Thursday, March 5, 2015

Thoughts on Prague - Fred and Ginger - Wars and Bombs - And Learning to Travel

I visited Prague in 2004.  There is much about Prague that I really liked.  It's a fascinating city with a brutal past. Like a lot of European cities Prague suffered tragic bombings during World War II. During the Soviet era Russian troops and tanks marched down Wenceslaus Square to put down an uprising.  Two students set themselves on fire in Wenceslaus Square in protest of the Soviet invasion.  There is a very small memorial to these two men in Wenceslaus Square.  It's very small and close to the ground.  You can walk right past it without realizing it's presence.

The first student was Jan Palach.    In August 1968 the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia to crush the reforms of Alexander Dubcek's government during what was known as the Prague Spring.  The Prague born Jan Palach decided to make a sacrifice of himself in protest of the invasion.  He set himself on fire, in Wenceslas Square on January 16, 1969.   A month later (on February 25, 1969) another student, Jan Zajíc, burned himself to death in the same place.  The memorial to these two men is very small and unassuming.  If I had not been looking for the memorial I would have walked right past it without noticing it. 

As I walked the streets of Prague I could not help but be amazed at the beauty and the history all around me.  And I learned an important lesson from Prague.  I was still a some what novice traveler and tourist in 2004.  This was only my fourth time to travel abroad.  I was still the wide eyed American walking around with his mouth open amazed at all that I could see.  But Prague taught me to be aware of what I was looking at and try to understand what was being told to me.  

The photograph on top of this blog is the Fred and Ginger Building in Prague.  It is also known as the Dancing House.  It does, at first glance, resemble Fred Astair and Ginger Rogers dancing.

The building is an example of deconstructivist architecture, with an unusual shape. But if you take some time and look closer the building looks like a structure that is falling down. The original building on the Ginger side was destroyed by a bomb during World War II. The Fred side of the building which is the neighboring house (with a small globe on the roof) was co-owned by Czech ex-president Vaclav Havel, who lived there from his childhood untilthe mid-1990s. You can almost see the bomb explosion as you watch the neighboring side collapsing. I first saw the building in a guide book when I was planning the trip to Prague. I did not read much about it's history or it's symbolism. But I was fascinated with the design of the building and could not wait to take photos of it.

As I continued walking along the water front past The Dancing House I saw this church with two very unusual steeples.  I was very much fascinated with the unusual steeple with the two spires.  It was unlike any other church I had seen in Prague.  Prague has many beautiful churches and is known for it's skyline of spires.  But this church just quietly sat in the background with no explanation.  I took several photos of the church and unfortunately I did not take the time to find the name of the church.  As I mentioned I was still a somewhat novice traveler.  Unlike when I travel today with my digital camera and take hundreds of photos including street names and descriptive plaques on building, I was using film and had limited exposures.  I took a bus out of Prague the following day to see an old castle in a neighboring town.  I asked the guide on the bus about this church when we drove past it.  He told me that a church sat in that location before World War II.  It was destroyed by a bomb.  He said when the church was rebuilt the steeples were designed to represent the point the bomb falling down to destroy the original building. When I walked back past the church the next day I could see the symbolism very clearly.  

I learned a lot from my visit to Prague. I learned to look down for the small memorials on the ground that might be missed.  I learned to look for meanings and memorials hidden in unusual architecture and church steeples.  It really changed the way I travel and how I look at things in foreign locations.  There is so much to see, so much to learn, and so much that can be easily missed if you don't take the time to ask questions and do some research.  

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