Sunday, October 24, 2004

Prague Summer 2004

Published: July 2004
We’re back from a short and wonderful week in Prague where we – Marlyn and I and Camilla, Craig and Aliza - met my sister and her family from Johannesburg and also a cousin from Cape Town – now living in Cambridge – whom I hadn’t seen for about 20 years.

Prague is a wonderful, beautiful, magnificent city – and any of you who have not had the pleasure of visiting there, I recommend it as something you absolutely HAVE to do.

The entire city looks like a movie set for a film about Renaissance Europe – except that all the buildings are genuine, all the cobble stoned streets are authentic…all the bridges actually span a real flowing river: which just two years ago overflowed its banks and flooded a large portion of the city and its historic buildings.
But everything has been lovingly restored and the city if thriving again.

The city is clean, which is somewhat amazing considering the incredible number of tourists thronging its streets. The municipal authorities obviously take great pride in keeping the city pristine – even the horses pulling the tourist carriages have “facilities” strapped to their hindquarters.

Prague is a very user-friendly city: everything is within easy walking distance; cars are kept out of the city center (except for those with special permits which are kept in short supply and have to be applied for a year in advance.) To get to areas beyond the city center, the public transport – the metro, trams and busses – are efficient, clean cheap, and generally safe. We had been warned about pickpockets and muggers, but quite honestly didn’t even suspect anyone of looking too hard at our bags and cameras slung around our collective necks. There is a very discreet police presence and one suspects that they’ve had enough of their city’s reputation being tarnished. This is not to say that one should be foolhardy. We heard that round mid-night one can purchase most anything you would desire on the streets…and some back alleys looked decidedly dodgy. But then other back alleys revealed the most amazing shops and restaurants. The best shopping can be found down these passageways and corridors which lead off the main streets.

The shopping in Prague is incredible: every designer label you could wish for, the most wonderful glassware, clothes, shoes, ornaments and off course souvenirs. But it’s no longer as cheap as it used to be…prices are creeping up, but you can still get a pretty good meal at a good restaurant for much less than it would cost in Tel Aviv or London! The food is reasonably good “continental” style – mainly Italian, with Czech fare being mainly goulash and dumplings…but the beer is fabulous; and there is fast food in abundance – even falafel, shwarma and pita.

Music abounds; this is after all the city of Mozart, and every church presents concerts at all times of the day: some are free, some are quite expensive…but the variety is the spice here – organ recitals, soprano solos, children’s choirs from different parts of the world; and of course jazz, all night, every night.
The Jewish Museum – really a collection of synagogues, museums and the ancient cemetery with gravestones dating back hundreds of years – is both fascinating and moving: especially so the Pinkas Synagogue, in which the names of all the Holocaust victims from Prague and surrounding areas are handwritten on the walls.
Of course, to get a real sense of the Holocaust in this part of the world, one must visit Terezin – Theresienstadt – the Nazi’s showcase ghetto…some showcase. In what was a once small, rather attractive garrison town of some 7,000 residents, the Nazis crammed 10 times that number of Jews at any one time. More than 160,000 went through Terezin…some stayed for only one day, some for years – most ended up in Auschwitz.

We experienced Terezin as a Jewish family: 10 of us – the youngest just 11-years-old, the same age as many of the children sent to Terezin - taking the short train ride from Prague to Bohusovice Station and walking the kilometer or so from the small town to the ghetto, following the same route taken by thousands of Jews just a generation ago. Terezin was not a “death camp” in the same sense as Auschwitz, but the entire experience was moving beyond words. But perhaps the most moving and poignant moment came when we visited the museum in what was once the Boys Home and saw the exhibition of art work and the clandestine newspaper published by the pre-teenaged boys in the ghetto. In one showcase, was a picture drawn by the magazine’s founder, 14-year-old Peter Ginz, titled “A View of Earth from the Moon.” It was a copy of this picture which Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon took with him on the ill-fated Columbia shuttle mission…

Away from the misery of Terezin and into the Czech countryside, we spent a magical day at a cottage in the village of Struhey (I think I got that right), some 50 kilometers north east of Prague, where my nephew’s Czech wife’s family live.

Another wonderful day was spent in the Spa town of Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad) where people go to “take the waters”…then we spent a day in the beautiful small town of Melnik, at the confluence of the Labe and Vltava (pronounced Voltava – or Moldau) Rivers. It was here that we visited a small Charnel House – a repository of bones gathered over centuries and stacked in neatly arranged piles around the walls. Quite eerie and somewhat ghoulish.
There is much more to write about – Prague’s Charles Bridge, thronging with tourists, where you can buy anything from a caricature portrait to trinkets, listen to a jazz band, hear an organ grinder; watch performing dogs…the walk up what felt like the longest hill in the word to the Hrdcany Castle, with a magnificent view of the city…
And then back on the Metro for the 15-minute ride to the northern suburb of Kobylysy and our small but very comfortable and very reasonably priced pension.

In all, we spent seven magical days in this magical city and its surroundings; our kids met up with their cousins from South Africa who they had not seen in nine years and the bonding was immediate and amazing.
Then it was back to Tel Aviv – just over three hours away and 15 degrees difference in temperature. Leaving the plane at Ben Gurion airport was like walking into a sauna.

Back to work, back to study, back to putting together our memories of a really memorable time…
You can share some of our experiences with us by viewing our photo album at:

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