WHIRLWIND TOUR:  3 Cities in 4 Days!

One of my dear cousins and her husband came to visit us in Berlin and we joined them on a whirlwind tour of Dresden, Meissen, and Prague.  They had rented a car for the trip.  Fortunately, the Sunday before they arrived, we had had an opportunity to ride in a car because, except for a trip to the UK sometime between our last trip to the US in November 2010 and now, we haven’t even ridden in a car (except for the odd taxi now and then), and I was afraid that perhaps I had forgotten how to actually ride in a car, especially for anything longer than 15 minutes.  I guess it’s like riding a bike – it comes back to you (and, fortunately, it came back to me far more quickly than riding a bike did).

We took the Autobahn to Dresden and while en route, I saw an enigmatic sign—Tropical Islands.  There was absolutely no explanation whatsoever, and, somehow, in the heartland of Germany, I had a truly difficult time imagining what exactly this place might be.

Most certainly, everything you’ve heard about driving on the Autobahn is true.  We were doing probably about 70 mph in the ‘slow’ lane and periodically cars would come whooshing by us – coming from nowhere and vanishing again so quickly that we had to check with each other to make sure we hadn’t imagined it.  This is a powerful incentive to stay in the slow lane; there are no folks in Germany who drive 40 mph in the slow lane because, well, gosh – they’re all DEAD!  I suppose the good news is that you never have to worry about getting injured on the Autobahn; since folks are driving 100 mph or faster, you’re only gonna have fatalities!

A particularly charming part of our trip was that my cousin’s husband had brought along some great music to play on the trip – the Beatles, sung by German musicians, in German.  How cool was THAT!!  “Ich habe ein Karte zu fahren!” [I have a ticket to ride.]

We encountered some construction and they posted signs about every kilometer to let you know how much farther the construction extended, accompanied by a little frowny face.  And, of course, the notice that you’ve reached the end of construction was accompanied by a smiley face.

Dresden

After a couple of hours, we reached Dresden.   The city was nice enough, and we’re glad we went, but we didn’t see anything that made us want to come back.  In all fairness, we were there only 2 days (one of which was spent on a boat trip to Meissen), so we can’t really say we gave it a chance.  We did see some interesting things, though:

  • We saw a tricycle built for two—really!  There’s a single wheel up front; the riders’ seats are side by side.  Folks about our age were pedaling it, and it’s a good thing, because they were going uphill and I doubt that either one of them could have made it up that steep hill alone.
  • There are lots of street musicians in Germany, and there was one classical group that played in the square near our hotel.  It seemed that they were there every time we came into the square and, even better, they were playing the same music, specifically, The Prince of Denmark’s March [also know as Henry Purcell’s Trumpet Voluntary in D Minor, although it turns out that this was really written by Jeremiah Clarke.].  And, you might ask, SO?  Well, it’s a wedding march alternative and what we chose for our wedding (as did Princess Diana and Prince Charles) rather than Mendelssohn’s Wedding March from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the old, ‘”Here comes the bride, big fat and wide; here comes the groom, skinny as a broom”).  Somehow, I just didn’t want to march down the aisle with those words ringing in my ears.  For a brief second, I considered using the William Tell Overture instead (the theme to the Lone Ranger), but was overruled.

Meissen

The boat trip to Meissen gave us lots to talk about.  For one thing, our boat was mooned by a guy in a canoe.  Really!!  Another memorable sight along the way was Slaughterhouse 5, where Kurt Vonnegut was during WW II and which gave him the title for one of his books.  We also passed a small cottage, which wasn’t especially remarkable, except for the Confederate Stars and Bars flying from a flagpole in the yard.  We’ve seen the Stars and Bars in Germany one other time.  We were at a medieval farm in southern Germany, more or less like Williamsburg, where folks are dressed in accordance with the times and you can see how they might have worked and lived back then.  Just outside the entrance to the farm, there was a standard tourist trap with things you might expect to see in such a place.  Of course, you wouldn’t expect to find Confederate flags for sale there, but nonetheless there they were.  It would be interesting to know what was behind that!

We had barely enough time in Meissen to tromp to the porcelain factory, ooh and ahh over some of the incredible pieces, and go through the factory to see how they make some of the more exquisite pieces.  This stuff is hand-painted and, in some cases, hand-made.  For example, there may be a figurine of a young girl, in which a mold is used for the body, but, if she has ribbons in her hair, the tiny porcelain ribbons may be formed by hand.  So, I can understand why a cup and saucer may cost more than one month’s rent.  Nonetheless, I can’t see myself buying something like that – I’d be too afraid that I might break it and wouldn’t enjoy using it.

We had another experience with what—as least to Americans—is German rudeness.  After the factory tour, we came back to the boat landing to wait for the return trip.  There was a couple in line ahead of us.  We stood about 3 feet behind them.  As we were standing there, a group of folks –about 30 of them—in a tour pushed between us and the first couple.   We were totally astounded, but decided that we’d just have to regain our places, which we did.  But once the boat got there, they pushed ahead of us again!  Fortunately, my cousin managed to get on the boat before all these rude folks forced their way on, and she then fought valiantly to save seats for us.  When we got to the table she had saved for us, we practically had to slide under another couple that was trying to take our seats!

Prague, Precious Prague! 

Wow!  Saved the best for last!  One of my other cuzzies has been to Prague and told me how fabulous it was.  She was definitely right about that!  [With one exception – the days we were there, it was at least 85 F, and that’s just absolutely, positively too hot for me!]  One really cool thing about it – at least for me – is that even my husband lost his bearings.  He’s a human compass, and his sense of direction is (almost) unfailing.   (I, on the other hand, am famously, severely directionally impaired—always turn the wrong way and, when I use reverse logic and say, “Well, this is the way I want to go, so the opposite way must be the right way” – well, that is the ONE time when I would have been right!)  There are so many streets that the maps can’t show them all.  And they’re short.  And they’re not at right angles.  And every corner looks similar – because there’s a jewelry store selling garnets (which apparently come from this part of the world), and that wonderful crystal, and so many other things for which Bohemia is famous.  It’s a good thing I’m at a point in my life where I don’t want any more jewelry because I could certainly have spent a lot of money buying things made with my birthstone!  One of the stores even had a rather fascinating sign.  The words on the sign weren’t that unusual – 60% off today.  What was unusual was that the sign happened to be very carefully and professionally stenciled on the glass window.  I ask you, if you’re just putting everything in your store on sale for a single day, are you gonna use a permanent sign?  Well, I guess another way of looking at it is that, it’s always ‘today’ so the sign is never wrong.

This is a very old, very ‘international’ city and, surprisingly, many of the signs are in English.  Since folks come here from all over, English must be the one language they are most likely to share.  You see signs like “Cash and Carry” or “City Self-Storage” or ‘For Rent or Lease.”

One of the things that makes you feel a little odd is when you ask the waiter for your “check.”  I’m pretty sure they’ve heard every joke imaginable about that but, nonetheless….

Some of the names of establishments are interesting.  For instance, there’s “The Old Armenian Restaurant” (which may not be interesting in itself, but the fact that it features karaoke offers a bizarre juxtaposition of concepts).  Then there’s the Standard Café.  Really?  Are all the rest of the cafés non-standard?  And the WC Café?  Why would you want to even consider eating there?  Then, of course, there is the Prague Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments.  OK, so I’ll grant you that ONE such place might be understandable.  But there are at least THREE of these things that I saw, without even looking for them!!  There could be more….

While walking down the street we saw two restaurants, side by side, that made you wonder if their placement was accidental or intentional—a MacDonald’s (which offers a feast of “red slime” right next to a place that specializes in Kobe beef (which comes from cows who have spend their lives being given gentle massages while listening to beautiful music).  Go figure!  Of course, in the end, the MacDonald’s cows and the Kobe cows all suffer the same fate.

We went on a walking tour of the city and found out a lot of interesting things.  The city is in a valley, and up near the top of one of the surrounding mountains, there used to be a huge statue of Stalin.  This statue was bigger than the one of Jesus in Buenos Aires.  Well, of course, the political tides changed and eventually Stalin’s statue had to go.  Oddly enough, it cost more to blow it up than it had to erect it.  And you wanna guess what they did with all the rubble?  Well, they used it to pave streets and sidewalks, so you could be walking through Prague and step on a piece of Stalin’s nose.  The sidewalks themselves are pretty cool.  Like Berlin, most of them are made of small pieces of paving rocks, about 3 inches on a side.  But throughout Prague, the paving rocks create a pattern.  In some cases, there are 3 colors – light grey, dark grey, and reddish – and they may be arranged in squares, or diamonds, or there may be borders along the side of the sidewalk.  Just a nice touch!

They replaced Stalin’s statue with a giant, orange metronome.  It’s supposed to represent the concept that Prague is very old and, while the political climate changes all around it, it’s still pretty much Prague (much like Rome remains Rome).

There’s another rich story about the opera house.  On top of the opera house, there are statues of famous composers, such as Mendelssohn and Wagner.  The Nazis decided to make it their headquarters in Prague when they occupied Czechoslovakia.  Of course, it just wouldn’t do to have the statue of a Jew on the top of Nazi headquarters, so they sent some workmen up to the roof to remove the statue of Mendelssohn.  It turns out that the statues weren’t labeled and they didn’t know which one was Mendelssohn.  So, the most logical thing they could come up with was to judge by the noses.  The guy with the biggest nose just had to be the Jew, right?  So they took down the statue with the biggest nose.  Of course, it turned out that the guy with the biggest nose was actually Wagner – the Nazis’ favorite composer.  So Wagner spent the duration somewhere in a cellar while the Nazis labored happily away in their headquarters with a statue of Mendelssohn on the top.

While the heat was totally devastating to me, at least the Czechs made some effort to cool things off.  They have trucks that go through the city lightly spraying water on the streets and, as an added bonus, spraying a fine mist of water into the air.  The first time it hits you, it’s a shock.  However, afterwards you find yourself wishing for the truck to come back again!

There’s a big bridge, the Charles Bridge, connecting the ‘old’ city to the ‘new’ city (although, even the ‘new’ city is old).  Couples who want their relationships to last come to the bridge and put padlocks on the railings, and throw the keys into the river below.  Apparently, August is ‘Wedding Month’ in Prague.  We were there on the week-end and I can’t begin to count all the bridal couples we saw, to include one couple walking along the bridge (presumably on a mission to put their padlock on the bridge).  There are so many padlocks there that, from time to time, the authorities have to cut some off.  I wonder what happens to those couples whose padlocks are cut off – do they suddenly wake up one morning to find themselves divorced?

In addition to tasteful garnet jewelry and gorgeous crystal stemware, you can also find some pretty incredible souvenirs – such as condoms that say such things as:

  • I  Prague
  • Orgasm Donor
  • Let me in; I know someone inside

Yep!  Won’t be seeing that in the States, will you?

Definitely want to go back to Prague and see so many of the things we just walked by – especially want to see at least one of those Museums of Torture Instruments!!  It would help enrich my fantasy of what I’d do to folks who try to cut ahead of me in line after a long day touring Meissen.

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