Whew! The blizzard of Prague/Dresden posts from the past is at an end, and we’re beginning a new adventure in the present: Karen and I are seeking warmer climes for two weeks in Belize.
As I finish packing, it strikes me that once upon a time, I traveled around the world for nine months with the orange bag pictured below. Now I need the blue one for two weeks in Belize.
Have I become a clothes horse? Nope. A scuba diver.
While not as geared-up as the true die-hards, I do bring along my own mask, snorkel, dive computer, and flashlight. On this trip, I’m going to try out a newly-purchased underwater camera housing, taking my photography to new depths.
Each night, walking back to my hostel, I’d pass a statue of a golden rider. That’s Dresden’s golden boy, August the Strong, Elector of Saxony, King of Poland, and- most importantly to me- patron of the arts. He attracted to Dresden the artists and architects who created the impressive buildings I’ve been ogling this week.
Another former Eastern Bloc city, another museum full of Socialist detritus. More elaborate than the Museum of Communism in Prague, Dresden’s DDR Museum occupies several floors in an appropriately stark building.
There are rooms full of artifacts and walls full of posters from youth rallies, evocative photos, and year-by-year timelines. Mostly in German, which made the visit less fulfilling for me, but this is, you know, Germany.
A common feature of these museums is reconstructed rooms and shops. What is this supposed to convey, exactly? That people had funny, square TVs in 1950? I knew that.
I am a sucker for abandoned currency, though. And abandoned film technology. And the Robotron!
Patrons start their visits on the top floor and work their way down, so it was at the end of my tour that I discovered the automotive collection, including the Trabbis that the members of U2 and I are so taken with.
During World War II, Vonnegut and his fellow prisoners of war hid in the basement of a slaughterhouse while the Allies bombed the crap out of the city. I’m a big fan of Vonnegut, the observant cynic, lover of words, Mark Twain for our time. I brought along my copy of Slaughterhouse-Five and re-read it on my way to Dresden. This required me to temporarily set aside the new Jim Henson biography– not an easy feat for me. When the main character, Billy Pilgrim, is captured and transported to Dresden, Vonnegut writes:
The Americans arrived in Dresden at five in the afternoon. The box car doors were opened, and the doorways framed the loveliest city that most of the Americans had ever seen. The skyline was intricate and voluptuous and enchanted and absurd. It looked like a Sunday school picture of heaven to Billy Pilgrim.
Somebody behind him in the box car said, “Oz.” That was I. That was me. The only other city I’d ever seen was Indianapolis, Indiana.
So here I am in Dresden… Oz… Vonnegut’s city, the backdrop to his most famous novel. What will I do?
Take the Kurt Vonnegut Tour, of course. Details were a bit sketchy on the website, but a couple emails later, I had a date with Danilo. We met next to the statue of King Johan on Wednesday morning, and since I was the only person on the tour, we basically chatted as we walked around town.
Honestly, there’s not that much to see here related to Kurt Vonnegut. Danilo regaled me with tales of Kurt Vonnegut’s life and pointed out various buildings as we walked, providing a bonus architectural and cultural tour.
For example, he pointed out the distant building that looks like a mosque. Danilo says it’s actually a factory; apparently, the designer took advantage of a law that exempted religious buildings from paying certain taxes.
But let’s not get off track here. The ultimate destination of our tour is slaughterhouse five, the actual facility where Vonnegut sought shelter from the bombing. We walked for quite a while along a tree-lined sidewalk, leaving the city center behind, passing a hill that is made of rubble from the bombing.
Finally, we came upon a collection of buildings enclosed by a gate. Danilo walked up to the guard shack and exchanged some words and gestures with the guard. The Kurt Vonnegut Tour, it turns out, is really a handshake deal by which some guards let us in the back door.
The back door of what? Well, check it out:
Hold that place in your mind, and read this:
There was a fire-storm out there. Dresden was one big flame. The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn.
It wasn’t safe to come out of the shelter until noon the next day. When the Americans and their guards did come out, the sky was black with smoke. The sun was an angry little pinhead. Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead.
So it goes.
Odd to be contemplating man’s cruelty to man while standing next to the coat check, but that would probably suit Kurt Vonnegut just fine. And by taking this tour, I had seen parts of Dresden I never would have with my nose buried in a guidebook.
Freed from the “we’re on a tour” formalities, Danilo and I chatted about topics non-Vonnegutian while riding the tram toward downtown, and I learned that he was a teacher in the Soviet days. Though he has no wish to go back to the old ways, he says it’s been difficult to make a living since the fall of Communism, as politicians spend more time looking out for themselves than their constituents.
I tipped Danilo with my leftover euros, we said our goodbyes, and I was left alone with my thoughts. As my buddy Kurt put it,
And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like “Poo-tee-weet?”
If it were February of 1945, this street would be on fire.
At that point in World War II, the German army was retreating but had not yet surrendered, and the Allies were looking for ways to hasten the end of the war. As part of a campaign of air strikes against rail lines and factories, multiple bombing runs rained fire onto the German city of Dresden. But many industrial facilities in the suburbs were left untouched, while buildings in the cultural center of the city were laid to waste. Days earlier, Allied leaders had made plans at the Yalta Conference for the reconstruction of Europe, and yet thousands upon thousands of civilians were killed in Dresden. Fire ravaged the city and left charred bodies in basement bomb shelters. Debate over the military necessity of the bombing continues to this day.
I first learned about these events through the lens of a great book: Slaughterhouse-Five. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was there, as a young prisoner of war, and he used the bombing as the backdrop for his unhinged, stream-of-consciousness, semi-autobiographical, postmodern novel.
I heard about it again when my friend Lori visited the city in 1995, finding the iconic Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) still nothing more than a pile of weathered rubble. Voices began calling for its rebuilding as soon as the war ended, but East German leaders didn’t have the will or the Deutsche Marks for such an undertaking. The pile of charred stones was probably a handy propaganda tool, as well, reminding citizens of the indiscriminate hostility of the West.
But the winds of history blew across Germany and set the stage for the Frauenkirche to rise again. After German reunification, donations poured in and engineers went to work restoring the church to its 18th century glory.
In 2005, the Frauenkirche was reconsecrated. Standing in front of this ornate giant, I felt sadness at the terrible events that brought this city down and awe at the efforts that rebuilt it.
Thousands of original bricks, darkened by fire and weather, were incorporated into the new exterior.
Engineers also brought the building up to modern safety standards, allowing us tourists to ascend to the top of the dome for a 360-degree view of 21st century Dresden.
The church sits in a crowded square- a little too crowded, in fact, for my taste. I was disappointed that city leaders would allow huge buildings to surround the church on several sides, but then I saw historic photos showing those buildings in place before the bombing. It’s kind of hard to bemoan the way things are done “these days,” when those days were a hundred years ago.
In one large open space in front of the church there is an archeological excavation underway, so it appears that the face of Dresden is changing once again.
Prague is so darn close to other historic European cities, and I had a couple of unclaimed days in my itinerary. I couldn’t help but add a third country to my two-week trip.
Venice is a just few hours away, as are Berlin and Nuremburg. I chose a closer destination, right over the border: Dresden, Germany. As part of the former East Germany, it fits into the Cold War theme taking shape on this trip. My interest had also been piqued by two individuals: my friend Lori and a guy named Kurt. We’ll get to them later.
First, gotta get there. As one would expect, the trip was easy. An English-speaking clerk in Prague sold me a train ticket (for 724 Kč, about US$36) and then waited in Praha hlavní nádraží station (they could use more benches) until my platform was posted. If you’ve ever watched a train arrive at the station and wondered which car you’re supposed to ride in, you’ll understand my delight at finding a screen identifying each car.
We cruised through the countryside, our only indication of crossing the border being that the announcements changed languages. In just over two hours, we arrived at Dresden’s Hauptbahnhof.
Oops, my hostel is actually closer to Dresden’s Neustadt station, so it’s back onto the train for a short hop to the neighborhood north of the Elbe River.
Lollis Homestay (which is a hostel, not a home stay, but why nitpick?) came highly-recommended by Lonely Planet. After just a few moments on its website, I knew I had to stay there.
They promise 10% off your bill if you can prove you don’t use nuclear or coal-fired energy:
And a free night’s stay if you can entertain the other guests for an hour:
You don’t get that at the Four Seasons (this is where my friend Henry deadpans, “That’s why I stay at the Four Seasons.”).
Sadly, no, I didn’t break out the Czech puppets and entertain the crowd for an hour. Neither did anyone else. However, I did experience a dose of that quirky Lollis charm… in my room.
Obviously, when you go to Prague, you’ve got to visit Prague Castle. It’s up there on the hill, photobombing every picture you take of the skyline. It’s the embodiment of centuries of history. It has six different admission options.
Do I have to?
I figured Prague Castle was just another big, empty castle. Even when Rainer strongly recommended it, I was still hesitant. But perhaps inevitably, early one morning I caught a tram ride up the hill. And perhaps inevitably, I got off one stop too early. It should have been a clue when, on a tram full of tourists, no one else got off. Oh well.
Prague was shrouded in a morning mist.
St. Vitus Cathedral was founded over six hundred- aw , let’s just take a look around.
The castle consists of many separate structures and rooms. Here are a few of them.
Wandering these hallowed halls does impress one with the sweep of history and the pageantry of human existence… and then one crosses paths with a fashion train wreck like this.
It’s the little touches that make Prague Castle so memorable. Like the disaffected twentysomething guarding the pay toilets, babbling continuously into her cell phone while we each paid 20 koruna to take a pee.
Just when I was about to give up on the castle experience, I spotted an exhibit ready-made for me: the gargoyles.
I do love a good gargoyle. Especially a ghoulish, how-did-that-creepy-thing-wind-up-on-a-church gargoyle. And this place has got ’em. Turns out the elements have worn away most of the originals, so there’s an ongoing process of making casts and fashioning new versions of old favorites.
Just a few of the stalwarts on active duty outside:
For me, when all was said and done, Prague Castle was pretty much just another big, empty castle.
I’m fascinated by the fading vestiges of Communism. Back in high school German class when Frau Andersson taught us about die Mauer (the Wall), it seemed like it would endure for generations.
And then it was gone.
Prague’s Museum of Communism is located above a McDonald’s. Of course it is.
Uncle Joe (Stalin), oblivious to history’s march, presides over the museum’s cramped hallways.
Prague has a Stalin story to tell. In 1948, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia staged a coup and took over the country. Work commenced on a huge monument to the Soviet leader. Construction took more than five years, and with good reason: this representation of Stalin at the head of a line of patriots was huge.
For scale, look for the actual people in this photo- those little dots halfway up.
The statue was unveiled on May 1, 1955. It was over 15 meters high! It was the largest representation of Stalin in the world! You can practically hear the men’s chorus warming up for a stirring rendition of a heroic anthem!
Just one problem. Joseph Stalin had died in 1953, and the process of de-Stalinization had begun. Soviet leaders were turning away from the brutal legacy of their former General Secretary/dictator/egomaniac. A giant granite likeness of him seemed a bit out of place.
What to do? Get rid of it.
But, the story goes, the Communists wanted to avoid the embarrassment of slowly dismantling the epic edifice. So one day in 1962, without warning, they blew it up.
Nowadays, a rather lame metronome sits on the statue’s base, a touching symbol of, um, the passage of time or some such nonsense.
I’ve got no love for Stalin, but his statue was undeniably the more accomplished work of art. Let’s take a moment to remember its sculptor, Otakar Švec, who committed suicide the day before it was unveiled.
The museum’s exhibits, like this sterile replica of a Cold War-era shop, didn’t do much for me. Feeling a bit of Commie fatigue, I wandered into a stuffy screening room, sat down on a hard bench, and watched a video that made it all worthwhile: no-frills news footage of the Czech people pouring into the streets of Prague in 1989 and demanding their country back.
When it looped, I stayed to watch it again. My heart broke as regular people in puffy coats and stone-washed jeans (it was the Eighties, after all) stood up to police in riot gear, with sometimes bloody results. This wasn’t soundless black and white film of our grandparents going to war; this was VHS-quality video that reminded me of home movies shot in my backyard in Brookfield (possibly shot with the same Quasar model I used). The course of history changed one day while I was sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner, a newly-minted college freshman.
I guess that’s why I’m fascinated by the remnants of the Cold War world that I came of age in just as it drew its last breath. Even with all the masterful propaganda, the towering granite, the parades in Red Square, and Frau Andersson’s resigned inevitability… the people won.
I know a lot of posts have been popping up on Next Stop: World lately. I’m trying to get caught up on last fall’s trip before Karen and I embark on our next one (to Belize, at the end of February).
To keep our beloved subscribers from feeling overloaded, I’m trying to figure out how to decrease the frequency of emails (which are currently sent with each post). Until I do, I totally understand if you feel the need to hit “delete” a few times. We’ll meet you back here when you’re ready to travel with us again.
Thank you so much for your friendship and for following Next Stop: World!
Castle Wallenstein does provide an impressive backdrop for Czech lawmaking.
Still, I’m convinced that you need a healthy sense of whimsy to work in this Senate building.
Public transit is one of the best things about Prague. You can ride a tram and/or subway for 30 minutes for 24 Kč (US$1.18) or 90 minutes for 32 Kč (US$1.58). In other words, it’s cheap enough to hop aboard on a whim. Sweet freedom for a traveler like me, intent on getting lost in this historic city.
Cheap rides mean that any part of the city is easily accessible. One day at dusk, I cruised south of the city center to the Vyšehrad, a historic enclave. Too late for tours or museums, I walked along the fortified walls, enjoyed the mild autumn temperatures, and sat on a park bench trying to figure out the self-timer feature on my new camera.
Walking back to the subway, I discovered this spectacular view…
Which is the view from this apartment. If you ever move to Prague, rent this apartment…