1270, later superseded by a newer New Synagogue a mere three hundred years later. So it became known as the Old New Synagogue, primarily due to a failure of imagination. It is tiny, with thick stone walls, and it is still in use.

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Our next stop was the Pinkas Synagogue, known for its Holocaust memorial, which, in the philosophy of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC, is little more than a compelling list of names on the walls: 78,000 of them, sorted by the neighborhood from which the Jews were taken, then alphabetically within the neighborhood, then by dates of birth and death. In most cases the date of death is unknown, and so the date is the last day on which the victim was seen alive. 78,000 names on a wall is a lot, and the emotional impact grows as you move from one room into the next, only to be confronted with more names, row after row after row of them.

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Adjacent to the Pinkas Synagogue, appropriately enough, is an old Jewish cemetery, densely packed with headstones pointing at random angles. (In the 2 x 2 grid of photos below the color one, you can click on the thumbnails to see larger images.)

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And now to answer the question that you, if you are a nerd like me, have been wondering about for 40 years, namely: did Mr. Spock’s “live long and prosper” Vulcan salute really come from a Jewish priestly blessing? Answer: yes, and here is your proof (beside the fact that actor Leonard Nimoy actually said that this was the case):

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Alice, being generally estranged from popular culture, pointed this and a couple of similar headstones out to me and asked, “What’s the weird hand gesture?” I informed her that it was the Vulcan salute, which she did not feel fully answered the question, and which required additional explanation.

We left the Jewish quarter and walked the short distance to Old Town Square, dominated by the much photographed city hall and overseen by the statue of Bohemia’s favorite saintly regent, Good King Wenceslas. The Christmas carol notwithstanding, Wenceslas was actually a 10th century duke. His 17-year reign was marked by the usual political intrigue and minor military skirmishes, and he was considered neither particularly saintly nor un-saintly at the time. However, in the year 935 he was murdered by his brother, Boleslav the Cruel, whose name is so cool that I am thinking of changing mine.

Nobody liked Boleslav — he might have considered a different nickname — and so a retroactive cult grew up around Wenceslas, and he was deemed a martyr. The Holy Roman Emperor Otto I posthumously conferred the title “king” upon him, somebody wrote that Christmas song a couple of centuries later, and bingo, the guy is a pop culture icon.  In my opinion there are better ways to achieve popularity than being run through by a lance at age 35. In any case, here is the square and the town hall. I have no idea why Superman is in the foreground, a little left of center; Alice speculates that someone lost a bet.

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Part of the reason that we went to the main square, besides finding an ice cream vendor, of which there are fortunately many, was that it is just around the corner from Prague’s famed 600 year old, 2 1/2 story tall Astronomical Clock, which I mentioned yesterday.

And now a brief diversion. If you have been following this blog for a while, then you may recall that if there is one single word that can be applied to Alice’s and my travels to the great cities of the world, then that word is…. scaffolding. Yes. As soon as we book a trip, some mysterious omniscient organization — possibly Interpol, or the Illuminati — notifies the authorities at our destination so that scaffolding can be erected before our arrival. I suspect that they take it down as soon as we leave. You name it — the Parthenon, the Via Veneto, Big Ben, Notre Dame — we have seen them all, covered in scaffolding. (The Eiffel Tower is a freebie because it sort of is scaffolding.) I am quite convinced that if someone had somehow figured out how to put scaffolding around blue-footed boobies and Darwin’s finches then our trip to the Galapagos might have been a very different experience. So with that background information, here is Prague’s famous Astronomical Clock as we beheld it this afternoon:

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Sigh. It is of course supposed to be back in place some time next month.

Well, the only way to sublimate our disappointment at this turn of events was to go the Sex Machine Museum, right down the block from the afflicted clock.

What? You mean you’ve never heard of Prague’s Sex Machine Museum? Housing some 200, um, devices spread out (so to speak) over three floors, the museum’s reviews range from “must see” to “tourist trap”, but for ten bucks we thought it was a hoot. If you can get through this place without laughing out loud at least once, there is something seriously wrong with you.

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This being a mostly family blog, and me not wanting to be banned by, I can’t show photos of most of the exhibits; X-rated barely describes some of them. But I will make one or two observations. First, it is clear that late 19th and early 20th century sex devices had a distinctly…. how shall I put this…. “industrial” aspect to them. Yes, “industrial” is definitely the word.

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There was one mid-19th century item, which I couldn’t get a good picture of, and which I probably wouldn’t show anyway, that — I am not making this up — was steam-powered, using a coal-fired boiler. No kidding, this thing belonged on a narrow-gauge railroad track, and definitely not anywhere near anyone’s genitals.

But my absolute favorite — and possibly the best best museum exhibit in the history of time — was this remote-control Ukrainian sex toy from the 1960’s:

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Seriously, this is an erotic device. It positively screams, “Defend the Motherland!” Or more likely, moans.

At this point, the astute reader may have noticed that in the space of a few hours we visited a Holocaust memorial, followed by a visit to a sex machine museum. I know what you’re thinking, and you are probably right: we are going to burn in Hell. But we will deal with that later, because we wanted to finish our afternoon by visiting Franz Kafka instead. More accurately, we went to visit Franz Kafka’s head. Or still more accurately, an 11 meter tall steel statue of his head.

As you can see the head comprises a number of horizontal slabs — 42 of them, to be exact — which rotate to cause the head to metamorphose into random shapes. Or rather, they are supposed to. No one seemed to know when this action would take place; there was no information to be found about it online — randomly? On the hour? Or what? — and the speculation arose among those of us waiting patiently for something to happen that the thing was no longer functional.  There is some circumstantial evidence for this because if you look carefully you will see that the slab corresponding to the middle of Franz’s nose is out of position. All I can tell you for certain is that we waited for 45 minutes for something to happen, and nothing ever did. The experience was…… Kafkaesque. Hmmm.

Giving up, we made our way back to the our flat, rested up for a couple of hours, and had an elegant dinner at a nearby restaurant, supposedly one of the best in Prague, that specializes in duck, plus the kind of meals where the animal’s head is hanging on the wall. It was excellent. (We both had the duck.) Tomorrow is our full day guided tour, so I’ll report back.

Categories: Czech, Europe | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Waves and Ice

We spent our last day on Oahu enjoying two of the iconic experience of the North Shore: waves and shave ice.

Everybody knows about the waves, of course: Oahu’s North Shore is the home of the famous Banzai Pipeline, a renowned surfing venue characterized by big, regular waves. And this season the operative word is “big”: waves have been measured up to 45′ (14m) from trough to peak. That is objectively ginormous, too big even for the pros to ride.

And now a word about the physics of wave riding. Every now and then you’ll see some goofy scene in, say, a science fiction movie about a tsunami, in which some stoner surfer dude rides, like, a hundred-foot wave. That can’t actually happen. Well, the wave can, but riding it can’t: you catch a wave by matching speeds with it, and a wave’s speed increases with its height. A wave that high would be moving like a fast car, and not even Michael Phelps could match his pace with it to shoot that particular curl. (If you ever watch a surfing competition with really big waves, you will see that they actually start by towing the surfers with speedboats to allow them to catch the waves.)

Anyway, the views were spectacular though on the day of our visit the biggest waves were a lot closer to 8′ (2.5m) than five times that, which still rewarded us with sights like these.

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Our other activity, as I mentioned, was shave ice (it had to be food, didn’t it?). Everyone is familiar with shave ice (also called snow cones, though never in Hawaii), but Hawaii has raised it to an art form, with a dizzying array of flavors that ranges well beyond the familiar (e.g., Japanese yuzu fruit, or — I am not kidding – pickled mango). You find it everywhere, from dedicated shave ice stores to street corner pushcarts, and one of its most famous purveyors on the island is Matsumoto’s on the North Shore, which offers 38 flavors.

You choose three flavors (more or fewer if you want); they serve you a grapefruit-sized sphere of snow (and it is pretty much an actual snowball, with that compressed-fluffy consistency) divided into three segments with the appropriate flavored syrup poured over them. You can if you wish add condensed milk and actual ice cream as well.

You eat it with a combination of plastic spoon and a straw to suck down the dregs. I chose coconut cream + lilikoi (passionfruit) + root beer. It was wonderful. Do not judge me.

The next morning (Monday Feb 1) we flew to Kona on the Big Island to begin the main part of our five week stay. Things immediately started out with a glitch because it turned out that I had inadvertently selected the pickup point for our rental car to be a hotel down the coast (near our rental house, as it happens) rather than at the airport. However, this is what we have come to refer to in our travels as an “MSP”, which stands for “Money-Solvable Problem”, the money in this case being given to a taxi driver to bring us to the correct venue.

City of Refuge-018One of the reasons that the Big Island is my favorite part of Hawaii that its geology and geography enforce a remarkable environmental and ecological diversity. You get a taste of this even as your plane lands in Kona and you drive away from the airport afterwards: Kona airport sits about 15 minutes north of town on a blasted lava plain, a rippling moonscape of seemingly frozen asphalt doted with sere, unhappy-looking yellow shrubs. It is stark and, looked at from a certain perspective, pretty, um, ugly; it is not hard to imagine a first time visitor driving away from the airport thinking, I though Hawaii was supposed to be nice. Which it is — very — but you have to have the patience, fortunately not too much of it, to watch the landscape give over to the anticipated beaches and palm trees as you head down the coast. (You never lose the lava altogether, though; it’s what the islands are made of.)

We got to our house mid-afternoon, and were more than pleased with what we found, a very attractive and spacious three bedroom duplex on a hillside overlooking the ocean, the latter a 15-minute walk down the hill. We also met up with our first visitors: our younger son and his wife, who will stay with us for about a week.

City of Refuge-001Our visitors, of course, are all here for much less time than ourselves, and so of course want to pack in as much Hawaiian quality time as possible during their stay, whereas given the length of our sojourn we may opt for a rather uncharacteristic more relaxed pace. But even so, there are some things that must be done on Day One as a matter or priority, and this includes snorkeling. The site we chose is well known as having the best snorkeling on the island, immediately adjacent to an ancient sacred Hawaiian site — and now a National Historic Monument – called the City of Refuge. In Hawaiian it is called (you might want to sit down for this) Pu’uhonua O Honaunau. (Yes, yes, I know how to pronounce it.) Snorkeling aside, it has a remarkable history.

If you lived in ancient Hawaii you may have enjoyed the weather but you were constantly on guard against breaking any of about eight zillion kapu laws. Kapu means “forbidden” and is related to the English word “taboo”. Things that were kapu included looking at the king; allowing the king’s shadow to fall upon you as he passed by; eating a sacred species of fish; wearing someone’s clothing; and (for all I know) ending a sentence with preposition. And although the rules themselves were complicated, their application was simple, since basically everything carried the death penalty. Seriously. Look at the king? Death. Eat a parrot fish at the wrong time of year? Death. Wear white flip-flops after Labor Day? Definitely death.

City of Refuge-015A criminal justice system like that is an invitation to negative population growth unless you offer some kind of occasional out, hence the City of Refuge. A walled compound made of lava rock, situated dramatically on a spit of hard lava jutting out into the rough surf, Pu’uhonua O Honaunau offered a place of absolution if you could get there. Which wasn’t easy, since it is open only on the side of the roiling, rock-strewn sea and its back faces up against the bottom of a steep rocky hillside.

City of Refuge-007But if you did make it there, the priests would take you in and for a certain length of time variously put you to work and engage you in assorted cleansing rituals, the result being that once you had satisfied their requirements you were absolved of your transgression and free to rejoin society without fear of further retribution. Or at least until the king walked by again and you didn’t prostrate yourself fast enough and bingo, you were once again Dead Man Surfing.

The compound is dramatic and even a little spooky, dominated by the sound of the waves and decorated throughout with sacred symbolic carved statues that seem like reminders of the bridge between the sacred and profane.

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It’s somehow fitting that the best snorkeling on the island is here, and though you are not allowed to enter the water from the grounds of the national park itself, there is a small access point, basically a public beach on lava instead of sand, only 100-200 yards away. Getting into the water is a little too exciting for novice snorkelers, as there is a very strong and ceaseless tidal surge that washes up over the flat algae-covered lava flows at water’s edge. You basically have to sit down on a slippery little natural lava shelf and let the next surge carry you away.

It is more than worth it, since the water here, though 10′-25′ (3m – 8m) deep, is clear and alive with colorful marine life: sea turtles, schools of yellow tangs, parrot fish and trumpet fish…. and of course, lots of humuhumunukunukuapua’a. (You knew that was coming, didn’t you?)

We snorkeled for perhaps 45 minutes, my enjoyment sullied only by the belated realization that the small weight in my right swimsuit pocket was my car keys. Twenty years ago this discovery would not have occasioned a second thought — they’re just keys, they won’t fall out and they won’t dissolve! — but in Anno Domini 2016 everything has a computer chip and I worried that the salt water would fry its little car-key-brain and that our rental car would no longer start. Which is exactly what happened.

A place of refuge doesn’t feel like a place of refuge if you’re &&%^*^% stranded there, and so the next two hours were spent arranging for a new (and dry) car key to be couriered to us by taxi from the Hertz desk at the airport, an hour north of where we were stuck. Kind of a bizarre end to the afternoon, although we got bonus irony points when the taxi driver carrying the new key turned out to be the same guy who ferried us to the correct rental car pickup location yesterday. So he now thinks we are idiots, which I cannot altogether rule out.

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City of Refuge and Careless Snorkelers





Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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