Part 7: Prague and London

First thing in the morning was my speech to the Loyola Law Class. I have been giving a 40-60 minute lecture on local history for Loyola’s comparative Law class for the past five years. This year’s top was the London Underground. Usually, we have the lectures in the famous Middle Temple Hall, part of the Middle Temple Inn, a true treasure in London. (The Great Hall was where one of the first performances of Twelfth Night took place. Also, planks from Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind were made into tables there). THis year, the Hall was under construction so we had the proceedings elsewhere.

A few things about the London Underground. Most of the lines (save the newest ones after the 1930s) were independent companies with some big rivalries. Apparently, none of them made much money. Other profit lines like suburban homes or Underground Maps apparently made more money than the lines themselves.

There’s an interesting Chicago connection. Charles Yerkes, Philadelphian born “quintessential Victorian conman,” was in Chicago before his flight to London. He played a role in the development of the El. However, he tried to get a monopoly on busing contracts through extortion and blackmail, which earned him the ire of lots of people. There’s a story that famously corrupt aldermen Bathhouse John and HInky Dink Kenna were approached the mayor to stop this deal. Bathhouse John’s response was “I was talkin’ awhile back with Senator Billy Mason and he told me, ‘Keep clear of the big stuff, John. It’s dangerous.  You and Mike stick to the small stuff; there’s little risk and in the long run pays a damn sight more.” Mr. Mayor, we’re with you.” (Thanks to my husband for this one). So yeah, too corrupt a deal for them! He was run out of town (I believe an effigy was burned in front of city hall) and he eventually made his way to London. While corrupt and conning as always, he had a hand in financing many Underground lines, introducing US money into the British system.

The story goes that the first escalator was installed in 1911 at Earl Court’s station. People were super anxious but then a one legged man named Bumper Harris started going up and down the escalator. He and his descendents claimed that he was not paid to do it!

In the financing of the Bakerloo line, James Whitaker Wright was convicted of fraud in 1904 for 7 years of penal servitude. He allegedly handed his solicitor his watch and said “I won’t need this where I am going.” Then he died after biting into a hidden cyanide capsule.

The famous map of the underground was designed by Harry Beck, like an electrical circuit, in 1931. Initially it was rejected for being too revolutionary but was adopted in 1933 after the immense popularity of it.

Frank Pick was the Managing Director of London Underground and then the first Chief Executive of London Transport in the 1930s. He’s the man responsible for commissioning the look and feel the Tube. The logos, the branding as a whole, the posters advertising the city, was under his watch.

Below are some photos of various art seen in the stations of the Underground.

And while I could spend a lot more time on it, I’ll leave you with one last thing. During WWII, famously tube stations were used as bomb shelters. Apparently, individual stations had clubs for theater productions, dressmaking, darts and one even had a newspaper called “De profundis,” which is Latin for “from the depths.”

After my speech and the others for the morning, my husband and I decided to check out the exhibition on 20th century maps at the British Library nearby. What an amazing exhibition. The maps were segmented by use: survey use, war use, peacetime use, commerce and more. One of the most memorable ones was a map for children to fill in the borders at the conclusion of WWI, back when they thought the war would last weeks. So cavalier with politics! They even had Harry Beck’s map of the underground, which was a nice closing the loop for the day!

And as an added bonus, there was a pop-up shop dedicated their line of murder mysteries. It had a nice 1920s vibe going with a gramophone and decorations.

That evening, we went to see a lovely musical called Half A Sixpence that takes place at the turn of the last century. The musical is basically about a young boy who goes to the city to learn a trade and inherits a lot of money and has to learn how to handle this new world. It’s funny and sweet (kinda sorta passes the Bechdel test). Also, it had 30 people on stage playing banjo at one point, which made me immensely happy. The dancing was rather superb too.

That’s all for now!

Part 6: Prague and London

On our first full day of London, we started off at the Victoria & Albert Museum. It is now one of my favorite stops in London. For many years, I ignored it since I didn’t find it as compelling as the British Museum or National Gallery or something. Either their rebrand did the trick or I got older and realized that design is fascinated (or a combination of the two).

There’s always marvelous things to see at the V&A. They had a special exhibition on underwear that we decided to check out. Yes, underwear. It was underwear over the ages, briefly touching on lingerie. So less kinky than you might have thought. But it was super fascinating. I learned that maternity corsets were a thing, which is supremely horrifying. I also learned that there was a period known as the “bra wars” between rival companies Wonderbra and Ultrabra competed in the 20th century. I also learned that men’s shirts were considered underwear (like in the 18th century) because it was clothing next to their body. Things have changed!

The second floor of the exhibition had pieces from fashion designers, which was pretty cool. They covered themes like lingerie as outerwear, leisurewear etc. It was cool to see some of the pieces from recent Bond films.

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We continued our wandering around the museum and found some other amazing artifacts like this saucer and cup with hands by Peter Ting in the China section. I love how they intersperse older objects with new modern pieces. I did find a child’s radio and cassette tape box that I owned as a child in the Japan section, which was a bit sobering!

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After a brief stop off at the Albert Memorial for my husband, we decided to go back to our secret tea shop in Soho: Soho’s Secret Tea shop. We had gone the prior year and loved it. You have to enter a pub and ask for the tea shop upstairs. You go up a staircase behind the bar into a single tea room with 1940s/1950s music playing. Each table is laid out with a different cup and saucer. They have a nice tea selection and homemade cakes. Highly recommend it both for the fun of the secrecy and the tea!

Then we decided to go shoe shopping on Carnaby street and Regent’s street. As we turned the corner from the secret tea shop, we made an amazing discovery: a gallery with official Harry Potter graphic art. This four story shop had designs from the 7 HP movies and Fantastic Beasts. The top floor had the covers of Hogwarts textbooks, another room had wanted posters, another was filled with labels from products from Weasley’s joke shop, the Quibbler front covers etc. It was beautifully decorated throughout the building. It was super thrilling to be able to check this out!

After we accomplished our missions to find shoes in London, we decided to take a quick turn around the National Portrait Gallery. My husband had never been! So we spent most of the time in the Tudor and earlier section looking at the portraits of Richard III and Henry VIII and various wives. One of the portraits of Edward VI was a cool optical illusion!We went a bit later to see portraits of Admiral Nelson, Laurence Sterne. Sadly, we didn’t have more time there before we had to rush home for dinner!


A good day!

Part 5: Prague and London

The next (and last) leg of our trip was several days in London. It has to be one of my favorite cities. I feel like it is a second home. Granted, I lived there for a month in college.

As soon as we got to London proper, we decided to chuck all our stuff and run to the British Museum. After many years of going, things have changed there. Now you have to get in line and go through a tent on the side where your bag is checked. New world we live in. But once inside, we made a beeline to the Egyptian Galleries, always my first stop. I love saying hello to the beautiful bronze cat, tinted green by the Victorians. Then we wandered through the Parthenon marbles that now have brochures about the controversy. Naturally I picked one up and noted that when asked if it was right to have the Parthenon marbles in England. Notably, it points out several other non-Greek museums with the marbles. The everyone else does it defense. Some stone pieces made a point of noting that it was stolen by X army (not British though). You can read the text here: https://www.britishmuseum.org/about_us/news_and_press/statements/parthenon_sculptures.aspx

Anyway, we continued our wanderings upstairs, checking out the Egyptian mummies. There was a lovely exhibition on shadow puppets that we enjoyed. The show had puppets from many different cultures including recent ones where puppets wore tracksuits and had handguns. 

After our museum trip, we ran two essential errands: Fortnum and Masons and Hatchards. Fortnum and Masons is a fancy British department store where the Queen and other members of the royal family go. We go there on each trip because I’m obsessed with their fruit flavored black teas. Compared to the rest of hte store, their teas are relatively inexpensive and I often buy a suitcase of it to go home (Has to last until the next trip). The Christmas windows were pretty amazing and unexpectedly political during this time. Each window brought together two natural enemies: hunter and the wolf, bull and china. Each pairing was happy and positive with a tagline “Together We’re Merrier.”

Next is Hatchards, right next door. It’s one of the finest bookshops in the world. It also supplies the Royal household. They just have a great selection of books including many gems.

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We meandered our way back to the hotel, after visiting the large British tourist shop so my husband could stock up. Dinner that evening was delicious Indian food near the hotel.

That’s all for now!

Prague and London: Part 4

It was time for adventure. Part of the reason we came to Prague was because my husband’s maternal family came from there. We were going to hire a car to go to the small town of Pozdyne, where his great grandfather was from.

First, we had to climb the Astronomical Tower. We had been eyeing it the entire trip so we did it first thing in the morning. To get to the tower, you have to go into the Old Town Hall, which was rather pretty. There was some amazing iron work and mosaics in the building. Next time, we might try a tour of just the building. When you get to the foot of the Tower, you have a choice to take the stairs or an elevator. We opted for stairs. As you spiral up to the tower, you get to see a history of the tower, which was cool. Unfortunately, the Nazis did a number on the building so it had to be rebuilt after the war. At the final end, you have a tiny metal stairway that can only take people in one direction. Then it’s Prague! Beautiful views of the city. You can see the Prague Castle in the distance, the hills. It’s glorious!

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Then it was time to meet the car that would take us to Pozdyne. We set off into outside of Prague. Thanks to a coworker, I had learned of a castle that was on the way. So our first stop was Karlsteyn. Our driver took us to an area he dubbed Little America. I think it’s named for the Grand Canyon but I’m not sure.

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Anyway, as we go to the town with the castle, we learned that they try to force a monopoly on transportation in town. They either want you to walk through the town or even better, hire a horse taxi. Instead, our driver took us the back side of the town to the castle but we could see cars that had been parked and booted. They work fast in the town! We got out and made our ascent to the castle. It was rather impressive. I’ve been to a lot of British and Scottish castles, a few French ones, but this was in the realm of the Disney castle. It’s a tour only facility with several tours not running in the winter. We ended up having a 45 minute wait for the next English tour. There’s one kiosk for unimpressive food. But the wait was well worth it.

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The castle had been built by Charles IV, King of Bohemia, Holy Roman Emperor. The castle used to hold the crown jewels but they were eventually moved. The castle never officially fell because the Swedes who came close stopped when they found that the jewels were no longer there. So woohoo to unbroken castle! It was modernized in the 19th century…so no heat. It was a little brisk in late December. We were led through the various rooms learning the history of the place. My favorite fact was that the king and queen slept separately. Her chambers were on another floor. However, the king had a door in his private chapel that led to her bedchamber…

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The King’s impressive bed

The throne room was also set up so the light allowed the king to see his subjects but they could not see his face. That would be incredibly spooky!

In the final stop of the tour, we learned that there is an incredible chapel, the Chapel of the Holy Cross, that is covered in gold, portraits of saints, and more. It’s only available in one tour a day in the summer. We got to see a few copies of the paintings of saints in the room. I learned that the paintings had slots in them where you could put the relics of the saints into their paintings. I had never seen that before. Very cool!

After our tour, we took a leisurely walk through town. Clearly, the town was a bit more hopping during the summer. But it was pretty mild and pleasant to walk through it back to the car.

Now it was time to go to Pozdyne. To get back to the road, our driver used Google maps, which I think decided to go on the adventurous setting. We went up and down zigzag hills etc. I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one this happens to! The countryside of the Czech Republic is really beautiful and pleasant.

After about an hour drive, we finally made it to Pozdyne. It’s a beautiful tiny village with about 20 houses…maybe. There’s a tiny chapel in the main square and possibly a closed for the season bar/B&B nearby. A woman was walking her dog. There were satellite dishes so the village was not disconnected from the world. We wandered around for about 10 minutes to see what we could see. Then we got back in the car to go back to Prague. My husband, I think, appreciated the opportunity to see a part of his family history.

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Back in Prague, we took advantage of the late closing times of the local museums and attractions. In Old Town Square, there were exhibitions of Mucha, Dali and Warhol in a local building. We opted for tickets to Mucha and Dali. The Mucha exhibit was really cool because it had lots of his works together. Of course it was mostly reproductions but from his era. I’ve seen his work in books and printed onto merchandise but never en masse. Apparently, his poster of Sarah Bernhardt was what made him famous. They had a little video of her film work on loop. We learned a little bit more about him. Sadly he died after being tortured by the Gestapo, likely because he was too proud of being Czech.

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The Dali exhibition was pretty cool too. They had his drawings illustrating Dante’s Divine Comedy. Another room had various drawings of horses from Poseidon’s horses, the Trojan horse, Don Quixote’s horse, etc. And many space elephants.

Then we ran to the funhouse a few streets away. They were advertising a mirror maze. Naturally, we had to check it out. What a hoot! We had fun wandering around the mirror maze, trying not to walk into the mirrors themselves. It was amazing how the maze itself wasn’t a big area but the serpentine path definitely made it seem bigger! There was also crystal cinema where images were projected onto a screen that were reflected onto angled mirrors. It’s a bit like a giant kaleidoscope. It was fun watching images of Prague and the countryside turn into these abstract crazy animations.

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Next stop: London!

Prague and London: Part 3

Christmas day!

What a glorious thing to experience in other countries. Prague was hopping on Christmas day. People were on the streets (at least in Old Town) and many more shops and restaurants were open than I was expecting.

Our first stop was the Jewish quarter of Prague since we knew that it would be open. (It was Sunday). We’ve been on every trip but it feels like a necessary part of any trip to Prague. There’s several tours that you can do of the area with one ticket. We opted for the medium sized tour that first took us through the Pinkas Synagogue. The walls of the synagogue list over 77,000 names of Jews from Bohemia and Moravia sent to die in the concentration camp. It is a moving and powerful memorial to intolerance and hate. There’s a wall with many of the concentration camp names on it. We really have to work on making this all a thing of the history. Never again. I hope.

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Upstairs there is a room with drawings by children living in the ghetto during the 1930s. The adults tried to continue classes to give their children a normal life as possible. Some look like drawings that any child could draw, happy, and bright. Others show the repercussions of living in the ghetto amongst so much hate. As a child, I remember breaking down when I saw this room because it really brought home what happened here. Many of the children were my age or younger and they did not survive the camps.

The next part of the tour is the Old Jewish Cemetery. It’s not very big but it is supposed to have 100,000 bodies buried there! The earliest grave is from the 1400s as well! You can only walk the perimeter of it since it is covered in gravestones. Various graves have little stone markers, a sign that someone was there to remember. Just outside the cemetery was the Klausen Synagogue, which houses exhibits on Jewish religious objects.

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Then we caught a cab to take us to Discalced Carmelite Church of Our Lady Victorious to see the Infant of Prague. Unfortunately, our friendly cab driver tried to charge us 20 euros for a 4 dollar cab ride. Alas.

Outside, there was a pen holding goats and sheep again. We saw these all over the place. We caught the tail end of Christmas mass that was lovely with a choir. The altarpieces throughout this church was magnificent, covered in silver and wood. The Infant was resplendent in white robes on Christmas day. The Infant has created miracles. According to the church website, “During one invasion, all the children of the city were taken to the Church for protection—praying to the Infant, they were all saved.” (https://www.infantprague.org/about-the-infant-jesus-of-prague/)

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We had lunch at a lovely little pub where people wrote messages on coasters that were displayed throughout. It was a nice break from being outside. Prague is a bit damp and cold. It’s not quite like CHicago (or Krakow so we’ve learned) but I did not bring warm enough boots.

After lunch, we found ourselves at one of the towers flanking the Charles Bridge. We are fans of towers. Naturally, we had to go up.  We had a wonderful view of the city and the bridge itself. We then crossed the bridge to find the Museum of Communism!

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On our very first day, I saw a poster for the Museum of Communism that advertised that it was above a McDonald’s. I was intrigued especially since I’m a Cold War junkie. I also learned it would be open Christmas day (though closed on the 24th).

And so we went. It was definitely upstairs of a McDonald’s and on the same floor as a casino. THe museum told the story of Communism in Czech Republic. It became very apparent that they were very anti-communist. Outside there was a damning exhibition on North Korea. It’s not the most sophisticated of museums. Lots of text, a few mannequins. But it was worth the trip. They also had some video of protests over 30-40 years that were very sobering. Police beating people up, ripping banners, people running for their lives.

Afterwards, we discovered the most outrageous postcards in the gift shop. One postcard had a photo from a famous poster of smiling women that was celebrating good workers. The postcard said, “It was a Happy Shiny time. The shiniest were the ones who worked in the Uranium mines.”

Then we topped the night off with a concert at the Spanish Synagogue. In various European cities, churches and other religious venues host concerts on a seemingly regular basis. Usually it’s Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I think it’s a great idea to open up these beautiful spaces to wonderful music. This concert was magnificent. It had  Carl Orff’s O Fortuna from Carmina Burana, which was magnificent. The setlist was a little eclectic; there were tangos, Don’t Cry for Me Argentina and Porgy and Bess. But the singer and ensemble were amazing. The space is astonishing.

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On our way to dinner, we passed through Old Town Square again and there was a truck covered in bells of all sizes. A person was playing the bells like a piano. We got here Carol of the Bells on Bells!

That’s all for now!

Prague and London: Part 2

The day started with a delicious breakfast at the hotel. As regular readers know, I’m not one to talk much about hotel food or breakfasts much but this meal was notable. The seasonal special was poached egg with pumpkin and rye. Very tasty. I ended up having it three out of the four days we stayed in Prague!

Since it was December 24th, our first stop was the Prague Castle. We knew it would be closed Christmas day so we wanted to make sure we stopped by on our trip. We hired a cab that took us to the magnificent entrance/exit. We got there as a changing of the guard was occurring. Less painful than the one in the UK. We took in the amazing view from up there and enjoyed the little Christmas market. Then we got in line to get in. This ended up being a longer wait than we expected. Also, it was a bit colder than I had anticipated. I really wished I had worn boots or thicker socks. Then it began to drizzle, making the wait a bit more excruciating. Eventually, we got through security and entered the castle grounds!

We made a beeline for the St. Vitus Cathedral as the rains began to pour. It had high vaulting ceilings, beautiful carved stone and wood decorations. There was an amazing tomb with silver figures all over it including angels above it. Very impressive. There’s also the beautiful St. Wenceslas  Chapel that you can peer into with semi-precious rocks embedded into the walls and colorful paintings. There was a lovely wooden creche as well.

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After our visit to the cathedral, we wandered a bit more around the castle but it appeared that much was closed for the holiday. However, my feet were causing me some concern with the cold and damp. We found a cafe and went in despite the “Reserved” sign on the wall. A family was using part of a large table and they generously let us sit at the other end. We ordered various warm drinks. I tried out the apple cider, which was not exactly to my tasting. My husband ordered Kahlua infused warm milk, which was amazing. But the warmth. We realized after we got our drinks that we weren’t supposed to be there. The entire cafe was reserved for a tour group. We watched our waitress turn other people away. I think because we were at the table with the other family, we got in under the radar. Whatever the cause, we were grateful.

Soon after, we wandered out of the castle and made our way to the Charles Bridge. On the way, we ran into giant bevy of swans, hanging out on the river. The Charles Bridge is a walking bridge is decorated with intricate sculptures. It was an astonishing view, Two towers flanked both sides of the bridge. It was near the golden hour of the day so the world was bright.

We made our way back to the hotel as we watched Prague close for Christmas. We had a Christmas Eve dinner at a largely forgettable restaurant but it had lovely live music from two guitarists. THere was also a chopped liver mousse that was delicious (sadly, the rest of the food was not). After dinner, we decided to wander a bit more before bed. We ended up at a brewery just off the Old Square talking to a Brazilian who was a businessman for silver jewelry while drinking a Czech eggnog liquor and mead. It was a delightful end to a good day.

That’s all for now!

Prague and London: Part 1

Greetings to you all in this new year! I can’t wait to tell you all about the adventures in Prague and London over the past week and a half. We went to many castles, enjoyed warm mead, and even journeyed to an ancestral town!

We began our trip a few days before Christmas in Prague. We were staying relatively near the Old Town Square. As soon as we recovered slightly from our trans-Atlantic trip, we ventured towards Old Town Square. On the way, we found a glorious puppet shop with many handmade puppets including Krampus with his one cloven foot and a regular human foot, a green man with a fish (clearly a local legend), and even Harry Potter. Next door was a beer spa. Yes, a beer spa. I had only learned that these establishments existed about two days before our trip from a coworker. You can bathe in beer while drinking beer…I am not much of a spa person but I would have liked to have done this. Sadly, it was completely booked.

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We then continued on our way to the Old Town Square. Many parts of Europe have wonderful Christmas markets in their public places. Prague had a glorious market. There was a tall brightly lit Christmas tree that occasionally played William Tell’s Overture with corresponding lights. There were some live animals that you could pet and feed. Food vendors sold sausages, grilled cheese, trdelinik or Chimney cakes, and hot mead. We tried the latter too. Trdeliniks were like a form of fried dough. You can get them with ice cream or nutella.

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The best was the hot mead. It was almond flavored. Warm, sweet and strong. Other vendors sold wood carved items, metal items made from a blacksmith, and much more. It was vibrant and wonderful. We got to see the beautiful Astronomical Clock that puts on a little show on the hour. A window opens and the Apostles stream by, Death rings a bell, and several figures shake their heads as the clock chimes the expected number of hours.

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Buildings in the area were beautifully decorated, some looked almost like Wedgewood. What a beautiful city! We had dinner at a local place with Czech fare. I had my first bowl of goulash. I was initially frightened when I opened the lid on my stew to find the smell of raw onions. Once I removed them, the stew was quite tasty. I had some potato dumplings on the side, which were nice and hearty.

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A great start to our trip! That’s all for now!