I’m always a sucker for European castles and cathedrals. Prague Castle and St. Vitus cathedral didn’t disappoint. The heart of “old town” or “classic” Prague lies between the castle/cathedral complex and the Old Town Square, with the Charles Bridge spanning the river between the two of them. The castle, I suppose naturally, holds the high ground, overlooking the rest of Prague and the Old Town in the distance. Here is a little photo tour through the cathedral, the castle and its grounds, which are lovely to walk through and provide excellent overviews, plus a quirky little attraction rather at odds with the uber-classic nature of the rest of old town Prague’s architecture. Then we'll take a brief jaunt across the bridge.
From my temporary residence near Pohorelec, I could walk downhill to the castle, entering it through the main gate, and passing by this lovely lantern which I always wished I could have seen lit at night. At noon each day, a column of castle guards marched into work (I presume). Hi-ho hi-ho. There was a wonderful gypsy band that often played for tips in the large open courtyard in front of the castle, I spent probably a total of a couple hours listening to them and watching the crowds filter in and out of the castle, wondering what sorts of folks wandered in and out of the grounds in its heyday ... what the guards once looked like with lances and swords and horses to ride, what scenes of stench and horror surrounded the castle during times of plague and pestilence, what ragged bands of Renaissance musicians sounded like twittering their flutes and drums.
The inside of the castle was actually surprisingly spare ... not full of opulent furniture and wall/ceiling moldings. It seemed to exist in a very functional state ... an administrative center rather than a lavish palace. It was here that I rediscovered my love for the word "defenestration," when we learned of the history of this seemingly preferred method of deposition of unwanted court officials (that is to say, throwing them out a high window).
My favorite part of the castle was actually walking the grounds and gardens along the side, where you can look over the city ... over the minions, if you will ... over the serfs and subjects of this architectural grandeur. Well OK, only in the imaginative past, those serfs. Nonetheless, very pleasant. First photo, notice the friendly guard hanging out amongst the greenery.
At one point, as you descend toward level ground near the river, you find yourself looking down into this rather odd space with dripping, organic-like shapes that look as if formed out of limestone or cement. In fact, it's a man-made wall whose features are called dripstone. It covers a large area of the Wallenstein Palace Gardens, and makes for kind of a jarring but not unpleasant juxtaposition of modern artistic architecture with very classic gardens and an outdoor stage where I found an orchestra practicing one day. There were several families of peacocks in the gardens which I watched with fascination as they claimed territory and persecuted one another, the mother peahens coddling the strong chicks and abandoning the weak ones.
And now for a study in feeling small and insignificant in the face of human accomplishment ... stand before St. Vitus Cathedral! You can see from the first photo, only a portion of the exterior can be captured in Erik's camera lens. I've stood before some tall cathedrals before, but this one seemed particularly immense, looming above me. Can't decide whether it's ethereal or sinister, reaching Heavenward to the wide sky or glaring down upon the punificent. Daunting, in either case .....
The inside of the cathedral ....
Check out the set of organ pipes!
Walking down through the cathedral and castle grounds, down long stairways and narrow streets, eventually you come to the Charles Bridge, the most famous bridge in Prague. After crossing the river, you can then continue on to the Old Town Square where the town hall with its astronomical clock presides. The bridge was undergoing renovation while I was there, so it was closed down to "one lane" shall we say ... which is to say at only half its normal width, it could get exceedingly crowded, almost claustrophobic during the day and evening.
The outside wall of the tower at the end of the bridge is very ornate and full of statues and coats of arms. All along the bridge are stone statues depicting sometimes kind of random scenes. Street performers line the bridge with their acts, and artisans with their crafts, but with the half-width bridge during renovation, this got to be a little too much. I'd like to return when it's fully re-opened. Just one more reason (excuse?) to come back to this lovely city.
Recently I visited a friend near Santa Barbara, California, and one day we took a day trip into Los Angeles to see the Huntington Botanical Gardens. In particular, my friend wanted to show me the Desert Garden exhibit. She thought it was pretty special and the highlight of the gardens. I concur with her assessment ... I've never seen such profusion of cacti. The garden has existed for over 100 years, so some of the cacti have grown to monstrous proportions. One cactus of this age is reported to weigh in at 20 tons! And some yucca-type plants have a height of 60 feet.
I had no idea the variety of cacti and succulents that existed. The desert garden display features more than 5,000 species of succulents and desert plants!! And is spread over about 10 acres. It was truly astounding -- dizzying, almost overwhelming, in fact, with the often stark geometry of cacti overlapping one another, and so many varieties packed in so close together. It was so densely grown with such variety, it was like a rainforest or jungle, but of desert plants. A unique place, indeed.
So here is a photographic glimpse of the desert garden for you to contemplate the wonders of nature with. The first photo I originally featured in the Friday Photo section before I put together this post. It gives you a very rough and, frankly, pretty inadequate idea of the varieties of desert plants co-existing in the display. One of my friends made the remark of this display area: watch out for banana peels! You can just see Wylie Coyote go skating into one of these prickly scenes, right?
The golden barrel cactus seemed especially photogenic to me. From the Gardens' website, they say: "The ribs of the golden barrel cactus resemble an accordion, expanding and contracting as the plant stores and uses water. Many of the golden barrels you see here were planted from seed before 1915 and now weigh several hundred pounds."
According to the recorded voice on the shuttle bus that takes you to trailheads in the park, this area of Utah was once part of the largest sand dune ever to exist in planetary history. I would like to have seen that! The Virgin River is the heart of Zion National Park, having worn a path deep into the ancient sediment. Visiting there in late October/early November, as I recently did, meant that the river was at a low volume and easily navigable. One of the more unique adventures visitors can embark on is actually hiking in the river through the deep, narrow canyon it carves (the hike is known, surprisingly, as The Narrows).
The first time I visited Zion, a good number of years ago, it was in summer, and at times the water was up to my chest. We were wearing dry suits, so I was still warm, but I had to hold my walking stick above my head being chest deep. The walking stick, I might point out, is the most crucial item one needs in order to do this hike. Outfitters in Springdale rent dry suits, wet suits, and walking sticks, or you can go in your own clothes but you must find a sturdy stick as well, for oftentimes the water flow is swift and strong, and you need it to brace yourself against the current and keep your balance. To walk the best route and find dry rocky or sandy islands, you cross back and forth across the river perpetually.
This year my traveling companions were professional photographers ... which left little amateur me feeling a bit intimidated, but I learned a lot about photography in general, photographing water in particular, and being on a trip focused on photography changed my way of looking at things. That's me below, in a wet suit and jacket, prepping a shot. And by the way, the wet suit (including booties) keeps you warm while you are moving in the water ... but after standing still with a tripod for awhile, the cold seeps in; hence, I had little footsicles at the end of my ankles rather than anything resembling blood-nourished flesh.
For example, in regard to noticing my surroundings, the first time I went with my family, if you had asked me at the end of the day after hiking The Narrows, what was the light like inside the canyon, or what color was the water? I really couldn't tell you much. I couldn't have told you anything about the lighting, but I do remember that the deep water had an almost turquoise tint to it, but that's all I could say.
Now I can tell you that the character of the light changes perpetually. I don't mean in terms of how the sun comes in, for it breaches the depths of the chasm very rarely; there are only a few spots that see direct sunlight. But the amount of indirect light and from which direction, the narrowness or wideness of the canyon, the color of the canyon walls (varying from a vibrant rusty red to nearly pure black), the foliage that might be soaking up the light, etc., made for very different effects and hues. Sometimes the light seems warm and golden, sometimes cold and gray.
The water color varied as well, based not only on its depth, but on the speed of its current and the amount of turbulence in it, from a typical brownish color, to a vague blue, to very pronounced green. The first photo below, incidentally, is what came of the effort captured above by my friend, where I'm hunkered down at the water's edge.
The obvious bonus delight of visiting in autumn was the addition of golden color to the trees along the river. Many times the bright yellow leaves struck a dramatic contrast with the black rock behind them ... made them appear almost neon.
Though we were photographing primarily river shots, the draw for most people (non-photographers) is the dramatic landscape of sheer rock faces and mountains that provoke the imagination the way that clouds do, finding in them a likeness to something else. For a photographer these are very difficult to capture in a professional shot unless it's an overcast day; the light contrast is simply too severe. I, however, not being a professional, needn't consider how good a print would sell and derived sufficient joy from taking pictures simply for the sake of documentation ... I called them "tourist shots." So I often putzed around taking tourist shots while my professional friends were focused on capturing perfect river shots. If you've never been to Zion, here is a quick peek at the typical topography. The white caps on the mountains are not snow ... the rock color simply changes.
We saw lots of mule deer and some mountain sheep, and a little flock of these guys. Yeah, go ahead, Mr. Turkey ... run, run, run; I didn't want a picture of you anyway. You and all your pals just go ahead and flee across the road.
Bryce Canyon was named after a chap with the splendid first name of Ebenezer. Ebenezer Bryce. With the largest collection of unique pillar-like rock formations known as hoodoos, or commonly referred to as goblins, it officially became a national park in 1928. But for eons, it’s been the stage of a planetary tragedy – when The Great Sea withdrew from The Wide Plateau, it was the parting of two lovers. Millions of years ago when the Sea kissed the Plateau with its warm and salty ebb and flow, the two used to lie next to each other and gaze at the dragons in the sky – the stars that breathed fire and exhaled gasses across the universe.
After many, many moons, after they’d watched together as stars grew brighter and extinguished, the Sea withdrew and departed forever, breaking Plateau’s heart. She cried and cried a sky-full of tears, and tiny rivulets of them ran deep into fissures in the rock. On cold nights, they froze, sometimes piling up on the ground in a hush of snow, and inside the rocks the frosted tears expanded. When the sun rose and thawed them, all that sadness seeped even further into the rock and pried it open. Year after decade after century after millennia, time unfolded before Plateau like a colossal painter's canvas. She whittled away the vast plain with her tears as though they were her brush. Such fantastical shapes began to emerge, at long last she felt a slim ray of joy that something so magical and interesting could take shape from her tears. She became anxious and impatient to create more fantastical shapes, but so much time had passed since her lover left that she began to find it more difficult to conjure up enough precipitating sadness. So instead, she began to laugh. She laughed at the good memories of her lover, but mostly at the whimsical shapes she’d thus created. She laughed so hard until she cried, and once again her tears seeped into the rock and froze and melted and pried it apart even more. She’s still laughing to this day.
So when you look around at the myriad shapes spread throughout the park, don’t be fooled into thinking they are sniveling goblins and bewitching hoodoos. That grand amphitheater was begat from lost love; it’s a sea of tears, in truth, a sea that can never withdraw its shore. You can imagine a land of sadness or a land of joy, or even a stoic land if you mix them up together into an average over time. But in its sublime physical form, it’s the shape of romance – convoluted, unexpected, intractable, unpredictable, violent, peaceful … in the end, a grand echo of every individual soul.
That fable, of course, is my own creation. I feel I should own up to it just so you don’t go around telling other people this is the mythical or fabled story of Bryce. (I’m sure there are more “official” myths known by the Native peoples.) I just didn’t find the landscape evocative of the mischief or malevolence implied in the common reference to goblins; I found it grand and dramatic in a romantic kind of way, it evoked in me a story much bigger and more cosmic than a gathering of individual mischievous little beasties. But the mechanism of Plateau's tears is real ... the shapes in Bryce were formed primarily by the action of frost -- of moisture seeping into the rocks, freezing and expanding, contracting and refreezing, eventually prying the rocks apart. Typically first creating a hole (an arch), which eventually collapses, leaving the pillar-esque shapes. A very straight-forward scientific process that results in very magical and other-worldly shapes.
New post for the Central Europe Archive! I never made any about my solo time in Prague, which is when I took heaps of photos. So I've decide to throw together a few photo-heavy posts about Prague.
I attended the Prague Summer Program as a student in a two-week writing program. Yes, I'm a little old to be a student, but this program is for all writers both inside and outside of any current academic status. In fact, I made several good friends in my advanced age group. Because I was attending only two classes, I had loads of free time to myself in which I wandered, often aimlessly, through the city with my camera. Students were given public transport passes, so I could ride the trams anywhere. I lived in a very Communist-stye dorm just off the Pohorelec tram stop. My room was just a tiny cement cell which shared a bathroom with 5 other cells. But really, it was all I needed.
Here are a few photos illustrating my typical route to class, about a 20 minute trek including tram time and walking time from my dorm. You can see how horrendously crowded Prague is in the summer (this was in July). I would like to come back some day in the off season. I had to walk right through the center of Old Town Square. The old town hall has a giant astronomical clock on the outside. On the hour, little figurines emerge in an animated routine. I have to say it's one of my favorite parts about old European towns -- the animated clocks. I just think how wondrous and magical they must have seemed back in the day when they were created. If I were a kid in Prague, I'd be making me a bowl of popcorn at noon every day to sit and the watch time pass in a clock maker's dream.
There were two routes I could walk downhill from Pohorelec into Old Town. One route took me by Prague Castle and the other took me along the edge of a park with fantastic views over the city. I loved winding my way through the streets and alleys with no rhyme or reason when I had no place to be. Even the simplest street was picturesque to me.
The Jewish Quarter was one of the first places I sought out to purposefully visit. I love old cemeteries and there was supposed to be a particularly interesting one. There are two sections of the quarter, the new and the old. First below is the new synagogue with its almost whimsical exterior and vividly painted interior. I spent a little time lying on my back in a pew gazing at the ceiling. Below that is the old synagogue and the cemetery. Stolen from the text with my cemetery photo in Friday Photos: The most unique thing about the cemetery is that when it ran out of space centuries ago, the Jewish population was unable to purchase more land for it and so they simply added layer upon layer of dirt, bodies and gravestones. Heaps and heaps of gravestones were erected millimeters away from one another, and eventually on top of one another ... it's a remarkable forest of gravestones, now many slanted or toppled, some the engraving is worn clean away, tree trunks grow around others.
Prague has definitely capitalized on one of its most famous citizens, Franz Kafka. In addition to a museum, there are busts and statues scattered around town, as below, and Kafka everything you can imagine in souvenir shops, Kafka this Kafka that. I happen to be a big fan of Kafka, so I found it amusing. I really liked the museum, and whoever designed it made a stab at representing a Kafka-esque mind in the layout of the rooms. Lots of interesting information about him I never knew. One of them being what a well-adjusted person he came off as in society ... very popular with lads and lasses alike, not some weirdo brooding in the corner. The kid playing with the anatomy of the fountain is just outside the museum. While lots of college kids thought they were hilarious posing in rather more rude positions with this fine, upstanding statue ... I'm sure I scarcely need to provoke your imagination ... this kid was completely oblivious to anything but the fact he was controlling the stream of water (the object he's holding did indeed move around, one could position it in a wide range of settings).