The Prague Astronomical Clock

The Prague Astrolabe

An intermittent interest in astronomy helps me to come to terms with our human smallness and, it seems more and more likely, transience.

Most of my preparation for our Spring 2015 holiday in Central Europe was spent on Vienna, Poland and Hungary. I did not read up on this unique clock, a particularly brilliant example of human technological creativity, built in 1410.

The clock measures three kinds of time: common civil time, Old Czech time and, unique in the world, Babylonian time, which is related to the zodiac and sidereal time. If you compare the tower clock (11:30) to the roman numerals that indicate Czech civil time (10:30 in Roman numerals – the golden hand pointer is halfway between X and XI) will show that Prague when we were there on April 13, 2015 used Summer Time, equivalent to DST in North America.

The magnificent astrolabe is beautifully explained on this site. It shows how the clock works in excellent English using several moving depictions. (I can’t vouch for the Russian, German or Czech.)

A worthy way to spend your time if you have an interest in astronomy and inventiveness or if, like me, you need a welcome escape from contemplating the vulnerability of our species… if it maintains its present, social trajectory.


Dresden – May 12

Cyclists enjoying Dresden’s charm appear blissfully unaware of the scary chappie on their left.

We left Berlin early and headed for Prague. Focusing on Budapest, Poland and Berlin in my pre-trip research, I’d done no research on Dresden, the capital of Saxony. It was only a 2.5 -hour lunch stop on the way. Dresden’s beautiful transformation from bombed out ruin to architectural film-gobbler took me totally by surprise. We crossed the Elbe River from north to south and got off our bus in its old centre on the Elbe’s left bank. The Elbe flows into the North Sea. Our tour director told us about the intense, sometimes controversial, rebuilding that has taken place since Germany was reunified in 1989. She told us about Augustus the Strong and Friedrich the Wise. Post-trip reading on Dresden revealed the importance of Saxony in German history and the deep, torn religious fervour of its rulers. I pondered, chuckling about how Friedrich der Weise, a devout  Catholic in the early 1500’s who somehow found the courage to support Martin Luther, throughout his life collected and filled his castle church with about 19000 Catholic relics that included St. Anne’s thumb, a twig from Moses’ burning bush, hay from the Holy Manger and milk from Mary’s breast. Gems like this encourage me to keep on doing research on the olden daysContinue reading “Dresden – May 12”

Berlin – May 10, 11

God detail from the real, full-size, reconstructed Ishtar Gate of Babylon, preserved at the Pergamon Museum
God detail from the real, full-size, reconstructed Ishtar Gate of Babylon, preserved at the Berlin Pergamon Museum

We loved Warsaw. I remember little of our drive from Warsaw to Berlin. Berlin is a very exciting, memorable city today. It was in ruins in 1945.

Are You Lonesome Tonight?

Our group went out for an optional Berliner Dinner. We were seated in a corner of a cramped restaurant and a very small number of noisy tour-mates made the decibel level needle swing, I’m sure, into the ear damage range. Being a singer who accompanies himself on the guitar, I was not ready for any increased hearing loss. Ready to walk out, my ear drums were rescued by a keyboardist who began singing and playing for us. His amplified sound actually caused the noisies to quiet down and the decibel levels to re-enter the safe range. He was looking for volunteers to sing with his accompaniment, so, knowing this upbeat, friendly crowd of Aussies and Yanks pretty well, I suggested to the keyboard guy that I sing Elvis.  He said “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” and I said “Nope, but it’s a great song to do!” My stock went up during that song. It was languishing after my embarrassing scene, 5 days earlier,  going through security at the parliament building in Budapest, grumbling about having to take my money belt off, unbuckled pants, etc. etc. grrrr… etc. I hate surprises like that and am over-sensitized to them after a similar security “strip” at the Colosseum in Rome in 2007.


Berlin, Once Divided – Now Beautiful:

On April 30, 1945, with Russia’s army occupying most of Berlin, Hitler committed suicide. Continue reading “Berlin – May 10, 11”

Warsaw – May 9

Simply smiles and styles
Smiles and styles on the green roof of the University of Warsaw Library

A highlight of our tour was spending time with friends, A & O, whom we had met on our Camino Santiago walk in 2013. We met them at the monument to Sigismund III in Castle Square at 12:40, behind schedule after a morning bus tour that was delayed by a naive, enthusiastic, family-friendly, pro-Europe demonstration.  Our bus-around tour had visited the large monument to Frederick Chopin (where our group souvenir photo was taken) and Warsaw’s Monument to the Ghetto Heroes. So we said do widzenia to our group and met our friends.


A showed me what she thought was a better angle to take a photo of Sigismund on his column and then off we went to Trattoria Rucola for some darn good pizza and wine. Continue reading “Warsaw – May 9”

Warsaw via Częstochowa

1656: King Jan Kazimierz dedicates Poland to the protection of the Blessed Virgin
1656: King Jan Kazimierz vows to dedicate Poland and its territories to the protection of the Blessed Virgin

From Auschwitz we bused to  Częstochowa, and visited Jasna Góra, a pretty monastery that houses the much venerated Black Madonna. A photo I had taken  out of pure curiosity in the monastery provided a clue that helped broaden my understanding of the period when things began coming apart for the Polish-Lithuanian Coalition and the huge geographical area controlled by that alliance. As we passed through the Monastery a large painting with a big Polish sign underneath intrigued me, so I snapped it. Looking at it a few days ago, I translated the sign and the painting was indeed important. It refers to what is called the Lwów Oath sworn on April 1, 1656. The Swedes had invaded Poland. They marched into Warsaw in 1655. This was the beginning of the 5-rear-long Swedish Deluge. In November 1655 the Swedes threatened to take the monastery at Jasna Góra, but a force of 3200 was fought off by about 150 monks and locals successfully. Their heroism inspired all of Poland to rise up. The Black Madonna (Mary) became the “miraculous” power behind the Polish resistance.


Continue reading “Warsaw via Częstochowa”




The photo above, cropped from a much larger original, was taken at 10 A.M. on May 8, 2015. Our group was taken through Auschwitz, the largest WW II death camp. We went through the camp mostly in silence, listening to our local guide and looking at the sad, respectful, horrifying portrayal of what one German doctor, who observed two “special actions” there, called, in accurate, appropriate Latin, the anus mundi. Auschwitz is a place that stays in my system. Recording what I saw on camera and keeping to the schedule of movement set by the site officials kept me, mercifully, preoccupied.

We were on a fast-paced tour, headed for two nights in Warsaw following two in Kraków. We were to visit the Jasna Góra Monastery that afternoon on our way to Poland’s modern capital. I took a photo similar to this of a large display table piled with brushes important to the victims: hair brushes, tooth brushes, a shaving brush… In Warsaw I opened a large wardrobe cabinet in our hotel room. On a shelf just below eye level was a hair brush, pale bristles upturned, and the impact of what I’d witnessed came back instantly and un-beckoned. I knew then that the time spent there would remain with me. Continue reading “Auschwitz”

Kraków, Ancient Capital – May 7


How to Kill a Dragon Named Smok:

The old story is told that Kraków was founded in 350 A.D. by a bloke named Krakus. He had a beautiful daughter, handy if you want dangerous work done. Let’s call her Jo. Worried by Smok, who lived in a cave under Wawel Hill (see model above), Krakus offered Jo’s hand in marriage to any man who could snuff Smok. Many tried, but when they cut off Smok’s head, he grew two more instantly. It was a bloody, dragon-head-filled while before one chappie whom I’ll call Pawel figured out that cutting off one or more heads just made things worse. He poisoned a goat and left it in front of Smok’s cave. Poison worked. Pawel won the damsel, Jo’s dowry and a lifetime supply of Grey Goose.


We had a lazy morning, since we had opted not to opt for the optional tour of the Salt Mines.There were many stairs down even after the elevator. Going down a ton of stairs is hard for Anita. We still had 9 days left in our trip; not a time to risk your mobility! I opted to stay at the Sheraton with her, tying up some loose ends… where to eat lunch, what museum(s) to see after lunch, and how we might fit in a walk to the 14th C. Kazimierz neighbourhood… until our Salt o’ the Deep Earth group got back. The Salt Mine, and its beautiful acoustic space and sculpture, is a World Heritage Site. Kinda wish I’d gone…

Wawel Hill:

Anyway, when the salts, old and young, returned and had been hosed down with Perrier and rubbed up with aloe cream, we walked up Wawel Hill. Our local expert took us through its cathedral. Most of the royal bodies are kept there, so it is still the most important cathedral in Poland. Continue reading “Kraków, Ancient Capital – May 7”

Through Slovakia to Kraków

On May 6 our tour bus left Budapest at 08:05 and drove North on the E 77 highway through the Tatra Mountains, which are a part of the Carpathian range.

Our drive through Slovakia to Kraków
Our drive through Slovakia to Kraków


Kari Anne told us that the Slovakians have thrived as part of the EU. A few car manufacturers like Audi have built plants here because they are offered tax breaks and lower wage, skilled workers.


At our first highway stop we learned how successful the Slovakians are at business. We bought a couple of cans of iced tea from a cooler section that had very attractive prices, compared to some of the other drinks. When Anita went to pay the price was almost double the stated price in the fridge display unit. I pressed the clerk to explain how they can charge much more than the labeled price. He explained dismissively that their price printer wasn’t working. Entrepreneurs, indeed.


Near Zvolen on the way into Donovaly ski resort Kari Anne had us watch for what appeared to be a camouflaged train visible from the road. The train appeared to be left there as an exhibit of some sort, perhaps hearkening back to cold war times. We ate in Donovaly and walked around the village after lunch shooting some photos.


Not All Vampires Come from Transylvania…

Back on the road we passed Orava Castle, just south of the Polish border. This spooky castle was used by a German film producer as the setting for an unauthorized 1922 silent film, Nosferatu, based on Bram Stoker’s, Dracula. They were forced to change the word Vampire to Nosferatu and Count Dracula became Count Orlok. We then stopped at Podbiel to photograph some log houses, then drove on through a mild mist towards a rainy Kraków. I don’t remember having dinner but we did – somewhere… I would rather have spent the time walking around the main square, Rynek Glówny, and watching the sunset in that beautiful, very old square. It was spared the ravages of World War II. When we got back to a dark, rainy city centre I persuaded Anita to come with me to Rynek Glówny square. The rain seemed to be easing, but returned with gusto. Had to be careful with the camera!

Budapest – Magical Beauty and Artistry

Budapest Parliament seen from our Danube Dinner Cruise after dinner
Budapest Parliament seen from our Danube Dinner Cruise after dinner

Monday, May 4:

A dinner cruise! What an intro to Budapest! Insight Vacations had booked us on a boat of our own for a dinner cruise on the Danube on the night we arrived! We arrived in Budapest at 16:15, having left Vienna’s Museum Quarter at 12:40.  It’s a  250 km drive East.

We checked in at the Sofitel Chain Bridge, my favourite hotel of the whole bus tour. It’s less than a 2 minutes walk from the Pest side of the bridge. The Sofitel had a very exciting central atrium – a happening place – and our room had a magnificent view of the Chain Bridge illuminated at night. We would be here for only two nights: too little time!

Before boarding our dinner cruise boat at 19:30 we had time to walk away from the river on Vaci Street looking for bottled water. While out, we treated ourselves to coffee and pastry at Gerbeaud House, famous the world over for its charm, decor and the inventive confectionery genius of Emil Gerbaud, awarded the French Légion d’Honneur in 1900. For two pastries and two coffees it was 7820 Forints – about €26.

I was excited to be here. In Budapest we have a wonderful friend who is a Budapest native. I will call her Csilla to respect her privacy. We met Csilla in April, 2013 on our Camino Santiago trip, and connected immediately. We shared email addresses and became “pen pals.” Knowing Csilla has greatly enriched our visit to Budapest. She had promised to show us around in the afternoon on Tuesday, our only full day in Budapest. More about our friend later; now to our dinner cruise…

The Danube night cruise is, hands down, more beautiful than Prague’s night cruise. Budapest is an exquisite, perfectly scaled jewel. The waterfront is uncrowded; each of its illuminated architectural treasures can be appreciated with one’s absolute attention: Continue reading “Budapest – Magical Beauty and Artistry”

Vienna, Our Final Two Days

Yes, Sadly, Goodbye Vienna


The two main museums we saw were the Belvedere Palace (Upper) on May 18 and the Kunsthistoriches Museum of Art on May 19. I went to the Belvedere on my own on May 18. Anita had suffered a pretty bad sprain on the 17th that affected her mobility. She had recovered well enough by May 19 for us to visit the Kunsthistoriches Art Museum in Maria-Theresien Platz, the Secession Museum, have lunch in the Haschmarkt, shop and take in the romantic ballet, La Sylphide, at the Staatsoper (the famous Vienna State Opera House). We had a fabulous last day and night in Vienna!

First let me introduce a map I put together showing everywhere we visited or used in Vienna during our 8 days there:  May 3, 4 and 15-20.

Where we went in Vienna in 2015 - Courtesy of Google Maps
Where we went in Vienna in 2015 – Courtesy of Google Maps

May 18 – Belvedere Palace and other Activity

The Belvedere Palace was built by Prince Eugene of Savoy, who got very rich because the Habsburgs appreciated the wonderful job he did in repeatedly successfully fighting the Ottomans, French, Italians, Spanish, Saxons and Russians spanning six different decades. Eugene, unrivaled before or since in Austria, was rejected by the French for not looking like a general (too short and ugly). A genius in both military and diplomatic strategy, Prinz Eugen served three Austrian Emperors, Leopold I, Josef I and Charles VI, between 1683 and the 1730’s. Eugene loved architecture with a passion and was deeply involved in the design of the Schloss Belvedere. He died in 1736, frail, aged 72. Continue reading “Vienna, Our Final Two Days”