Category Archives: Travel Europe

Monday in Seville

Alcázar Palace Courtyard

Monday morning in Seville and there are a few breakfast places open for Café con Leché and Tostadas Jamon. Every eatery we’ve been to has had super friendly waiters and waitresses. We’re on our way through the narrow city streets again, looking for the Alcázar Palace. My GPS woman knows exactly where it is, but not how to get in. In the end David suggests we do that very un-male thing and ask someone. Yes we are outside the garden walls, and if we just follow the wall around we will get to it. We do that and find a medium queue. I keep our place while David looks for water and somewhere to pee.

Alcázar Palace

The Alcázar Palace, begun in 1364 is a mixture of Gothic and Mudejar. It was built on the site of a former Moorish palace and mosque and incorporates many of those features. Like most palaces, it’s been added on to and altered, but it is a beautiful and serene place. We spend time thoroughly exploring the place, doubling back to make sure we haven’t missed anything. A high walk-way gives us a fantastic view of the surrounding gardens.

 

Alcázar Palace

By the time we’ve seen everything available, it’s time for a late lunch and having identified a nearby street of restaurants yesterday, that’s where we go. Shade is essential as it’s a warm 30 degrees and in spite of asking for ‘blanco’ anchovies, none are to be had today. It’s siesta time again and I really do need to flake out, surfacing later to eat drink and hang about with David.

Alcázar Palace David by the fish pond
Alcázar Palace – raised garden walk
Alcázar Palace central garden
Alcázar Palace outer garden vista
Alcázar Palace
Alcázar Palace Glass ceiling
Alcázar Palace Garden vista
Alcázar Palace
Alcázar Palace David in the garden
Alcázar Palace

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing much happens in Seville on a Monday night, so it’s back to the Mr B&B for an early-ish night. Emelio and Manuel are still up and about, so there’s time to say goodbye. They will be gone to work early in the morning and I’m to just leave the keys on the dressing table.

Calle San Vicente

Tuesday morning and I’ve got my eye on The Belle Arts Museum. It’s just down the road from my digs and I can return to collect luggage and shower before my Ryanair experience later in the day. David is up and about and says he’ll join me, so I have breakfast just around the corner from the museum.

Free entry to the museum

David arrives and also needs breakfast; he says he’ll join me. For some reason, I’ve brought my passport, perhaps in the hope that there will be a discount for being officially old. Actually, my European passport gets me into the place for free. How good is that?

Museum courtyard

I must dash around Europe madly taking advantage of this while I can. I’m just starting off when David texts me in a panic. He’s got his dates wrong and has to immediately go and catch his flight to Bilbao. Just as well he realised in time.

St Michael 1480 (Juan Hispalense) Spanish angels wear black

This building was once a monastery and has gathered together many paintings from religious institutions since 1836, when they were all shut down. Built in 1594, the building has fine ceilings and architectural features. I’m not a huge fan of ecclesiastical painting, but I am interested in how mediaeval and renaissance painters depict the biblical stories and characters according to their own cultural norms. So, for example Seville Madonnas all look Spanish with dark hair and olive skin. German painters portray the Holy Family as fair-skinned and blond. Painters had never been to the Middle-east, their sitters were local people they knew. It would just not be acceptable to portray the Holy Family as Jewish now would it?

Inmaculada – Murillo 1675
Inmaculada Schut 1680

 

 

 

 

 

Inmaculada Juan de Valder Leal 1672 Which one will become Jesus?

I’m drawn to a series of Madonnas ‘Inmaculada’. They are all surrounded by scores of cherubs, some of whom seem to looking for a way up Our Lady’s skirt – as if one of them can miraculously enter her womb and be born as the infant Jesus.

San Sebastián Luis de Vargas 1505-1567

The portrait of Saint Sebastian catches my eye. Traditionally he’s depicted as beautiful and slim, but this portrait has him with tree-trunk legs and a thick waist.

Magnificent torsos approaching hell-mouth

I’m also interested in the homoeroticism of the magnificent torsos and backs of those sinners being dragged towards hell mouth. Murillo is everywhere and paints large canvases. Individually, they don’t do much for me, but en masse in the large hall they impress. Today, his portrait of a young monk looking adoringly at the infant Jesus might raise a few eyebrows. Certainly the monk is a way to close to the child for comfort.

Great Hall
Great Hall
Murillo – centre monk adoring Christ
Cornelis de Vos A woman 1630

There are also more modern paintings. As a freebie and a place to spend a relaxing couple of hours, this is great value. David made it to Bilbao and I dozed upright in Ryanair for two and a half hours.

El Greco – the effete Jorge Manuel 1600
Velasquez 1620 don Cristóbal
Ma Esquivel 1806 – 1857 Marqués de Bejons -cute bear?
José Villegas Cordesa Ercole Monti 1894
Gustave Bacarisas Sevilla Fiesta 1915
José Garcia Ramos Malvaloca 1912

Sevilla – ancient city of Andalucia

Local church – San Vicente

I can not believe I’ve not been here before – Cordoba, Almaria, Granada, the Costas and the mountains but never Seville. I associate it with oranges – the delicious marmalade they make – so as a true practitioner of delayed gratification, I’ve saved Seville till now. When my good mate and neighbour, David, from Waiheke (NZ) suggested I join him on part of his 50th Birthday grand tour of Spain, I seized the opportunity and his dates worked perfectly.

David and Me in Seville

Sitting in soulless Stanstead airport is arduous – there are no water fountains, rubbish wifi and the recharging stations are backless benches. I’ve done little research on what to do in the city and so rely on 4G to have a look whilst I wait for my Ryanair flight which, unlike many other destinations this week, has not been cancelled. I’ve found an app called Visit a City and I can download it all to use off line. I arrive at Seville to find the fastest immigration queue ever thanks to my EU passport and the promised free mobile phone roaming in Europe turns out to be true. I’ve booked a room with Mr B&B, a gay version of Air B&B and I’ve instructions to take the bus into the city terminal and walk for ten minutes. Emelio and Manuel are a sweet young couple, quite shy but very welcoming. Emelio immediately gets out his ipad and shows me the gay area and other sights nearby.  David has been in contact via messenger and soon arrives (he’s also doing Mr B&B – a studio apartment) and we do big hugs as we’ve not seen each other since April. So it’s two gay men on the loose in Seville for a weekend and he’s already identified one of the bars where gay men tend to drink. Of course, this being Spain, it’s too early for this time on a Saturday night. We have a beer and catch up whilst checking on bars, clubs and restaurants on our phones. Most places don’t open until 8.30pm, the clubs at 10.30 and even 1.00am. We find a tapas place and have to wait for a table at 9.00 as it’s incredibly busy with staff working their socks off. We go and have a look at a few gay venues, but nothing much is happening so we return to our earlier bar for more wine. It’s busy now and there’s more to look at. I’m ready for bed by midnight. David plans to go home and nap before trying a disco at 2.00am.

Casa de Pilatos.
Casa de Pilatos. Classical influence here?

Sunday morning – not too early, but early enough to leave David to sleep, I set off for Casa de Pilatos, using GPS to guide me though the narrow lanes and alley-ways of this ancient City. The Casa is a magnificent 16th Century palatial home, considered to be the first in the Andalusian style. Built after a grand tour of Europe and the Holy Land, Middle-Eastern and Italian design fuse with breath-taking effect. The stunning central courtyard on the ground floor leads off to magnificent tiled rooms looking outwards to beautiful gardens. The Casa boasts one of the first grand staircases in Seville and I‘ve opted for a guided tour of the upper rooms which display oriental carpets and portraits by notable painters of the day. No photography is allowed upstairs.

Casa de Pilatos. tlied wall
Casa de Pilatos. Garden vista
Casa de Pilatos. Garden vista again
Casa de Pilatos. Formal white garden
Casa de Pilatos. Ground floor room
Casa de Pilatos. detail of tiles
Casa de Pilatos. Detail of tiles
Casa de Pilatos. Another garden vista
Casa de Pilatos. formal garden
Casa de Pilatos. Gold ceiling at the top of the stairs
Old Seville

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I wander through the area known as Barrio de Santa Cruz – more narrow streets stumbling onto tiny plazas with cafes. I have no idea where I am, but appreciate  having my phone GPS to drive the Visit a City app. My recharging unit also comes in handy to get the phone though the day.

Old Seville
Plaza with cafe
Giralda Tower

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I arrive at the Catedral de Sevilla & Giralda Tower and sit down to watch the world go by. David has surfaced and will meet me here. I note the horse and carriages lining up to take the tourists for rides. The horses actually look quite healthy and well cared for unlike in other parts of the world. There is a steady stream into the Cathedral and when David arrives we take a look.  There’s nothing much to see and the tower is not open until the next tour at 2.30, so I suggest lunch. David orders anchovies, hoping for the white ones he’s seen around. Unfortunately he doesn’t use the word ‘blanco’ when ordering.  I’m heading for Plaza de Espania but David has other plans so I carry on to find this most amazing building completed in 1929 for a World Fair Expo. The afternoon is hot and it’s time to go back to my lodging for a siesta.

Plaza de Espania
Plaza de Espania
Plaza de Espania
Spanish blokes pay to be photographed as flamenco dancers
Metropol Parasol

In the early evening I collect David from his digs and we look at the Metropol Parasol – otherwise known as the ‘Mushroom of the Incarnation’.  It’s billed as the largest wooden building in the world, but this ultra modern ‘sculptural’

Metropol Parasol view from the top

installation looks so light an airy, as if it’s made of balsa wood and could lift off at any moment. The sun is setting, so it’s a perfect time for us to look over the city at ancient monuments and the distant bridges across the river. The pictures say it all.

Metropol Parasol + David
Metropol Parasol
Metropol Parasol + lovers

We’re off in search of a recommended Paella restaurant, which takes us to a more modern and up-market part of the city. David has his GPS on this time – it guides us with an Australian accent – hilarious pronunciations of Spanish street names. Sadly the restaurant is only open for lunch until four pm so we return to our usual gay friendly square for drinks. We then strike it lucky with a place that does grilled king prawns and a whole octopus leg on a bed of fantastic mashed potato. A return to the gay bar completes our Sunday evening.

Barcelona re-visited

Art Nouveau facade
Art Nouveau facade

My memories of Barcelona in June 2005 are entirely good, an elegant city full of great architecture and art which I enjoyed with my late partner, Phillip and joined by New Zealand family.  This time it’s for the LGBT Panter Esports and I’m travelling alone to meet up with my Out to Swim team-mates.  Last time, Ryanair dropped us in some remote airport miles out of town.  They’ve moved up in the world and now deliver me to the main city airport connected to the city by a train.  You have to know about this train, because the signs to it are not obvious and there are plenty of arrows pointing to taxis and buses.  A card for 10 rides costs only €10 from a machine which takes VISA.  There’s a bit of a wait for the train but it drops me only a few blocks from the Hotel Constanza.  It’s taken most of the day to get here but I’m determined explore and reacquaint myself with this city.

Modern tower
Modern tower

This time I’ve got downloaded maps of streets and Metro on my phone so nothing much can go wrong.  Out in the street, I can almost feel the elegance and style radiating from the houses.  I find the La Rambala and walk down through the crowds noting that the sellers of caged birds have thankfully gone and there is only tourist junk and stalls selling flowers and seeds.  I don’t linger except to notice at the very bottom, that the living statues have got ever more inventive, expanding to mini-stage sets and mechanical contraptions to entertain the audience. I find my way with the help of my phone maps into a fascinating labyrinth of tiny streets and squares leading back up the hill towards the Cathedral.  Barcelona has become a party city.  There are Museums, exhibitions and galleries on just about every street. Everywhere there are festivals and each square seems to have a temporary sound stage set up with music playing.  On the sea-front a band are doing a sound check, in a small square outside a large civic looking building there is a political demonstration with red balloons and music.  At the front of the cathedral there is a mediaeval band playing haunting music. Circles of elderly people are forming from the crowd to perform a sedate and elegant dance with tiny steps.  The inside of the cathedral is worth a look, particularly for the impressively tall columns around the back of the high altar.  Between the choir and the altar is a set of huge steps descending to the crypt – something I’ve never seen before.

 

Complimentary sports bag
Complimentary sports bag

It’s time to go and register for the games. David & Martin are not arriving until later in the evening & I’ve no idea what the others in our swimming team are up to.  So when I get across town to Tarragona by Metro there’s not a soul I recognise in this brightly lit sports hall.  I collect my plastic entry card, a yellow band for free entry to the party and a rather handsome back-pack with maps, info and promotional literature.  A helpful guy shows me on the map where the dinner is to be held and I wander off to have a beer as I’m very thirsty.  After another one, several handful of salted peanuts and olives I decide that it’s time to look for a bar.  I’ve done some research and there’s a gay place which serves tapas.  After a bit of wandering around, looking at the maps on my phone and trying to get orientated after exiting the metro, I find this place, a small bar with only two customers.  It’s late by London standards, but night-life in Spain starts even later.  Undaunted I order a beer, but the choice of tapas is quiche or Spanish omelette – both look unappetising but for authenticity I go for the omelette which is of course made with potatoes.  It’s OK, and calorific but I don’t stay long, moving on to the area near my hotel for a top up of pasta from an Italian place.

La Sagrada west
La Sagrada west

Saturday is race day, but not until 3pm, so I’ve booked a ticket on-line for La Sagrada Familia – Gaudi’s great cathedral which I saw nine years ago.  Begun in 1882, Gaudi spent 40 years working on it before he died after being run over by a tram.  The last time I saw it, much of the first work was in need of cleaning and restoring and a start was being made on the nave with huge stone pillars surrounded by scaffolding.  It’s a bit of a shock coming out of the Metro to see that the nave is almost completed and the whole thing has grown taller with cranes looking down on the already tall structure.  La Sagrada occupies a small block of the city and it looks like a cuckoo fledgling bursting out of its tiny nest.  The cathedral has expanded to take up all the ground and is now pushing upwards.  The transept runs west-east and the nave north south. The tower on the west side has been cleaned, but seems somehow at odds with the newer work, some of which is concrete, awaiting stone cladding.  The south end of the nave is waiting to be finished while there is clearly a huge spire being constructed in the middle of the building.

La Sagrada Fruit
La Sagrada Fruit

I’d read about the crowds of thrusting tourists in the area and how local people are pissed off with it all.  It’s phenomenal – people everywhere and tour busses passing bye every few minutes.  The best thing to do is to retreat to the garden squares on either side and allow the trees to mask the ugliness of the crowds.  Here, only a few people have got the same idea.  A group of Australians are having their photograph taken by another tourist, local people are enjoying the shade and a drunk is thrashing around in the bushes, trying to rejoin his mates after relieving himself. He manages to regain his composure once back on the path, symbolically dusting off his shabby clothes to remove any pristine foliage, possibly clinging to him.

La Sagrada East
La Sagrada East

Working my way around to the east side (I remember, with my family, being almost the only party sitting by the pond) I find there is a queue to sit on the stone wall and be clicked.  Behind me the click of boule is more entertaining.  A tour guide passes, explaining via headphones to her flock that boule is the most common game played by old people.  They are all old and concentrating on their strategy, with studied aggression.  A tape measure is produced to decide between two balls and one last throw sends rivals flying.  I’m trying to decide if the new builders of the La Sagrada have interpreted Gaudi’s imprecise plans in keeping with the early work.  The east towers have not been cleaned and I’d forgotten the bunches of grapes and fruit nestling on top of pinnacles along the nave.  It takes a while to work out that the lower windows looking into the crypt are mediaeval in style and the whole thing gets more outrageous the higher it gets.  Moving around to the east end – some of the oldest work – now cleaned, I can see that it does work even if the height may be out of proportion to its length.  It’s time to go in and see what’s been happening in the last nine years.  Then, a New Zealander was in charge of the project.

I’m waiting for my time slot when some tourists ask the ticket checker where to buy tickets.

‘Around the other side, but they are now all sold out for today.  There are only 100 tickets available on the day.  You need to book on-line, in advance.’

Stained glass windows
Stained glass windows

As I enter, the morning sunlight light streaming through a stained glass window is blinding.  I can see that the interior is complete, all of a piece and absolutely stunning.  The pillars in the nave seen nine years ago are impossibly tall.  Tree-like they stretch to support the ceiling. Those around the ambulatory and altar are even taller; reaching up to what will carry the spire.  There are many people inside, but not too many.  Everywhere the stained glass brings in colour and the plain glass making up the entire south end shows up the colour of the stone pillars.  I sit in the ‘quiet’ seats in the nave, momentarily irritated by northern Europeans talking loudly behind me.  You can go up the towers by lift for a further fee, but these were sold out when I booked a few days ago.

Nave stained glass
Nave stained glass
Nave Ceiling
Nave Ceiling
Stone pillars
Stone pillars
Holy Water Holder
Holy Water Holder

 

It’s time for something to eat before swimming and a local ice-cream parlour seems OK, but in the end I go for a Greek salad (with spinach substituting for cucumber) and coffee.  My next stop is Diagonal where the Jardins de Salvador Espriu look interesting.  It’s a classy square with a fountain frequented by clean pigeons and a sculpture of two women rebels.  It’s peaceful and an old woman in eccentric pink attire is asleep on the stone seating clutching a red and yellow check umbrella against the sun and with her feet sheltering in a plastic shopping bag.  I sit and rest my legs, conscious that I shall have to use them soon for swimming. The swimming pool is a moderate walk from here and I arrive far too early.  The atmosphere in the pool reception is hot and humid and I manage to find a shaded park bench around the corner for a snooze.

@ Jardin de Salvador
@ Jardin de Salvador

 

 

Copenhagen the morning after

The Morning after Pride

 

Historic Christianshavn
Historic Christianshavn

It’s rained copiously overnight with thunder and lightning but Sunday dawns sort of bright with some sun.  I’ve got three things in the list today before flying out.  First up is to explore the Christianshaun area a bit more.  There’s the Danish Architecture Centre which looks interesting.

Danish Architecture Centre
Danish Architecture Centre

It’s housed in a big old warehouse and mounts temporary exhibitions.  Today there’s one which greets me with the message that the exhibition is outside – in the city.  It’s about sustainability and building for human beings and communities rather than the eye-catching design.  The main feature is a plastic model of a circular student hall of residence (the Tietgen Dormitory) photographed by a drone.  The images are printed and pasted onto the model.  Bedrooms and studies face outwards while the living areas look into the circular central space.  This apparently creates a community feeling where everyone can see (if they want to) what everyone else is doing socially.  It’s been a successful social experiment.

Waterfront with National Theatre (L) & Opera House (R)
Waterfront with National Theatre (L) & Opera House (R)

Other featured buildings in the exhibition include a bank just down from my hotel, the New Opera House and National Theatre. Upstairs is a small exhibition about Japanese architecture for family living in very small spaces.  From the outside they are unremarkable but full of invention inside.

 

I walk a few blocks, intending to look at Our Saviour’s Church, which on a Sunday is supposed to open at 10.30am. It’s the one with the brown and gold spiral steeple. There’s a service going on and the tower is closed due to bad weather.  King Christian’s church is having a christening which people are rushing to attend.  The tower is covered in scaffolding so not currently photogenic.  The Crypt however is open, displaying family memorials and wooden coffins, presumably containing bodies.

It’s raining again so I shelter under an awning by a bus stop waiting to be transported semi-dry to the Carlsburg Glyptotek, just near the Tivoli Gardens.  Copenhagen has been flooded and the bus is diverted.  Everywhere are fire-hoses pumping water into canals and harbour.  As I walk down the side of the Tivoli Gardens, clinging to my very small umbrella, there are huge queues of bedraggled tourists standing next to their tour busses.  They look very pissed off because the Tivoli Gardens are flooded.  It’s still raining and I can see a few rain-coated dads with similarly waterproofed children in the soft play areas seeming to have fun.

Kitch woman with babies in Winter Garden
Kitch woman with babies in Winter Garden

The Glyptotek looks like a much more comfortable option and I discover that it’s free on Sundays – no wonder it’s popular.  Just as I make a start of the ‘Ancient Mediterranean’ section, there’s a text from David. He’s just seen Luci onto the train to the airport, is soaking wet and wonders what I’m doing today.

‘Come to the Glyptotek, it’s just around the corner from the station,’ I reply.

Van Gough
Van Gough

Several texts later he arrives and we sit in the Winter Garden, a covered atrium in the centre of the building.  He dries out and after some lunch and coffee we investigate the collection.  There’s a modern wing – out the back – accessed by marble steps and ramps which houses a very good collection of impressionists – Manet, Monet, Van Gough,  Renoir & David.

 

Sorrow or giref a favourite subject here
Sorrow or giref a favourite subject here
God of Healing
God of healing in need of assistance

Of particular note is the Gauguin collection ranging from excellent early work to later Tahitian examples.  If you’re a fan of Degas and ballet girls, then this is a good place for you – bronzes and paintings.  There’s an accent on sculpture here and a vast collection of classical heads which have been ‘dug up’ minus their bodies and ended up here.  Some of them are missing bits, so there’s a display of spare parts used to restore statues for exhibition purposes.  We can’t see it all in our time left and now that the rain has abated we separately collect our luggage, meet back at the station to head back to London.

Marble relief
Oh my dear, what is he doing down there.
Old statues in replica temple
Old statues in replica temple

Pride in Copenhagen

Pride Bus
Pride Bus

The National Gallery of Denmark is on the menu today and one of the first things I notice; waiting at the bus-stop is that all the buses are flying the Danish flag on one side and the rainbow flag on the other.  Public buildings are also sporting the gay flag – I can’t imagine that happening in London. The imposing gallery building looking all newly scrubbed, towers over me as I alight at the stop.  It’s only just opening time so I’m one of the first.  It’s free with a small charge for the lockers.  There’s quite a good collection of French impressionists and several good Van Gough paintings.

National Gallery
National Gallery

Then there’s a section on European art and another for Danish and Nordic Art.  It takes several hours to get through all this and then I discover a whole new wing of contemporary design

Modern wing
Modern wing

out the back and connected by a glass roof.  There’s a café in the basement looking out on to a park – where I have a coffee break – and a sculpture street above to be investigated. I discover more stuff made after 1900 including Danish, French and international work where Matisse and Picasso can be found so I extend my visit.

I’ve had an email about the Gay Pride march, but the details are confusing and I’m under the impression that it all starts at the Town Hall at 1pm. There’s nothing happening here except bands doing sound checks for later and an old bearded man who has

Sculpture Street
Sculpture Street

acquired a blond wig, shouting drunkenly, ‘No music! F..k you!’ in a very loud voice.  Eventually David and Luci arrive and we suspect that the parade is going to end here.  We walk towards where we think the parade is coming and settle down for a drink and food, but realise that the march is turning off further up the road.  Downing our refreshments, we make our way back to the rear of the Town Hall Square and manage to catch the start of the Parade and the Water Polo Boys who have been marching in the rain, in their Speedos.  We resist the urge to join the march, and enjoy the pageantry which is more varied, elaborate and sophisticated that London Pride (we like a bit of vulgarity in London).  The marchers squeeze into a narrow space leading to the Square and then disperse.  We hang about with the Water Polo guys for a while before going to the Gay Street, which has been blocked off from traffic.  Beer is on sale here for 40Kr but around the corner there’s a straight place doing it for 25Kr.  So every time we need another round we go back round the corner to the cute guy with a beard.  He’s pleased to see us and sort of OK with us flirting with him.

Conchita girl
Conchita girl

Studiestraede is full of plastic gazebos, sun-umbrellas and out-door seating.  It rains intermittently so we all have umbrellas at the ready.  Each bar has its own DJ with out-door speakers blasting out disco music.  We wander up and down with our cheap beers enjoying the sights, but tend to return to The Jailhouse (from last night) where the men are sexier and the music better.  We manage to find a place to sit under a gazebo and watch a crowd of people doing the most fantastic dancing in the rain.  Some girls wearing Conchita Wurst tee shirts briefly stop to shelter from the rain. Then one of the British gay football teams joins us and I try to explain the joke about ‘Wurst Fu?r Alle’.

Conchita back
Conchita back

We try the sausages (wurst) plain and with chillies – they are delicious and somehow the afternoon stretches into the evening and I don’t have any more room for beer.  The rain becomes torrential and people take shelter or melt away into the night.  Miraculously the buses are still running.

Culture & Sport day two

Rosenborg Castle

 

Rosenborg Castle
Rosenborg Castle

Copenhagen, like Amsterdam doesn’t open early, so the café I’ve arranged to meet with David and Luci for morning coffee isn’t open.  The one over the road is only just open and when the lads do arrive it’s time to make for the Rosenborg Castle where Thibault will hopefully be waiting.  Having got my travel card and worked out how the buses run, I manage to persuade them not to walk all the way as I want to save my legs for racing later in the day.  This means that they have to buy some bus tickets from the station.  By the time we walk there, and then find a bus stop which we get off several stops too early, we’ve only cut our walking down by a half.  Thibault is waiting patiently just inside the castle gate and having studied Wikipedia for information on this 17th century royal castle, proceeds to tell us about it.  David & Luci need breakfast so we can’t pass by the café until they’ve eaten.

 

Ivory carved ship
Ivory carved ship

Begun in 1606 by King Christian IV subsequent kings lived here until 1710.  It has maintained a tradition of being a Museum, a storehouse for royal family heirlooms, treasures, crowns and thrones.  We start with the treasury in the basement.  There’s a whole room full of exquisitely carved ivory objects and just as I’m thinking about poachers, Luci articulates ‘Oh the poor elephants.’  There are also racks of Rosenborg wine which claim to be from the 1600’s.  I can’t help thinking that they’ve probably long turned to vinegar by now.

Coronation crown
Coronation crown

There is a whole room devoted to Christian IV’s riding trappings from his coronation of 1596 – Jewel encrusted saddle and bridle.  Further on there is his very elaborate coronation crown.

Crowns for absolute monarchs
Crowns for absolute monarchs

By 1671 the Danish kings had become absolute monarchs and there is the coronation crown used for 5 more kings called Christian. A queen’s crown from 1731 accompanies it.  It’s all quite relaxed – we can stop and take photos through the glass cases – and I can’t help comparing it with the British jewel house in The Tower with its moving platform and elaborate security arrangements.

Royal bling
Royal bling

Upstairs, the castle is arranged in a sort of chronological order, giving a flavour of different kings furnished with tapestries family portraits and royal possessions. One memorable room is Christian IV’s toilet now tiled with Delft.  There are, however, no bathrooms.  Right on the top is one large room which houses a narwhale – tusk throne for the king and silver throne for the queen.  They are guarded by three silver (plated) lions.

 

Inlaid table
Inlaid table

It’s now threatening to rain and we need to find food and digest it before 4pm when the swimming starts.

Originally the swimming was to take place over two days, but entries have been low and it’s all been condensed at short notice to Friday from 16.00 – 20.00hrs.  I guess there are just too many LGBT sports meets around Europe.  We are aware that we are only four in our team, enough for a relay at least, but lament the fact that not more OTSers have come.  We’re envious of the Water Polo team turn out who are all having a fun time.  Various theories are put forward for the low turnout, including the ascendancy of open water swimming (there’s the London swim this weekend in the docks – which turns out to be cancelled) but we don’t have any answers.

Having taken care of our cultural needs in the Morning, OTS team mate Thibault is in charge of getting us to the Bellahøj Svømmestadion.  This is mainly because he’s already been there to support the Water Polo teams. But first we have to eat some lunch and happen upon a market food court.  There are all sorts of healthy juice and salad bars and we buy that essential food for swimmers, bananas. There are only four of us but it takes quite some organisation to get us on the bus.  Tickets have to be got – I have a 72 hour pass which is still valid – then there’s a problem with someone’s credit card in the machine and the bank has to be called. Thibault has to go back to the food place for his umbrella and Luci has to buy a towel. Eventually, we all get on a 5A bus which takes ages to make its way to the pool.

The bus drops us right opposite the impressive looking complex and we are early, so there’s time to enter our relay team details and also get signed up for the Rainbow Relay at the end.  It’s one of those pools where you have to get naked and wash all the hairy bits before putting on trunks and getting into the water.  Fortunately, no one is supervising.  It all seems a bit random organisation-wise as it turns out that the warm up starts at three and the races at four, so we are not that early.  Heat sheets are on the walls so we all have to keep our wits about us as to the order of events and which events we’ve actually entered and where the relays are placed.  Fortunately the announcer is calling out names and lanes for each event.  I’m the first to swim with 200 Backstroke which seems to go very slowly. Luchi is not looking forward to doing 100m Fly in a 50 m pool.  He’s leading after of 50 M but five meters from the end, someone lowers a piano from the ceiling onto his back and he comes third for a gold medal.  Thibault is really giving it a go with both 50 and 100 m Fly – it looks like hard work but it pays of as he’s got silver and bronze.

There’s a problem with the 4 x 50 freestyle relay which should come before my 100m Backstroke.  I can see in the control box that the woman is still desperately entering our details into the computer.  I’m ok with that as I prefer to do the backstroke first.  We do have breaks in the programme to recover and then launch into the medley relays.  It’s my third backstroke race and I’m longing to do a bit of front crawl for a change.  However, we win a gold medal for our efforts in the 160+ age range.

During the second break there’s a syncro demonstration/lesson.  A woman gets volunteers into the pool and does a lesson to create a small routine at the end – quite impressive.

 

Out to Swim bling
Out to Swim bling

David F seems to have all his races at the end with backstroke and breaststroke back to back (he’s still in the fastest heat and wins gold for both). Luci must have clicked a wrong button on registration as he’s suddenly called for the 200m freestyle, which is definitely not his style and David’s shoulder tells him that doing fly is not advisable today.  Thibault briefly contemplates the wisdom of doing the 200 Individual Medley but realises that this is his best chance of a gold medal.  It’s such an exhausting race, so five stars to Thibault.  Finally we get to do our 4 x 50 m freestyle relay.  We are probably first in the 160+ group, but someone – who shall be nameless – starts ever so slightly early and we are disqualified.  The last race is the rainbow relay and we are all mixed up in teams of six and given different coloured caps to wear.  It’s all good fun and relaxed.  Cute guys are giving out medals with continental style kisses.  We’ve had a great time and a laugh, we just wish there were more of us. (Stockholm – who are hosting the Gay Euro Games next year – brought a team of over 20).

The down side of so few competitors is that the programme goes too fast to recover between races.  I’m the only one in my age range so am guaranteed gold medals however slowly I swim.  I do like to have someone to race with even though coach Martin Purcell keeps saying ‘It’s all about the medals’.  Our muscles are all full of lactic acid but we do have a truck load of medals just for him.

We head back to town to join the Water Polo Guys on an upstairs balcony bar. They have already eaten so we go downstairs and have the most gigantic burgers I’ve ever seen.  The Polo youngsters are off to GAY, but Luci, David and I, after much discussion and looking at my trusty map, find Studiestrade (Copenhagen’s gay street) and settle down for an evening of research and observation which is of course, thirsty work.  After a short investigation of Men’s Bar we come to rest at the Jailhouse further along the road which is packed with friendly guys.

Day One Sport & Culture in Copenhagen

Hans Christian Andersen
Hans Christian Andersen

What better excuse, if one were needed, to visit Copenhagen, than to compete in the Pan Gay Games for Out to Swim?  Several others spring to mind: I’ve never been; my great grandfather was born here, ran away to sea and ended up in New Zealand; the story of the Little Mermaid was a child-hood favourite with Danny Kaye singing ‘Wonderful Wonderful Copenhagen in the Hans Christian Andersen movie.

Old Naval Building
Old Naval Building

There are only four of us going to swim.  Me, Luci, David and Thibauld.  I’ve exchanged phone numbers with Luci and found him on Viber so we can all meet up – hopefuly.  It’s always nerve-wracking trying to work out how a city works. Getting from the airport to the centre thence to my hotel is, however, embarrassingly easy after deciding what travel card to buy and collecting free maps of the city.  I’ve spent hours memorising the city from on-line sites and so easily find the Hotel Wake-up Copenhagen only a short walk from the station. It’s cheap (for Denmark), sparse, functional Scandinavian chic and the wifi works – for free. In fact there is free wifi of sorts all over the city and you can hear young people enthusing about it as they look at their smartphones. There’s been a change in the swimming schedule.

Canal Christianshavn
Canal Christianshavn

The races set for Thursday afternoon have all been moved to Friday and a warm-up/ training session offered by way of compensation.  I’m thinking that it might be good to check out the pool – if I can work out how to get there – and support our Water Polo team.  There’s a bus at the end of the road which will take me there, but I decide to go to the Town Hall Square first where Gay Pride is all set up and I think I can register for the games.  Apparently the Prime Minister addressed the competitors last night, she’s Neil Kinnock’s daughter-in-Law.  There is no registration desk today, but Luci and David are there eating and drinking beer.  It’s hot and sunny, what reason do I have for not having a beer mid afternoon? Oh yes, we’re intending to go swimming and support the Water Polo Team.  Three beers later we’ve abandoned the idea of gong to the pool.  We vaguely talk about meeting up for dinner but viber hasn’t delivered on the communication front so anything could happen. I sleep off the beer at my hotel and catch a bus to my pre-booked evening canal cruise.

Opera House
Opera House

I’m very please with this achievement as my city map has all the bus routes marked.  The exact location of the canal cruise is guess work and I’m also very early.  There’s a floating pier decked out with rainbow flags in front of a posh restaurant and so I think this might be the place.  I re-trace my steps slightly to the previously observed Malmo Café which looks as if it might do coffee and snacks.  It’s in a basement and as the first glimpse reveals a pool table, it’s clearly not a café, but a bar, deserted but for the barman who is eating a takeaway salad in a plastic box.  This kind of tells me that there is no kitchen on site, however they do coffee. I ask if there are any snacks like crisps or nuts. No, there are not.  I drink my coffee and he eats his salad – both in silence.  I pass the time observing the huge collection of bottle-openers on the walls and hanging from the ceiling.  Then it’s time to go for the boat trip.  This time the open boat is moored and people are getting on for the second tour of the evening. We are all handed plastic rainbow flags and greeted by a blond wigged drag queen dressed in red and white stripes with basket-ball sized false boobs shoved down her jacket.  She has a megaphone which in addition to amplifying her voice, plays phrases of music and police alarms.  People arrive from nowhere and the boat fills up.  We’re off, being guided by a man with a comedy script full of gay innuendo and risqué jokes.  We cruise along past the stunning new Opera house which locals apparently call ‘The toaster’ then pass a huge concrete warehouse which we are assured was the venue for this years Eurovision.  Crossing to the other side, we see the residence of the Royals and the rear of The Little Mermaid.  Whenever we get close to the bank, our guide exhorts us to wave all the straight people.  We do, and they wave back.  Next it’s a look at the new, National Theatre that has a copper fly-tower which will eventually go green like other buildings in the city.  We detour up a canal through the Christianshavn area.  This is the only part of the City which hasn’t been burnt down (Copenhagen was raised to the ground several times) and consequently has architecture from different eras. We catch sight of Our Saviour’s church with its dark brown spiral tower. Back on the harbour we see the impressive and modern Royal Library and ancient military buildings from which cannons are still fired twice a day. Across the harbour we enter a canal which circumnavigates Castle Island.  This area has more royal palaces, the King’s brew-house and the dramatic looking Old Stock Exchange.  We wave at more straight people and they wave back.  In spite of all the campery, it’s been fun and a good way of seeing the city. I’ve had a text from the tam-mates to say they are eating with the Water Polo guys near to my Hotel.  I catch another bus and arrive at Bio Mio just as they are completing their orders.  It’s perfect timing with a fantastic dish of pork and great blond beer.  We swimmers are tacked on the end of the Water Polo Table. They’re all glad to see us – finally.  They are playing next morning and we have to swim in the afternoon, so early to bed.  Thibault says there are three cultural things we should see in this town and we arrange to meet up at the Rosenborg Castle tomorrow.

Prague Spring – Sunday

It seems that these European sporting meets always have a Brunch on the day after and I’ve signed up for it.

Pavilion Grébovka
Pavilion Grébovka

The Pavilion Grébovka is set in an attractive park and looks like a gingerbread house basking in the sunshine.  I meet up with the three French Guys and proceed to work our way through a feast.  Everything is good except the coffee.  There’s an offer of a free walking tour around Praha in the afternoon so I have to hang around for this to begin.  Pavel is a gay professional tour guide and he promises a somewhat subversive view of things.  He wants to show us the history of the Czech Republic and its relationship with neighbours, the rest of the world and homosexuality. There are 10-12 guys on the tour some of them are from Germany, one guy from Austria, a local gay couple (the younger one comes from Slovakia) and the masseur – who is from Prague but now lives in Israel.

We begin in Wenceslas Square, which is more of a boulevard sweeping down from the Museum towards the Old Town Square.  Pavel tells us this is where, in the past, you could pick up a guy for sex.  We see a memorial to Jan Palach a young student who set himself alight in protest at the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 see: http://www.radio.cz/en/section/czechs/jan-palach-the-student-whose-self-immolation-still-haunts-czechs-today

Canal which was Venice in Film Casino Royal
Canal which was Venice in Film Casino Royal

Pavel shows us the contrast between a Soviet designed building and those of a more elegant era.  Time is short as some of the party have to leave.  They are catching a train and though we don’t have time to go to the station we are told about the Kinder Transport bronze statues which are companions to those at Liverpool Street Station in London.  There’s also a statue of a Czech kissing a Soviet Soldier which Pavel thinks is very homo erotic, supposedly to show gratitude for being saved.  From what is not clear.  For the benefit of the Slovakian, Pavel tells us that Slovakia collaborated with the Nazis by handing over their Jews.  Prague was apparently one of the first cities in Europe to welcome Jews and consequently there is evidence still of a once thriving community and you can still see the Orthodox on the streets.  Everywhere on buildings there are the names of the streets and district we are in.  The old ones (germanised) have not been taken down and co-exist with modern Czech versions.  To understand all this we have to do some history and as we are standing in Wenceslas Square under the statue of St Vaclav this is a good place to start with the story of Bohemia.  There is a very complicated theory of how the word Bohemian came in to being, involving the Roma, who were originally from India via Bohemia and when asked (in France) where they came from the answer was Bohemia, because that’s where they were last.  We get the story of protestant Bohemia being subsumed into the Hapsburg Empire, returning to Catholicism and being forced to speak German.  This is to be a running gag for the benefit of the Austrian and Germans.

Castle Gardens
Castle Gardens

They take it all in good part as we make our way to the Castle area on the other side of the river.  Here we enter fabulous public gardens around the parliament buildings.  The Castle where the president lives is above us as is the Cathedral.  The President is allegedly an alcoholic and has been given this job to keep him out of trouble while the Prime minister gets on with the work.  The President is anti gay and has also been on record saying that everyone should smoke and drink like him so that people will die younger and save the pension funds.  I think that will only work if people have to pay for their healthcare.

Famous View of Prague and the charles Bridge from the river
Famous View of Prague and the charles Bridge from the river

We come down to the river to see a great view of the Charles Bridge and Old City.

But before we cross there are Pissing statues by David ?ern?.  The Czechs are well know for taking the piss out of themselves and here, literally, are two men pissing on a map of their country.

Pissing Statues
Pissing Statues

There are more memorials to the revolution.  There’s the John Lennon Pub unaccountably sitting in a quiet street.   Lennon was never in Prague or the Czech Republic, but the Beatles songs greatly influenced the young and as their music was banned, records were smuggled in wearing Mozart dust jackets.  In 1980 anticommunists painted ‘Imagine’ on a nearby convent wall opposite the French Embassy.  It was removed immediately but the wall remained a focus of dissident graffiti and remains ever changing today.

John Lennon Pub
John Lennon Pub
Grafitti Wall
Grafitti Wall

We cross the Charles Bridge noting the location of a Mission Impossible scene and looking at the propaganda statues on the bridge.  In particular there is a plaque showing the martyrdom of St John.  In 1393 Queen Sophia’s confessor refused to divulge her secrets and was killed by order of the king. It’s supposed to be good luck to touch it.  Various bits of brass have been kept looking clean by the constant touching.  Pavel thinks that the stories change from time to time so that different parts of the brasses can be cleaned by the tourists.

By this time we have lost most of the party who have had to catch trains or go to the ‘After Party’. On the bridge, Pavel points out the Rudolfinum, named after the Hapsburg prince Rudolph who carried out a suicide pact with his lover at Mayerling.  This music auditorium was used by the Germans in the war and the story goes that Hitler attended a concert there.  He demanded that the statue of Jewish composer Mendelssohn be taken down.  The staff had no idea which statue to remove and in the end they decided on the one with the largest nose which turned out to be Wagner.  We turn right over the bridge to take a brief look at the National Theatre but the real prize is the Theatre where Václav Havel worked as a stage hand.

Václav Havel's Theatre
Václav Havel’s Theatre

We wander around the streets looking at insignias on the businesses, all the while noting the German and Czech versions of street signs.  We pass the Gay sauna next to a church and now there are only three of us who eat at a traditional Czech restaurant.  The beer is as usual excellent and the meal, which arrives at speed, is tasty and cheap.  I have to leave now if I’m to make the evening concert at St Nicholas in the Old Town Square.  The ensemble is comprised of four violins, a viola, cello and double bass.  There’s a trumpeter and a Mezzo soprano who come in and out throughout the programme which last an hour. Mozart, Bach, Handel, Franck and Vivaldi are on the programme.  I realise it’s a mixture of what can be achieved with the forces available and what the popular tunes are.  The audience are all tourists from all over the world. Some applaud between movements but it doesn’t matter and the artists are gracious.

Sigmund Freud contemplating suicide
Sigmund Freud contemplating suicide

I’ve an early flight in the morning and decide to take the hotel car so there’s no time for breakfast.  It’s German Wings on the way home.  They are more relaxed and comfortable than Ryan Air but I could have done without the long stop in Köln, where I have breakfast and buy Swiss chocolate from the duty free at much the same price as Sainsburys.

Saturday Prague Rainbow Spring

Saturday dawns cold and bleak. Swimming is part of the International LGBT games including Badminton, Bowling, Golf, Squash, Tennis, a trail run, table tennis and Volleyball.  For me it’s the usual morning routine eating breakfast at least two hours before swimming.  The journey to the pool is by metro and bus, it’s easier than anticipated. A bus arrives almost immediately and I think it prudent to ask if I’m going in the right direction. It’s no use trying to pronounce Czech words as several of the letters have completely different sounds and they just look at you blankly, so I point to the stop on the brochure I got from registration.  Yes I’m on the right bus.  There’s a screen showing the progress of the bus, the next stop and several beyond, so further reassurance arrives when my stop is indicated.

Charles University Pool
Charles University Pool

The pool is part of the Charles University but situated in an outlying suburb of communist era social housing.  Blocks of apartments have been brightened up with coats of pain and replacement double glazed windows.  I seem to be the only one arriving at the pool but down at the dressing rooms there are staff to hand me a padlock and key.  There are a few others changing and I get talking to a French guy from Lyon.  He swims with a straight club there.  He knows of a couple who belong to Paris Aquatique and soon has me organised to make up a relay team which we call Out in Paris.  Everyone seems to know of Out to Swim London so it’s good to be representing the club here even if I am the only one.

Out in Paris Relay team
Out in Paris Relay team

It’s a small meet and we’re allowed three entries plus relays.  I’ve had the start list and noted that I’m the oldest competitor here today. I’m also the only one in my age group, so I’ll be checking that my times are respectable.  I’ve been to New Zealand for a week and although I trained twice with Team Auckland Master Swimmers I fear all the flying may be a problem.  It’s not and my times are OK.  The competition starts at 11 and the events seem to fly by as apart from the 200 metres freestyle and the 100m Individual Medley, everything else is 50 metres.  The commentator does everything in English and we are a bit surprised when he announces the 500 metres butterfly.  He continues in this way, but no one does more than 50.  There’s an hour for lunch with free food and coffee and the afternoon session is over by 3pm.  Our relay team has done well but there are no age group categories for these so we don’t beat the sexy young Romanian team.  We have the use of the pool to swim down for the rest of the afternoon and there is a free masseur provided and I decide to take advantage as its all been quite concentrated.

Relay team again
Relay team again

There’s time for an afternoon nap before venturing out to a local eatery which seems to be serving traditional Czech food.  I’m shocked to find that people are smoking inside and the waiters take no notice of me so I have to really insist on getting a seat.  I end up sharing a table with a young man and his girlfriend.  She looks very bored and he casts me an occasional uneasy glance.  It’s a steak house – though it’s pork, not beef.  Mine comes in a creamy sauce with chips which are the best I’ve ever tasted.  The side dish of vegetables is green beans and baby carrots – very salty and from the freezer. It all gets washed down with the usual excellent local beer.

I’m off to the Rainbow Spring Party by tram. Again, it all seems complicated as the No 9 (because of road works) has become the No 29 but I’ve got instructions from the hotel concierge and all is well.  I’m going to watch the Gay Theatre which precedes the party in the icy cold warehouse venue.  Divadlo-Leti is presenting what the postcard says is Gay Theatre performed ‘in Czech with simultaneous interpreting into English’.  It’s a play for one actor called After Frederick by Mattias Brunn a gay actor and playwright, written in 2007, so it’s a little bit dated.  The protagonist falls in love with Frederick and has to come out to his Mum and Dad, both of whom are OK with that.  The next hurdle is leaving home to move in with Frederick and all is well for two years until Frederick begins to act strangely.  He’s HIV positive and so is our hero, who falls to pieces.  Frederick commits suicide leaving the boy to pick up the pieces and carry on.  So it’s quite grim.  The staging is very Eastern European so that the floor is a checker board and the actor can only step on white squares of vinyl.  If he wants to cross the stage, he must lay a trail of white squares to walk on.  By the climax the white squares are everywhere leaving one mirror tile for reflection.  Then in a frenzy the actor scrunches up the tiles and throws them into disarray.  The scenery is doing the sub-text.  I’m the only taker for the simultaneous translation, which has involved another actor behind a glass screen speaking the English version into my headphones.  I can sort of hear both languages but it’s best to concentrate on the English and the actor doing it is good.

The warehouse venue is freezing and I watch the company dismantle the lighting rig and pack up the set whilst waiting for the party to begin.  Various heat blasters have been deployed and I make the mistake of getting a red wine (which is terrible) instead of Czech beer (which is fabulous).  My French colleagues arrive and we chat and shiver.  The music is heavy and dull so by 11.30 I’m ready to catch the tram back to my hotel.

Prague Rainbow Spring 2014

I have ten hours to get from Heathrow to Stanstead, time to go home, shower, have lunch, wash clothes, water plants and have a snooze.  Ryan Air is slightly less stressed than it used to be now that there is seat allocation. We travellers still seem to have pavlovian conditioning to rush and queue.  The airline likes to keep up the hysteria and has introduces a new threat – only the first ninety  items of hand luggage can get into the cabin – the rest will be put in the hold.  You have to admire their ruthless efficiency though.  No sooner has the plane landed and passengers cleared but we are on and seated. There’s no time for cleaning of the aircraft and no time for safety instructions – they are printed on the back of the non-reclining seats.  Steffano from Out to Swim is on this flight, but he’s coming to the games to play volleyball.  We meet up again at an ATM in Prague Airport which doesn’t want to oblige.  I go through customs and find my pre-ordered transport and a cash dispenser which works.  I’ve splashed out on the Art Nouveau Palace Hotel, not wanting to repeat my budget experience in Amsterdam for Valentine’s weekend.  There’s a cute young trainee on the desk who checks me in charmingly and I’m relieved that it’s all gone smoothly having left Auckland early on the 30th April and arrived in Prague late on the 1st May.

Art Nouveau Theatre
Art Nouveau Theatre
Panorama from Town Hall Tower
Panorama from Town Hall Tower

BBC weather has told me to expect rain, so it’s a surprise to find its sunny and warm on Friday. Five metres outside the Hotel, I turn back for my umbrella, just in case.  Heading for the town square is always a good place to start and on my way there, stop to observe a fine Art Nouveau theatre – there is a Prague Spring Arts Festival on this weekend and already there are groups of tourists gathering around their tour guides.  The Old Town Square has a tower and I can see people looking down from it.  That, I decide is my first point of call – nothing like a bird’s eye view to get one’s bearings.  The tower, with astrological clock is part of the Town Hall and it’s economical to get a ticket for both.  At the top, all the major sights are pointed out on brass plaques in Czech and English.  A plan is evolving and there’s time to visit a couple of churches on the square.

Our Lady before Tyn
Our Lady before Tyn

I fancy Our Lady before Tyn.  It’s one of the oldest with dramatic turrets.  There’s no obvious way in as restaurants have been built in front of the façade.  I find a side entrance though a classical record shop and see immediately that the interior of the church appears to be mainly gothic in its design and construction with a towering nave but the addition of baroque ornamentation and guilt ruins a once fine piece of architecture.  Now, I’m OK with baroque music but architecture and décor is tedious.  It’s off to St Nicholas on a corner of the square.  This is a true baroque building and works, if you’re into wedding cakes.  It’s surprisingly small considering the high dome and has a chandelier too large for the space.

St Nicholas
St Nicholas

It’s time for the Town Hall Tour (in English) which is well worth it. The pragmatic authorities of mediaeval Prague purchased three houses in the centre of the old town and added a tower.

Old town Hall
Old town Hall

They’ve retained the individual characters of the houses so it doesn’t look much like a Town Hall.  Our guide explains the functions of various rooms – an ex chapel sustained bomb damage in the war and has fine replacement stained glass windows.

Modern stained glass windows
Modern stained glass windows

A Court Room has statues of the Virgin Mary, St John the Baptist and other worthies to help the judges make the right decisions.  Another room is done in Art Nouveau style – very common in this city – and is still used for government receptions.  I didn’t know that the Czech Republic used to be known as Bohemia with monarchs such as Queen Ludmila and King Wenceslas (of carol fame) now treated as national saints.   I once played Polixenes, the King of Bohemia in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, but the geography is all wrong in the play as there is no sea coast here and it’s certainly not near Sicillia.

Underground Praha
Underground Praha

Our tour takes us far underground in what seems like dungeons. Actually, they are the ancient streets of Praha, covered walkways and shops which have been built upon over the

Tourists clock watching
Tourists clock watching

centuries, raising the city higher to avoid the floods.  The river Tava still floods so one can only imagine what devastation they caused down at this level.  The Town Hall tower is famous for its Astrological clock and we emerge to row upon row of tourists looking at it and the Hall, many of them listening to their tour guides through earpieces.

Synagogue in Jewish Quarter
Synagogue in Jewish Quarter

The sun shines and it’s a warm day, bringing all the tourists into the streets.  Praha is a city for walking in and it’s crowded.  I vaguely wander in the direction of the Jewish quarter where there are numerous synagogues, a Jewish cemetery and museum, but the crowds are too great and I find my way to the river and walk upstream.

Eiffel tower & Castle across the river
Eiffel tower & Castle across the river

It’s a lovely sight looking across to the castle and cathedral on a hill surrounded by various palaces of government.  The President lives on one of them and the Prime Minister (real power) in a villa set apart to one side.  On top of a neighbouring hill is a replica of the top part of the Eiffel Tower. Apparently the Czechs liked the original in Paris but couldn’t afford the whole lot.  Still, it looks like there will be a good view of the City.

The National Theatre
The National Theatre

I pass the Charles Bridge, but it is crowded with tourists so I make my way past the gilt crowned National Theatre , which is having its façade restored -onwards to see the Dancing House – otherwise known as Ginger and Fred.  It’s the first new building in Paha city centre for fifty years.  The Architect is Vlado Milvnic supported by Frank Gehry.  The original building was owned by a Dutch company and this one was opened in 1992.  Twelve years later it is still looking for tenants.  The people of Praha hate it passionately but I think it’s great.  With reference to neighbouring buildings it is

Ginger & Fred
Ginger & Fred

both elegant and amusing.  There’s a good view across the river from the top and you can have a classy meal in the restaurant.  Other floors are given over to modern art exhibitions – the current installations vary from good to poor – but worth a look.

I cross the river and begin to walk down the other side but it’s time for a late lunch and a tapas restaurant nestled on an island in the river presents itself.  There’s only a handful off customers at this hour but that doesn’t prevent the service from being slow and surly.  I order two dishes and the waitress says ‘Is that all?’ in such a way as to suggest that I’ve not ordered enough, but when they do come I’ve ordered plenty.  The clear plastic sides of the restaurant are lowered, the sky darkens, it rains and the wind blows.  I’m glad I brought the brolly.  I get as far as the Charles Bridge and decide to call it a day.  There are statues and brasses to rub for luck on the way across the bridge, trying all the time to prevent the umbrella from blowing out.  Later, I venture out to the Old Square for a Czech feast as the menu describes it.  Once again I’m sitting outside under heating with slow service and still feeling cold.  In spite of this, it’s been a day of unexpected beauty.  Everywhere you look in the old city of Praha, it’s pretty and elegant no wonder it’s so popular.