I went back to the apartment to rest and pack, and when I went out again, it had snowed, turning all of Prague into a magical slushscape.
Near the tram stop is an artwork that I kept meaning to go look at, and this afternoon I finally did. It’s a Memorial to the Victims of Communism. I had to wait to take this picture because there were people taking selfies with the statue in the front. I guess they didn’t read the plaque.
Then I took the tram to Wenceslas Square and had a nutritious meal of chicken skewer and trdelník while wandering around the square.
There are three really large bookstores on the square. I went in all of them. I don’t really know why, since I don’t speak Czech. They were just really nice bookstores.
Now I’m going to finish packing and go to bed early.
Nearing the end of my trip, I’m starting to wind down. I’m getting torpid and sluggardly. But that doesn’t mean I can’t get a five-shot latte and a trdelník at the Christmas market in the Old Town Square, and then go wandering.
Whilst wandering, I found these statues.
The powder tower is the only remaining portion of the old city walls, dating from the 1400s.
The Museum of Communism is somewhat critical of 40 years of oppression.
Franz Kafka was born near this church. Nothing to do with the picture, really. I just thought I’d mention it.
This is the oldest synagogue in eastern Europe, built in 1270.
On Sunday morning, I thought I’d had enough of wandering by foot, and decided to wander by tram. The individual routes go back and forth, so I would take a route until the sights became uninteresting, then get off and take a different tram in the other direction. This worked until I got off the #17 tram in front of a junky-looking dollar store (actually 50 Kč, or about $2.30) to wait for the #24.
I waited for about 20 minutes until I figured out that the notice “V sobotu a neděli linka nejede” means that the line doesn’t run on the weekend.
Thinking quickly, I got on a different tram and returned to town.
Today I went to the Prague Castle complex. The guidebook recommended arriving early to buy a ticket as soon as they opened at 9:00, which would provide 15 minutes or so in the St. Vitus Cathedral without crowds. It probably would have worked out, were it not for the large Japanese tour group that apparently already had tickets and were ready to go in at the stroke of 9:00.
Saint Vitus, according to legend, was boiled in oil along with a chicken. Probably with some onions, too, and maybe a little dill, although the legend doesn’t mention that specifically.
The bell tower required a separate admission, but if there’s a bell tower to go up, you can’t not go up it. So I did. 287 steps.
This gargoyle is dribbling water from its mouth, although, sadly, it does not show up in this photo.
Afterward, I bought some mead in the adjacent Christmas market, and walked down the old village street adjacent to the palace. There was a guy playing Christmas songs on the recorder and flatting the same notes over and over.
Not far from where I’m staying is a funicular, and a funicular is another thing that must be gone up, so I went straight from the palace area to the funicular, via the #22 tram (310 Kč for three days of unlimited use). At the top of the funicular line is…a completely bogus Eiffel Tower! Petřín Tower was built in 1891 and it looks exactly like the Eiffel Tower as long as you’re not looking very closely. But it is generally Eiffely, and bogus Eiffel Towers are near the top of the list of things that you have to go up, especially if, as in this case, you can pay an extra 60 Kč to take the elevator.
After the tower, I took the tram downtown, intending to go to the Museum of Communism, but instead I just wandered around looking at things and getting food from Christmas markets along the way.
Eventually I walked back over the Charles Bridge and caught the #22 tram back to the apartment.
These are two towns on opposite sides of the Neisse river. Before the river was set as the border in 1945, they were the same town, and they’re now effectively twin cities. You can walk across a foot bridge between them.
I remembered all of this from an earlier version of the Rick Steves guidebook on Germany, but it isn’t in the current edition. Still, I remembered that it was supposed to be a picturesque little town.
Parts of the German side are, but not any more than you would see elsewhere in Germany. The Polish side probably has a center of town somewhere, but I certainly wasn’t able to find it. The tourist map they give out in Görlitz cuts off most of Zgorzelec.
To make matters worse, I was on my way from Berlin to Prague, so I had all my luggage with me, and there’s a steep hill down to the river, and a steep hill up the other side. Google Maps drained my battery again, so I couldn’t use that, which left me just picking a likely-looking direction.
All I found was a residential area with Soviet architecture. I made a big loop and walked back to the bridge.
Back on the German side of the bridge, I stopped to look at the map and collect my thoughts before trudging back up the hill with my luggage. As I started to cross the street, I was approached (in fact, surrounded) by three polizei who wanted to see my passport. As I started to hand it over, I remembered that I had tucked some Swiss and Danish currency in it, so I quickly pulled that out, lest he think I was trying to bribe him with roughly $15 worth of foreign currency.
Poland and Germany are both in the Schengen area, so crossing that border shouldn’t require a passport, but I guess someone crossing on foot with a lot of luggage might look a little suspicious. Fortunately, he saw my entry stamp from Copenhagen and concluded that I was legal.
Having thus made it past the polizei, I trudged up the hill to the center of town.
My phone battery was dead, but I knew I would need it to contact the Airbnb people once I got to Prague, so I found a place with a plug and bought pastries and cappuccinos until my phone was about 2/3 charged. I would have stayed longer, but the plug was right by the door, so I was partially blocking the entrance by standing there.
The train trip from Görlitz to Prague was uneventful. For the final leg from Dresden, I had a first-class ticket and had a nice dinner in the dining car shortly before arriving. This included a Czech beer that is seemingly popular with goats.
When I arrived in Prague, in a freakish twist of fate, everything went smoothly. I found an ATM and withdrew 3000 koruna, bought a three-day tram ticket from a machine, figured out the location of the tram stop right away, and got to the stop just as my tram was arriving. I got to the Airbnb apartment in about 15 minutes, and the owner showed up a few minutes later to let me in.
Not wanting to press my luck further, I think I’ll turn in for the night.
After the Reichstag, I came back to the hotel and lounged around for a while. I didn’t really plan to go anywhere except KaDeWe in the late afternoon, but I got tired of lounging, so I went to Potsdamer Platz, which is on the way to KaDeWe.
Potsdamer Platz was right on the junction of the American, British, and Russian sectors, so the Wall ran right through it. There were some apartments and businesses overlooking the Wall (such as the studio where David Bowie and Iggy Pop recorded), but much of the area had been destroyed in the war and not rebuilt, or cleared away to form the no-man’s land between east and west. Most of what’s there now is less than 20 years old.
The location of the Wall is marked by a double row of bricks in the pavement.
I didn’t realize this until I got there, but down a side street is the last remaining BT 6 Watchtower of the DDR, just standing there on the sidewalk.
And this being December, it has a Santa hat.
The tower is a city monument, but it doesn’t receive any money. It’s run entirely by volunteers. Today it was staffed by a friendly woman named Susi who had worked in the Potsdamer Platz area in the mid-’80s and could see this tower from where she worked.
I climbed up in and looked around. Visibility is good, but there’s not a lot of space up there.
After the tower, I took the train to Wittenbergplatz and walked down Tauentzienstraße until I got too cold. By then it was time for an early dinner at the Wintergarten buffet on the top floor of KaDeWe. This is the most spectacular buffet I’ve ever seen. I recommend the Apfelstrudel.
Now I need to pack. My train leaves Berlin tomorrow at 0630.
This morning I visited the Reichstag building at 8:00 AM. It’s free, but you have to make an appointment, and the only remaining choices while I was here were early morning and late night.
The appointment was just for the dome, which was added in 1999. You get a recorded audio guide in your preferred language and wind your way slowly to the top, then back down again. It’s open at the top and bottom for air circulation, and the mirrors adjust to provide natural light to the parliamentary chambers below.
I had forgotten that Christo wrapped the building in 1995.
Fun fact: The original building was ruined in World War 2, and the inside was gutted and rebuilt in the 1960s. Then it was gutted and rebuilt again after reunification. Only the outer walls are original. The insides look like an ordinary office building.
My foot and knee are still bothering me, and probably won’t recover until I stay off them for a while. So naturally today I walked almost eleven miles.
In the morning I went across the river to the East Side Gallery, which is a mile-long section of the Wall that was given over to artwork in 1990 and restored in 2009.
A lot of it is overtly political, not surprisingly, like this famous picture of Brezhnev and Honecker kissing, which until this trip I did not realize was based on photo and actual practice of communist heads of state.
Hard to imagine kissing Brezhnev. That’s the stuff of nightmares, that is. Not that Honecker would be a delight, but Brezhnev is somehow worse.
Some of the pieces are more fanciful.
There are signs threatening prosecution for defacing the murals, but a lot of them have graffiti anyway, like this Pink Floyd piece.
Of course the best is this one. Somewhere there’s a companion piece showing the other side, but I don’t know where it is. There are bits of the Wall all over the place.
From there it was only a short hop on the U-Bahn to the Stasi museum, inside the old Stasi headquarters. There was a film crew there, so I wasn’t able to see Erich Mielke’s office, but I did snoop in some of the lesser offices when the film people weren’t paying attention.
At its peak, the Stasi complex covered 54 acres, with 50 office buildings.
From there I took the train to the Checkpoint Charlie area. Of course it’s not the real Checkpoint Charlie, because that’s long gone, but everyone’s heard of Checkpoint Charlie and expects to see it, so they have a fake one. There’s also a Checkpoint Charlie museum and a film experience and a whole lot of souvenir shops all selling the same souvenirs. I bought a shirt.
Then I walked over to Unter den Linden and bought another shirt. Then I walked to the Brandenburg Gate, where someone was assembling a giant menorah.
Hitler would plotz.
Then I walked up Unter den Linden. Initially I was identifying things in the guidebook as I went, but it was getting colder and I started walking faster and I left my guidebook, and my hands, in my pockets most of the time, so I don’t know what everything was along the way.
In all of the tourist areas, there are guys selling genuine East German and Soviet hats and pins and flags. Absolutely for-sure real stuff.
Some of the stores are even still selling pieces of the Wall. And in case you doubt them, they come with a certificate of authenticity. And certified authenticity is the most authentic authenticity.
After a brief stop at the hotel, I took the train to Kaufhaus des Westens, aka KaDeWe, the largest department store in continental Europe. All of it is impressive, but the food market is amazing. It’s an entire floor of cafes, delis, bakeries, candy stores, grocery stores, wine bars, and any other food-related thing you can think of. It is to an ordinary food court what West Berlin was to East Berlin. I think I spent close to an hour just wandering around on that floor.
After I left KaDeWe, I got on the train going in the wrong direction. Could happen to anyone, really.
Eventually I made it back to Alexanderplatz and stopped in the Nikolaiviertel for a Feuerzangenbowle, as one does this time of year.
“Feuerzangenbowle,” it says here in Wikipedia, “is a traditional German alcoholic drink for which a rum-soaked sugarloaf is set on fire and drips into mulled wine. It is often part of a Christmas or New Year’s Eve tradition. The name translates literally to fire-tongs punch.” It’s a close relative to glühwein and thus to gløgg, but probably a bit stronger.
The venue selling this concoction was right next to the Nikolaikirche, a (mostly reconstructed) 13th-century church that is now a museum. They seem to be connected to it in some way. They sell this drink and a few others and have the 1944 movie Die Feuerzangenbowle running on a continuous loop.
The Nikolaiviertel itself is supposedly the historical center of Berlin. The church is legitimate, even if it’s mostly a restoration, and some of the other buildings are authentic, too. They’re just not necessarily authentic from that particular location. And a lot of the others are idealized recreations.
All of this was put together by the East German government for Berlin’s 750th anniversary in 1987. It’s sort of a Germanic Main Street USA.