Malá Skála, Czech Republic

About an hour Northeast of Prague is a small village called Mala Skala. Located in an area called Český ráj, or in English, Bohemian Paradisethis is a gem of a spot, especially when you need a break from city living. The natural landscape plus the idyllic town is exactly the kind of place I’d buy a vacation home if I could. It’s small and less visited by tourists than the other towns in the area, but there’s plenty to do – hiking, biking, boating. And it’s easy to get to the other towns in the area by train or biking. But honestly, if I go back, I’d rent a car so I can get off the beaten path a bit in the area. We only spent a short time here, but my friend and I were very wowed by the experience!

View of the Vranov-Pantheon above Mala Skala.

View of the Suché Skály rock formations above a field of bleating sheep.

Mala Skala from above

Just somebody’s backyard statue. You know, as you do.

 

Above the village is the ruin of  Vranov Castle. The castle was built in the beginning of the 15th century and was one of the last castles to be built in the region. The castle experienced great decay over the years and what is left is truly a ruin, but it allows the visitor so much imagination. I highly recommend exploring.

We found a set of precarious stairs, which of course we climbed. Anxiety level: high.

Remnants of a wall.

At the top of the castle ruins is a newer structure, built in the early 1800’s by an entrepreneur who dedicated the site and areas around the castle to legendary poets, events, historical personalities, etc. This section of Vranov is called the Pantheon. Here, my height anxiety would only allow me to tread so far as the stairs were narrow and steep.

Entrance to the ruins which were “updated” in the 1800’s.

The Pantheon

View of Mala Skala from the Pantheon

 

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A Prague Finale

I’ve been remiss at updating my blog since I got home. The last couple of days in the Czech Republic were a whirlwind, and then of course there’s the whole recover from jet lag and catch up on life at home. But I haven’t forgotten my duties to update you all!

Overall, Prague gets an A from me, the only way it could be an A+ is to reduce the number of other tourists there, but we can’t have it all, can we? I’ve already told you about a couple of the highlights, but here are some smaller stops along the Prague tour.

The Mucha Museum

Dedicated to the work of Alphonse Mucha, this is a small but lovely little museum in Old Town. I’ve always been a fan of Mucha’s Art Nouveau style, which was popular between 1890 and 1910. Mucha in particular was well known because he brought the style into everyday objects, movie posters, wallpaper, and cookie tins. But he also designed stained glass for St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague.

 

Designs for St. Vincent Cathedral

Sarah Bernhardt asked Mucha to do most if not all of her movie posters.

The Miniature Museum

This is a teeeensy tiny little museum that will boggle the mind. This is the largest collection of microminiatures in the world. yep, “microminiatures.” You should check out their stuff here, it’s more impressive in these photos than mine.

Can you see it yet?

Camels in the eye of the needle!

The Charles Bridge

The Charles Bridge was built between the 12th-15th centuries, replacing an older bridge. It is easily one of the most visited places in Prague, and it’s really best not to go in the middle of the day. We went in the morning and then later in the early evening, and there were still plenty of people to contend with. The statues on the bridge were added between the 15th and 16th century, the only original artifact being from the 1300’s is a cross that had additions to it later (see below). In reality, all of the statues on the bridge today are replicas, the originals are in the National Museum for protection from the elements.

Statuary of the St. Cross with Calvary, the Hebrew was added later as an insult to the Jewish population of the city.

The Astronomical Clock

The Astronomical Clock in Prague is the oldest running clock in the world. Built in 1400, it’s also the 3rd oldest astronomical clock in the world. Visitors to the Old Town Square can see it running every hour on the hour. Of course, it is the 12 apostles one sees bestowing their visage to the masses.

Prague-ress Report

There are so many options for history, art, and culture lovers in Prague, it can be difficult to choose what to see if you only have a short amount of time. Here I review two historical spots, both very different both in my expectations and my actual experience.

The Museum of Communism wasn’t on the top of my list, I tend to be much more interested in history before the 1900’s and recent history is for sure not at the top of my list. But it was open late and my friend wanted to go so I figured why not?

Karl Marx

I was just a kid when the Berlin Wall fell and Communism in Eastern Europe ended. I remember hearing bits and pieces and understanding that it was a good thing but not comprehending much more than that. Even as an adult, I know very little about the rise of Communism, it’s affects on society and individuals, and it’s eventual end. I recently heard an episode of The Moth Radio Show in which they interviewed an older gentleman who had not only lived through it, he had also survived being interrogated. He recounts the hours of torture until he finally lost his will and confessed to crimes he did not actually commit. It was hard enough to listen to, you can imagine my hesitation on going to an entire exhibit on it.

I think this will be my new dating profile picture

The exhibit was extremely well done, plenty of information in a well structured overview. I think what was most important for me was the reminder that this could happen again, and sadly, in some places, it still is happening. This is one of the unexpected gems of Prague, one that I would move up to a “do not miss” if you are in the city for at least three days.

This.

On the other hand, I had been looking forward to seeing The Prague Castle. Maybe it was a lack of planning. Or maybe it was the fact that the place was genuinely packed on account of us being there on a free day, but either way I did not have the amazing experience here I was expecting.

First off, we followed google maps to get there, which had us enter on the Golden Lane side of the castle. The Golden Lane was where the defenders of the castle, servants, and goldsmiths lived. These 16th century dwellings are truly the original tiny houses. One of them is also where Frank Kafka lived there from 1916-1917. I think this would normally be a great place to visit, but the crowds made it very hard for me to enjoy.

Golden Row

Upstairs however was a cool exhibit of military wear from the 16-1700’s. Unfortunately, because we followed google maps, we learned that you can’t get to the main part of the castle from the Golden Lane, so we had to exit and walk all the way around to get to the normal entrance, not a short or easy walk, mind you.

Is this supposed to scare the enemy?

The main thing to see at the palace is St. Vitus Cathedral, which was built starting in 1344. Note that it wasn’t officially finished until 1929 due to historical events such as the Hussite Wars.

The cathedral is neo-gothic with some pretty great gargoyles, but my favorite part is the Mucha stained glass window.

These gargoyles spewed rainwater on us.

Mucha!

There is a ton more to see at the palace, but we couldn’t find any good maps or information. That coupled with the hoards of people meant that we chose not to see much more. We did go into The Story of the Prague Castle which was a good exhibit but they don’t allow photography. Overall, if you are going to Prague and want to visit the castle, I would recommend either doing a lot of research before going or hiring a guide to walk you through.

Stunning

Prague Jewish Quarter – Josefov

The Jewish Quarter, or Josefov as it is called, is an absolute must visit for anybody visiting Prague and I can easily say it is one of the most well laid out exhibits I have ever seen considering how many centuries it spans and how many sites there are to see.

Josefov was founded in the early 11th century, though Jews had settled in the area sometime in the 900’s. In 1215, a mandatory segregation of Jews was enforced and the district grew considerably, into a ghetto. The first stop on the tour of Josefov takes you to The Maisel Synagogue which was originally built in 1592 as a private place of worship but after burning down was built again in 1689. It now serves as Prague’s Jewish Museum offering visitors an overview of Jewish history in the city.

What started as a badge of Shame in the 13th century became a badge of honor for the Jews later.

A receipt from the 1500’s

Next is the Pinkas Synagogue which was built in 1535 and now serves as a memorial to the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia who were murdered by the Nazis in WWII. 77,297 names cover the walls in this sobering exhibit. A cantor can be heard chanting out their names. This is a very emotional exhibit, especially when you go upstairs to see the Children’s Art Exhibit, art created by kids in the Terezin Labor Camp from 1942-44 under the direction of Mrs. Friedl Dicker who hid the works before being sent to her death at Auschwitz.

Just when you need a break to process and recover from what you have just experienced, you exit directly into the Old Jewish Cemetery. This was the only place Jews were able to bury their dead until 1787, the oldest grave being from 1439. There are 100,000 bodies estimated to be buried here, some as many as 10 people deep due to Jewish customs prohibiting moving the dead. They literally just added new laters of dirt over old tombs to make room for more. In WWII, Hitler destroyed most Jewish cemeteries, using headstones for target practice. He left this one untouched because he planned the area to be a museum to an extinct race.

After a breather to process everything, we went to the next stop on the tour, the Klausen Synagogue which was built in 1602. It now serves as a museum to Jewish customs and festivals.

The Ceremonial hall next door was built in 1911 for the Burial Society as a place to wash and prepare the dead for burial. The exhibit inside walks you through the process and rituals of the burial.

The Old New Synagogue is the oldest active Synagogue in Europe, built in 1270 by local Christians since Jews were not allowed to build anything at the time. This is an excellent example of Medieval construction, but it is also interesting for its legends. It is said that Rabbi Yehudi Loew wanted to protect his congregation from persecution in the 1500’s so he fashioned out of clay and brought it to life be putting a magic tablet in its mouth. It worked until one day the Golem went crazy and the Rabbi had to remove the tablet and hid the Golem in the Synagogue.

The Christian builders had to figure out how to divide the ceiling into 5 to keep it from looking like a cross.

Finally, we finished at the Spanish Synagogue which is, aesthetically speaking, my favorite. It was built in 1867 in the Moorish Style which originated from Spain.

Classical Music and Art Nouveau

Prague may be known for its history and stunning cityscape, but what drew me to Prague was classical music and art nouveau.

With a free place to stay (Thanks Nicholas!), I opted to start my tour of the city with a little bit of both.

As somebody who loves both music and history, I found the epitome of concerts, blending both history and local composers. I am pretty sure they do this just for the tourists, but it was worth it. Here’s the lineup for the concert I attended:

1. Mozart: Marriage of Figaro Overture – This piece was played by the Prague Symphony during Mozart’s first trip to Prague in 1778 where it was seen as a smashing success despite falling flat at its debut in Vienna.

2. Smetana: Vltava – Smetana was a Czech composer in the mid-late 1800’s, a time when the country was moving toward independence. His music is over all very nationalistic. Vltava, from the larger piece “Ma vlast” or “My Country” is the quintessential Czech composition. Vltava, or The Moldau is a major river running through the country. This is also my favorite piece of the three played.

3. Dvorak: Symphony No 9. – Antonin Dvorak is another Czech composer, in the later 1800’s and early 1900’s, he’s the more well known of the two major Czech composers. Dvorak used many motifs and folk music from Bohemia, but incorporated them with other styles. Symphony No 9., also known as “From The New World” is a thought to be a merging of old classical styles with Dvorak’s experiences in America, possibly merging his style with African American spiritual motifs.

Finally, I heard all of this at the famous Municipal House, Smetana Hall with it’s Art Nouveau style, opened in 1912. Prague is a center of the style because of the influence of Alfons Mucha who I will write more on later!

Stonehenge

In high school, I lived very close to a Stonehenge replica at the Washington/Oregon border. I’ve spent a fair amount of time up there, wandering and viewing the Columbia River Gorge alone and with friends. The replica imagines what the original Stonehenge looked like in it’s full glory. So to be honest, I wasn’t expecting to be wowed in the way I was when I finally saw the actual Stonehenge. I was pleasantly surprised!

Like many of us, I grew up learning that Stonehenge was built by the Druids, but it in fact predates the Druids by thousands of years. It was built starting 5,000 years ago in the Neolithic period, and the site includes much more than the stones you see in these photos. This area was clearly important to the Neolithic peoples for some time, and in fact the earliest structures in the area appear to be from about 8000 BCE! There are also a number of burial mounds in the area.

One of two original stones Marking what was the entrance.

The large stone that make up the outer circle of Stonehenge came from about 20 miles away North of the site, but the inner “bluestones,” named because the have a bluish hint when wet, came from the Welsh coast, near where we went hiking just days before! What baffles me is that these early people’s not only knew of the existence of the stones they needed, they had the engineering skills to cut and transport them from hundreds of miles away.

The exhibit at Stonehenge is also excellent providing lots of information about people who built Stonehenge, their tools, and the burials found there.

Take the Waters in Bath!

My dear friend who I visited in Wales was smart enough to book us a couple of nights in Bath, with one full day to explore the city, we were sure to hit the highlights starting with, of course, the Jane Austen Center. Jane lived in Bath for about 5 years but the city clearly mattered greatly to her as it appears in every one of her novels. In fact, Bath hit its height in the 17th century and walking around the city you could believe you were still in the Georgian era. The architecture is so clearly from then, it’s as if the city itself just transported through time. I am sorry to say I didn’t get a ton of pictures of the city itself but here are a couple.

The main attraction for us in Bath is the Roman Bath itself. As a history nerd, I was delighted to see three eras come together in this exhibit. Visitors start in the modern period, viewing the baths from a new platform built rather recently. Walking around the main bath, there are additions from the 1700’s, statues of famous Roman men. And finally, looking all the way down, you see the original Roman bath itself. You can also see where the water level was raised in the 18th century for deeper immersion.

What I didn’t expect was how large the complex is. Walking below, to the level of the main bath is a series of rooms, saunas, and cool rooms for a full spa experience. I had been to a Roman bath before, both in Italy and in Turkey, but I had seen nothing this complex and so well maintained through the centuries.

The water in the baths comes from deep underground aquifers where is it warmed by geothermal energy to 156-204 degrees Fahrenheit! It’s possible the site of the baths were used by the Celts, but we know for certain that the Romans dedicated the site to the Goddess Sulis (Minerva). The Temple was built around 60 AD and the baths were added over the next 300 years.

The baths were used throughout the medieval ages as a site of healing by local monks. But their full glory didn’t come into being again until it became a popular spa town and later a fashionable vacation place.