We Stormed The Kastell – Vaxholms Kastell Fortress

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For centuries, Vaxholm Fortress (Vaxholms Kastell) guarded a crucial entry route into Stockholm’s harbor.    King Gustav Vasa (yep, the same one who commissioned that famous ship) built a fortress here and filled in other waterways to ensure that this channel was the only way into and out of Stockholm.  He had good reason to strengthen his defenses.  In 1612, Christian IV of Denmark tried to invade.  Czar Peter the Great of Russia tried to invade in 1719.

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In the mid 19th century, they upgraded, well sort of.  Sweden tore down the old defenses and built a giant new granite fortress there.  Unfortunately for them, the technology of warfare advanced between the time the new fortress was designed and when it was completed some 30 years later.  In its first test, a shell (instead of the old technology of cannonballs) tore a hole in the wall.  The fortresses high guns couldn’t really reach the new style of lower design boats.  Oops.

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Since it couldn’t really serve as a bastion of defense, Vaxholm Fortress was used as a prison.  I don’t think I would have liked to be incarcerated here.  The citadel seemed a little cold and wet.  The uniform didn’t look particularly warm either.  Can you imagine spending a Swedish winter like that?

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In addition to covering pre-20th century history, the museum contains exhibits on its more recent uses.  During World War II, Sweden remained neutral but heightened its military preparedness by strengthening its defenses and drafting conscripts.  The Swedes placed mines in the nearby Sea of Åland.   Polish ORP RyśORP Żbik, and ORP Sęp submarine crews were detained in Vaxholm’s Citadel.

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The end of the Second World War in 1945 signaled the beginning of “Cold War.” Swedish military was  on high alert.  The USSR was as close as nearby Estonia and the Russians had come sniffing their way before.  The archipelago became important because it was a gateway into the country.   Vaxholm’s Kastell Fortress monitored the area.  The military stopped occupying it in 1993 and in 2000, the absence of an external enemy meant all stationary batteries were deactivated in Sweden.  Today, its museum has artifacts thoroughout its history, from royal times to the mines and radar.  The incredible setting makes it all the more interesting and it’s well worth a visit.

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One of the coolest things about it today is that in addition to functioning as a park, it contains a hotel.  The best part is that nothing is closed.  If you stay, you can wander around, picnic, sit on the ramparts with drink, enjoy the quiet and watch boats go by.  Since the rooms have no radio, TV, or internet, you might not have much else to do.

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Navigating Paris Museums in a Wheelchair

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My dad came to visit.  He traveled all the way to Europe and was bound and determined to see things.  Unfortunately, dad’s knee is bone on bone.  He can walk, but needs knee surgery soon and can’t spend much time on his feet or move too quickly.  The only way to get him around museums was renting a folding wheelchair (chaise roulette).  Museums often have ones you can borrow for free.    It was lightweight and made it possible for him to see a lot.  The highlight of being in a wheelchair was a front row seat to the Mona Lisa at Paris’ Louvre Museum.

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Unfortunately, the Louvre museum was once a palace and is not as handicapped friendly as we’d hoped.  Wheelchair ramps were sorely lacking.  It was pretty obvious that it is hard to retrofit museums with elevators/lifts at convenient spots.  The Musée d’Orsay (a bit of a nightmare) and the Hôtel National des Invalides Army Museum weren’t easy to navigate either.  Fortunately, they had some pretty cool stuff to make any the frustration well worth it.

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Check out all the in the stairs in these pictures.  While the retrofit of an old train station is pretty cool and well done, all the stairs make some corners virtually inaccessible.

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Even when they had a wheelchair lift, we had to go in search of personnel to operate the lift.  This often took 20 minutes or so.  While all of this was a bit of an inconvenience, it (more or less) worked and my dad was blown away by what he saw.  So were we.

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On another note, it made us appreciate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and how accessible things are in the US.

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Tourists Mob Paris, Here’s How To Manage

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I think we saw more tourists in Paris than actual Parisians.  Here are some hints for navigating a tourists Paris.

  • Since we were an odd number, rather than renting a couple of hotel rooms, we rented a tiny apartment.  It was easy to book online and saved us a ton of dough.
  • Get the museum pass at the tourist office.  We bought ours at the train station’s tourist office upon arrival.  I only had one person in front of me in line and barely had to wait.  It allowed us to skip the long lines at every attraction… and saved us a bunch of money

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  • Get to the Louvre early.  Very, Very early.  Bus tours will start arriving.  If you encounter them, you will be swept away in a sea of people madly clicking their cameras.  Get there early to see the big sights before they finish breakfast and on the bus.
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  • While you are at the Louvre (and other museums), take advantage of the great views from museum cafes.  We had an unforgettable coffee with this view.  Priceless.DSC_0742_2
  • French food is pretty good.  Nevertheless like all cultures, a bit of it seems suspect to the outside. While I will eat frog’s legs and snails.  I can’t stand the terrines, the molded meat and gelatin. Even knowing that it may result in eating something suspect, I like to eat at restaurants where the menu isn’t in English (or like some super touristy places in Italian, German, Russian and Chinese as well).  Do yourself a favor and avoid the loud Americans that will be at the next table over, get off the beaten path and try to find a place without an English menu.  Not only will it be more affordable, but you’ll have a more authentic experience.  If you don’t you could end up like a friend who paid $52 for a hamburger in Italy.  We paid about that for an entire meal that was one of the best of our lives.

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  • If you happen to bein Paris during sale time (known as Les Soldes), you’re lucky.   Markdowns occur at designated times twice a year.  Shop away!

Prague’s Jewish Quarter

Jews have lived in Prague since 965 In the 13th century, Prague’s Jews were banned from living outside a particular area of the city.  They had to leave their homes and settle in a prescribed area, the Jewish Quarter, also known as Josefov.  During the mid 1500’s, Prague’s Jewish population almost doubled as Jews were expelled from Moravia, Germany, Austria and Spain.
In 1708, Jews were 1/4 of Prague’s population and by the early 18th century, more Jews lived in Prague than anywhere else in the world. In the 19th century, Prague’s Jews gained freedoms and began integrating into society.  All that changed when the Nazis came in 1939.
Initially, the vast majority of Czech Jews were imprisoned in Terezin, a ghetto north of Prague.  Others were sent directly to concentration camps.  More than a quarter of a million Czechoslovak Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.  Today, there are estimated to be 10,000 to 15,000 Jews in the Czech Republic.
The synagogues no longer need to serve large populations.  Rather than let them fall into disrepair, have become different parts of the Jewish Museum in Prague and are best preserved complex of Jewish historical monuments in Europe.  Six synagogues remain and have been restored.  Together, they comprise the Jewish Museum.*  The sites include:

  • Jewish Town Hall (Židovská radnice) – This 18th century rococo town hall Jewish Town Hall has a clock tower whose hands run backwards as Hebrew reads from right to left.   Part of the building dates from 1586.

  • Klaus Synagogue (Klausova synagoga) – It is 16th century baroque synagogue that houses Hebrew prints, manuscripts and has a good exhibition explaining Jewish traditions and customs..
  • Maisel Synagogue (Maiselova synagog) – This 16th century synagogue was once destroyed by fire.  Now, it houses a collection of items brought to Prague by the Nazis with the intention of establishing a museum of vanished people.

  • Pinkas Synagogue (Pinkasova synagog) – This 16th century synagogue was rebuilt many times since it was founded in 1479.   After WWII it became a memorial to the 77,297 Jewish Czechoslovak victims of the Nazi Holocaust.  These numbers do not include Slovakian Jews, only Jews from current Czech territory.  Each of the victim’s names is written in alphabetical order on the walls with their date of birth and the date they were last seen alive.  The building is silent except for prayers and a reading the names of the dead, which alternate over the sound system.

  • Spanish Synagogue (Španělská synagog) – This 19th century synagogue is a stunning building named after its Moorish interior.  It contains an exhibition of the life of Jews in the Czech Republic.   Despite it’s appearance, it was never used by Sephardic Jews, but was an early Reform temple.

  • Old New Synagogue (Staronová synagog) – Dating from 1270, this Gothic synagogue is the oldest working in Prague.  It is legendary and reputed to be the home of the famous Golem of Prague.  It requires an additional ticket that can be purchased at the same time.

  • Old Jewish Cemetery (Starý židovský hřbitov) This 15th-18th century cemetery is  Europe’s oldest surviving Jewish cemetery and one of the most unusual sites. Founded in 1478, it is Europe’s oldest surviving Jewish cemetery.  As Jews were not permitted to bury their dead outside the Jewish Quarter and space was tight, there was a severe lack of space. 100,000 people are thought to be buried here.  To fit them all, people had to be buried on top of each other. There are about 12 layers and over 12,000 gravestones.   Since Jews do not believe in moving the dead, even when permitted to bury outside the quarter, they did not move the bodies to make more space.

It is customary for Jews to put small stones on a gravesite when visiting it.

Over the years, the bodies accumulated.  Now the cemetery is over a story above street level.

I found the concept of having a museum divided between several important buildings all within close walking distance to each other really interesting and easy to manage.  Each one has a different focus and so they compliment each other, rather than overlap. It was an incredibly interesting and moving morning.






London’s Museums

We left London a whole lot smarter (don’t get me wrong, we are still as dumb as two boxes of rocks).  We went to a few great museums: the British Museum, the Imperial War Museum, the Tower of London and the National Gallery.  The Rosetta Stone (below) is one the British Museum’s most famous objects.  It has same inscription written in three different scripts (Greek, hieroglyphs and demotic Egyptian) and allowed modern scholars to begin to decipher hieroglyphs for the first time.

From the statue of Ramses II to the egyptian mummies to statues from Easter Island and more. The British Museum was awesome.  If you rule 1/4 of the world’s population and have the money and the means to bring back treasures, you can amass an amazing collection.

 

 

King’s Library
Winged Lions (with human heads) from Assyria
This used to hang in the Parthenon.
The Elgin Marbles were amazing, his favorite part.
No wonder Greece wants them back.

The Imperial War Museum is in Bedlam.  Yep, that’s right Bedlam, the mental hospital that was so chaotic that it’s name became synonymous with it.  It was a fantastic museum.  They have tons of old bombs, tanks, vans, planes, etc., but there are also great exhibits.  Some of the highlights include: British spying in the 20th century, WWI (including a simulated trench warfare experience) and WWII (with a disorienting air raid experience).

The most astounding part of the museum was the Holocaust exhibit, the most complete in Europe.  They have an immense amount of materials and it is well presented.  Part of the way through, we found ourselves becoming a bit numb.  The content was so disturbing that it was the only way we could continue to the end without falling apart.  I cannot recommend seeing this highly enough.

The National Gallery (one of the world’s best art museums) has an unprecedented and immensely popular exhibit on Leonardo Da Vinci.  It just opened and they have already sold out of tickets online.  To see it, I waited in the cold rain for an hour and a half!  It was well worth it.  Da Vinci painted less than 20 paintings over the course of his life and they never had so many together.  Ironically, a lot of the drawings belonged to her majesty the queen!

We were exited for the opportunity to move here, in part, because we knew that we would learn and grow.  This weekend, it started to dawn on us just how much learning is so much more accessible.  We resolved to try to take full advantage.