My favorite paintings

During times like this, when most of the museums around the world are closed I thought to post something about my art-related experiences. I will mention here only paintings that I admired from close distance in museums or expositions around the world. Of course, there are many others I wish to see. Hopefully, I will have that chance someday. I was lucky to see many of the most important galleries in Europe and the United States and I have a collection of memories from those visits.

I will start with a disclaimer. There is a big difference between admiring a painting at a close distance in a museum and looking at its picture on the internet. The pictures listed below do not impress me and I do not expect to inspire my readers. Seeing them in a museum it’s a different experience. But this is all we can do these days.

This is a subjective selection and it is for sure influenced by my life experiences. Here are the paintings listed in chronological order:

Leonardo – Annunciation (1472) Uffizi, Florence

While visiting Uffizi in Florence I’ve seen many annunciation paintings, as religion was the main theme for painters until the 17th century. Yet, when I saw this painting I was intrigued. It seems to have so many senses and symbols hidden. The characters are surrounded by mystery, it was just different from all I’ve seen before. Maybe I was impressed because it was the first time in my life when I was seeing a major artwork.

Leonardo – Annunciation 1472 Uffizi, Florence

Raphael – Portrait of Pope Julius II (1511) National Gallery, London

This painting impressed me most of all I’ve seen at the National Gallery in London. I didn’t know about this artwork before seeing it. I watched it amazed for several minutes.

I did not have the sensation that it was made to look better than in reality. Yet, it was a different reality which I can’t express in words. The artist captures so well the feelings of the character in the painting.

After watching this painting I understood the sense of words written on Raphael’s epitaph:
“Here lies that famous Raphael by whom Nature feared to be conquered while he lived, and when he was dying, feared herself to die.”

For reference, Pope Julius II is the one who commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel. The Pope died in 1513 after he was able to see the Sistine Chapel painted. Interestingly is that before that he was also leading his armies on the battlefield as their commander. He believed in imposing religion by the sword, which was common during his time. If you want to find out more about him you can read “Agony and Ecstasy” by Irving Stone or simply watch the movie.

Raphael – Portrait of Pope Julius II, 1511 National Gallery, London

El Greco -View of Toledo (1596) MET, New York

The contrast of colors in this painting is fascinating. Another example of a painting I did not know and discovered in a gallery. El Greco paints here Toledo, the city where he spent most of his life and where he also died. This is not the only El Greco painting that I like, he was an artist well ahead of his time. The way he uses the colors and his characters (in other paintings) are very modern. Because of his modernism, people in the 17th and 18th centuries did not appreciate his works. He was misunderstood, as it was the case with other artists that had a vision beyond the horizon of his times.

El Greco -View of Toledo (1596) MET, New York

Rubens – Old Woman and Boy with Candles (1616) Mauritshuis – Hague

I’ve discovered this painting in the Hague gallery. I am not a big fan of Rubens. I’ve seen many of his paintings around the world. Rubens created the biggest paintings in terms of size in museums. And the characters in his paintings were also big.

However, this is a small painting where he paints using the “chiaroscuro” technique he learned from Caravaggio.

I was attracted by how this painting looks but mainly because it is an allegory that can be interpreted in many ways. This way it’s like life itself.

One possible interpretation is a quote from Rubens: “Light can be taken a thousand times from another light without diminishing it”. In the museum it was written the local interpretation: “The renewal of life with the transfer of light from the candle, soon to die, held by the old woman to the freshly lit one held by the youth.” Then there was the religious interpretation of three hands with a light in the center. Each reader could have his/her own vision of this painting and that’s the beauty of it.

Probably, Rubens himself liked this picture as he kept it with him until the end of his life.

Rubens – Old Woman and Boy with Candles (1616) Mauritshuis – Hague

Vermeer – Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665) Mauritshuis -Hague

This was the main attraction in Hague. At the time I’ve seen this painting it was accepted the theory that the girl with a pearl earring did not exist in reality. It was believed that she was created by the imagination of Vermeer.

I did not believe that theory but that was just my intuition.

Later, in 2018, a new study of the painting was done with X-Rays and other methods. This year, in April, they published the conclusions. The examination had revealed the presence of tiny eyelashes around the girl’s eyes, invisible to the naked eye. Research also established the existence of a green curtain in the seemingly empty background of the painting that has faded to black over the centuries. 

These are indications that the girl was real.

“Speculating on who the girl was, with her enigmatic expression, wide eyes, unusual blue turban, and huge pearl earring remains part of the fun. The fact that she is still a mystery keeps people coming back and keeps her exciting and fresh.” -The Guardian

In my opinion, this is the last classical masterpiece. It took another 200 years for the art of painting to reinvent and by the creation of impressionism to add new amazing artworks.

Vermeer himself was considered a second class artist during his life and was forgotten after his time. He was rediscovered almost 200 years later.

Vermeer – Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665) Mauritshuis -Hague

Van Gogh – Starry Night (1889) MoMA -New York

The most beautiful association between blue and yellow. This painting is one of the most famous in the world. The painting is often associated with the words of Vincent van Gogh: “Why, I wonder, wouldn’t the shining dots in the sky be as easy to reach as the black dots on the map of France? Just like we were on the train to Tarascon or Rouen, we use death to travel to the stars. “

The painting depicts the city of Saint-Remy-de-Provence where Van Gogh was interred in a hospital after his breakdown in 1888 when he cut his ear.

Van Gogh – Starry Night (1889) MoMA -New York

Van Gogh – Wheatfield with Crows (1890) Van Gogh Museum – Amsterdam

Some consider this as Van Gogh’s last painting. I remember it was nicely presented in the museum. Since it was a museum dedicated to Van Gogh it was a perfect way to finish the exposition. The wheat field is located in Auvers-sur-Oise and it was painted in July 1890.

“Wheat Field with Crows remains as Vincent van Gogh’s most contentious painting. The many interpretations of the work are probably more varied than any other in Van Gogh’s oeuvre. Some see it as Van Gogh’s “suicide note” put to canvas, while others delve beyond a superficial overview of the subject matter and favor a more positive approach. And some more extreme critics cast their vision even further – beyond the canvas and the brushstrokes – in order to translate the images into an entirely new language of the subliminal.”- http://www.vincentvangogh.org

“Van Gogh used powerful color combinations in this painting: the blue sky contrasts with the yellow-orange wheat, while the red of the path is intensified by the green bands of grass.” – Van Gogh Museum

The artist shot himself in this wheat field and died the next day in a hospital. His paintings remained to inspire the world for the future.

Van Gogh – Wheatfield with Crows (1890) Van Gogh Museum – Amsterdam

Magritte – The Lovers II (1928) MoMA -New York

I’ve seen many Magritte paintings in Brussels. In that city exists even an entire museum dedicated to Magritte’s works. There I discovered an interesting artist and found out more about him. Yet, the painting I like most from his creations was in New York.

“Frustrated desires are a common theme in René Magritte’s work. Here, a barrier of fabric prevents the intimate embrace between two lovers, transforming an act of passion into one of isolation and frustration. Some have interpreted this work as a depiction of the inability to fully unveil the true nature of even our most intimate companions.” – MoMA

“René Magritte lovers are unable to communicate or touch, they are forever apart.” – http://www.dailyartmagazine.com

The painting is intriguing and has many hidden symbols and possible interpretations.

Magritte – The Lovers II (1928) MoMA -New York

Dali – The Persistence of Memory (1931) MoMA -New York

Surrealism at its peak by Dali. This painting is at MoMA since 1934.

The general interpretation of the work is that the soft watches are a rejection of the assumption that time is rigid. This idea is supported by other images in the work, such as the wide expanding landscape, and other limp watches shown being devoured by ants.

“Three of the clocks in the painting may symbolize the past, present and future, which are all subjective and open to interpretation, while the fourth clock, which lies face-down and undistorted, may symbolize objective time.” – http://www.dalipaintings.com

“Those limp watches are as soft as overripe cheese—indeed, they picture “the camembert of time,” in Dalí’s phrase. Here time must lose all meaning. Permanence goes with it: ants, a common theme in Dalí’s work, represent decay, particularly when they attack a gold watch, and they seem grotesquely organic. The monstrous fleshy creature draped across the painting’s center is at once alien and familiar: an approximation of Dalí’s own face in profile, its long eyelashes seem disturbingly insect-like or even sexual, as does what may or may not be a tongue oozing from its nose like a fat snail.” -MoMA

Dali – The Persistence of Memory (1931) MoMA -New York

Playing chess in Arad

Arad chess open is the most important chess tournament in Romania. This year it was it’s twelfth edition. The tournament was very well organized with players coming from all over the world. The venue for the tournament was the Continental Forum Hotel.

International chess festival – July 24-31- Arad

I took a few pictures from the organizer’s site to illustrate my experience within the tournament. I started the tournament with two loses then I was able to focus better and bounced back with four wins in five games.

At the chessboard during the 4th round

An interesting moment happened in round 7 when my opponent sacrificed two pawns in the opening in order to develop his pieces and tried to capture my queen.

The critical moment in round 7. I took two white pawns which can be seen above this text, but I realized that it was a trap. I spent 30 minutes in that position to understand all the complications and found a good move. I won the game in the end.

The most important game came in round 8th. I played a junior girl rated 150 points above me who had a great tournament. It was a very sharp game with chances on both sides.

I played a sharp English attack against Najdorf defense in round 8th.

The position below was the decisive moment of the game.

She played the black queen to h2 threatening both to checkmate the white king by playing queen takes c2 or to capture the bishop on h3. At first glance in the above diagram, it looks like white is lost. But in reality in this position, it is black who is lost and that is the beauty of chess. White responds with rook from d4 to d2 and stops the checkmate threat. Then the black queen captures the white bishop on h3 and white plays rook to h1 and the black queen is lost as it has nowhere safe to go. White would win the game. Also, instead of playing rook to h1 white has an even more powerful response, he can move the queen to e3, but that move is hard to see by humans. Stockfish 10, a powerful chess engine found that move in a few seconds.

I failed in finding this good defense and took the black knight on a3 instead, then she took my knight on c3 with the rook from c8 and resulted in a position lost for white. I resigned the game a few moves later.

After that game, I lost my focus and did a draw in the last round and ended the tournament with 4.5 points from 9 games.

I have played more than 400 moves in all the games in Arad but the move in the position above made the difference between a good and a bad tournament. This was a perfect example for the quote from Keres mentioned in a previous post: “in every position, there is a move to be found – but you have to search for it!“ Also my opponent deserves congratulations for courage to play a risky move that won the game. As they said: “Audaces fortuna juvat” ( “Fortune favors the bold”).

My participation in the Arad open was a great experience overall. I learned many things and I had the chance to visit Arad and Timisoara for the first time.

Running in Potsdam

During the first weekend of June, I was in Potsdam with Bobo, a friend, running at the 16th edition of ProPotsdam Schloesserlauf. It was a perfect time for a short visit to Berlin and Potsdam before the race.

In front of Brandenburg Gate
With Marx and Engels
Television tower in Alexanderplatz
View of Berlin from the television tower
Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam
Charlottenhof Palace in Potsdam
View of Charlottenhof garden on a summer evening

As for the race itself, there were two options, either 10km or half-marathon (21.1 km). Usually, I run half-marathons but this time we had two busy days in Berlin before the race and a returning flight soon after the course so I chose to run 10 km. It was a wise decision as June 2nd was a hot day in Potsdam and the race included a somehow steep climb near the Sanssouci Palace.

My objective was to finish the 10 kilometers race in less than 50 minutes. Unfortunately, I missed this goal by 30 seconds as my official time was 50 minutes and 29 seconds. Nevertheless, the whole trip was a cool experience and I am very happy I ran there.

With Bobo after the race

The race itself was very well organized. The sightseeing was beautiful as we ran around the Potsdam castles. My only suggestion for the organizer would be to group the participants at the start according to their expected finish time. For me, it was very hard to advance during the first kilometer because it was very crowded in front of me. Because of that, I ran the first kilometer in 5 minutes and 30 seconds. I kept my energy and accelerated during the last kilometer in 4:39. I had a chance to finish under 50 minutes if I would start sprinting one kilometer earlier.

There were 1477 runners who finished the 10-kilometer race. Of these, 772 were women and 705 men. It was the first time I run a race of such size where the majority of runners are women. It is great to see so many women running long distance races as this has a positive impact on health. My rank was 182 from 1477 finishers in the general standings and 21 in my age category.

I noticed in both 10 km and 21.1 km competitions almost all the participants finished their race. I think it is a cultural thing in Germany to achieve your commitment.

It’s a race…not a riot

Those castles had been built a few hundred years ago by the rulers of Prussia. At that time the only reason for thousands of common people running around the castles would be a riot. Fortunately, society evolved and continues to do so. These days so many people choose to exercise as it improves their health and life.

Karlsruhe

The modern city of Karlsruhe was founded in 1715 by Margrave Charles William and it translates to “Charles retreat”. The legend is that he build his new palace to find peace from his wife.

Karlsruhe Palace

Although I stayed for a week in Karlsruhe I only had time to visit the city between the chess tournament rounds.

View of Karlsruhe Zoo from the playing hall (Schwarzwaldhalle part of Kongresszentrum)

There is a big Zoo in Karlsruhe, next to the Congress center. It is particularly interesting for kids. They even have a polar bear and many exotic animals. You can interact with birds and some small monkeys. There is a cave full of bats where you can enter if you don’t mind leaving with a bat in your hair. One morning I won a game quickly and I spent a couple of hours walking in the Zoo garden.

Karlsruhe Zoo garden

In Karlsruhe there is a big gallery of paintings the State Art Gallery. Among the famous paintings displayed here are a nice Rembrandt self-portrait and some paintings by French impressionists as Monet, Cezanne, Degas, and Pissarro. The modern art gallery is located in the Orangery building near the main gallery.

I liked a painting by the expressionist painter Karl Hofer called “Self Portrait with Demons” from 1923. It has an interesting history. The painting was acquired by the State Art Gallery in 1923 but was returned to the painter in 1936 in exchange for another painting. The reason for this exchange was that the Nazi considered the painting “degenerate”. In 2018 the painting was acquired again by State Gallery and was displayed in the exposition 95 years later.

Karl Hofer – Self Portrait with Demons

Another interesting painting was Otto Dix’s – “Seven Deadly Sins” created in 1933 when the author was fired from his teaching position at Dresden Academy. As in Karl Hofer’s case, his work was considered “degenerated” by the Nazi regime. This is an allegorical painting representing the political situation in Germany in 1933 when Hitler became chancellor. A funny observation is that Dix painted Hitler’s moustache only after the war as a precaution. Otto Dix’s paintings were influenced by the horrors he saw as a combatant in World War I.

Otto Dix – The Seven Deadly Sins

Before hosting the Modern Art Gallery, the Orangery building was part of the Botanical Garden. Here in the XVIII and XIX centuries, they used to bring exotic plants to keep them from freezing during the winter. Karlsruhe has a rather small Botanical Garden located near the Palace.

Karlsruhe Botanical Garden

I like the food in Germany and Karlsruhe made no exception. They have many traditional restaurants but also a large variety of international cuisine.

This happens when you don’t speak German and the waitress doesn’t speak English. I was expecting a pork fillet.

The last thing I visited in Karlsruhe was the palace where hopefully Karl found his “ruhe” (peace). The palace has a tower from where you can admire the entire city as in the picture below. In the palace, there is a kind of history museum similar to the History Museum in Berlin only smaller but still big enough for someone to spend three to four hours during a visit. For me, the experience was quite interesting and captivating. As a consequence, I almost lost the train to Frankfurt Airport that day. The museum is called Badisches Landesmuseum and as the name says has many items from local history but is not limited to that.

View of Karlsruhe city from the Palace Tower

For a tourist Karlsruhe is an ideal place to stay if you want to visit the region. From here you can quickly reach to Heidelberg, Baden-Baden, Stuttgart, Strasbourg, Tubingen or Ulm.

Heidelberg

“One thinks Heidelberg by day—with its surroundings—is the last possibility of the beautiful; but when he sees Heidelberg by night, a fallen Milky Way, with that glittering railway constellation pinned to the border, he requires time to consider upon the verdict.” – Mark Twain

I liked very much Heidelberg, one of the most beautiful towns I’ve seen according to my standards. For my visit I took Mark Twain as my guide, all his quotes are from the book “A tramp abroad” published in 1880.

It was a great day of April when I took a morning train from Karlsruhe to Heidelberg. My journey began with a visit to the Heidelberg castle, now in ruins, the ideal romantic place.

“Out of a billowy upheaval of vivid green foliage, a rifle-shot removed, rises the huge ruin of Heidelberg Castle, with empty window arches, ivy-mailed battlements, moldering towers—the Lear of inanimate nature—deserted, discrowned, beaten by the storms, but royal still, and beautiful.” -Mark Twain

In the castle there is the largest wine cask in the world, the Heidelberg Tun built in 1751 from the trunks of 130 oak trees and has a capacity of 219000 liters. It is 8.5 meters deep by 7 meters high. The balustraded platform on top was built as a dance floor. But my guide was not impressed…

Heidelberg Tun

“Everybody has heard of the great Heidelberg Tun, and most people have seen it, no doubt. It is a wine-cask as big as a cottage, and some traditions say it holds eighteen hundred thousand bottles, and other traditions say it holds eighteen hundred million barrels. I think it likely that one of these statements is a mistake, and the other is a lie. However, the mere matter of capacity is a thing of no sort of consequence, since the cask is empty, and indeed has always been empty, history says. An empty cask the size of a cathedral could excite but little emotion in me. I do not see any wisdom in building a monster cask to hoard up emptiness in, when you can get a better quality, outside, any day, free of expense.” – Mark Twain

I continued my tour in the castle gardens, very appreciated at his time by Goethe who loved to walk here. The gardens looked indeed very nice in the spring.

I took the funicular on the way down to visit the town. Among touristic objectives, the protestant church had interesting stained glass windows. Quite different from all the churches I’ve seen before. On one of them, it was written E=mc2 and 6.8.1945 the day when a nuclear bomb was dropped over Hiroshima. There was something written in German, but I don’t understand the language.

Protestant church – Heidelberg

Maybe it’s about the dangers that science can bring to the world. I find appropriate a quote from the author of the famous equation, Albert Einstein: “Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.”

My next stop was at University Museum. Heidelberg University was founded in 1386 and it is the oldest in Germany. In its long history, the University had famous professors and students. Hegel, Jaspers, Bunsen, Helmholtz, and Kirchhoff were some notable professors from the past. The University is ranked 13 in the world on the number of Nobel prizes won by its scholars. The future looks bright for the students in Heidelberg as their institution is currently ranked 54 in the top of the best universities in the world. However, in the museum, I also saw a picture of Goebbels having a speech at the University. He also held a Ph.D. from Heidelberg University. I think that one should never forget the dark side of history and understand what was wrong then. The university campus located over Neckar looks very modern. It has a Botanical garden and many modern buildings. It reminded me of the MIT campus only that Heidelberg has more space and looks better.

Maybe the secret of such great research successes lies in the fact that there was a University jail. I’m joking. My guide from the past saw it when it was operational and not a museum as it is today, but his description is accurate for the present as well.

“The ceiling was completely covered with names, dates, and monograms, done with candle-smoke. The walls were thickly covered with pictures and portraits (in profile), some done with ink, some with soot, some with a pencil, and some with red, blue, and green chalks; and whenever an inch or two of space had remained between the pictures, the captives had written plaintive verses, or names and dates. I do not think I was ever in a more elaborately frescoed apartment.” – Mark Twain

One of the cells in the students jail
Angel in students jail in Heidelberg

It was time to pass on the other side of the Neckar river and walk on the famous path Philosopher’s Way. One should prepare for an abrupt 200 meters climb in order to reach the path.

Philosopher’s way can be seen from a distance on the hill over Neckar river

The path is in a middle of nature and professors and philosophers used to walk and discuss ideas. There are gardens with flowers and many trees. From the Philosopher’s Way there are nice views of the town.

From the Philosophers Way, I continued my visit next to the physics institute then all the way in the part of town that is over the Neckar river until I reached the University campus. This is where my trip ended. I took a train back to Karlsruhe as that night it was the opening of the chess tournament.

For Romanian history, Heidelberg is the place where Alexandru Ioan Cuza died in 1873. He was the first Domnitor ( Ruler) of Romania from 1859 to 1866 when he was forced to abdicate and leave the country. He came in Heidelberg with his two sons to enlist them at the University but died a few days after his arrival at Hotel Europa.

Over the years many poets and writers were inspired by Heidelberg. There is a play called “Old Heidelberg” written by Wilhelm Meyer-Förster in 1901. A prince, Karl Heinrich, is sent to study at Heidelberg University. He falls in love with the innkeeper’s daughter, Käthie, but his father dies and he is called back home to rule his province. He returns to Heidelberg two years later to discover that most of the people he knew left and Käthie moved on with her life. Karl Heinrich left and decided never to return to Heidelberg.

It was a very successful play with at least five movies based upon this drama. The most notable is “The Student Prince” from 1954. The scene below is from that movie.

One can only imagine the success this song had in United States during prohibition…

Unlike Karl Heinrich I would gladly return to Heidelberg and maybe I will. I would love to see the “fallen Milky Way” that Twain wrote about.

Baden-Baden…

“…is so nice that you have to name it twice” Bill Clinton dixit.
The town name was Baden in Baden (i.e. Baden the town from Baden the state) and was changed in 1931 to the current form.

In April I was in Karlsruhe for a week participating in the biggest chess tournament in Europe. Being in Baden-Wurttemberg I took the chance to visit the beautiful towns of Baden-Baden and Heidelberg.

Baden-Baden had a rich history from antiquity but reached it’s highest political importance in the XIX century when it became “Europe’s summer capital”. These days the town looks very nice but it is obvious that its glory lies in the past. In my opinion,
from the towns I’ve seen before, it reminded me of Biarritz. The first decline in Baden-Baden tourism came in 1872 once the officials closed the famous town casino. Dostoevsky played in this casino many times in the 1860s and he wrote the novel “The Gambler” while here. In fact, he wrote the novel to pay off his gambling debts. A few years before him Leo Tolstoy lost money in the same casino. A scene from “Anna Karenina” happens in Baden-Baden. Once then casino was closed there was a need to find something else to entertain the tourists. So they opened Friedrichsbad for treatment of rheumatism and other diseases. The second decline of Baden-Baden came after the first world war when entire Germany had difficult times.
Still, the marks of the past glory are visible everywhere in the town and a visit is highly recommended.

I started my visit with a walk on the Lichtentaler Allee which looked so nice in the spring with blossomed flowers and trees.

Botanical garden
A fountain on Lichtentaler Alee

Next, I passed near the famous casino mentioned above. According to Marlene Dietrich, this is the most beautiful casino in the world. Dating from the 1820s it is also the oldest casino in Germany. Having just one day to spend in Baden-Baden and so many things to see I had not enough time to visit the casino inside.

Baden-Baden casino

Near the Casino is the Trinkhalle, the water pump, the spa main building dating from 1840s.

Trinkhalle


Being a Romanian I continued my visit climbing on Michaelsberg to see the Romanian chapel built by Mihail Sturza in the 1860s after the unexpected death of his 17 years old son in Paris in 1863. Mihail Sturza was the ruler of Moldavia between 1834 and 1849 when he emigrated to Paris. They spent the summers in Baden-Baden as many rulers did those days. The chapel is very nice, also, you can have nice views of the town from the hill.

Sturza chapel

Being in Baden-Baden I had to visit the baths as well. The Caracalla Therme looks very modern inside. There is also the Friedrichsbad inaugurated in 1877 a combination of Roman and Irish baths. “After 10 minutes you forget time, after 20 minutes the world” this is how Mark Twain described his experience at Friedrichsbad in 1878. Unfortunately, I did not have the time to enjoy the baths so I have nothing to add.

Friedrichsbad

While writing this article I’ve observed that all the monuments pictured above were built chronologically from 1824 to 1877, so you can see this experience like a time travel through the glorious XIX century of Baden-Baden.

Since I talked about the charm of the past in Baden-Baden, I guess it’s a good place to highlight the failures of the present technology. I took a bus to visit the Merkur mountain, an important tourist attraction but the funicular was closed that day although Google service said otherwise. However, I must say that in many other circumstances Google Maps has been a real help for me.

I mentioned Marlene Dietrich before and I find appropriate to end this post with her singing the German version of “Where have all the flowers gone?” in Baden-Baden. I consider her personality representative for this town.


Marlene Dietrich – Sag mir, wo die Blumen sind

Visiting Rochefort and La Rochelle

For the tourists interested in visiting Rochefort and La Rochelle I thought to share my impressions after my stay there in February. Overall they look very different. While La Rochelle was founded over one thousand years ago, Rochefort was built in the late XVII century by the French government at the time. La Rochelle has old medieval buildings, many towers, narrow and winding streets. Rochefort instead has large perpendicular streets and buildings from more recent time.

Hermione is a major attraction in Rochefort. It is a ship, a reproduction of the frigate which under command of Lafayette was sent in 1780 to help the United States revolution against England. This new ship took 15 years to build and was completed in 2012. However, being made out of wood it requires a lot of maintenance work compared with the modern ships. The frigate Hermione navigated to the United States in 2015 in a symbolic voyage.

In the vicinity of Hermione, there is the National Maritime Museum. Here the visitors can see small replicas of historical French ships. There is, for example, the replica of the submarine that inspired Jules Verne to imagine Nautilus.

This is the court of the museum. I confess that I had no idea what was this item until I read the description
It was the Raft of the Meduse well known from Gericault’s painting

The frigate Meduse left from Rochefort in June 1816 with the destination Senegal. It never reached there as it shipwrecked in July at 50 km from the shores of Mauritania.

One year before, in July 1815, the same frigate Meduse was part of a less known episode of French history. Defeated at Waterloo, the French Emperor Napoleon abdicated and wanted to emigrate to the United States. For this purpose, he went to Rochefort and ordered to have two frigates prepared for the trip. Meduse was one of the two frigates that were supposed to bring the former Emperor over the ocean. He delayed his departure waiting for French passports until the English fleet completely blockaded Rochefort and made his departure impossible. The argument that Napoleon waited for passports in Rochefort is not very convincing to me. Why did he need passports? He had great support in the United States as he sold them Louisiana in 1803. In the end, he surrendered to the English fleet near Rochefort on July 15, 1815, and was imprisoned until his death on Saint Helene island.

A plaque on the military base where Napoleon stayed before surrendering to English forces

In Rochefort, I also recommend a visit to Commerces d’Autrefois museum. Here you can see fragments of life from previous centuries. An interesting return to the day to day life in the past.

In the nineteenth century, people did not afford to buy many clothes. Instead, they dyed their old clothes using machines like this one
A chair used for tonsil surgery in the nineteenth century with a very encouraging message

I was in La Rochelle only for one day, so I had less time to visit the town than Rochefort. Coming from the railway station the first thing that caught my attention was the old port with many restaurants and the famous towers.

I visited two of the three towers. One was used by the local garrison and the other one was a prison.

The towers of La Rochelle made me think of the siege of the city in 1627-1628. At the time, La Rochelle remained the only Protestant city in France. The Catholics wanted to capture the city as in those times there was a religious war over entire Europe. Despite their fight, the Protestants were defeated. Alexandre Dumas wrote about this siege in The Three Musketeers, where the musketeers, who are positive figures, working for the king killed some Protestants. With this in mind, I was curious to see if the main cathedral in La Rochelle was Protestant or Catholic. It was Catholic because I guess vae victis.

Catholic cathedral of La Rochelle

Returning to more modern times, the market in La Rochelle is located in a nice building from the nineteenth century.

La Rochelle market place

During the second world war, La Rochelle was the base of German U-boat submarines in Atlantic. The Germans built a bunker here to shelter in case of an allied bombardment. After the Germans were defeated the bunker remained hidden until it was discovered in the 1980s. Today you can visit the bunker and find out interesting things about the German fleet and the French resistance in the area.

The bunker in La Rochelle
The black cat was the emblem of the German U-boat fleet. The picture is from the bunker.

I’ve seen and learned many interesting things on my trip and I highly recommend visiting Rochefort and La Rochelle.

Kafka

At the time of my registration for the Prague Chess Festival there was no option of accommodation at Hotel Don Giovanni, the playing venue. I made a reservation at Hotel Villa, 700 meters walk from Hotel Don Giovanni. Looking on Google Maps I noticed that my itinerary from the chess tournament place to the hotel where I would stay passed by Franz Kafka’s grave in the nearby Jewish cemetery. I started to read about Kafka and discovered that when he died of tuberculosis in 1924, he had the exact age I have now, 40 years and 11 months. This was a coincidence that further increased my curiosity on his life and work.

The cemetery had a fence but near Kafka’s grave there was a gate. This picture is taken from the street and is the image I ‘ve seen every day and night when I passed by his grave

The chess tournament playing venue seen from Kafka’s grave

If I count the times I went by Franz Kafka’s grave, in the 10 days I stayed in Prague, including two 12km runs around the graveyards, I am sure that I’ve never seen someone’s grave for so many times in my life. I guess it sounds quite Kafkaesque: in Prague, for ten nights a chess player passed by Kafka’s grave after each chess game. The only funny event was that one night a hare showed up in front of me at the cemetery corner then quickly disappeared on an alley. I’ve tried without success to find out if it’s common to meet hares in Prague other than on restaurants menu’s.

Kafka was born in a mid-class Jewish family in Prague in 1883. His father was authoritative and had a negative influence on his son who was shy and introvert. The writer’s drama came from the fact that he was never able to separate emotionally from his parents. However, he moved alone for the first time when he was 31 years old.

During the World War I, Kafka stayed for a while in this small house on Golden Line street behind the Prague Castle. You can buy a ticket to visit this street with a very interesting history

His entire creation and life were influenced by the relation he had with his father. When the father expressed his opposition to his son’s marriage in 1919, Kafka wrote a 45 page letter to his father expressing his frustrations and the emotional abuse he suffered as a child. It seems that the letter did not reach to his father. Unfortunately for him, Franz Kafka was not able to break free from this relation. His sister Ottla, for example, did marry a year later despite her father’s opposition.

A moving head of Kafka created by David Cerny. It might symbolize the metamorphoses of the author and the haunting thoughts that were running through his head.

For those interested, I recommend the visit to Kafka’s museum in Prague. It is a museum created in the spirit of his work. There I was moved when I saw his last letter addressed to his parents one day before he died. He was very weakened and did not have the energy to end that letter which was completed by his girlfriend Dora Diamant.

In my opinion, a very important idea from Kafka’s writings is that we create our own inner universe and it is up to us with what emotions we fill that world. Seneca said it better: “a man is as miserable as he thinks he is”.

Anthropoid

Visiting the Heydrich Terror Memorial in Prague had a deep impact on me. “Anthropoid” was the code name for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich the Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia in May 1942 by soldiers of the Czechoslovak army in exile. I knew the details of the operation before I came to Prague, but being in the crypt where the last showdown took place was a profound experience.

In the morning of May 27th, 1942, Heydrich was heading by car towards Prague Castle, his office. He had no personal guards and was alone with his driver. When the car slowed down in a street hairpin turn, Jozef Gabčík went in front of it and tried to shoot the Nazi leader with his machine gun but the weapon jammed. Heydrich asked the driver to stop the car and chase Gabčík. This gave time for Jan Kubiš to throw the modified hand grenade at the open roof car. Although the grenade exploded outside the car, shrapnel went through the door into Heydrich’s body wounding him. The attackers managed to run from the scene without being caught. Heydrich died from the infected wounds in a hospital eight days later.

German’s reprisals were very violent. It is estimated that 5000 Czechs were killed to revenge this assassinate. Thousands of people were arrested. Gestapo falsely thought that Lidice was the hiding place of the attackers so the Germans did a massacre in that village. A bounty of 1 million Reichsmarks was announced for information leading to the capture of the soldiers who killed Heydrich. No matter how many threats and how many people were shot for three weeks nobody revealed anything to the Germans. But on June 16th a Czech paratrooper who was separated from the main group came to the Gestapo office and gave them all the information he had on the Anthropoid operation and the families helping the soldiers. Once their mission was done, the Czech soldiers hid in the “Saints Cyril and Methodius” Orthodox church in Prague together with five other paratroopers who were sent from England with different missions in Czechoslovakia. In the morning of June 18th, 750 SS soldiers surrounded the church and did everything they could to capture the Czechs alive. The battle took six hours. The men inside the church fought to the last bullet which they used to commit suicide. Three of them died in the church chorus and the other four in the crypt below the altar. The traitor was judged by the Czechoslovak authorities after the war in 1947 and he was hanged.

What impressed me was the fact that the soldiers fought in the church until the end, even if they knew there was no other chance of survival than surrender. While three of them were fighting in the chorus the other four were digging for a way out of the crypt.
By their choice to fight until the end and exit from life only when there was nothing left they sent a very strong message. It was a message of courage and determination that still inspires people after all this time.

There was one more thing that had a deep impact on me. In the museum, there are many pictures of people who helped the paratroopers hid during their six months stay in Prague. All of them knew that when the Germans will find out about their collaboration with the exile army they will be shot together with their families. It was not a question if this will happen but when. They knew this meant their death and the death of loved ones and yet they helped the soldiers. However, once the killing attempt happened in May, for three weeks nobody said anything to Gestapo, despite threats and executions. Once the traitor talked, the Germans took care to torture and execute all the civilians involved as well as their families. Most of them were shot in October of the same year. By their sacrifice, they sent a message to posterity that humans should fight for what they think is right even when this means to pay the highest price.

The facts are that Heydrich was killed and around 5000 Czechoslovaks were executed as reprisals. Was this worth it?

Heydrich was a main architect of the Holocaust. He was in command of the units that committed killings behind the front lines and he was a very effective leader. He wanted to Germanize the Czechs while acting as Reich Protector in Bohemia and Moravia. If he would have lived longer I am sure that his units would have killed much more people than they did after his death. The Anthropoid operation was an important milestone in the Czechoslovak fight for liberation and showed that they weren’t willing to accept Germanization.

For those who want to read more about Anthropoid I recommend an interesting article which clarified many of the questions I had.

Prague Spring

It was a cold weather during the 10 days I spent in Prague at the beginning of March. Such a major difference to the sunny Rochefort that I visited in February. For the tourists interested in city attractions there are many articles on what to visit in the Czech capital so I won’t talk about that. I will cover only the out of the box things. I appreciate the sense of humor of the Czech people although it’s quite different from the Romanian’s sense of humor.

Let’s start with the history first. In the Wenceslas square there is an imposing statue of the former Duke of Bohemia from the tenth century – Wenceslaus I. A few hundred meters from this place, in the Lucerne passage, there is another representation of the same ruler only that this time is riding on a dead horse. This statue is the creation of the sculptor David Černý.

The next stop is the Prague castle, the biggest castle in Europe. There is a famous window the scene of the Defenestration of Prague in 1618. This led to the Thirty Years’ War in our continent. It was a tragic event, but it was somewhat funny to see next to that window a note that asked the visitors not to open the window. Last time that window was opened a war that lasted for thirty years ravaged Europe. We should better keep that window closed. As a side note, although the distance from that window to the ground is 21 meters all the three people thrown out of the window in 1618 survived the impact. This was considered a miracle at the time.

Let’s return to more modern times. Below are two similar sculptures. While I don’t know where the man with an umbrella in the first picture was heading to, the second man is the creation of David Černý mentioned above. It is a statue of Sigmund Freud attached with one hand to a flagpole. It is an inner struggle for Freud whether he should let it go or not.

In recent times, in 1996, they built a dancing house in Prague nicknamed “Ginger and Fred”, which can be seen as a modern symbol of an old city. Near the house, I saw the text in the second picture at a traffic light pole and I … did push the button.

These were a few things that caught my eye, amused me and made me think during my visit to Prague. I invite you to search for other out of the box cultural elements in Prague. This way you will understand more of the Czech spirit and way of thinking.