Prague/Dresden Sidebar: David Černý

In our post on the second day of the trip, we mentioned running across some creepy baby sculptures in a park in Prague. And by “creepy,” we mean “baby sculptures the size of a Honda Element with slot machines for faces.” These sculptures are by a Czech artist named David Černý. Leigh had come across some discussion of Černý while she was doing research for the trip, and once she saw (and fell in love with) the creepy baby sculptures, it became a running theme of our visit that we tried to find as many of his sculptures as we could during our time in the city. Rather than scatter them across the posts in chronological order, here they are all in one place, for maximum effect.

Černý is a sort of an enfant terrible of Czech art. Most of his pieces offer a wry commentary on politics, society, or both. Luckily the citizens of Prague seem to appreciate and enjoy that sort of thing, because Černý’s pieces are displayed publicly throughout the city. Thanks to Uncle Internet, we managed to find quite a few of them.


Hanging Out
It’s hard to tell from the photo, but this is Sigmund Freud. Well, It’s a statue of Sigmund Freud hanging by one hand forty feet above the streets of Prague. Because of course it is. The sculpture is actually hinged so it waves back and forth in the wind. Many pedestrians walk right under it without noticing it. Here’s a closer view of Siggy, just hanging out with one hand in his pocket.


Piss
The base of this fountain is shaped like the Czech Republic, and the two gentlemen are motorized such that their hips and, erm, appendages swivel and move up and down. They’re controlled by microprocessors so that over time, the streams of water they are emitting spell out quotes from Czech politicians in the pool. As we said, Černý is not given to subtle political statements. You used to be able to text messages to the sculpture and they would spell that, but that feature seems to be disabled.

Oh, and the whole assemblage is in the courtyard of the Franz Kafka museum, because of course it is.


In Utero
Yeah, so… this is a pixelated naked woman.  The, erm, undercarriage is hollow, so you can climb up inside, and then emerge. There used to be a sound and light show inside the sculpture that contained red lights and vague watery whooshing sounds. This one was right near our hotel, so we walked past it three or four times a day.


Horse
Located just steps from the terrifyingly improbable elevator described in our last post, and within a luxurious retail plaza’s atrium, this is a parody of the statue of St. Vitus on Wenceslaus Square nearby.  Given that the one on the square is an important national symbol, this is about as unsubtle a skewering of the Czech polity as one could imagine.


Quo Vadis?
This is located in the garden of the German Embassy, which does not allow visitors to come in and wander around at random, so the picture is a bit farther away than ideal. It’s a Trabant.  On legs. Here’s a link to a closer picture so you can see that yep, it’s a Trabant with legs. In the summer of 1989, hundreds if not thousands of East Germans came to Prague and occupied the then-West German embassy in hopes of being able to leave East Germany and move to the West. Many of them abandoned their Trabants on the street when they were finally granted passage to the West. This is Černý’s response.

And finally – remember those creepy babies?


Yep. Babies. Creepy ones. Crawling up the Zizkov TV tower, which is the highest tower in the Czech Republic. You can see the creepy babies from pretty much everywhere in town. Apparently Černý was asked to do an installation on the tower, and this is what he proposed — and people not only approved it, but liked it so much that it became permanent. In other words, awesome.

We actually ran across one more of his later on, but we didn’t realize it was his, so we didn’t take a picture. It’s a giant skull on top of the modern art museum.

It turned out that pursuing Černý sculptures around Prague was a great way to see lots of the city, and to learn yet more about Prague’s history. The more you know…

Prague/Dresden Day 8: Taste of Prague!

We’re going to divert from strictly chronological reporting here slightly, and talk about what we did Saturday morning as part of a separate post later.  So this is about Saturday afternoon and evening. [Note from Leigh: the vast majority of this post is Dan speaking; my comments are interspersed throughout in this fashion.]

Before we left, I had run across the website of a tour company called “Taste of Prague.”  I was mostly looking for good places to eat, but when I ran across a guided tour that was focused on restaurants, only took small groups, and appeared to have a sense of humor, we couldn’t resist.  We met our guide, Jan, in front of a church near our hotel along with one other young American couple.  The format of the tour was simple – we walked from restaurant to restaurant, trying food at each location.  The five of us got to know each other, and Jan told us a bit about the last 100 years of Czech history, sometimes assisted by an iPad.

First stop was a meat market.  We had what was essentially pub food – sausage, ham, and pickles. All of it excellent.  That’s Jan on the left, or at least half of him.  On the walk to the next stop, we learned a lot about how Czechs dealt with the aftermath of World War II, the Soviet occupation, and their feelings on potential monetary union.

We also saw a pimpmobile:

OK, probably not actually a pimpmobile.  [Leigh: Jan actually knew the owner of this car.] Next stop was a wine bar.  Interestingly, there is very little Czech wine for export, so if you want to experience it, you’ll just have to visit the country.  Not a serious drawback, if you ask me. (I don’t drink, so I’ll let Leigh describe the wine itself.) [Leigh: I had a Pinot Noir that was pretty tasty; I’ve had better in Oregon, but that’s not a fair comparison.]

Now it was time for the main event. This was a steakhouse named Čestr, where in addition to beef stew, we were also feted with Czech sourdough bread with cream cheese with herbs and chives, beef spare ribs marinated in red wine for 24 hours and cooked under the lid in red wine for 16 hours, beef neck slowly stewed in paprika sauce with sour cream, slow-grilled chicken with truffle stuffing and juice from the grill with black truffles, chicken schnitzels, Czech salmon trout roasted on butter and served with carrot and orange sauce and peas, potato dumplings, garden salad, Czech escargots boiled in root vegetables, baked in mushroom and served with Sabayonne mousse, “Olomoucke tvaruzky”: aged cheese deep fried in bacon and breadcrumbs and served with home-made mayonnaise, beef steak tartare with quail egg, fried bread and raw garlic, and new potatoes with curd cheese. (My memory is NOT that good: they emailed us the list after.)

While we were being astonished by the food (my favorite was the chicken with truffle stuffing) Jan regaled us with some commercials from the Soviet era.  Bear in mind: there was no actual competition, so there was no need to produce commercials.  But full employment had to be maintained, and so we now have this to remember the era by.

After absolutely stuffing ourselves we stopped briefly to take a picture of me pointing at a cow…

…and then proceeded to our final stop. Pastries. Oh god.  Such pastries:

Om nom nom.  Video at this point was of some hilariously awful synchronized exercise demonstrations from the 1980s, to which we’ll include the link in an upcoming post.

On the whole, the tour was fantastic, and we would recommend it wholeheartedly to future travelers in Prague.  In retrospect, it seems obvious that there was probably some financial understanding between the tour company and the restaurants that wasn’t made clear on the surface. Frankly, we don’t care, because the food and company were both great.

One other thing that Jan stopped to point out over the course of our tour was this improbable device – a Paternoster elevator.

In case it’s not clear from the photo, and of course it isn’t, because no such thing should actually exist in the real world of people who aren’t completely out of their minds, this is an elevator that never stops moving. [Leigh: link contains a quicktime movie with Jan explaining and Dan expressing disbelief.] The cars on the right are continuously moving up, and the ones on the left continuously moving down. There are no doors.  That’s right – you have to fling yourself on and off a moving elevator to get from floor to floor.

Of COURSE I wanted to ride it.  Sadly, it was a private elevator that we just stared at through a window. While it moved. Continuously. [Leigh: I was so incredibly glad that we couldn’t ride this thing. I used to have nightmares about elevators when I was a kid, and this horrific contraption is SERIOUSLY straight out of those nightmares.]

After Jan dropped us off, we went and saw Prague castle, one of the most historic and important sites in the city, but frankly after lunch it just felt like an afterthought.  A massive, historic afterthought [for which we will have to write a different post].

Food Eaten: All.
Calories burned stomping up and down hills: Many, but probably not enough.

Prague/Dresden Day 8: Concluded

The highlight of Day 8 was the food tour, but that ended at 4, and we didn’t just go back to our hotel room and fall into a food coma.  From the dropoff point we wandered up into a park on the west side of the river which had a beautiful view of the city, and failed to ride the funicular railroad for the second time on our trip.

From there, we walked up the hill to Prague castle, featured in the last picture of the previous Day 8 post.  We didn’t go into any buildings, just wandered around the various courtyards lookin’ at stuff.  Of which there was definitely some.

From there we walked through the palace gardens, which feature not one, but two different structures designed to grow completely inappropriate fruit for the Czech climate.  Neither of which we photographed, for some reason.  Instead, here’s us standing in front of the Prague:

As we made our way along the hills north of town, we came to a plaza which apparently used to house a giant statue of Stalin pretending to be on a Madness album cover. It now has a giant metronome, which is only slightly less weird.

Also a whole lot of skateboarders.  By this point we were pretty beat, so we headed back into town, where we finished our day with the traditional Czech delicacy of pizza.  One final thing to give you nightmares – this sculpture of Kafka riding a headless man which is not, oddly enough, by David Czerny.

Things Pointed At: 2
Amazing Food Consumed: Much
Geocaches found: Many fewer than looked for
Funicular Railroads Ridden: Still 0

Prague/Dresden Day 7: Mostly Travel

Like the title says, there’s not a whole lot to report about day 7.  I had a few more conference talks to attend in the morning, and Leigh stayed in the hotel room and accomplished things.  Then it was back to the train station for the return trip to Prague.  I had some cheese left over from my trip to the dairy store the day before, (Which I completely forgot to write about, so I’ve gone back and edited that into Thursday’s post) which we ate on the train.

Leigh had found us another hotel in a spectacular location just a block or two from the city center in the opposite direction from our first hotel, so after checking in, we set out to find some food.  We ended up at a little microbrewery near Wenceslas Square.  Over the next few days, we realized that this place, which had six different beers available, was in Prague an example of absolutely stunning variety.  Most places had at most two.

After dinner we walked back to our hotel via Wenceslas Square, about which more later.  Not too much else to say about day seven, but just you wait – Day eight was amazing!

Prague/Dresden Day 6: Dan spends more time at the conference, and things go boom.

Thursday was my big day at the conference – I had two posters to present on my research. For those keeping score at home, the titles were “Measurement of the Longitudinal Acceptance of the ReA RFQ,” and “Preparatory Investigations for a Low Frequency Prebuncher at ReA.” Riveting stuff, right?

Before poster time, however, there were more talks, and then lunch.  Leigh was off at a castle somewhere (and how often do I get to say that?) so I hopped a tram to Pfunds, the self proclaimed “most beautiful dairy store in the world,” to acquire cheese.  Sadly, the most beautiful dairy store in the world does not allow photography. Here’s a link to some pictures on their website. On the upside, I was able to have a lovely young raw milk cheese that would be illegal in the U.S.A. (darn you, Kraft!) on bread, so it was worth fighting the tourists.  Of which there were many.

The poster sessions each day had been in a large room that also contained the industrial exhibits, like so:

However, since this was the last full day of the conference, they had taken down all the industry booths and just filled the room with posters. So I had two of about 400 posters on that day alone. Also, since my two posters were on the end of an aisle on opposite sides of a panel, I had to keep running back and forth to make sure the poster police weren’t checking the opposite side to make sure I was indeed presenting. (This matters: they can actually withdraw your poster from publication if you’re not there.)

Fortunately, I had a very nice view of the Dresden.

I also was sharing an aisle with two people who looked very much like Simon Pegg and Benedict Cumberbatch. Sherlock Holmes is an expert on free electron lasers, it turns out. Then again, why shouldn’t he be? He’s an expert on everything else.

The evening concluded with a very nice conference dinner accompanied by, sadly, smooth jazz. And at the very end, an official conference fireworks display. No really – 15 solid minutes of IPAC fireworks, including the phrase “IPAC14” spelled out in six foot high letters of fire. This never happens at music theory conferences.

Posters Presented: 2
Desserts Eaten: 3
Why Women’s Football is Less Popular: Something to do with Bessel Functions

Prague/Dresden – Day 4: Science!

Since we didn’t allow any time on either side of the conference for me to do any sightseeing in Dresden, I decided to take one day off to spend time with Leigh.  (I went to the first morning sessions, and the poster session in the afternoon, so I wasn’t COMPLETELY playing hooky.)  So to take an appropriate break from a week full of science, what did I of course decide to go see?

SCIENCE!

Ahem. That is, we went to see the Mathematisch-Physikalischer Salon, or the Mathematical and Scientific Instrument Museum. This was an amazing exhibit of scientific instruments through the ages. The highlight of the first room was an astronomical clock:

This device was manufactured in the late 1500s. It is astonishingly complex.  In addition to being able to tell you the time, the phase of the moon, the positions of the stars, and possibly your weight, it has a Saturn hand that goes around once every twenty-six years. (Also hands for the other planets.)  I want one.  Also in the “things I want” category is this pocketwatch:

Known as a “Grande Complication,” this watch tells the day of the week, the phase of the moon, has a 1/5 second jump hand, a stop watch, an alarm, and makes toast. I want to use it for jam timing roller derby bouts.

Also on display were a number of historical globes, both terrestrial and celestial, clocks, adding machines, leyden jars, and other fancy schmancy scientific stuff. It’s hard to believe that pretty much all of electromagnetism was worked out in the nineteenth century using just equipment like this:

In the afternoon, we went to the old masters gallery, which did not allow photography. But we did see the famous “advertising cherubs” of Raphael. These cute little guys have hawked everything from coffee to Coca-Cola. Also Jesus.

I’ll let Leigh talk about how we spent Tuesday evening.

Prague/Dresden – Day 3: Dan Goes to A Conference

So, for the last nine years, most of the time when Leigh and I have traveled, it’s been because she has attended a conference, and I’ve come along for the ride. “What did you do today, honey?” I would ask, and she’d tell me she sat in a paper session on Lehrdal / Jackendoff theory or some such. “How about you?” she’d ask, and I’d breezily reply that I had climbed Mount Olympus.

Then she would stab me with a fork.

So needless to say, she was thrilled about the current situation. I won’t go into a lot of details, because no one cares, but here’s why we were in Dresden:

It’s a pretty big conference. I would estimate on the order of 2,000 or so physicists attended for talks with such exciting titles as “High Power Test Results of the SPARC C-Band Accelerating Structures,” “Development of a Low-Latency, High-precision, Intra-train Beam Feedback System Based on Cavity Beam Position Monitors,” and “Why is Women’s Football Less Popular?” (I am not making that last one up.)

The conference hall is immense:

Oh, and I was here completely on the dime of the U.S. taxpayer, since I presented two posters at the conference. So – thanks, U.S. taxpayers!

Prague/Dresden – Day 2: Prague

Having survived jet lag and a really uncomfortable hotel mattress, we were ready to go out and see the Europe. Specifically the Czech Republic portion of the Europe. We set out relatively early to walk around the city before the crowds got too bad, and maybe find a few more geocaches. (As noted in our previous post, we had already cached our first Czech)

Leigh had found us a wonderful hotel just steps from both the main downtown square and the Charles Bridge. So we headed off to see the former when it wasn’t full of hippies, jugglers, mountebanks and ne’erdowells.

The number one touristy thing to look at in the main square is the astronomical clock. It’s a pretty amazing thing, and I’m resisting the urge to look it up on Wikipedia until I’ve written about it. Near as we can figure it has a Sun hand, a Moon hand, a Day of the Year hand with a dial that actually includes a spot for each day of the year, and other wackiness. We could not, however, figure out how to actually tell TIME by the silly thing.

There was also a small square with a fountain in it that we walked through about four times in our 20 hours in Prague. We eventually realized that it contained one of the two most visited geocaches in the world, with over 16,000 finds. The statue has an interesting back story as well.

After that we walked back over the Charles bridge. This is a bridge that was built approximately the same time that Isabella started bugging Ferdinand to get those boats out of the driveway. It’s an huge piece of masonry, and you can stand on it and picture the medieval oxcarts jostling their way across. Or at least, you can picture it for approximately 8 seconds, and then someone will try to get you to buy a souvenir, pay them to draw your picture, ask you to take their picture, or steal your camera.

Directly under the bridge is the OTHER of the two most found geocaches in the world.  Also over 16,000 finds.

From there we had a nice little wander around the west side of the river. We didn’t have time for any of the major sites, but we found some creepy baby sculptures in a park and generally goggled at things.

By 1 we had to return to our hotel to get our things for the trip to Dresden. Which was late. But we made it to our hotel without incident, where my conference reception was already underway. Leigh hadn’t paid for a ticket, but I gave her my beer and some sausages and she seemed happy.

Train Rides: 1
Tram Rides: 1
Subway Lines: 2
Geocaches Found: 5
John Lennon Images Found: At least 4

Greece – Day 11: Vergina

Our last day in Greece was to be relatively uneventful.  We had a few possible stops planned, but decided in the morning to just go to one to save stress.  This is good, because I was in pain by this point.  Just stepping off a curb was making me wince, let alone walking down from our third floor hotel room.

We set out in the rental car and after about 2 hours drive came to Vergina.  (That’s pronounced “ver-GEE-na,” by the way.)  The archaeological site there was only discovered in 1977 to be the burial site of no less than Philip II of Macedon.  For those of you a bit fuzzy on your ancient history, that would be the father of Alexander the Great.  The tombs were under a large hill called “The Great Tumulus.”

The museum there now was constructed in a fairly ingenious way – the hill was left intact over the tombs, and the museum simply constructed in the empty space inside after the excavations.  So you’re wandering around looking at exhibits just feet from the actual mausoleums.  And the exhibits include, among other things, the actual box containing Philip II’s bones.  It’s quite the experience.  Sadly, no photography allowed.

Afterwards, we stopped of for lunch at a little taverna in the middle of nowhere.  It dawned on Leigh and I that in eleven days, neither of us had actually ordered a “Greek Salad” per se, so we did just that.  This was not the sort of place that normally gets foreign tourists, but the owners were just as friendly to us as everyone else had been, and yet another plate of free fruit appeared after the meal.

On returning to Thessaloniki, it was time for another bit of sheer terror, as we had to negotiate a non-trivial number of crowded, insane major streets, followed by a number of tiny, packed, one-way streets to get to our hotel.  But we made it, checked in, returned the rental car, and spent the rest of the day just bonking around the town.  We had dinner in a restaurant with carved figures over the windows.

The food was very good, but part of me suspects we may have eaten in the Greek equivalent of a T.G.I. Friday’s.  At least we didn’t eat in the ACTUAL T.G.I. Friday’s on Aristotle square.  We did walk back down to the waterfront and did some people-watching.  We also saw our final sunset in Greece.

Since nothing happened on day 12 but travel (over 24 solid hours of it), I’ll include our only picture from that day here, without comment.

Statistics:

  • Total means of transport employed: 10
  • Total mules ridden: 0
  • Total liters of water consumed: Approximately a billion
  • Average temperature: 98 F
  • Free fruit plates: 4
  • Meals with cheese: Most of them
  • Spectacular sunsets: All of them

Greece – Day 10: Meteora

We have actually not yet mentioned WHY, out of all the small Greek towns starting with a “K”, we chose to meet in Kalabaka. [Ed. by Leigh: You’ll notice Dan and I don’t agree on how to spell the name of the town. Neither does anyone else. Some say Kalabaka, some say Kalambaka, and our hosts, who live there, spelled it Kalampaka.]  Kalabaka is the site of some fairly exceptional geology.  It’s home to a series of enormous sandstone pillars, somewhat similar to Monument Valley in the US.

I’d recommend clicking for the full sized picture – it’s definitely worth it.

So imagine you are a Greek person in the Middle Ages, and you are confronted with these impossibly high piles of geology.  What would you naturally immediately decide to do?  Why, put a monastery on as many of them as possible, that’s what.

There were as many as twenty monasteries here at one time.  Over the years, most have returned to ruins, but there are still six in good shape. According to tradition, the first monk to found a monastery here was carried to the top of the rock by an eagle.  Seems as good an explanation as any.  Lord knows I wouldn’t want to try to climb one of these things without modern safety equipment.

The advantage, from the monks’ point of view, was not only spiritual seclusion, but also security from Ottoman and other intruders.  For most of their history, you could only reach the monasteries by being hauled up in a rope net.  On being asked how often they replaced the rope, a monk is reputed to have answered: “Only when it breaks.”

Note the lift tower on the right hand side.  Fortunately for us, this is no longer the only means of entry for visitors.  In the early 1900s, a bishop who was unhappy that his personal safety on visits was entirely in the hands of monks who may, or may not, have actually liked him, demanded that steps be cut in the rocks of the remaining 6 monasteries.  So stairs it was.

Lots and lots of stairs.  Nearly a thousand all told.  This is a big enough deal that when the owner of our hotel gave us a map and a guide the night before, he actually wrote the number of stairs at each monastery on our map, to allow us to plan our climbs.  Oh, and did I mention I climbed a mountain the day before?  And that it was roughly one hundred degrees out?  This was going to hurt.

But man, it was worth it.

Over the course of the day, we managed to visit four of the six monasteries.  We couldn’t find a good place to park for the fifth, and ran out of time on the sixth.  We also returned to town to get lunch, and then again later to stock up on water.

There are actually four monasteries visible in this panorama, the large one near the bottom, a smaller one right above it, and one on either side of the apparent notch on the right side.  At this point, you may be wondering why you haven’t seen many pictures of the inside of the monasteries. The problem is, they mostly didn’t allow photography.  Each one had a chapel in varying sizes, and all were beautifully decorated.  But no pictures, sorry.

This is a courtyard in the Grand Meteoro, the largest of the monasteries.  This is also the one where we glanced through the window in a random door and saw a room with rows and rows of skulls on shelves.  Yes, skulls.  It was quite disturbing.

Also, for you James Bond fans:

This one, the Monastery of the Holy Trinity was the site of the final scene of For Your Eyes Only, one of the least worst of the Roger Moore Bond films.

After we used up our stamina, (and by this point I could barely move my legs) we returned to the hotel for a bit to relax, and then went out to a little ouzeria on the outskirts of town that had been recommended by our guidebook.  We had wanted to go there for lunch, but the guidebook also completely biffed on which side of town it was on, so we couldn’t find it.  We happened across it randomly later on.  I suspect the handy number 23 bus may also go there.

At any rate, the folks there were once again so happy to have visitors that they brought us free of charge a fantastic plate of spicy feta spread and eggplant dip to go with the tzatziki sauce we ordered.

Statistics:

  • Means of Travel Employed: Car, stairs
  • Stairs climbed: 850 (each direction)
  • Maximum elevation: 550 meters
  • Meals involving cheese: 1
  • Free stuff: Cheese.  (Also eggplant.)
  • Soviet Plots Foiled: 0