not really a blog -- just a few pictures

Thursday, December 31, 2015


I visited Europe in October for my intern Samuel’s Ph.D. defense in Vienna, but expanded the visit into a tourist trip of Prague, Vienna, and Venice.  I started with a few jet lagged days in Prague, the city of Wenceslas and Kafka, walking around the Old Town Square and Prague Castle.

The most striking building on the Old Town Square is the Church of Our Lady before Tyn, with its Disneyesque spires.  The present building goes back to the 14th century, and I was surprised to find Tycho Brahe’s grave inside.

The Old Town Hall across the square is famous for its Astronomical Clock, which keeps time in like 4 different medieval time systems.  A big crowd gathers to watch the clock’s animatronic figures, including Death and the Apostles, mark each hour.

The Hussite movement resisting the Catholic church predated the Reformation and was based in Prague.  The square includes a monument to Hussite leader Jan Hus.

Crossing the Charles Bridge from the Old Town takes you to Prague Castle, which contains the St. Vitus cathedral, St. Vitus treasury, and the palace.  St. Vitus cathedral includes the tomb of St. Wenceslas, the patron saint of the Czech republic, while the St. Vitus treasury includes reliquaries of St. Nicholas and other saints.  The cathedral was busy, but I had the treasury to myself when I visited. My picture shows the tomb of St. Wenceslas in St. Vitus.

Prague has works by the Art Nouveau master Alphonse Mucha, including a stained glass window in St. Vitus, which stands out in the medieval building.  I also saw Mucha’s masterwork, the Slav Epic, at the National Gallery’s Trade Fair Palace.


Vienna was the center of the Hapsburg empire, which ruled much of central Europe from the middle ages through WWI, and was the center of the classical music world, with many of the great composers working there.

The Hofburg was the Hapsburg palace complex.  The most striking part of the complex is the front colonnade, which was only completed as the Hapsburg’s long history was ending with WWI.  

The Michaelplatz is the older grand entrance, and opens onto a posh shopping district.  I loved the heroic statues there.

I also visited the Hapsburg crypt nearby, which has an epic collection of royal caskets.  Most had a common style - elaborate, often morbid decorations in industrial-looking iron - which made the crypt awesomely creepy.  

The Stephansdom cathedral is the heart of Vienna.

The Karlskirche is the city’s “most outstanding baroque church.”  The ceiling fresco was being restored when I visited, so I was able to take an elevator up to see the fresco up close, and to see Vienna from the church’s steeple.

I also got to enjoy some of Vienna’s music and art.  I saw the Merry Widow at the Volksoper, Verdi’s MacBeth at the Staatsoper, and the apartment where Mozart lived while he wrote the Magic Flute, which is a just a few blocks from the Stephansdom.  The Belvedere museum had Klimt’s paintings, including The Kiss, the natural history museum had the prehistoric Venus of Willendorf. My picture is the Staatsoper.

Last but not least, I also got to see Samuel’s thesis defense - congratulations Dr. de Sousa!


I had five days of easy me time in Venice.  The whole city was beautiful, and I found Venetian history more and more interesting the more I learned about it.

The heart of Venice is the Grand Canal, and you can get anywhere easily using the canal’s vaporetti (water buses).  Buildings with elaborate facades, many palatial houses, line the canal.  Two of my favorites were the Ca’d’Oro (“House of Gold”) and the Fondaco dei Turchi (a former Turkish trader warehouse, now the natural history museum).

The Piazza San Marco (Square of St. Mark) is Venice’s main square, and the Doge’s Palace, St. Mark’s Basilica, and St. Mark’s Campanile are there.  My picture from the canal shows the Campanile on the left and the Doge’s Palace on the right.

The Doge was the Venetian Republic’s elected leader, and the Doge’s palace included government spaces.  My picture below shows the ginormous Chamber of the Great Council.  The Republic was also an early police state, and the palace has a “lion’s mouth” postbox - a place to leave anonymous denunciations - and a prison.

A church was originally built on the site of St. Mark’s Basilica in the 9th century to house the supposed remains of St. Mark, stolen from Alexandria.  The present building dates from the 11th and 12th centuries, and the high altar now houses the supposed remains.

The basilica reflects Venice and Constantinople’s linked history.  Venice was originally part of the Byzantine empire, and the basilica’s five-domed design is Byzantine, executed by artists from Constantinople.  Later in the 13th century, crusaders with Venetian ships and money sacked Constantinople, and loot was taken to the basilica, including relics and the Horses of Saint Mark.

Cameras aren’t allowed inside the basilica, but I was able to sneak a grainy shot of the gilded interior after hours, through a grate in the door.

Besides the basilica, Venice also has two vast gothic churches, Santi Giovanni e Paolo (a.k.a. “San Zanipolo”) and Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (or just “the Frari”).  San Zanipolo is from the 14th century and has many doges’ tombs.  The Frari dates to the mid-15th century and has art by Titian and Bellini, and I was surprised to find Monteverdi’s tomb there.   My picture is from inside the Frari.

I also took the vaporetto to visit the cathedral of Santa Maria and church of Santa Fosca on the island of Torcello near Venice.  Santa Maria (left rear in my picture, including the tower) was founded in 639 A.D.  Santa Fosca (right front) is a Byzantine church from the 11th and 12th centuries.  It was simple and peaceful inside.  On the way back to Venice, I was lucky to fall in with another tourist at the vaporetto stop and we spent the rest of the day exploring.

At its peak, Venice was the world’s great sea power.  Its shipyard, the Arsenal, was practically a small city in itself, and could build a galley from start to finish in one day.  Unfortunately the area is an Italian naval base now, so I couldn’t explore it, and my picture just shows the entrance.  I sat down there to have some cookies from my bag, but a naval officer shooed me off. :)

Carnival masks have a long history in Venice.