Le splendide voyage

Reflections on exploration & travel

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New discoveries along the “Golden Path”

My next assignment was going to take me to France. Thus, while researching multiple road maps, I decided to follow an unfamiliar road to learn more about the region.

The two greatest commodities in medieval times were gold and salt. For that reason, these materials  became chess pawns for the development of prolific trade routes throughout Europe. One of the best known routes was the “Golden Path” from Salzburg to Prague. Hence, this route became my chosen itinerary from Prague to Regensburg, Bavaria (Germany) and on to Salzburg, Austria.

At first, I was intrigued by the vast fields of yellow flowers abiding for several kilometers. Later, I found out that these yellow crops produce canola oil while the sunflowers produce oil and seeds.  On the side of the road bright orange, blue and red wildflowers provided inspiration for artists to take out their pallets. It was incredible to observe this natural landscape south of Prague. Close to Regensburg, I took a two day break just to walk along the River Danube and discover a series of picturesque hiking trails.

My trip proceeded toward the Alps as I entered the Bavarian’s Berchtesgaden National Park, Germany.  The eastern, southern, and western boundaries of the park shape the border between Germany and Austria. Again, numerous and amazing hiking trails are available for a traveler to inhale the magnificence of the park. In particularly, the center of the park is identified by a large lake called Königssee and also by the church of St Bartholomew patron of alpine farmers and dairymen.

After a few days in this idyllic sanctuary, I proceeded to one of my favorite cities, Salzburg (Salt Fortress) in Austria. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s birthplace was famous in medieval times for its salt production collected from the neighboring Alps.  The city is usually inundated with tourists during the summer season or during music festivals, yet in early spring it was quiet and ready to be discovered. Hence, I pursued a walking tour for awhile to learn about its history and visit Mozart’s home and then with confidence, I proceeded on my own following its the narrow lanes, its baroque architecture, its gardens while looking into the hills. At some point I had to whisper “…the hills are alive with the Sound of Music…” Indeed, the popular 1965 motion picture, The Sound of Music, was filmed in Salzburg and proximate locations. The first scene in the movie starts on a mountain with Maria (Julie Andrews) singing with open arms, pirouetting, embracing life and the wholesome resplendency around her… that scene took place in Mellweg, about five miles or so from Salzburg.

With that kind of introduction, I knew I had chosen the right itinerary and decided to stay for a few days.

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Saying Goodbye or…until we meet again

My assignment in Prague was supposed to have lasted 8 months. Fortunately, I ended up staying for almost one year and everyday was full of new discoveries. On my last day in Prague, I visited the city’s historical Old Town, its winding streets and alleys. I continued my trajectory by crossing Charles Bridge while following the ascending path and passing historical churches, manors and manifold dwellings.

As the evening approached a light snow mixed with drizzle began to fall. Endearingly, the last light of the day projected its fainting brightness on the buildings and it felt like a brothers’ Grimm fairytale. Certainly, the architecture mingled with a buoyant fog created a favorable atmosphere where such thoughts blossom… and yes, how blessed I have been to experience this place. Unquestionably, I will miss it!


Lights, Camera & Action!

Throughout the ages, the city of Prague has been a versatile beacon of the arts. In the course of its history, Italian artists came to the Czech capital to sharpen their ingenuity while upholding the Renaissance as a blueprint. Other celebrated guests such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe also visited the city for an inspiring season of creativity.

Mozart, fell in love with Prague after his opera “The marriage of Figaro (ger. Die Hochzeit des Figaros),” was performed here in 1786.  Afterwards, the people began to whistle and sing Figaro’s arias in the streets. Thus, the composer was deeply moved and the phrase: “Meine Praguer verstehen mich (usually translated into English as: My Praguers understand me)!” was attributed to Mozart as he felt that his talents were welcomed, understood and loved by Prague’s citizens. Moreover, he felt so honored by the city’s enthusiasm for his music that he decided to premier and conduct his complex opera Don Giovanni on the 29th of October, 1787 at the Estates Theater in the city’s Old Town.

On my third day in Prague, I got lost.  Suddenly, I saw a beautiful stately building and I remember thinking: “I have seen this building before, but where? After all, this is my first time in Prague.” As I approached the structure, its name was displayed on the marquee:  The Estates Theater.  The theater is the oldest in Prague and its royal interior is conducive to performances that exude an atmosphere excitement and beauty.  In the orchestra section, a small plaque designates the spot where Mozart stood while conducting Don Giovanni for the first time. Moreover, the theater’s kinship to Mozart remains till this day as the opera Don Giovanni is still performed as part of its repertoire. However, I have not answered the question: “Why did I recognize this building?”

My keen interest in travel and film usually propels me to read a film’s final credits in search of the filming location. Accordingly, that particular day in the streets of Prague, the movie Amadeus registered in my mind and right after, Immortal Beloved. Deep in my thoughts, I visualized one of the last scenes in the movie as Beethoven’s sister-in-law disclosed a climatic narrative: “…then they announced the premier of the 9th symphony…” That scene was supposed to be in Vienna, Austria. Instead, the streets surrounding the façade of the Estates Theater and later its exquisite interior appeared in their entire splendor!

Prague has been for years a thriving film production center.  The acclaimed Barrandov Studios is one of the largest studios in Europe producing high quality films that have achieved Oscar’s nominations and awards. In addition, the city’s architecture is conducive to period films as well as contemporary European flavored scripts. It is worth pointing out some of movies that were filmed in Prague and in other Czech cities: Amadeus (1984), Immortal Beloved (1994), Mission Impossible (1996), Casino Royale (2007), Bourne Identity (2002), Spy Game (2001), The Illusionist (2006), The Brothers Grimm (2005), Oliver Twist (2005), Les Miserables (1998), The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe (2005), The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (2008), Mission Impossible IV: Ghost Protocol (2011).

Next time you watch a movie staged in Europe or perhaps within a magical kingdom, please, wait for the final credits to roll. Who knows?  Perhaps, you will find that the film was indeed filmed in the enchanting streets and edifices of the golden city of Prague (Czech: Zlatá Praha).

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A formidable self-determining spirit

Czech historical accounts acknowledge extraordinary events that altered the course of the nation. In the 15th century, Jan Hus (John Huss) a priest, leader and rector at Charles University became a vocal advocate against the abuses and indulgences of the Catholic Church at that time. Inspired by John Wycliffe, he not only embraced the early stages of reformed theology but he also taught and preached in Czech at Bethlehem chapel. His greatest desire was to teach the authenticity of the gospel to this people in their own language. As expected, such bold and novel stance was not endorsed by conventional religious powers and yet, the number of his supporters multiplied expeditiously within the region. Eventually, his teaching and writings were banned and he was denounced as a “heretic” by the church dignitaries. As result, he was condemned and burned at the stake on July 6th, 1415 (now a national holiday). A century later, the reformer Martin Luther, stated after studying Huss’ sermons: “I was overwhelmed with astonishment. I could not understand for what cause they had burnt so great a man, who explained the Scriptures with so much gravity and skill.” At present, Jan Hus’ sculpture stands prominent in the middle of Old Town Square overseeing his beloved city.

On 5th of January, 1968, a stirring movement awakened Czech consciousness. Newly elected leaders initiated a number of liberal reforms to improve the rights of its citizens, business and commerce as well as more freedom for the press and travel. Given the constraints of their charge, the liberalization of Czechoslovakia was a brave aspiration fiercely opposed by the soviet bloc. Finally, on the 21 of August of the same year, soviet tanks and forces from the Warsaw Pact invaded Prague determined to end the Czechoslovakian “anti-soviet” revolutionary acts. Yet, these events inspired artists and writers to articulate their stories into dramatic works such as The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. Within twenty years or so the winds of change could no longer be restrained. Thus, in 1989, the peaceful “Velvet Revolution” proceeded to generate major changes. It deposed and ended the communist political control while creating new possibilities for national identity, growth and development.

Today, the Czech Republic is a stable blossoming republic with a self-determined and entrepreneurial spirit. The process of starting a business in the Czech Republic is fairly straight forward and there are multiple agencies that can guide an entrepreneur through the process. My experiences in working with Czech nationals have been positive as they pride themselves in providing efficient and timely services. Seasoned professionals able to provide profitable consulting services are in demand while new start-ups are eager to become formidable forces of influence within Central Europe and beyond. Hence, the city of Prague has achieved its business friendly status because it continues to expand a sustainable infrastructure and development (telecommunications, energy, roads, railroads, and airport). Not surprisingly, on any given week the city hosts an array of international expositions, conferences and meetings. Accordingly, Prague offers a bountiful and thriving environment where an investor and entrepreneur can test, develop, and implement an idea with confidence.

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Welcome to Central Europe, Prague, Czech Republic

One day, I was visiting a Czech colleague and she asked: “This is your first time in Prague, isn’t it?” I replied:”Yes, this is my first time in Eastern Europe.”  During my childhood, anywhere east of the iron curtain and within the Soviet bloc (even after it was dismantled) was considered east.  Nevertheless, Prague lies just above the “western” Austria and also has borders with Bavaria, Germany. Certainly, throughout the centuries, these nations belonged to powerful empires!  Hence, as we continued our conversation, my friend began a detailed geography lesson.  She opened an historical atlas which displayed the multiple regional configurations during the course of time.  She ended with a generous smile and said:”Welcome! As you can see, you are now in Central Europe!” Duly noted!

When visiting Prague it is important to keep in mind the numerous touristic attractions that are available such as: Old Town Square with the astronomical clock, Charles Bridge, the Prague Castle, an array of beautiful churches, a cruise & brunch on the river, haut couture shopping at Parizska Street, or shopping along Na příkopě and ending at the modern Palladium shopping center. At Na příkopě, the latest movies in English can be seen at the Palace Cinemas Slovanský Dům. The tour would not be complete without sampling traditional Czech cuisine at the “Bredovsky dvur” restaurant, on Politickych veznu.  A true bohemian taste is offered throughout their menu, such as their appetizing fare of pork and duck with stewed cabbage, potatoes pancakes, and sauce. All of these spaces are small introductions to the assorted flavors of Prague and will leave a pleasant still-life imprint of the trip. However, if time constrains are unimportant, then walking unhurriedly through the streets of Prague will bring a broader historical and cultural awareness.

Prague rests on seven hills or perhaps nine depending on the contributor of the information. They are: Hradčany, Vítkov, (Opyš), Větrov, Skalka, (Emauzy), Vyšehrad, Karlov and Petřín.  The significance of this information is that from each elevation a different side of Prague is revealed.  The same is true for the architectural influences converging at every square and street corner.  Blocks of graceful structures and styles adorn the city: the Romanesque style can be seen in some of the Basilicas, the Charles Bridge and main battlements are Gothic, the baroque style can be identified at Troja Castle and Saint Nicolas Church, and the neo-Renaissance style shapes the National Theater. Still, there are a few unattractive and utilitarian buildings which the locals may refer when giving directions as “…it is near that dark soviet looking building.” Nonetheless, other buildings are unique and project an unexpected diversion from the norm as seen in the postmodern creation, the Dancing House (1996), with towers nicknamed “Fred & Ginger,” designed by Frank Gehry and Vlado Milunic, and the most colorful Synagogue in Prague, the Jubilee Synagogue,  built in pseudo-Moresque style in 1906.  

While embracing the reminiscences of several eras with judicious elegance, Prague, the city of a thousand spears, will enchant the traveler through its arches, passages, and architectural landscape making it impossible to think of future commitments, at least for the moment.

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The highways in Prague are convenient and uncomplicated. However, the city streets (one-way or splitting directions) remind me of a shape-shifting labyrinth that often leads a newcomer off course. Before long, I was thrilled with the location of my neighborhood! Whenever I got lost, all I had to say or look for was one word: ZOO (if you say it or write it, people will understand).

Yes, Troja is a gem.  Most Prague visitors will not have a chance to visit Troja because it is tuck away in the northwest region of Prague. Yet, the neighborhood has some distinct attractions that I believe are worth exploring. For starters, the neighborhood gets its name from the regal Troja castle. This stunning estate was built in baroque style by the renowned French architect and builder Jean Baptiste Mathey (1679 to 1691). Mathey was born in Dijon, Burgundy and this is only relevant because our paths will cross again later. Count Sternberg owned the estate and resided within its walls mainly during the summer months. Since then, the estate has had a number of owners and now it is owned by the city of Prague.

The interior of the castle is notable with exhibits from the Prague Municipal Gallery, unique frescoes and chandeliers.  However, its glory rests throughout the exterior gardens.  The hedges are exceptionally beautiful as they are trimmed with precision while forming an intricate maze.  Central to this grandeur is an imposing outdoor staircase where gods and Titans combat an invisible battle. Thus, a promenade throughout the gardens in bloom during late spring and summer is a must. 

Troja has also other attractions that deserve exploration.  When exiting the castle’s main entrance, an easy stroll will lead visitors to the Praha Zoo which is always a delight especially for children.  If instead, one wishes to ascend toward the hills then, everyone will be welcomed by an amazing view of the region via the botanical gardens and vineyards.

If instead, visitors decide to exit toward the river, a bridge is available to cross the river Vltava.  Once on the other bank, the riding school is on the left and straight on is the Stromvka Park.  This old park grants everyone an opportunity to enjoy an array of trees, flowers, and ponds. It also offers different paths for cycling, rollerblading, and walking. In addition, along the river Vltava there are other leisure opportunities such as clay tennis courts and a kayaking school.

Around the castle and Zoo, there are smaller cafés that offer standard dishes, ice-cream and desserts.  Yet, my personal favorite is the “Ristorante & Pizzeria Del Corso.” Their brick oven pizzas are delicious.

Troja is only about 20 minutes from the city center by tram or by bus/subway combination.  Yet, if time allows, I highly recommend returning to the city by boat ride from the Zoo to Rašínovo nábřeží (in the city center). It is a peaceful and scenic way to end the day.