Thursday, April 22, 2010

Prague's Jewish Quarter and Architecture

By Claire
Today was bright and sunny and when we got up and predicted to be 2° warmer. My ear muffs and jacket with liner plus gloves still came in handy until about mid-day when it warmed up to a comfortable temp. Tomorrow is expected to be almost balmy at 16°.

We started in the Jewish Quarter where we bought a ticket to see six sights in the area. The Pinkus Synagogue, the focus for me, had a large tour group heading in so we took off for sight #2, the Maiselova Synagogue, built in 1590-1592 and named for the mayor of the Jewish Town, Mordechai Maisel, who funded the extensive Renaissance reconstruction of the ghetto. I loved the beauty of the inside of this synagogue, and the gorgeous treasures saved by archivists who were ultimately killed in concentration camps.

We made our way back to the Pinkas. This is a place I had read about in Madeleine Albright's autobiography, Madam Secretary: A Memoir. She talked about finding her Jewish roots in Prague. Shortly after her confirmation, Albright's Czech cousin revealed to reporters at the Washington Post that Albright's family were Czech Jews and not Catholics as she believed, and that three of her grandparents had perished in concentration camps. Albright stated that she was not totally surprised by the news and was quoted in Newsweek as saying, "I have been proud of the heritage that I have known about and I will be equally proud of the heritage that I have just been given." A few months later, Albright flew to Prague, toured the Old Jewish Cemetery and the Pinkas Synagogue, and was honored by the Czech president.

After WW II, the synagogue was turned into a Memorial to the Jews of Bohemia and Moavia murdered by the Nazis. On its walls are inscribed the 77,297 names of the Jewish victims who were sent from here to the gas chambers at Auschwitz and other camps, their personal data and the names of the communities to which they belonged. These names cover two floors of the synagogue. Their crime? They were Jews.

The permanent exhibition "Children's Drawings from Terezin 1942-1944" is housed in the upper section of the synagogue. Among the Terezin prisoners there were over 10,000 children under the age of 15 at the time of the imprisonment. Of the 8,000 that were deported to the East, a mere 242 survived the wartime suffering. These drawings were chilling and heartbreaking. Several stand out--one is a picture of a hangman and another is of a guard whipping someone. Another very poignant one is called "return" and depicts the child leaving the gates of Terezin Concentration Camp while being greeted by cheering family members waving banners and flowers. The more we see of the suffering of the Jews, the more horrifying and real it becomes.

From there we walked through the Old Jewish Cemetery where from 1439 until 1787 this was the only burial ground allowed for the Jews of Prague. Tombs are piled on top of each other because of limited space, the sheer number of graves, and the Jewish belief that the body should not be moved once buried.

The next building housed the Ceremonial Hall and mortuary of the Old Jewish Cemetery and was built in pseudo-Romanesque style in 1911-12.

Our next stop was at the Spanish Synagogue, perhaps the most gorgeous religious building we have seen on this trip. This ornate Moorish-style building was built in the 1800s. The photos do not do it justice.

We took a break for lunch at the Franz Kafka Café, a perfect recommendation from Rick Steves. We each had spinach and dumplings and I added a bowl of chicken soup with homemade noodles which I shared with Chuck. I mean, we were in the Jewish Quarter! Isn't chicken soup required?

We finished our tour with the Klausen Synagogue--very interesting because it had artifacts from every day life.

Throughout this tour we took in the gorgeous collection of Art Nouveau architecture. Our dear friend David, who loves architecture, will regret spending so much on house renovations when he realizes he must come to Prague and then cannot leave.

I'm not sure what design this is but loved it.

We decided it was time to find and try out the Imperial Hotel Café, highly recommended to us by Karin, from Paros. Karin, how right you are! We loved it and gasped at the sight of all the gorgeous daily special desserts. Chuck picked his out immediately, something called Beze, made of layers of mergingue and some kind of sweet filling with nuts. I ordered a three coloured cofee, a layer of chocolate, a layer of coffee and a layer of foamed milk. It came with an elegant cookie.

We couldn't get enough of this gorgeous Art Deco building and interior.

Because we were just off Namesti Republiky, we decided to try out another recommendation from Karin and Michael: the men's bathroom at the Palladium shopping mall. We asked a couple of people if they knew where these "special" toilets were but they were puzzled when we tried to describe what we were looking for. We found the men's room and Chuck went in with the camera and was gone for quite awhile. I stood outside waiting while men kept going in. It suddenly occurred to me that I had sent him in to do a job that could be either dangerous or mortifying. But, Chuck is a real man and nothing stops him. None of the men inside seemed too bothered by a man taking pictures of the urinals. At least he waited until they weren't in use.

OK, now I know this is ridiculous, but we just had to try a recommended beer hall that Huw told us about, U Fleků brewery and restaurant. We walked in after a bit of a hike, and found a little more noise and entertainment that we expected. A guy on an accordian, people singing along, and the waiter bringing us dark beer almost instantly plus a shot glass of some kind of liqueur called Becherovka. The guy told us it was herbal and medicinal so I looked it up and here's what I found out:

It is an herbal bitters made in Karlovy Vary (German: Karlsbad) in the Czech Republic by Jan Becher. It is flavored with anise seed, cinnamon, and approximately 32 other herbs. Its alcohol content is 38% ABV (76 proof).

Becherovka is usually served cold and is often used as an aid to digestion. It may also be served with tonic water, a drink that is known as a beton (Czech for "concrete"). It is used in several former Eastern Bloc countries as a home remedy for arthritis and as an emetic.

We had a good time.

We walked a couple of blocks and jumped on the tram at the last second. Which reminds me--twice now we have had drivers ready to take off, open their doors for us. The first time was our bus. The doors were closed and he was literally starting to move. We tapped on the front door and he opened it. Only later did I realize that the next bus would not have come for an hour! The second time was a tram which also had its doors closed. We were certain we had missed it--the musical tone indicating it was ready to go played out but the guy must have seen us in his side mirror and he kindly opened the door. We like Prague.

Architecture is inhabited sculpture. ~ Constantin Brancusi


punkingee said...

Claire and Chuck,
I've been following your travelogue anonymously until now---going to school on your experiences. I just have to ask: how on earth have you kept track of all the places you want to visit? Really admire your ability to find so many places you enjoy after being on the road for months. Thanks for taking us along.

Chuck and Claire said...

Hi Marilyn,
Thanks for coming along! A lot of it was that 5 years of planning. I read a lot of travel blogs to get ideas of what to see and where to go. But, once we arrive in a place, a lot of it is from talking to other people, going to the Tourist Information, and of course, our Rick Steves' guidebooks. When we are in a new city, taking a walking tour really helps us figure out what things we want to go back to and spend some time.