As the day grew later and hotter, more tourists appeared, so that by the time we reached
With only a few hours to spend in
As the day grew later and hotter, more tourists appeared, so that by the time we reached
With only a few hours to spend in
Unsurprisingly, I got myself thoroughly lost several times. When the roads take a slight change in direction or angle off, they also change names, and with the tiny font on the map I had to guide myself, it was next to impossible to relocate myself. Many of the buildings in
While eating, a small black-and-white kitten emerged from underneath the Hot Horse stall, squeezing its little body out from a hole in the ground. In a few weeks, it wouldn’t be able to do that anymore. Of course, being the sucker that I am, I immediately felt sorry for it. It hadn’t yet learned to fear humans—just a matter of time, I suspect; even though I carefully pulled off un-mustarded parts of my horseburger for it, other benches shooed it away thoughtlessly—and I was able to pick it up and hold it. So light, so fragile. He swatted good-naturedly at my fingers; no claws yet, but I imagined that they’d soon be sharp and ready to fend off the world. I named him Žižek and wished him godspeed.
I’ve actually stayed in a hostel once, when I was in my early twenties and couldn’t afford a hotel room in
The halls smell of disinfectant—off-putting, although it does imply that the toilets are cleaned on a regular basis. Still, I like to limit my Pine-Sol exposure as much as possible. The lobby looks like the interior of a strip club: padded benches with M&M-colored cushions, ceiling fan, colored lights in the windows. The reception desk could be the DJ booth. It’s actually peaceful here (signs posted around the hostel ask guests to keep their partying to a minimum, by request of the police), and residents drift in and out, speaking French, English, other unidentifiable Indo-European languages. On the whole, I've seen fewer mullets here than in the Czech Republic, but the fauxhawk is still in full-force. Particularly annoying are the fauxhawks with the pointy parts bleached or dyed a different color.
Late night in the hostel lobby: one of the two overhead TVs has a test pattern. The station has gone off the air and says nothing but “TV Koper. Capodistria.” The other plays a grainy Slovenian film. It looks to be from the 60s or 70s, judging from the clothes and the general demeanor of the actors. The odd thing—the Slovenian subtitles are on as the characters speak those self-same words. It’s a crash course in pronunciation—if only I knew what the police inspector was saying to the guy who refuses to button up his shirt.
The main drag in
But let’s talk chocolate for a minute. I’m generally not a truffle and bonbon connoisseur (I prefer the dense purity of bars; for example, in one Vienna shop, I saw a panoply of fascinating flavors: rose and thyme, sour cherry and Kirsch, cranberry and rosemary, but these were all fillings and crèmes, rather than integral to the chocolate itself), but even I indulged in some truffles at Cokolada pod Michalska. And while the flavor combinations aren’t as exotic as those described above, they still fire off all the tongue-based endorphins at once.
Better still was the hot chocolate at Schokocafe Maximilian Delikateso. Max Brenner in
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I know I kind of ragged on the Austrians earlier for their Asian food fetish, but we dined at Chang Asian Noodle (next to Chang Asian Duck Bar). And while this brought back some unpleasant memories from when I was nine—namely, a European tour with my parents, aunt, and uncle in which we wandered the street of Torani one evening, searching for a Chinese restaurant—I will say that in my defense, it was close to the hotel, well-populated by locals (one of whom brought in his Dalmatian), and reasonably tasty.
I’d also discovered the joy of ordering my hot chocolates mit Schlag—with whipped cream. The Schlag isn’t sweetened, as one might expect, but adds the richness and butterfat that milk froth just can’t contribute. No more trying to dissolve those last lumps of Swiss Miss in tepid tap water—Viennese hot chocolate is the real thing.
The Viennese have a fondness for Asian cuisine (maybe rightly so, since there’s only so much schnitzel you can eat before you turn into a leaden lump). The Orientophages of the
The main street of the
Matthew and I ascended the south
We capped off the evening with dessert and tea in Süssi. We were served by a single young man, Christopher, with dark hair and hearing aids in each ear. He reminded me of Jonathan from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, expect happier. “What is your wish?” he asked, indulging our indecision with a genuine smile, rather than the grudging acknowledgement to which we’ve become accustomed here in
On the train to
Worse, the rain that had annoyed us in
Our hotel, AllYouNeed, has a spartan decor, like a Ikea clearance showroom. I've also noticed that European hotel bathrooms—well, at least the lower- to mid-price hotels that we prefer—have a corner shower stall, little more than a quarter-circle. A tight squeeze: I constantly bumped up against the water handle, alternately scalding and freezing me out.
We did manage to sneak into one of the famous Viennese coffee houses, however: the Café Leopold Hawelka. Despite the strengthening rain, we sat outside, mostly protected by the umbrellas, although we’d occasionally catch some spray drifting past. The interior was all dark wood and heavy curtains, the day’s newspapers on long, wooden readers. But I suspected something might be bad when I stood at the doorway and the middle-aged waiter brushed past me (it seems that you simply seat yourself at most places in
Still, I’m a sucker for bad service stories, especially when you can see the curmudgeon materialize right before your very eyes: normal human, normal human, bam!, raving madman with slightly mussed hair. And I did leave a tip, but only because I didn't want him to cuss me out after I left.
But—and I hate to say it—the city itself has a sort of tackiness that rubs me the wrong way. The victims of the Holocaust should be rightly remembered; the Holocaust itself should haunt humanity until the end of days, but I felt like the remembrance had become the major industry in Terezin. When you name a hotel the “Terezin Memorial Hotel,” it’s pushing the boundaries of taste. As well, it’s disconcerting to see normal Czech families living their lives in the houses that you know once housed thousands of doomed Jews. Of course, it’s unrealistic to imply that the buildings should have been preserved in amber as a static monument. But the everyday nature of the town itself makes the reconstructed dormitory in the Magdeburg Barracks seem artificial. It doesn’t help that outside of the Small Fortress, just past the field of gravestones and roses, many bereft of names, religions of the dead demarcated by the humongous cross and the Star of David emerging from a mound of black rocks—just past that were a strip of tourist shops, selling Bohemian glass or, at the shop closest to the road, Native American dreamcatchers and beaded necklaces.
And yet, I was still moved. The exhibition on the artists in Terezin struck me; maybe this is the only way to understand tragedy: huge numbers of deaths—humans shipped around like livestock—take on greater significance when extrapolated from a singular experience. To privilege a writer over, say, a mother of four seems terribly elitist of me, but there you have it.
From Terezin, we hiked a pleasant 2 km. to the small town (to say “quaint” runs the risk of being patronizing) of Bohušovice, which I imagine gets some spill-over from the tourist trade, but not much. On one side of the street, more Soviet-style block apartments; on the other, individual houses (or as Matthew phrased it: “proletariat/bourgeoisie”). The menu at the Restaurace Radnice was handwritten and in a plastic cover, with no translation, so I simply picked something and ate it. Discovery is the best part of travel. The barkeep, with his thick broom-like moustache, looked at us askance, but was good-natured enough to indulge us intrepid travelers.
* * *
I’m not one to stand on formality, so after returning to
Still, I was curious. The early 90s saw a huge boom in twinky gay Czech porn stars (the blame falls squarely on the hairless shoulders of Bel Ami); surely there was more than that. It really was like any other gay club in the
Well, maybe it’s not that different from the
To think: I would have happily danced alone on the floor there (tiny as it was, maybe 20 ft. square). I would have sacrificed my lung capacity to secondhand smoke and my hearing to the bass. I would have danced atop the speaker box with wild abandon. But I have a more fully-formed sense of shame now. And besides, I’m no longer in my 20s, so I gladly cede my position, especially considering the high preponderance of diva house being played. When the DJ started repeating tracks he’d spun earlier, I knew it was time to leave.
The painted buildings look like pieces of Wedgwood china, but when you have a city that bears its history on its walls, even the new buildings have been made to look old. Every church—at least in the tourist-frequented areas—sponsors a 5 p.m. concert with some form of Vivaldi or Mozart on the program. As you walk down the streets in the morning, you can also hear a conservatory student practicing her piano from an open second-story window: ascending and descending arpeggios, scales, runs.
And yet, the man-mullet is still in fashion here. Go figure.
But equally as entertaining is the changing of the guard in the Castle Courtyard. They’re accompanied by a 5-piece brass band: trombones, tuba, snare drum. But it’s much pomp without the attendant circumstance. The guards’ powder-blue uniforms, replete with epaulets and colorful ceremonial cords and guns with shiny bayonets, make them look like a particularly masculine majorette squad. For those who can still be impressed by formation marching, shouted Czech commands, and sabers being slid in and out of sheaths, it’s quite the spectacle. For those who can’t, it’s just fun to watch boys parading around in uniform.
And while I appreciate the artistry that goes into religious symbols—those Catholics love their icons!—it doesn’t bowl me over as much as it would a believer. Instead, I look at the vaulted and painted ceilings of St. Nicholas or the ornate Moorish patterns in the Spanish Synagogue and pause to admire its aesthetics.
Matthew, however, is a much more sensitive soul than I. His heritage is Jewish, after all, but I was surprised to find him tearing up within the gilded patterns of the Spanish Synagogue. Much of it had to do with the exhibit detailing the fate of the Jews in Terezin ghetto; Matthew found himself wondering how many of those who died there had come to worship in that very same synagogue. And later, in the Pinkas Synagogue, with its walls covered with the names and dates of death of the Jews of Prague, even I could feel the tremendous weight of history bearing down upon the place, even if my borrowed polyester kippah steadfastly refused to stay on my head.
But at least I wore mine. Despite the posted signs asking men to cover their heads to respect the sanctity of the place, I saw plenty who went yarmulke-less. And it annoyed me a little. More egregious was the young man who kept taking photographs when the pictogram clearly depicted a camera with the round red international symbol for no slashing through it. I mean, I could have easily taken pictures inside the Spanish Syngogue—and believe me, I was tempted—but I decided against it. Not that I fear any Divine retribution. But I'm probably pushing my luck as it is.
Behind us on the stairs in the Pinkas Synagogue, a teenage American girl missed a step and stumbled. As her friends helped her up, she admitted that she had probably had too much to drink last night. Her friends agreed; they were all pretty wasted. I guess wasted would be the appropriate word, but I don’t hold their youthful exuberance against them.
The day was cool, and the sun wouldn’t appear until nearly six in the evening, but walking through the Old Jewish cemetery, the gravestones clattering together haphazardly, angled whichever way their anchors had buckled, I passed by the grave of the Rabbi Löw, the legendary scholar and mystic, who had created the Golem of Prague. Matthew placed a pebble on his grave, a sign of respect. I bought a small pottery golem, my own sign of respect.
Our hotel, the Hotel Kampa Garden, is a stone’s throw away from the garden itself, a verdant path, where couples lie in the grass, the girl’s head on the guy’s stomach. Our room overlooks a small canal used for grist mills. In the direction away from the garden, the Charles Bridge stands across the Vltava River, and it’s a major tourist draw, lined both with statues of religious icons bearing gold crosses and street vendors selling glass jewelry and caricatures. At the moment, however, it’s under construction, with part of the Western edge fenced off, and workers in lime-green t-shirts mingling amongst the crowd. At one end, you can pay 70kc to ascend the tower, which allows you some astounding views of the city—you can trace the path of the river as it makes its way around. You can, as well, watch to other tourists as they gather below for group pictures or simply pick their way over the cobblestones.
In Kampa Square, at the foot of the Charles Bridge, there’s a busker festival going on. Thus far, we’ve been treated to jugglers, puppet shows, marionettes, and even mimes. Sadly, they didn’t wear whiteface a la Marcel Marceau, but they did have skin-tight white gloves that went well past their elbows. It seems to me that the secret of good miming is not getting trapped in an invisible box, but being able to carry a narrative on facial expression alone. Though the box does seem important as well.
I was exhausted in the evening—a full day’s worth of transit. The sun hadn’t gone down yet by eight, but evening was cool, and I could still hear applause for the performers in Kampa Square.