Thursday, February 24, 2011

Homeward Bound

Hello Ladies and Gents,

It's hard to believe but our time here in Korea has come an end. This time last year, Eric and I found ourselves riddled with anxiety as we were about to head into our classrooms for the first time. Coming here was a big step out of our comfort zones and was not an easy decision to make. We were worried about leaving our friends and family behind as well as the comforts that Western society provided for us. However, having survived a year in the East I couldn't feel more postive about our experience here. This isn't to say that we didn't encounter frutrastions and difficulties in this new culture, because we often did. But this past year has really allowed us to grow; we've grown up, we've grown closer, and we've become a lot more appreciative for the life we have in Portland. All in all this year was a great success. The next time you'll be hearing from us will be when we arrive stateside on the 26th. I promise a deeper reflextion on our year abroad then.

See everyone soon,
Dana and Eric

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Vienna Part I: Museums Galore

Vienna is the high society, more updated version of Prague. While the attention to architecture is great, Vienna no longer shows signs of the gothic movement (with the exception of St. Stephens Cathedral). Instead, government and other historical buildings have been given carved and gilded marble facades. These pure and pristine exteriors give Vienna an aristocratic feel. Because of this, you can expect the prices of things to be much higher here than the rest of Central Europe.

In addition to the fancy facades and marble statues, the museums of Vienna also contribute to this high class feel. The museums quarter is a large complex which houses rotating galleries as well as permanent exhibitions. The two staples of this area are the Natural History Museum and the Fine Arts Museum. The Natural History Museum does an excellent job at documenting history from the Big Bang up until today. In here, one will find dinosaur bones, fossils, meteorites, taxidermy animals, and some of the most significant artifacts which pertain to the human existence. Across the grand courtyard is the fine arts museum. It is most popularly compared to Paris’s Louvre, this museum boasts an impressive collection of Egyptian artifacts. Room after room is filled with mummies, sarcophaguses, and stone carvings. All of which are in amazing condition. While I would agree that the ancient art exhibitions rival that of the Louvre’s, Vienna’s Fine Arts Museum cannot compare in the actual paintings department. While Vienna does house a good assortment of Renaissance and religious art from Western Europe, it just simply cannot compare to the size of the Louvre. However, what I found more interesting about Vienna’s museum is that rather than showcase the greats: Rafael, Da Vinci, or Michael Angleo they give other great artists a chance to be showcased and appreciated. The paintings portion of this museum is divided into two sections: French, Italian, and Spanish artists in one half and German, Danish, and Austrian artists in the other half; all of which are of the renaissance period.

Even though the majority of Vienna’s museums can be found within the Museums Quarter, there are more than a handful scattered all over the city; my favorite of these being the Schatzkrammer Museum. Located in the Hafsburg Palace, the Schatzkrammer displays the royal family’s most prized possessions. Here, we were able to see the three imperial crown jewels of the Hafsburg monarchy, the cradle which Napoleon had commissioned for his children, a thorn from Christ’s crown of thorns, a nail from Christ’s cross, and what the family believed to be the holy grail, an agate bowl. The museum is small and does not take a long time to walk through, but it is definitely worth the visit.

From the treasures of the monarchy we made our way to over to the Military History. Here, about 400 years of Austrian Military history is documented and is on display. Everything from wartime paintings to suits of armor can be found here. Our favorite rooms of the museum were the ones which dealt with WWI. These rooms displayed arms, rounds, and the uniforms which were used by the Austrian forces. The best exhibition within these rooms was the one dedicated to Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Here, we were able to see the car in which he was executed in. It has not been changed since the incident and we could clearly see the bullet hole which killed his wife Sofie as well as the damage from a previously unsuccessful grenade attack. Also on display is the uniform the archduke was wearing at the time of his assassination. You can see where the fatal bullet entered as well as the blood stains which the uniform incurred due to the gunshot. It was definitely surreal standing next to the things which started the First World War.

The last museum we ventured to was the Schobrunn Palace. Built to be the summer residence for the Hafsburg monarchy, Schobrunn palace used to be located outside city limits. Home to ornate rooms, meticulously kept gardens, and Europe’s largest greenhouse Schobrunn Palace will paint a pretty accurate picture for how things used to be. Here, one can tour the gardens and palace grounds for free or for a small fee one will have access to forty of the imperial rooms. These rooms have been fully restored and showcase original furniture and paintings of the Hafsburgs. During this self-guided tour one can also read up on all the juicy family history; from the favoritism that Maria Theresa showed her eldest daughter or the dissatisfaction which Empress Elizabeth expressed about her marriage, there is a lot of dirty laundry to read up on. After touring the imperial rooms, we made our way to the gardens. Since it was winter, the shrubs and trees were free of leaves but we could easily see the outlines of the patterns they would make when in bloom. We walked across the ice covered lawns and made our way to the sun house atop of a hill behind the palace. Along the way we passed the Neptune fountain which Marie Theresa built to honor her husband, Franz Josef I, after his death. The view of the palace for the sun house was astonishing. The sun was out and the yellow palace stood out easily against its snowy surroundings.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia and it is probably the most different of the three cities we visited. Bratislava is a small city with a population coming in at about 500,000. Since communism only fell twenty years ago, evidence of its existence can be seen throughout the city. While the old and history city center is exempt from this, the remainder of the city is marked by homogenous soviet bloc housing. In fact, Slovkia is home to the largest block housing development in Europe.

What makes Bratislava such a great place to visit is its small size. The city center is easy to walk and cover in about two day’s time. So once Eric and I arrived, we hit the ground running and wandered all over the city. The first stop our tour-de-Bratislava was the old town square. This square is really small in comparison to Prague’s, but houses the old city hall building. In the winter time an outdoor ice rink is installed and takes up the majority of the square. Behind the rink is the old city hall. A light yellow, bell tower possessing building which unfortunately was undergoing renovations when we were there. However, a bit of history can be seen on the exterior walls of the bell tower. To the left of the main window a cannonball, which was launched by Napoleon, can still be seen.

From city hall we made our way to Bratislava’s Castle. Like most castles in Europe, Bratislava Castle is located atop a hill. It is a white and red, rectangular fortress which overlooks the entire city. Lucky for us, a large snow fall had occurred the night before we arrived and left everything white. We slowly, and carefully, trudged up the snowy hill to the castle grounds. Once there, we were able to walk around the extremely old stone walls and ultimately inside the outer wall. There, snowy parks and trees comprised most of the grounds. With the accompanying snowscape, the castle looked as if it could be from a Disney movie. From the edge of the outer walls we could also look out over the city center as well as the bloc housing across the Danube River. It was definitely an interesting view to say the least. Unfortunately the interior of the castle is still undergoing an extensive renovation and was closed. I believe the castle won’t be open to the public until the end of 2012.

From the castle, we climbed our way back down to the city center where we visited Michael’s Tower. Michael’s Tower is the only remaining lookout tower which is left over from the middle ages. Since it is not longer needed as a lookout tower, Michael’s tower has been converted to an arms museum. In the five, albeit small, floors centuries of weaponry are displayed; the museum starts with the 15th century and works its way up the WWII. Pictures were strictly prohibited, but Eric sweet talked our elderly docent and she said we could take one. Unfortunately I screwed it up and you can’t even tell what it is…oops! At the top, or WWII, floor we were able to go out onto the lookout balcony. This provided an exquisite view of the city center. For this, the sun had broken through the heavy cloud cover and provided us with a sunny and somewhat blinding view of the city. It was perfect.

After spending some time on the waterfront of the Danube, Eric and I decided it was time to see what the city had to offer after dark. So we headed in the direction of the old town square and stumbled upon Slang’s Pub. Slang’s is an unpretentious and an inviting pub were the beers and wines are reasonably priced. In addition to cheap drinks, Slang’s also has some affordable food as well. So with beer and wine in hand we ordered the most delicious salami and green olive pizza I have ever eaten. Maybe it is my complete depravity from western food, or the fact that I was a few drinks in, or maybe it we excellently crafted, but I will never forget that pizza. Truthfully, now that I am back in Korea I fantasize about that pizza, but I digress. Slang’s was a great neighborhood pub where good company and good drinks always seems to be guaranteed.

Overall, our visit to Bratislava was eye opening. This was not a city I had really heard of or even thought I’d ever visit. But by going off the beaten path we were exposed to a city which operates as a democracy, but willingly showcases its communist past.

Prague Part III: Cultural Endeavors

Jewish Town:

After touring castle grounds and getting our fill of the old town square, Eric and I decided to get a bit more cultural in our explorations. To do this we headed to Josefov, the Jewish district of town. Located a few blocks from the Old Town Square, Josefov is a small district of Prague which is comprised of six synagogues, one large cemetery, and a ceremonial hall. It should be stated that many of these synagogues, with the exception of the New-Old Synagogue, are no longer used as places of worship. These synagogues have been converted into museums which document the history of the Jews who settled in Prague and Bohemia. We toured the Maisel, the Spanish, the Pinkas, and the Klaus Synagogues as well as the Old Jewish Cemetery and the Ceremonial Hall.

That Maisel Synagogue was built in the late 1500s. Here, we were able to read about the first Jewish settlements which arrived to Bohemia and about how these settlements progressed to the 18th century. Also on display is the treasured silver collection, which contains many Torah pointers and crowns.

The Spanish Synagogue who gets its name from being built in the Moorish style, was built in the mid 1800s. This was without a doubt the most ornate of the synagogues. With gold paint and gildings used on all of the walls and ceilings, the inside is constantly glowing. The two floors of this building covers Bohemian Jewish history from the enlightenment to the post war years. It documents, in horrific detail, the ‘cleansings’ which this community was force to endure during this 200 year span. The most damaging, and shocking, of which happened during WWII.

The Pinkas Synagogue has been turned into a memorial for the Bohemian Jews who perished during WWII. Everything has been removed from the interior so only open rooms exist. On the walls are inscribed the names of the Jewish victims, along with their personal data, and what communities they belonged to.

The Old Jewish Museum can be found next to the Pinkas Synagogue and behind the Ceremonial hall. The Ceremonial Hall is where all of the preparations for burial took place. Now, inside this hall people can read up on Jewish customs and traditions in regards to death, illness, and medicine. The Old Jewish cemetery is a labyrinth of tombstones. This extremely small plot of land is home to 12,000 tombstones, but nearly 100,000 bodies. Because the city of Prague would not give the Jewish community more land for a cemetery, the Jews had to bring land in; so they began to bury upwards. As they did this, the tombstones began to rise as well. This explains why a tombstone from 1434 is situated next to one from the 1800s. At the risk of sounding morbid, this was my favorite part of the tour. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from the Jewish Museum, but I was pleasantly surprised by it all. I really enjoyed how it focused on Jewish history within Bohemia and the various traditions which developed over time.

Wenceslas Square:

Wenceslas Square, which is also known as New Town Square, played an important role in recent history. Currently the square is lined with shops, restaurants and hotels. The New Town Square is an ideal place for tourists or locals to kill an afternoon window shopping. At the far end of the square is the National Gallery. The National Gallery is an elaborately large and ornate building which houses a natural history museum. The large structure dominates the entire far end of the square is quite captivating to look at in the evening time. However, just twenty to twenty-two years ago Wenceslas Square was home to the Czech’s largest anti-communism and anti-soviet demonstrations. Many people put their lives on the line here for liberated and democratic Czech Republic. In order to get a better idea of how things used to be, Eric and I visited the Museum of Communism. There, we were able to look at old propaganda, interrogation rooms, and learn about the methods of the secret police. I found this to be one of the more interesting museums we went to. If you ever find yourself in Prague, I would highly recommend paying both the Jewish Museum and the Communism museum a visit.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Prague Part II: Castles

Prague Castle:
Situated atop of a hill, Prague Castle is a massive fortress which can be seen from nearly any location in the city. The Castle is comprised of a large rectangular building which serves as an outer wall for the various churches, theaters, and gardens which are located inside. While centuries ago this rectangular building housed the Bohemian Kings and their courts, today it houses the Czech president and other governmental offices. If you plan on visiting the Castle today most of this outer rectangular building is off limits as it is being used. However, all of the buildings found within the courtyard made by said building are available for tourists to peruse.

- St. Vitus Cathedral.
When looking at the castle from afar the first thing you’ll notice is two dark spires towering over the rest of the complex. While many assume these are a part of the medieval castle, the spires actually belong to the St. Vitus Cathedral. Built in the 14th century, St. Vitus Cathedral is a dark and towering gothic beauty. The cathedral is the first thing you see when you enter the castle grounds and it will hold your attention for quite some time. Decorated with large stain glass windows, flying buttresses, gargoyles, and intricate stone work, the St. Vitus Cathedral is truly an awe inspiring spectacle. I have been lucky enough to have seen some of the great churches of Europe (Notre Dame, St. Peter’s, Basilica of Sacre Couer), but for me St. Vitus Cathedral takes the cake. Maybe it’s because I’ve matured since visiting those last cathedrals or maybe it is because of extreme level of craftsmanship that can be found in St. Vitus, but when I walked through St. Vitus’ doors I, my eyes began to water. Every inch of the inside is just as intricate and ornate as the outside. High domed ceilings, tiled floors, and gilded altars are what occupy the interior. As you walk around the outer walls you’ll see encounter chapel after chapel which has fancy woodwork, golden statues, and it’s own towering stain glass window. In addition to the elaborate chapels and altars, the church is also the resting place for many of the Bohemian Kings and saints.

- St. George Basilica:
The oldest standing church within castle grounds, the St. George Basilica dates back to the 10th century. While the outside façade was redone in the 17th century, the inside is still original. The interior is simple, but worn. The stone floors, walls, and pews are extremely smooth from centuries of being walked and sat on.

- State Rooms:
While most of the wings of the castle are off limits to tourist, the oldest and most historically significant wing is available for the public to see. In this wing you will see many of the meeting rooms of the king and his council. These rooms are decorated in a way which is fitting for their purpose. Rather than the walls being covered in framed artwork, the walls and ceilings are covered in hundreds of coats of arms. These crests are arranged much like that of a family tree. They depict the coat of arms for the people who comprised each council over time. Each tree contains around fifteen different coats of arms. Looking at these you are able to see who served in what position and when. The coolest room of all was a small side chamber which was lined with windows. This is where the defenestration of Prague took place. To summarize, in the early 1600s one of the biggest issues of the time was Catholic vs. Protestant. In 1618 a Catholic Monarch ruled, and started oppressing the Protestant building projects which had popped up over the city. In protest of this, a group of Protestants bribed their way into a meeting of regents where they threw the three leading regents out of the window. This action is what started the Thirty Year’s War. The nerd inside both Eric and I loved standing in that room and being able to look through the window which was used.

- In the basement of one of the wings is a new exhibit. This exhibit documents the history of Prague Castle and the area it currently occupies. Throughout the exhibit are relics and artifacts which have been discovered on the castle grounds over times; textiles, cups, skeletons, ruins, and cutlery can all be found in this exhibit.

Vysehrad Castle:
Located much further south and on the other side of the Vlatava is Vysehrad Castle. Vysehrad Castle was the first castle of Prague. However, as it began to wear and tear, construction began on Prague Castle and the monarch was moved. Built in the 10th century, the castle grounds are largely composed of deteriorating stone walls and buildings, open parks, and churches. Like Prague Castle, Vysehrad is located atop a hill just above the Vlatava. It has an excellent view of the city as well as the river. A much quieter space, Vysehrad is a very scenic and historic walk. To start, Eric and I walked through the open park as well as along the entire outer wall. From this walk one can get views of nearly every point of Prague. Vysehrad is also home to the St. Paul and St. Peter Basilica. While this basilica is much smaller in comparison to the St. Vitus Cathedral, the architecture and décor is the same. Marked by large stain glass windows and dark spires the basilica trumps all of the other structures on the premises. Next to the basilica we found the Vysehrad Cemetery which contains the bodies of many famous people from Czech history. Truthfully, I’m not fully up to date on this, but old gravestones are always interesting to look at.

While Prague Castle is astonishing to look at, I must admit I enjoyed the quieter and older Vysehrad. While I may not have been blown away by the craftsmanship of Vysehrad, I really enjoyed the ruins it had to offer. It always amazes me to see what structures can really stand the test of time.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Prague Part I

Getting There:
WARNING--if you ever find yourself looking for a flight and this potential flight as a connection in Moscow DO NOT book it. Flying both to and from Europe we had a connecting flight in Moscow and it was an absolute nightmare. The staff was unfriendly, unhelpful and unorganized. Allow me to explain. To begin with our flight from Seoul was delayed, thus shortening our layover to about an hour. While we knew we would be cutting it close, we thought we could make it…wrong! First off, the terminal we flew into (Terminal F) does not allow arriving planes to use a skybridge. So in Moscow, in the middle of winter, one must exit the plane directly onto the tarmac and funnel his/her way onto a shuttle bus. Keep in mind the shuttle bus waits, with doors and windows open, until it is packed like a sardine can before it makes its way towards the terminal. Once delivered, we needed to make it through a passport check before we could board make our connecting flight. We soon realized we’d be missing our connection when three planes had just unloaded and there was only one person checking passports. To further complicate the process there was no line, but rather a pushing/shoving mass of people. Once we had finally made it through, we had missed our flight and would have to get on the plane that left at 11 pm. However, the people at the transfer desk refused to help us until 45 minutes before that flight since that was when check in took place. So that’s how Eric and I came to spend four hours in the Moscow airport; a magical place where you can consume liquor straight from the container and you can smoke anywhere and as much as you like.

However, the “fun” didn’t stop there. By the time we made to our hotel in Prague, around 1:30 am, we weren’t allowed inside the building, but rather we were greeted out front. There the owner informed us that of the four nights we had booked with them, we would only be able to stay with them for three. Meaning, that first night, right then, we had to go somewhere else. Luckily for us, he took the liberty of booking us a room nearby and we just had to walk there. So that’s how at 1:45 am Eric and I found ourselves walking the streets of Prague with luggage in tow. By the time we got settled into our new room it was 2:15 and we were ready for bed.

Day 1:
After a good night’s sleep and moving back to our original hotel, Eric and I decided to get a head start on the day. We knew we wanted to explore as much of Prague as possible, as to get a lay of the land, so that we could go back and hit individual landmarks on a later day. Our day started with us walking through Lesser Town. Lesser Town is a hilly part of Prague which contains Prague Castle, St. Nicholas’ Church, and most of the international embassies. As we climbed through the cobbled streets of Lesser Town, we’d stop from time to time snap photos but also to take in everything around us. Coming from Korea, I think I eyes were over stimulated with bright colors and elaborate architecture of the buildings. After looping around St. Nicholas, we began to climb the steps which would lead us to the outer walls of Prague Castle. Once we reached the top, we realized how lucky we were to have gotten an early start. The city was still quiet and the sun was still low enough to give everything a hazy glow. It was then I realized this was without a doubt the best place to view all of Prague. From here you could see the great buildings/monuments of Prague rise above the terracotta roofs of the pastel colored buildings. It was as if a painting had been placed before my eyes.

After sneaking a brief look at the inner courtyard of the palace (more to come on this later), we made our way down to the river and began to cross the Charles Bridge. Unlike my other half, I have never had a favorite bridge; that was until I saw the Charles Bridge. Still standing from the 15th century, the Charles Bridge is a rough and old beauty. Darkened to a deep shade of charcoal, the Charles Bridge looks every bit as old as it is. Lined with 30 statues and paved with uneven cobbles, the Charles Bridge is the epitome of gothic architecture. What should have been a five minute crossing at most, turning into a twenty minute ordeal. Eric, trying to blaze our trail, had to constantly stop and wait for me as I snapped picture after picture and as I closely examined each of the statues. Slowly but surely we made the crossing and soon found ourselves in the Old Town Square.

The Old Town Square is a vast, open, and (you guessed it) cobbled space. The square is marked by four distinct buildings/monuments: the Tyn Cathedral, St. Nicholas Church (there are two in the city), the astronomical clock, and the Jan Hus Memorial. All four of these are beautiful and unique in their own right. The Tyn, with its towering, dark and intricate spires, St. Nicholas with its baroque architecture and twin bell towers, the astronomical clock with its golden face and dials, and the once bronze now green Jan Hus Memorial. Standing at the center of the square, you’ll quickly gain a deep appreciation and respect for Prague. Taking in every inch of the square and warming up with some mulled wine, fatigue caught up with us and we headed back to the hotel for a break.

After a much needed rest and a salami, cheese, and bread dinner, Eric suggested we go out and grab a drink. He didn’t want us to call it a day at 5 pm. So we bundled up and headed out in the snow to the Prague Beer Museum; which isn’t a museum at all, but rather a really nice bar. There, they have 30 Czech brews on tap. In order to get a few tastings in, we ordered two different beers each. I sampled a great hefeweizen and a deep amber beer, while Eric went for an unfiltered pilsner and a lager. All of which were amazing. It was still snowing after we finished our drinks so Eric, being mildly obsessed with weather, suggested we walk back to the Old Town Square to see what it looked like in the snow. After moaning about how cold it was, I ultimately gave in.

And thank God I did. The square was absolutely stunning. Snow had dusted the Tyn’s spires, the Jan Hun Memorial, and the cobblestones. Immediately I took out my camera and started clicking away. After I was finished, I put the camera away and took it all in once more before leaving. It was the perfect way to kick off our vacation.