A quick trip to Prague


There is something a little wrong feeling to me, writing about Prague before I’ve even really written about my new home in Leipzig in any depth, but that seems to just be how it’s going to go.

I’ll put it down to actually having taken photos in Prague, and not down to a serious case of slacking. I’m kidding myself really though.

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You have probably heard of Prague. It’s turned into a bit of a tourist hot spot in recent years, as far as I can tell. There certainly were a fair few there. That however doesn’t take away from it being a fabulous city. It’s cool, it’s arty, it’s historic, and wonderfully Gothic. Gothic will always score points with me.

So why did I end up in Prague when I should be busy exploring Leipzig? A good friend of mine came to stay and we decided to go on a trip out of town. Prague just happens to practically be down the road. It’s about an hour to Dresden on the bus, which is almost on the Czech border, then the Czech Republic (officially Czechia now, but the name apparently isn’t catching on at all) is a conveniently small land making the second half of the journey happily brief.

That’s not to say I would have complained at a longer stint through the Czech countryside. It’s beautiful. Living in deathly flat Saxony is a bit of a curse for me, seeing as my pet hate of Cambridgeshire back in the UK is its boredom-inducing views. The majority of the Czech Republic is surrounded by mountains, and although our bus drove only through comfortably rolling countryside, lofty mountains were always in the distance.

Something about the rolling fields was puzzling though. I could swear they had changed colour since Germany. The saxon fields of flatdom are at the very least of a very pleasing green (Cambridgeshire fields are usually brown and frankly crap), but over on the Czech side I swear the grass was slightly bluer. Now, I’m willing to accept I’m just mad, but that’s what I thought. Blue-ish-green fields. Lovely.

And then of course moving further east in Europe means the buildings change quite a lot. Although Prague as a city was impressively gothic, the churches appearing from the hilltops in the countryside had a distinctly orthodox feel about them. I believe that the predominant form of Christianity in the land is actually Catholicism, but the church architecture makes me think of further east. Of course, that is almost irrelevant anyway, as being a former east bloc country means that most people are irreligious these days.

I didn’t get any photos of that lovely Czech countryside. I was too busy enjoying it. I never get any good shots from bus windows anyway really.

So. After rolling along in a coach over rolling, slightly blue-ish (mainly green) hills, Demi and I arrived in Prague. We only had a day and a half, so had to use our time well to get the most out of it.

Naturally we through that idea to the wind and spent a good chunk of time in coffee shops.

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being Bohemian in Bohemia

I’m going to put it out there and say that doing so is almost justified in a place like Prague. If there is a positive word for those strange folk like me that find themselves willingly holed up in coffee shops for the best hours of the day, every day, then that would could well be bohemian. Prague just happens to be the main city of Bohemia. Although this land may not exist today, the feel attributed to the word certainly does. Therefore I (and I hope Demi too) feel no regret at the dangerous amount of time spent sipping coffees on a more dangerous time restriction.

We spent the rest of the time wondering the wonderful streets with our cameras.

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or taking photos of cameras inside the coffee shops.

Honestly, we did actually go outside a bit.

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How could you not, when a city looks as good as Prague does?

There’s clearly so much to do in the city. I was quite desperate for example to go to the Kafka Museum, as a huge fan of that genius existential miseryguts. Being a former east bloc city, there is also a communism museum hidden in its windy streets. Then of course towering over the river from the old town is Prague castle, apparently one of the largest castle complexes in the world.

Unfortunately the old town was so touristy we turned back for quieter streets, and never quite made it to the castle. I get the feeling it is a must see however, if you are not busy being ‘bohemian’ in coffee shops.

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I’ll just put some proof of actually stepping outside now.

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Prague sits comfortably on Vlatva, which is the longest river running through the Czech Republic. I showed my ignorance by thinking that it was the Danube. Nope.

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The buildings really are beautifully ornate in Prague. I’ve never really been one for balconies, but I’d be pretty chuffed if my house had a balcony like those in Prague.

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I even appreciated the road signs in Prague. I don’t drive, so I can’t say the road signs are my favourite thing in the world, but I have to applaud a town which has road signs for segways.

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And signs for classy gentlemen to cross roads.

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See, this shouldn’t have surprised me so much, as former East Germany still holds on proudly to its Ampelmann. The fellow of traffic crossing light fame even has his own shop in Berlin.

Prague does of course have historic links, for better or for worse, to the German speaking world. It was an important city in the Habsburg Empire after all. Kafka after all, wrote his stories in German, not Czech. It is worth pointing out that he wasn’t hugely fond of German, despite it being his chosen creative language. He saw German as the language of bureaucracy – no surprise really, when you consider it was  the ruling language despite Czech being the native tongue.

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Remants of German on an older street sign.

In fact, when I think about it, Prague and the Czech Republic has had a rough past. Most nations with ‘Republic’ in the name have had to stand up to something annoyingly aggressive in their histories, and within the last a hundred years, this city has been part of politically unstable Habsburg empire, with all the in-fighting that came with being part of that unhappy club. Then it found itself part of the communist east bloc. The country (as Czechoslovakia) was flung into an anti-communist revolution after the fall of the Berlin wall and the ensuing collapse of the east bloc. By 1992, The Czech Republic had come into being.

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Now back to wondering streets. The part of the city I was really looking forward to seeing was Charles bridge, a gloriously Gothic construction running directly to the old town. Despite standing directly on the bridge, I don’t recall seeing it. I think if you removed all the brickwork of the given bridge, Demi and I still could have crossed the bridge quite happily as long as the tourists left hanging in mid air by the lack of bricks stayed where they were.

Ignore physics for a second, and imagine it’s perfectly plausible they would just float there. Charles Bridge was absolutely stuffed with humans.

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I had to look for details on the bridge instead, as there wasn’t much chance of a dramatic panorama of the bridge itself. These saintly looking fellows were practically telling me it was a mistake to try fighting through the crowds.

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As for this saintly looking fellow, it seemed to be a tradition to touch him as you cross the bridge. No idea why. I could research it, but I think its more fun to puzzle over it instead.

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This saintly fellow was telling me to get off the bridge, offering a kindly recommendation for the castle you see in the background. Demi and I, as previously mentioned, ignored the suggestion due to crowds. We were not smited, and are both in good health after refusing kindly instruction from such a religious looking dude.

IMG_6997 I had also heard before getting to Prague that the city has a love of puppets. This man was the only puppeteer I saw in the whole city, but at least his puppet fitted wonderfully with its Gothic home. I had Sonata Arctica’The boy who wanted to be a real puppet in my head for the rest of the day.

On all things arty, I’m so happy that the trip to Prague taught me the name of an artist I’ve been wishing to know the name of for a while. Mucha. I absolutely love his rich, almost mystical style, but I didn’t know his name until bumping into his work throughout his homeland.

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Luckily his art work was proudly shown all over the place. It also suggested trying the local absinthe. So we did.

I had to approach the green fairy with some care, as I had been warned by my mum that there was a potential family heritage risk with it. High quality absinthe contains a hallucinogen, and mum had warned me she reacted badly once to a related compound found in a medicine she had been told to take. The waitress at Absinthe Time did also give us practically a briefing on the drink before we bought anything.

I still love her description. She told us that Absinthe will potentially “change our perspective of reality”.

In small amounts, a good Absinthe is meant merely to give you euphoric feelings. That is I imagine unless you choose Absinthe on the menu with 8 times the recommended amount of narcotic in it.

Me, paying heed partly to mums advice, and partly to the advice of my wallet, opted for something a bit more standard. It turns out that a good Absinthe is actually a gorgeous drink. If you don’t like the taste of anise then give it a miss, but otherwise it has to be one of the most drinkable spirits out there.

The correct process for preparing the drink is also quite the performance. The waitress came over to our table with a bottle of absinthe, two glasses, sugar, a special spoon, and a lighter. Anyone with any reasonable sense, or absolutely none at all, will know that spirits set on fire quite easily. That was the intention with the Absinthe. Our waitress set our absinthe on fire, and slowly melted the sugar cubes into the glasses of absinthe. After leaving the glasses to cool, our drinks were ready.

Euphoria was the word. We left the bar with a strange mixed feeling of being lightly tipsy, but at the same time strikingly chirpy for a state of drunkenness. Great fun.

As it happens, the Czech republic is simply a land known for its alcohol. Somehow I wasn’t fully aware of to what extent before getting there. The Czech republic is famous as home of the Pils. Pils comes unsurprisingly from Pilsen. Despite living in the part of Germany that is more into pilsner than weissbier and so on, I’m not really a Pils person myself. I gave the local pils a go nonetheless, and discovered that, actually, the Czech republic knows how to make a pilsner. I’m left wondering if Germany’s world fame for beer should perhaps be gifted over across the board to Czechia, because although German beer is good, damn, that Czech beer is also good. In terms of Pilsner, Germany is left floundering awkwardly somewhere behind the Saxon Alps.

A discerning Demi approved. Ignore for a moment that her beer is actually not a pilsner. It is at least definitely Czech.

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Beer is always the right place to end. If you follow in the footsteps of some of my local Leipziger folks, then it is also quite a reasonable way to begin, namely a hearty morning pint on the tram on the way to work. But for today, seeing as this post has been about a short visit to Prague, I will leave Leipziger drinking habits to another day.

 

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Holocaust memorial off-limits to AfD leader


originally published at The Leipzig Glocal

 

Even with a global rise of the extreme-right, it’s safe to say no one would expect its leaders to visit a holocaust memorial with any intention other than to cause trouble. That seems to have been the thinking as member of the far-right wing AfD Björn Höcke was blocked from attending a holocaust memorial at the former concentration camp Buchenwald. Such a decision at first seems reasonable; even sensible, but there are implications. It was certainly right to block him entry to the memorial, but that doesn’t mean his spiteful opinions should be silenced entirely, as to do so has its own dangers.

Would Höcke have been rejected entry to the memorial if he had not made his recent speech in which he called for an end to what in his eyes is a culture of lingering on nazi crimes?

He described the Berlin holocaust memorial as a ‘memorial of shame’ and demanded a ‘180 degree turn in political memory’. These are hardly the words of a politician wishing to attend a holocaust memorial to pay respects. Either he is a hypocrite who likes to make controversial statements for fun and not for action, or Höcke intended to carry out some form of twisted protest at the very site of historical horror and regret.

Höcke’s party leader, Frauke Petry, even denounced the speech, stating that “Björn Höcke has become a burden for the party, with his go-it-alone attitude and constant sniping”. This highlights how much he and his views stand outside of an already far-right party. Petry’s condemnation could however be taken to be in the light of the recent attempted ban of the extreme-right NPD. The AfD cannot risk being seen as too far-right as that would risk being considered Verfassungswidrig, against the constitution.

As right-populist as the AfD is, they are not the NPD. It appears as if Höcke would fit nicely into the more extreme, but in disarray party. The decision not to ban the NPD was followed by disbelief at the time, as the reason given was that the part was too insignificant to damage Germany’s democracy. The AfD in contrast is not insignificant and therefore would not have the same defence against an attempted ban. As unfortunate as Höcke’s views are, he should be allowed to express them. We know from the past that banning extreme opinions in their entirety causes greater problems by driving supporters of such views underground. That eventually leads to groups like the NSU and the RAF terrorist organisations of the not-so-far past.

Höcke’s ban from attending the memorial therefore comes down to location. Although historical memorials do have a political background and do have political consequences, they are not the location for aggressively stirring up emotionally-fuelled political questions. It is impossible not to be shaken emotionally by a visit to a former concentration camp. Many visiting the Buchenwald memorial will have been affected more personally than others.  Whether Germany does as Höcke believes linger too much on past horrors or not, a place symbolic of millions of innocent lives lost is not and never will be the place to express that opinion.

We are left in the difficult situation of having to grant Höcke his unpleasant beliefs, but that certainly does not make him welcome where his beliefs would bite hardest.

by Timothy Van Gardingen

Feature photo: Björn Höcke at open house in Thüringer Landtag, 13 Juni 2015. By © Vincent Eisfeld / vincent-eisfeld.de, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

 

 

 

a pacifist learns from wars of past


A snapping string between two lands calls for the death of men,

it exists not yet causes ‘reason’ for armies to march to war,

but it was not the governments who innocents condemned,

but people with their cardboard signs that violence they adore.

They are content to fight a war as long they’re not involved,

they sit and criticise the pain  from their blinded media views,

Yet will not stand and turn to face a gun-it indifferently revolves,

it is those who will never lift a gun that gives a soldier his news.

The days of sword and honour have been lost to history,

but maybe there’s something to learn from its endless violence;

a constant shadow of  early death held no mystery,

so life-our greatest gift- was loved not put to silence.

Svärdfäste från Valsgärde gravfält