Friday, November 20, 2015



On our recent European trip, we visited both the Czech Republic and Slovakia.  They used to be the same country, Czechoslovakia.  A few years ago, in 1993, the Slovaks, ethnically different from the Czechs, voted to secede and form their own country.  Unlike the U.S., there was no civil war, and today they have good relations with each other.  The Slovakians started off behind the 8-ball, but now, Slovakia is one of the most prosperous countries in Europe.  There are several reasons for this.  The Slovakians switched from a centrally planned economy to a free market economy, and they lowered business taxes.  As a result, they attracted large amounts of foreign investment, especially in heavy industry.  We saw steel mills and large automobile plants making Volkswagens, Peugeots and Kia.

We visited Slovakia twice--first from Poland through Slovakia to Budapest; then from Austria, through Bratislava, to Prague.  The countries in Europe aren't very big, so we could comfortably visit three countries in a day.  We enjoyed the drive through the countryside where we could see medieval castles overlooking the valleys.  We did get stalled for a half hour watching 6 laborers pour concrete at a bridge construction site.  One or two could have done the job quicker.  Some things are the same in every country.

The ubiquitous symbol of Slovakia is the Slovakian Double Cross which is also called the Cross of Lorraine.  It was the symbol of the Knights Templar during the Crusades.  On the Slovakian coat of arms and national flag, it appears as a white cross with two horizontal bars on a blue and red background. 

The Slovakian capital, Bratislava was named by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson (I'm serious) just after World War I when Czechoslovakia was carved out of the Austria-Hungarian Empire.  Wilson supported Czech self-determination as part of his broad League of Nations plan.  American Slovaks had proposed alternate names for the city like "Wilsonov" and "Wilsonstadt", but the pizazz wasn't there.  The city has been around for a long time.  It used to be known by its German name, Pressburg, because it was populated largely by ethnic Germans.  This was a major problem on the eve of World War II when it gave the German Nazis a pretext to take over, with the acquiescence of British Prime Minister Chamberlain.  It gave the term Double Cross a whole new meaning.  Bratislava means something like "brotherhood of the Slavs."  The name had actually been proposed in the 19th Century by Slovak historian and poet Pavel Satarik. 

We ate lunch in the old, medieval, section of Bratislava, which is built in the shadow of a large castle.  In Central Europe, the people eat lots of meat with heavy sauces.  We ate at the Carne Valle restaurant where we were served a delicious leg of lamb and goulash which was very good.  On the same street are several trendy sidewalk cafes. 

Walking around Old Town, we encountered an unusual tourist attraction, a bronze statue of a sewer worker peeking out of a manhole, presumably up ladies' dresses--the Slavic Ed Norton.  There were many tourists present on the day we visited, particularly a group of snickering Asian tourists who snapped about 5000 photos of this sculpture.  The craft show down the block showcasing the work of local artisans brought in many tourists.  Across the street is the Slovak National Theater, and catty corner, for after the opera, McDonalds. 


The Czech Republic is composed essentially of Bohemia and Moravia which were also separate countries at one time or another.   Prague is in Bohemia.  It is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.  My son Darryl spent some time in Prague a few years ago attending the world puzzle convention.   The Czechs are big fans of former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright who was born in Prague.

We stayed at the Mark Hotel on the edge of the old city.  The Mark is considered a modern boutique hotel with a pretty courtyard.  The hotel appeared to be furnished by Ikea--every piece of furniture had sharp edges.

About 50 meters down Hybernska Street from our hotel was a restaurant, the Potrefena Husa, famous for the Big Jud.  It was going to be our Man vs. Food moment.   The Big Jud is like the Big Mac or the Big Mick, only bigger.  It is a one pound burger patty piled high with cheddar cheese, onions, tomatoes, pickles, lettuce, bacon and cocktail sauce--on a sesame seed bun.  They didn't ask if we wanted fries with it--it comes with fries.  The fries are au gratin with tartare and blue cheese and brie.  I take the tartare well done.   The Big Jud will set you back about 11 bucks.  They might want to keep a cardiologist on staff.

As I said, we did some serious eating on the trip.  In the evening, we took a taxi with friends to the U Modre Kachnicky (Blue Duckling) Restaurant where we feasted on the local specialty, roast duck.  Former Czech President Vaclav Havel used to eat there regularly.  He had good taste, and so did we.

Euros are not accepted in the Czech Republic.  Their currency is the Koruna (crown) , 24 to the dollar.  One crown equals 100 hellers.  The problem is, since 2008, although hellers are incorporated into the prices, nobody gives change anymore, instead they round up or down to the nearest crown.

A short walk from our hotel through the medieval Powder Tower, we entered the cobblestone streets of Old Town Prague.  Next to the Powder Tower is the Art-Nouveau Municipal House.  More on that later.   The weekend we were there, the locals held a craft show nearby, and we browsed through the booths. Popular items included garnet jewelry, wooden toys and handmade clothes and scarves.  Our hotel provided bicycles for rent, but the ride on the cobblestones is extremely bumpy.  We elected to walk.


Prominently displayed in the spacious Old Town Square of Prague is a statue of John Huss (1369-1415), a Czech priest who questioned Roman Catholic doctrine.  In the eyes of the Church, he was a real troublemaker.  He accused clergy, bishops and even Pope Innocent VII of various moral failings.  In those days, clergy and popes were often married, kept mistresses and took bribes.  Pope Innocent himself wasn't so innocent, and this stuff was hitting close to home.  Adding fuel to the fire, all of this occurred around the time of the schism, and there were two popes, one in Rome and the other, the antipope, in Avignon, France.  Innocent died in 1406, but his successor Gregory XII wasn't spared either, and finally he cracked down on Huss.

Huss had King Wenceslaus watching his back, but this time it didn't help.  For political reasons, the King embraced the antipopes in Avignon, Alexander V and later John XXIII (not his 20th Century namesake), but they were also trafficking in indulgences.   Huss' fiery sermons about this were stirring up the people, and the Bohemians were acting like, well, bohemians, staging sit-ins and rioting.  Huss was tried and burned at the stake for heresy, but he had started a movement which inspired later reformers like Martin Luther in the following century.  His followers, the Hussites were quite powerful.  They repelled 5 crusades against them in the following 20 years.  Eventually they worked out a compromise, and a century later, most Czechs continued to follow Huss' teachings.


The Clock Tower in Old Town Square draws throngs of people to watch the show.  Every hour on the hour, the doors on the clock spring open and a crowing rooster appears.  Thousands of people watch this every day.  What's crazy about the clock is you can't look at it and tell what time it is.  They didn't have digital clocks in 1410 when it was built.  People didn't really care what time it was; they just wanted to know the position of the rising and setting sun.

The clock has two dials, but not for minutes and seconds.  Rather the upper dial is astronomical (sun, moon, zodiac) and the lower dial is the calendar.  The mechanism for all this are three large cogwheels which turn independently on a single shaft.  The first wheel  with 365 teeth turns the zodiac hand; the second with 366 teeth turns the sun hand; and the third, with 379 teeth, turns the moon hand. 

The clock has been rebuilt several times over its long history.  In the 1866 restoration, they added next to the clock the figures of the 12 apostles, blessing the city at every hour.

The signs of the zodiac shift slowly around according to the Earth's precession.  The precession is the spinning of the Earth's axis relative to the stars.  When I say slowly, the precession takes about 26,000 years for the Earth to complete the cycle.   So we're in each sign for about 2150 years.  The clock will make the adjustment to the Age of Aquarius which is officially when the March equinox point moves from Pisces to Aquarius.  The problem is nobody knows exactly when that will occur, so they just say it will be "soon". 


The Eighteenth Century Estates Theater in Old Town Prague is notable because of its close association with Wolfgang A. Mozart.  The Oscar willing movie Amadeus, directed by the Czech Milos Forman was filmed in the theater for authenticity.  Mozart had conducted the world premiere of his opera Don Giovanni in this theater in 1787.   Like everything else in Old Town, this theater is rich in history and furnishings.  It is a museum but is still used for concerts, operas and ballets.  Don Giovanni is still performed there on a regular basis. 


Linking Old Town to the Prague Castle district is the historic Charles Bridge, lined with 30 statues, actually replicas of saints and patron saints popular around 1700 when they were sculpted.  The originals are now in the National Museum.  The bridge was built in 1357 by King Charles IV, and it replaced the Judith Bridge which was damaged in a flood.  Today its name is well established, but it wasn't called the Charles Bridge until 1870.  The bridge is over 2000 feet long and 33 feet wide.

One of the statues is that of John of Nepomuk who in 1393 was thrown off the bridge at the behest of good ol' King Wenceslaus and drowned in the Vltava River.  The story is that he was the Queen's confessor, but the King wanted him to divulge the secrets of the confessional.  John did what a good priest should do and kept his mouth shut.

His reward (?) for that was sainthood.  He is considered the first martyr of the Seal of the Confessional and a patron saint against floods and drowning.


Despite its mundane name, this art nouveau treasure was built in 1911 on the site of the Royal Court where monarchs would enter the city beginning in the 14th Century.  It is conveniently located a half block from our hotel.  The Czechs consider the Municipal House as the face of the city, and it is used as a convention center and concert venue.  The builders brought in famous artists like Alfons Mucha and others of his generation to decorate the halls and lounges.  We're talking Eclecticist and Secessionist works--modern art and architecture, if you will.  This was revolutionary in Europe at the turn of the 20th Century.

We walked through the elegant concert hall with its huge glass dome, the central Mayor's Hall, the restaurant and the exhibition halls, each one exquisitely decorated.  In 1918, the independent republic of Czechoslovakia was declared in this building.  In 1989, the Municipal House hosted the first meetings between the Communist government and the Civic Forum representatives, led by Vaclav Havel, later elected President of the country. 


We made our way through the rain over the slippery cobblestones to Lobkowicz Palace, an often overlooked tourist attraction in the Prague Castle complex.  It is notable for its extensive art collection (Bruegel, Caravaggio) as well as a significant gun collection and world class music collection.  We're talking original compositions by Beethoven and Mozart.  We ate dinner in the Palace.

As we were beginning dessert, a tall, thin nattily dressed 50-ish man strolled into the dining room.  Our tour guide Blake introduced us to Prince Lobkowicz who is not really a prince anymore; there are no titles in the Czech Republic.  His wife is a member of Romanian royalty.  According to his biography, he uses the title when he finds it professionally useful.

We were forewarned that his accent might be difficult to understand.  Fortunately his Boston accent was familiar to most of us on the tour, even us Midwesterners.  Prince, or Bill as we called him, is a personable guy and an entertaining speaker.  He was born and raised in New England and went to Harvard where he majored in European history.  He worked as a real estate broker in Boston.  His mother is from Kentucky.  Bill moved to Czechoslovakia in 1990 to reclaim the family fortune, but only after long and expensive litigation.  The Lobkowiczes originally owned 10 palaces scattered around the country; today there are four.  The family has lost and regained the property twice in the Twentieth Century.  Mr. Lobkowicz recovered the land, buildings and artifacts but no money to maintain them.  He owns them, but can't really sell them--they are national treasures.  Lobkowicz's passion is the restoration, maintenance and upkeep of these ancestral holdings.  To do that, the properties need income, and he has to run it as a business.  He was allowed to sell off some of the property to generate funds; on the remaining he operates a brewery (which was founded in 1466), a hotel, restaurants, tours and other businesses to generate income.

Bill Lobkowicz told the story about his father.  His father went to the doctor, and in the get acquainted stage, spoke of the family's castles and wealth.  He explained to the doctor that Queen Elizabeth II called him (Liz is on the phone!) to borrow some artwork.  The doctor heard enough, thought he was delusional and was ready to commit him.  Bill stepped in to save the day.

The Beethoven manuscript is the most valuable item in the palace.  It is Beethoven's Opus 55, Eroica Symphony, composed in 1804.  Beethoven planned to dedicate the symphony to Napoleon.   The problem with that, however, is that would require Beethoven to forego the fee he was promised by Prince Joseph Franz Maximilian Lobkowicz.   Money talks, and the manuscript is now in the Lobkowicz Palace.     While he was at it, Beethoven also dedicated his 5th and 6th Symphonies to the Prince.  The Lobkowicz ancestor also hung out with composer Joseph Haydn who wrote the "Lobkowicz" quartets (Opus 77). 


The Strahov Monastery, founded by St. Norbert in 1120 rests on a hillside outside Prague.  The religious order of the Premonstratensians is an independent part of the Catholic Church and has a long history in this abbey.  It was largely neglected under the Communists, but after the Velvet Revolution in 1989, it was returned to the Premonstratensians. 

The building is remarkable for its enormous library which contains approximately 200,000 books.  It includes 1500 inculabula, which are printed (not handwritten by scribes) books before 1501 which are rare indeed.   The oldest manuscript is the Strahov Gospel dating back to the year 860.  If you're a bookworm, you would have a field day at this library, assuming you can read Latin.  Most of the books date back to the Middle Ages and most need restoration.  You can't just browse in the stacks--the books are arranged double layered on shelves 20 feet high on two stories.  If you want a book, you have to ask the librarian for it.  He looks it up in the card catalog to figure out where it is.  They never heard of the Dewey Decimal System or the Library of Congress index.  You won't find current best sellers or racy novels here. 

The Theological Hall, completed in 1679 is stacked high with religious books.  It contains editions of the Bible translated in hundreds of languages.  Whether you want the Amheric or the English language version, it's probably here.

The Philosophical Hall was built in 1782 and contains thousands of volumes covering history, mathematics, philosophy, astronomy, etc.  It would take Evelyn Wood years to read through all this stuff assuming she could understand it.  The striking pastel frescoes painted on the ceiling by Austrian painter Franz Anton Maulbertsch are worthy of note.  They depict the history of mankind, from Adam & Eve to Noah, to Socrates, to Jesus, etc.

The other interesting part of the library was the large world globes created in the 17th and 18th Centuries.  At that time, California was thought to be an island, and Australia was discovered but not defined on the map other than part of the coastline. 

The Cabinet of Curiosities displays an eclectic arrangement of items including the remains of an extinct Dodo bird.  Other than that, it was purchased from the estate of a collector (hoarder?) in 1798.  These include collections of insects, minerals, sea animals, ceramics, wax replicas of fruit and even handcuffs.

To help pay for the maintenance, the monks operate a microbrewery restaurant where you can drink St. Norbert beer, either dark or amber, or eat Chicken St. Norbert which is roast chicken in beer sauce with red cabbage and dumplings. 


When you hear St. Vitus, you think of the dance.  I'm not trying to be irreverent or politically incorrect, but St. Vitus is  the patron saint of dancers and also actors, comedians and epileptics. 

The deal is that St. Vitus, who was Sicilian, was martyred at age 12, in the year 303.  He was dipped into a vat of hot oil.  His body went into convulsions.  Today, the neurological disorder known as St. Vitus Dance is called Sydenham's chorea.   In the Middle Ages, people celebrated his Feast Day (June 15th) by dancing before his statue.   His bones (of one hand, at least) were given to Wenceslaus, Duke of Bohemia in 925 and they rest in the cathedral today.  The Gothic style cathedral was begun in the 1200's and completed in 1929.  Something about getting permits from the bureaucrats at city hall.  Carved on the fa├žade is the architect wearing 20th Century clothes.

Situated next to Prague Castle, this stately cathedral has been the coronation site for Czech kings and queens for hundreds of years.


Prague Castle, dating back to the 8th Century, is one of the largest castle complexes in the world, and that's saying a lot in Europe.  During the Middle Ages, the castle was the king's court and essentially the capital of the country.  We saw the inner workings of the castle--huge books where the medieval lawyers, presumably wearing green eyeshades hunched over the desks in the dim candlelight, making entries in the Land Rolls.   The Land Rolls were the official law books of the Court of Justice, deciding on disputes regarding the property of the royal towns, aristocracy, the Church and the yeomen.  Peasants, of course, didn't own land.  Jews didn't either.  The Court of Justice also decided on cases of libel and homicide, and the rulings were recorded.  The Land Rolls also entered decrees of the Diet concerning the rights and freedoms of the land.  They had different books for different types of entries. 

Prague Castle was also the site of the Defenestration of Prague.  For the vocabulary challenged, defenestration means throwing something or somebody out of a window.  In this case it was somebody--the staunch Catholic royal governor Jaroslav Borita of Martinic who represented the Habsburgs along with his scribe Fabricius were literally thrown out of the window by a group of rebellious Protestant aristocrats.  Miraculously, by landing in a dung heap,  they survived the 70 foot fall with minor injuries. 

The country didn't fare as well.  This incident touched off the Thirty Years War, and Protestants squared off against Catholics in one of the greatest European conflicts of modern history.    The hapless Habsburgs found refuge nearby at--the Lobkowicz Palace.   We got to see the historic window--hey, its just a window.


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