Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Veveří Castle

On Sunday, I went with Kamila and Slávka out to Veveří Castle. It is about 15 km northwest of the city. Now that the cleanup effort has been completed at the dam, and there’s water again, you can take a boat out to the castle. It takes about 50 minutes and 170 Kč (~$8) to get out to the castle. Fortunately, with my tram pass I got a 50% discount. Woo-Hoo!
I tease my co-workers that the boats on the lake make up the Czech navy. The boats come around every 40 minutes and on a sunny day it is nice to just relax and look out at the scenery. Apparently there is a nude sunbathing area a couple of ferry stops from the dam. And no, I didn't take any pictures there.

Hrad Veveří (Squirrel Castle) is one of the largest Moravian castle sites. Originally, it was most likely a hunting lodge and probably built around the 12th century. 

The castle held up to the Hussite attacks but fell to the Swedes during the Thirty Years’ War. During WWII, the German army used it as barracks. 

In the 1950s it was used by a forestry school. There have been numerous property transfers and the place has fallen in to disrepair. 

Since 1999, it belongs to the Office for the Preservation of Historical Monuments.

There’s not a lot to see there, when it comes to the castle, but it makes for a nice outing on a beautiful day.

Update:  In July 2023, Veveří Castle will be designated as a National Cultural Monument.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Brno Pride 2010

Pride marks the anniversary of the Stonewall riots which was the start of the gay rights movement in the U.S. Yesterday, was Brno's gay pride event. I've got to say that it was unlike any that I've seen before.

For example, in the U.S., Pride normally begins on Friday afternoon and lasts the entire weekend. You have THOUSANDS of people show up. There will sometimes be a few religious protesters but nothing to worry about. There are always lots of booths and vendors. Some great parties. And everyone searches for the perfect spot on Sunday morning to watch the parade.

Here, Pride was on a Saturday from 1 PM - 3 PM. There were about 600 people. There was one afterparty that began at 7 PM. Neo-Nazis showed up. And we were the parade. Again, very different. This must have been how it was like in Atlanta or Los Angeles back in the 70s and early 80s.

Czechs are the most liberal of the post-iron curtain countries. As a part of the EU, the ČR recognizes same-sex couples, complete with all of the financial benefits that straight couples receive. Except that gay couples can not adopt children here. So this country is ahead of the U.S. when it comes to equal rights.

But sometimes, to me, it feels like the 1950s around here. I think it has to do with the legacy of communism. Back then, people got married and started having kids quite young. Between 18 - 23. And having a family made it easier to get a government apartment. If you weren't married with kids then you were an old maid.

This is only the second Pride ever in Brno. The first one was in 2008 and was disrupted by protestors. They haven't even had one in Prague yet. I'm sure that the city didn't want a repeat of what happened in Bratislava last month. There were about 150 militants from the right-wing Národní odpor (National resistance) that showed up. But security was tight. Police were in full riot gear to keep the peace. There were canine units, police on horseback and a helicopter over the event the entire time.

Overall it was a very mellow event. Several speakers including Dzhamila Stehlíková, from the Government Council for Human Rights. A few disco songs, some more speakers and a 20-minute march around Freedom Square.

One guy near us did try to throw eggs and the cops had him slammed to the ground in about 2 seconds. Then during the parade, someone threw a smoke grenade. But there weren't any other problems that I saw. Seven people were arrested. The police were great and did an awesome job at keeping everyone safe.

I know a few people who did not go because I think they were afraid of what would happen or that maybe their picture will be in the newspaper. Hopefully, people will see that everything was OK and more will show up next year.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Pisa, Italy

On Saturday morning, I took the 70-minute bus ride to Pisa. I figured I could hit the city highlights in one day since I had a 7 AM flight Sunday morning. There was a slight drizzle as I left Florence but the sky was clear on the ride back. Then it poured down rain just as soon as I made it to the main city square. I had an umbrella but that really didn’t help much and I wasn’t able to get in to my hostel for another couple of hours. So I went and had some lunch as I tried to wait out the storm. After about an hour, the rain was still coming down but I was able to check out some sights.

I looked like a wet dog by the time I made it in to my room. Everything in my back pack was soaked including the post cards I had already written and stamped. I tried to dry everything out as much as I could. If you received a warped postcard from me from Italy then this is why. About an hour later the sun came out. If I had taken the bus two hours later then I wouldn’t have had a problem. Go figure! But I can’t really complain because there are far worse places than Italy to be stuck in a rain storm.
The Piazza del Duomo, also known as Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles), is where you find the cathedral, the baptistery and the Leaning Tower. The entire square was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. My hostel was only a 3 minute walk away.
The Duomo di Pisa is the medieval cathedral dedicated to St. Mary of the Assumption. Construction began in 1064. The style is Romanesque but there is a strong Byzantine influence. The artwork on the ceiling is just awesome. There was a huge fire in 1595 that destroyed most of the medieval works of art.

It’s said that this is where Galileo formulated his theory about a pendulum’s movement.

The Baptistry of St. John, or il Battistero di San Giovanni (it sounds so much cooler in Italian), is the largest baptistery in Italy. It is 54.86 meters (~180 feet) high with a circumference of 107.24 meters (~351.8 feet). Construction on the marble building began in 1152 in a Romanesque style and finished in 1363 in the Gothic style.

La Torre Pendente di Pisa is one of the world’s most famous landmarks. It’s the bell tower tower for the cathedral. Construction began in 1173 and it was completed about 200 years later. It leans 5,4 meters (~17.72 feet) to the Southwest and is 8 stories tall.

When you go to Pisa you have to take the obligatory ‘hold up the tower’ photo.
Some of the other main sights were...

The Piazza dei Cavalieri (Knight’s Square). The main attraction is the Palazzo della Carovana, founded by Napoleon in 1810, which is not the Scuola Normale Superiore.

Santa Maria della Spina is a small church on the River Arno. Built in 1230, it is considered one of the most impressive Gothic structures in Europe. In 1333 it received a thorn that was supposed to be part crown worn by Jesus Christ on the cross.

Monday, June 21, 2010

La Piazza del Duomo di Firenze

Florence’s Piazza del Duomo is one of the most visited places in the world. It consists of the cathedral, baptistery and bell tower, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore is the 4th largest church in Europe. It is 153 meters (502 feet) long and 116 meters (381 feet) tall. Construction on the Gothic cathedral began in 1296 and it was completed in 1436. The exterior façade is decorated with green, pink and white marble panels.

The dome was begun in 1420 and at the time was the largest in the world. Today, it is still the largest brick dome ever built. It takes a while to make it to the top but the view is worth it.

Inside the cathedral is a one-handed liturgical clock showing the 24 hours of Italian time where the day ends at sunset – the 24th hour. The hora italica timetable was the standard until the 18th century. This clock is one of the few from that time that is still works.

There are 44 stained glass windows. Donatello designed the Coronation of the Virgin that’s in the drum of the dome.

The inside of the dome is painted with The Last Judgment. The painting is 3.600 m² (38, 750 ft²) and took 11 years to complete.

Adjacent to the cathedral is the Gothic bell tower designed by Giotto. It is almost 85 meters (~278 feet) tall, is made up of five levels and has seven bells. It is decorated in the same white, green and pink shades of marble. I had already climbed to the top of the dome for the city view, so I decided that I didn’t need to spend the €6 to climb the bell tower too.

In front of the cathedral is the Battistero di San Giovanni. The Baptistery of St. John has the status of a minor basilica. Built in Romanesque style, from 1059 – 1128, it is one of the oldest buildings in Florence.

The mosaic inside was started in the 13th century.

The east doors were done by Ghiberti and were dubbed by Michelangelo as “the Gates of Paradise”. The ten panels illustrate scenes from the Old Testament.

More pictures of Florence are already posted on Flickr.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Florence, Italy

I was able to get a roundtrip ticket on Ryanair from Bratislava to Pisa for only €18 ($22), so I decided to spend a long weekend in Italy. I spent 1.5 days in Florence and 1 day in Pisa. This region of Italy is absolutely beautiful. I can’t wait to come back to Tuscany. Next time I’ll be sure to visit Siena and San Gimignano.

Firenze (Florence) is the capital of Italy’s Tuscany region. It lies on the Arno River and is considered to be the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance. You can’t help but be blown away by the art and architecture here. The historic center became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.

Santa Croce is a beautiful Franciscan church that also houses some famous tombs, including those of Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli.

Ponte Vecchio
(Old Bridge) crosses the Arno River and was first built in 972. Since at least the 12th century it has been lined with shops. During WWII, the Germans blew up the city’s bridges in order to slow down the advancing allied forces. This was the only bridge that they didn’t touch, due to its age.

The Basilica di San Lorenzo was consecrated in 393 and is the city’s oldest existing religious structure. It is the burial place of the Medici family who ruled Florence for over 100 years.

Mercato Nuovo
has been the “new market” since the 16th century. There are just lots of souvenir shops here now. The market is called Porcellino (piglet) because of the 17th century Tacca boar fountain. You toss coins in to the fountain for good luck and if you rub the snout then you will one day return to Florence. I made sure to rub it twice.

Tempio Maggiore is the Great Synagogue of Florence. It was built between 1874 and 1882. The design blended Islamic and Italian architectural styles. During the war, the Fascists used the synagogue as a garage. In 1944, the Germans and Italian Fascists tried to it up but the resistance was able to defuse most of the explosives.

The Galleria degli Uffizi was built in the late 16th century and is the world’s oldest art gallery. It contains pieces by Botticelli, Da Vinci, Giotti, and Ghirlandaio.

Next to Uffizi is the Piazza della Signoria which is a basically a free open-air museum. There are lots of sculptures to admire including Ammannati’s 1565 Neptune fountain in the center. I really liked Cellini’s Perseus with the head of Medusa.

There’s also a copy of David where the original once stood. In 1873, the original was moved to the Galleria dell’Accademia. The copy is fine but you really have to go see the original. It took Michelangelo 3 years to sculpt it from a single block of marble. It costs €10 (~$12.25) to get in but it is so worth it. I wish I could show just how awesome it was to see. Unfortunately, the museum is very strict about its “no photography allowed inside” policy.

The highlight of Florence is going to Piazza del Duomo to see the cathedral, the baptistery, and the bell tower. This is also a wonderful area to just relax and grab a coffee.

Tourist survival tip: I noticed this in Milan last year, so I guess it’s just an Italian thing. If you grab an espresso and stand up then it costs around €1 (~$1.25). But the same drink costs €4 – €5 if you sit down. Those cute little cafés will get you if you’re not careful.