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Travelogue 15: Reflections on Vienna and Prague

Vienna: By the time I left Spain for Vienna I had fully acclimated to European cities. My last night in Spain, Christina showed me a hole-in-the-wall amateur live Flamenco music bar, and I had garlic butter-fried Gambas - a shrimp Tapas. The next evening I arrived in Vienna. I spent my first evening in Vienna walking around the whole city, getting acquainted with the layout and the great parks and monumental architecture, like the Hapsburg royal palace and the famous cathedral in the beautiful cobblestoned car-free central old city.

I really liked Vienna, Despite spending only one full day there in my 40-hour stay. Seemingly not enough time, I did fully appreciate the city, as it is quite small and all within walking distance. Walking everywhere, I experienced the many flavors of Vienna.

I began my walking tour inside a cathedral off the tourist map, near my hotel. Upon entering I found a children's choir singing, their angelic voices resonating in the high stained glass filled chamber built to glorify god. With certainty these talented youths helped accomplish that architectural goal.

The other flavors I tasted included the view from the top of the cathedral tower in the old city, the 5 hours I spent appreciating paintings in the Kunthistoriches Museum. I practically drooled over some works of art I had read about and waited to see in person like Pieter Breughel and some amazing Reubens'. I also appreciated Titian, Raphael, Velasquez and others. The city did feel wonderful, clean, and efficient like Barcelona, but more ancient and historical. I really liked it a lot! It felt like a historical crossroads, a city linking past present and future in seamless clean bright beauty. I felt better there, just walking the streets than I did anywhere else in Europe. Although each European city has captured an aspect of my heart, Vienna's atmosphere was my favorite.

Prague: The next day I went to Prague and met Povl, my good friend from Columbia University, and fellow photographer, who currently lives in Denmark and Norway. We spent 6 days and 6 nights in Prague - experiencing the city to its fullest, I believe. We walked across the famous Charles Bridge, admiring different lights of day, dawn, and dusk on the statuary. Statuary, cobblestones, old world architecture, long-lived dusky sky hues, and a comfort level made Prague my favorite city to photograph. When visiting you are always looking up. The amazing architecture juts out at every corner in every style, from art noveau and neo-classical to modern and cubist. The numerous cathedrals and handful of castles blend into an array of decorative colourful renaissance buildings, the likes of which I had never seen before.

We also tasted the Absinthe, the nightlife, and the wild side of a venue touted as the 'Largest Dance Club in Central Europe'. After entry for only $3 US we danced for a few hours on a variety of dance floors spanning 5 vertical stories of an old building straddling a canal, with a view through glass on each floor of the Charles bridge and its gate-tower. I was amazed and delighted to see the young and a few old all partying together in the 60s-80s room where we enjoyed crazy tunes like 'Uptown Girl' and 'Rock me Amadeus', the latter which we requested and ended the evening on, dancing on stage despite our lack of rhythm, just because it was fun and we knew we had nothing to be ashamed of- we had fun and so did everyone there!

We had a great day at the famous Prague Castle - the largest lived-in municipal castle in the world- it is both a tourist site and the houses for most government offices; People commute daily to work in the castle, isn't that great! The castle courtyard also has a famous beautiful cathedral, I think I shot two rolls of film in the castle and cathedral. Additionally, I will never forget the toy museum and so many small details inside the huge castle complex. I really loved it so much we came back on one of our last mornings and I meditated there while people arrived for work at 8 or 9am.

A more somber side of our visit included the Jewish Museum - an amazing permanent exhibit spanning the entire 'Old Jewish Quarter.' This area was preserved by Hitler to be a 'museum to a dead race' unlike the other areas of Europe where synagogues and Jewish businesses were destroyed on Krystalnacht. This area survives unscathed and now bears witness both to the tragedy of Nazism and the beautiful history of Jewry in Central Europe.

The neighborhood includes synagogues of many different styles, inside each are displayed aspects of the rich traditions of European Jewry. Between these is a graveyard, constricted in size by ancient city regulations; Therefore, space is shared in the graveyard. The surface is an undulating green covered in thousands of ancient tombstones, all zigzagging and touching each other, pressed together to represent the bodies sharing vertical space below. The most moving display, however, was the drawings made by children to express their hopes and fears; imaginary and real life situations while in concentration camps. It was visceral and somehow both bearable and really moving - a different perspective on the situation then anything I had ever seen or heard before, silent but so expressive - art.

Czech Countryside: Because we had an excessive amount of time, we were also able to explore the Czech countryside around Prague. We rented a car, and for 24 hours did a tour de force, circling Prague at a distance of about 100 kilometers from the city center. Afterward our odometer rolled over 800 kilometers.

First we visited a memorial to a town, Lidice, in which a Nazi atrocity occurred in retribution for a successful assassination. Czech resistance fighters parachuted in and killed the occupying German general. Revenge was inappropriate: the Nazis killed all men over 14 in Lidice and interred the women and children in concentration camps. Then razed the city to the ground with bombs and fire - nothing remains.

We also visited Terezin; The local concentration camp where Jews were stationed, but not killed. The Germans used the place as a waystation for moving people and also for propaganda. To show they were humanely treating the Jews the Germans shipped half the population to Auschwitz and cleaned up the whole town for a Red Cross visit in 1942 or 43, this act supposedly fooled many news media. It was good to face this site; the exhibit was revealing and informative. Really amazing, and moving in an important way - and not as depressing somehow, because it was not a death campÉ Instead it focused on showing how these imprisoned Jews lived through difficulty. Journals, artwork, and dolls were exhibited.

On a brighter note we visited an ancient medieval mining town with a beautiful old cathedral rivaling those in Prague in size, beauty, and sculpture. Viewed in the orange soft sunset, I photographed over 10 different wonderful gargoyles. A great part of the Czech driving experience was seeing how lovely all the hamlets and towns were - its not just Prague but all of the Czech Republic that has a certain old beauty to its architecture. We also were lucky enough to enjoy a variety of locally produced rock music on the radio, in Czech of course. A highlight was hearing a cover of 'girls just want to have fun'.

At sunrise the next day before returning the car at noon, we visited two of the most picturesque hillside castles in the Czech countryside. Using our car as a mobile tripod platform we exposed film of these monuments in the colorful morning light. Then we went inside for a simple tour before returning to enjoy Prague again.

In leaving Prague I almost felt my travels away from home had ended. Only London, and Stonehenge during the Summer Solstice remained.