Tag: Europe

Prague, Part I

“It’s easy to fall in love among the winding cobblestone streets and snow-covered castles of Prague, but is it a good idea?” 
― Dana Newman, Found in Prague

It has taken me a ridiculously long time to try and write up our Prague trip, it’s been nearly two months! But I did want to try and put together a couple of posts on it because it was a location that had been on my list of places to travel to at some point for a long time, and it was such a lovely short holiday.

We didn’t really plan out this trip, except to check in with pals who had previously visited the city and had a few tips and tricks for us. Other than that, our only agenda was to explore a new place that neither of us had ever been. I was really lucky to see a lot of Western Europe growing up due to my father’s career and our family’s opportunities to travel, there’s a lot of countries and cities I’ve been fortunate enough to see, but Eastern Europe was always a bit of a mystery to me. We didn’t make a list of places to see (although we did have a list of places to eat! Priorities, people) and just sort of decided what to do on a day by day basis. It turned out great.

Cities have very distinct personalities to me. It’s some combination of architecture, food, music, smells, style…every place has a very unique and stand alone identity. Some cities have a very modern vibe, some feel more medieval, and many are just hodgepodges. Prague is an old city with a lot of history that is interwoven throughout its structure, but so much of it feels distinctly Baroque. It was a major city in the Holy Roman Empire and while some of its most major building works were undertaken in in the 14th century, a lot of what remains in terms of architecture and decor is straight out of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Baroque is about grandiosity and large spaces, large proportions, detailed design elements, and rich colors. In terms of symbolism and themes, religiosity and grandeur are important common motifs. Prague has all of this in abundance, not only in its grand cathedrals and palaces, but almost everywhere on the streets. The buildings were brightly painted in most cases, with historic stone carvings and fresco artwork plentifully included. But there was still a lot of other morsels of style shot through. Gothic featured heavily, as did remnants of Communist and Cold War era architecture and art.

You can enjoy a complete cultural history of the Czech Republic on a wander through the city! We ate at a traditional food hall where the contents on the plate were not particularly photogenic (think thick stews, cabbage and potatoes, and “peasant food” dishes common in Soviet period) but the taste was incredible. We also scoped out the luxury areas and dining spots where French style cuisine is prominent and not entirely unrelated to the Imperial period where everything French was all the rage. Meanwhile, you’re constantly aware that you are not in Western Europe or what most Americans think of when they think of Europe. The buildings have Slavic style domes rather than Italian ones, and none of the languages here are Romantic.

I felt very out of my comfort zone here, but in the best possible way. Everything was new to me–visuals, taste, and sounds–and it’s been a while since I’d had an experience like it. To have the whole thing packaged in a city where the carbs are plentiful, the pilsner is flowing, and everything is decently priced or cheap is a joy.

I was struck by how “low” a city it was, development work and skyscrapers were not at all plentiful, which certainly adds to its charm! While not untouched by it, Prague was spared a lot of the destruction of the 20th century which other parts of Europe have had to manage. It’s also long been a multi cultural city. It has a prominent historic Jewish Quarter, which in turns holds several synagogues in various “styles (the Spanish Synagogue, for example), and has served as a meeting ground for the languages and cultures between eastern and western Europe for a long time, as well as some overlap to trade (and conflict) points with the middle east in the Holy Roman Empire.

As for culture, my god! Mozart debuted Don Giovanni here (we scoped out the opera house) and Kafka is one of its famous literary lights. Classical music is everywhere in the form of daily concerts and performances. We actually didn’t take one in, which is a mistake in retrospect, but we heard it playing everywhere we went.

Exploring a city just by wandering it is one of my favorite parts of travel, but it has been a surprisingly long time since we did it. By not really having an agenda, I think it allowed us to relax more (ironically) and simply follow what interested us on any given day. We only had four days in Prague, but it was an absolute jewel box of a holiday. I’m endlessly amazed at how refreshing travel and exploration is to the mind and soul. It renewed our desire to try and plan more and shorter trips, rather that just try to save up time and money for “big” ones.

I highly, highly recommend a visit.

Barcelona: The City

“Nature and man are opposed in Spain.”
― Gertrude Stein, Picasso

I am bad at holidays and relaxing in general. Most of our big holidays in recent years have been to visit family which, while always good, can still have stresses–trying to see and catch up with as many people as possible, major family gatherings, road trips, running practical errands like renewing drivers licenses, etc. It matters not that its been a couple blissful years since I had to brave the DMV, a visit always returns old angst with fresh horror. Even the one pure pleasure trip of recent memory (our visit to New York) was too short to be a real switch off.

Spain was the perfect learning experience. Having never been before, we were largely in the hands of our fabulous friends (who we love traveling with) and to say they didn’t lead us astray is an understatement. Spain is a delight! For a solid week we did what we wanted, explored where we wished, and were as busy or a lazy as we wanted. As always, food and wandering were the priorities.

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Barcelona is a crossroads city: Moorish, Mediterranean, and Northern European culture, art, architecture, and food all clash wonderfully. Having never been and therefore having no specifically Spanish frame of reference, I kept seeing traces of buildings and colors that reminded me alternatively of Italy and Paris, while Jeff kept getting flashes of California. It was an amazing combination.

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All credit in the world goes to our pal Kelsey who found an amazing place to stay near the Mercat de Sant Antoni. We were in a residential neighborhood rather than the typical tourist centers and so got to enjoy all the local tapas joints, bodegas, bakeries, shops, and streets. We were a reasonable walk away from the Gothic quarter containing the medieval heart of the city and near a metro station for the handful of excursions that required it. It was also Kelsey’s idea to do a bike tour of the city, which turned out to be a brilliant way to get the lay of the land. The girl knows how to travel!

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There’s a least two other posts coming so let me just summarize the overall experience by saying we had perfect weather all week–summer in November–and managed to really get around. We spent a day climbing over and around Montjuic (site of the Olympic park), another day taking a trip out to olive oil and cava country, and then made sure we did the required Gaudi pilgrimages and paid homage to paella.

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Gorgeous city.

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It was great getting a sense of the dual (and sometimes dueling) Catalan and Spanish identities. From an ethnically diverse modern population to a controversial statue of Columbus, an Italian who opened up the New World and flooded Spain with riches that eventually resulted in crippling instability, to 20th century upheavals, Barcelona really wears its history on its sleeve.

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It’s hard to convey how pretty this city is. Even the medieval streets of dark and heavy stone were typically festooned with street art, intricate architectural design, flowers, and decorations.

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Good bit of Gothic–fake as it turns out! Stay tuned…

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Color was everywhere and not subtle. I imagine this is how many ancient Mediterranean cities once looked, as we know that white marble was not how the Romans and Greeks rolled. They liked bright and vivid shades, sometimes the more garish the better. I loved it.

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There’s quite a tale to tell about the beach later as well, but we all of course had to spend some time on it.

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More posts coming but trust me on this: bump Barcelona up on your list of places to see. It’s worth it.

London Snapshot

“If you’re going to be crazy, you have to get paid for it or else you’re going to be locked up.”
― Hunter S. Thompson

The dearth of posts is unfortunate but necessary, minions. I’m up to my neck in one of the heaviest work load weeks in recent memory. Things are good but busy and I’m quite looking forward to the weekend, since I’m pretty sure I have not left the flat in any substantial way since the last one. A writer’s life for me!

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Today’s snapshot is more of a PSA or plea than anything. Stop the tyranny of lovelocks! They’re collapsing bridges in Paris, it’s only a short time before their dastardly weight crosses the channel. Plus this is a construction site, probably not the best place to document your undying devotion. Just saying.