Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Femme Fatale - Chapter III - Marie Antoinette

Since I moved to Vienna (which happened pretty recently), I have been fascinated by Austrian history more than ever. Vienna oozes the wealth of its wonderful past. Cultural heritage is not only the architecture and art, it is also the persons who made history. One of the most famous and probably one of the most eccentric Austrians must be Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France, Dauphine, style icon or l'Autrichienne.
Reluctantly she had to leave her beloved Vienna for rigid Versaille to correct strained relations between Austria and France. But before Marie entered France, she underwent a total makeover to look more like a francaise. French stylists worked on her attitude and appearance and royal inspection service has stripped her of all Austrian dresses and belongings of sentimental value. Marie had to forget her fatherland and start her life all over again according to the etiquette of Versailles.
Adapting to the new rules was not so easy. She was continuously judged, examined and supervised by an entourage at the most awkward moments like her wedding night or bathing. In addition she was put under pressure to give birth to a successor to the throne. While Marie was not allowed to express her feelings, she began to develop her own recognizable style which inspires and fascinates to this day.
Marie tried to break with royal rules and traditions. For example, she refused to wear a corset and rode horses like a man, and wore male costumes. That gave her strength and sovereignty. Louis XIV and Catherine the Great also expressed their dominance and superiority with their self-portrait on the horse. The royal court however was not thrilled with Maries disrespectful feminist behavior and threatened to send her back to Austria. That would be a blunder and a disappointment.

In Vienna Marie wore a more flexible corset, the french one was a torture device and caused huge disorders. Women suffered from frequent faintings, difficulties with breathing and digesting food, not to mention heart palpitation, asthma, vapors, stinking breath, consumption and withering rottenness. Marie however didn't really suffer, she only felt basic discomfort. Regardless to her liberating anti corset statement, the royal court experienced it more as a taboo. France was not ready for strong female figures after a long history of promiscuous kings en their modest wives.
Marie did not intend to devote her life to religion and children. She became the most fashionable woman in France. With Rose Bertin on her side, she showed Paris the most expensive dresses and the most oversized poufs. Unlike the previous queens, Marie looked for publicity and became a true diva and a royal court's supermodel. Her passion for fashion was a important distraction from the daily worries.
The most distinctive aspect of Maries appearance was obviously the pouf. It was copied as often as ridiculed in the media. The hairstyles were not only ridiculously high, but also very uncomfortable. The top was decorated with eg feathers, flowers and fruit and the inside was filled with fake hair, bobby pins, grease and perhaps even more. Sleeping horizontally was impossible, dancing and traveling was restricted, the front seats at the opera were prohibited and vermin caused much itching. Solution was found for only the latter problem: a special scraper made of ivory, gold or silver and sometimes even decorated with diamonds.
The excessive costs of Marie's lifestyle didn't charm the poor nation. Just like the criticism about hunger and poverty in France didn't stop Marie from spending even more. The monarchy lost it's superiority and popularity while the revolutionaries seized power. Brutal and violent French revolution abolished the Ancient Regime and sentenced Marie and her husband to the guillotine.
Despite this fatal end Marie Antoinette is never forgotten. In fact her style now is even more relevant than ever and inspires the biggest fashion designers, movie makers and artists. 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Summer weekend in Prague

Day One:

This summer I visited Prague once again. I have been here three times before. And I am convinced that I would like to come back here even more often. This Czech capital is the European gem that continues to surprise me over and over.

Flight times were relaxed this time. Normally I choose early and cheap ones. But at very early hours I'm just often not myself and have little energy on arrival. The flight to Prague though takes a very short time. We would have all evening for the city. Unfortunately, the delay has taken away our evening hours in Prague. We arrived fairly quickly by using the public transport. The bus 119 goes regularly to the 'Dejvická' metro station, which is a terminus of the green line and which goes through the city center. Traveling in Prague is cheap and easy, one ticket is valid for all types of transport. And it is not a huge city, therefore everything is relatively close. Within an hour we arrived at the hotel. I was worried that due to our late arrival, the room would have been cancelled. Fortunately it did not happen, we checked in successfully and went down town to grab a bite. Just before midnight it seemed almost impossible to get something to eat. One kitchen after another closed and our quest for food became more and more desperate. But then suddenly I remembered a “No Reservation” episode where Anthony Bourdain recommends a place where people eat at night. It turned out to be an incredibly good tip! At Wenceslas Square I found this particular food stall where you can get a wide range of meat and baked cheese for the vegetarians among us. It's an ideal alternative to get rid of the hunger when all restaurants of town have closed their doors. We conclude this short evening with a delicious Czech pilsner and went to the hotel to regain strength for the next day.

Day Two:
We started at Mala Strana. Basically we skipped the most popular sites and went for the hill point Strahov. Climbing up that hill is absolutely worth for one of the most beautiful library in the world and a splendid view of the city. The library has two different halls. The theological hall is recognizable by it's playful Baroque style. The other one is philosophical with the beautiful, tall, wooden cabinets and a high ceiling. The corridor that connects the halls is filled with the voyage collection from overseas, 17th century turtles, a stingray, weapons and more.
Outside we enjoyed the view a bit before going back down town. The best panoramic view is probably the Renaissance tower of St. Vitus cathedral. When we arrived there, the church was already closed, but the tower was still accessible.
It takes some effort to come up there, but the view is a magnificent reward! Every time I was in Prague, I climbed this tower. It has become a tradition and I could not skip it this time either. The spiral staircase is dizzying and seems endless. The best way to walk up is without a break. Just don't do it too fast, unless you're in a hurry, of cource.
Mala Strana was extremely crowded around the St. Vitus. Nearby were some medieval games or workshops which attracted much attention. We left this town site by strolling along the river. Next to the Karlov bridge a large group of swans was hanging out or probably they were used to the tourists that passed by and gave them snacks. Still it was a nice combination of nature with ancient history of Prague in the background. Then we arrived at the famous 'baby' statues next to the Kampa museum. This part of the town is actually very pleasant, green and quiet. For those who love Prague, but want to skip the tourist crowds this spot is their place to be.

Day Three:
About seven years ago I was together with my husband in Czech Republic and we were searching for little town Moravsky Krumlov, 'known' for it's Slavic Epos exhibition. This oeuvre of Czech artist Mucha was only accessible on particular months of the year and the town was almost untraceable. It was a ghost town basically. We were the only foreigners, other few visitors were Czechs, all of them came temporary just for Mucha and then they would leave Moravsky Krumlov as fast as they could.
Today it takes a lot less effort to see this exposition. In fact that same Slavic Epos moved to Prague's Veletržní Palace. I wasn't thrilled about that news first, even though the exposition was way easier to locate. My big fear was that Slavic Epos would lose that special and mysterious aura from Moravia. To my surprise, this new venue was almost perfect. The given hall was spacious with good lightning and all twenty paintings came to their best advantage. Perhaps the location was less unique, but Slavic Epos was just as moving as it was seven years ago. I loved it.
Veletržní Palace is located next to a metro station, red line comes to that area. We travelled to the opposite direction: Vyšehrad. That's a nice neighborhood on the hill which overlooks Vltava river, Mala Strana and ofcourse the St. Vitus cathedral. Vyšehrad is often skipped by tourists and therefore it's also a nice area to walk around. And even here you'll find interesting sights. The most famous one is the cemetery with local celebrities like Smetana, Dvořák and Mucha. The first two we found easily. Mucha's grave was 'hidden' in the so called wall of fame: Slavin. It was just a small and basic tomb while I was expecting something in Art Nouveau style.
On this day I rediscovered Prague by getting to know two new neighborhoods. Prague is so much more that astronomical clock and Karlov Bridge. Evidently I knew that, but todays walk was an absolute confirmation.

Day Four:
Before we returned to the airport we visited the Obecní dům. This remarkable Art Nouveau building is used for all kind of art disciplines. We visit another exhibition of Mucha here. For those who have seen Mucha expos previously, it will have no particular surprice. For me this was just an excuse to check the building from the inside. The best rooms are only visible with a guided tour, I understood. That then remains for the next time. Regardless of the lack of surprise at the exhibition, Muchas posters remain a joyful and inspirational experience. And so was the entire weekend. Prague is such a fantastic, rich and vibant city. It's an inexhastible source of inspiration and one of the most beautiful places of Europe. Prague, we'll see each other soon!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Palermo - Sicily

If you haven't seen Etna, you haven't seen Sicily, right? Of course it isn’t, but Etna was on our way to Palermo and we couldn't resist visiting this famous volcano. Actually it's interesting when the volcano is active and the flowing lava is visible. Then it's worth taking the cable car all the way up. During our visit there was too little to see. So therefore we drove by car to the end of the road, enjoyed view, lunch, volcanic landscape and continued to the city. The climate was completely different. It was cold, windy and cloudy. Nature was dark and bare. When you drive here, you get a good picture of a volcano eruption, how far the lava came and what was damaged so far. It was a special experience, though I was glad to be back down in the warmer environment.

After this volcanic experience we took the highway through the middle of the island, which was just breathtaking. In terms of landscape and nature, this area in my opinion is the very best of Sicily. Unfortunately, the road was narrow and we could not stop anywhere to enjoy these amazing views a bit longer or capture this beauty on film.
This vast field is consisted of beautiful green hills, mountains in the distance, clear blue sky, high rock villages and animal farms. A huge contrast to the rather poor looking south coast.

When entering Palermo, we notice immediately how busy it is here compared to previous places. There is much to do, to see, to shop and discover. On the other hand the air is pretty polluted and in the evening some neighborhoods can be quite dangerous. What struck me immediately is that the seaside neighborhood is not good. And it's not even pretty either.
To orientate in Palermo is fairly easy. Via Roma, Via Maqueda and Via Vittorio Emanuele are three major streets of traffic and shopping. Where the streets Maqueda and Vittorio Emanuele cross each other, the city is divided into four areas. This particular center is recognizable by a stunning Baroque style Quattro Canti square. You find several interesting historical sights on walking distance.
If you stray away from the main streets, you will probably end up in the less wealthy neighborhoods. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, because those places are really genuine and full of character. You will also find markets here that are full of fresh fish, fruits and vegetables. La Vucciria market seems to be the most famous one. It is also the most unusual location of Palermo, I think. The market stench made me think I was somewhere in Asia, somewhere far, far away from Europe. Beyond the market the neighborhood turns into a true ghetto. Some buildings are simply ruins, as if some war has been going on recently.
In the first instance this looks quite frightening, but soon I realize La Vucciria has the best atmosphere in town. When the sun goes down, the youngsters gather here to party. It reminds me of the ruin bars of Budapest, only here the damaged facades are just background. One of the ruins is a former bank, an ironic symbol of the European economy collapse. Yet life goes on, and everyone enjoys. Tables and chairs are everywhere. Couple of bars here and there offer cheap drinks. There are many food stalls with fish and pancakes and some great family restaurants with cheap and delicious dishes on their menus.

Next to the vibrant and rich, Palermo also has a macabre side in its history. Catacombe dei Cappuccini is actually a sight you cannot miss. I thought I have seen something like this before in Rome, yet is this one bigger, more obscure and impressive. Not very deep underground, couple of hallways are filled with hundreds of wealthy, mummified inhabitants of Palermo. The corridors are divided in sections. One is for men, another for women, children, priests and so on. Some are very well preserved and therefore very creepy. The dead looked quite sinister, but I couldn't keep my eyes off. And even though it was forbidden to take pictures, I could not resist doing it. Sorry.
Before leaving Sicily, I shopped successfully and payed a visit to the lovely ghetto of La Vucciria again. It was wonderful! I will come back to Sicily someday, for sure!

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