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Prague… “Praha” – III

March 28, 2010 Leave a comment

[This is Part III of the blogs on my trip to Prague – Part I, Part II]


On the third and fourth day, there were no scheduled agenda for the trip. These two days were mostly for everyone to decide for themselves. Given the variety of options in Prague, there was something for everyone :). Some preferred exploring the city further whereas others preferred visiting nearby places outside Prague. During the day time one could visit museums and monuments, take river boat trip, hike up to the Eiffel Tower in Prague, shop, window shop or simply explore the city. In evenings one can go for concerts, opera, puppet-shows, live jazz performances, etc.

There are several synagogues, a cemetery and a few cultural centers of Jewish in Prague. I along with a few friends decided to visit them. I was interested in visiting them because I have an interest in knowing more about Jewish. I have heard about Jewish oppressions in history and have always been curious to know why were Jewish subjected to it. I still don’t know and wish to find it out. In modern times, I have always been impressed by the excellence of Israel in science and technology in spite of  their instable international political situation.

To visit these Jewish establishments in Prague, one can buy a package ticket and students can get discounts as well. There are 3 different packages available and details of it can be found at www.jewishmuseum.cz. We took a package for 6 sites @200 CZK (student’s rate) and we visited the Pinkas Synagogue, the old Jewish cemetery, the Ceremonial Hall, the Klausen Synagogue, the Maisel Synagogue, and the Spanish Synagogue.

The Pinkas Synagogue is actually a memorial dedicated to the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia murdered by the Nazis. On its wall are inscribed the names and personal data of about 80,000 Jewish victims. The memorial also houses a permanent exhibition called “Children’s Drawings from Terezin 1942-44”. Terezin was a Nazi concentration camp during World War II about 65 Kms from Prague where about 10,000 children under the age of 15 were also imprisoned. The exhibits are the original drawings of these imprisoned children. The place was really touching and a testimony of what humans can inflict and what humans can endure. There I also read that during the Nazi regime when the Jewish in Prague were stripped off of most of their rights for education, work, living and free movement, the Jewish community took special care of educating its children and inducing in them a hope for a better tomorrow. Educated members of the community volunteered to teach the children and arranged for their lessons, accommodation and food.

From the Pinkas Synagogue, we went to the Ceremonial Hall through the Old Jewish Cemetery. This cemetery was built in 15th century and is said to contain more than 12,000 tombstones. However the number of persons buried there is much greater. It is said that due to lack of space, several burial layers have been added to the original cemetery by filling it with earth. One can see that the tombstones belong to different periods which is because the older stones were lifted up from the lower layers.

At the exit of the cemetery is located the Ceremonial Hall and the Klausen Synagogue. The Ceremony Hall belongs to the Jewish Burial Society and houses a permanent exhibition dedicated to the illness and death. The Burial Society provided assistance to the sick and dying people, and also performed all the rituals and burials after the death. Membership to this society was restricted and only by invitation, and once included the members were expected to perform their duties with high devotion and dedication. Among the exhibits were also large paintings depicting different activities of the society. I feel it was quite noble for people to volunteer for this society which dealt with sickness and death, something from which people usually like to stay away. One of the things I liked about the community was that they practiced the belief that every man is equal by giving similar burial to everyone irrespective of their social status.

We then visited the Klausen Synagogue, which was next to the Ceremonial Hall. This synagogue houses a permanent exhibition dedicated to the theme of Jewish customs and traditions. The exhibits were associated with the synagogue, different festivals,  different customs related to everyday life of the Jewish family, etc.

These four sites were located next to each other and the other two – the Spanish and the Maisel synagogue, were located at some distance but not very far. We then visited the Maisel synagogue. I found this place a little boring and it mostly exhibited Jewish silver, textiles, books, etc. I couldn’t put much interest into reading the details of the exhibit, probably because it was the fourth museum of the day :).

Once we left Maisel synagogue, I was practically short of enthusiasm to visit the Spanish synagogue. However my friends pulled me along and we reached there. I am glad they did it because it was an amazingly beautiful place. In fact, I would rate it to be the best among all other museums which I had seen that day and would recommends other not to miss it. The synagogue is built in Moorish architectural style. It is square with a big dome (cupola) above the central area. The walls, ceilings, pillars are intricately painted with beautiful patterns using vibrant colors. The Moorish style is a Muslim architectural style with Jewish influences and is said to have originated from the Muslims of Spain. Probably this is why this synagogue is also called “Spanish” synagogue. It seems that this style has dominated the constructions of Jewish community in US (New York Architecture – Moorish Revival). I was simply spell bounded by the beauty of the designs and sat there for quite sometime looking at it. The upper section of the Spanish synagogue housed a permanent exhibition. It was an interesting exhibition as it exhibited articles like identity card, official orders, letters, documents, important news articles, books, etc belonging to the Czech Jewish community.

While we were going through the exhibition, it was time for the synagogue to close. We started the day late and it took us about 4/5 hours to see all the Jewish museums. It was a cold and windy day, and what could be better than a hot coffee in a warm cafe :). We called off the day with the coffee and later had a sumptitious Indian dinner. I would write about our experiences with food and restaurants in Prague in a separate blog.

Continued in Part IV…

Disclaimer: Photography was not allowed/restricted in all the Jewish monuments which we visited. The photographs here have been collected from internet.

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Prague… “Praha” – II

March 28, 2010 Leave a comment

[This is Part II of the blogs on my trip to Prague – Part I, Part III]

The next day’s tour began at the Charles’ Bridge. It is one of the nine bridges and the oldest surviving bridge connecting the two banks of the river. It is made of stones with towers on both the ends. Along the bridge are several statues, each having its own story and historical importance. From the bridge, you can get a very nice view of both the banks and it is an ideal place to spend an evening. The charm of the bridge is not only because of its architecture and the view that you get, but also because of the life on it. You will see artists, musicians and vendors who make the place colorful, interesting and lively. You can get your sketches or caricatures done, or buy photographs, souvenirs, sketches, paintings, or listen to music or simply take a walk along the bridge, watch the river, the city and the sun setting.

Below the bridge, near the western bank, is the island of Kampa. We got down on this island and walked to another small bridge connecting the island to the main land. On the gates at this bridge, we saw the love locks. Some say that when you find your true love, you must crave his/her name on a padlock, lock it to the gate and throw the key in the stream. Some say that both the lovers must lock the padlock together to the gate and throw away the key. Irrespective of how you do it, the locks symbolize one’s desire to be with his/her lover forever. I had never heard about love locks until I saw them in Prague. The idea seemed quite amusing. In India, I knew about places where one can tie bells to a tree seeking for a wish or thanking for a granted wish. Later through internet, I found out that love locks exist in other parts of Europe also.

Moving further from the bridge, we came to a graffiti wall, called Lenon Wall. This wall had been used to express protest and grievances by students and activists against the authorities. The authorities painted the wall several times but each time the graffiti re-appeared.

Our next stop after the bridge was the church, called Church of Our Lady of Victory and the monastery of the Infant Jesus of Prague. Because of the statue of infant Jesus, this place attracts thousands of pilgrims each year from all over the world. The monastery houses a museum where the different dresses of infant Jesus and other sacred objects are displayed.

On the way to the church, we passed by a restaurant called U Maliru which was built in 1543. It is said to be one of the finest French restaurants in Prague with beautiful interiors and exquisite murals. The story goes that once a student of arts came to eat in the restaurant but didn’t have the money to pay the bill. He was offered to paint murals in the restaurant in lieu of the bill which he accepted. The other story goes that artists and painters used to visit the restaurants for its highly acclaimed wine and often paid in kind through their own work or by painting murals.

Once on the riverside in Prague, you cannot help noticing the magnificently huge castle on top of the hill on the west banks. We got very good view of the castle from the Charles’ bridge where we took lot of snaps also. From the church, we walked up to the castle, passing by American and other embassies on the way. It was a little long and uphill walk but rewarding.

The castle was built in 9th century and is probably the largest castle in the world. It is a huge complex having cathedrals, towers, museums, halls, etc. What I noticed was that the castle didn’t have a uniform architecture and style – different portions were built in different styles. A few hours are definitely not sufficient to explore the entire castle. Besides separate tickets have to be bought to visit the museums and halls. One of the attractions inside the castle was the “Golden Lane”. It was a very narrow street lined up with very small and colorful houses, now selling souvenirs and displaying ancient artifacts. The street was really beautiful and worth visiting. I do not know much about the details of the castle as I lost the group and guide after reaching there. The group got fragmented and each of us stuck to different things. A few of us seemed lost and didn’t know where others were. But it didn’t bother us as we were enjoying every moment of it. After some time, we saw the guide and rest of the group and joined them again. I wish to go back to castle and spend an entire day to explore it completely.

After the castle our next destination was a medieval tavern, called “U Krále Brabantského”. It was a 14th century and one of the oldest pubs in Prague. The first reaction which I had on entering the place was “ohh there is a power cut”. Everything was dark and I couldn’t see anything. It took me a while before I could start seeing inside and when I did, I realized that it was not a power cut but I felt as if I have travelled a few hundred years back. The place was dark and lighted using candles only. The floor, the walls, the ceilings, and the furniture – everything looked as if nothing has changed in last several centuries. People serving the tables also wore dresses like worn in medieval times (as shown in movies :)). The tavern or now called pub was mostly situated underground. There were hundreds of skulls on the ceiling, execution crosses and iron chains hanging on the wall and cart wheels lying around. The walls and the ceilings were dark and covered with a thick layer of soothe. Our guide recommended us to try some sort of medieval beer, pickled cheese, grilled cheese, etc. After staying there for a while I left as I preferred returning back to contemporary times :). “U Krále Brabantského” was the last place in the guided tour itinerary.

Continued in Part III

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Prague… “Praha” – I

March 21, 2010 2 comments

[This is Part I of the blogs on my trip to Prague – Part II, Part III]


I didn’t know much about Prague or Czech Republic until recently. As a kid I had heard about the war-torn Czechoslovakia and later when I grew up I saw Skoda cars, which I knew, were from Czech. My recent visit to Prague, the capital city of Czech Republic, changed my perceptions. I still don’t know much about its history or other details, but I have brought back with me an impression which is going to last for a long time and a desire to go back again.

I went to Prague on a trip organized by Pangaea (a university club for international students). Pangaea has been organizing annual trips to Prague since last 7/8 years. Caroline and Sabine, the coordinators of the club, seemed very enthusiastic about the trip and they said that each year they are as excited to go to Prague as they were on the first trip.

Prague is about 800 kilometers from Leuven. We were a group of 42 and we went by a bus. It took us about 12 hours to reach Prague. One would be tempted to take a flight rather than travel 800 kilometers and spend 12 hours in bus. No doubt it was little tiring and time consuming, but I was able to see how things changed as we passed by Belgium, Netherlands, Germany and Czech. The highways, the road signs, the speed limits, the fuel stations, the toilets, the landscapes, the coffee… everything seemed different. I would have missed them had I gone by flight.

We entered Prague probably through its modern or newer part. At first sight, it was not very impressive and a little disappointing. But as we drove through the city towards the older part, my disappointment started fading away and the sight of the river, the bridges, the statues, the ancient buildings, the towers, the castle, and the cobbled streets was impressive and breath-taking. This made me glad that I made a good choice of coming to Prague and I started looking forward to the 4 days which we would spend there. Our accommodation was arranged in a youth hostel called Ritchie’s Hostel which was conveniently located in the heart of the city. The hostel provided bed and breakfast. It was neat and clean, and the staff was friendly and helpful.

As per the trip’s itinerary, there were two guided tours and a dinner organized by Pangaea and rest of the time was free for us to explore the city on our own. For the first time, I hadn’t planned as to what should be done in the free time. I didn’t want to prepare a checklist and go over it. I wanted to keep Prague a secret and let it unfold on its own. I am glad that I did it :).

The city is divided in two parts by the river “Vltava” flowing through it. Most of the old Prague is situated on both the banks of the river with major portion on the eastern bank. The newer Prague is entirely to the west of the river. We had two guided tours for the older Prague, eastern side on first day and western side on the second day. As we embarked on the tour, I soon realized that I had two choices – first was to listen to the guide who was telling us the historical facts and the related stories, and second was to see and get lost in the beauty of the city. Each building was different in its color, style and architecture. Each street and each square was a different scene. Anyways it was not a hard choice to make. I preferred capturing the life and sights of the city with my eyes and camera over knowing the history; my reluctance for history dates back to my school days :). I always had to run and catch up with the group because while I would stop to see and click photos, they would move ahead.

On the first day, we first visited the Old Town Square – the place which I liked the most. You just have to stand still and feel the life in the place. You will see people of whom some are following and listening to their guides, some posing for photographs, some taking photographs, some watching around, some passing-by unaware, some listening to the music played by a band of old-timers, some dancing to its tune, some resting on the benches, some enjoying a coffee or drink in the cafes around the square, some playing with their kids, some keeping an eye on their kids who are chasing pigeons, and some like me just observing.  In the center of the square you will see a big statue called “Monument of Jan Hus”. Towards the north you will see a church called “Church of Our Lady before Tyn” and opposite to the church is the Old Town Hall Tower and Astronomical Clock. Besides the tower, you can see the St. Nicholas Church. On the eastern flank of the square, is the house where Einstein lived at some point. Over the next few days, we passed by the square several times and it was always a pleasure.

The other places which we visited were the Republic Square, the Wenceslas Square and the Klementinum. Wenceslas square was interesting as there was a very wide road on its eastern side. There was the big building of National museum on the other end of the road and in between on both sides of the road there were showrooms, restaurants, hotels, etc. The feeling at this square was more urbanish and fast moving unlike the old town square, where time seemed to have stood still. Klementinum was a large complex besides the river and opposite to the Charles’ Bridge. The complex had Astronomical Tower, Mirror Chapel and Baroque Library Hall. You can take a guided tour of the complex by paying entrance fees which is 140 CZK (Czech Krones) for students. For me the best part of the complex was the Astronomical Tower and not the library and chapel. The library was dedicated to foreign language theological literature and I didn’t find the chapel very impressive. What I liked in the Astronomical Tower were the interesting astronomical devices kept there and the amazing view of the city’s skyline which I got from the top of the tower. It was fun getting to the top for which we had to climb concrete, iron as well as wooden stairs.

Continued in Part II

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la stanza – cucina italiana

March 7, 2010 4 comments

‘la stanza’ was introduced to me a few months back, by a friend of mine, as one of the very good and authentic Italian restaurants in Leuven. It has also won prizes continuously over past few years. This evening I was lucky to find it open and try it out. Why I call myself lucky is a story in itself and deserves a separate post :).

The first thing I noticed while entering the restaurant was its very ordinary white colored and difficult to open door. It looked like a door to an apartment rather than a restaurant and required considerable effort in opening it. The ambiance inside was much better than the entrance. The lighting was low and soft. The color combinations of the interiors were good and I liked them. I noticed that the walls were rough and had large colorful paintings on them.

The seating was quite limited and it is better to have an advanced reservation. I had walked in without a reservation and was once again ‘lucky’ to be accommodated because later I saw many other walk-in guests turned down. The space was restricted but comfortable and the tables were placed pretty close to each other. Only a few tables offered privacy. I have observed this in almost all the restaurants to which I have been here.

I was given two menus. One was their standard and elaborate menu and the other was a single page menu of ‘la stanza’ specials. There were two people attending the guests. Since both the menus were in Dutch, I asked them if they also have an English menu (some restaurants where I have been to had either a separate menu or accompanying descriptions in English). The person responded as if he did not expect to be asked for an English menu and offered no help, instead asked me to approach the person sitting at the counter. I was surprised by his response as such a response is not expected in good restaurants. But the other attendant was helpful and she helped me with the translations and explained me the content of the dishes.

There seemed to be a good variety of appetizers, main dishes, deserts and drinks. Since I am a vegetarian, a rookie in gastronomy (especially Italian) and have a very limited knowledge of Dutch, I mostly concentrated on the page of ‘vegetarian pastas’. Most of the pastas were in tomato sauce except for two out of which one ‘tagliatelle al pesto farcito’ was in basil pesto sauce and the other ‘ravioli alla novarese’ was in the four cheese sauce .

Pesto is a sauce/paste made of basil, garlic, cheese, olive oil and pine nuts. There are several variants of pesto which can have tomato also.The four cheese sauce is a white cream based sauce containing 4 varieties of cheese including parmesan and mozzarella. Tagliatelle and ravioli are types of pasta; tagliatelle is the long and flat ribbon like whereas ravioli are stuffed pastas.

I ordered for ‘ravioli francescani’ which was pasta stuffed with spinach and ricotta cheese in a sauce of mushrooms, gorgonzola cheese, beans, tomatoes, white wine, fresh basil and fragrant herbs. The dish looked appetizing and I found the portion to be right, leaving scope for a dessert :). It took about 15 minutes for the dish to arrive. I liked the dish and can recommend it for others. The dishes served on other tables also looked appealing. I accompanied the pasta with a glass of coca-cola. I was in a mood to have a desert and had seen ‘tiramisu’ in the menu. ‘Tiramisu’ is an Italian dessert where lady finger biscuits soaked in espresso or strong coffee are stacked in layers with cream in between and cocoa powder on the top. I have had ‘tiramisu’ a few times before but each time they failed to reach my expectations set from what I had heard about it. Being satisfied with the pasta and considering that ‘la stanza’ is said to be an authentic Italian restaurant, I asked for ‘tiramisu’. I am glad that I had a much better experience with ‘tiramisu’ this time and I can continue exploring it further :).

Overall I had a decent experience at ‘la stanza’ minus the response of one of the attendants. I would like to visit it again and also recommend it to others. One thing which surprised me was that a small pot of cactus was placed on each table. I am not sure if it’s something Italian; will try to find out!

They do not accept bancontact (debit cards) and one must pay in cash or through credit card. They are closed on Sundays and Mondays. On rest of the days they are open only in the evening from 6 to 10pm. The cost for a single person can be expected to be about 30 Euros.

Contact and other details can be found at http://www.lastanza.be

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