Sunday, 10 July 2011

..till the fat lady sings

We made two trips to Prague (landing there doesn't count). In the first trip we had tickets to the opera and ballet at Prague State Opera House! =D With a little over two hours to go for the evening show, we were at the train station on a Saturday with no hotel booking, undecided as to which way to turn. We went in the direction of the opera house, lugging heavy bags (the memory is too painful to brood on). The first hotel we passed was full. We turned into the main square admiring the opera house we were to come to in a short while, and the Národní Museum. 

Narodni Museum, Praha
On asking a policeman in queue at MacDonalds, he directed us to a hotel 'yalta' straight ahead. A few steps and we were there realizing it was spelled Hotel Jalta - j in Czech is pronounced y. It was the swankiest place we stayed in (the hotel in Fussen comes a close second). I heaved a tremendous sigh of relief and thanked the Lord for the bellboy and his trolley. Loving the bathroom and exclaiming in deep disgust at the prices of food in the minibar (90 CZK for a single lousy teeny bar of Toblerone? I think not) we decked up in our evening finery and hurried to catch the show.

The evening show was Aida and matinee the next day was Swan Lake. Honestly I never thought I would like opera so much. Strangely enough, I preferred it to the ballet. Maybe due to the English subtitles that appeared above the stage, in sync with the Italian. Understanding every scene and dialogue was a BIG plus. If you're in Prague and enjoy either ballet or opera try to fit a show into your budget and schedule. Matinees are not expensive. Check the website for the schedule and prices. And try to get seats in the pit; they're the best!

We took our seats in the balcony (don't sit in the balcony - the chairs are uncomfortable and ruin the viewing) and settled down gazing open mouthed at the gorgeous ceiling. Aida is the protagonist; an Ethopian princess captured by the Egyptian army and offered to the Pharoah's daughter Amneris as a handmaiden by the army general Radames. Aida and Radames fall in love (of course). And Amneris is passionately in love with Radames and is exceedingly jealous of Aida. What transpires? Read the story here.
Amneris' performance enraptured me. Her personality was a clash of so many intense emotions - love, jealousy, guilt, remorse, sorrow - and what a voice! Her powerful voice effortlessly expresses the storm raging within her. Aida and Radames on the other hand were wimps in my opinion, just wanting to die because they couldn't be together. The scene that REALLY got onto my nerves was when Radames tries to persuade Aida to live in Egypt with him. Aida is tempted but misses her country; she asks him if he would be willing to flee with her instead. Radames is close to horrified - leave his homeland? His beloved Egypt? So it's okay for Aida to live in a place where she belongs to lowest strata of society (being a slave), but not take her rightful place as a princess in her own country? Get a life.
In the end, when Aida and Radames die in each other's arms, I was pitiless.
I loved the sets, especially in the scene where the moonlight iridescence falls upon Aida and her father and later Aida and Radames. The Ethopian king and Pharoah were stupendous. But for me, the show stealer was Amneris.

Prague State Opera House
The ceiling took my breath away. Note the 3D statues of pixies seemingly flitting about! Me camera didn't do justice. Take a panoramic tour (the option is on the left).

Frescoes and fairies

Next day.. Swan Lake! It was a headache getting there çoz we had walked far away and on the way back I lost the mother and the sister 'coz I was too fast (turn to see a sea of tourists with them nowhere in sight) .. But we found each other and made it in time for the show. Our seats were somewhere in the middle of the pit =D This particular production of Swan Lake commences with Odette daintily picking flowers in a basket. Looming up behind, advancing towards her is a monstrous creature. Keeping in pace with the music as it gets more dramatic, she notices it and drops her basket with a terrified start as the creature envelopes her (depicted with waves of a cloth). She is then turned into a swan. Fast forward to when the Black Swan makes her appearance at the ball and dances with the Prince (Siegfried) who proclaims his love for her (you get a glimpse of Odette desperately trying to catch Siegfried's attention by the window.. awesome effects!) by handing her a bouquet. The deed is done as the Black Swan maliciously flings the bouquet to the ground and Siegfried realizes his fatal mistake. It's too late for the White Swan. I got really drawn into it and was completely on edge with this scene and the finale. This time, when the doomed lovers died in each other's arms, I was upset. Siegfried was handsome and regal just as if he was a Disney prince. The court jester brought out gales of delighted laughter and thunderous applause from the audience with his ridiculous antics, prancing about, somersaulting in the air in tune to Tchaikovsky's music which is of course, unparalleled.

I left the opera house thirsting for more.

hell must feel like this

We chose really REALLY bad luggage for the Euro trip. No really. I doubt I ever swore as much in my entire life as I did when lugging that crap (the politest word I can muster) all over the Czech Republic. It was a horrendous green and orange monstrosity (not the best colour combination in the world, is it?) and flames danced in my eyes (like an anime character) whenever they fell upon it. While I was struggling with it, I had one consistent fantasy - what would happen if it were to accidentally fall upon the tracks. It was the cause of many disputes between us. The mother suggested we buy another bag but the towns we went to didn't even have a general store forget a luggage shop. About 4-5 days into the trip when we were changing five trains to go to the Moravsky Kras I discovered it had wheels on one end. Boy did I feel stupid. But I was ecstatic. Atleast I could drag the cursed thing around and I did.. over everything. Like the stairs at Valtice station.. oops. An old man called me from behind and pointed to a black something that looked suspiciously like a wheel. Arghh!! Well, I still had one left. I tried to tilt it sideways and continued to wheel the bag over everything.. we found a hotel about half a km from Valtice town and thankfully took the bags in.. and then my sister called out from behind me. The black residue scattered over the ground was all that was left of the second (and last wheel). DAMMIT!!
Under severe duress, I determined not to let the lousy bag get the better of me as it unfeelingly whammed into my thigh when I swung it across my shoulder. Gritting my teeth, willing myself to think it would build character, all it really did was give me a chance to mumble expletives in every language I knew how to swear in.

It did however also give people a chance to show some humanity.

At some train station (the names escapes me.. perhaps it was Brno), I was dragging it up the stairs to take it to the platforms (underground tunnels not overhead bridges connecting platforms in CR) and a very pretty girl around my age took one strap and helped me take it up right to our train. Such a sweetheart! =D
Another time, we were chatting with an elderly lady in a train to Blansko. We had to take a bus to a hotel near Moravsky Kras (the limestone caves in the Czech Republic). But walking from the train station to the bus stop was another matter. The lady helped me carry it! I'd have preferred if she hadn't, bless her! But I was thankful all the same. Later, on relating these incidents to others, we were told assistance of this kind is not usual in Europe. Whatever it maybe, it reinstated my faith in humankind. We're not all bad.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Day 1 (no it's not over yet)

The connecting flight takes us over Turkey's lush verdure over the Black Sea and South Eastern Europe to Prague in the Czech Republic.

frost on my window! =D I think we were flying over Bulgaria
We wait in the arrivals section looking around for a guy sent by a friend (T) to drive us to Hradec Králové (pronounced hradets kra-lovay) a small town about 1.5 hours away by car. We wave a paper with the guy's name printed on it, frantically trying to catch his attention if he's around (we obviously don't know what he looks like). After about 30 minutes, a short man walks over to us holding up a small note, the size of my palm with something scrawled on it, against his waist. Peering at it, I made out the handwriting to say - 3 ---- (our surname). Were we supposed to have caught sight of that amidst the thousand or more passengers around us?

So we drive to Hradec Králové (henceforth abbreviated HK) and though fascinated by all the gorgeousness passing by us, my eyelids couldn't take it anymore and banged shut and I knew nothing until we next stopped, in front of the hotel right in the middle of the náměstí  (square). Somewhere between getting myself and the bags out of the car and checking in, the mother lost the bag which had all the goodies from Istanbul Duty Free and my sister's jacket. The sister made sure the mother never forgot her dastardly crime.
Post shower *deep sigh of gratitude* and checking out the room/view, I plugged in my hair styler that I had so thoughtfully brought along with me, in the converter (remember to buy one before travelling) into the socket. I dry my hair for a minute and then.. silence. No electricity. Having lived in India my first thought was loadshedding?? Are you friggin kidding me?!? But then I looked at the device I was clutching. And then I looked into the corridor. Mumbling expletives it dawned on me that the hairstyler that I had so *thoughtfully* brought along had blown a fuse on the whole damn hotel floor. Shoot!

a view of the náměstí

Deciding that somebody else on our floor would complain about the electricity (or lack thereof) soon enough, we went down to the lobby to meet our friend T (friend H's friend who become our friend) who showed us around town. But before that - FOOD! Being a small town, HK has only one restaurant that serves halal food (being Muslims we can eat only halal food, explaining why will ruin the continuity of this long overdue post so if you're curious comment/email me/google) but we were too ravenous to walk there. So we crossed the square and sat in the cellar of a restaurant that specialized in serving.. I don't remember what. Fish I guess. I looked at the soups - the descriptions were in Czech and English (how considerate right?) - and I liked the look of one but it had something called 'Chorizo' in it. I'd never come across the word and asked the waitress what it meant. Not a native English speaker she struggled with the words for a minute and said 'cheese'. No meat and it looked scrumptious! Perfect right? DING DING DING NA-UH!! So I bit into 'chorizo' on my first slurp (do keep in mind my tendency to exaggerate) of the soup and it turned out to be meat. The waiter (another dude) kindly took it back on account of the misunderstanding.
(later Google told me chorizo is pork sausage. To Muslims who take care not to eat pork, watch out for this word and ESPECIALLY the people that tell you it's cheese. And carry a bloody dictionary.)

After lunch we headed into town. And made T walk. A LOT. He grumbled later to the mutual friend - saying we never get tired and we made him walk till his tongue was hanging out =D It was a BEAUTIFUL day. Lord knows how thrilled I was to see the riveting blue sky after all the dust storms in Kuwait!!

these colours remind me of ice cream

this was definitely taken by the mother

the cathedral.

So we walked. And we walked. Right till sunset which was 9 pm =D Bought groceries at Tesco! I've always wanted to shop at Tesco! I've yearned to sign up for the Tesco Clubcard program ever since my internship at The Sultan Center =P Didn't get to do it though :( Tesco has this neat self-checkout section. Should definitely be introduced here - the waiting time would reduce drastically *sudden image of three overloaded trolleys* Or.. maybe not.
There was a fantastic thunderstorm as we were walking back to the square. A brilliant flash of electric blue appeared as a bolt of lightening crashed right behind a building we were walking by. I wouldn't have liked to have it fall any closer.
We were back at the hotel room at around 11 pm and the electricity hadn't been turned on - seems we were the only ones on that floor. We got it on soon enough - Reception sent a guy to fix it while I hid all evidence of converters, suspicious looking plugs etc. From then on there was never a day my wet hair was not scrunched up in a pony tail, unless we stayed in a hotel thoughtful enough to have a hairdryer in the loo.

Picture courtesy: the mother and me. I don't remember which are hers. I take firm credit for the frost pic.