Monday, July 27, 2015

Germany's Three-Rivers City: PASSAU

From the ship, across the green Danube in Passau, Germany
 Passau was the final stop on our whirlwind "Danube Waltz" river cruise, and frankly, since I'd never heard of it I figured it was just a convenient spot to disembark and head the the airport or jump on a bus to Prague. I was WRONG. Passau was a lovely town with a long history and beautiful Baroque buildings. I took many photos on our walking tour, starting with this one to show how close the ship pulls up to the town:
This was taken from the ship--we're almost downtown!
Passau's location at the confluence of three rivers makes it unique among Danube River cities and towns, and also put it on the map before there were maps. I took this shot of a postcard I bought showing Passau and it's three rivers, the Danube, the Ilz, and the Inn.
The centerpiece of town is yet another St. Stephen's Cathedral. Of course it is gorgeous, but it has a musical significance: the largest cathedral organ in the world! Actually, it is made up of five separate organs which can be combined from either of two consoles, one with five manuals (keyboards) or one with four. Each of these organs has a distinctive sound: the "Gospel" organ has a French organ sound, the "Epistle" organ has a South Italian Baroque sound, the choir organ sounds North German, and the Fernwerk organ sounds like an echo because the sound comes to the congregants through grates in the ceiling commonly known as "Holy Spirit Holes." Ha. The fifth organ is the main one which can sound any way it wants to because it is connected to the others through cables. We were able to attend a 30-minute concert, and I'm here to tell you that was a memorable experience! The organist, Bastian Fuchs, displayed the colors and timbres of that instrument by playing works of John Stanley, JS Bach, Percy Whitlock, Alexandre Guilmant, and Charles Marie Widor, roughly in chronological order. They could probably hear the concert over in Prague without any amplification.
Here are some of the 17,000 pipes.
And in case you are curious, and can't get there at noon in the summertime for a 30-minute concert, here are some Reger tunes for you:

The church is one of the most beautiful we'd seen in the cities and towns on the Danube. I know you are wondering why the cathedral looks Italian Baroque, and I've already mentioned that Passau has a long history stretching back beyond the Middle Ages. This is because there was a huge fire in 1662 which burned the whole town. When the people rebuilt the town, they followed the prevailing style which was Italian Baroque, and if I'm not mistaken, I think I read somewhere that they hired some Italian architects and builders to help out.

More views of St. Stephen's:

The front of St. Stephen's Cathedral

The gilt pulpit dates from 1720
An unusual sundial in the courtyard--can you figure out how it works? (Hint: look at the window above the painted braid.)

Facing the sundial in the courtyard is a display of grave markers. After your descendants aren't around to pay for the upkeep of your grave or tomb, your bones are moved elsewhere and your marker, if distinctive, is kept on display. This makes room for new arrivals in the crypt.
An ancestor of Captain Georg von Trapp had a marker made to look like a locket.
I have to admit that when I was there, I missed what the tour guide said this next building was. We wore earpieces for every tour where we'd hear our own guide talking about the sites, but if we strayed to far, we'd lose contact. Chances are I paused to snap a few photos and didn't hear her say that this lovely building is the Neue Residenz, or the New Residence for the prince bishops since 1730. (This why I purchase a little booklet of each city's sites while I'm there: "OH! That's what I saw!!")
The Neue Residenz, 1730

The Baroque staircase in this building was to-die-for elegant, but not easy to photograph.
The famous Baroque staircase in the Neue Residenz
I didn't get any photos of the Rathaus, or Old Town Hall, because I was too close to it and never caught sight of it from a distance. (Does that make sense?) But we did see a bride and groom coming out of it (in Germany the real marriage takes place in the Rathaus in regular clothes, sometimes during the week, and the big celebration with white dresses, etc. happens later.)
A newly-married couple attracting attention at the Rathaus
Just above where the bride was standing is the town's flood record (i.e. water levels)
Passau's second most-photographed building is probably the "Veste Oberhaus," a fortress or citadel which sits at the confluence of the Ilz and Danube rivers. It was begun in 1499, or at least that is the visible date on the outside (the fish standing on its tail is a 4), but it was a work-in-progress for centuries. Today, it houses a youth hostel, museum, and popular tourist vantage point.
Veste Oberhaus from across the Danube
The artists of Passau and I don't want you to think that everything is old. There is an active art scene here, centered at Artists' Alley. This is one of those narrow, cobble-stoned, medieval alleys you find sometimes in really old European cities. But look up! Are those umbrellas hanging there? A tough of 21st-century whimsy.
Art Alley
More of Art Alley with red and white cobblestones marking your path
Some of Art Alley's cool umbrellas
Passau is an old town and contains many narrow alleys and streets. These add to the town's charm...

...and the downhill alleys (which I don't want to even imagine in winter) lead us back to the Danube and our ship...
(That's not us. Those are models.)

Saturday, July 18, 2015

I went to Bratislava twice this summer

"Man at Work" sculpture in Bratislava

 Bratislava in May

Bratislava was the second stop on the Danube River cruise my sister and I enjoyed. On May 29, we cruised from Budapest in the morning and arrived at Bratislava ready to jump on a small bus. The bus took ten of us to something called a Home Hosted Visit in the Slovakian region called Modra, famous for its Slovakian pottery. Anna and her sister Maria showed us around Anna's home where she had her egg decorating tools set up. These decorated eggs are a Slovakian folk art. The designs are painted on dyed eggs with melted wax using a skinny paintbrush.
Anna decorating eggs
Here's a shot of some finished eggs. Notice there are different sized eggs from different sized birds. Each is emptied of its contents, cleaned, dyed, and finally decorated.

We were invited into Anna's living room where we were served cold lemon water and cake, and encouraged to ask questions about Slovakian life and culture. Our guide Zuzana translated for us, and the conversation went from Anna's family and their occupations (mostly automobile manufacturing) and education, industry in Modra, the transition from communism to the present. Anna showed us her extensive garden which came in handy during the transition from communism because there just wasn't anything to buy even if one had money. We ended up in her pottery studio which was part exhibit and part work area:

I have to admit that when we first arrived, I wondered how this visit would play out. My sister and I are introverts and not the best conversationalists--would we be expected to come up with questions?! Oh no! My fears were for naught. This turned out to be an illuminating and enriching experience, and we loved telling our fellow cruisers about it back on the ship.

Bratislava in July

In order to participate in that Home Hosted Visit during the river cruise, we forfeited the standard, included, City Tour. I was intrigued by that cool castle at the top of the hill, but a visit would have to wait until my next visit to the Danube in July when Bratislava was scheduled as an excursion. This turned out to be a 100-degree July Fourth Saturday, when approximately twenty writing students and their leaders rode a big red bus from Vienna to Bratislava's hilltop castle. Our guide, Miro, showed us around the castle which looks like an upside-down table with a courtyard in the middle.

Bratislava's Gothic Castle

The castle's well (in the courtyard)

Bird's-eye View (conveniently posted on a barrier)
 Bratislava is a very old city. There's evidence of civilization there back to the Stone Age and continuously through the centuries to now. The name might not be familiar to you, but if I told you it's the capital of Slovakia, situated on the Danube River, the Germans call Bratislava Pressburg, and the Hungarians traditionally called it Pozsony, you might recognize a name or the location. Slovakia has been part of the Austrian Empire, and more recently part of Czechoslovakia. The Czech Republic and Slovakia split apart in 1993, with Prague and Bratislava emerging as the capitals of the two.

Next we toured Bratislava's Staré Mesto or Old Town where we found Saint Martin's Cathedral. Eleven kings and 8 queens were crowned here.

Part of St. Martin's Cathedral, cleverly shot through neighboring buildings

We saw another church connected to the Convent of the Clare Nuns where composer Béla Bartók (1881-1945) took classes as a boy. He lived here from 1893-1899. His mother was Slovakian and his father Hungarian.
The Church and Convent of the Clare Nuns with the castle in the background
Later, Béla Bartók would move to Hungary and would be forever identified as a Hungarian composer. This video of a performance of his Six Slovakian Folk Songs by a multi-national choir was recorded in Hungary.

We walked through St. Michael's Gate, the last of the old town gates...
St. Michael's Gate--see the archway at the bottom of the tower?
 And the Red Prawn, a pharmacy on Michalská Street which houses a pharmacy museum.

The Red Prawn Pharmacy--see the prawn in the middle of the sign?

Poppy seed strudel
After lots of walking in super-hot heat, we found our group's restaurant destination, the Bratíslavskå reštaurácía or Bratislava
Flagship, a huge pub with dark wood paneling, tables, and chairs. Most in our party did not care for their meals, but my theory is that on a cooler day this heavy food would have been more welcome. After an amuse-bouche of HOT chicken noodle SOUP, we had our choice between pork, beef soaked in a dill sauce, or a vegetarian entree which turned out to be dumplings in a cream sauce (not beloved by our vegan writer). The pork people were the happiest because theirs turned out to be schnitzel-style with vegetables. Dessert was poppy-seed strudel with vanilla sauce, and most did not eat theirs. I had gotten used to this particular pastry on the cruise in May, but was secretly wishing that poppy filling was chocolate.

After lunch a group of us searched for the gelato place that Miro had recommended. One scoop of chocolate gelato cleansed my palate and prepared me for a couple of hours of free time in Bratislava's shops.
Authentic Slovakian embroidered linens and crafts in the Staré Mesto

To help us find the big red bus at the end of our Bratislava free time, Miro told us to look for the UFO Bridge and the bus would be parked nearby.

The "UFO" Bridge--there's a restaurant in the round part of that tower.

I don't remember much of that bus ride--I slept soundly all the way back to Vienna!

The writers I talked to enjoyed Bratislava in spite of the oppressive heat, and one even said she'd like to make Bratislava her secret writer's getaway. Although we were there on a sunny summer Saturday, it was not crowded and there were many restaurants, cafes, and gelato establishments to encourage a writer's creativity.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A Day in Kutná Hora, Czech Republic

Saint Barbara Cathedral and the Jesuit College in Kutná Hora
Sometimes when you sign up for an optional excursion you don't know what you're getting into. The excursion might let you down, or it might be a pleasant surprise. During our stay in Prague, we visited a pleasant surprise called Kutná Hora, a medieval silver mining town (since 1260) which has stayed vital over the centuries by reinventing its economic strategy. The silver mines here were Europe's largest until the silver ran out in 1700. Kutná Hora then promoted itself as a tourist destination, and now in addition to tourism its citizens can choose to earn their living by assembling servers for major computer companies or processing tobacco for Philip Morris. Philip Morris's Central European headquarters are nearby.

My story isn't about economic strategies, servers, tobacco, or silver, though. I'm going to show you the enchanting medieval buildings and one spooky, creepy church which earned Kutná Hora its UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1994.

St. Barbara Cathedral

The Gothic St. Barbara's Cathedral dates back to 1388 when the town's silver miners wanted a church to honor their patron saint of miners. Master builders  and artists from Prague participated in the design and construction of this cathedral and its notable frescoes.
Trompe l'oeil frescoes at Saint Barbara Cathedral

Miner statue (that's what miners actually wore) in Saint Barbara Cathedral

Three side altars at Saint Barbara Cathedral

This stone fountain from 1497 (below) is actually a twelve-sided structure built to cover a water tank. Clean water was difficult to provide to citizens in a mining town, so a system of pipes bring water to the town where it is stored in tanks. A clever architect named Rejsek who had been working on the cathedral built this fancy cover. It's unique in this part of Europe. Notice the date: where the '4' should be there is a fish standing on its tail. This is actually half of an '8' which is how medieval folks sometimes notated the number '4'.

Medieval water tank in Kutná Hora
The main residence of the Czech kings when they were in town is also the building where silver coins were minted. The Czechs brought into Kutná Hora Italians from Florence skilled in making coins to teach them how to make a Czech currency from the Kutna Horan silver. The building came to be known as the Italian Court because of those visiting craftsmen. This building is mostly a reconstruction because it suffered heavy damage in the 15th century at the hands of Jan Hus's Hussites.

Part of The Italian Court, where coins were minted
Kutná Hora lost thousands of citizens in wars and plagues, and this colossal Plague Column was erected in the town square in 1716 as an entreaty to God to end that year's plague.

The Plague column, 1716
I'm saving for last the Sedlec Bone Church. It's about a mile from the center of Kutna Hora. This church, really a chapel, was attached to a Cistercian monastery founded by St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Remember I mentioned the human beings lost to wars and plagues? Those people all wanted to be buried in the All Saints Cemetery here because, as the story goes, an abbott attached to the monastery brought back a handful of dirt from Jesus's grave in Jerusalem and sprinkled it over the cemetery. (You could say people were just dying to get in.) The common practice in popular cemeteries in some parts of Europe was to remove skeletons from the graves once the descendants are no longer around. The bones are stored in some kind of warehouse. Kutná Hora had accumulated 40,000 skeletons from the wars and plagues, and they found a very clever way to use decorate the Sedlec Church!

This chandelier uses every bone in the human body.
Real bones. (Sanitized.)

A crest

...And the artists signed their names in bones! (Don't  miss the bones stacked up on the left.)
As you might expect, this was the creepiest place I've ever been: dark and chilly with human bones everywhere!