Prague's upside-down horse hangs with King Wenceslaus riding his belly.

POTW: Prague’s Upside-Down Horse

An upside-down horse is likely not what you came to Prague expecting to see. But then Czech artist David Černý likes to do things differently. The horse and the beautiful Lucerna Passage it hangs in, should not be missed.

On any trip to Prague, you’re certainly going to visit Wenceslaus Square. This is where things happen in Prague… revolutions, celebrations, demonstrations. And all this feverish activity is watched over by the country’s patron saint, Vaclav, who we in the West tend to know as Good King Wenceslaus. He was the Christian ruler of the country in the 10th century and was murdered by his ambitious brother Boleslav the Cruel.

There he sits at the top of the square, astride a majestic prancing horse, in front of the domed National Museum. The statue was begun by sculptor Josef Vaclav Myslbek in 1887 and finally put into place in 1912, a testament to Czech honor, patriotism, and all that good stuff.

But not so far away, near the other end of the square, is another King Vaclav and his horse… but with a twist of classic Czech irony.

Prague's upside-down horse hangs with King Wenceslaus riding his belly.

Do you think King Wenceslaus is oblivious to the fact that his steed is not only an upside-down horse
that’s sticking its tongue out but is also dead?

Inside the Lucerna Passage—an elegant and decorative Art Nouveau shopping and entertainment area built in 1920—you’ll find yourself confronting another horse that, while perhaps not of a different color is certainly of a different condition. He’s dead, you see, and hanging by his feet, his poor head lolling down and his tongue sticking out. But apparently King Vaclav still needed a mount, dead or alive, and so he mounted the upside down steed, riding astride the dead horse’s belly.

This upside-down horse, a perfect depiction of the Czech penchant for black humor, was created in 1999 by the post-modern Czech artist David Černý. The same David Černý who once painted a Russian tank that was gracing the square pink. And the same one who designed those odd babies you might have noticed crawling up the sides of the Czech TV tower.

The poor dead horse and his oblivious king seem yet more bizarre surrounded by the elaborate marble work and stained glass and general Art-Nouveau kitschy loveliness of the atrium where they hang. You can’t help but wonder how that fragile and lovely ceiling can support the weight of such a large piece. But although it looks like bronze, the horse and rider are actually sculpted of foam.

A Presidential Connection

The building was built by Vaclav Havel, grandfather of the famous poet/playwright/dissident of the same name who became the first president of the nation after the fall of Communism (which he helped bring about). Havels are still part owners of the property and in fact, one of the stories I heard about the Upside-Down Horse involves the family. Word is that an aunt of the presidential Vaclav was a firm Royalist and ordered the statue as a statement of persistence and faith. She decreed that the king should ride on an upended dead horse until the monarchy is restored to Czech. Probably an apocryphal tale but if not, our Vaclav here is likely to have a long dead ride.

Like most of Černý’s work, this bizarre, controversial but ultimately enjoyable piece of art is certainly a worthy addition to the Czech tradition of Theater of the Absurd.


Note: There’s a nice cafe on the upper level of the atrium, the Cafe Kino. Just go up the amber-rose colored marble steps across from our guy here. If you can get a seat by the window looking down into the atrium, you can get a nice angle for a photo. I had coffee with whipped cream and a pastry. A bit pricey for Prague, but not out of reach and a pleasant spot.

The sign at the entrance to Terezin Prison Camp, near Prague, "Arbeit Macht Frei,"--Work Will Make You Free

Visiting the Terezín Concentration Camp and Ghetto, Near Prague

I didn’t know what to expect when I decided to visit the Terezín Ghetto and Concentration Camp, near Prague in the Czech Republic. But whatever it was, it wasn’t what happened to me there.

Feeling the Sun

When I step off the tour van in the parking area to visit the Terezín/Theresienstadt concentration camp/ghetto and prison, the sun is shining brilliantly and the sky is a piercing blue. I hadn’t paid much attention to the weather when we left Prague an hour ago. But now I notice that the sun is making everything vivid, alive, almost sparkling.

Walking from the parking area to Terezín’s “Small Fortress,” I stroll beneath a row of trees in full leaf—although every now and then a butter-yellow leaf drifts towards my feet, signaling the onset of autumn. If I were wearing one-sided blinders, I could imagine I was walking in a peaceful park on a sunny day, for then I could not see the rows and rows of stone tablets beyond the trees to my right—thousands of them—set into the lush grass to mark the resting places of so many who died earlier than they should have. Most of the plaques have names; some do not. A few are marked only by a number, just a few digits to sum up an entire life.

The 5-digit number tattooed on a woman's arm, a survivor of Auschwitz and the Nazi Holocaust.

This is what they did at Auschwitz. This is how they turned people into numbers. This is what I saw tattooed on the arm of a survivor
on a hot summer day in Amsterdam in 1971.

Seeing the number on one gravestone takes me back to a day in 1971, the first time I lived abroad. I was standing in line at the post office in Amsterdam, fanning myself with the letter I was waiting to mail. It was summer, and hot. Everyone was in short sleeves. Uncomfortable and impatient, I counted how many people were before me. And glancing down, I saw the arm of the woman standing directly in front of me. It was a freckled arm, I remember, dusted with soft light hairs. And among the freckles there, on the outside of her left arm, were the blue-black marks of a tattoo. Five digits. Etched into the freckled skin of her arm. She had been at Auschwitz, the only concentration camp where the Nazis, with their so-German efficiency, marked their victims in this way, the better to maintain their meticulous records of life and death.

I do not know what to expect here, in Terezín, which the Germans called Theresienstadt. I have never been to a Nazi concentration camp. I suppose I hope to see in reality what before had been only old and cracked black-and-white photos of Auschwitz, Dachau, and Treblinka, of gaunt prisoners in striped uniforms clinging to wire fencing. I did not expect to see grass and flowers and a yellow leaf floating down under a bright blue sky.

The Small Fortress Prison at Terezín

The walls of the star-shaped Small Fortress at Terezín are built of rusty red brick topped with grassy mounds. It was not built as a concentration camp. It was used as a political prison for more than 150 years before the Nazis came. But they knew how to make what they considered very good use of it.

We cross a bridge over a moat, dry now, filled with grass, and enter through an arched entryway. Soon after, we walk through a second portal, the entrance to the prison itself. This one is adorned with that favorite bit of Nazi camp irony… the ubiquitous Arbeit Macht Frei painted over the portal, the motto that greeted those who entered so many of the camps. “Work Will Make You Free.”

The sign  at the entrance to Terezín Prison Camp, near Prague, "Arbeit Macht Frei,"--Work Will Make You Free

The Nazi’s favorite ironical device–the ubiquitous sign at the entrance to most of their concentration camps.
“Arbeit Macht Frei,” or “Work Will Make You Free.” It didn’t.


A well-informed guide shows us around the camp and tells us what we are looking at. I see rooms lined with three-tiered wooden bunks. I see tiny isolation cells just big enough for a cot. I am shown the showers where prisoners and their clothes were de-loused. I see dead-bolts on doors and barbed wire atop walls.

What I do not see are gas chambers, for Terezín was not an extermination camp, like Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Small Fortress was used by the Germans as the Prague Gestapo prison. It held political prisoners, trouble-makers, Czech resistance fighters. Jews from the town who were caught stealing paper to make art or write music on were sent here. But no, there are no gas chambers.

Which is not to say people did not die here. Thousands did, from poor conditions and from murder. I am led to the execution grounds. There on the ground, beside the grass and shaded from the sun, are three cement forms, looking exactly like crosses, where marksmen laid with their rifles aimed at a grass knoll a few meters away. Here prisoners could be shot and the hill behind them would conveniently absorb the bullets.

The wooden gallows at Terezín Prison Camp, with their rickety steps and rough wood platform, look like something a child would build.

The gallows on the killing grounds of the Nazi Prison Camp at Terezín, near Prague, looks amost like a toy,
an oversized version of a child’s game of “Hangman” come to horrible life.

At one corner of the area stands a gallows, almost insignificant looking, a feeble wooden framework with two steps leading up from the platform, crude and easiy pulled away. It seems far too small to be so lethal. It looks like something built in the back yard by children to play a particularly sick game.

Off to one side of the execution grounds is another grass-covered hill. Here, some 600 bodies were found in a mass grave after the war.

But no, there are no gas chambers. No spot where the local equivalent of Dr. Mengele stood and casually divided fresh arrivals, pointing these to the left and those to the right, these to slavery and hard labor and starvation and those to a more immediate death. Terezín, you see, was not a “death camp.”

And I am shocked to realize that I am disappointed.

Disappointed that it was not more cruel? More inhuman? Disappointed that I will not be able to see face-to-face how barbaric we as a race can be to each other? Sorry that I will not get the entire effect of the brutality of war thrown in my face?

Feeling Numb

I disgust myself with this observation, with its overtone of pining for the sensational. But disgust is the strongest emotion I allow myself to feel. Mostly, I feel numb. I look at the cells and the bunks, the meager toilets and the barbed wire, and even the feeble little gallows; and I feel numb. I concentrate on the settings of my camera. I look up at the blue sky. I frame a shot just so and wonder if I should print it in black and white for better effect. I have detached myself completely from what is in front of me, unable to let the horror all the way in.

A desolate wall topped with broken barbed wire marks the edge of the Terezín Concentration Camp/Prison.

Decaying barbed wire tops the wall at Terezin Concentration Camp/prison, n ear Prague. a desolate reminder of what happened here

As we leave the Small Fortress, I watch my feet step across the square stones of the path. I pick up a mahogany-colored chestnut fallen from one of the trees, full and lush overhead with their deep-green leaves. I polish the nut on my pants leg and drop it into my pocket, not knowing why. (Later, when I return safe and whole to my own comfortable home in central Mexico, I will decide to place it carefully on the table altar in my meditation niche, beside a Buddha figure, a Mayan carving and a Virgin of Guadalupe.)

The Terezín Ghetto

We leave the prison and move on to the town itself, the fortified village of Terezín. Once again, the Nazis had a new use in mind for the old village, realizing that the high walls and sturdy gates designed to keep people out also made it perfect for locking people in.

Built to hold some 5000 residents, at its height during the war the ghetto at Terezín enclosed more than 58,000 Jews behind its fortified walls. In the over-crowded conditions, here they died—some 34,000 of them—of malnutrition, disease and stress. But most of those who were sent here, thousands of Czech Jews but also those from Austria, Hungary, Germany, the Netherlands, stayed here only until they were chosen for the next transport east…usually to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Almost 90,000 of them left here, packed into the cattle cars of the transport trains. 15,000 of them were children. 90% of them never returned.

Train tracks lead away from the Terezín Ghetto and Concentration camp, heading east, toward Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The trains that left Terezín Ghetto and Concentration Camp were generally headed to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Of the almost 90,000 people shipped east from here, 90% never returned.

The town was doubly useful to the Nazis—as a “holding camp” for Jews on their way to be used up or disposed of elsewhere, and as a “picture-book” resettlement area that could be used to show the world how well the Jews were being treated. For a while, it even worked.

When the International Red Cross insisted on sending a delegation to the ghetto, they were shown a nice façade—cleaned up, dressed up, whitewashed and filled with luscious baked goods in the bakery, children’s soccer games and temporarily well-dressed and forcibly smiling Jews. They were treated to a brilliant concert of Verdi’s “Requiem” performed by some of the hundreds of professional Jewish musicians sent to Terezín. And after they left, they gave the ghetto a clean bill of health. While the people behind the walls starved.

We are shown briefly around the town. From the outside, it looks not so different from any other small Czech town, with its 18th-century façades and neatly cobble-stoned courtyards. But behind the walls, I do see more barracks full of multi-tiered wooden bunks and tiny wood-burning stoves. A wall is covered with the names of the dead. Photographs, documents, and the yellow stars embroidered with “Jude” that were sewn to clothing are on display. They are in showcases, behind glass, a barrier that not only protects them from me but also me from them. I find it all… “interesting.”

Feeling Sick

We go into the museum. And it is here, finally, the numbness lifts. The change is sudden and violent, a sucker-punch to the gut, and I feel as though I am about to throw up.

Why here? The crematorium did not do it, that ugly room where the bodies of the thousands of dead were burned, their ashes stored in urns only later to be dumped into the river when the Nazis saw the end was near and tried to cover up the scope of the deaths. No, for all its ugliness, the crematorium did not make me feel sick. The rows of bunks, the barbed wire, the execution grounds could not lift the veil of numbness and make me nauseous.

No, it is the drawings—hundreds of drawings made with colored pencils, crayons, charcoal. Drawings made by the children, who were protected as far as possible, both physically and psychically, by the Jewish elders in the town, given better food and access to sports and music and art lessons. It is the drawings of home, of nature, of happier times and future hopes. That is what makes me feel sick, because I, unlike the children, know what their future held.

Here is a drawing of a house covered in red hearts to show the love inside, there a charcoal sketch of a beloved black dog, a crayon picture of a carrousel, another of a rainbow, flowers, butterflies. Below each drawing is a note: Name of child artist, date of birth, date and place of death. Most were between 10 and 14 years old.

Children's art at Terezín Ghetto, Czech RepublicChildren's Art at Terezín Ghetto, Czech Republic
Names of some of the children from Terezín who died at Auschwitz

I try to hold my camera steady, to concentrate on framing a picture, exposing it correctly, eliminating glare from the glass in front of it. But my hands are shaking and I realize I can’t breathe. I need to leave. I need to leave now. I am afraid I will be sick here on this nice clean marble tile floor.

I walk out of the museum and cross the street to the park. I notice again that it is a beautiful day. I can smell the flowers and hear the soft breeze rustling the leaves of the chestnut trees.

I sit on the cool soft grass, close my eyes and turn my face up to the sun.


Terezín ghetto and concentration camp lies 40 miles west of Prague. Several companies offer day tours from Prague. Tours run around $50-60 and last about 5 hours. I took my tour from Prague to Terezín/Theresienstadt Concentration Camp and Ghetto with Viator.


Pin for Later: A visit to the Terezín Ghetto and Concentration camp near Prague, Czech Republic

Dreamy girl conchero dancer in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

The 5 Best Times to Visit San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Fireworks, San Miguel de Allende, MexicoLet’s say this right off—there is no bad time to visit San Miguel de Allende, the UNESCO World Heritage Site in the celebrated colonial heart of Mexico. Its gracious and hospitable people, colonial architecture and cobblestoned streets and its sense of warm embrace operate at all hours and in all seasons.

But there are times when the oft-mentioned “magic” of San Miguel grows exponentially, turning itself into a cauldron of love potion that has captured uncounted visitors. “Stay,” it whispers. “You don’t really want to go home, do you? Stay and live in this magical circle of color and sunlight and celebration forever.”

So what are the very best times to visit and perhaps succumb to San Miguel’s magic? When are the days of passion and pomp, of fiestas and fireworks, of days over-spilling with bright people and warm welcomes and fascinating things to see and do? Grab your calendar and let’s look at what I think are the five best times to visit San Miguel de Allende.

Dia de la Conquista

The first Friday in March is when the conchero dancers arrive. Named for the anklets that rattle as they stomp, jump, turn, step, lunge, and stomp some more, they dance hour after hour, in a religious ritual that is a mix of indigenous and Catholic beliefs.

The groups of dancers begin arriving early in the morning and dance into the evening, their movements a homage to “Christ of the Conquest,” symbol of the acceptance of Christ by Mexico’s indigenous people. Beyond this Catholic veneer, pre-Christian traditions take over. The dancer’s costumes offer an over-the-top modern version of Aztec fashion. Huge headdresses are topped with 6-foot pheasant feathers, some dyed to a neon glow; loin cloths and dresses are covered with Aztec symbols appliqued in blazing metallic lamé. And the sound! Try to hear this in your head—deep drumming pounded out on huge oil drums; notes strummed on armadillo-shell mandolins; the mournful note of a blown conch shell. Mix in the pungency of copal incense wafting around, add in the movements of the crowd trying to capture the spectacle on memory cards, and you get some idea of why you need to be in San Miguel de Allende on Dia de la Conquista.

Dreamy girl conchero dancer in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

 

Semana Santa – The Pageantry, Passion and Solemnity of Holy Week

If the Conquista dancers have Aztec roots, Semana Santa in San Miguel de Allende is all Catholic, all religious, all the time. It is the best possible mirror held up to the deep spirituality and passion of the Mexican people.
It starts the Friday before Holy Week, with Day of the Altars to honor the Virgin of Sorrows.

Semana Santa Procession in San Miguel de Allende, MexicoEvery fountain in town is decorated, enormous and elaborate altars appear in public places. But the most telling and charming altars are built in private homes, their doors and windows open to the street so passers-by can enjoy their beauty and piety.

Religious processions go on all week, peaking on Good Friday when a statue of Christ is put on trial in the courtyard of the Parroquia, then paraded around the Jardin only to come face to face with a statue of his mother. Amid a silence so deep you can feel it on your skin, the statue of Christ actually bows three times to Mary. The collective gasp of the crowd can suck the breath right out of you. The Good Friday sunset procession is the biggest, the longest and the most solemn. Silent but for the dirge of drums, it winds through the streets in black and purple and lamplight. Even the huge crowds are now silent. It is profoundly moving.

See more on Semana Santa in San Miguel de Allende at experiencesanmiguel.com

Las Fiestas Patrias

September is pure secular fiesta time, beginning with Mexico’s Independence Day. At 11 pm on September 15th, El Grito is called out by the mayor from the balcony of the Allende House at the same moment it’s happening in Mexico City, Guadalajara, Puerto Vallarta and every town and city in the country. “Viva Mexico” rings across the square as the crowd repeats the joyous cry of independence, waving flags and sporting red-white-and-green flags painted on their faces.

Following the ceremony, one of the best fireworks shows of the year takes over the skies above the church, including giant castillo towers that send showers of sparks raining down onto the paving stones, where crazy young men dance among them.

The Voladores de Papantla performing in San Miguel de Allende, MexicoThe festive spirit continues for the next couple of weeks, capped by a giant party in honor of San Miguel himself, on or about September 29th. The alborada celebration starts at 3 am (don’t ask me why) with music, dancing in the streets and, this being Mexico, a lot more fireworks. A tall pole is also erected in the Jardin, where the famous “Voladores de Papantla” also perform their death-defying ritual. While one man stands on a tiny platform atop the pole and plays a flute, four others do the “flying.” With ropes tied to their ankles, they fall backward from the top of the pole. As the ropes unwind, they spin slowly around the pole, getting lower and lower, closer to the ground, with each cycle. It is a wondrous sight to see.

Dia de los Muertos

Publid Day of the Dead altar in San Miguel de Allende, MexicoDay of the Dead is a big deal in San Miguel de Allende. Beginning on Halloween night, you’ll see throngs of people with faces made up to look like skulls—pretty skulls, horrible skulls, lacy skulls, skulls adorned with flowers and whorls and flourishes and sunken eye sockets. Altars appear all over town, honoring those who have passed, decorated with sugar skulls and pan de muerto, dried fruit and marigolds and photos of the deceased. Favorite brands of beer, cigarettes or food will be added to tempt the dead to return for one night.

On November 1, the crowds move to the cemetery. The graves have been white-washed and decorated with flowers, and the people spend the whole night there by the graves of their loved ones, eating, chatting, drinking, laughing and making music through the night. You are welcome to come along.

In front of the Parroquia, giant altars and elaborate displays are set up, great for strolling past and snapping photos.

Navidad – Christmas in San Miguel de Allende

Christmas tree in the Jardin, San Miguel de Allende, MexicoChristmas activities in San Miguel begin with a colorful Christmas market set up in the Plaza Cívica. On or about December 16th, the town Christmas tree is lighted in the Jardín. That night also begins Las Posadas, the traditional processions that take place every night for nine nights in different neighborhoods. They represent the futile search by Mary and Joseph for a place to spend the night. The final posada on Christmas Eve begins at the Monjas church and ends at the Parroquia.

Christmas Eve Mass is a very big deal in San Miguel, as it is throughout Mexico. Christmas day itself is quiet, a day for family. But because San Miguel is a tourist town, you won’t have trouble finding a great Christmas dinner at one of the varied restaurants in town.

Magical San Miguel

To repeat, there is no bad time to visit San Miguel de Allende. But my suggestion is to visit sooner rather than later. While San Miguel is holding its own well against most developers, especially in the UNESCO-protected centro, there are clear signs of gentrification going on. Shops that used to line the Jardin can no longer afford the rent. The same is now happening farther out. On the Ancha de San Antonio, once lined with hardward stores, car mechanics, and tiny family eateries, you’ll now find organic markets, artisan cheese shops, and trendy restaurants in what has effectivally become a “restaurant row.” I have mixed feelings about this. Read this about Penang, Malaysia, to get an idea why.

The bottom line is still the same. Come to San Miguel de Allende. It is still magical. And if you can schedule a trip around one of these events, you’ll get the most and the best of San Miguel all wrapped up in a festive bow.

But be warned, San Miguel de Allende is contagious. Once exposed to its magic, you may never recover.


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Pinnable image--Day of the Dead, one of the best times to visit San Miguel de Allende, MexicoPinnable image: The Parroquia, a symbol of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico


While you are in San Miguel de Allende, you may want to explore a bit farther afield. Guanajuato City, the state capital, is just an hour away. It is another UNESCO World Heritage Site and well worth making the short trip. Colorful, hilly, culturally rich, with the young vibe of a university town, Guanajuato might just steal your heart. Learn more about the best things to do in Guanajuato City in this post by our friends at the LiveDreamDiscover blog.