Saturday, 24 July 2010

Hotels Europe, Prague - Hotel Paris

Hotel Paris ($130 including breakfast, free wifi in lobby and bar)

For our last two nights in Prague, we splurged and booked a room in the Hotel Paris. The Paris is an old art nouveau hotel, built in 1905 or so and it retains many of its old fixtures and decorations on the exterior and interior. The rooms have dark wood trim, broadstriped padded fabric wall coverings and a settee with art nouveau patterned green upholstery. As in all the other hotels, the bathroom fixtures are new and functioned well; here they are faux marble and the sink is scalloped.

The lovely sunlit Sarah Bernhardt dining room has historic lamps, mosaic walls, some mother of pearl inlay in the wood paneling. The buffet breakfast is extraordinary among a lot of excellent morning meals – three areas of different types of food, one of meat (including herring rollups, pate, and ham), cheese, cold fruits and vegetables, yogurt and an omelet bar; one of cereals and pastries; and a third with fried and scrambled eggs,, bacon, three kinds of sausage, grilled vegetables, mushrooms, tomatoes, and fried potatoes.

Across the street is the municipal building with interiors designed by the Prague artist Alphonse Mucha, so the entire neighborhood is art nouveau. Looking out the window at breakfast I spotted the shop across the street where we purchased some lovely fabric for chair covers.

Veranakova and Bem
Ivan Stepan, Blue Dream
This last day in Prague was dedicated for the most part to making decisions about our glass purchases. We decided on three objects. The first two were among the first we had seen on our first day in Prague; a sculpture by the partners Ivana Vranakova and Stanislav Bem both of whom studied and have degrees from the glass school at Novy Bor (above), and another glass work by Ivan Stepan (below). These were at the Galerie Brehova, which we remembered from our previous visit to Prague. Many of the glass galleries we thought we would visit have closed since our last time in Prague..
Eva Vlckova, Blue Shape
On that first day we had also been very taken by an exhibition at the Gallery Havelka of recent work by the artist Eva Vlckova. I particularly liked a work titled Blue Shape, and Tom and I returned to see it and other works by her several times. It was only after we returned to Kansas that he figured out that we can repair our broken mower instead of getting a new one and therefore we could add Blue Shape to our collection. We did not meet the artist, but received a photo of her holding our sculpture just before it was shipped.

From the sublime to the ridiculous: We celebrated by having dinner at the lovely, and expensive Mlynec Restaurant, by the Charles Bridge. On the way back to the hotel I spied a blue glass donkey in a tchotchke shop. We had to go to the cash machine for an additional $10, but we've added it to my slowly growing collection. This relieved Tom of hearing any further rants on this trip about how all the shops have glass elephants, but never glass donkeys, and from being further concerned about our decision against buying the miniature antique silver donkey encrusted with rubies we had noticed earlier in the trip.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Hotels - Europe V, Krakow

Rezydent Hotel, Krakow ($72.06, including breakfast and wifi)

From Wrocław we continued on the highway across a region of flat farmland to Krakow, where we the Rezydent Hotel is on a one way street leading out from the main square in which traffic is strictly prohibited. There was no way to get to the hotel by car, so we finally parked in a small lot down a narrow alley and walked to it. We had fortuitously parked in the hotel’s designated lot. Parking in that lot cost 80 zlotys (about $27) a day, increasing the daily cost to $99. We brought our bags up from the car. Up two flights of stairs, out a door and across a balcony and in through another door, our room was small and plain but clean and modern, with an excellent new bathroom and a flat screen tv. The only soap was in those wall dispensers that are ecologically correct, but I prefer bar soap and shampoo. The only window opened onto the walkway, so there was no privacy when we opened the curtains. With only a fan, this made it a bit stuffy on warm nights. The front desk staff seemed sullen and not particularly helpful until our third day, when a very helpful woman appeared. Breakfast is two doors down the street, the usual meat cheese, hard boiled and scrambled eggs, sausage, bread, condiments, and juice. In the warm weather walking outside to get to the room and to breakfast was pleasant, but in winter or in rainstorms it might not be very appealing. The hotel has many rooms, some served by an elevator. We were unable to see other rooms, but were informed that we had been upgraded to a superior double. The hotel is very close to the main square and lots of good restaurants and cafes.

Our first evening we found a lovely restaurant on the square with a fine view of St. Mary's church. A few minutes after we sat down, the hour struck and the bugler who plays his plaintive melody every hour opened his window and played. It's the upper window in the left tower; I took the photograph from my seat in the restaurant. We heard the bugle several more times during our stay

The art museum in Krakow is closed for renovation. Looking for a museum, we decided to check out the one devoted to the Krakow playwright, stage designer, poet and artist Stanislaw Wyspianski (1869-1907). The museum displayed several drawings and paintings of Wyspianski, as well as designs for stained glass windows and wall decorations for the renovation of St. Mary’s church in Krakow. Upon leaving the museum, we happened on St. Francis church, whose walls are covered with Wyspianski’s floral designs and angels and which has amazing stained-glass windows by Wyspianski. These all-encompassing designs reflect both the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk and the decorative style of art nouveau and the Arts and Crafts movement. Both St. Mary’s and this church are amazing in their rich, darkly colored overall patterned decoration.

We visited Wawel Castle and toured one section of rooms.If you’ve never seen a castle before, it’s probably great. We had. The nearby cathedral houses the tombs of the kings of Poland, and some of them are major monuments, particularly Veit Stoss's red stone tomb of Casimir IV Jagiello.

We also walked around the area of Kazimierz, the former Jewish ghetto, visited the High Synagogue, displaying photographs of pre-World War II Jewish life in Krakow, had a glass of wine on the square there and had dinner at a peculiar little Jewish restaurant, Once Upon a Time in Kazimierz (Szeroka 1), that occupies three shops whose walls have been removed but the spaces still display items that relate to the previous businesses – woodworking tools, sewing machines and clothing.. The name of the place is so obscure that the people in the restaurant next door did not know where it was.

Our second day in Krakow we spent at Auschwitz-Birkenau, not something one can just write about here. Appropriately, it was the only day we had clouds and rain.
Afterwards, we went to a concert of Bach and Chopin in a palace, then had an extravagant dinner at Restaurant Wierzynek. We ate in one of their beautiful interior rooms, where a monumental painting depicts the historic 1364 banquet the owner served to celebrate the marriage between Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV and the granddaughter of Polish King Casimir the Great.

Everywhere in the country we saw evidence of the strong commitment to Catholicism in Poland, from the many mentions of, and monuments to, the Polish Pope John Paul II to the enormous attendance at church services and the numerous extravagantly decorated medieval, baroque, and nineteenth-century churches. One reason I decided to go to Krakow was to see the Veit Stosz altarpiece of the Life of the Virgin in St. Mary’s church there. We tried a couple of times to go in, but they were always in the middle of services, so finally on the day we were leaving we paid admission to see the altarpiece closed, and then opened. A nun comes out, takes a pole with a hook on the end, and drags each wing opn. The change from exterior to interior is striking, since the huge twice life-size inside figures of the death and Assumption of the Virgin are brightly gilt. It, and the elaborately decorated church (by Wyspianski, among others) were worth the wait.

While we waited for the St. Mary's Church to open, we stopped by the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow, which sounded idly interesting in the guidebook. There was a special exhibition of the history of Poland from 1768 to 1815, a time during which Poland was divided among Russia, Germany and Austria. The exhibition made a  very complex subject engaging by using the metaphor of a football game, starting with a locker room with cabinets displaying important tools and historical objects, then identifying the players, the teams, and the coaches and providing a historical score chart. Of course, the exhibition was especially effective since we saw it at the time of some of the important games of the World Cup. Everywhere we went, people gathered in plazas, cafes, and restaurants to watch the games and after each game the winners' constituents would parade through the streets cheering and singing patriotic songs. On our last day, in Prague, Germans wrapped in their flag were everywhere, only to disappear after Spain defeated Germany.

Krakow is more than six hours driving from Prague. The guidebooks say to stick to the highways wherever possible because the smaller roads are full of slow traffic and congestion in the multiple towns and villages along the way. This is completely true and the scenery on the smaller roads is not interesting enough to make up for the frustrating delays. Nonetheless, we got to Prague in about 8 hours despite frequent driving rain.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Travel and Blogging

This is the first time I've written about a trip, rather than focus on reviewing the art and art exhibitions we traveled to see, and I've discovered some benefits, a sort of "Why we travel, and blog later." I'm taking a break in the sequence to mention three of the many things that have I've learned in the process, and to acknowledge the usefulness of the Internet for broadening my knowledge about anything. It's great when you can Google the name of a Polish artist you never heard of and find extensive information on his or her work, plus additional images. And it's frustrating when you get virtually nothing.

First, Augustus the Strong, the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland who was responsible for a huge portion of the amazing art collections in Dresden. I'm still learning about the political situation during his reign and about his art patronage, as well as trying to understand the complex map of northern Europe during his day (Italian Renaissance politics begins to seem simple and straightforward compared to that of the area that would become Germany.) I learned that he was called Augustus the Strong because of his great strength, illustrated by the fact that he could win at fox tossing using just his pinkie finger. Fox tossing?

We went to the ossuary in Sedlec, near Kutna Hora in Czech Republic. In graduate school my colleagues would talk about the macabre chapel in Rome on the Via Veneto, and I just now recall that there was also one in Milan. I'd never taken the time from my research focus to visit them, so Sedlec was a first. Now I'm hoping to get to some of the others. The Web provides extensive information, history, and pictures of several bone chapels.

Third, in the National Museum in Wroclaw I was attracted to a very large 19th century painting by an artist I'd never heard of, Wilhelm Leopolski (1826, 28 or 30-1892). I'll put in my snapshots here, but there are multiple images on the Web and you can buy reproductions in various sizes and styles. I was attracted by the huge size of the painting, its historical-style subject, and the very fresh paint handling, possibly visible in my detail of his hand and drapery. The title is The Death of Acernus, 1867. Thinking this must be some classical subject that I'd never heard of, I started Googling Acernus, only to find that it is the Latin pseudonym for a Polish writer and poet of the second half of the sixteenth century, Sebastian Fabian Klonowic, who was called "the Sarmation Ovid." He died in the public hospital in Lublin, Poland. Most of his works were burned by the nobles and the Jesuits and the rest are scarce. There seems to have been a significant interest in him in the mid-19th century. Not reading Polish, I haven't found more information beyond lists of the titles of his works. There are two other versions of this painting, one in the Lviv Art Gallery (Lvov), Ukraine. I've found almost nothing about Leopolski except the many reproductions of his paintings.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Hotels - Europe IV – Wrocław

Wrocław, Art Hotel ($99.53, breakfast included)

For our one night in Wrocław, mainly as a break in the drive to Krakow, we decided to try another art hotel, this one not related to the first. The Art Hotel in Wrocław is recommended in all our guidebooks and in the New York Times recent article on Wrocław. Based on that Times article, we were tempted to spend more time in Wrocław until I noticed that all the attractions it mentioned seemed to be bars and restaurants in seedy corners, rather than art museums and historic sites.

Wrocław seemed to me at first to be exactly what I’d expected of Poland, depressed and worn with poorly dressed people who rarely smile. Compared to Dresden with its new and clean buildings, it seemed depressing, especially since Wrocław was a German city till after World War II, when the Germans were driven out and replaced by east Polish people from Lvov, which is now Lviv in the Ukraine. I imagine if the Germans had it now, it would be much further restored. But it does have its significant assets, and at the restaurant Lwowska, where we had delicious food from Lvov, the waiter was cheerful and very enthusiastic about his city.

The Art Hotel has a lovely façade with a very plain lobby and a nice enough breakfast room. Our room was tiny compared to the others we had had, but with two nice windows that open, and air conditioning. The furniture is modern style, sturdy, and blond. The bed was a bit firm, but again I fell asleep before I could worry about it. A fine bathroom with a shower, good fluffy towels and washcloths, soap and shampoo provided, but no bidet. Very close to the beautiful and enormous main square that is far prettier than the larger and more popular one in Krakow, the hotel provides easy access to one of the best sights in a city that is still full of crumbling structures and in much need of repair and renewal. The buildings on the square have the fanciful facades one associates with Renaissance and baroque art, while those in Krakow are more classical and straightlined.

Another appealing area is across the Odra River, past some islands where lots of people stroll in the evening, in the cathedral region. Hung from the frame of one of the bridges we found hundreds of padlocks. It’s the Tumski Bridge and lovers lock a padlock there and throw the key in the river, symbolizing their intent on lifelong commitment. The Cathedral merits a look for its dramatic gothic architecture, exterior gothic sculpture and baroque altars and fittings indoors.

Here I should mention that although I’m referring to visiting at least one church in each town, I actually visit almost every church I see, looking for architecture, sculpture, paintings, and sometimes stained glass. We visited two other churches in Wrocław; one is looking for a new organ (the last one, the biggest one in Poland, was destroyed in a 1976 fire) and another was near the cathedral and had a quite plain gothic interior. In Prague we went to both St. Nicholas churches and both are spectacular examples of late baroque architecture and interior embellishment, with abundant elaborate altarpieces and sculpture. While I occasionally skip a church in northern Europe, I go to all of them in Italy, because there’s always something to see. This practice does not work so well in the United States, although I do love the Tiffany windows at the Presbyterian Church in Topeka.

On our second day we decided to visit the National Museum of Wrocław, the art museum - even though it was not much recommended in the guidebooks - its collection dedicated to Polish and Silesian art from the 14th century to the 19th century and contemporary Polish Art. First we looked at the medieval tombs and stone sculptures on the ground floor, where Tom would later snap a picture of a bride and groom having their wedding portrait taken in the closed courtyard.

Then, on the top floor we found a large room displaying several major works by Magdalena Abakanovicz, the important Polish fiber artist. She is known for here large groups of headless figures made of fiber, sometimes cast in bronze (There's a group of them outside the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City.) These early works by her alone would be worth the price of admission, even if the museum were not free on Wednesday.

We were overwhelmed by quality and power of other modern and contemporary Polish works on view, thinking these artists should be better known. Most notable was Wladyslaw Hasior (1928-99) an important Polish artist represented here by several dark and gripping 1960s assemblages using found objects.

Jozef Szajna (1922-2008), a renowned stage designer who was a prisoner at Auschwitz and Buchenwald during World War II, is represented by the sculpture of multiple huge boots, each with a nail driven through it, titled Drang nach Osten, Drang nach Westen (Push to the East , Push to the West), 1987.

Alina Szapocznikow (1926-1973), trained as a sculptor after spending World War II as a prisoner at Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Terezin concentration camps. She represented Poland in the Venice Biennale in 1962 and the next year began making works incorporating casts of parts of her own body and depicting tumors that referred to the breast cancer that eventually killed her.

Polish Modernism seemed comparable to the better-known European and American abstract works. While the perfectly respectable paintings in the historical galleries were somewhat less inspiring, the medieval wood sculptures and the large sculpted and painted altarpieces taken from churches gave evidence of the city’s stunningly beautiful and rich religious past.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Hotels - Europe III, Dresden

Dresden, Art’otel ($83.60, free wifi, but breakfast is more)

I had hesitated to book this one, although an art hotel sounds exactly like what I would want and it seemed relatively close to the main sights. But several reviews on Trip Advisor expressed concern and even horror about the multiple images of men with penises displayed all around the hotel and advised that the hotel may not be appropriate for children . We decided to chance it, only to be amazed that the entire hotel is filled with paintings and prints by the major German artist A.R. Penck. Indeed, there are a great many men with penises, the man at the desk said that only one of the images doesn't have a penis) , but the reviews had neglected to mention that they are stick figures in nearly abstract compositions. We had two prints in our room and prints and large paintings decorate all the public spaces. Going to the hotel was almost like going to a contemporary art exhibition. The décor of the restaurant, Factory, imitates Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can designs. The stylish rooms have very designy furniture and bathroom fixtures. I loved the round sink and shower, even though there was no place to put the soap. Free internet and paid parking conveniently under the building. ,

Two long blocks from the Zwinger (below), the Art’otel is also very convenient to the most important sites in Dresden, which are amazing.

The Dresden painting galleries hold masterpieces from all over Europe from the Renaissance to the 18th century. The core of the collection is the creation of Augustus the Strong, who patronized Lucas Cranach and purchased Renaissance and later paintings, and his successor Augustus III, who purchased the collection of Francesco d'Este, Duke of Modena, in 1745 and Raphael's Sistine Madonna in 1754. I’d expected to see the Sistine Madonna, and the famous Bernardo Bellotto landscape paintings of 18th-century Dresden, but not the huge collection of Cranachs, the four huge Correggio altarpiecess, the Parmigianino, two Andrea del Sartos, several major Annibale Carraccis, major Rembrandt and his school, Rubens, Van Dyck, a couple of Vermeers, Poussins, and the amazing little Jan van Eyck Madonna in a Church. There's a room full of pastel portraits by Rosalba Carriera, an important woman artist of the 18th century who depicted many people at the Dresden Court. And there’s a very pleasant museum café, Alte Meister, right there. It was only from reading the souvenir book about the collection that I learned that the building had been nearly destroyed in the 1945 bombing of Dresden, the paintings and porcelains taken to the Soviet Union and returned in 1955, and the Paintings Gallery reopened in 1956 and again in 1992 after a renovation.

Augustus the Strong’s porcelain collection is overwhelming; he collected more than 20,000 pieces of Chinese and Japanese porcelain, including the 152 monumental blue and white Chinese vessels that he traded from Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia for 600 Saxon soldiers. It was Augustus who oversaw the invention of Meissen porcelain in 1708 by Johann Friedrich Böttger (1682–1719). The Zwinger just opened a reinstalled collection in June, 2010 and it is a stunning display, with hundreds of objects in cases and on wall sconces in the light-filled arcades of the building. It is a contemporary interpretation of the historical designs for the display of the collection .

The Green Vaults, old and new, contain more spectactular objets d’art than I’ve seen anywhere. Rooms of amber, ivory, silver, gilt silver, precious objects, coats of arms, jewels, and bronzes, all carefully and conscientiously reconstructed or restored and reopened to the public only four years ago. We wandered into the New Green Vaults galleries without expecting much and were overwhelmed by the enormous number and completely over-the-top luxury of the objects, some made of semi-precious and precious stones, amber, gilt silver, and minutely-patterned enamel. There's a large model of a galleon all in ivory, including the large sails. A great many of these spectacular baubles were made by the goldsmith Johan Melchior Dinglinger (1664-1731), who often spent years designing and constructing his wondrous creations in collaboration with his younger brothers. By the time we got to the piece-de-resistance, the Throne of the Grand Mogul Aurangzeb (who ruled India at the time Augustus the Strong ruled Dresden) - a minute model in enamel, precious metals, and precious stones, including 5,233 diamonds - we just gave it a glance and moved on.

Seeing the Zwinger, Semper, Hofkirche (above), and Residence Palace lit up at night left me speechless. The rebuilt Semper Opera House is a stunning replica of the 19th-century original, with excellent seating and acoustics.
We attended an excellent performance of Verdi's Falstaff there, in Italian with German subtitles and a stark, European minimal production. We found the newly opened Albertinum, restored after the 2004 flood damage, somewhat puzzling it its organization, but appreciated the open storage of sculpture and the strong collection of Kaspar David Friedrich and his contemporaries.  We also enjoyed the huge and amazingly restored Frauenkirche, although the faux marble there seemed more unlikely than most in its pink, yellow and blue tones. As we explored the city center further, we found other hotels near the newly reconstructed Frauenkirche, but the Art’otel still seems a great deal. Three nights was inadequate time to do Dresden even minimal justice. We missed many sites, as well as many parts of the art collections, but what we saw was exceptional, enlightening, and inspiring.

To keep the price down, we skipped hotel breakfast in Dresden and instead had coffee and rolls at one of the cafes in town. Having stuffed ourselves on sauerbraten and duck with dumplings and cabbage at every meal, we were really ready for a smaller breakfast; and eating outdoors in the lovely weather was great.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Hotels - Europe II, Hrensko

Hrensko, Forest Garden Hotel

After leaving Cesky Krumlov, we spent a couple of days in northwestern Czech Republic, looking for hidden sources of art glass in Novy Bor and Zelensky Brod, two cities known for their schools for glass making. Searching hotels in either of them on the internet proved fruitless (although both do actually have one or more hotels), so we decided to stay nearby in a town called Hrensko, in what is called “Bohemian Switzerland,” right on the German border.
On the way north, we made a quick stop at Kutna Hora and visited the nearby “bone church,” or ossuary, where monks in the 16th century decided to use the bones of the dead to decorate the church. Reconstructed in the 19th century, the chapel certainly manifests both the inevitability of death and the anonymity of it for most people, with its neatly arranged piles of thousands of skulls and bones, its bone chandelier and wall sconces, and its bone coat of arms. The chapel reminded me of the Mexican Day of the Dead events and the concept of the continuity between life and death, but I think it just depressed Tom. Kutna Hora has major churches and an attractive main square; it’s one of many UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the region.

Having misjudged how long it takes to get from place to place on local roads, we arrived late in Zelezny Brod, an industrial town on the Jizera River with no evident charm. Everything was closed, and we couldn’t locate any significant art glass presence. The next day, we found a glass museum and a couple of galleries in Novy Bor but none of the objects for sale compared with what we had seen in the galleries in Prague. However, we did have lunch at the Ajeto gallery (in photo), which has a restaurant adjacent to a glass blowing workshop with four glory holes, where we could watch the men create glass pitchers and vases through a huge window. The exhibition space with showed a range of contemporary glass from Czech Republic and Germany and nearby was a sales gallery. My conclusion is that we needed to do more research and spend more time in those areas, with the chance of visiting artists’ studios as the most likely approach to finding the glass we’re interested in. Fortunately, we’d seen some wonderful things in Prague galleries.

Hrensko (in photo) is a wonderful place to spend a day, more if being in the country is your goal. Getting there involves driving two-lane roads through towns and woods, up and down hills. It may also be reached by train, although our hotel, in what might be thought of as a suburb of Hrensko, could not.

We located the Forest Garden Hotel ($77.04, including breakfast and wifi) at the end of a tiny lane at the end of a small road a few miles outside the town. The hotel owner lives in Dresden, but was there to greet us, help us get oriented, and fix us a lovely dinner of prosciutto and melon, sausages and boiled potatoes, and fruit and cheese, served with a nice French white wine. His hotel is a place of rest and retreat from city activity. We had a clean, modest-sized room with another fine new bathroom and a nice view of the grounds from the window. Breakfast in a pleasant, light-filled room, consisted of eggs, bread, cheese, meats, pepper, pastries, and sausage. The hotel visitors were very friendly German and Dutch weekenders. We spent only one night; the surroundings, in a Czech/German national park, were lovely woods. The actual town of Hrensko sits picturesquely alongside the Elbe River, with many attractive older hotels; it is filled with vacationers and tchotchke shops. The staff at the Forest Garden helpfully printed us a map and directions to get to our hotel in Dresden.

Hotels - Europe I

For our trip to Europe this year, we decided first to return to Prague, a city that Tom especially likes. Our plan was to look for glass sculpture there and in the northern towns of Novy Bor and Zelezny Brod, since the Czechs are known for the quality and variety of their contemporary glass art as well as for their colored, engraved, and etched traditional glass vessels. Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Brychtova pioneered in making cast glass sculptural objects and architectural enhancements. Their students, followers and associates continue to create unusual and engaging works of art in glass. At first we planned to follow Prague with about a week in Poland, but when we didn't find a lot of art mentioned in the guidebooks we decided to limit our Polish visit to Krakow and Wroclaw and use the saved time to make our first visit to Dresden. As the schedule developed, we were spending 16 nights in 7 hotels in 6 cities. I don't know whether it's a result of the economy or if Central Europe is just less expensive, but we found that we could easily book hotels for well under $100 a night and decided to set that as our goal, with one exception, a splurge at the end for $130 a night. We used, Expedia, and a couple of local hotel-finding websites. It took a while to find what we wanted, but we've been surprised and delighted with the results.

Prague, Eurostars Thalia ($88.88, breakfast and free wifi included)
Our first attempt was in Prague, which we expected to be expensive. Tom had discovered somewhere and it was there that we found the Eurostars Thalia, which is close to the Vltava [Moldau in German] River, across the street from the National Theater, and a short walk from both Wenceslaus Square and Old Town. The photo of the façade looked a bit tired, and we expected an older slightly down-at-the-heels place. And we were somewhat concerned that we had never heard of the booking agency with the lowest price: Skoosh. But having been happy with the results of booking flights on Easy Jet and Tuifly in the past, we took a chance on it and paid in advance. Our dowdy impression of the hotel was incorrect. Recently upgraded, the Thalia is freshly painted and has a very clean, contemporary interior. There's a huge bar/lounge on the main floor, elevators to all floors. Our room was large, clean and well designed, with a large bathroom. Everything worked, the shower was excellent, there were soap, shampoo and lotion, large towels and a large flat-screen tv, on which we could get a couple of English stations, as well as Spanish, German, French, Italian, and Al Jazeera. We watched some of the World Cup first-round games in our room. In the lower floor restaurant we found a spectacular breakfast with a vast array of meats, cheeses, breads, pastries, eggs, bacon and sausage, cooked tomatoes and peppers. At the end of the trip, we still thought this was the best deal we had gotten. Skoosh and proved excellent, reliable sources.

The Thalia staff was also helpful in getting us tickets for the ballet "Faust" at the Estates Theater, although they seemed to have no idea where the theater is. This is a venue I would recommend no matter what they are offering. Last time we were in Prague we saw a Mozart opera in this theater where Don Giovanni premiered in 1787. It was an innovative, well sung performance, surprisingly not at all an imitation of 18th-century staging. The ballet "Faust" was a reinterpretation set in Nazi Germany with music from many sources, including the Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" and the movie "Schindler's List." An unexpected, powerful and disturbing reinterpretation, it unexpectedly set the stage for the rest of our trip, since World War II and the Holocaust played such an important role in shaping the cities we visited and it still reverberates strongly in the consciousness of Central Europe.

On our first day, we had lunch at the Frank Gehry Dancing House (nicknamed "Fred and Ginger"), an excellent meal with a terrific view of the river and Prague Castle. We spent the first days looking for glass galleries, a surprisingly difficult task given all the glass you see as a tourist, since we were looking for serious sculpture rather than decoration or table settings. Museums in Prague are widespread and the collections are not always very impressive. The Museum of Decorative Arts had a show of glass by students at the school at Zelezny Brod; the rest of the collection is somewhat stodgy and stops around 1950.
But the Museum of Czech Cubism, housed in a cubist building – The House of the Black Madonna (she's on the corner) - and with a cubist café, was a revelation: a group of Prague artists made cubist paintings and prints as well as furniture, design, and architecture. African sculpture was included in the gallery of prints, demonstrating the interest the cubists had in this work. As a result of this exhibition, we followed the Fodor's guide to Vysehrad to see the four cubist houses there. We also enjoyed the Alphonse Mucha Museum, which displays posters and drawings by this master of art nouveau in France and Prague, plus a good video in English about his life. This inspired us to return to the amazing Municipal Hall with its interiors by Mucha. A striking thing about Prague is that so much of it is art nouveau. Buildings everywhere are decorated with floral tendrils, lithe women with languorously flowing hair, chubby babies, colored tiles and mosaics, and floral wrought iron gates. I couldn't stop looking up.

Visiting the restored Bethlehem Chapel, we were able to learn quite a bit about Jan Hus, the Catholic reformer burned as a heretic in 1415. His impact on the religion and politics of the area also helped us define the place better. He seemed to turn up everywhere and imbued the place with a protestant, protesting foundation that may help explain Czech independent spirit under Communism. There's a huge monument to him on the Old Town Square, erected in 1915 to commemorate his death, and the day of his death is a national holiday.

After four nights in Prague, we left for a two-day weekend at the Hotel Villa Conti ($82.40 a night, breakfast included) in the medieval/Renaissance town of Cesky Krumlov, a popular tourist destination, particularly for Czechs and Germans, since Germany is less than an hour away. We booked this hotel though the local Cesky Krumlov hotel service. Although we couldn't find the hotel, with virtually the whole town center closed to traffic, we finally got there after inquiring at a gas station, where the salesperson sold us a map and kindly called the hotel to get directions. The Villa Conti is a small hotel with perhaps 8 rooms. Our room was huge, with a canopied bed and an enormous marble bathroom. The oval tub/shower had a convenient seat at the side. I thought the bed might be too hard, but was asleep before I could test that theory. Breakfast was a bit smaller than at the Thalia, but plenty of cheese and ham and breads with jam and butter. On the second day the manager scrambled us some eggs.

The town is a typical medieval village with the Vltava/Moldau River flowing on both sides. Thousands of people seemed to be spending a weekend in the country there. We went to the Egon Schiele (the German expressionist artist who died of the flu in 1918 at age 28) Museum. It has only a few Schieles, but a good biographical video and several exhibitions of work by contemporary Czech artists. Schiele spent some time in Cesky Krumlov until a neighbor became outraged to discover him with a child posing nude in his garden.

We loved the traditional Czech food goulash, sausage, duck or pork cooked with dumplings, potatoes, sauerkraut and cabbage. One restaurant, U Dwau Maryi (The 2 Marys), with tables close to the river and a most pleasant view, served medieval food, adding some unusual grains, root vegetables, and fowl to the mix. We also kept getting ice cream, which is more like Italian than American ice cream, with stronger flavors, especially exotic fruits and less cream. Tom almost always got lemon – I liked raspberry, grapefruit, and hazelnut.