Thursday, July 31, 2008

Greetings from: VENICE

After a late night on a cramped train from Ljubljana, stepping into the morning light of Venice was not quite a breath of fresh air—if for no other reason than the canals create their own atmosphere. But Sunday is its own world in Venice; silence reigns on the Rialto Bridge, still clear of tourist trinket stalls. A handful of vendors were setting up their wares, but except for the unfurling of awnings, the quiet seemed almost medieval, otherworldly. You could hear the leaf-green water lick the edges of the canals. People were getting in their boats; shops were shuttered. The food vendors only now put out their good, narrow cups filled with watermelon and kiwi. In the cobblestone squares, empty plastic cups cricked against each other as the wind blew them about, and beer bottles, proof of late night’s revelry, stood in corners, on ledges. It must have been a wild Saturday evening.

As the day grew later and hotter, more tourists appeared, so that by the time we reached San Marco Square, the place was filled with tour groups, some following their leaders holding up little umbrellas, others following along with earpieces to their guide speaking quietly to them through the ether. From every vantage, the winged lion of Venice looked down, holding his Book. When we crossed back over the Rialto, we could hardly move from the crowds. Every shop glittered with “Murano” glass, cut and shaped into every conceivable form. If I stopped into those shops, it was only to soak up the air conditioning; with a bulky bag dangling from my shoulder, I was rightly concerned about stumbling and creating lots of beautiful glass shards on the floors of Venice.

With only a few hours to spend in Venice—a tragically tight schedule—you can’t help but hit all the big tourist spots: The Bridge of Sighs, the Grand Canal, the Doge’s Palace. But sometimes this is the way it has to be. At lunch, we sat in the shade, while an accordion player serenaded us with a medley of the great Italian musical stereotypes. It was the quintessential Italian experience: eating flat-crust pizza al fresco, while “O Sole Mio” plays in the background.

Greetings from: BLED

Just a short trip to the north, Lake Bled is nestled at the base of the Julian Alps. It’s every photographer’s dream: you just can’t take a bad picture of this place. Resorts surround the lake, which is emerald-green and clear as far as you eye can focus. Swimmers, sunbathers, strollers: all around the lake, young and old; a retreat for tourists both internal and international. Tito himself had his summer villa here (which is now a hotel), but for such a prime piece of picturesque property, several of the lakefront homes are abandoned, collapsed, or otherwise in disrepair. Matthew keeps talking about renovations, and it frightens me.

We took a boat out to the center island (of course, we hired one for 12€ each; did you really think we’d row ourselves?), where, in the church atop the island, we watched the tail end of a Slovenian marriage. According to legend, if the groom can carry the bride up the stairs (and there are a good number of them), then the marriage will be a successful one. I don't think the groom did this, however; he was too calm and non-sweaty to have lugged another person. In dress shoes, no less. The bride wore a cream-colored gown, and the groom’s tuxedo was the color of honeyed milk with white pinstripes. We caught a glimpse of them as they left the chapel, amidst handfuls of rice. It must be odd, celebrating this day with a steady stream of tourists surrounding your party, blocking your photographer’s shots, and otherwise just getting in the way. But perhaps when you’re enjoying yourself, when you’ve convinced yourself that this day carries a greater weight than any other day before, you can ignore the presence of strangers commenting on your clothing and the clothes of your guests.

The national pride and joy—the dessert that made Lake Bled great—is a kremna rezina, a layer of whipped cream atop a layer of vanilla custard, sandwiched between to flaky pastry rectangles. It appears on your plate like a brick, but goes down like a marshmallow. Accompanied with a vroča čocolada s smetana, it’s decadence for those who know decadence. For others, it’s just a toothache.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Greetings from: a bicycle trip around the city

After being forced aside by a mad bicyclist one too many times, it’s now my turn for revenge. I rented a bike from the hostel, and I was off like the wind. While I respected the existence of the bike lane, at times, it seemed to merge into the sidewalk (or else took a path which I couldn’t locate). And only once did I come close to a collision: two women, walking side by side. I rode up behind them, ninja-like, and eased by them on the left. Had I stretched out my right hand, I would have smacked one of them squarely on the ass.

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 Ljubljana were unmarked as well (the National Gallery has to be one of these pink rectangles, but which one?), so I had to orient myself by unmistakable landmarks: the bus station, the beer factory, the river, the castle. Luckily, there isn’t much of Ljubljana to get lost in, so all problems mostly solved themselves.

In Tivoli Park, I stopped by the Hot Horse stall, apparently a local favorite. I ordered the house specialty, the horse burger, and at first, I suspected that the name had more to do with the size of the burger than the contents of the patty. As it turns it, it was both. You can pile on as many toppings onto the volleyball-diameter patty as you want, and the server wraps it neatly in a foil package. And while I can’t say that the taste was objectionable (either on my tongue or my conscience), if someone offers me horse meat again, I think that the neighs have it.

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.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Greetings from: LJUBLJANA

I spoke about “roughing it” too lightly, and then I’m actually doing it. We’ve moved one step down from a hotel to a hostel, where the extra “s” stands for “savings.” It could also stand for “shared bathroom.” But irrational need for maid service and 400-thread count sheets will eventually be my undoing. Luckily, the Aladin Hostel isn’t strictly for youths, so there are a fair number of older folks here. And as long as it isn’t run by an international cartel of sadists who pay for the pleasure of dismembering you, I’m fine with it. (Damn you, Eli Roth!)

I’ve actually stayed in a hostel once, when I was in my early twenties and couldn’t afford a hotel room in Boston for a writers’ conference. I recall a pleasant enough experience, if not particularly a memorable one, since I only spent one night in the hostel before shacking up with various conference-goers after that. Please keep in mind: this is when I lived in D.C. and my #1 requirement for a boyfriend was that he have air conditioning.

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.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Greetings from: BRATISLAVA

Many travelers I’ve encountered really enjoy this idea of “roughing it”: lugging a 50-lb. backpack across a continent, staying in grimy hotels, buying as little as possible. Traveling, for me, is a mini-indulgence; it’s not a smorgasbord of extravagance, but neither is it an exercise in austerity. And considering the impressive skills of the chocolatiers along the Danube, why hold back on this simple pleasure?

Bratislava is almost like Prague in miniature—which shouldn’t be taken as a slight. It has the historicism of Prague, but on a smaller scale: Prague’s Staré Mĕsto could eat Bratislava’s for breakfast. By the same token, however, Bratislava attracts fewer tourists and has an appealing gritty side, which isn’t readily apparent in Prague. For instance, we arrived at the south train station in Bratislava and walked to the Old Town, a walk of about 2 km. Old, lived-in apartment blocks—crumbling concrete, laundry hanging off of balconies—edged up against new, vacant construction; an urban renewal project that hadn’t begun the “renewal” part of the plan. The Incheba Convention Center, a sprawling, white monolith in the center of a vast, empty parking lot, festooned with banners proclaiming upcoming gatherings (and Disney on Ice), seemed to embody both the initial optimism and eventual failure of Communism. The bridge spanning the Danube River, crowned with a Starship Entreprise-like restaurant, rattled with automobile traffic as we crossed. On it, a young man sprayed and wiped off graffiti—a continual losing battle; as soon as a space had been cleared, a new tag appeared.

The main drag in Bratislava’s Old City has been commercialized as much as Prague’s (global capitalism, thy name is The Body Shop), but plenty of raw Bratislava remains with boarded-up buildings and disintegrating facades. There’s also a similar sense of play with the public art: a man emerges out of a sewer grate. Napoleon slouches against a park bench. A photographer peeks around a corner.

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 New York City serves up sugary sludge compared to the thick, rich, impossibly flavorful cups of bitter chocolate that we sipped—almond for Matthew, orange for me. Nearby, an orchestra tuned up, played snippets of soundtrack music to smatterings of applause. Tourists milled around the souvenir carts ringing the square, and Matthew and I surreptitiously snapped pictures of cute boys and well-dressed promenaders. (Maybe not as surreptitious as we’d like to think.) Sunshine lit up the fountain in the square, and the cannonball embedded in the face of the church seemed to make perfect sense: the flaw that makes beauty possible.

* * *

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.

Greetings from: Opernring

Monday! The sun was shining, the shops were open, the world had righted itself back onto its axis. The previous day’s rain became nothing more than a cold breeze that blew throughout Vienna. We made the tourist circle around the city center, gazing at Baroque buildings and dodging the bicycles that come zooming down the sidewalk. Vienna is extremely bicycle-friendly (designated bike lanes!) although the riders can occasionally be pedestrian-hostile.

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 Czech Republic had to confine themselves to Činksa restaurants, but Vienna aims for a more cosmopolitan feel and offers the gamut: Japanese, Indonesian, and even Vietnamese (owned and operated by Chinese, but close enough). Asian groceries, as well, dot the streets around the Naschtmarket, tempting me with their shiny cleavers.

The main street of the City Center, Graben (a former ditch), has become a pedestrian walkway given over to high-priced conglomerate boutiques: Hermes, Hugo Boss, Zegna—beautiful suits around the 1,499 Euro mark. The businessmen striding through the square, assiduously ignoring tourists as if they were lampposts—were they the market for those suits? Or do they need the suits to match the red marble urinals and mahogany-doored stalls of the Adolf Loos-designed public toilets?

Matthew and I ascended the south tower of St. Stephan’s Cathedral, 300+ stairs caked with decades’ worth of spit-out gum and the names of previous visitors scratched into the stone. The top afforded a panoramic view over the city, but was slightly marred by the fact that it was now a gift shop, manned by a soporific cashier. I don’t blame him, though; it was warm, and I can’t imagine lugging an A/C unit up those stairs.

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 Europe. I sort of wanted to put him in my pocket and take care of him. Mit Schlag, bitte.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Greetings from: VIENNA

My greatest regret upon leaving Prague—besides not being able to spend more time there—is learning all these words in Czech that I’m never going to use again. Knihy, for example. Book. Vlak, train. Dĕvka, bitch.

On the train to Vienna, we passed Blansko, where there was a lake of green water alongside a black cliff, almost like a quarry. The vines and tree branches stretched towards the water, a verdant waterfall. Sunbathers on its “shore.” What was I doing cooped up on the train again?

Worse, the rain that had annoyed us in Prague followed us to Vienna, where it had gathered strength and now came down in a fury. What I imagined to be a beautiful, classic city was washed out in gray clouds, falling sheets of water. Not to mention that it was a Sunday, and almost the entire city had closed down. This is what Catholicism hath wrought. Where’s the Reformation when you need it?

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 Europe) and muttered, “Please stop raining.” A young, blonde waiter came to take our order, and we sent him away because we hadn’t decided yet. Big mistake, because we never saw him again. No, really. He left the café entirely. One moment he was serving customers; the next, I didn’t see him whatsoever in a cursory sweep of the inside. We speculated that he’d been fired by the grumpy middle-aged waiter, because the older one kept getting more and more frazzled as the night went on. He was the only server, and he cleared tables with a violent sweep of his hands, oftentimes spitting out mysterious German expletives. He finally wandered back outside when prompted by a table impatient to pay the bill. And while our hot chocolates certainly delicious, I had to track him down in order to settle—€4 for each drink. The experience seemed questionable. Entertaining, but questionable.

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.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Greetings from TEREZIN, back to PRAGUE, Vinohrady

The first sunny day in Prague.

I fear that I’ve been using the word “ghetto” frivolously, letting it meaning “cheap” or “gaudy” or “trashy and full of bling.” But a day trip into Terezin reminds me that the word had a meaning long before it became associated with the contemporary African-American idiom. It will always mean a heavily populated area of a single ethnic or racial group, but in Terezin, I’m reminded of the darker implications of the word.

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 Prague, we went to Club Termix, a gay club that seemed to have a high patron-to-prostitute ratio. Is it ridiculous to want an “authentic” gay experience in a foreign country? Because—from what I can tell—gay clubs everywhere are pretty much a monoculture. Who needs Esperanto when you have Madonna? Even though I suspect very few people there spoke English, everyone knew the lyrics for “Ray of Light.”

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 United States. A smattering of older men, some bearish types—no one danced with their shirts off, thankfully—but still dominated by young men in their 20s. The only difference was that I only saw two other minorities—two black men (not together)—and I was the only Asian.

Well, maybe it’s not that different from the US, come to think about it.

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.

Greetings from: Hradčany, Malá Strana

Every time I reach this section if town—the location of the Prague Castle—I have the irresistible urge to call it “hard candy.” Perhaps it’s simply too much Madonna on my mind. After all, there’s not a single area of the city that’s not painted or carved or scalloped or crenellated or otherwise adorned with statuary (or, alternately, studded with anti-pigeon spikes), and much of the imagery has religious symbolism: here, a pietà; there, a saint.

But Prague is also a dream for public, secular art: odd sculptures and murals appear with regularity. So whether it serves as a memorial (disintegrating victims of Communism in Malá Strana) or serves a mysterious function (a pendulum of the oversized metronome) or serves up a slice of a surreal (mutant babies crawling up the television towers), art is everywhere, and you eyes can never rest in one place. A city of beautiful distractions. In front of the Kafka Museum (a multimedia extravaganza with some installations that remind me of bad student films), two fountains in which the water flowed out of the penises of the statues.

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.

The Prague Castle complex itself requires an exorbitant admission fee (about 350 kč for the deluxe package), but the heart of the area—St. Vitus Cathedral—has no fee whatsoever. So, even though we all know that the Cathedral is God’s home, He’s made Himself a wonderful conversation piece with the six stained glass windows that explode out of the dark recesses. Other parts of the Cathedral may seem excessive (a tomb made of solid silver?), but the windows illuminate the soul as much as the world.

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.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Greetings from: Staré Mĕsto, Josefov

I consider myself relatively tolerant of other religions, particularly when they’re tolerant of me in turn. Thus, Prague, with its strong traditions of Catholicism and Judaism, comes as a sigh of relief, even if they haven't sat comfortably next to each other in history. Indeed, right in the center of the Old Town is a statue dedicated to Jan Hus, the guy who was way into Reformation before Luther made it all mainstream and cool.

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.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Greetings from: PRAGUE, Charles Bridge, Kampa

Anyone who hasn’t played “gay or Eurotrash” should really give it a try. It only more challenging once you’re in Europe itself; the men are generally well-dressed and wear interesting—if not always great—shoes. I guess the feeling of foreignness is endemic to travel, especially when faced with a language that has strange diacritical marks over non-vowels. On the bus ride from the airport, Matthew pointed out the old Soviet-style block housing, Communist tenements, before Prague finally gives way to its own storied history and red-tiled roofs.

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.