Rest easy, foes of profiling. On our way to two weeks in Munich and Prague and points in between, I was randomly searched in the Atlanta airport, with special attention to my shoes (and socks). The Munich airport is a paragon of German efficiency – minutes after landing, we were on our way to our hotel for a nap.
Munich’s old city has very narrow winding streets that frequently open into wide, pedestrian-friendly plazas; cobblestones; bicycle riders; and picture-book stucco buildings alongside ornate, monumental public ones. The reminders of WWII damage are almost non-existent, although the pillars on the front of the Bavarian state capitol building still have a few bomb dings.
Munich also boasts the largest public park in Europe, der Englische Garten, one mile by four miles, with canals and waterfalls suitable for youthful surfers (really); an unobtrusive piece of the Berlin Wall; soccer fields; and a Chinese tower where we danced briefly to an oompah band. Like most of Munich, the park was virtually trash-free.
We chose an Italian restaurant for dinner, figuring that there would be plenty of chances for wurst and beer later on. We ducked briefly into the famed Hofbrauhaus beer hall the next morning, then made it to the immense Gothic-wedding-cake old town hall in time to watch its glockenspiel perform. At the Frauenkirke, a simple, soaring 500-year-old Gothic church, tourists in shorts were allowed in – but no bare midriffs, thank you.
The old Botanical Gardens are another lovely park, with dozens of beds containing flowers that may look familiar, but are not quite the same as ones you are used to. Likewise, with the beer and pretzels (which Munichers have with breakfast). The Victualeinmarket is huge, but not unlike our Farmers Market. It sits next to St. Peter’s, Munich’s oldest parish church, originally consecrated in 1294 and rebuilt several times since then.
At the Symphony...
We were delighted with an evening concert by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (familiar from KLRE, our classical station) in a contemporary, high-tech hall, user-friendly and visually appealing, with great acoustics and an enthusiastic audience. On the other hand, our cab-driver’s choice of radio music featured Tammy Wynette.
In fact, most of the restaurant, cab and elevator music we heard in Germany and the Czech Republic was American, either country or covers of 1970’s and earlier Top 40 hits. (“Ghost Riders in the Sky” doesn’t quite work in Czech.) The one night we spent in Marienbad, the Czech spa city, we danced at the Hotel Zvon to a keyboardist and girl singer (think ABBA with a polka beat).
Ready, willing Adel...
Our cab driver from the Munich airport was a young Tunisian named Adel, a part-time university student majoring in philosophy. We later hired him for a day trip to Straubing (Nan’s father Fred Selz’s hometown) and Regensburg, both about an hour north of Munich on the Danube.
Regensburg, an old imperial free city, is much like the old city section of Munich, and also has a few vestiges of the Roman era. Fred’s father is buried in a 200-year-old Jewish cemetery at one end of a pleasant park. Otto Selz’s headstone reminds us that, as with most of the family, due to meticulous Nazi record-keeping, we know where and when his wife Sofie died...but, she’s not buried with him.
Straubing is smaller than Regensburg and more commercial, though still charming, with tourist-oriented shops lining its elongated plaza around the town’s signature clock tower. We took Adel to lunch at Fred’s favorite, the Seethaler Hotel (where wurst finally came to wurst), and checked in with the family of a childhood friend of Fred’s at Kronner’s candy and pastry shop. We also drove past Fred’s childhood home and the family’s synagogue.
Cruising the autobahn at typical German speeds of 100-120 miles per hour, Adel wanted to know what Americans now thought about Islam. (We did not mention our Jewish religious affiliation.) He seemed very sincere in his abhorrence of violence, and devout enough to pull in at a rest stop to wash his face, hands and feet preparatory to spreading his rug for late afternoon prayers. His passion for democracy and belief in a universal God may cause him problems with other Muslims eventually.
Bavarian buildings tend to be stucco (usually painted white or yellow) with red tile roofs (and satellite TV dishes); or glass and steel; or stone, Gothic or baroque. Our hotel, the Platzl, was yellow stucco, with part of its ground floor occupied by the Hard Rock Café. Brick buildings are rare and wooden ones almost non-existent. While the stone churches usually have spires and steeples, most smaller churches are white stucco with onion domes on their steeples, very Eastern looking, although Bavaria is heavily Roman Catholic. Farms are, of course, neat and lush.
Riding the train east into the Czech Republic, the view changed noticeably. The small towns and buildings had a worn look, although that difference faded as we approached Prague the next day. I did not get us off of the train quickly enough at Marienbad, so it left with us still on it. We went on the Plzen (think pilsner beer) where Nan managed to change enough euros into Czech crowns, and buy tickets back, plus some bread, all without a common language. (I felt better when two American women in the Plzen station asked me if we were in Prague.) We had had only eight minutes to change trains in Nuremberg and only three to get on the train at Marienbad when we left.
Pigeons in Plzen...
Despite that briskness, the Plzen station and much of rural western Czech Republic reminded me of much of rural Arkansas, circa 1960. While I was standing in the Plzen station, two pigeons flew casually through, stopping briefly to look for lunch. As the train passed through Pavlovice, I noticed a large American flag hanging from a farm house.
Marienbad is indeed a spa with hot springs, baths, massages and casinos, bigger than Hot Springs, Arkansas, and more elegant, possibly because, in its heyday, Marienbad catered to archdukes and aristocrats rather than bootleggers and Al Capone. Nonetheless, the feel is similar. The Hotel Bohemia where we stayed is quite nice and we had our own balcony looking out into a grove of fir trees. There were plenty of people on the streets and a substantial amount of restoration and renewal work going on, seemingly a town determined to make a comeback.
Gonna meet you at the station...
We made it to Prague without incident and were picked up at the main train station (named for Woodrow Wilson) by our guide Dana (pronounced “Donna”) Chaloupka, referred by a Little Rock friend. Dana would be with us for parts of four days, which we found to be an excellent investment. That day we spent about an hour on a quick driving tour of Prague, with Milan at the wheel – Milan is a university engineering instructor who drives to pick up extra cash.
The Hotel Pariz is an elegant restoration, epitomizing Prague’s romance with the Art Nouveau style, with a little Art Deco thrown in, plenty of Alphonse Mucha prints and touches, stained and leaded glass, hand-stenciled walls in the rooms, polished hardwood floors, Gustav Klimt designs on the menus, period brass furniture and fixtures, all superbly maintained. And, at least part of the time, a pianist in white tie and tails in the lobby.
Over the river...
Our first full day started with a street car ride across the Vltava (or Moldau) River toward Prague Castle, high on a hillside, where we took in the relatively low-key changing of the modestly-dressed palace guard. Like much of Prague, the Castle is basically Baroque on the surface, although some of the Palace, like the emphatically Gothic St. Vitus’s Cathedral next door, dates from the tenth century. The nearby Basilica of St. George is not quite so old, nor is the Stanhof monastery, with its elegant library, or Golden Lane, with its tiny 8’ by 8’ shops.
Around the Castle there were, of course, scores of folks selling knick-knacks, Czech glassware, paintings and prints, some of the latter of which illustrated the Czechs’ rather wry sense of humor. We had a late lunch in the basement of another monastery and walked back across the 600¬year-old Charles Bridge, now devoted to pedestrians, to the Old City town hall, for another glockenspiel experience (much tamer than Munich, but fun).
(My intention in these two columns was to concentrate on Munich and Germany in the first one and on Prague and the Czech Republic in the second one. Obviously, I inadvertently switched the two columns, but, hopefully they can stand alone and capture the two cities without confusing you, the reader.)