German holidays revolve around the Christian calendar. The Easter weekend here means: Good Friday, public holiday, all businesses and shops closed. Easter Sunday, public holiday, all business and shops closed. Easter Monday, public holiday, all businesses and shops closed. Which of course also means that the shops are packed on Holy Saturday, and you don't want to be there. The weekend here is typically spent with family: due to our lack of family in the region, we decided to take the opportunity to travel somewhere else where the entire city doesn't shut down. Our choice was Prague. The train ride from Hannover to Prague is 6 hours, so we chose to break it up into 2 days and stay overnight in Dresden.
Dresden is best known to Americans due to the fire bombing that occurred at the end of WWII. In the period of a few days in February 1945, the majority of the inner city was reduced to rubble. However, the city has a long and distinguished history independent of the war. After spending time in the city we ended up the distinct impression that the city of Dresden was the most impacted by the war, as they were still showing the negative emotions caused by the war. Due to its destruction, Dresden lost a material amount of significance in its standing as one of the great and powerful European cities. Through its reconstruction, including the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche which took until 2005, Dresden is regaining that position.
We spent the day exploring Dresden using our trusted Rick Steves' Germany guide. The Old Town, or Altstadt, was very nice to visit, and certainly had some highlights. The vast Zwinger palace complex has had many uses throughout history, and is today home to several interesting museums. Of particular interest for Kevin was the Mathematics & Physics Salon, which exhibits historical pieces used in map-making, seafaring, calculation methodologies, astronomy, and clocks. The Parade of Nobles is a mural painted on 24,000 tiles of porcelain. Depicting seven centuries of rulers and created in 1907, they were originally fired three times at 2400 degrees, and then one more time at 1800 degrees during the fire bombing.
However, the highlight of our short visit was heading across the bridge as our day was winding down and exploring the up and coming New Town, or Neustadt. We worked our way through the inner gardens of a courtyard to find a secluded area of low-key shops and street art on the houses. We passed by the Lebowski Bar, which plays the movie on a non-stop loop, but didn't stop in for a White Russian. Instead, we went over to the Chocolate Bar, and indulged in the decadence that you can find below.
Despite already seeing so much, it was time to move on to the main part of our journey, and on Friday morning we hopped back on the train to finish the trek to Prague.
In Prague, Deanna booked a cute little bed and breakfast style hotel for us. Best of all, it was very central to downtown, which made walking everywhere a breeze. And boy did we walk.
After settling in to the hotel on Friday, we headed over to a local wine and tapas bar for a light dinner. Pairing local wines with Czech specialties, we had a lovely little meal. Perhaps the most charming part of the place was the fun wine related artwork on the walls. After dinner, we headed to a surprise event book by Kevin. He had organized tickets to the Czech National Ballot Symphony! Quite unexpected. The venue was spectacular, the music was great, the show itself left us a bit confused, despite not using any spoken language. But the theater is certainly a bargain, with balcony tickets available for under $10 and standing room only tickets for under $3.
The walking truly began on the second day. After a lovely breakfast spread, we walked over to old town square, where the Easter Market was being held. The backdrop of the gorgeous historical buildings was perfect for the colorful decorations and cute stands. Deanna certainly did her fair share of shopping at those stands in the coming days! Food stands galore, craft stands with hand painted Easter eggs, doilies, Prague souvenirs, it went on and on...
The jewel of old town square is the old astronomical clock. These have popped up a few times before for us in Europe, but this one is truly spectacular. Huge crowds gather every hour during the day to hear the bells ring on the hour. Our tour guide said that one of his favorite tips is to go to the clock at night the first hour that it doesn't ring, and wait around for the Russians to realize it wasn't going to go off and mumble 'stupid Czechs, damn thing doesn't even work.'
After visiting the Easter Market, we started off with a free walking tour. These have popped up all over Europe, so we decided to give this a try as we didn't have a guide book with us. It lasted about 3 hours, and the tour guide was truly terrific. We learned big chunks of history and got a nice taste of the city and a lay of the land. The hook is that they ask for tips at the end of the tour, and you are free to give what you want, although it is a bit awkward to come upon an amount-- at that point you almost just wish you had paid a full "fair" price up front.
We enjoyed the tour so much that we came back for a second tour in the afternoon. This was a castle tour, where take the tram up to the top of the hill and wander your way back down to the bottom while hearing interesting stories along the way. It is the residence of the president, has been the backdrop to several movies, and is the largest ancient castle in the world. Because it took so long to build and had some many additions and replacements throughout the centuries, there are many different architectural designs that one can see.
The Czech Republic has an interesting history with Russia and communism. While the country seems to associate more with Eastern Europe than Central Europe, freedom from the shackles of communism is more openly celebrated here than in Eastern Germany. We visited the Museum of Communism, which depicts life under communist rule after WWII, and the museum did not paint a happy picture. Although perhaps the most interesting part of the visit was the Russian family in front of us who were oblivious to that fact, and used the museum as a shrine to communism instead. They took pictures with the Stalin and Lenin busts with fun poses, were loud and obnoxious, and breezed through the entire museum without reading any of the clearly negative opinion.
On Easter Sunday, we started off a bit different than normal. By chance, there was a temporary exhibit housing Tim Burton's drawings and inspirations. As a one of Deanna's favorite writer/directors, we decided to take a look. It was fantastic. So many behind the scenes drawings, notes to actors about lines, seeing his development as a teenager, the letter he wrote in to Disney trying to get his work promoted (and the personalized feedback that he received)-- it was pretty cool.
We followed that up with a culinary event. Deanna booked an Easter Brunch at the Hilton hotel. It was out of this world. Endless amount of 5 star quality food, everything you could imagine: carving station with American quality meat (hard to get over here), the freshest seafood, delicious salads and breads, wine and beer included, and of course a spectacular dessert bar. We got there at 12:30, knowing that it lasted until 3:30, thought they would be turning over the table once... nope, we stayed all 3 hours, like almost every guest in there. Oh, and they had a live band, where a classy Japanese guy sang absolutely lovely cover songs.
All in all we had an amazing trip, and left with the distinct feeling that we would come back again for a long weekend to explore everything that we didn't get a chance to see. Definitely near the top of our favorite cities in Europe.