This year edition of the Balkan Masters Athletics was organized in Bucharest. It was a competition open to all athletes from Balkan countries aged over 35. It had all the races you can see in the athletics section of Olympic games with some small differences, one being that instead of a marathon the participants run only a half marathon because it deals with people over a certain age.
It was a nice edition with many spectacular races. I liked watching the relays but also the spectacular 3000m obstacles or the 1500m race. Except for the half marathon, all the other events happened on “Iolanda Balas” stadium.
It was a good opportunity for me to see how prepared I am for the traditional half marathon I run every year in October.
There were around 80 participants that started the race on a beautiful Sunday morning of September. We had to run 3 times around the Herastrau lake as shown in the map below where a lap is around 7 km long.
Constantina Dita, the Olympic champion, was invited to give the start signal for the race and she not only did that but she also watched the whole race and gave water to the thirsty runners after each lap. In the end, she congratulated the finishers. It was very nice of her to go the extra mile and I am sure that as myself all the runners really appreciated this. A warm thank you to all the arbiters and officials who were aligned on the route to make sure everything is ok. They stayed there for more than three hours until the race finished.
As for the race itself, I started with a comfortable pace of 5 minutes and 10 seconds per kilometer and continued at that speed for 14 kilometers when a runner from Greece reached me from behind. In all the races before I focused on my run, but this time I made the mistake to compete with this guy. For the next 3 km, I had a pace of 4:50 which was too fast for me. As a result for the last 3 km of the race, I had an average of 5:24 and finished in 1:48:05 official time ranked 8th from 12 participants. While this is not my best time for a half marathon (1:46:46), I am happy with my performance, an average of 5:08 per kilometer for 21 kilometers. In the end, I congratulated the runner from Greece who finished two minutes ahead of me. Running and sport, in general, is about fair-play.
I would like to thank my coach, Stefan Oprina, the driving force at “Trupa lui Fane”, who is helping me for over a year to improve my running with great advice in cool training sessions together with many other runners.
Many thanks to Radu Neagu who made the photos above and sent them to me late in the night so I can write this article!
I liked this edition of the Balkan Masters and I would like to participate next year as well when will be hosted in Albania.
My next race will be at the traditional Bucharest Marathon on October 13th when my objective is to finish the half marathon in one hour and forty-five minutes.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I thought to write down some of my impressions as a participant in Europe’s biggest chess festival. It was indeed a great tournament and a special experience for me being in the same place with other 2000 chess players, including the best players in the world.
The venue, as in the previous years, was the Schwarzwaldhalle in the big Congress Center in Karlsruhe. There were two big conference halls where we played grouped in four tournaments.
The tournaments were scheduled around catholic Easter between 18th and 22nd of April. It is the same each year, many people can play as they have free days during Easter. This was a nine-round tournament in five days with four days with double rounds and one day a single round. Most of the chess tournaments in present have a single round each day because it can take up to five hours of intense effort for a game to finish. Another difference from most of the tournaments is that it’s played in classical time format. This means each player has two hours to make forty moves and then receives other thirty minutes to finish the game. Hence a game can last for a maximum of five hours. This is how the chess tournaments were played before digital clocks were invented.
In the conference hall above you can see a stage where the world best players including the world champion, Magnus Carlsen, had a closed tournament with only ten competitors. While the rest of the tournaments started on Thursday they started their tournament on Saturday. The reason behind this decision is that on the Friday before the Easter they don’t broadcast chess games. I guess it is a strange local policy in Karlsruhe.
Most of the chess players were assigned to play in the bigger conference hall seen above. I played all my nine games in this conference hall. The playing conditions were great, nice wooden boards and pieces on all of the tables. I would say that the tournament was very well organized in all details. It is not easy to handle 2000 people.
As for my experiences, in the first round, I lost because I made the move forty with one second too late. This was because I haven’t played a classic game in the last twenty years and I was not prepared for time to pass so quickly. I had fifteen seconds to make the last three moves. I thought I made the last move just in time because the clock displayed a confusing message. My opponent also thought that I made the move on time. He spent the next ten minutes thinking on his move when an arbiter came to our table and asked if I did forty moves. I did, but it turned out the last move was done out of the assigned time. The arbiter said that I lost the game for failing to make forty moves in two hours. His decision was right. I congratulated my opponent and went to the hotel as it was almost midnight and the next day I had other two games to play. I learned from that mistake to better organize my time. I did not lose another game on time.
Another interesting situation happened a few rounds later. After ten moves were played my opponent complained to the arbiter that I wrote down the moves I intended to make and then perform the move on the table and press the clock. I must say I did not know about this rule. In the books I used to learn chess from, written in the 1950s, they say that you should write down your move, think about it some more and only then perform the move. The arbiter asked me to make the move first and only then write it down. I thought this was a trick by my opponent to distract my attention and lose my focus. I thought I will not let myself fooled like this, I will fight hard and win the game. I was ranked higher than my opponent, I got a better position with a strong attack. At some point, I thought I had a winning combination if I sacrificed an exchange and I did that. It turned out my sacrifice was a mistake, one that I would see immediately in a normal context. The problem was that I wanted too much to win, to punish my opponent for the cheap trick he tried. This wish was stronger than my objective reason who would have seen the error if I thought a little more. As a result, I lost that game too. Psychology plays an important role in chess and in life. The good part is that chess helps you understand and maybe correct the behavioral problems you have at the cost of one game. After the game,my opponent apologized for calling the arbiter but he said he couldn’t concentrate on the game because I did not respect the procedure.
Those were the only games I lost in Karlsruhe. I also had pleasant experiences. In the position below I played black, and for the last five moves I chased the white king trying to checkmate it or gain a material advantage.
My focus was once again on finding moves to attack the white king, but despite my effort, I saw no way to make progress. I was looking only on the left side of the board where all the action was happening. Time was passing quickly and my calculus led to nothing. Then I stopped and I looked at the entire board and immediately noticed that if I would push the a6 pawn to a5 my opponent would move the bishop and then the pawn on c3 would remain unprotected and could be captured by the rook on d3. I won that pawn and then the pawn on a3. My opponent resigned the game seven moves later.
The lesson here is that sometimes it’s better to take a break from your plans and look for opportunities on other sides.
The next morning I had an even more pleasant game. We reached the position below, myself playing white after I sacrificed a knight for two pawns to obtain an attack against the black king.
Before I sacrificed the knight on move 12, I calculated the position above and evaluated it as much better for white who could take the pawn on b7 and then the one on c6 because the knight on b8 would move on d7. This way I had four pawns as compensation for a knight. A knight is generally considered equal to three pawns so I was better from the material point of view. But more important the black king was under attack from the white pieces, for example, the white rook could move to e1 and check the king.
Everything looked great for white, but before continuing with my long term winning plan I defocused and asked myself if I could do better than that. Soon, I noticed that if I moved the white bishop from c4 to f7 the black king could take the white bishop but the black queen was lost as it would be captured by the white queen. The option to play the king to e7 instead of capturing the bishop did not help as white would reply with rook to e1 and black would lose the queen in worse circumstances. My opponent took the bishop with the king, I took the black queen as mentioned above and he resigned the game.
In chess, the tactical sequence described above is called deflection.
I was very enthusiastic about the aesthetic beauty of that bishop sacrifice. Players that I did not know smiled at me after I moved the bishop to f7. It was the most beautiful move I played this year. It reminded me of a poem by Romanian poet Adrian Paunescu -“Nebun de alb” (Bishop of white). In this case, the white bishop did not take the white queen but sacrificed itself for the capture of the queen, which sounds like a different poetic image.
I would like to end this post with a quote from Paul Keres, a top chess grandmaster from the XX century: “in every position there is a move to be found – but you have to search for it!“ Hopefully, everyone reading this article will spend time looking for good moves in life as well.
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.
Although I stayed for a week in Karlsruhe I only had time to visit the city between the chess tournament rounds.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I like the food in Germany and Karlsruhe made no exception. They have many traditional restaurants but also a large variety of international cuisine.
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.
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.
“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…
“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.
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
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.
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.
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.
“…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.
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.
Near the Casino is the Trinkhalle, the water pump, the spa main building dating from 1840s.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Returning to more modern times, the market in La Rochelle is located in a nice building from the nineteenth century.
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.
I’ve seen and learned many interesting things on my trip and I highly recommend visiting Rochefort and La Rochelle.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.