Friday, April 28, 2006

Holiday pics: Prague Old Town Square

Every town in Europe, be it big or small must have at least one town square. This is where people of all ages, gender and creed gather for trade, leisure and entertainment. Prague is no exception to this rule. While the city has many public squares all over town, the most popular and famous has got to be the Old Town Square or Staromestske Namesti.

Dating back to the late 12th century, the Old Town Square started it's life as the central marketplace for Prague. Over the next few centuries, many buildings of Romanesque, Baroque and Gothic styles were erected around the market. At the centre of the Old Town Square is the Jan Hus statue, erected on the 6th July 1915 to mark the 500th anniversary of the reformer’s death. Jan Hus was a local war hero whose beliefs led his supporters to start the Hussite Wars in the 14th - 15th century.

Another highlight of the square is the Astronomical Clock. Perched on top of the Old Town Hall Tower, this big mechanical clock dates back to the beginning of the 15th century. The highlight of this beautiful construction is the hourly procession of the Twelve Apostles; every hour on the hour, a small trap door opens and Christ marches out ahead of his disciples, while the skeleton of death tolls the bell to a defiant statue of a Turk. I bet there aren't that many Turkish tourists who'd like that. Hehehehe

Strolling in this huge square soon took its toll on our feet, so Chris and I decided to rest our legs in this nice al fresco restaurant. It wasn't too crowded because it's winter and nobody in their right mind would go out strolling in -10ºC weather. Nobody except us... and some Japanese tourists. Ahhh..... nothing like sipping chilled Czech beer in the freezing outdoors.....

Perhaps the most imposing building in all of the square is this building, the Church of our Lady before Tyn. Dominating one side of the Square, this powerful looking, Gothic church with a baroque interior can be seen from all over Prague. The church was founded in 1385 during the tumultuous period when the ‘heretic’ Hussites were slaughtered by the ruling Roman Catholics. The Catholic Jesuits then made the church their own by recasting the bell and replacing the Hussites symbolic chalice with a ten-foot figure of Mary nailed between the towers. One interesting thing about the two spires is that they are not symmetrical. This is characteristic of the gothic architecture of the time, which tried to represent both masculine and feminine sides of the world.

As we weaved through the smalled side streets surrounding the square, we chanced upon a "Sex Machines Museum". Ooh La La. This museum showcased all the various types of machines and gadgets used to make sex more convenient and pleasurable. There was even a small room which showed the one of earliest porn movies ever made. Sorry, I can't put up the pic of it as I might get censored, but rest assured it was really hilarious and exciting at the same time. Try think of Charlie Chaplin making out with Queen Latifah in black and white, and you'll get what I mean.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Holiday Pics: The Jewish Quarter

As is common in most major European cities, there is a sizeable Jewish community living in Prague and most of them can be found in the Jewish Quarter on the northwest part of town. Also knows as Josefov, the Prague Jewish Community has over one thousand years of history and this is the only Central European Jewish town-quarter that survived the holocaust.

We had to buy an admission ticket to enter the historical buildings and view the touristic sights and the ticket came with a yamulka which is a traditional head covering for men. We also had to wear proper / decent attire in order to get in. Well, I guess we won't have any problems in that department.

First up on the tour was the Old Jewish Cemetery. Founded in 1478, it is Europe's oldest surviving Jewish cemetery. People had to be buried on top of each other because of lack of space. There are about 12 layer and over 12,000 gravestones. 100,000 people are thought to have been buried here. Looking at the mess of tombstones, I am not surprised.

Then, we entered the Old New Synagogue. (There's an old old synagogue but that's been destroyed in the war.) Built around 1270, it is the oldest working synagogue in Europe and one of Prague's earliest Gothic buildings. On the eastern wall is the Holy Ark in which the Torah scrolls are kept, on the walls are Hebrew biblical abbreviations. We're not supposed to take pictures of just about anything inside, but what the heck.

Perhaps the most memorable place in this tour was the Pinkas Synagogue. Founded in 1479 by Rabbi Pinkas this synagogue was rebuilt many times over the centuries. Since after the WWII it has served as a memorial to all the 77,297 Jewish Czechoslovak victims of the Nazis. Their names are inscribed on the walls. There were also various torture devices as well as pictures of Nazi concentration camps on display. Now I can get a glimpse into the full horror that the European Jews went through during the holocaust. "Never again" indeed.

And this is IMHO the most beautiful building in all of Prague - the Spanish Synagague. Built in 1868 the Spanish synagogue was named after its striking Moorish interior. It houses an exhibition showing the life of the Jews in the Czech Republic from emancipation to the present day.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Holiday Pics: Welcome to Prague

It's soooo cold!!!!

Being a Malaysian, my version of cold weather is Genting Highlands where the average temperature is 23ºC plus some wind chill factor. So, when I arrived in Prague, I had no previous impression of what a subzero winter environment would be like. Imagine my horror when I stepped out of the nice 25ºC airport into the -8ºC outdoors. I mean, it was painful to even breathe!

I woke up the next morning in Terry's apartment, and because his place was climate controlled to maintain at a cosy 25ºC, I momentarily forgot that I was in the middle of one of the harshest winter in European history. Seeing the sun was already quite high in the sky, I opened the patio glass door and steeped out into the balcony - barefooted. OHMYGAWD! My memory came back and I think my balls shrunk back into its prenatal position.

Chris loved the weather more than me. In fact, he thrived in it. I really think that he was switched at birth and was meant to be living in Tibet or Sapporo, not Malaysia.

After puting on my winter wear, which consisted of a inner shirt, a jumper, a pair of long johns and a really thick coat which made me look like a lost Eskimo sumo wrestler, we ventured out into Prague city. First stop - Prague Castle.

Also known as Hradcany Castle, it was built around 850AD by the Premyslid Royal family and was the administrative site of Prague for almost a century. It was initially made up of an outer stone wall and inner timber houses but the timber buildings were gradually replaced by stone ones.

The oldest original stone church in Europe, the Basillica of St. George is said to contain the remains and relics of the royal family.

Another impressive building is the St Vitus Cathedral. It's huge and awe-inspiringly beautiful. It contains the tombs of many Bohemian kings and is currently the seat of the Archbishop of Prague. This building is an excellent example of Gothic architechture and is the biggest and most important church in the country.

It was really a wonderful experience to be walking within the castle grounds without the throng of tourists who would otherwise fill the area to the brim during summer months. We even managed to take a shot of the palace guards on one of their rounds. They were very impressive and not easily distracted, as we took ouir photos, they didn't even look sideways or bat an eyelid. Talk about dedication!

Friday, April 14, 2006

Holiday pics: Sojourn in London

We were supposed to take a direct flight from Rome to Prague in the Czech Republic via Czech Air. Unfortunately, because the ringgit was sooooo small in value compared to the Euro, we didn't want to spend € 350.00 (RM 1550!!!!) for a mere two hour flight. So we decided to take the no-frills option: EasyJet. The only thing is that we have to fly to Gatwick in London first and then catch another flight to Prague 6 hours later. On the upside the whole thing only cost us £50.00 (RM350) per person. No kidding!

So, we woke up bright and early, took a final italian breakfast of toasted bread and cappuccino and caught the metro to the main bus station to Ciampino Airport. Even though the information desk at the Termini stated that the trip would take one hour, it didn't take into account the infamous Roman traffic jam. So what was supposed tbe an idyllic, relaxing one hour bus journey turned into a harrowing two and a half hour excursion into Italian hell as we feared we would actually miss our flight!

Luckily, we arrived at the airport by the skin of our teeth. Two hours later, we arrived in Merry Old England! Home of our former colonial masters. Land of the almighty Pound Sterling (£1 = RM6.50) etc. Anyway, when we arrived at the Customs checkpoint in Gatwick Airport, the lady officer was very interested to hear about our trek across Europe and suggested that since we had about 6 hours to kill before our next flight to Prague, we could hopto London for a quick tour.

So we enquired about the train service to the city centre and found two options. Gatwick Express which takes 20 minutes non-stop to reach Victoria Station; and Southern Express whnich takes 40 minutes and makes a few stops along the way. The other difference is Gatwick Express costs £23 return, while Southern costs £9.30. So guess which one we took. Quite frankly i don't know who in their right mind would take Gatwick Express???

The train ride was smooth, quiet and best of all, not crowded at all. It afforded us a chance to see London's suburbs which was rather dreary and dull. Well, compared to Italy, eberything else is dreary and drab. Anyway, exactly 40 minutes later, we arrived at Victoria Station in the heart of London.

And this is the scene that greeted us. My first impression of Victoria Station was one of 'orderly chaos'. A bit like Puduraya but brighter, cleaner and cooler. Oh, and it cost 30p (RM2) to use the toilet. BLoodsuckers! Anyway, after getting some bruchures and directions from the tourist information counter, Chris and I headed out into the streets to see where we could go to within the limited time that we had.

We decided to grab a bit to eat and went into a small 'inexpensive' looking deli and ordered a ham on rye sandwich and cappiccino each. It cost £7.50 (RM50). WAH LAU EH! I hate you, Goerge Soros!.... Well, I have to stop doing these mental conversions in my head, or else I will never be able to enjoy this trip.

We decided to walk to Buckingham Palace and kacau the beefeaters. Unfortunately by the time we got there, it was already closed for the day so this (left) was as close as we could get to the famed palace guards. There were quite a lot of tourists in Queen Victoria Memorial, the park outside the palace grounds that day - mostly Japanese and Taiwanese. We would've taken more pictures there but as people kept popping in and out of my field of view, it was rather frustrating to compose a proper picture on my camera's viewfinder.

Lots of big statues and monuments , of which I had no idea who or what they were. This one (right) is my favourite as there was a golden statue of an angel standing proud at the top of the monument.

Later, we crossed the road to Green Park which was true to its name, despite it being winter. In the middle of it was this funny looking 'fountain' which resembled the sharp ends of a pair of scissors. Chris was tempted to piss into it for the heck of it.......

A short walk further up the road, we came to another park, the famed St. James Park. Thnis is the city's oldest Royal park covering 23 hectares and is surrounded by three palaces, Westminster, St. James and Buckingham. In the centre of the park is a beautiful lake where ducks, geese and pelicans come to rest and feed.

These two ducks must have gotten used to the presence of humans as they actually waddled up close to us and even posed for pictures. Too bad we didn't bring any breadcrumbs to feed them for their effort. So cute! I shall never eat another pecking duck again.... until I get back to Malaysia. :-)

We took a nice walk around the lake and then it was time to get back to Gatwick Airport to catch the plane to Prague. All in all, a day very well spent. I know I shall visit London to do a proper visit soon.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Roma pics: The Colossuem

We couldn't go to Rome and not do the Colosseum, right? So, we did and on a cold and wet winter afternoon, we made our pilgrimage to the ancient ruins where Christian prisoners and lions were pitted against each other for the entertainment of the Roman mob. Built in AD70 during the rule of Emperor Vespasian and then Titus, this open air amphitheatre could house 50,000 spectators.

Nowadays, it attracts close to 5 million tourists a year. However today, the place wasn't very crowded. It's probably due to the cold and wet weather. There were a few local actors dressed up either as Roman soldiers or gladiators posing with tourists for photo-ops. We decided to forgo that as they charged € 10 per picture.

So we decided to just walk around taking pics of the ruins. Situated to the east of the Colosseum was the Roman Forum. It's the ruins of the ancient city of Rome where commerce, business, prostitution, cult and the administration of justice took place. It was destroyed and rebuilt with each succesive dynasty of Roman rulers with each Caeser and emperor eager to put a stamp of his own on the city. Various temples dedicated to this god and that can be found all over the complex in between government buildings and public bath houses.

As it was quite late, we could not enter the forum area (where most of the ancient Rome lies in ruins). We could however walk up a hill path to a small church at the peak where we could catch glimpses of the ruins.

It was a rather nice walk up as the weather was cool and it had stopped drizzling. The small church was actually rather unusual as there were 'altar houses' lining the path up to the main building where they kept the altars to the various saints.

And whoever did the interior decorating for the church must've had a really warped sense of humour for everywhere were images of the angel of death and skeletons holding sickles inside the church. It all gave the place a very eerie and ominous atmosphere and we decided to go in search of a more cheerful place. :-)

And this, my friend, is the Colosseum in all its glory - or rather, from the other side of the road. On our back to the hostel we each had a gelato and some really delicious pastry to celebrate the final day of our holiday in Rome. Onward to Prague!

Monday, April 10, 2006

Roma pics: Vatican Museum & Sistine Chapel

The second time we went to the Vatican, we made sure we went there early (like 8.00am) to take our place in the line. But lo and behold, there was no line. I mean yes, once we got in, it was a bit crowded with visitors, but there really wasn't a visible queue to enter. Funny how a free entry can create such chaos the day before.

The Vatican museum had a special Egyptian Artifacts Exhibition goping on, but hey we're in Italy, not in Cairo. So we decided to hit the musuem proper first and see if we have time to do the Pharoahs later.

As I've been here before during my last trip to Italy way back in 2001, I wasn't as awestruck as Chris and Terry. Still, the frescoes and tapestries are very beautiful and interesting to learn about. Each and every exhibit is accompanied by a commentary detailing its identity and a little of its history - in six languages! (Italian, English, French, Japanese, Spanish and German) I'm impressed.

Perhaps the most famous artwork here can be found on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. This is the painting which has God and Adam trying to touch each other with their index fingers. It was done by Michaelangelo between 1508 and 1512. THe room which houses the paiting is kept dim and visitors are not allowed to take any pictures of the ceiling art - flash or no flash. And that includeds camera phones. They really meant business because while we were there, quite a few 'rebels' who tried to secretly take a snapshot were chastised rather loudly by the guards. They really don't give face one!

There was also a wing housing modern art and there were quite a few really inspiring works of art like these you see here. This is a neo-classical stained glass of the Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus. It's hauntingly beautiful in its simplicity, don't you think?

This is a very very large cross which commanded the attention of everyone who entered the room.
Well, this is the Vatican. Hmmm.... this'll look great in my living room, don'tcha think? Hehehehe

This is my favourite. It's a canvas art piece of two persons embracing. It evokes emotions of love, loyalty and desperation all at the same time. I think I stared at it for at least fifteen minutes.

And this is my favourite shot of the museum. Incidentally, the spiral stairs lead to the toilets. These italians really damm gaya!

Friday, April 07, 2006

Roma pics: The Vatican

Vatican City is such a big and photo-worthy place that we spent a total of two days there. It was beautiful, majestic, and of course crowded with tourists, clergymen and nuns. Quite understandably, there were queues as far as the eyes can see to enter anything and everything, even the toilets. In fact, on the first day we were there, the line to enter the Vatican Museum was so long, we had walk around the entire perimeter of the city walls (at least two to three miles long) in order to join the tail end of the queue. Apparently, it was free entry that day (every last Sunday of the month), so every tourist and local who thought it was a great way to save money, were there. So we ended up just going to St. Peter's Square and postponed the Museum till the next day.

Terry posing in St. Peter's Square. See the line of people waiting to enter the basillica? The entrance is actually to the far left of the picture. Yes, the queue was that long!

The main attraction here is of course St. Peter's basillica. It's a very large church said to house the remains of St. Peter and also the late Pope John Paul the II. It was built by the Roman Emperor Constantine when he converted to Christinaity in the 4th century. The jewel in this crown is of course the dome or 'cupola' designed by Michaelangelo. There is a viewing platform near the top of the dome, and to get up there, we had to trek up about 2000 really cramped steps (or thereabouts). But the view from the top was magnificent well worth the effort.

From the viewing deck, you could see the whole of Vatican City as well as most of Rome. The Vatican looks so orderly and clean in comparison to chaotic and ridiculously graffiti-laden Rome. Unfortunately, there were so many people up there that I got slightly claustrophobic. So, after just half an hour of gazing into the smog-filled Roman skyline, we made our way back down for a cappucino and ham focaccio.

This is the walled city of Vatican. Compare and contrast with the previous pic of the Roman skyline. But of course Rome wouldn't be Rome without its chaotic and narrow maze-like streets.

Afterwards, we walked around the city and found ourselves crossing the famous San Angelo bridge (re: Dan Brown's Angels and Demons) which led us to the San Angelo castle. The castle was used as the imperial mauseluem to Emperor Hadrian and the royal family. Later, during the Roman Catholic era , it was used as a refuge by the Pope who fled from the Vatican through the underground passage or 'Passetto" when the Vatican was under enemy attack.

It's a grand monument that's been built and rebuilt up to seven times that you can actually see the layers of previous construction underneath the current building. Actually, I think the Italians did a wonderful job ofconserving their national monuments and treasures. It gives the Eternal City a uniquely poignant character and atmosphere.

There are many bridges than span the River Tiber , both for pedestrians as well as for cars. On almost all them, there are statues flanking both sides of the bridges, some of them really ugly looking gargoyles, but most of them, awe-inspiring statues of angels and saints, like this one.

As the evening drew to a close, we ended our day with a cup of capuccino at an al fresco cafe by the riverside. Lovely. Just lovely.