Monthly Archives: April 2019

Berlin: A High Fashion Photoshoot and the East Side Gallery

We needed to catch the 8:30 am train from Prague to Berlin and the train was late. First a ten minute delay followed quickly by another ten. Then sixy minutes. Then ninety. Finally the departures sign showed a 120 minute. We waited anxiously. West’s fashion photoshoot for Noon magazine with photographer Mark Peckmezian and stylist Brian Molloy (remember West had been scouted when we were previously in Berlin). Over the past week we had been coordinating with Webber (Mark Peckmezian’s representation) about getting West to the shoot. It was an all day event and we had told them we could only arrive by Noon. To maximize West’s time they were sending a car to pick us up at the train station and deliver us (and all our luggage) directly to the studio. Now we were running two hours late.

Right on delayed time the train arrived and departed just as quickly again for the four hour trip to Berlin. The train ride from Prague to Berlin, epecially the sections along the Elbe and through Dresden, were lovely.

We arrived in Berlin around 2:30 pm and found a car and driver waiting patiently for us.

We were delivered across Berlin to the dingy and decidedly punk rock neighborhood of Kreuzberg, home to artists (and their studios), thrift stores, coffee shops, and record stores! Upon arrival at the studio we saw the photographer and his crew busily photographing other scouted models. West was quickly whisked into a flurry of clothing, makeup, and bright lights.

Tawny stayed with West during his photo shoot. Tawny was suprised to see he was shooting on 120 film instead of shooting digitally. Meanwhile, Clara and I went out to explore Kreuzberg. We didn’t know where we were going but quickly found ourselves in an artsy neighborhood with several excellent record stores (Soultrade, Heisse Scheiben, and a punk rock one called Wowsville I loved. It doubled as a cafe and we got ourselves an afteroon coffee and a beer, talked (Dad to Daughter), and reviewed our haul of excellent LPs and 7″s). It was nice to spend an adventuresome afternoon exploring a Berlin neighborhood with Clara.

Eventually Clara and I made our way back to the photo studio to collect Tawny and West. The shoot was a wrap. They put us back in a car to deliver us to our hotel (Moxy Berlin, which I don’t recommend) located near the East Side Gallery. After settling into our tiny rooms we went for a sunset walk along the open air gallery of paintings on a large remaining section of the Berlin wall.

We founds ourselves at a restaurant called Michelberger (located in the Michelberger hotel) where we enjoyed a very innovative and at times avant-garde meal. In particular, the zander (which I’d never had before), rhubarb, broad beans, black garlic (first picture here) was transcendant.

It was an incredibly long day, but one filled with interesting experiences in every moment and around every corner. Tomorrow we’d head to Iceland for the next chapter of our European spring vacation.

Categories: Berlin, Europe, Prague | 2 Comments

A Family Reunion at Prague Castle

We rose early to take in a few sites before meeting my Slovakian ex-brother-in-law Sano around noon. A few short steps from our airbnb was Josefov (the Jewish Quarter of Prague) where we did a self-guided tour of the Jewish Museum of Prague (which consists of several historic synagogues which have been transformed into museums focused on different aspects of Jewish history in Prague and of the Jewish faith. We first visited the Pinkas Synagogue, which dates from 1535 but was turned into a memorial int he mid-late 1950s to 80,000 regional Jews murdered by the Nazis, as well as an exhibit of children’s drawings from the Terezín Ghetto. Both exhibits were profoundly sobering.

Next we visited the 600-year-old over-crowded Old Jewish Cemetary which was quite something to behold.

It was a brisk morning, so before heading to the railway station to collect Sano we stopped for a quick glass of hot svařák (hot mulled wine you can pick up from a street vendor in Prague). We were also tempted to buy a trdelník (think roasted doughnut filled with ice cream) and regret not giving into our impulses.

Once we had Sano with us we connected with Clara and West and made our way back across the Charles bridge to explore the Prague Castle. But first we stopped for a lunch deep in the catacombs of some restaurant dungeon we happened upon. One reason we ate there was because they had bryndzové halušky – The national dish of Slovakia! I remember Sano’s mother making this for me when I visited them in the early 1990s. We were also able to get some vegetable risotto, a vegetarian dish (a concept that was impossible to concieve of in Czechloslovakia back in the early 1990s). Sano and West being vegetarians we were glad to find these items on the menu.

After lunch we burned off our bryndzové halušky with the long hill climb up to the Prague Castle complex.

We headed towards St. Vitus Cathedral which I had visited back in 1991 and had incorporated the cathedral exterior into my college senior film project. But, I had never been inside. When we entered the cathedral I was entralled with the spectacular stained glass, including one by Alphonse Mucha who’s museum we had gone to yesterday. Sorry for all the pictures, but the glasswork was truly amazing and the weather perfect for illuminating it.

After St. Vitus we toured the decidedly less opulent 1099 year old St. George’s Basilica.

Our wanderings continued to the Golden Lane where castle workers once lived. At one time Franz Kafka even lived in one of these diminutive apartments. At the end of the lane there was a dungeon where castle prisoners were once kept (and confessions coerced).

We wandered down from the castle to find someplace for an afternoon coffee followed by a beer.

We stopped at a small cafe next to the Franz Kafka Museum where Clara and West went to spend an hour and Tawny and I caught up with Sano. The cafe along the Vltava river had the most spectacular view…from the men’s room…

We walked along the Vltava past the Charles Bridge and crossed back to the Old Town side on a quest to find Botas 66 sneakers – the original Czech sneaker. On the way we passed some new modern architectural styles that blended into the architectural mosaic that is Prague.

As we searched for a place to have dinner we found a vegan restaurant nearby and had a great meal, including vegan wine before heading in for the night. It had been a long and lovely day and great to reconnect with Sano again.

Categories: Europe, Prague | 1 Comment

Prague – A Sore Footed Walking Tour and a Black Light Theater

With only two full days in Prague we felt panicked about our ability to see it all. The neck-craining onslaught of architecutural eye-candy at every turn was almost to much to take in. The city of 100 spires seemed overwhelming, because beyond the spires every other building represents a textbook example of an architectural styles: Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassical, Art Nouveau, and Cubist (to name a few). It was hard to just get down the street.

We started our day in Old Town Square watching the Astronomical Clock strike 10:00.

We left Old Town Squared and decided to structure our experience of the city with a walking tour (narrated in our earbuds by Rick Steves) starting in Wenceslas Square (yes, Good King Wenceslas of Christmas carol fame). Lots of interesting history to Wencelas square (and architecture) but what was most interesting to me was that it was the site of the Velvet Revolution.

After our walking tour went to the Mucha Museum which featured a large colleciton of Prague’s native son. It was extraordinary. I was somewhat familiar with Alphonse Mucha but always thought his work was more commercial/graphic design oriented art nouveau than fine art. I didn’t realize how much detailed symbolism he put into his equistite beauties and how large some of them were. Unfortunately they didn’t allow photographs, but you can see the collection here.

We caught lunch nearby at a pintxos restaurant called Špejle that reminded us of our time in Barcelona.

After lunch we bought a few Czech eggs from a small market outside of our destination: the Museum of Communism which I’d highly recommend. It did a good job connecting the Habsburgs and WWI and their collapse to the creation of Czechloslovakia, WWII and the German Nazi occupation of Czechloslovakia, followed by the post-war Czechoslovak Socialist Republic (where most of the museum is focused) and ultimately the Velvet Revolution and birth of the Czech Republic. Definately worth a visit to get a sense of what life was like in Czechloslovakia during Communist rule.

As the afternoon wore on we walked back thru Old Town Square and then beyond towards the Charles Bridge. Along the way we stumbled upon a record store tucked away in an inner couryard – Disko Duck.

As we stepped out of the vinyl shop empty-handed (most of the records seemed imported from Japan so were very expensive) we happened upon the Ta Fantastika Black Light Theatre next door. Tawny had read about the many black light theaters across Prague and Ta Fantastika is known as one of the better ones. We bought ourselves some tickets for the 9:30 performance that night.

After tucking our tickets away we headed towards the Charles Bridge and restarted Rick Steves’ walking tour as we crossed.

On the opposite side of the bridge we took a quick detour to the John Lennon graffiti memorial which is as much about John Lennon as it is about fredom of expression and dissention against Communist rule.

We continued our walk along the Vltava River, past museums of art, boat rentals, and coffee shops to find the Dancing Houses; the collaboration between architects Vlado Milunić and Frank Gehry.

It was a very very very very long day of walking and our feet were very sore. I’m sure the Dancing Houses would have been more impressive if we had taken an Uber to see them instead of walking what was at this point over 11 miles throughout the day. But we soldiered on, walking to find someplace to eat. As we headed towards our Yelp chosed destination we happened past Mosaic House, who’s external artwork intrigued us and we decided to have dinner there instead.

It was nearly 21:00 hours and our TaFantastika black light theater performance of “Aspects of Alice” would be starting soon. Our feet were too sore for the walk so we called an Uber and had them drive us to the theater.

The turnout of the performance was sad – pathetic really. In a theater that might have seated 200 there were only 13 people in seats. Despite that the performance was excellent and we really enjoyed the timeless ingenuity of the black light performance concept.

After the performance they asked for volunteers to “learn the secrets of black light theater”. Clara and West raised their hands and were invited on stage to learn the trade…

West performing black light theater
Clara flies like Alice.

It was such a long day and we did and saw so much of Prague. Our feet hurt so much they may as well have been bloody stubs. But the day ended on such a high note with the “audience participation” of Clara and West…it couldn’t have been a better day. With this momentum (and a glass of wine or two) we decided to do a walking tour back to Old Town Square and our Airbnb.

Categories: Europe, Prague | 1 Comment

Praha – Memories of Zappa’s final performance and copious amounts of cheap beer.

You know you’re on the right track when you see the original Budweiser (read of their legit claim for being the only real Budweiser) on tap in the restaurant car on your Czech train from Vienna to Prague. And the best part is a half liter only costs a few dozen Czech crowns (CZK).

The train also sold mini bottles of Slivovice of which I have both fond (and not so fond) memories from my time in what was then Czechloslovakia.

It was the summer of 1991, between my junior and senior year in college, and I was spending much of it with my sister who was living with her boyfriend in Bratislava. I had been in Prague for a few days exploring and had just returned to Bratislava when I heard Frank Zappa would be playing a concert in Prague the following night. I jumped back on the train and returned four hours to Prague to catch what would be one of the most transcendent moments – both musically and politically – of my life. Frank Zappa, having been named “Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture and Tourism,” by President Vaclav Havel, would be playing a concert to celebrate the last of the Soviet troops leaving the newly independent country. I remember seeing Vaclav Havel not 50 feet from me in the audience. The atmophere was electric and optimistic and the music full of face melting Zappa solos. What I didn’t know at the time is it would be also be one of Zappas’s last two (days apart) concerts before losing his battle with cancer in 1993. I was excited to return with my family to Prague.

We arrived at dusk and caught an Uber to our Airbnb which was centrally located in Old Town Square. We quickly laid down our bags and headed to the square to explore and find someplace to eat.

Our Airbnb host had suggested a local beer hall called Lokál Dlouhááá, which we were able to easily walk to. It was a chaotic place packed with patrons and no clear directions on how to get yourself seated. Tawny somehow finessed our names onto a seamingly hidden list and was able to get us seated within 5 minutes of our arrival. We drank our first half liters while we people watched other potential customers fumbling around trying to figure their system out. The food was simple and traditional (potato and bread dumplings, schnitzels, beef in gravy) and the beer local, inexpesive and plentify. It was a great way to start a return to a city I love.



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Unexpected Art and Friends in Vienna

Saturday morning Clara and West headed back to St. Stephen’s Cathedral to ascend the spire steps and descend into the depths of its catacombs. Meanwhile, Tawny and I set out to explore nearby Karlskirche. We had a few hours to kill before meeting with our high school friend Kudra who moved to Vienna years ago to pursue her acting career.

We bought a ticket to enter Karlskirche not really knowing what we were buying a ticket for. We followed a sign upstairs to see a small and uninspired display of religious artifacts. As we walked back down in disappointment we pondered asking for our money back. But then we noticed a door to the main church. Upon entering we were surprised to see two gigantic orbs suspended from the ceiling. It was an unexpected art display with a small queue waiting for an elevator to take you into the dome of the church to see the paintings on the ceiling up close as well as view the orbs from above. It was a very cool and impressive art exhibit.

As we exited the church we heard from Kudra and made arrangements to meet at St. Stephens where Clara and West already were. Once together we headed to Naschmarkt for lunch and to catch up on old times. It was a gloriously sunny and warm day. It seemed the whole city sprung from hibernation and the city buzzed with frühlingsgefühle. The market was packed and we took our time at lunch with a pint or two as we reminisced about old times and passed on the latest news of mutual friends.

After lunch, we connected Clara and West with Kudra’s daughter Ella who toured them around the city and introduced them to her friends. Meanwhile, instead of touring the typical sites of Vienna (Schönbrunn Palace, the Hofburg Imperial Palace, or the Giant Ferris Wheel, we opted instead to head to the Austrian countryside and the small village where Kudra lives to see her home and meet her husband Marcello. We enjoyed their company with a glass of wine (or two…or three) and an excellent dinner at a nearby Greek restaurant – Der Grieche.

Somehow through all that time together we neglected to get a picture of us all together. But I did get a picture of their cute snaggle-toothed cat and their tireless dog.

It was great seeing Kudra, meeting Marcello, and having Ella show Clara and West around the city. But it had been a long day and Marcello graciously offered to take us back to Vienna and drop us at our hotel. “Where are you staying?” We told him Hotel Imperial. When he drove us to that neighborhood and I pointed to the hotel he commented, “I thought you were kidding. That’s where all the rich and famous stay when they visit Vienna!”.

The next morning we had a few more hours to kill before heading to the train station for our 4.5-hour journey to Prague. While Clara and West went to see the orbs of Karlskirche, we headed to The Secession museum to see Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven FriezeIt was impressive and beautiful. While there we also encountered some unusual and more challenging art.

After the Secession, we stopped by Aida for a piece of Viennese pastry before heading to the train station. Bussi, Baba! Vienna. Next stop Praha.

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Do Widzenia Kraków, Grüß Gott Vienna

With dwindling morning hours we wandered the cobbled streets and alleys of Kraków to bottle as much charm as we could carry (along with a painting or two) and have one last pint of piwo before heading to the airport. Do Widzenia Kraków. We’ll miss you.

After an hour delay at the Kraków airport (courtesy of Austrian Airlines) we landed safely in Vienna – Grüß Gott Vienna!. We checked into Hotel Imperial, once the summer palace for Duke Philipp of Württemberg and his wife Archduchess Maria Theresa. This is apparetly where the rich and famous (and infamous) stay when in Vienna. To our surprise we had been upgraded to a couple of suites, (the Maisonette, and the Junior Executive) each with top floor views of Karlskirche and Karlsplatz.

After settling into our luxury accomodations we headed out for dinner walking the Ringstraße side streets looking for someplace to eat. After failing to get into several restaurants (for lack of reservations) we settled on a simple local brewpub where we could get a good schnitzel. If in Seattle you can’t throw a rock without hitting a Starbucks, in Vienna you can’t throw a cobble without hitting a schnitzel.

After dinner we wound through back streets and alleyways past black tie receptions and art openings in grand buildings with even grander façades until we happened upon the grandest of all – St. Stephen’s Cathedral . Although it was late the church was still open so we went inside and found an stunning art exhibit by Peter Baldinger called Sky of Stones. It was the first of several art exhibits we’d stumble upon in our short weekend in Vienna.


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Salt, Groats, and a Mea Culpa

Our day started early, where dawn met drizzle. It was an appropriately damp and somber setting to see Auschwitz and Birkenau (which I’ll blog about separately). A punctual driver picked us up at our apartment right on schedule. We had booked ourselves into a small tour (~20 people). It would be a long day, not because of the hour and a half drive from Kraków to Auschwitz (and hour and a half back), but because of the harrowing and spirit-crushing hours touring the brutality and atrocities of the Nazi’s extermination camps. Knowing this, we had booked an extension of our tour with an add-on. To lighten the weight of our collective loss of faith in humanity, we had intentionally booked a trip that would end with a tour of the UNESCO’s World Cultural and Natural Heritage listed Wieliczka Salt Mine.

The several hour tour would take us to depths of 135 meters (443 feet), and to 20 chambers spread across 3km (1.86 miles) – a mear 5% of the overall mine dating back to the mid-13th century.

Our journey started with a dramatic descent down nearly 60 flights of stairs, to our initial depth of 64 meters (210 feet).

The legend of the salt mine is that Kinga, (who was later canonized the patron saint of salt miners as St. Kinga) the daughter of the King of Hungary Bela IV and wife of Polish ruler, Boleslaw V, threw her engagement ring in a Hungarian salt mine and it magically made salt appear in Poland (as well as her ring). To commemorate this legend (as well as political, religous, and other figures) miners carved rock salt sculptures in large chambers throughout the mines.

Our descent continued to a chapel built by and for the miners. During long stays in the mine it gave them a place to workship.

The most incredible chamber on the tour, at 331 feet deep, was the Chapel of St. Kinga – 67 years in the making (by 3 master miners who had been promoted to do the work). It held dozens of carved salt statues, a salt floor carved to look like tile, and even salt chandeliers.

The next major chamber we came to was held up by an incredible latticework of pine timbers.

Our tour ended with a further ascent to a restaurant, bar, and gift shop some 443 feet below the surface before we were able to catch the fast ascending elevator ride back to the surface.

As we headed back to Kraków we looked for places to eat near the Old Town Market. We stumbled across an interesting looking restaurant called Dobra which focused on building meals around varied types of groats.

After dinner we headed to Pod Badanami to see some live music with Mea Culpa & Jazz Roosters whom we had heard about the night before. While listening to jazz standards in Kraków seemed odd (although there is a long history of jazz in Poland), the band was good and the venue (in the catacombs beneath Old Town Market Square) made it even better.

Categories: Europe, Krakow | 1 Comment

Wawel Hill & Castle, Poland

Wednesday we woke to brisk blue skies which afforded us a glorious (but crisp) day in Kraków. As it turned out, our tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau was Thursday (I had it wrong), and that gave us another full day to explore the city.

Clara and West left early to find their breakfast amongst the fabled Milk Bars of Kraków, as we headed out for more cobbled wanderings of the old town back streets. We popped into various shops (Pepita purses, Pączki, Polish pottery, another coffee, maybe a beer) as we meandered our way towards Wawel Hill (where in the caves thereunder the mighty dragon Smok Wawelski once lived) and then atop to Wawel Castle where we met up with Clara and West for a self-guided tour of the state rooms, and a guided tour of the royal private apartments. Unfortunately the caverns below the castle wouldn’t be opened until later in April.

The castle didn’t allow photos, so I have none to share. But the tapestries were epic (especially the Noah’s Ark series which proves that unicorns and dragons made it on the Ark), the coffered ceilings amazing (in particular the “head room” ceiling where carved wooden heads stare down upon you watching your every move (presumably to keep you from taking pictures of them). One thing of particular note was the leather wallpaper, all hand tooled. It was a castle full of treasures and artifacts from the 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th century, so it wasn’t hard to be impressed.

After storming the castle we made like peasants and went to a nearby inn to fill ourselves on pints of ale and

As the low sun turned sherbet in the west we made our way back to the old town market square with a quick stop at the Church of St. Peter and Paul.

Once back in the old square we enjoyed the sunset on St. Mary’s and the Town Hall and some additional shopping before heading out again.

We had a quick drink and appetizer at Czeczotka Bar before trying to get into Harris Piano Jazz Bar. We had put in an online reservation, but apparently not early enough. All the tables were taken when we arrived. Our plan B was to see if there was live music at Piwnica Pod Baranami, but they didn’t have any music that night and suggested we come back tomorrow to see Mea Culpa and Jazz Roosters. We made a plan of it.

We wandered the back streets of Kraków looking for some Polish food. We settled on an interesting place called Zalimianki by Polish celebrity chef Ewa Wachowicz where we had our first bottle of Polish wine and enjoyed an innovative menu of updated regional dishes.

Categories: Europe, Krakow | 1 Comment

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