Day 7: Art and music, imperial-style

It’s a little hard to believe it’s been a week.

As it turns out the street outside our hotel seems to be pretty popular with young Viennese folk; late into the night we heard them drinking with quite a bit of enthusiasm.  You wouldn’t necessarily know it by morning, though.  When I woke up (far too early, in my opinion) it was just me and the fan and, eventually, the sedate rumbling of streetcars.

For the first time in my life I have taken advantage of a hotel’s laundry service, carefully layering clothes into a little pink bakery bag (they were out of whatever they normally use) and carefully presenting it to the fellow at the front desk.  10 euros, and we get clean clothes for the rest of the trip.  Trying not to feel too much like I am being a posh git, even as I carefully try to dress up slightly for reasons that will be evident later.

Our first stop today is the Kunsthistorisches Museum – very literally, the art history museum.   This beautiful building frames the Maria-Theresienplatz, facing its opposite number the natural history museum.  (The Venus of Willendorf, apparently, lives there, though we won’t have time to swing by for a visit unfortunately.)

The interior of the building is as grand as the outside; it looks as though the Habsburgs felt their art collection deserved a suitably grand setting.  I mean.  Look at these stairs:

The production values inside the exhibits are quite something, too.  Check out the staging on some of these:

Here is where I have to admit that we didn’t make it through the entire place.  Not that it’s not worth it, I’m sure…but there is quite a lot of Stuff on display.

I do not know what it is that drives imperial-type folks to hoard massive collections of art and sculpture and artifacts.  It’s certainly remarkable to see so much of it in one place.  It’s…also remarkable how often the audio tour seemed to mention that such and such an artifact had been sent back to its homeland in Place.  Perhaps there is a little guilt, after all the hoarding?

On the other hand, it is partly thanks to that hoarding that we’re able to see some of these things today.  Like all those stories of how the original glass/paintings/carpets/manuscripts/what have you only survived the war because some enterprising person hid them in a basement somewhere, perhaps in a crate marked “Salt Pork” or something.  (Not, obviously, a story we actually heard, though kind of an aggregate of many we heard on this trip.)

It’s simultaneously a bit romantic and a bit sad.  Intrepid archivists or concerned citizens or a desperate mayor; the idea that somewhere out there in an unassuming attic there might still linger someone’s masterwork, waiting to be brought back out for someone to love it again.

Interestingly, the museum seems to have some similarly conflicted ideas about itself.  Their special exhibition at the moment is “The Shape of Time,” which sounds rather like an episode of Doctor Who but is actually a sort of…statement of self-awareness.

What do I mean?  Well…As I’ve said, the museum has a pretty spectacular collection.  A roomful of Caravaggios.  Another that seems like it kind of contains every Breughel I can think of.  You very literally cannot turn around, it seems, without smacking into something famous you’ve seen in art history books, except that here it is real and displayed in grand, high-ceilinged galleries with thoughtfully-arranged benches where earnest art students cluster to hone their craft.  (And weary tourists like me jump at the chance to rest aching feet and take it all in while listening to the thoughtful English commentary.)

But here’s the thing: Almost none of what’s here is new.  The collection is grand and full of beautiful things, but crystallized at a point before the Impressionists were around to do their thing, before we began cultivating mixed media, before photography and Banksy and mashups.  And that’s sort of what’s behind “The Shape of Time.”  We view art differently based on its context – and context is what this exhibition’s about, pairing old art with new in ways that are as much about our experience of what is around the art as the art itself.

Here’s one pairing, for example: Rembrandt was apparently mightily fond of painting his son Titus.  In a dimly-lit gallery, one of these portraits hangs.  Turn right, and you have a work of video art by Fiona Tan – “Nellie,” in which Rembrandt’s daughter Cornelia lingers restlessly in a sticky, humid room, underscored by the vague, jungly drones of insects.  Titus looks sort of quietly heroic, gazing off into a bolder future; Cornelia writes a letter, gazes out a window, tosses uneasily in her sleep.   Somewhere hanging in the dimness between them one can feel the comment on gender roles.

Another dark room, another dark pairing: Steve McQueen points a video camera at a dying former racehorse, Running Thunder, the painful immediacy of the death of a lovely and powerful creature juxtaposed with what at first appears to be a fairly dull Brueghel vase of flowers.  But, as the curator informs us, the flowers shown here do not share a season; this painting would be literally impossible.  Celebration of life?  Celebration of transience?  How does it feel to observe inevitability and impossibility together?

A sculpture of lovers’ faces bent toward one another, close and affectionate, paired with Felix Gonzales-Torres’s “Perfect Lovers” – a set of two ordinary office clocks, set to the same time and left to run down.  Already their times are not quite the same; one of them will inevitably “die” first, leaving the other alone.  It’s a poignant image, made more so when you know that the artist paired these clocks while his own lover was dying of AIDS.  He was the one left alone, in the end, though he passed away not long after.

Around another corner, in another room, medieval saints weep chastely over the crucified Jesus, unaware they now share a room with the broad white plinth containing Ron Mueck’s “Dead Dad,” a scaled-down representation of the body of his own father that is both eerily lifelike and a real punch in the guts for anyone who has ever beheld the body of someone they once loved without a life in it.

A classical sculpture of Aphrodite, someone’s long-ago image of perfect beauty, is displayed next to Eleanor Antin’s “Carvings,” a series of photographs, one a day in several different views, as a strict near-starvation diet gradually brings her nearer to a more recent ideal.

It’s a really interesting exhibition; if I’ve piqued your curiosity, there’s some further detail available at the museum’s own site, in English.

The museum isn’t JUST its special exhibitions, of course – the regular galleries are, as I said, crammed to the gills with paintings you’ve probably seen in art history books and works by people whose names you know.  It was interesting to look at all those Rubens works together and think that once upon a time, someone built like me would’ve been considered smoking hot rather than constantly reminded how nasty I am for being a bigger girl.  It’s a bit liberating; I hope I can keep a little of that and bring it home with me.

By this time we’d seen…oh, maybe half the museum, and I seriously think we could have stayed all day, just taking everything in – but we did have places we needed to be, and so not without a little regret we turned in our audio guides and set forth for Schonbrunn Palace.

Schonbrunn was the Habsburg summer palace – it’s where folk like Maria Theresa and Franz Josef went when they wanted to hit the cottage, so to speak.  These days it’s right on one of the subway lines; you can literally hop off, cross the street, and be right there, taking in a first view of that casual summer flavor.

Well, all right, for certain varieties of “casual.”

Vienna is home to two Habsburg palaces, and I think in general if you were only going to tour one of them it would be the other – but this one had an interesting package deal that combined admission with dinner and a little concert.  Sure, why not?  So here we were, picking up our tickets at the Orangery, a little building off to one side of the entrance.

As it happens, our concert was not to be there today, but in the Grosse Gallerie; more on that a little later. Tickets in hand, we set off to tour the palace itself and its grounds.

And, you know, just a modest little summer place, right?

Honestly, there is something in Baroque style that drives it with remarkable swiftness toward self-parody. Did you know, for instance, that they have a real Roman ruin there?

…Because that is totally a legit Roman ruin and not just a mishmash of any old vaguely Romanesque thing we could find, right? Right?

Okay, okay, I snark. But it was just a bit hilarious how far over the top these gardens were. Kind of lovely, yes, but dang, imperial folks:

As with many a stately home in England, the grounds are both open to the public for warm-weather ambling about and monetized within an inch of their leafy raked-gravelled lives; everywhere near the entrance are industrious folks selling ice cream and offering rides on a trainlike vehicle that seemed popular with small people, and some of what seem like they ought to be the choice gardens one must pay to enter.

Still, it’s a pleasant place to go walking on a cool sunny Spring afternoon – even if the aforementioned gravel IS of a particularly evil vaguely triangular variety that insisted on creeping into my sandals and forming tiny, insidious caltrops. I wonder if Franz Josef ever took a break to wander here, taking a rare chance to think of roses and fountains instead of business. Perhaps he was too devoted to his calling for that? I suppose I’ll never know.

The interior of the palace is hot indeed, both from the crush of the ubiquitous tour groups and from the inconvenient fact that air conditioning had yet to be invented. (Central heating, though, after a fashion: many rooms sport Bavarian ceramic stoves of majestic proportions, stoked from behind by specially-tasked servants via a network of passages in the walls.)

Franz Josef and his wife Elisabeth had their own rooms, here – perhaps not so uncommon as we think, once, but here they feel like a sign of the vague dysfunction that seems to have haunted their marriage despite Sisi’s Princess-Diana public appeal. His rooms are stately, dark, even a bit Spartan by imperial standards; the iron bedstead and the prayer bench speak of a man devoted to his duty. The upright Emperor, I catch myself thinking. Responsibility to a fault, for all that those portraits of his wife speak of his love for her.

Anyone could arrange an audience with the empire’s foremost civil servant: you waited in a grand red room for your name to be called, you went in and spoke your piece, and then eventually the Emperor would incline his head, saying what a pleasure it had been, and the audience would be over.

I wonder very much what kinds of things they asked for. His people.

Sisi’s rooms, by contrast, are dainty and feminine in that lush Baroque way; here she would spend literal hours on her toilette, particularly her infamous mane of gorgeous dark hair. They face the rose garden outside; the breeze in the summer must have been heavenly. She was, they say, a truly legendary beauty; it seems a strange match for a man with such sober habits. But then, I suppose some of us do that – reach out to catch and hold a being whose presence we crave as much for the yawning gulf of difference between us as for any other trait.

The rest of the palace hearkens back to earlier eras still; you can still feel some of the influence of Maria Theresa here amid all the gilding and curlicues and baroque notions of chinoiserie. Even in architecture she is formidable. (I have a vague notion in my mind of her on a movie poster, with some wag laying a slogan at her feet: “Sixteen children. Zero fucks.”)

Eventually the time came for the evening’s entertainment to begin; we made for the little restaurant just left of the main entrance and found every table laid with white tablecloths and neatly-centred vases of flowers. Waiters stood by, a little unnervingly attentive. Time for dinner.

We ordered a glass of wine each and waited as other diners filed in. These dinner-and-concert packages are touristy affairs, but in Vienna this seems to mean something a bit different from what I normally imagine – well-heeled-looking folk largely of my mom’s generation, chatting in a mix of English and German about this and that with a hearty helping of folk speaking what sounded a bit like Russian mixed in. (For the second time in as many days I felt relieved about how dark my jeans were. Not properly dressy for a concert under many circumstances, but here, probably enough.)

Dinner is a prix fixe affair: soup, the Tafelspitz beloved of Franz Josef, and an apple strudel for dessert. All rather surprisingly tasty, and coupled with the chance to sit down for a while quite fortifying.

As the dessert plates and coffee cups were cleared, we made our way into the palace once more – and, unlike our tour this afternoon, nobody seemed to mind a quick photo or two without the flash on as we took our seats and watched for the orchestra to file in.

I mean. Look at that room.

The orchestra was small – just a handful of players, mainly strings – but they did quite well; an assortment of popular classics, mainly Mozart and Strauss (of course), mixed with some arias/art songs here and there. It wasn’t completely boilerplate, fortunately (no “Tales from the Vienna Woods,” which I would have thought an easy pitch down the middle), and at least everyone seemed to be having a good time. (The conductor got everyone in on the action by conducting the audience to clap along with a march right at the end, so there was at least a sense of good fun all round.)

Amusingly, the grounds hadn’t quite completely closed by the time the concert started – so early on I got to watch some surprised and delighted random folk outside, peering in through the slats of the blinds on the doors. By intermission, though, everyone had cleared out but the concert-goers, and we got to have a pleasant few minutes looking out over the Habsburg backyard.

(I still haven’t gotten the hang of night photography on this thing, sorry. Here’s us though!)

Eventually, though, the orchestra headed home and so did we; returning back to our hotel to find those same cute little pink bakery bags full of neatly-folded clean clothes. I still feel a bit like part of the problem…but I AM looking forward to clean clothes in Budapest.

Sounds like the Viennese enjoy their Saturday nights as much as we do. Ah well – I’m beat. Good night, partying Austrians; Vienna, I’ll see you tomorrow.

Oh – and here’s a random bonus snap of one of those cute street lights. These were installed as part of Eurovision, apparently, but everyone liked them so much they’ve kept them around.

Day 6: “City of music” would not be an exaggeration.

Looks like the weather intends to carry on being obliging here in Austria; it continues to be sunny and cool, which is fortunate as Europe continues to not go in that hard on air conditioning.

We opened today with a nice little breakfast in Hotel Kugel’s cute little dining area:

…and then set about working out the public transit. The hotel was kind enough to help arrange transit passes for us – and here we learned that rather than rely on TTC-style turnstiles or tap-on Presto-style cards, Vienna has elected to make all of its transit run on basically the honour system: you hop on to a vehicle or walk into a station, validate your ticket, and at any time a transit official may hop onto the train, ask to see said ticket, and you had better hope you’ve got it, lest you face a stiff fine of many Euros. A single validation was enough for our 72-hour passes, happily, so after that it was just a matter of finding the right vehicle.

Many of the transit stops have convenient little digital signboards near them showing the lines that serve that stop, when to expect the next vehicle on that line, and what direction it’s going in. (Some of them are also very near to parts of what seems to be an excellent cycling infrastructure, including bike sharing and little stations with air pumps and the like. Kara would love it.)

The fellow in the middle is one of a series of ads we saw around town featuring men proudly displaying various unfortunate sausages (tiny, horribly burnt, etc) with the slogan “Each sausage is perfect!…with the right beer.”

Anyway! Since we didn’t get to do our orientation last night, we did our best to make up for it by hopping on the “big red bus” sightseeing tour for a drive around the city with narration from the tour company. This was surprisingly pricey, considering; we’re fairly poor in Vienna, much as we were in Scotland. (As of today the exchange rate is something like half again the posted prices.)

The tour runs more or less around the Ringstrasse (with a diversion for the construction that prevented our tram-ride plan from happening) and then out to some areas we didn’t anticipate spending time during our stay, like the Prater amusement park.

Here are some notes I made along with a random selection of photos from the bus (please forgive odd angles and such):

  • Vienna’s famous cafe culture apparently came to the city via an enterprising sort of guy who was undercover as a Turk during the long-ago conflict between them and the Austrians. When they booted the Turks out the retreating army left all this coffee nobody wanted behind, and since he’d picked up the ins and outs of it he gladly took it…then opened a shop where the Viennese learned to drink it. The rest, as they say, is history.
  • A startling number of famous political folk lived here at the same time – including, at one point, Trotsky, Lenin, AND Hitler. I find myself wondering what might have happened if they’d all run into each other in a cafe somewhere. Awkward looks? Fisticuffs? Long philosophical arguments that went on until the police were called?
  • Like Prague, Vienna had a Jewish quarter up until World War II. This part of Vienna was known as the Matzoh Island, though if the bus commentary hadn’t called it out I have no idea whether you’d know when you entered it. Today it looks much like the rest of the city; drugstores and little shops, the same regulation white buildings.

  • Much of the city is of course a post WWII reconstruction, as the city was bombed out pretty hard during the fighting. Some relics of the war are still around, though, like the huge concrete flak towers built by the Nazis. One of them has now been converted into an aquarium, the Haus des Meeres. A happier use for it, certainly.
  • The sailor suits worn by the Vienna Boys’ Choir are meant to be an equalizer, so that the boys’ social class, etc., isn’t what’s on display. They still perform on Sunday mornings, at the Hofburg palace chapel.
  • The area around the Prater is a popular entertainment district, and has been for ages: long ago, this was where you went to go do the Vegas thing before there was a Vegas. These days, it seems to be more of a family spot; the famous Ferris wheel’s still running, and on a sunny day like this one it was crowded with people buying ice cream, milling about and generally enjoying the weather. (The Prater is also home to this amusing ATM.)

Vienna was, for a very very VERY long time, the seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the marks of that are everywhere. If Prague is a city that in some ways seems to be struggling to define itself moving forward, Vienna is absolutely and completely aware of exactly what it is. The empire may be gone, and it may have been some time since the days of Mozart and Strauss, but the city does not feel faded – it has a kind of confident assurance of its character. One gets the sense that it is what it has always been, in its own mind – the seat of a particular flavour of “high” culture.

So it is that we remember that the emperor Franz Josef loved tafelspitz (boiled beef, which doesn’t sound all THAT appetizing but I guess you never know) and that the area around the Praterstern used to be a private hunting ground. It’s a train station now, bustling with commuters; I wonder how many of them think, as they head to the platform, of deer.

So it also is that we know that the Empress Elisabeth (or “Sisi,” as she is known everywhere) had a tattoo on her shoulder, of an anchor, usually covered by her dresses. Sisi seems to have been the Princess Diana of the Austro-Hungarian empire; her name is all over Vienna’s tourist zones, and romantic-looking portraits of her make a backdrop to ads on the subway. “Where Sisi would have shopped,” one says, in coy English.

We also heard that once upon a time Vienna had a film scene as robust as Toronto’s…until WWII. (Quite a lot of “…until WWII”. I suspect I’ll be seeing that a lot over the next few days.) At around that point a lot of the film scene here fled to…less-scary climes, like Hollywood’s. (Perhaps Max Steiner, composer for Gone with the Wind, was one of them; he was apparently born here.)

The Third Man was, of course, filmed here. I’ve never seen it, but apparently the fellow who played that famous soundtrack (Anton Karas?) became super famous as a result and absolutely hated it. I guess I would get pretty sick of being asked to play the same thing a billion times over, too.

But my earphones are already telling me about another kind of music: waltzes. We hear about how much the church hates the waltz when the dance became popular. All those ankles, tempting the heart of man to sin. Shameful!

Still, without the waltz would we have had Strauss as we know him? He composed his first when he was six, says the polite recorded lady-voice. Oh, and by the way, the Danube is almost never blue these days, she adds, though it lends its name to the tallest building in Austria, the Donau tower.

As I stare out at the river (sort of a greenish gray, today) she goes on to add that Vienna is very proud of its water. It flows down from the Alps – powerful enough to generate electricity – and is pure enough to need no filtration when at last it arrives. (I had noticed that the tap water seemed unusually tasty last night but assumed I was just thirsty. Can that really be it?)

As we return to our starting point we can make out the spires of St. Stephen’s Cathedral (the Stefansdom), and learn that apparently the biggest of the bells there is only rarely rung today. So powerful is the sound of it that its ring can actually affect the cathedral’s structure. (Oops. Perhaps sound engineering wasn’t advanced enough to have thought of that when the bell was made?)

As we hopped off the bus we headed once again for the Opera; it makes both a handy reference point and was the starting point for our next bit of exploring, this time on foot.  Just behind the Opera is the aptly-named Albertinaplatz, presumably so called for reasons that have to do with the Albertina museum’s rather dramatic presence at once side of the square.  It and Hotel Sacher make somewhat incongruous flanking elements for the “Monument against war and fascism.”

It’s an amusing coincidence (…or perhaps an amusing act of great deliberation) that many of the city’s bingo-card sights for first timers like us are concentrated in a particular zone of downtown that also happens to house some very high-end shopping. We passed, for example, a shop selling glass and crystal that I didn’t dare breathe in the direction of, much less enter, as the price of a single plate in one of the windows worked out to about, oh, 1/4 of my monthly income or so. (Worthy window-shopping opportunities though, even if some of those windows are of the “behold the majestic glory of this single handbag” variety.)

Some lovely flower stalls as well.

There’s an unassuming little church on one of the not-very-square squares in Vienna.  It’s a Capuchin church, one that like the convent in Prague is still run by folk of a religious order.  And like that convent, it houses a sight that may be of interest to the passer-by: the “Kaisergruft,” or the imperial burial vault.  Curious at what manner of intersection of the Gothic and the Baroque we might meet down there, we went in for a look.

Not all of the imperial bloodline are interred here.  And, indeed, not all of the people who ARE interred here is interred here; apparently some of their organs are likely to be in urns and such elsewhere in the city.  But their bones are here, and the resting places of said bones range from the modest…

…to the impressive…

…to the “Holy crap, is all that really….well, I guess you’re doing you, so go for it”:

That last one perhaps has an excuse for its drama: the bones in it belong to the legendary Empress Maria Theresa.  In Austria, Empress Elisabeth is to Princess Diana as Maria Theresa is to Queen Victoria, and it seems that just about everywhere in the city there are traces of her passing.  She’s one of the rare, lucky royals who seems to have had a love match; those sixteen (!!) children had to have come about somehow.  The caskets (is that the right word?) for her and her husband here in the crypt enhance the impression; the two of them look almost as though they were only just waking up in bed together on a lazy Sunday morning. 

It’s oddly sweet, especially after a relatively steady diet of Goth-ier elements in the various burial sites we’ve visited in Prague and elsewhere.

Sisi and her husband Franz Josef are here as well, and it seems that Sisi’s got a lot of fans, including this person who apparently felt themselves to be a kindred spirit:

Emerging once again into the afternoon, we paused for lunch at Konditorei Oberlaa, where we had our first encounter with the Viennese fondness for outdoor dining when the weather is fine (it’s almost as much of a Thing as patio culture is in Toronto.)  I’m not normally much of an eating outdoors sort of person, but it would have been lovely here had it not been for an unfortunate convergence of smokers and breezes.

I did absolutely have one of the best bits of cheesecake I have ever put in my mouth, though – and they had this rather charming chocolate Klimt:

(Now seems like a good time to mention that it’s apparently the anniversary of Klimt’s death this year, though it took us a good while to sort this out. There were a LOT of Klimt-themed elements in town, though.)

Anyway, with lunch concluded and a brief interlude to convert some dollars into Euros, we made our way past a fountain that apparently scandalized Maria Theresa once upon a time (because bare breasts, you know), and took a brief peek at the actual St. Stephen’s.  It feels a little crowded into its square somehow, though perhaps that was just a byproduct of the general festiveness of the square itself, full of street food and hawkers and at least one of those tiny little carnival rides that manage to look dangerous and whimsical at the same time.

Much of the cathedral is a reconstruction: as with so much else in the city, it was seriously, seriously bombed-out in World War II, though there are still some rather nice views to be had inside.

Back on the street again, we found ourselves ambling up another pleasant, broad avenue – past an early prototype of the now-ubiquitous pay toilets and up to a pretty extravagant example of the plague column:

Yeah.  That’s baroque AF.  Supposedly it was a model for other constructions of its type, with then-emperor Leopold begging Lady Faith (or anyone who would listen, one suspects) to save the city from the terrible disease.  When the plague eventually burnt itself out, grateful cities took to building monuments like this one.

Not far from here is another little church, this one called St. Peter’s – and though honestly I think one could be forgiven for having all these religious establishments blur together by now this one had a nice little surprise for us in the form of a free afternoon organ concert.  We settled in on the pews for a few moments to listen, and I snapped a photo or two:

I’m pretty sure that gent is St. John of Nepomuk, who we heard a lot about in Prague.

As if to prove that music is what Vienna is really all about, as we were leaving we heard music of a very different kind.  Investigation of the lively march revealed it was being played by these guys:

Who were they?  Why were they marching down the Graben on a sunny afternoon?  I honestly have no idea, but it was the second musical moment we blundered into today.

All of this was buildup to a more significant musical moment, though: an attempt to get in to see a show at the Opera house itself.  These can be outrageously expensive – something on the order of 150 Euros for tickets – but here’s a little something I didn’t know before doing my research for this trip: On the day of a performance, standing room tickets may be had for just 3-4 Euros.   On the downside, yes, you have to stand, and there’s a fair bit of waiting about beforehand – but on the upside, you get to see a performance from one of the legendary opera houses of the world for a mere six to eight Canadian dollars.  After reading up on what one needs to do to make this happen, we set out to give it a try for today’s show: L’elisir d’amore.

Tip number one: Show up early enough to secure a decent spot in line.  Around 4 we wandered by the Opera to see whether the line had started.  To my mild surprise, it had, with a couple who were clearly old hands: both perhaps in their seventies, they were well-supplied with folding chairs, food and reading material. (Seriously, bring a book or a handheld console or something; you’ll be there a while if you try this.)  Reasoning that this meant we’d better get on this, we resolved to have a late dinner after the show ended and settled in just behind them.  Third and fourth in line: not bad!

Not long after we staked our claim, the line began lengthening and we were treated to the interesting assortment of folks who go for this kind of thing.  A little crew of girls who reminded me quite a lot of the LA contingent from our food tour in Prague.  A fellow of Asian extraction with extravagant dreads.  An earnest, serious-looking kid with ginger hair, glasses and a German-language copy of (if I was translating correctly) Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus.  A second Asian kid who had either the cultural ignorance or the extraordinary balls to cut in front of me in line (though after getting over my astonishment I opted not to raise a scene.  Fourth and fifth in line were equally good places.)

After a time, the outermost door opens, and the standing-room folk move in to take their place in the winding indoor queue…and then, more waiting.  Several times we watched an usher with the unenviable job of turning folk away for improper dress do so when someone turned up with torn jeans.  (Apparently, jeans in good repair are just fine in standing room, but ripped jeans and shorts that fall too far above the knee are less so.  My advice: dress up at least slightly if you can.  Dark jeans and a decent top/shoes will probably do just fine.)

At some point during all this waiting, we fell into conversation with the old pros in front of us.  They were a Dutch couple, and only the man spoke much English, but apparently they’ve been doing this for going on twenty years now, every time they’re in Vienna.  Like us, they’d opted for this show largely because they weren’t in much of a mood to watch people die horribly and have tragic things occur to them in song for several hours, though they did mention that apparently in act two there’s an aria that’s known for being especially fine.  (Future me: I think this is the one.)

They seemed quite pleased to pass on their accumulated wisdom, though, and were definitely big opera fans.  It was a slightly disjointed conversation thanks to the language barriers, but they were lovely; I wonder a little if they saw some of themselves in us.

Eventually the little ticket booth opens, and we could finally buy our actual tickets (this is about two hours before showtime, so around 5:30 pm or thereabouts.)  Tip #2: Have exact change for your ticket.  I’d heard that they can actually be real sticklers about this, but we’d carefully hoarded four 2-Euro coins, so this bit wasn’t a big deal.

Once you have your ticket in hand, you’re not quite done queueing yet.  Hurry to one of the doors for the kind of ticket you’ve bought.  This will be either “Gallery,” in which case you need to hurry upstairs, or “Parterre,” as in our case, which meant we had to hurry up slightly fewer stairs and, at the advice of our Dutch mentors, duck left instead of right.  After waiting here for a bit longer, the final rank of doors will open, and you can at long last claim your standing-room space.

Tip #3: Have something on hand to actually mark your space with.  Classically this will be a scarf; I brought the very lightest one I own to mark my own place.  (The Dutch couple had a clever little magnetic contraption that marked both their places out.  Like I said: old hands at this.)

That thing my scarf is tied around is a little screen that will show you the opera’s subtitles in English or German – but that’s still a while off.  Once your space is marked with whatever you’ve brought with you, you’re free to explore the Opera House itself.  It’s not as big as you’d think, not inside, though it’s every bit as grand as you might be imagining:

Also as you might be imagining, it’s stuffed to the brim with artwork depicting various muses, composers, and so on.  Naturally there was at least one we had to make a point of seeking out:

And then, after a bit more Baroque-flavored exploring, it was showtime.

I know the folks reading this may have some Opinions about opera, maybe not favorable.  Myself, I’ve always rather enjoyed it; here’s a world that’s so over the top that not only are people constantly bursting into song to express themselves and their feelings, they are doing it often for reasons that are totally crazy – plus, if you’re lucky, the music is rather beautiful.

I didn’t have any prior experience with this particular show, but it’s rather charming.  In a nutshell: We open somewhere in rural Italy, where a crew of harvesters sing about the merciless heat of the sun – and the even more merciless heat of love.  As they say: Happy is the harvester that can protect himself from it!

Then again, if one really could, shows like this wouldn’t be much fun.

Our Hero’s a simple country boy, and he’s got it bad, BIG time, for the lovely and intelligent girl who lives stage left.  She, on the other hand, doesn’t really seem to be all that into him – while not actively hostile or anything, she just…doesn’t seem to feel the urge to be tied down.  Cue the arrival of a rather ridiculously pompous soldier who’s mighty full of himself and is very into our heroine – and then, to touch off the whole romantic powder-keg, a con man so gleeful in his charlatanry it is a goddamn miracle the townsfolk are even slightly inclined to trust him.

Inspired by a recent reading of Tristan and Isolde (no, seriously), Our Hero begs the con artist, a Dr. Dulcamara, for a love potion.  Of course, there is one – for a steep fee; nobody has to know it’s just a good strong Bordeaux, right?  Drunkenness and various forms of hilarity ensue; by the time all’s said and done our heroine has realized she wasn’t nearly as indifferent as she thought, our hero has discovered some self-confidence (and come into an unexpected inheritance for good measure), and one way or another it all works out.

At one point during the second act, the Dutch lady suddenly got very excited, tapping me on the arm.  “Schon!  Sehr schon!” she murmured rapturously, and I realized this must be The Big One.

And…uh…yeah.  Yeah, it was.  I don’t know my modern opera singers, but this guy was amazing here; at least twice I realized suddenly that I’d gotten so involved in watching him I was forgetting to glance down for the libretto.  The spontaneous applause that broke out afterward was well-deserved.

I’ve seen Pavarotti doing Rigoletto on video before, with a little sidelong glance at the audience just before launching into “La donna e mobile” that says “Yeah, here it comes, you know you want it.”  (Appropriate, I guess, for an aria that is both one of the super stonking famous ones and also translates loosely into modern parlance as “Bitches be fickle, yo.”)  No swagger here, though; just a completely in-character if somewhat painful earnestness.

Once the third or fourth curtain call had wound down and the glitzily-dressed patrons were making for the exits (followed closely by the plebes like us), we wished the Dutch couple bon voyage and set forth in search of what was by then becoming a ridiculously late dinner.

Happily, there’s something of a tradition regarding this as well.  Remember the Albertinaplatz I mentioned earlier?  Well, on it is one of many, many little streetside establishments offering beer and various permutations of sausagey goodness – and one of the other things I read about while working out how to do this whole standing-room thing is that apparently it is the done thing to hit up a spot like this just after the show’s ended.  Mark was definitely into the idea:

Curry wurst for me, and for Mark a “Riesen hot dog” – an appropriately-sized baguette impaled on what seems to be a specially made implement to punch a just-right hole in the bread without actually splitting the crust except for a cut-off end.  Condiments go either into the hole or are loosely applied to the top, with the grilled sausage eventually punched in after them to make a mostly-mess-free takeout option.  (I keep wanting to call it “reise wurst” for “travel sausage.”)

Not fancy eats, but we certainly weren’t the only ones with that notion in mind:

And I was definitely happy to collapse onto a convenient curb and dig in before heading home for the night, humming to myself.  A crazy long day, but it’s hard to feel much regret about that when there was so much music in it.

Day 5: Nach Wien

(Above: Catbun enjoying a last look at the goldfish in our room.)

We had one more sight to see today before leaving Prague, since our train wasn’t until the early afternoon: the Museum of Medieval Art, conveniently housed in the convent of the Sisters of St. Agnes, just a short walk from our hotel.

I’ll be a little sad to say goodbye to the Maximilian; we had a lovely stay there even accounting for the mysterious lack of top sheets and indifferent-if-extant air conditioning that haunts Europe generally. Happily, there was safe storage for our luggage, so after our checkout we made our way through the streets one last time and entered the little cloister.

This is still a working convent, I believe, though I did not see anyone wearing religious garb – and what remains of the old convent’s interior is just that – an interior, with very little in the way of furnishings or signifiers to indicate that one room was once much different from another. But the main reason one is there is, of course, the art, so let’s get to that.

It’s medieval art, and from that we can assume a number of common traits: religious subject matter, frequently anonymous artists, a wide and varied range of degrees of mastery when it comes to things like perspective and naturalism.

Oh, and photobombs. Usually by angels. You would seriously be surprised juuuuust how often in medieval art an angel is like “oh hey, guys!” and pops into the picture at a random angle that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with much of what’s going on in the pictures.

Some of the art is legitimately beautiful and contemplative; it’s easy to imagine how in the gray-brown world of the medieval peasant the church may well have been the only place where one was able to see beautiful things. One of the only places, perhaps I should say. There were always the flowers of the field, and the sky after a rain, and the like. But there was a time when almost all of what we think of as visual art was to the greater glory of god, and this collection of it is rather fine.

Some of it I recognized – some Dürer woodcuts, rather flagrant in their apocalyptic-ness. Much of it I did not: altarpieces that folded up, cleverly arranged so as to show an arrangement of saints no matter how they were folded; a wide variety of carved wooden crucifixes and pietas and painted lamentations. Over and over again Mary Magdalene washes Jesus’s feet with her hair; over and over again Christ goes to the Mount of Olives, over and over again, disciples gather at his feet, or in darkened rooms too like a tavern in Bohemia to be strictly accurate.

Some of them are lovely, if somber, scenes. Some of them, to a modern eye, read a bit differently than the artist (probably) originally intended. Matthew looks serious, Mark looks as if he is thinking about lunch, Luke has the wary hesitant half smile of someone not sure if the camera is pointing at him, and John seems entirely Over It, thank you. Gathered at the crucifixion, invention seems to have run out when it came to coming up with different expressions of agony or grief for the disciples to display: here profound sorrow, there a grimace of pain, here something more evocative of digestive distress than emotional angst. A Roman soldier in the wrong armour for his place and time flashes the viewer some distinctive side-eye, as if to say “Can you believe this shit?”

I feel a little disrespectful, admittedly, stating these observations out loud…but honestly, that really IS how it looked. Still, it’s a lovely collection, and aside from the inevitable squad of schoolchildren, a pleasantly un-crowded one for our final Prague sight.

Outside is a little sculpture-garden, including this charming little playhouse that is apparently actually one of the sculptures.

I wonder if anyone is allowed to play on it? The school group was nowhere to be seen at the time, so there was nobody around to test the theory.

By now it was getting on to that time, so we headed back to the Maximilian, where we reclaimed our bags and hopped into a cab headed for the main station. Here we thanked our past selves for that run out to Kutna Hora a couple of days ago: nothing like a little practice with the trains to make finding your platform, etc, a little easier. A short wait later and we climbed aboard a train headed for “Wien Hbf,” aka Vienna (the “Hbf” is the typical abbreviation for “Hauptbahnhof” or main train station.)

We had first-class tickets for this trip – an odd quirk of the Prague-Vienna trains is that you can purchase tickets for them through either the OBB (the Austrian transit authority that actually runs the train as far as I can tell) or CD (the Czech rail system, pronounced something like “Chesky drah-hee”)…and the Czech price can sometimes be cheaper for precisely the same seat. As we also bought well in advance, this meant we could easily swing a spot with a bit more leg room for our 4-hour trek.

One thing I remember from my last trains-in-Europe experience is that for some reason one always expects that the borders will feel more distinct than they are – as if somehow crossing from Italy to Germany will result in the grass being a different green or something, which of course is nonsense. In this case, pretty pastoral countryside continued on both sides of the border, broken up occasionally by assorted small towns and the like. The only really notable differences? Signs swap primary languages from Czech to German (meaning I was no longer QUITE functionally illiterate, hooray) and at the last Czech stop we were slightly astonished to see just about everyone else in the car pile out of the train, which lingered a bit longer than normal. Perhaps the staff have to swap when the border changes?

In any case, it was a very comfortable journey, even with minor hiccups like an in-seat food ordering system that didn’t quite “take” when we put our order in for some sandwiches.

Another thing I remember is how striking the differences between train stations could be, and the transition from Prague’s to Vienna’s was marked by a sudden spike in signage, as well as in available staff who could point you toward whatever it was you were looking for – in our case the 13A bus toward Siebensterngasse, which wound through the streets of the city to an area that gradually began to resemble Queen West.

Vienna was described to me as being “basically Toronto” before this trip, though I’m not entirely sure I agree. For one, there is a notable lack of either the kind of glass and steel condo developments that all of residential downtown seems to be gradually turning into or the skyscrapers that make up most of the “business” downtown. Instead, you have relatively tidy blocks of three-to-five story buildings, many of which seem to subscribe to some sort of unspoken (or perhaps it’s quite spoken, and I just don’t know that) European building code: windows shaped just so, and double-glazed after a fashion, with a casement that opens inward and another that opens outward. Facades to be white, or at least aiming for white; signage neat and prominently displayed in blue and white.

Oh, and for a second difference: unlike Toronto’s, the public transit in Vienna actually works. It’s brisk and efficient, just make very sure you have validated your ticket or else you may be liable for a stiff fine.

We hopped off at Siebensterngasse and looked round for our next lodgings, eventually locating the green “Hotel Kugel” sign near the corner. This is a hotel dating back to the 1800s, and a certain retro quality was present throughout its fittings (thankfully, there’s a modern if tiny elevator.) Our room was every bit as frilly as one could possibly hope for in Vienna:

Alas, still no top sheet, but a very welcome fan. A nice view, too:

Once our bags were dropped off safely, we pondered our next course of action, eventually settling on “let’s go get oriented with our first evening, the way we did in Prague.” We’ve been following the Rick Steves guide for this trip, and a ride around the Ringstrasse tram with an audio tour we downloaded seemed like just the thing.

With a little help from Google Maps we worked out the right general direction and set off. Things you notice almost immediately:

  • Traffic lights are back. I don’t think we saw one of these in Prague anywhere; as Jan noted on our food tour, whatever is coming from the right has right of way, and since everyone knows this, voila, no fuss. (Though I admit to having found it disconcerting.)
  • A number of the traffic lights for pedestrians in Vienna represent same-sex couples, waiting patiently (or perhaps snuggling) side by side when the light is red and strolling gaily across when it’s green, with a little heart between them. They’re extremely cute.
  • The streets here seem to have far fewer windings and tangles than in Prague. One gets the sense that more of the growth here was planned rather than organic – and perhaps it was; one doesn’t have to be more than an indifferent student of history to recognize that Vienna was an imperial capital for a very, very long time.

A few blocks away from the Siebensterngasse stop, the street bumped into a little flight of stairs. Curious to see whether these would allow us to cut straight through a block, as the little arched tunnels in Prague often do, we tried them – and found ourselves going down a much, much longer flight of stairs into something labeling itself prominently “Museumsquartier.” (At a guess, this is because, well, there were some museums and galleries here judging by the signs; notably modern art if these were anything to go by.)

The sort of square at the base of the stairs was clearly setting up for some sort of concert, but almost all of the space not populated by workers and steel constructs was taken up by abstract couches in bright purple, populated by the sort of fashionable young people who make me feel rather drab at the best of times, all eager German conversation.

Beyond this, we emerged onto a street fronted by a grand-looking park dominated by a large sculpture of a woman enthroned who reminded me a little of statuary of Victoria, flanked by some fairly spectacular buildings; as a sign nearby read “M. Theresien-platz” I assumed this must be Maria Theresa. (Future Me: I was right, as the next morning would confirm.)

Past this and round a corner we made it at last to the Ringstrasse – the innermost of Vienna’s ring roads that encircles its densest concentration of sights. Here we had a bit of a disappointment: the tram stops here for several blocks had a sort of blue metal cross-like thing mounted over each of them. “Verlassen,” it said. Lost? No. What the hell was that word? I eventually resorted to Google Translate and had an unpleasant surprise: “Abandoned.”

It seems that a chunk of the ring tram is out of commission at the moment. Lovely. Well, so much for THAT plan. Instead we made for the nearest likely source of dinner – a sort of pub-like restaurant with a propensity for collecting beer themed kitsch in a variety of languages. Well. It’d do; we settled in for a reasonably tasty schnitzel and some kind of meat-filled dumplings with sauerkraut and planned our next move.

This was, as it was getting late, simply to do a stroll around the Opera area, taking in the sights. Vienna in the evening was sedate, but in a charming sort of way and around behind the Opera house was one of those things that’s on the Vienna bingo card:

That’s Cafe Sacher, home of the Sachertorte – a dense chocolate cake with a fruity center layer and a ganache-like icing. You may have heard of it? Anyway, why the hell not – we headed in and placed an order for two of them, with a coffee each.

Or a “melange,” rather – something like a cappuccino. Coffee isn’t served here with milk separately as it is in North America; if you want milk in your coffee it’s best to order it in a preparation that includes some.

The tortes were brought to the table by a waitress in an honest to goodness maid outfit, and came with a little seal of officialness, also in chocolate:

Drier than I was expecting, but tasty all the same.

On that note we headed off to bed. Another long day tomorrow.

Have a nighttime view of Vienna or two while you wait for the next post:

Day 4: Opulence, of several kinds

Our final full day in the Czech Republic dawned bright and cool, and we set out with a plan: to try for a non-hotel breakfast at the recommended-by-the-food-tour-folks Cafe Savoy, over in Prague’s Little Quarter. This would, we knew, demand some careful timing, since the other priority for the morning was to visit Prague Castle, and we hoped to beat some of the numerous tour groups to the punch (as much as possible anyway.)

So it was that we found ourselves outside the cafe several minutes before it opened, in the company of a few early-morning businessfolk and a handful of people who had the look about them of tourists like us. After a few minutes, a young fellow in kitchen whites emerged to set out baskets of pansies and a waiter in a straight-up tuxedo (sans jacket) began seeing to seating for everyone.

Having heard the French toast here was to die for, and knowing we had a long day ahead of us, we ordered the “French breakfast,” which was…massive.

It also cost about as much as a nice dinner out in Toronto, but since literally everything was delicious as well, somehow I found it difficult to mind all that much.

As we prepared to leave for another round of heavy walking, I stopped to visit the WC – I mention this purely because the area outside said WC is a glassed-in overlook that lets you watch the crew in the pastry kitchen do their thing. While the placement is disconcerting, it’s pretty cool to watch; I recommend having a look if anyone reading this one day happens to go there.

Next stop: Prague Castle. Sort of. We got on the tram heading the wrong way, but fortunately this was readily corrected.

Our travel book made quite a point of saying “Be at St. Vitus’s Cathedral at nine,” but it wasn’t until our slightly delayed arrival at about 9:10 or so that we discovered why: guess where all the tour groups start? …Yeah. Dodging a crew of Russians and at least two of those big crews of Chinese travelers, we bought our tickets and dove for the cathedral entrance.

It’s curious how much the cathedral feels like the heart of the castle. Perhaps this is simply because the castle is no longer a “working” castle: the rooms where the business of governing was actually done are largely empty of furnishings now, waking up only briefly as tourists come to observe them before rolling over and going back to sleep. Once upon a time, kings were crowned here, in the chapel of St. Wenceslas, where the saint’s bones are interred.

St. Vitus himself is here as well, or at least he’s got a reliquary.

There’s also the biggest of the bells in the area, affectionately known as “Zikmund.”

We wandered for a while, taking in the interior (at least as much as was possible around the already-getting-dense crowds.). Here, I’ll share a few views:

The castle interior itself is much simpler: the hefty architecture the Middle Ages tended toward when it wanted to get things done. There is at least one hall that must at one time have been very grand, though:

And there is also the infamous window where the Defenestration of Prague took place:

Quite a lot of madness from such an ordinary-looking window.

We also got a chance to explore “Golden Lane,” a tiny little medieval shopping street that has partly been re-populated with little dioramas of the sorts of shops that filled the place at various points in history and partly with actual shops of ponderous touristiness.

Notable, for me at least, were a rendering of the house of a medium (above) who was quite popular before she was taken in by the Gestapo (as with so many stories like this, it Did Not Go Well) and of a local journalist and intense fan of old films who used to run screenings out of his living room.

I’m…legitimately not sure at this point how many stories I have heard on this trip that seem to end with some variation on “…and then they were taken by the Gestapo.” That always seems to represent the ending when it comes; an uncomfortable full-stop that makes even reading the plaque feel awkward. As though the curator were darting me an awkward glance before moving on with their description.

As we started down the very, very steep hill that pointed us back toward the city centre, we took a pause to tour Lobkowicz Palace. It’s a pretty place, though not over the top extravagant, and visiting it is, for those reading this who played D&D with me, a very VanDeen-y affair. The noble family of the Prince(s) of Lobkowicz lived here, or at least they did until they lost everything in WWII. Then they got it all back, then lost it again under the communists, then got it back again. Now they run a museum that from the sound of it helps them keep the lights on and restorers available for the ongoing maintenance of their vast stashes of goods.

Said stash includes the expected accoutrements of nobility: fine porcelain, silver, paintings of pastoral scenes and engravings by Piranesi. One room contains a collection of paintings of dogs, apparently something of a family fixation; another is populated with images of birds composed largely of the feathers of the bird in question.

It seems the princes were avid followers of the arts in general; the collection also includes a Mozart rearrangement of Handel’s “Messiah” with notes in his own hand, and several scores dedicated to a prior Prince of Lobkowicz who was, I shit you not, Beethoven’s patron. (Things I learned: originally Beethoven planned to dedicate his “Eroica” to Napoleon. However, by the time it was finished, Beethoven was sufficiently unimpressed that he re-dedicated it to the then current prince of Lobkowicz, striking out his earlier dedication with enough force to rip holes in the paper.)

There’s also a painting of the famous defenestration – or rather, what happened shortly afterward. It approaches the situation from a rather different point of view than other accounts we’ve heard to date, however: here, the nobles who were flung out of the window have fled to the Lobkowicz palace for protection, and a family ancestress is shielding them from the angry horde.

The museum also includes an audio guide narrated with rather endearing earnestness by the current…is it still prince? I’m not sure…with cameos from his wife and mother in law. It’s a curious mix of enthusiasm for the collection and impressive manifestation of privilege (Though I did enjoy the anecdote about his father riding a bicycle up and down the grand halls.) At least the desire to preserve all this for future generations seems to be in earnest, and in that I wish them all the best.

Our next stop was perhaps more amusing than classy: Speculum Alchemiae, a slightly cheesy little attraction that sprang up after massive flooding unearthed an honest to god alchemist’s lab tucked away under one of the local houses.

Prague has a tendency to flood: in fact, the level of the city has been raised a few times over the years, and on some much-older buildings the effects of this can be seen. At the old town hall, what is now the cellar used to be the street level, and the former windows are still clearly visible; here, the house where once an alchemist plied his trade sits several feet below the more modern buildings nearby.

The flood unearthed a series of tunnels, one of which led directly to the castle, and in these, supposedly, documents were found that clued everyone in as to what the place once was. These same documents were then used to reconstruct the way the lab may have looked, long ago. It’s a little bit cheesy, but amusing to visit, complete with glassworks, distillery and storage space for a variety of herbs. And hey, it has a secret bookcase.

Mark bought a small clay phial of something that purports to be an elixir of youth, though I suspect its primary virtues may have less to do with revitalizing the flesh than with adding a cute trinket to a bookcase.

Here we paused for a break at our hotel’s “honesty bar,” after picking up a bottle of water at the nearest convenience store, and I surprised myself by downing almost a litre of it without really stopping. I get the sense I am really burning a lot of water just walking around; so far it’s been very humid everywhere we go.

Today was planned as food tour day, so there was time for just one more stop on the way: the Mucha museum, wherein I got to see real life versions of many of those cheap prints seen in college dorms everywhere, including mine. Some of those posters from his Paris period are a LOT bigger than you’re thinking if you’ve only ever seen the prints, as well; Sarah Bernhardt in Medea may not have been quite life-sized, but she sure can dominate a wall.

Here also Mark and I made the happy discovery that there IS some art we can agree on after all – both of us find things to love in Mucha. For him, there is the interplay of forms, I love the use of colour and the swirling, delicate lines; we both love his knack for expressions and symbolism. This is especially fun when looking at some of his work that comes in sets – seasons, flowers, etc.

In the back of the museum is a movie detailing more about Mucha’s life – patronage, contracts, his distaste for society and his patriotic dreams. (We did not make it out to see the Slav Epic this time, but one of these days I should really look into it.) They had some works I’d never heard of before there, let alone seen – like the rather haunting “Star.” Like the Slav Epic, this one has political meaning as well – Mucha painted it in response to hearing about the suffering of the common folk of Russia post-Bolsheviks.

On the one hand, I feel a bit shallow for enjoying works of his that were, essentially, just advertisements; I cannot imagine hanging the average ad that appears on the TTC in my living room. Then again, I may possibly have bought a print of one of his works for myself. Blame my affinity for the “The Moon” card, perhaps.

This done, we headed to the meeting point for our food tour…which we almost missed, even so, after first getting the place right, then thinking we’d got it wrong, then hurrying back to the right one again.

Our guide for the evening was Jan, a guy about our own age who’d studied briefly in the USA and done translation work in the land of high finance before eventually deciding he’d had enough and switching to full-time foodie tourism. Everyone ELSE on the tour was young ladies from the States, most from LA, and most “between jobs,” though I am uncertain quite what that means exactly. This made parts of the experience a bit odd; for instance, I have never been in a room, ever, where people lit up as visibly as the LA girls did when he mentioned the Kardashians.

Ah well. All of us were there because we liked food, at least, so we had that in common. (And here, guys, I am going to do that thing I roll my eyes at people a bit for doing when they do it in restaurants in Canada…I photographed my food so I could share with you. Those of you this will irritate, feel free to skim over this bit.)

Here are sort of the primary take-aways from the entire affair: The Czechs are trying to re-establish a sort of Czech food identity after Communism. Communist life in the Czech Republic was, for most people, more boring than horrific according to Jan. Certainly the regime did a number on food, standardizing recipes down to the weight of ingredients to be used for each dish. Recipes served lots of people at once (the example he showed us served 100) and were the same pretty much everywhere – so if you didn’t like the bread (or whatever) at one place there was very little point in going anywhere else. Restaurants came in four “levels”; I’m not sure if there was much difference between the recipes available at a level 1 vs a level 4, but the part of me that loves going out to St. Lawrence or wherever finds the entire idea just soul-destroying.

Here’s the other important bit, though: as we all know, food is often about comfort for a lot of us. What do we crave when we want comfort? Food we remember from childhood. And what was childhood if you’re Czech and were born within living memory of, say, 1989? That bland gray age of Communist standardization.

This, plus the legitimate desire to create new food that’s still recognizably Czech, results in an interesting mishmash of nostalgia and enthusiasm, springing forth from kitchens staffed mainly by young Czechs. “Notice how young everyone is at all of the places we go,” he commented – and he was absolutely right.

Our first stop was a place called Mysak, where Jan’s mother had taken him as a child were he to get unusually good marks at the end of a term. This was an example of a place that had been family-run for ages and doggedly kept open throughout communism, only for the owner to pass away without anyone to pass the business to shortly after communism fell. A new generation’s picked it up, however, and it is once again a popular, slightly upscale spot. Here we had a petite open-faced sandwich topped with shrimp – an affluent indulgence in a landlocked country – and a kind of cream-filled glazed cruller called a “venecek” that I think I would have eaten my body weight in given the opportunity:

Here we paused for a bit of chat about pricing. There comes a point for everyone, it seems, where the idea of “what something should cost” becomes fixed in one’s mind. Perhaps about fifty or so. In the Czech Republic, this means that for many, “what food should cost” is “what food cost under communism,” so a lot of older Czechs especially don’t visit places like this because the food seems too expensive. There is certainly a kind of Overton window of costs where an amount of money becomes “a lot” to you; for me that’s about 100 dollars, but for Mark it’s rather higher. I wonder how much things like that change within one’s lifetime? I know $20 was once “a lot” to me, and then $50…Who knows, I suppose.

There is no “bank of mom and dad” in the Czech Republic, either: here, the generational wealth gap exists in the inverse of North America. At home, it’s older generations that tend to have money; here, the reverse. Sometimes this means that these older folks will even be resistant to fixing up a crumbling apartment block because doing so will raise rents: there are some buildings where younger tenants are literally waiting for older ones to die in order to conduct repairs.

On our way to the next stop, we poked our heads in at the main post office for Prague. They are very very serious about not taking photographs in there, so I don’t have any unfortunately, but it’s a surprisingly pretty building. It’s also open 24/7, and is the nexus for quite a few bits of Czech bureaucracy. (Another thing I learned today: Everyone has a mailing address here, even the homeless folks – their messages will just go to the post office proper and it’s their responsibility to check them.)

Stop number 2 of our tour was Kantyna, “the palace of meat,” a former Masonic temple turned fancy butcher shop-slash-eatery where you can order meat by weight and have it brought to you. This place is crazy busy, and a number of tables had reservations marked with numbered bones, but the tour group we were with has a special arrangement whereby sometimes they will set up a card table for those who’ve been on the tour. Appropriately to the setting they brought out a tray of pulled pork, dry-aged sausages, latkes fried in pork fat, and steak tartare.

The latter one eats by first vigorously rubbing the toasted bread with a cut clove of garlic; the garlic was pleasingly spicy, much more so than in Canada. I don’t know what causes that, but I wish I could have some to cook with at home!

We also had a dark lager called “Kozel” here. This is the gateway beer in this part of the world, apparently; the lighter stuff that teenaged girls drink. (Still not really my jam, but I figured if there was ever a “when in Rome” sort of occasion this was it.)

On our way to our next stop we learned another interesting factoid: you know that Jewish quarter we visited? There are still some Jews in Prague, but not many: only 1500 or so officially registered, most over 55. This came up because the former Jewish quarter was home to stop number three: Lokal, a small chain with just a few locations that is riffing on the classic Czech pub.

These are trading on the aforementioned communist nostalgia very hard, naturally, which means that walking into one is a bit like walking into the legion hall at first glance: comfortable if spartan-looking seating, a long bar, painted stencilwork on the wallpaper. The “riffing on” element becomes more apparent when you look more closely at the walls: wood paneling that looks very 70s has been gouged with graffiti-like carvings that are lit from behind. A decorative feature, not defacements.

This is because, as we learned on sitting down, the local pub is a place where you go to do two things, mainly: drink, and talk to your friends, largely to complain about all the things in your life that make you crazy. So there’s no music being played (a difference from Canadian pubs I didn’t register at first), and the food on offer is mostly of the “stuff you serve with beer” variety.

Czechs drink a lot of beer. A LOT. Jan showed us a typical beer-ordering card, a long strip with many, many little outlines of mugs of beer on it. When the waitress sees you’re empty, or running low, she’ll come by with another, marking off one of the outlines, unless and until you explicitly say “no more.” At the end of the night you cash out – a procedure Jan referred to as “Czech dim sum.”

How many beers on the average do Czechs have this way? Eight or nine a night, easily.

We had just the one, this time a Pilsner Urquell lager that came from a giant tank under the bar. There are about six of these active in any pub at a given time, and they will go through three tanks in a night, easily. When refill time comes, a tanker truck full of beer pulls up to the pub and fills ’em up, gas station style.

…What do you eat with all that beer? Well, fried cheese is popular; this is served with tartar sauce (?) and tastes about as awesome as fried cheese generally does. There was also a Hungarian-style goulash, and chicken schnitzel served with a warm, vinegary potato salad.

Here we also learned something that might possibly explain why Prague was so much less crowded than I had anticipated: apparently the Czechs love going to the cottage on holiday weekends as much as Canadians do, so a goodly chunk of the city may have been out for a time.

Next stop, a second meat-themed spot, Nase Maso, for a sample of their meatloaf sandwich.

About this, I cannot say much except that it was very tasty, and they have provided us with the recipe, which I may try one of these days when I have people over. We did learn an interesting factoid about the place, though: there is a wine bar nearby, and you can apparently have the butcher shop grill you a steak and bring it over. (I must confess I rather like the idea of summoning a steak like this, though I didn’t get the chance to test drive it. Ah well. On a future trip perhaps.

Onward, again – and outward in this case, to the neighbourhood of Kalin well outside the touristy zones of the city; rough-but-gentrifying, perhaps the closest Torontonian analogue would be the Junction. Here, tech companies have settled in, and a little crop of restaurants trying out new things have sprung up to serve them. As we headed to our first stop here, we passed a lengthy queue; investigation revealed that playing that night was Bobby McFerrin. (There’s a name I haven’t thought of in a while…)

Next stop, Eska, a trendy-looking spot where we were seated “at the chef’s table,” near the kitchen. Here we were treated first to a gin and tonic crafted with an artisanal gin by a local, along with a seriously adorable little amuse-bouche crafted with radish slices and edible flowers:

I love the water-lily look. This was followed by a modern riff on what is apparently a popular Czech campfire dish: “ash potatoes,” which as the name suggests are potatoes tossed into the campfire ashes to roast. Ours were served a bit more elaborately than that, though:

This was a kind of deconstructed baked-potato affair, and it was seriously delicious. As we waited for our next course, we watched the kitchen doing its thing. (Jan commented “They say there are three things you can watch forever: fire, the sea, and other people working.”)

Perhaps he’s right about that; it was weirdly gratifying to watch the kitchen staff as they boiled, roasted, plated…

The next course was mushroom-oriented: a sort of fermented wheat berry risotto-like substance rich with mushroom flavours.

The Czechs apparently not only eat a lot of mushrooms but forage for them regularly as well; all Czech students receive some basic mushroom education in school, and many towns have a sort of mushroom assistance agency that will help you identify the mushrooms you’ve made it back with. These are staffed by “Unabomber weirdo types,” as he put it, but they’re quite knowledgeable, and foraging can be a way to make some extra cash if you know what you’re doing.

Above: “pre-dessert,” a little nibble before we headed out. Whee!

Our final stop for the evening was the Krystal bistro for a traditional Czech dessert: plum dumplings with butter, poppy seeds, and stewed plums, paired with another local artisanal spirit: a walnut brandy. Both dumpling and brandy were lovely: warm and comforting, buttery, fruity density and woody acidity together.

At the end of the evening Jan had some additional gifts to see us off: tram tickets back to the old town, and a Koh-I-Noor pencil for everyone. These are apparently a Czech innovation, too. File that under things I didn’t know, certainly…

By this time we were so full we were more than happy to just head back to the hotel and collapse for the night, thank you. Anyone thinking of going to Prague who likes food, though: go do this. It was a great time, it was delicious, and I’ll be giving them some good internet ratings when I get back to Toronto.

Tomorrow: we head to Vienna.

Good night, Prague. It’s been fun!

(Please enjoy Mark with this painting of chickens.)

Day 3: Bones and silver in Bohemia

Note: I am absolutely still writing these, but as may already be apparent we have been crazy busy. Will get them up as time permits!

Day three of our trip saw us heading outside of Prague, to the rural city of Kutna Hora. This meant, of course, sorting out how to use the trains.

If you’re European I think you are likely born with a few extra points in the “Use Train” skill; as a North American I had to work a bit to dredge up the remnants of my backpacking knowledge. Right. Train number, car number, seat number. Even so, Prague’s main train station can be overwhelming. There’s a riot of…everything going on: crowds of people with giant suitcases, a somewhat puzzling-to-outsiders numbering system for the platforms that takes into account north or south platforms, different ticket windows for domestic vs international trains. Still, fortunately for us the language of buying tickets is fairly universal: two, Kutna Hora, return. Slip of paper in hand, we headed for the departures board and thence to the platform…

Where there were a LOT of people waiting. Perhaps it is because Kutna Hora is just that popular, or perhaps it was because it happened to be The Holiday Variously Known as V-E day or “Victory Day” or (as was written on some signs in the Czech Republic) “Liberation Day.” Be that as it may, we only barely scored a seat on the train before it rolled out into the Czech countryside.

The city gave way to green countryside of the sort I have been watching so often in Mark’s playthrough of Kingdom Come, and the stations grew progressively smaller and…well, not dingier precisely. Careworn, perhaps, with weary-looking painted plaster walls encrusted thickly with graffiti.

Kutna Hora’s main station has two platforms, brown painted plaster, and, like Prague’s main station, a startling lack of staff. From there it was a matter of transferring to a tiny yellow train that lumbered along gently to our first stop of the day.

Kutna Hora is best known for two things: silver mining (the translation of the town’s name was presented to us at least once as “to mine the mountain”) and the Sedlec Ossuary, which you might already know as “The Bone Church.”

This tiny chapel had its cemetery consecrated with earth from the holy land, once upon a time – a desirable state of affairs if you are religious and it’s the Middle Ages. So popular was this place for burials that they ran very quickly out of room…and found themselves having to disinter old corpses to make way for new ones.

What to do with all those bones? I’m not sure who it was that said “I know! Let’s stack them up into impressive pyramids, hang them on all the available wall space we’ve got, and build us a memento mori that people who use the word “Goths” to describe themselves centuries from now will daydream about visiting!”

But here we are. It’s not a BIG ossuary – you can tour the whole in perhaps twenty minutes – but it’s definitely something.

It’s clearly popular with more than just the Goth set, too: the place was already pretty mobbed when we arrived, packed with assorted Russians, Germans, a handful of North American folks and at least one bus’s worth of Chinese tourists. I think the bit I liked best is this little detail from the crest of the local lord depicted here; a skull decked out in the style of an Ottoman Turk would be getting its eyes pecked out, if it had any, by a raven.

From there we had to find a place to catch a local bus a bit further in to the city centre. After some blundering about looking for the station (and making the discovery that English is less common outside Prague), we found ourselves waiting in the company of a very, very Goth-looking couple who had apparently hired a local guide for the day. The woman had jet-black dreads and a fairly epic Medusa tattoo; we saw the two of them around quite regularly for the rest of the day.

As we rode the bus, idly surveying the landscape of what looked like some of those little Communist-era apartments (painted in multicoloured plaster, like Prague, but far less romantic-looking), we happened to look right and see…an elephant.

Seriously. Real live elephant, just hanging out munching on some tree branches. A handful of people looking on as if to say “what the fuck do we do about this?” (A reasonable response really.)

As Mark and I swapped “WTF?” looks of our own, the local fellow guiding the Goths mentioned that the elephant was apparently an escapee from a circus that had come to town of late. Nobody was sure what to DO about it. (I wondered if he was having them on…but there WERE posters for a circus with recent dates.)

Hopping off the bus, it was time to walk downhill to St. Barbara’s Church. Remember how I said the name of the town is suggestive of mountains? I MEAN it about “downhill.” Imagine a town paved with mostly medieval cobbles (the hard rounded kind), pitched at about a 45 degree or more angle, and there you have it. The notion of cycling there is frankly terrifying.

St. Barbara’s is as Gothic as the ossuary, though more in the architecture sense than fans of, say, The Crow. Once upon a time, you see, this little town was not just wealthy but fantastically so; its silver mines were part of the Bohemian infrastructure that provided silver to most of Europe for a surprisingly long time. Professionals in coin minting were imported from Italy; the ruler of the land paid regular visits, and according to the locals this little place was once a contender for capital city of the region.

Why am I telling you all this now? Because this church was to be a no expenses spared showpiece, and you can kind of tell. Here, have a look:

This fellow is wearing what we would shortly learn is a miner’s uniform – sensible, as St. Barbara is patron of miners:

As it was lunchtime by now, we headed to a little pub-like spot on a public square, where we had a light lunch of “garlic soup with ham and cheese” and a lemonade we were relieved to find was made with lemons. (Previous experience had suggested that “lemonade” in Prague is more of a…family of beverages that might include all sorts of fruit.)

Then it was time to learn a bit more about where all this silver came from.

Silver mining in the Middle Ages was a scary business. Miners would crawl out of bed at a terrifyingly early hour to make their way down to the mine for their eight-hour shifts. To do this they would don a kind of white robe with a hood along with some sturdy leather apron-type garment that could be used to (for instance) slide down chutes deeper into the mine. Grab a tallow lamp and you’re all set to crawl in and set to…literally: exploratory passages were very low to the ground, to save the bother of mining out all that unnecessary stone. Miners worked in the near-dark, in damp tunnels, hunting for silver ore that was nearly black in its unrefined state; in the absence of visual cues they learned to rely on the feel of stone under hammers and picks, or on the smell of the dust. Smell something like garlic? You might be in luck! A complex system of code knocks helped them communicate with one another.

Miners had to be young unmarried men, and there is a great reason for that: the job was horrifically dangerous, and they lost something on the order of five miners per day.

Per day. Think about that for a second.

It was during our pre-mine talk with our guide Luci that we heard another possible origin of the town’s name, as well: a saint had a dream here once about some silver rods, and from these the town gets its name.

Poetic, but less likely, perhaps.

We headed down into the mines and got to hear a bit more about why they’re so dangerous: gases given off from wood as it rots underground, arsenic leaching from the stone into the water and poisoning everyone; losing your light and getting lost, tunnel collapses…et cetera. All in all I’m cool with my desk job, thanks.

As part of the tour we get to don the white miners’ robes ourselves (with modern helmets, fortunately) and squeeze into a tiny area of the mines. And I mean “turn sideways and squish through as tightly as possible” tiny. Here’s Mark in his outfit:

And here are some representative shots of the tunnels:

The mines are surprisingly wet; in at least one place you can shine the light from your helmet down to see water in a deeper shaft. How deep do they go? I’m not sure, but apparently nobody’s all that certain how many miles of tunnel exist just now. It was certainly interesting but overall…yeah, I am happy to be working above ground.

We also toured the above ground museum of silver with a lady who apologized profusely for her English, as she hadn’t used it in some 40 years (!). This bit of the tour I’ll just skim, as it was mainly collections of artifacts from the town accompanied by descriptions of how daily life was: medieval history fans, you probably already know all you need to know about this. I did enjoy the chest that locked and unlocked twelve locks at once using a single key:

For good measure, the real keyhole isn’t the visible one on the front, either.

The silver museum also has a temporary exhibit space. On right now: gingerbread.

I know, I know, but it IS some impressive gingerbread:

After this we took a stroll downhill to see the rest of Kutna Hora. It has some pretty impressive drinking fountain infrastructure:

This would have been quite necessary at the time it was built due to the other major side effect of the mining: turning the land around the town into an arsenic-blighted hellscape. Today the land around Kutna Hora is pretty pleasant and green, but they would have chopped down all the local trees either for wood or for charcoal, and for years had to have both wood AND water shipped in. Ugh.

Eventually we made our way down to the little pink train station to catch the train back to Prague. Here there was a bit of an unpleasant surprise: apparently it’s totally possible to end up standing the entire way to your destination if you haven’t reserved a seat. (Pro tip for anyone trying this in future.)

Still, there was nothing for it – and so, feet burning rather fiercely by now after a day’s hard haul over rough cobble at a steep angle, we rode. A woman carrying a bright pink Hello Kitty bag wandered the aisles the entire trip, I assume watching for a space to open up. A youngish guy who looked as though he could bench-press me checked his phone, the outline of a set of brass knuckles alarmingly plain through his jeans. Business folk checked emails and kicked off high heeled shoes as far as public decency would seem to permit. Countryside directly out of Kingdom Come eventually gave way to suburbs, and then to office towers, and then to Prague.

We weren’t quite done with the day yet, though: hopping onto the somewhat-grungy-but-still-pretty-effective metro, we made our way to the evening’s planned entertainment: the National Marionette Theatre’s production of Don Giovanni. (The Czechs apparently have an honourable tradition of puppetry, and we’ve heard that this was a superior choice to some of the “black light” theatre shows.)

The theatre is a cute little Art Deco-ish affair, and while I can’t show you photos of the performance (here’s a review with representative examples) it was actually quite entertaining in a whimsical sort of way. The puppets don’t do any singing – it’s a recording – but that’s fine, as the real star here is the surprising physicality of the puppeteers’ performance.

Yes, the characters on stage are puppets; but the show really leans in to that, with charming results. The show’s been cut significantly, of course, and if you don’t speak Italian I would advise reading the plot on Wikipedia or something beforehand so you will have at least a vague clue what’s going on. It’s also threaded through with wry and often dark nonverbal humor; when a puppet character “dies” the puppeteer sags over the rail as if their own strings have been cut, and a backdrop stubbornly refuses to unfurl, stalling the opening of a scene.

I think I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of Mozart as the maestro. He’s controlled from below, unlike the other puppets, but his gestures are weirdly expressive and play nicely into what’s going on onstage. (And, of course, he premiered this show in Prague, so it’s appropriate.) At one point in the show he seemingly gets so frustrated by the other puppets’ antics that he just gets good and drunk and passes out, while the rest of the cast tries to work around his snoring form.

Eventually Giovanni gets hauled off to hell, the puppeteers have some amusing reactions to the overlong concluding sequence, and the audience files out.

In our case this was in search of a late dinner. This turned out to be some serviceable if unexceptional Czech food at a place Mark described as “what happens when The Witcher collides with a TGI Friday’s.” There was a tableful of blonde ladies eating fried cheese, and a very excited Japanese couple. Goulash for me, roast duck for Mark, with some more of those big bread dumplings. Beer lovers in the audience may wish to note that the beer was literally cheaper than the water. By, like, ten crowns.

This done, we headed back to the hotel to collapse, orienting ourselves via the House of Death, but not before spotting some more golem memorabilia on the way. (I think Mark has the pictures of that, sadly.)

Day 2: The Old Town, the New Town

After wandering around in it for not-quite-two days, Prague seems a little…schizophrenic? I’m not sure what word I really want, there, but let me try and explain.

The city is all layers, in all directions: Art Nouveau swirls nestle in next to Baroque curlicues, Gothic arches tower over it all…and then, right across the cobbled streets, McDonald’s. Poetic gardens and somber, brooding synagogues…right alongside clusters of loud, tacky shops aimed at tourists and establishments offering Thai massages. Spotlessly clean facades, well-maintained for the upcoming centennial celebrations, and also ubiquitous graffiti.

We opened our first full day here with breakfast at our hotel, then made our way to the Museum of Communism, a smallish but interesting exploration of the Czech Republic’s experiences with the philosophy and its proponents. In practice, it is a little bit more of a “Museum of Ways Communism Sucked” – if the descriptions of the exhibits and the little videos of personal stories are anything to go by, the Czechs suffered quite a lot under communism and were pretty damned happy to see the back of it. Take this thing, for example:

It took something like 7 years to build, acquired the nickname “the line for meat,” and when communism fell it was demolished so completely that nothing at all remains to be seen of it today.

Or take the example of the young students like Jan Palach, who were so infuriated at the return of communist control after what seemed like a veering toward a different way of life that they literally set themselves on fire.

This cross is something we found later, commemorating their deaths in Wenceslas Square.

There is quite a “fuck this shit” societal attitude that seems to underpin much of the thought about religion and politics here, and it’s things like this that give you a sense why.

The museum also displays some interesting propaganda, and gives a handful of Czech folks the chance to tell their stories of repression, smuggling, becoming stateless to study in Austria, etc.

There’s also a lot of unsurprisingly-rather-cross descriptions of how much Russia was held up as the ideal to follow, some of which seemed full of more barely-concealed rage than I normally expect from museum text. The souvenir shop, by contrast, is all black humor: a “we can do it!” proletarian lady is shown on the side of a coffee mug, with the slogan “Solidarity from your communist sisters! Who would have burned their bras if there had been any in the shops.”

Stop number two for today was the Old Town Hall, where for some centuries the city has conducted its urban business.

Our guide was a pleasant, white-haired fellow who spoke a dizzying array of languages, and who explained to us that although a number of features of the building are off display for renovations (like the famous astrological clock, which has been covered by a screen that shows a video of the little show on the hour. Probably just as well; there would be a LOT of angry tourists otherwise) there’s still plenty to see.

By law, once upon a time city halls like this one had to include a chapel, a dungeon, and a kind of courtroom: this is true of the one in Prague as well. Sadly most of what was in the chapel was out for restoration work, though the glass was lovely:

The mayor’s ceremonial rooms contain a variety of original and reconstructed architectural detail, though right at the very end of the war of course some jerks lobbed grenades into it and destroyed lots of cool interior details, like the original bell from the tower. You can still see the original “suffering Jesus” from the 1300s, though:

The mayoral chamber is also lined with crests. If one looks closely enough, they’re not heraldic representations of noble families though – they’re guild crests from the various occupations that kept the city running. A ship represents traders, crossed knives the butchers; hat-makers have a swirling starfish of ostrichlike feathers.

In a hallway just past this, a massive Sevres vase commemorates friendly relations between Prague and Paris:

Grander halls for formal pronouncements and the like eventually give way to one of the many winding staircases we ended up seeing today. This one took us into the lower levels of the Old Town Hall, where that third essential was: the dungeon.

It looks a bit more like a cellar these days, to be honest, but once upon a time this was a place of some terror, I suppose – particularly the “Purgatory” cell where they would throw people without food, water or light, sometimes for days at a time.

On our way out Mark casually happened to mention that he’d considered asking our guide about what it had been like under communism for him; I would have decked him for this, honestly, and told him so.

Here there followed an interlude wherein we attempted to locate a 3DS power supply, as we learned rather too late that North American power supplies won’t work with an adaptor. …Oops. We were unsuccessful, sadly, but had an interesting side trek out of the tourist areas and into a grittier area of the city. Looked a bit like the sketchier areas of Toronto, honestly, except the graffiti was unreadable and the streets were paved with approximately one gazillion stones about three inches square. (We had the opportunity to observe what I suppose are the Prague public works folk at work: a gang of fellows who were pretty obviously a road crew, hammering a number of these square stones into place to repair a broken pattern.)

We also stopped for a banh mi; it seems that Vietnamese folk are surprisingly common in Prague and the food is correspondingly so.

Next stop, the Municipal Hall. This is about the most boring name I can imagine for what Rick Steves calls “one of the best-preserved Art Nouveau interiors in Europe”; after having been there myself I can say that while I don’t know about the rest of Europe, it’s still a goddamn spectacular interior. Photography was, sadly, not allowed inside most of the building, so I’ll have to attach links or something to this later. (Later: Hey, here’s a virtual tour! Enjoy.)

I can still show you the outside, though:

So what the heck is this place anyway? It’s…well, a series of rooms, mostly: an array of salons, dance halls, and smaller rooms laid out in a rough triangle around a huge and beautiful concert hall. The “municipal” part is taken quite seriously, too – all of the rooms may be rented by the public for meetings, social functions, etc. Mainly it sees use as a concert hall these days; every time we passed this place on the way around town there seemed to be something going on.

On one side of the triangle are the “ladies’ rooms“: chambers with dainty decor, full of rounded shapes. Each of the rooms in the Municipal Hall has a dominant motif – once you have identified this, you can see it everywhere. Medallions on the ceilings, metal grate covers, light fixtures, upholstery. One room dedicated to folk art themes even uses its dominant shape for a fish tank: little bronze snails serve as the tiny fountain heads that once kept it filled with water.

On the other side are the “gentlemen’s rooms”: more vertical lines and structured shapes, and artwork more in keeping with…well, a cross between Art Nouveau allegory and van art: one room had huge and dynamic allegorical paintings of love, war and the death along one wall.

By far the most dramatic room, though, is at the point of the triangle: a round-ish room decorated entirely by one Alfons Mucha. It’s not all that large a space but even so it is spectacular: a reflection of his faith in the power of the Slavic folk if they but worked together, with the slogan “Through strength, freedom; through love, concord” in bright silver over one of the doors. From panels below the ceiling characters from Slavic folklore glower, smile enigmatically, or gaze into some point in the far distance; behind each a chosen saint or allegorical figure brandishes a symbol of theirs, also picked out in silver. In the dome overhead a falcon soars, surrounded by the figures of various folk in Slavic costume.

Mucha was apparently quite into Freemasonry, and the room is also apparently packed with hidden symbolism. I wasn’t equipped to identify all of those myself, but the room certainly does have an intensely mystical feel. Elaborate Art Nouveau drapes are stitched with aluminum thread, making them sparkly and doubtless more mysterious as well. (All that silver in the decor? Also aluminum.)

It’s a beautiful room, and I feel very sorry not to be able to take photographs to show you, but at least the tour hopefully has the hook-up for you (I cannot preview it on this device, sadly.)

The other important thing about the Mucha room is that it opens onto a balcony. There, some historic speeches have taken place; peering out through the glass doors it really feels like stepping onto a brightly lit stage. I can imagine how it must have looked with hundreds of people packed into the square below.

In the basement level of the Municipal House is a “Pilsner restaurant” and also the “American Bar”: we didn’t have time to stop at either, but I did get a snapshot or two, since they were allowed in the basement.

Our afternoon plan was to tour the Jewish Quarter. This is where Prague’s many, many Jews once had to live and work and is also home to the “Jewish museum in Prague,” a selection of synagogues that have been turned into exhibits on Jewish life, culture, and customs.

Some of the synagogues might be worth seeing just out of architectural interest – the Spanish synagogue, for instance, likely the most opulent of them:

Here we learned about the period of Jewish life between the World Wars, a time when it seemed for a while there like Jews might gain real social acceptance in this part of the world. …Unfortunately we all know that didn’t exactly go as hoped.

(Unrelated but fun: This cool Kafka statue is outside it.)

Indeed, at the next stop, the Maisel synagogue, we learned that apparently Hitler once planned to preserve the place as a museum of the extinct Jewish people. Ouch.

It has indeed become a museum, but instead it’s of the Jews of early Prague. Here I learned, for instance, that it seems Jews had been directed to mark themselves in some distinctive manner with a yellow somethingorother long before the yellow Star of David we’ve all seen in film and history books. (Once it was a distinctive yellow hat.)

We also were reminded that Prague is where the legend of the Golem that inspired the movie, etc, took place…and has been providing fodder for souvenirs of Prague for a good long time:

(One of the little shops outside a later synagogue even sold cinnamon-caramel Golem cookies.)

Perhaps the most dramatic point in our visit there, however, was the Pinkas synagogue. This is a relatively simple synagogue outside, but inside the entire interior has been first painted white and then inscribed with thousands on thousands of names birth dates, and dates of death if known: Czech Jews, most of whom were transported to Terezin and then killed.

Upstairs, a small but deeply heartbreaking little exhibition of children’s drawings from the Terezin camp: some 8000 kids were sent out there, but of that number only something like 250 survived. Some drawings are of the sort one sees at kitchen tables everywhere: horses and street scenes and the like. Some are incongruous: a rainbow arcing over a green field…in which armed soldiers herd deportees toward a train with their tiny suitcases in hand. Some are, frankly, rather hard to look at: shadowy half-formed creatures with names like “Fear” and “Darkness,” a vast table lined with empty chairs and a single child-sized figure looking on.

I…didn’t have the heart to take photographs in there, honestly; sorry, guys.

Outside is the Jewish cemetery, which was for centuries the only place in town where Jews could bury their dead. There are about 12,000 gravestones here, densely packed and at all angles like jagged teeth; take that number and just about quadruple it, though, and you’ve got something closer to the number of bodies actually buried here. Pebbles and small prayers are placed on the headstones of some notable folk, though as weathered as some of the stones are I’m not sure how one would know who was who.

The adjacent Klausen synagogue and its Ceremonial Hall house exhibits on Jewish customs (circumcision, marriage, etc) and death rites. I hadn’t heard before about the existence of “funeral societies” – groups of folk who ensure that the dead are buried with all appropriate rites and that nobody who is without relations is left without someone to care for them – but apparently they were a big deal. (They also held dinners, like social/service organizations I’ve seen back home. Sort of like a funeral-focused Rotary Club, I suppose?)

Our next stop was one of the local “ghost tours” – a bit cheesy perhaps, but this one actually turned out to be fairly charming. Our guide was a young French girl named Maelane who’s apparently been living in the city for about four years for school and was reluctant to go back; her obvious enthusiasm for the city was rather charming.

Things we heard about include:

  • The story of a young girl who was killed by a fiery chariot drawn by goats. This supposedly appears from time to time on the street outside what was found in 2002 to have been an alchemist’s laboratory. Poisonous gas and accompanying hallucinations for the onlookers, perhaps?
  • The tale of “The House of Death” – home to a young woman who may possibly hold the record for worst luck ever. Her infant son was kidnapped, her husband died of heartbreak, and she then found happiness again with a traveling artist many years her junior (no points for guessing that this guy does indeed turn out to be the long lost son.) As incest was a capital crime, her son was then executed while she watched, and she went on to hang about mournfully gazing out of her window until one day she wasn’t there any longer. Concerned locals going to look for her found that she had died of the Black Plague, just for good measure.
  • A haunted hospital, because you’ve gotta have one of those.
  • The story of a young girl whose father refused to let her marry the love of her life, a penniless knight. Dad chucked her into the convent of St. Agnes, but soon found that her lover had an irritating habit of turning up to climb over the wall for visits. Sword fighting ensued, and when the girl tried to intercede, her father killed them both in rage. Today the ghost of the young girl appears to couples in trouble. (Happy to report that we didn’t see her.)
  • The story of twelve nobles who were beheaded and had their heads put on pikes after the Prague Defenestration (that is, the time when some angry folk chucked some of the local leadership out a castle window by way of making their point. Unfortunately for them, the individuals survived, reportedly by landing in a giant pile of horseshit, and…well, executions ensued. The heads hung on pikes, in little cages, for many years, and supposedly their previous owners still have protective feelings toward their homeland. Every year on the summer solstice, they rise from their graves and make for the old town square, where they await the striking of the astrological clock. If it fails in any way, this will be a sign that dark times are coming for the country, and the ghosts will linger until they are confident that all is well. This does certainly raise some questions given that the clock will still be getting restored round about that time this year.
  • The story of the original clockmaker, who supposedly had his eyes put out after building it so that he would not be able to make anything so impressive for another city. Feeling understandably vengeful, he first cursed the clock so that anyone who made alterations to it would go mad or die before having an apprentice remove a key piece so that the clock failed to work afterward. Later, a local painter who wasn’t afraid of no ghost was hired to restore the astrological dial and made modifications to it. This didn’t seem to go well, as apparently he began losing his mind shortly thereafter, and his ghost supposedly wanders the district he most loved in the city.
  • The story of a wealthy local woman with a tendency to mistreat her servants who killed one in a fury when she stopped to pray at the sound of the church bells outside. The serving girl then haunted the woman until she eventually donated all her money to the church and moved into a convent herself.
  • We also heard at least one sad story from the more mundane world. A friend of our guide’s apparently lost her brother to the secret police when her dad tried to go west, planning to bring them with him. They never heard from their father, but both the mother and brother were taken in for questioning, and the brother died. Much later, after the Berlin Wall had fallen and records began to be unsealed, they learned that Dad had in fact written letters, dozens of them, at least one almost every week for years and years until at last he reasoned they must be dead. The family was quite surprised to learn he was still alive.

Here ‘s our guide, by the way:

After this it was after 8 pm local time, we set out to look for a dinner spot in our “taste of Prague” book; half out of curiosity and half out of convenience we ended up at what is apparently the only Mexican restaurant worth one’s while in the city.

I was impressed to see horchata on the menu; I almost never see that even in Canada – but all became clear when we fell to chatting with the waiter. Apparently the place is owned and run by Mexicans, and they feel that Prague is treating them well.

Our final stop for the evening (as it was after 10 PM at this point) was also from the Taste of Prague book: “Anonymous Shrink’s Office,” a local speakeasy bar.

You might think that’s the door, but it isn’t.

We had the place pretty much to ourselves, and chatted with the bartender, who presented us a series of Rorschach-like picture cards, each of which corresponded to a signature drink.

I selected something rather like a butterfly in rather lurid shades of red and purple, and ended up with a Manhattan-like beverage garnished with a slice of dried apple and something like a dried cherry; Mark selected something that suggested both plaid and Rorschach from Watchmen, and was served something that came in a flask filled to the brim with something white and smoky layered over the drink itself; the whole was poured over a massive block of ice in a rocks glass. It turned out to be a little more like an Old Fashioned.

We followed this up with a hit of slivovitz for me (so I could say I’d tried it) and an absinthe for Mark. They serve the real stuff in Prague, though it is now prepared in such a way that one would have to consume a truly terrifying amount to get anywhere NEAR high. Still, it looks lovely with the accoutrements.

By now well and truly exhausted, we headed back to the hotel to crash. Mark figures we walked something like 25 to 30 kilometres today, what with all the back and forth…and my feet were certainly feeling it.

Oh well. Good night, Prague – that was one packed day.

Outward bound

Well, that didn’t take long.

Usually it takes a little time to encounter some of the quirkier folks out there once I’ve left the house, but in this case things got interesting the moment we summoned a vehicle to take us to the airport.

Our driver was a smallish Sri Lankan fellow with some very eager conversational habits: almost immediately he wanted to know all sorts of things about the neighbourhood and comparing property values here in Toronto to those in Sri Lanka. (There was something here about how the Chinese are buying everything and investing just isn’t safe.)

Eventually he got round to asking us where we were heading. Telling him our flight was headed to Prague launched an extraordinary flurry of banter on everything from the deep corruption of the Balkans to the general scariness of Russia.

“I’m an expert on Russian history!” he told us. “They have the finest collection of art in all the world there.”

“You mean at the Hermitage?”

I can only describe the sound he made as a cackle. “Ha! That’s the place!” And he set about explaining how all the art is fake there, and how the REAL art is underground. (“You even get near it, they kill you! Hehehe!”)

Somewhere around this point he asked if we spoke Russian, and apparently he assumed I did. (I don’t THINK I look especially Russian, really…) I said no, but that I had a little German, and he went on to talk about training in Germany to cut diamonds before attempting to teach us a few words of Russian while simultaneously warning us not to use them, as it would make everyone hate us where we were going.

Er…noted, I suppose.

Some time later…

Layover time, in Poland. This is the Frederic Chopin international airport, so I guess it’s appropriate that there was someone playing the piano live as we made our way through the maze of glass and corrugated steel that will probably make up most of my memories of Warsaw for the foreseeable future.

The flight over was rather bumpier than I would have liked, but fortunately otherwise rather uneventful; Mark and I took in our first Hungarian film before attempting (more or less unsuccessfully) to get a tiny bit of sleep to help stave off the worst of the jet lag.

The movie in question was “The Fox-Fairy,” an unexpectedly charming and very weird little film about a lonely nurse who longs for nothing more than true love. Her problem: the ghost of a Japanese pop star (no, really) who haunts her apartment and appears to be mighty jealous if anyone else seems to be spending too much time with her. It was a really interesting mix of sweetness and humour that ranged from the absurd to the pitch-black, and apparently did well in Hungary not long ago.

While I am thinking of it, allow me to introduce our small travel companion:

The little fellow to the left of the sandwich is affectionately known as “Catbun” due to his resemblance to an Asian-style steamed bun. On our last international voyage he came along and appeared in a number of photographs, so we thought he’d come along this time too. Here he is pictured next to…well, the meal we ate most recently before getting off the plane. Breakfast, sort of, though as we landed it was lunchtime here in Poland, and this looked like a bit more of a lunch to me.

Still more time later

Whew! Okay, we have made it to Prague at last. Our hotel sent a driver to collect us; he spoke more Czech and German than English, but was a very pleasant gentleman who told us he’d been driving for the hotel for 25 years (!).

And it is a rather lovely hotel. Here’s our room, up at the top:

Undaunted, we set out to do an orientation walk during the Golden Hour…which means I have about a million photos to share, but for now we will need to be content with this one:

…ok, I lied, have a few more:

Dinner was at a place recommended in our Foodie Guide to Prague – “Next Door,” attached to a swank local hotel. I had wild boar tenderloin ragout with dark chocolate, cranberries and gnocchi (which might not sound like a combo that works but guys. GUYS. Holy shit) and Mark had braised beef in a creamy sauce with “bread dumplings,” something I shall have to try to reverse engineer sometime. (I will also have to try and reverse engineer the “Ham and cheese pate” because again. Holy shit. The waiter was kind enough to pass on that somehow egg and pickles (?) are involved…wonder if we could serve it at something.)

Today, the mission is straightforward: Get out there and see as much shit as possible. Currently fortifying myself at the hotel’s breakfast room. Here goes!

Mark says “you should post that picture from the restaurant at the end!” So here I am looking a bit skeptical about having my photo taken:

In which I revisit an old practice, and we see where it goes from there


Here we are and the old blog’s still running and everything.

It feels a bit strange, being back: like revisiting an old home. Somewhere you once lived, when you were someone else, someone you only sort of recognize.

But then, someone said, there will be trips and things, right? And you have this web space. And there are these clever little beasts called mobile phones now, and everything.

Ah. Wait. That was me.

This place could certainly use a tune-up…but that will have to wait. There are things that want doing, and so a simple minimalist theme, a brief tidy to try and set it in some sort of order before too many more of the things that want doing become too urgent to ignore.

Well then. Here we go. Let’s see what happens.

…For now, hello again.

An old travel diary, day 13: Cottage/Industry

This morning we bade farewell to Fairbank House over a breakfast of pancakes and set out for our final lodgings in Callendar.  Before that, however, we decided to do something a bit different and follow up on some signs we’d been seeing as we drove around Speyside yesterday for the “Knocando Woollen Mill.”  We’ve already tried to see woollens being handmade during our hunt for Harris Tweed on the Isles and failed due to poor timing – so why not investigate a different type of woolcraft here?
The mill’s undergone a recent renovation thanks to some money from the EU (I wonder what happens to that sort of thing now?), and to reach it you descend via one of those now-familiar tiny one-lane roads with passing places into a little sheltered valley with a river running alongside, bright and merry in the morning sunshine.  The greenery eventually parted, directing us to a spot where we could leave our car; hopping out, we ambled down a little gravelled path until, eventually, we reached a scene straight out of a Thomas Kinkade painting by way of a fantasy novel.
A cluster of little buildings in the usual white stucco, cheery red doors bright and welcoming in the sunshine, surrounded a gorgeous little garden of flowers in a rainbow of colors.  The gravelled path led in a neat loop past a cafe (it seems to be in the rules that all Scottish attractions include a cafe), something labeled “The Old Cottage” and “The Old Shop,” and a bigger building that was obviously the mill itself.  A black-painted waterwheel turned sedately, fed by a lede from the river nearby.
Pastoral as hell, in other words.
Thoroughly charmed, we made our way over to the mill to investigate; a sign out front explained that today they were spinning and carding natural brown Shetland wool and encouraged us to come inside for a look – so this we did.
I don’t know how much experience you have with industrial settings (I am tempted to add “dear reader” here, like a Victorian writer), but when I go into one I generally expect…I don’t know, noise and grit and a general atmosphere of misery.  Not so much, here.  There was a quiet rumble of machinery, and a young bearded fellow piling armfuls of rough nubs of brown wool into a hopper for the first of two carding machines, great hulking things with rotating barrels lined all round with metal wires like very fine-bristled hairbrushes, combing the fibers straight and smooth and (importantly) largely parallel.  On the other end a wide, felted band of rough wool was carried along a cloth belt to a second machine, where it was gently laid and layered at 90 degrees to the fibers’ current orientation as though someone were piping out icing the color of milky coffee.
The second machine, tended by a young lady in Doc Martens and a T-shirt for a band I couldn’t readily identify but was probably (at a guess) punk, passed the wool through a second series of wiry rollers and out again as a much narrower band of unspun wool, wound onto a series of bobbins that would then be loaded, about thirty at a time, into the pretty fast spinning machines that lined one side of the workroom.  These weren’t in operation at the moment, but a later video would demonstrate how they worked, pulling the yarn out…and twisting…and winding the lot into spools of thread that could then go to the looms.
The looms also weren’t running this morning, but they look…pretty much exactly the way looms you’ve seen in movies look, and function about the same as well: the warp threads are tied in by hand, carefully threaded through a headache-inducing tangle of combs with little “eyes” in the wires in accordance with the pattern selected for weaving.  Given that much of what the mill produces is tweed of various sorts, which often has a fairly delicate pattern with just a few threads of a contrast color here and there, I’d be pretty worried about mis-threading…but then I guess I haven’t had hours on hours of practice, either.  Once that’s all done, the magic happens: the looms fire shuttles of wool back and forth to actually weave the  pattern, slowly producing a bolt of pretty cloth.
If the cloth in question is to be used for a purpose like, say, upholstery, then the process is finished.  If it’s to be used for something soft, however, like a scarf or pillows, then the final machine in the mill comes into play.  This raises a “nap” on the fabric for a softer hand by passing the fabric gently through two more great big rollers.  Instead of metal wires, however, these are lined with the natural equivalent: the heads of burdock plants, which are heavily encrusted with little “hooks” that catch at the fibers and raise a warm, fluffy halo.
The entire process takes place in pretty much the one old building, though a more contemporary facility tucked in behind the mill appears to house some sort of experimental turf: it wasn’t open to the public, but peeking in through the glass windows showed a workshop where several folk were busily doing mysterious things with colored threads.
The accompanying exhibition told us a bit more about the mill and environs.  Once, a long time ago, the entire valley would have been covered in little mills like this one, which was built in the 1700s, but only the mill at Knockando remains in operation today.  (The mill-wheel is largely cosmetic, sadly, though it does generate a little power.) Other mills were lost to combinations of various factors: land takeover as part of “the clearances,” economic depression, or in many cases a huge and devastating flood.
This one was perilously close to going under as well after its long neglect, but was rescued from loss and decay by one of our tribe: a young social sciences student who felt strongly that the mill was part of local heritage and deserved to be maintained.  He did not, sadly, know anything about the actual process, but luckily this mill had run for a long time and there was still at least one old-timer around to teach him the ins and outs.  So it is that – again thanks to that EU money – the Knockando wool mill is still up and running, producing mainly small “boutique” runs of specialty tartans and tweeds, often in collaboration with other organizations.  (In the shop there were a variety of these patterns on display and for sale, including the “Knockando” tartan that reflects the design of one of the mill’s windows – a large central pane surrounded by smaller ones – and a design produced in collaboration with a Swedish organization in bright, vivid colors.
I confess to a moment of weakness; I picked up a scarf in a bright, colorful plaid of the “mini moorland” pattern.  It’ll go with just about any color of coat I can think of, and in any event it feels kind of cool to support a business like this one.  I wasn’t alone, either; as we roamed the grounds a fellow visitor was carefully arranging her own purchase (a larger shawl) for an Instagram-ready photograph among the garden’s flowers, the pinks and yellows and blues of the blossoms matching exactly the threads shooting through the earthy grayish-green of the background.
There’s something about visiting a place that is just so thoroughly…pleasant that has a buoying effect; this was perhaps lucky, for as the road brought us up and out of the green, rolling hills of Speyside the sky began to cloud over, and we soon found ourselves driving through the kind of light but steady rain that’s been with us at least once a day since our arrival.
And so, we drove for a time.  The number of sheep gradually became less (though of course they did not disappear entirely); the rockiness of the countryside further abated as we approached the border with the lowlands.  Not completely, though: our next destination, Callander, sits right at the jumping-off point for quite a bit of outdoor activity, much of it in the mountains of the Grampians or the Trossachs.
A search for a visitor-information centre brought us to a stop none of us had anticipated and that few of us were entirely certain what to make of: The House of Bruar.
That sounds grand, and in a sense it is, but it’s not, as you might think, a stately home. It’s a store, a huge and rather elaborate one, advertising itself as the paragon of Scottish country stores.  From this I glean that the Scots and I define that phrase a bit differently.  When I hear “country store,” I think of the tiny Meador Grocery down the road from my grandfather’s farm, with the plywood-walled addition that housed its banks of flattened videos and the Friday night fish fry.  This?  This was something of an entirely different species.
To give you some idea of what we were dealing with, we entered via the “Menswear Hall,” which had a “Cashmere and Knitwear Hall” below that.  From there it was an easy walk to the “Country Living” hall – a sprawling two floors of linens, kitchenware, and decor with antlers – and thence to the wing containing the restaurant, food hall, ladies’ wear hall (with annex for leather and furs) and children’s wear hall…all of it forming a great U around a central glass-roofed courtyard.
Inside, the various “halls” were crammed to the gills with frighteningly posh goods: gourmet food, cashmere sweaters on sale at £149 (down from £200!), decor liberally embellished with antlers, hip flasks that cost upwards of £130, crystal bowls etched with patterns of red squirrels that I was afraid to breathe in the general direction of, let alone pick up to look at the price…
In other words, it was Bass Pro by way of the Hamptons.
Somewhere in Scotland there are people who think nothing of visiting this place and dropping the equivalent of thousands of Canadian dollars on a tweed suit, or hundreds of dollars on a picnic hamper of gourmet bits and bobs.  Somewhere in Scotland there are people for whom “the country” means genteel pursuits like riding and cricket and boating and golf; for whom this is the equivalent of stopping to gear up before going to the cottage for the weekend.  Somewhere in Scotland there are people who are as far removed from the idea I have of “the country” as I am from the surface of Mars.
The masses.  The classes.
The one percent.  Or, from certain points of view, the problem.
Hardly anyone there was OF “the classes,” mind you.  I suppose the rest of the folk visit to shop aspirationally, treat themselves, or perhaps just daydream about what it might be like to be part of the problem in their own right.
We did find the visitor information centre, in the end; the young man there pointed out a couple of the locations on our historic Scotland passes that he’d been to.  The first of these, Stanley Mills, was en route to our destination for the evening, so we headed there.
At first, despite the signage, we thought we’d made a mistake.  Oh, the buildings looked about right – tall stony edifices that made a rough square, a street lopping off one side of it into a chunk of freestanding…offices, from the look of what we could see through the windows.  Certainly not open to the public – though there was a nearby power station with an obvious “here’s how this power station operated a hundred years ago” placard out front, so we had to be close.
Eventually, we made our way to one end of the “u” portion of the square, where another sign finally directed us to the right point of entry.  The staffer on duty explained a lot by saying that only part of the mills were retained as a historic site; one side of the “u” was condos, while the freestanding chunk was indeed office space, rented out by the Trust.
All righty then: onward, in any event.
The Stanley Mills were named, as one might already be thinking, for a Lord Stanley; when industrialization became a Thing in the 1800s, he felt that getting on that particular bandwagon might be a good plan, and there was a burgeoning market for cotton in its various forms, so he bought up some used equipment from down in England and then gave all the crofters on his land an offer: Come work at the mill!  Better housing and jobs for everyone!
Wee problem with this statement: if you didn’t want to take him up on the offer, you couldn’t just carry on working the land if you wanted to.  He had other plans for that land, thanks, and if you weren’t going to join the mill and contribute…well, then, kindly bugger off, you useless gits.
Second wee problem with this statement: while the housing almost certainly was better, whether the jobs were better was…debatable, and that’s even if there was one for you.  The mills only rarely hired men, you see.  Why do that when you could pay women so much less, and children even less than that?
They were the sort of working conditions that brought us Upton Sinclair and Karl Marx, too: absurdly long hours, low wages, and horrifically dangerous conditions.  The machines were noisy, and most workers had hearing damage; small children had to scurry under machines to clean out fibers and could easily lose fingers or hands in the process.  A fine dust of cotton detritus filled the air constantly, giving many workers a terrible cough that lingered, perhaps for the rest of their lives – and worse, it was highly flammable; a single spark could set a huge area alight in an instant (needless to say, the fire escape protocols weren’t well-developed, either.)
Still, production was steady (with the exception of a closure from about, oh, 1860-1865…some sort of trouble or other in the States) and eventually the mill secured its future – for a time – by developing a technique for producing strips of linen that were used in cigarette factories to help form the cigarettes before rolling; this was a closely guarded secret, and the women (always women) in that part of the factory got to work in an area with blacked-out windows.   Later came work crafting heavier goods – for example belts of heavy cotton, soaked in tar, that would run heavy machinery and power things like tanks during the war.
In the end it was synthetic fibers that caused the mill to shut down – though not at the time or for the reasons you might think.  Hoping to capitalize on the vogue for acrylics, the mill switched its machinery to accommodate this new wonder fiber…but then, when cotton once again became popular in the 80s, the mill could no longer afford to switch back to supporting its earlier product.
That’s right.  The place ran right up into the 80s before finally shutting down.
The presentation was excellent, I’ve got to say.  Lots of interactive presentations for kids (and playful/curious adults) to play with, including a simulation of the “let’s get the cotton fibers out of the machines without losing a finger!” game that those long-ago kids had to play and some really nicely-done demonstrations of the physics of the machinery – and the waterwheels and turbines that gave the mill its power before gas and electricity came along.
But it does make for an unintentionally compelling (and slightly disturbing) contrast to the morning’s exploration at Knockando.  One of these mills is (now) essentially a small artisanal operation; the other is a pretty bleak, if interesting, reminder of how little most of us appreciate where the things we wear and eat and decorate our homes come from.  Certainly I doubt that those someones who shop at the House of Bruar on their way to a weekend’s blithe enjoyment of rural pursuits spend much time thinking about it.
Do the people in the lofts ever think much of the suffering that went on in the buildings where they lived once?  Should they?  Perhaps sites, like people, can be redeemed over time?  Can happy lives lived in a place make easier its fit in the world around it, even if they cannot erase its history?
As we headed out to Callander for the evening I spent some time looking at my hands.  Fair, soft skin, neatly-trimmed nails, if a bit uneven in length.  By the standards of those mill workers in 1850, a high-born lady’s hands.  But it wouldn’t be one’s hands that mark one out as of “the classes” today, would it?  Our mill workers now are waitresses working for below minimum wage, call-centre employees paid by the call and desperate to rack up as many as they can. I may not lose a finger in a machine, but do some of us not bear other scars, less visible?
Perhaps grimmer thoughts than are really appropriate for a holiday.
Our lodging for the evening was the Abbotsford Lodge in Callander.  While I don’t think any of us really knew quite what to expect, I feel pretty confident that nobody was expecting what we got: a large house with multiple levels, an unusual fusion of European and Asian/Indian-style decor…and sort of creepily-good service throughout.  Our landlord spotted us hanging around in the lounge to plan our next move and offered everyone a complimentary dram of whiskey; the ensuing conversation informed us that he was an ex-oil man who’d met his wife in Kazakhstan and eventually settled in to run a guest house because it involved less trekking around to very very dangerous places.  (This explained his wife’s very unusual accent: someone whose first language wasn’t English that learns it from a Scot results in some very curious pronunciations.)
He also, by extension, revealed himself to be a pretty canny sort of fellow; I believe the drink was at least partly an excuse to investigate how put off we’d be on the idea of coming to Scotland thanks to Brexit (not that much) and partly a means of securing that all-important positive TripAdvisor review.  (I never use TripAdvisor at home, but here it seems to be by far the preferred Yelp-equivalent.)
On his recommendation we headed to a local pub called the Crown Inn for some venison casserole (in my case, anyway) and a chance to watch some of the football match between Wales and Portugal.  The pub proved to be more of a family restaurant than a proper pub, and the Welsh lost, to everyone’s sorrow.  Everyone loves an underdog, no?  And Portugal wins so much at football already!
Ah well.  They fought well in any case (though Mark still very much prefers baseball.)
More tomorrow.

An old travel diary, day 12: On the whiskey trail

Rolled out of bed this morning to find a really lovely breakfast going on downstairs; this particular B&B (a Fairbank House, in Dufftown) has it going on in terms of amenities. If only my allergies, or cold, or whatever it is, would settle!  I don’t seem to have gotten over my cold, or whatever it is that hit me so hard in Skye.
However, be that as it may.  There’s much to relate today – another busy day.
We opened at Balvenie Castle, quite near our lodgings.  This is another ruined castle, one originally known as Mortlach, and it took just a few minutes to roam the grounds and snap a few photographs of the walls.
From there we set out for Elgin, a medieval-era town featuring a dramatic cathedral as one of its centrepieces.  Doubtless it was even more impressive when it was whole; in the 1700s the central tower (a relatively recent renovation) collapsed (one Easter Sunday…hmm…) and people simply…stopped using the place for worship.  Perhaps somewhat understandable, given that prior to the collapse it was primarily used by the clergy – bishops and canons and so on.  A parish church this definitely was not.
What’s most interesting about visiting the cathedral today is the new (only just opened at Easter!) exhibition that lets you get up close and personal with the masons who built it, after a fashion.  These guys were responsible for carving…well, everything; every fragment of column and window frame, every ceiling boss and arch.  They were paid by the stone, and a careless slip of the chisel could mean the cost of the stone came out of their salaries – so if you look closely, you can see not only the marks designed to help align the stones, but also tiny marks indicating which mason was responsible, usually tiny patterns of lines (I’m not sure how literate the average mason would have been, but I’m guessing not very.)
Of course, when the cathedral collapsed, much of their art was lost – or cannibalized for other purposes – but the exhibition is nevertheless full of headless satyrs and other grotesqueries, Green Men, symbolic beasts like hares and lions, and faces whose wild expressiveness is at odds with the vogue for Grecian-styled serenity.  There’s even a ceiling boss that, if viewed from the right angle, reveals itself as being held by a crouching figure…who is completely anatomically correct.  Some sort of token of sin?  An in-joke by a mason who knew it’d never be seen?  Hard to say.
Incidentally, on the way to the cathedral our quest for directions led us by accident not to a general visitor centre but to the centre for Jameson cashmere.  This is a cashmere company so famous even I’ve heard of them; they hold a royal warrant, and their shop is full of beautiful, if conservative, things.  Sweaters in jewel-bright colors, ridiculously soft – and of course you can pay as much as you like for them.  Drool-worthy, but not incredibly feasible.
Unfortunately, by the time we’d gotten a bit mislaid and then seen the cathedral, we pretty much had to turn right round and hurry back to Dufftown, as we had an afternoon planned that had a bit more to do with another product for which the region is famous: whiskey.
This may have been just as well, as it was starting to rain as we made our way to the Speyside Cooperage, the only working cooperage in Britain that allows visitors.  A cooper is someone who makes barrels and casks, as you may be aware; a very old art, and a super important one considering that barrels and casks and buckets have been important parts of daily life for basically ever.  They’ve really committed to the cask theming, too: gigantic casks (donated from a brewery in Germany) outside contain picnic tables for visitors with a packed lunch in hand, while the attached tea room is filled with cask-based furnishings, from the tables and chairs to the “paneling” along the front of the bar.
Inside, a tour details the history and practice of the coopering craft; interestingly most of the work done there is repair work, rather than creating new casks.  Casks are crafted of North American white oak – yes, the wood is indeed shipped in – which is pared down to specially-sized planks.  Some of these are destined to become lids: these are fastened together with wooden dowels to form a larger flat surface, but otherwise untouched.  Others are to become staves – the walls of the barrel.
Exactly as was done hundreds of years ago, these staves are arranged in a round shape within a band of riveted iron, with another hammered into place to produce, essentially, a giant bucket.  This bucket is steamed to soften the wood, then carefully bent, with more bands of iron placed to create the classic barrel shape.  If the barrel is to be used for whiskey, then the interior of the barrel is charred slightly, which opens up the wood to allow for better interaction with the alcohol to be stored inside.  Lids are cut and beveled from the doweled planks and hammered into place, a long reed packed around each lid to form a watertight seal.  Et voila: a hogshead.  Modern machinery helps tighten the iron bands into place, and the cask is sent off for testing.
That’s for new casks, of course; when repairing casks it may be a simpler matter of replacing a damaged stave or lid, or scraping off an old, unusable layer of char and re-charring the oak.
The coopers at Speyside are paid by the cask, and apparently can repair on the average 20-25 casks every day; their fastest cooper can do up to thirty (!).  We had a chance to watch this guy at work and it was really something; it doesn’t seem really plausible for someone to wield a hammer that fast, let alone when working with hard oak and iron.  Still, it’s cool to see an ancient craft in use in the modern day, and it appears there’s plenty of local interest: the last apprenticeship that opened up got more than 100 applications.  (And yes, that’s a classic apprenticeship, with a journeyman supervising and everything.)
Here I learned something that becomes evident very fast if you hang around Speyside very long: everyone has different ideas about what the Most Important Thing in whiskey-craft is.  At the cooperage, they unsurprisingly said it was the barrels – the contact of oak and alcohol. (In fairness, this does seem to be somewhat borne out by the part where different designs of barrel will have greater or lesser effect on the flavor of the alcohol stored in it.  Want very oaky booze?  Opt for a smaller barrel, like a firkin; some distilleries insist on these.
I also learned that barrels like these have an active service life of about 60 years or so – a long time!  If you assume a resting time of 12 years, that’s five batches of whiskey, for example.
Our tour included a taste of a liqueur called “Stag’s Breath” that’s made with whiskey and fermented honey.  Probably unacceptably sweet to most serious whiskey fans, but I thought it  pretty delicious, actually – perhaps a bit dangerously so if you’re like me and like sweet things.
Anyway.  That adventure told us all about the barrels; but what about what goes in them?
To find out, we went (at the advice of my old travel book and of our landlady) to Glenfarclas distillery, one of the last truly independent distilleries in Speyside.  Sad but true: almost all of the other whiskies made here are in some manner in hock to the big boys at Chivas or Diageo or whatnot.  Glenfarclas, we were told, is still family-owned and operates in a more traditional manner – so of course that was the distillery we opted to see.
I’ll note here that Glenfarclas’s tour is not considered to be the best one.  Sources agree that the best distillery tour is Balvenie’s – but as waiting periods for that one can be a year or more, that one’s not really a viable option.
Be that as it may, we darted into the visitor centre at Glenfarclas out of a pouring rainstorm to find that a tour had just left – so we hurried to catch up.  The only two people presently on it were a couple from Nevada (I gather the guy was into sales of alcohol in some fashion and he seemed to really know what he was on about); I suspect they were not best pleased with the sudden incursion of a party of four Canadians, but they bore it well.  Our guide was an unassuming but pleasant fellow named Murray who rocked some tartan pants and got right into it with a will.
Whiskey starts with two main ingredients: water and barley.  The water in Glenfarclas’s case comes from a spring rather than from the nearby river or its tributaries – and has at least once been a limiting factor for them, as if the year is dry or they produce too aggressively they can find themselves without enough water to proceed.  Interestingly they seem fine with this, even telling our group they aren’t really interested in expanding much farther than they already have, remaining a relatively boutique product.
The barley, once harvested and threshed, is allowed to sprout (which turns the starch in the barley into sugars) and then toasted (the toasting process is known as “malting,” and is where the “malt” part comes from.). Air circulation is quite important during malting, and to this end most malting sheds are crowned with little structures that look like pagodas.  Supposedly these improve air circulation, but it does make for an incongruous little architectural detail.
The toasted grains are rather coarsely milled, and the resulting mess will then be combined with hot water and yeast to ferment.  (Yes, all of it, including the little bit of flour and the barley hulls.  The hulls prevent the mixture from becoming an airless paste; the flour prevents the water from passing into and through the mixture too quickly.)
Fermentation takes a surprisingly short time compared to everything else in the process, really.  In as little as sixty hours you can have…well, essentially a beer; alcohol, but not distilled.  This distillation takes place in a series of giant alembics, more or less; huge copper devices with bulbous bases and long necks.  The copper is apparently important to the final product, as it helps to remove sulphites and other substances that might cause unpleasant flavors in the whiskey.  Most distilleries heat their alembics with a coil that wraps around the base of the still, but Glenfarclas insists on the application of direct gas heating; Murray informed us that they experimented with the coil method but that it changed the taste of the  whiskey.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the distillery folk seem to feel that the single most important factor in whiskey is the shape of the still; a shorter, fatter still produces a whiskey with a heavier body, while a taller one will give you a lighter, airier result.  During distillation, extracts emerge from the stills into a spirit safe, in this case a kind of steampunk brass thing with a number of globes in it; an experienced still operator can tell from the color and behavior of the liquid emerging into the various gloves and pipes what the percentage of alcohol is and when to begin decanting the relatively small percentage of the substance that will eventually go into those casks to rest.
The resting, of course, is next, and at Glenfarclas the barrels are simply moved into great warehouses to wait out their maturation time.  During this rest – which may be very long – quite a lot of the liquid inside the barrel continues to evaporate away as the fabled “angels’ share.”  We saw more of these warehouses across the road from our B&B; once a distillery and now closed, the warehouses hold whiskey from a large number of distilleries in the area.  (This sharing of warehouse space is not uncommon in the industry in Speyside, it seems; perhaps they feel that it keeps them honest?  At any rate, Glenfarclas doesn’t participate; they like to keep themselves to themselves.)
As the whiskey ages, it takes on more qualities from the wood holding it, as well as losing some of that back-of-the-throat burn common in the youngest of the whiskies.  Once it’s sat there long enough, it’s finally bottled – and at last the tax that was owed the moment distillation started can be collected. (Murray joked that distilleries weren’t so much sellers of alcohol as tax collectors; the tax represents a very great deal of the prices we pay!)
Once our tour completed, we settled in for a quick tasting at the visitor centre – a 10-year whiskey and a 15-year whiskey.  The difference is indeed noticeable – and a splash of water helps to moderate the burning, which I suppose is why whiskey and water is a thing.  (Interestingly, this is just a LITTLE water; an eye dropper, gently used.  Noted, in the event I am ever called upon to serve someone whiskey and water.)
It still has a bit of the burn to it, of course, but an interesting, earthy flavor.  Many elements coming together.  You can see why in Gaelic it’s “the water of life.”  Warming, certainly, on a cold, rainy day like this one, and it was fortifying as we braced ourselves to step back out into the wet.
Our last formal stop of the day was Ballindaloch Castle, whose claim to fame is mainly that it’s still occupied by the same family that built it, years and years later.  More the castle of a laird than a clan chieftain, it’s got a number of the features we’ve seen at other big properties – gardens, picnic areas, and whatnot – and for an additional charge you can tour the castle itself and admire the ridiclously vast collection of china, furniture from the 1700s, authentic paintings from even earlier than that, ancient weaponry, and whatnot.
It is an interesting sort of mixed bag of feelings, touring one of these places.  On the one hand, there are some truly beautiful objects, and occasionally some spiffy stories as well.  On the other, as an uncouth North American, few things inspire class rage quite like seeing a whole hallway full of photos of the family at various Royal events (with invitations, of course, prominently displayed), or a casually-displayed bit of artwork in the nursery that depicts on one side a young girl in plain brown coat, sitting on an obviously lower-class stoop with a bulldog seated next to her and on the other, a girl of similar age, but wearing a fashionable coat in Black Watch plaid, carrying a muff, with a greyhound trotting along beside her.
One of those girls is labeled “The Masses,” and the other was labeled “The Classes.”  Want to guess which?
To cool off my inner Enid a bit, we went for a stroll in the gardens.  These were, as is usual for big places like this, lovely: great smooth lawns occasionally broken by beds of roses and other flowers, or huge, majestic trees.  There was a “doo’cot” (a dovecote; here we learned that dove droppings were once considered a cure for baldness) and a tiny building dressed up to look like a train station: inside were elaborate toy trains, whether for the family alone or for the masses visiting the grounds was unclear.
Mark and I also had a little conversation about our favorite flowers. I like roses best: vivid and varied in color and scent, all the intricate layers unfurling and unfolding around a golden heart that’s rarely seen.  He likes lilies the best, the sort with a single white petal curling round, simple and graceful and austere in form.  I mused there might be a personality test in there somewhere; he seems inclined to agree.
As everyone was still a bit damp from all the earlier rain, we adjourned briefly to our lodgings to change and dry off a bit before heading to dinner at a place called Tannochbrae, in Dufftown.  It wasn’t difficult to find (hunting for a new place is pretty easy in a village with just two primary streets!) and soon we were being escorted to “the bar” to wait by one of the best candidates for the label “strapping young man” I’ve seen in some time…an enormous fellow whose polite soft-spokenness was deeply at odds with a frame that would be more at home punching someone through an oaken door at a pub.  (Also not from around here; his accent sounded familiar, though I didn’t place it until he mentioned it to other diners that he was from Yorkshire.)
Tannochbrae is a guest house as well, so “the bar” was really more of a tiny room crammed to the gills with multitudes of whiskies; a slightly larger area (with, happily, a crackling fire) allowed seating while we waited to be seated for dinner – deep leather armchairs and sturdy wood furnishings that suggested the smoking-room.  The Yorkshireman took our orders for dinner, and we discovered with some mild dismay that the place was rather expensive – but what the hell.  Here we were, so we might as well move forward.
I had a pheasant breast, prepared with bacon and currant sauce, with carrots cooked with star anise and a honey glaze, boiled potatoes, and cauliflower/broccoli cheese, followed by a creme brûlée.  It. Was. Ridiculous.  The Yorkshireman bustled about attentively, looking after us as well as a table of folk who were having some sort of insanely expensive whiskey themed dinner (he’d bring them a whiskey, tell them about it, and then leave the bottle) and who were speaking a language that none of us could readily identify, but that didn’t sound Gaelic, or French, or Spanish, or German.
As we finished our meal and prepared to leave, we saw the Yorkshireman speaking to the chef, who was ALSO a simply massive individual.  (Mark commented that if he was in a tavern with those guys it’d be the safest tavern ever; nobody would dare rob the place for fear of having their heads bashed in.)
As we left, the sound of piping caught our attention, reminding us that tonight was practice night for the local junior division of the bagpipe corps.  (Or whatever it is called.) This meant a group of teenage folk, boys and girls, playing rousing pipe tunes as the drummers tapped away and one (the most senior, I suppose) kept time.  And, really, they were pretty good – it was the just-noticeable wheeze at the end of each piece that marked them as trainees, more than any irregularity in the performance itself.  (Some of the trainees were pretty small folk, too; one girl really didn’t seem much taller than the pipes she was carrying!)
At last the order came to “fall out,” and the group dispersed.  On that note, so did we…making our way back to Fairbank House and thence to bed at last.