Tag Archives: Prague

Cross That Bridge: Ten Favorites

Golden Gate, San Francisco (photo by Sally Reeder)

Because people need to live near a water supply, we also tend to live near bridges.  Chances are you’re within a few kilometers of a bridge right now, unless you are currently trekking in the Gobi Desert and have paused to surf the Web.

Most bridges go unnoticed because they merely do their job of conveying traffic over water, but there are some that do catch our eye; some are even tourist attractions in their own right.  What follows is a list of ten of my favorites.  These are not chosen for the feats of engineering that brought them into existence, but mainly because I find them aesthetically pleasing.

10.  Nanpu Bridge, Shanghai — The distinctive feature of this bridge is its spiral approach, which corkscrews up to great views along the Huangpu River, especially at night.

9.  Seven Mile Bridge, Florida — This ribbon of concrete and steel connects some of the Florida Keys as part of the so-called Overseas Highway.  As the name suggests, one’s car travels quite a distance over water.

8.  Old Bridge, Heidelberg, Germany — A low stone bridge that spans the Neckar River (a tributary of the Rhine), it affords views of Heidelberg Castle and the picturesque Old Town.  Although there have been bridges on this site since the 13th century, the current Old Bridge isn’t very old; it was restored following World War II.

7.  Brooklyn Bridge, New York — The familiar gothic arches span the East River, connecting lower Manhattan and the borough of Brooklyn.  It is counter to the George Washington Bridge across the Hudson on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.  The GW has its admirers, but I prefer the comfortable-old-boots look of the Brooklyn.

6.  Charles Bridge (Karluv Most), Prague — This pedestrian bridge is adorned with statues of saints, some dating back to the 17th century.  During the day, Charles Bridge is lively with street musicians and artisans selling their stuff; at night lovers stroll the bridge holding hands (and bottles).

5.  Ponte Vecchio, Florence — When it was built in the 1300s, shops and houses were incorporated into the structure.  Once these were butcher shops; the bridge is now basically a mall of jewelry stores.  Personally, I prefer seeing the beautiful Ponte Vecchio from the banks of the Arno River rather than walking on the bridge itself.

4.  Harbor Bridge, Sydney — The entire harbor has great views in every direction; it’s worth a walk out onto the bridge to take in the nearby Opera House and surroundings.

3.  Tower Bridge, London — Some people mistakenly think this distinctive bridge is London Bridge.  It’s called Tower Bridge because of its proximity to the Tower of London.  This bridge is a landmark; London Bridge, just up the Thames, is relatively forgettable.

2.  Pont Alexandre III, Paris — Decorated with bronze lamps and statuary from La Belle Époque, this bridge is a great vantage point from which to marvel at the Eiffel Tower and all of central Paris.

1.  Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco — It’s painted that distinctive orange color partly to keep ships from slamming into it on foggy days.  When the visibility is good, however, the bridge and the bay and the hilly landscape are components of the most gorgeous urban setting in the United States.

There are lots of other great bridges, of course, like Lion’s Gate in Vancouver and the Rialto in Venice, but these are my favorites (as of today).   What else belongs on the list?  What would be your top pick?

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Look Out Below!

View from Prague Castle

At least the view is nice on the way down.

It’s impossible to do, but wouldn’t the word “defenestration” be an awesome play in Scrabble?  Pronounced dee-FEN-eh-STRAY-shun, it means “the act of throwing a person or thing out of a window”.  Historically defenestration was the favored method of assassination in Bohemia (modern-day Czech Republic).

Down through the centuries there have been several such acts; scholars debate how many, although not quite to the point of throwing each other out of windows.  There are two about which there is no dispute.  One is the First Defenestration of Prague, which occurred on July 30, 1419.  The grievances that led up to it had been simmering for a number of years.

Church reformer Jan Hus and his followers were at bitter odds with the Catholic hierarchy.  Hus was excommunicated, but eventually was summoned to a council, the goal of which was supposedly some kind of reconciliation.  Hus may have thought, “At last we’re getting somewhere”, but the council resulted in Hus getting burned at the stake (1415).

This enflamed Hus’s followers, you might say, and skirmishes with various kings and popes and cardinals ensued.  Some Hussites were rounded up and imprisoned.  Trying to free their comrades, other Hussites burst into the New Town Hall in Prague, laid hands on seven council members and flung them out the nearest window.  An angry mob happened to be below that window, so most of the councilors had their descent abruptly stopped by pikes.  Those who missed the pikes and landed on the pavement were beaten to death, in a rather free interpretation of Jesus’ command to “love your enemies”.  The king of Bohemia, Wenceslas IV, was so enraged that he had an apoplectic fit and died.  It should be noted that this was not the Good King Wenceslas of Christmas-carol fame.

The so-called Second Defenestration of Prague (which may have actually been the third or fourth) happened a couple of hundred years later, on May 23, 1618.  The underlying provocation was the closing of Protestant chapels and churches in Bohemia; this, it was felt by some, violated guarantees of religious liberty that had been spelled out in a document grandly known as the Letter of Majesty.

Bohemian nobles (Protestants) held an assembly; a couple of imperial regents were tried and, after several seconds of deliberation, found guilty of violating the Letter of Majesty.  The regents, Martinic and Slawata, along with their secretary Fabricius, were launched out a window of Prazský hrad (Prague Castle).  I have stood at that very window, and would estimate that the regents and Fabricius had a fifty-foot fall.

Remarkably, they didn’t die.  The Jesuits attributed their miraculous survival to the mercy of benevolent angels; the Protestants pointed out that the three men had landed in a ditch that was full of manure.  In any case, Martinic, Slawata, and Fabricius escaped with their lives.

As mentioned before, there have been other defenestrations as well, although that colorful tradition hasn’t been practiced for some decades now.  Prague is a beautiful city to visit, and I’d encourage you to do so.  But if you do go, try to book a hotel room on the ground floor.  Just in case.

Czech, Please

Main train station, Prague (Praha)

Main train station, Prague (Praha)

One of the challenges of traveling abroad is the language barrier.  I speak some Spanish, although a lot of it is phrases I remember from school.   Many of those phrases, I have discovered, have little application in real-life circumstances:  “¿Donde está su cuaderno?” (“Where is your notebook?”) hasn’t come up all that often in my travels.  Other than Spanish, I have a little grab-bag of French, Italian and German words.  When we go to countries where those languages aren’t spoken, I make a point of learning a few words and phrases in, say, Turkish or Greek or Czech — whatever is appropriate for the country we’re visiting.  And in those countries, I always arm myself beforehand with the five words that are absolutely essential to communication anywhere in the world:  “yes”, “no”, “please”, “thank you” and “beer”.

 

 

Less than a decade after the Soviet subjugation of Eastern Europe had ended, I made a journey by train from Prague, in the Czech Republic, to Vienna, Austria.  The following is an entry in my travel journal for July 2, 1998.  It illustrates some of the difficulties of trying to speak in something other than one’s native tongue…

The main train station in Prague still has signage in Russian, and looks like what we always thought Iron Curtain countries had to endure in terms of amenities… or lack thereof.  It’s gloomy.  The train did pull away from platform 2 promptly at 9:21.

The villages and Czech countryside are picturesque, but the larger towns tend to reflect the “progress” inflicted by the previous regime:  boxy concrete buildings and rusty train stations.  My “first-class” cabin shares space with a middle-aged couple who speak Spanish; across the aisle are two Americans, presumably mother and daughter.  I’m pretty sure they are stowing away in this car.  When the conductor came to check tickets, they pretended to be asleep.  He eventually got them to wake up, and they had to pay a supplement.

The rolling farmland occasionally gave way to hillsides covered with pine and birch, and there was a river that ran alongside the track for several miles.  I managed to avoid speaking to anyone for a couple of hours.  Then I gave myself away to the Spanish speakers (who proved to be from Chile) when I tried to point out a deer (“¡ciervo!”) in the woods to the señora.  After that, they referred questions to me in Spanish — things about where we were, would the authorities stamp our passports, etc.  It was strange — I was having to summon up my Spanish after several days of trying to communicate with a handful of Czech words.

The process for crossing the frontier by rail was stressful.  At the border town of Breclav, two Czech policemen boarded the train to inspect passports; they were followed by a platoon of armed Austrian border guards.  I spoke Czech to the Czechs, German to the Austrians, all the while explaining the situation in Spanish to the anxious couple from Chile.  After that experience I treated myself to a croissant (French word) and a bottle of Pilsner Urquell pivo (the Czech word for beer).

Aboard the Smetana (the name of my train), the Chileans tried to keep a conversation going all the way to Vienna, which, mercifully, wasn’t too much farther.  The train pulled into Sudbahnhof station about 2:45 p.m.  I waved farewell to the Chileans —  I probably said “vaya con queso” — and stumbled off the train with a blinding headache from my multilingual efforts…