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Travel With Marilyn

Visiting Prague’s Jewish Quarter is an Emotional and Educational Journey

Marilyn Jones 

When I entered the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague’s Jewish Quarter, I was not prepared for what I saw. On the walls are painted the names of nearly 80,000 Czech and Moravian Jews; victims of Shoah concentration camp during Nazi occupation.

Prague's Jewish Quarter

Prague's Jewish Quarter

Founded in 1479 by Rabbi Pinkas — one of the Jewish community’s wealthy members — it now serves as a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. The synagogue was converted into this moving monument between 1955 and 1960 by painters Václav Boštík and Jiří John. After the Soviet invasion of 1968, the memorial was closed for more than 20 years. It was fully renovated and opened again in 1995.

As emotional as the site of all those names is, on the second floor are children’s drawings from Terezin concentration camp where the Jewish children were imprisoned during World War II. The drawings tell of the persecution of Jews in the Czech lands between 1939 and 1945. It’s hard to look at the pictures knowing most of the children were murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Březinka extermination camp. The paintings illustrate the transports to Terezin and everyday life in the ghetto as well as dreams of returning home.

Prague's Jewish Quarter

Prague's Jewish Quarter

Pinkas Synagogue is part of Prague’s Jewish Museum that was founded in 1906. Three other synagogues (Maisel, Klausen and Spanish), the Old Jewish Cemetery, Ceremonial Hall, and Robert Gultmann Gallery are also part of the museum. One of the oldest and continuously existing Jewish museums in the world, its mission is “to document the history, traditions and customs of the Jewish population in Bohemia and preserve valuable artifacts from the Prague synagogues that were destroyed during the liquidation of the Prague ghetto.”

Old Jewish Cemetery

Just outside Pinkas Synagogue is the Old Jewish Cemetery, one of the oldest Jewish burial grounds in the world. The oldest tombstone dates from 1439; the last funeral took place in 1787.

Tombstones are only inches apart because the cemetery is actually 10 layers. When there wasn’t any more room for new burials, a layer of soil was placed on top of existing graves. The tombstones from the under layers were erected on the top layer where the newly departed were buried. There are 12,000 tombstones in the cemetery.

Prague's Jewish Quarter

Prague's Jewish Quarter

Maisel Synagogue was built by the rich mayor of the Jewish Town in 1592. Although the original Renaissance building was a victim of fire in 1689, a new neo-Gothic synagogue was built in its place from 1893-1905.

Today it houses a collection of Jewish silver, textiles, prints and books. Most of the collection was brought to Prague by the Nazis with the intention of establishing a museum of the people they planned to annihilate.

The Klausen Synagogue is the largest in Prague. Originating in the 16th century, the current structure was built on the site in 1694 in the early Baroque style. The exhibition continues in the Ceremonial Hall and includes exhibitions about the Hebrew Bible. The displays also focus on the synagogue and its significance to the community.

In the gallery are exhibits relating to the daily life of a Jewish family including customs associated with birth, circumcision, bar mitzvah, marriage and divorce. It also provides a glimpse into a Jewish household and kitchen.

The Spanish Synagogue is the newest of the Prague synagogues. It was built in the Spanish Moorish style in 1868. The most ornate of the city’s synagogues, its exhibition deals with the history of the Jews in the Bohemian lands from the reforms of Joseph II in the 1780s to the period after WWII. On the upper floor is a permanent exhibit of more than 200 of the most valuable silver artifacts from the museum's collections including Torah ornaments — shields, pointers, finials and crowns.

Prague's Jewish Quarter

Prague's Jewish Quarter

Old-New Synagogue

Although not part of the museum, Old-New Synagogue is a must-see. The oldest working synagogue in Europe and one of Prague’s earliest Gothic buildings dating to 1270, it is like time travel to walk its small circumference and see its treasures on display. 

Worship here has continued for 700 years, interrupted only between 1941 and 1945 because of the Nazi occupation. 

Prague's Jewish Quarter

Prague's Jewish Quarter
           

A visit to the Jewish Quarter is emotional and educational. The tour was a Viking River Cruises optional excursion and one I can certainly recommend.  

Prague and The Lobkowicz Palace

Marilyn JonesAn original love letter dated June 20, 1622, is displayed in a glass cabinet under a green velvet cover in The Lobkowicz Palace. Translated it reads in part:

Zdenek Vojtech Popel, 1st Prince Lobkwicz to Polyxenia Lobkwicz

My beloved,

The good Capuchin friars are returning to Vienna so I have wanted to give them this letter, with which I kiss your hands, entrusting myself to you with Vaclav, and to know you are, my queen. Here, work seems to never end. It seems like a thousand years since I saw you: I wish I could make a quick trip to Vienna.

I have some things that the Governor of Bohemia has sent…

A kiss for Vaclav, and to all my regards; And have me, my only treasure, in your good graces. Don’t forget about me. May our Father bless you, and protect you one thousand years.

Your loyal husband,

Zdenek

I had the privilege to see the letter and read the translation when I took one of Viking River Cruises specialized excursions in Prague.

After lunch in the Lobkowicz family’s original living quarters and a private concert in the baroque concert hall, I was allowed to roam through the palace. Each room is filled with the family’s priceless collection, including paintings, decorative arts, weapons and tableware. An audio guide narrated by family members and the museum curator was provided, making the experience even more personal.

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The assemblage is the oldest and largest private collection in the Czech Republic. Visitors have the opportunity to explore the history of Europe through the perspective of the Lobkowicz family.

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As described in museum literature: “Highlights from the Museum include works by masters such as Canaletto, Brueghel the Elder, Cranach, and Velázquez; an impressive display of family and royal portraits; fine porcelain, ceramics and rare decorative arts dating from the 13th to 20th centuries; an extensive collection of military and sporting rifles from the 16th to 18th centuries; and musical instruments and original scores and manuscripts by Beethoven and Mozart, including Beethoven’s 4th and 5th symphonies and Mozart’s re-orchestration of Handel’s Messiah.”

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Each portrait of a Lobkowicz ancestor, items of religious significance, and other personal items lead to an understanding of European history along with the 700 year family history.

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The collection survived through the centuries including during the Nazi and Communist eras. The palace and collection were finally returned to the family in recent years.

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It is a privilege to understand a little of the graciousness of the family and its importance in European history; a privilege, for an afternoon, to be a guest in this opulent palace.

Valparaíso: Chile’s Oceanside Gem

Marilyn Jones 

The city is a kaleidoscope of color; brightly painted houses clinging to the hillsides like the sides of a trowel with the city’s busy port at its tip. Valparaíso is Chile’s second largest metropolitan area after Santiago and one of the South Pacific’s most important seaports.

Upscape tour guide Manuel Garcia wants me to have this view before we start to explore neighborhoods and the historic quarter designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003. As I take in the breathtaking view, Manuel explains that during the second half of the 19th century, the city served as a major stopover for ships traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans by crossing the Straits of Magellan. European immigrants arrived with the hope of work on the docks. The city became known as “Little San Francisco” and “The Jewel of the Pacific” by international sailors.

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“The second half of the 20th century wasn’t as kind to the city,” he explains. “Wealthy families abandoned the city when the Panama Canal opened and ship traffic and port-based businesses suffered.”

Fortunately, the new century has been kinder to the port city. Today, in addition to the port and the artists and cultural entrepreneurs who set up businesses in the city, tourists have discovered the city’s many charms. The city’s labyrinth of cobbled streets, colorful buildings, and the UNESCO designation have all worked as a successful formula for attracting guests to the city. Because it’s catering more to tourism, cruise ships are adding Valparaíso to their South American itineraries as well.

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The port continues to be a major distribution center for container traffic, copper, and fruit exports. Home to Chile's naval headquarters and the National Congress, Valparaíso also transformed itself into a major educational center with four large universities and several large vocational colleges.

After his excellent description of the city, we head for the historic heart of the city.

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We walk through Plaza Sotomayor, past grand public buildings, Iglesia La Matriz del Salvador church (originally built in 1559), Latin America’s oldest stock exchange, and monuments to the city and Chilean heroes.  

From the center of the city we take one of the funiculars — known as "ascensores" throughout Valparaíso — for a closer overview of the port and beautiful neighborhoods with Victorian houses and narrow, winding alleyways lined with restaurants and shops. Some of the ascensores where built as early as 1883.

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It's also possible to visit one of Pabla Neruda’s three houses (his other two houses are in Santiago and Isla Negra). Neruda was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1971.

After several hours of touring this interesting and colorful city, we enjoy a late lunch with views of the city.

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When our tour ends, I thank Manuel for his excellent knowledge of the city. After only a few hours of exploring, I have a new appreciation for Valparaíso with its noteworthy history and extraordinary beauty.

Melk Abbey is an Austrian Masterpiece

Marilyn Jones 

It is a rainy windswept day when I visit Melk Abbey, an AmaWaterways river cruise excursion in Austria. We meet our very young guide (who looks more like a teenager than the scholar tour guide she is) in a grand inner courtyard before entering the abbey proper.

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It was Abbot Berthold Dietmayr and his architects Jakob Prandtauer and Joseph Munggenast who were the driving force behind building Melk Abbey in the early 18th century on the foundations of a medieval monastery. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the biggest and most beautiful Baroque enclaves in Europe. Built on a cliff overlooking the Danube, it is Austria’s most visited art-historical site.

Our guide explains as we enter a museum-like area that the motto of the Benedictine order is “pray, work, learn.” This motto is illustrated in room after room in an effective modern-art way. She tells us this is still an active abbey with 31 monks and that its primary income is from tourist visitation.  

Since 1089, Benedictine monks have continually lived and worked in Melk Abbey. Today, the abbey also houses a secondary school.

About halfway through the tour we exit out onto a large terrace where we have a grand view of the city of Melk and the Danube River before entering the abbey’s famous library.

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The main library houses 16,000 volumes and is graced with a ceiling fresco by Paul Troger. A spiral staircase leads to another set of 12 library rooms containing more than 100,000 volumes, some of which are very valuable. Italian writer Umberto Eco drew inspiration from this site for his novel “The Name of the Rose” in which a monastic library plays a key role.

The most important space in the abbey is next on the tour — the church. When constructed, Baroque masters were commissioned including Antonio Beduzzi for interior design, Johann Michael Rottmayr and Paul Troger for the frescos and altarpieces, Guiseppe Galli-Bibiena for the pulpit and high altar, and Lorenzo Mattielli and Peter Widerin for sculptures.

Even if photos were allowed of the abbey’s interior, they couldn’t illustrate properly the wealth of history and art housed in the library and church.

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After touring the abbey, I take the time to meander through the gardens before returning to the bus that would take me back to the AmaStella. AmaWaterways’ excursions focus on culture, tradition, history, and beauty; just what a journey to Europe should be about.

Sansepolcro, Italy: Home to Renaissance Art Treasure

Marilyn Jones 

On my way to Palazzo Donati in Mercatello sul Metauro, I stop at Sansepolcro. Located in southeastern Tuscany, I am immediately pleased with its Renaissance feel and welcoming locals.

Starting at the visitors’ center, I collect a few pamphlets and talk to the friendly staff before walking the short distance to the Civic Museum of Sansepolcro. It is housed in Palazzo della Residenza, which was constructed in the 13th and 14th centuries.  

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Although it’s a small museum, I find what some claim to be the best paintings in the world. Displayed through 10 halls, it is exceptional.

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"The Resurrection," a fresco by Piero della Francesca, that writer Aldous Huxley named the world's greatest painting in 1925, is here and currently being restored. I watch as an expert conducts the painstaking work.

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“Madonna Della Misericordia” is another of Piero della Francesca’s beautiful paintings featured in the museum along with masterpieces by Matteo di Giovanni, Raffaellino del Colle, Santi di Tito, and other notable artists.

After exploring the museum, I head for the palazzo where Piero della Francesca lived as a boy and later in life. Recognized as one of the most important painters of the Renaissance, he came from a prosperous merchant family.

Trained in mathematics, Piero's interest in the abstract study of perspective and his contemplative approach to his paintings are apparent in all his work. This perspective had little influence on his contemporaries but came to be recognized in the 20th century as a major contribution to the Italian Renaissance. 

My next stop is the Cathedral of Sansepolcro.

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Today, the cathedral looks much like it did in the 14th century, with three naves supported by Romanesque columns showing Gothic influence. The cathedral retains many beautiful works of art including “Il Volto Santo,” an unusual carved wooden crucifix made from a single walnut log between the 8th and 9th centuries.

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I end my short stay by having lunch at a café in the town square before continuing on into Le Marche and new adventures. I can certainly recommend Sansepolcro as a lovely place to spend the morning or for a much longer stay. There are several other historic attractions to explore there and a whole community to enjoy.

Rural Minnesota Community Offers a Wealth of Cultural and Recreational Opportunities

Marilyn Jones 

In a 1916 foursquare prairie house and two outbuildings, Stephen, Minnesota, showcases its past.

“The collection doesn’t reflect a certain time, but rather the town’s history,” says Jane Smidt, president of Old Home Town Museum’s Board of Directors.

The farming community, located 40 miles south of Canada and 10 miles east of North Dakota, was established in 1883. I am impressed with the museum complex. I am also impressed that this community of just 650 would have a museum — and an airport, 9-hole golf course, curling club, public swimming pool, campground, and arts center — but it does.

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Showing me around the house we first pass through the kitchen where beautiful depression glass, antique kitchen tools, and a vintage flour and sugar canister are displayed. Our tour continues in the dining room with its elaborately set table and up the staircase to the second floor.

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Smidt shows me the bedrooms, now filled with linens, quilts, and clothing. “This collection is the culmination of years of donations,” she explains as I admire a beautiful dress displayed on a mannequin. “Many were made by residents and their ancestors.”

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“I’m new to Stephen and to the museum but my husband grew up here,” the Ohio native says as we leave the house and head to the first outbuilding filled with varying collections of archives, photographs and antiques.

Smidt’s newly retired husband bought his parents’ home after they passed away. “I am really enjoying this community and its welcoming citizens,” Smidt says.

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In the second outbuilding, early 20th century working steam and gas farm equipment and a stage coach are housed. “I have a lot of ideas,” she says as I ready to leave. “It’s exciting to me.”

Just up the street I meet former mayor Betty Pikop, who shows me around the Community Arts Center located in the former First Presbyterian Church that was built in 1916.

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“It’s amazing really,” says Pikop as she unlocks the front door of the beautifully restored church. “We have so much to offer our citizens as well as the visitors we get from Canada who stay each summer at the campground.”

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Pikop shows me around the center that the arts council purchased in 2003. “We kept as much of the architecture intact,” she says pointing to the ornate stained glass windows. “We added state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems and air conditioning, cushions to the pews, and reinforced the stage.”

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I follow her down to the basement, where Sunday school rooms are now used as costume rooms and a dressing area. “The center is used for concerts, plays and musicals, art exhibits, and various classes and workshops,” she says. “Other community events and receptions are also held here.”

Just up the street is the beautifully manicured golf course, the curling club, and campground. After taking in these sites, I drive along residential streets admiring the well-kept houses with manicured lawns; flowers seem to be in bloom everywhere.

If you ever find yourself in northeastern North Dakota speeding along Interstate-29, take a little detour into Minnesota, and maybe have a cup of coffee and a piece of homemade pie at Pennie’s Café. Stephen is worth the trip.

For more information: http://www.stephenmn.com.

The benefits of a Eurail Pass

Marilyn Jones 

I appreciate the convenience of traveling by train throughout Europe on many levels. Generally speaking, it is a very reliable. Almost down to the second, the train you’re waiting for arrives. If it’s going to be delayed, this is communicated on a platform sign, most of the time in English (along with the local language).

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I also don’t have to worry about renting a car. Understanding local laws and navigating traffic and roads in an area I have never been to before are stressful. I would much rather sit back and watch the scenery go by.

It’s a great way to see the sites. You always arrive in the city center where shops, restaurants, and hotels are close by.

What is a Eurail Pass?

Anyone in the world can buy a Eurail Pass (if they don’t live in Europe) before they leave on their trip. The pass was introduced in 1959 and has provided millions of travelers this convenient service.

On a recent trip to Italy, for example, I ordered a Eurail Italy Pass. I was able to travel from Florence to Chiusi-Chianciano Terme close to Adler THERMAE Spa & Resort. After three days at the resort, I traveled to Venice and two days later back to Florence.

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By using the pass I knew up front the exact cost and, with the exception of getting the pass activated before using it the first time, I didn’t have to stand in line unless I had a question about train arrival times.

Logistics

Before the conductor comes around, write the date and where you are traveling to on the ticket and its accompanying folder. If you don’t, you are subject to a 50 euro fine.

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Tickets are sold in increments of how many days and how much time. For example, you could get a “three days within one month” Italy Eurail Pass for 159 euros. You can hop on and off wherever you like during each of these three days. Other Italy Eurail Passes available are “four days within one month,” “five days within one month,” and “eight days within one month.”

Expanding your travels? Passes are also sold for the number of countries you are visiting along with number of days and time span. With a Eurail Pass you have access to the rail networks and some ferries in 28 European countries, depending on pass specifications.

Before you leave home, check on train times so all you have to do is show up and get on the train. Conductors are used to Eurail passes and other than documenting the date and journey, there’s nothing to do except enjoy the journey.

The fine print

  • You need to activate your Eurail Pass within 11 months of the issue date. You can do this at a European train station, or online using a free activation service at checkout.
  • Most high-speed and night trains require a reservation at an additional cost.
  • A first-class Adult Pass is valid in both first and second-class coaches.
  • All standard Eurail Passes are refundable or exchangeable if they are returned unused.
  • Promotional Eurail Passes are nonrefundable and nonexchangeable.
  • Adult, youth (up to 27-years-old), and children passes are available, and discounts are offered for groups of two to five travelers and families with children ages 4 to 11. Children under 4 years old travel free.

 Get on the email list so that you’ll know when specials are being offered. Eurail is a convenient, easy way to travel through Europe and makes for one less thing to worry about.

Disclosure: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided a Eurail Pass. but the excellent experience and recommendations are all her own.