Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Saint Valentine's shoulder blade is a famous relic in Prague!

A couple kneeling in front of Saint Valentine's shoulder blade, which is in the reliquary adorned with gold,
at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Prague.  

It began, as many of my adventures do, with something I saw on Twitter.

Prague City Tourism ‏@PragueEU -- Idea: See St. Valentine's shoulder blade in the Church of Sts. Peter & Paul @ Vysehrad. đź’–  #Prague #weirdbutcool #onlyinprague #valentinesday

Prague City Tourism's intriguing tweet provoked so many questions: What is St. Valentine's shoulder blade doing in Prague?; Is his entire shoulder blade on display?; and What happened to the rest of St. Valentine's body?

During the tram ride to the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul at Vyšehrad, I used my phone to do a bit of research. It turns out that even though Saint Valentine is officially recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, his exact identity remains unclear. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “At least three different Saint Valentines, all of them martyrs, are mentioned in the early martyrologies under the date of 14 February.” One was a priest in Rome, the second was a bishop of Interamna (now Terni, Italy) and the third St. Valentine was a martyr in the Roman province of Africa.

An account from the 1400s claims that Saint Valentine was beheaded by Emperor Claudius II, also known as Claudius the Cruel, for illegally marrying young lovers. The emperor had banned all marriages and engagements because he thought that Roman men weren't joining the army because of their strong attachment to their wives and families.

The relic of Saint Valentine's shoulder blade is displayed every Valentine's Day
at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Prague.

Believing the emperor's decree to be unjust, Valentine continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Claudius learned that his wishes had been defied, Valentine was clubbed to death and beheaded on February 14, in or around 269 A.D.

St. Valentine's skeletal remains were found in Rome when a catacomb was excavated in the early 1800s. Following the custom of the time, his bones and other relics were distributed to religious orders around Europe. His skull is on display in Roma at the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. Other bits and pieces of Saint Valentine are located in Scotland, Ireland, France, England and the Czech Republic.

It's believed that Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, who was also the King of Bohemia, brought Saint Valentine's shoulder blade to Prague in the 1300s. At the time, Charles IV lived in Vyšehrad, the castle that houses the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.

At some point after the 18th century, the relic was moved from its shrine in the basilica. It resurfaced in 2002 when members of the church came across an object labeled "Saint Valentine's shoulder blade" while doing a general inventory of items in the basement of the chapter house.

While some people may be skeptical about the relic's authenticity, the stream of couples making their annual Valentine's Day pilgrimage to the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Prague were resolute in their faith. Kneeling on the cold marble floor, they said a prayer in front of the precious reliquary adorned with gold and paused to read Saint Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 13.

... And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. ...

Love is patient and kind, love does not envy or boast, it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful, it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. Pursue love.

Happy Valentine's Day from Prague!

Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul at Vyšehrad, Prague
Saint Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 13, and Saint Valentine's relic at the
Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul at Vyšehrad, Prague 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Homeless (again) in Prague!

Moving in ...
One year ago, we had already unpacked most of the moving boxes but stuff still cluttered the kitchen. 

Sorry for the dramatic title. We're not exactly "homeless in Prague" but we will be if I don't find another apartment very soon.

Every morning, I wake up with a sense of deja vu. My ritual is almost exactly the same as it was a year ago: make a cup of coffee, turn on my computer; search expats.cz for a rental apartment; check other real estate websites; try not to feel too discouraged that there's nothing new on the market; look at my calendar; and start to panic when I realize that there's only 51 days left to find an apartment. It doesn't help that February is a short month.

Certainly, one would think, it can't be that difficult to find an apartment. But, here's the problem. Owners with apartments in the center of Prague have realized that they can make a lot more money by renting to tourists than to long-term tenants. During the past year, several of the apartments in our building have already been converted into vacation rentals. I started to worry that we were living in a ticking time bomb when I noticed a surge in the number of tourists wheeling their suitcases into our building. How long would it be until our owner got on the vacation rental gravy train? In mid-December, someone at the agency that manages our apartment called with the heart wrenching news that we have to vacate our home by April 1. They were breaking our three-year lease. No discussion. To add insult to injury, the agency won't even let us terminate our contract prior to April 1, even if it means that we will have to pay two rents: one on our current apartment and the other to hold our new apartment until April 1.

Our home in Prague, at least until we find another place

Moving is one of the last things that an expat wants to do in the middle of a three to five year assignment. I've already spent a good portion of my life packing and unpacking boxes. The upside is that I'm familiar with Prague and have a good idea of where I want to live. Plus, I get to visit a lot of apartments.

As our search has been focused in the historic center of Prague, we've looked at many Art Nouveau apartments built during the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. The enchanting architectural details provide the buildings with distinct characters but the floor plans are often awkward. Imagine living in a place that was modeled after a palace. If you've ever visited Versailles or Schönbrunn, you'll know exactly what I mean. Typical apartments have an enfilade of rooms, one lined up after the other. It frequently goes something like this: master bedroom, living room, dining room, guest room. The communicating doors between all of the rooms would make it really easy for me to greet guests in the morning. I could stand in my room and wave as soon as our visitors opened their door! The unimpeded enfilade also makes it difficult to arrange large pieces of furniture. Our modern couches are considerably more bulky than their 19th century counterparts. And, last but not least, bathrooms, even in massive apartments, are a rare commodity in Prague. Our desire to have two immediately eliminates quite a few contenders.

Floor plan of an Art Nouveau apartment in Prague

And, if it seems that I'm picky about apartments, the owners are even more selective about their tenants. I've been waiting for almost two weeks to hear if we will be accepted by the owner of our first choice apartment. Since we're pretty ideal tenants (no children, no pets, stable income, long-term lease), we're a bit surprised that she hasn't yet responded to our offer. There's a small part of me that wonders if it's because I'm American. Maybe I'll have to go undercover as a Swiss the next time I visit apartments. They're less controversial right now.

If the owner of our first choice apartment turns us down, we may move to an apartment that is diagonally opposite to our current abode. I find myself gazing at it throughout the day and wondering what life would be like on the other side of the street.

Interesting Prague trivia: our current apartment's claim to fame is that it was the home of American actress Jessica Chastain while she was in the Czech Republic filming the soon to be released The Zookeepers Wife.

When I took this photo from our kitchen window last summer,
I didn't know that the apartment across the street may be our next home in Prague. 

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, one of the world's most photogenic buildings

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Photo credit: Philippe Bosshart

Two hours. After some fierce negotiations, that's how long our taxi driver had agreed to wait for us while we visited the Sheikh Zahed Grand Mosque. The driver had quickly countered our original request for a one-way trip to the mosque by proposing a six-hour tour of Abu Dhabi. We would, he promised, see all the main sights. In the end, we settled somewhere in the middle thinking that two hours would give us plenty of time to visit the United Arab Emirate's (UAE) largest mosque and make it back to the cruise ship for dinner. If I would have known that the Grand Mosque would turn out to be one of the most photogenic buildings I've ever encountered, I would have bargained for more time.

The setting sun was already casting a golden glow when the taxi driver dropped us at the back of the mosque. Mesmerized by the light and long shadows, I quickly pulled my camera out of my bag and ran from one spot to another shooting photos of the mosque's 82 domes and four minarets. When we stopped at the guard booth to ask for directions to the main entrance, the guard offered each of us a bottle of cold water. More than anything, this gesture affirmed Sheikh Zayed's intent that the mosque bearing his name should be a place for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Photo credit: Philippe Bosshart

After circling the complex, which is approximately the size of five football fields, I gasped when I first caught sight of the curved arches of the gallery casting shimmering reflections on the pools surrounding the mosque. Regrettably, I lost about 15 minutes of prime photo taking time because I had forgotten to bring a headscarf and had to walk (although I really wanted to run) to an office in the underground parking garage to borrow a head covering. Since my white linen pants were somewhat transparent, I was asked to don a long blue gown with a hood. With my hair and body completely covered, Stéphane almost didn't recognize me when I rejoined him at the mosque's entrance.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Photo credit: Philippe Bosshart

Slipping off our sandals and placing them in one of the wooden compartments, we padded on silent feet into the foyer. A colossal chandelier hanging from its domed roof was a prelude to the grandeur of the main prayer room, which can accommodate up to 10,000 worshippers. Designed in the shape of an eight-pointed star, the floor of the expansive room is covered with the world's largest hand-knotted carpet. Its intricate Islamic medallion design was crafted over a period of 12 months by 1,200 artisans. Seven crystal chandeliers produced in Germany hang from the ceilings of the foyers and main prayer room. The biggest, which weighs 12 tons, is reputed to be one of the largest chandeliers in the world. Encrusted with thousands of Swarovski crystals, the result is dazzling.

One of the seven crystal chandeliers in the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi

As we exited the main prayer room, the evening call to prayer began to reverberate off the marble columns. Even though I'm not Muslim, the sound made the hairs on my arms stand on end and brought tears to my eyes. It reminded me of the years we lived in Indonesia when the call to prayer was an integral part of our days. While I was never a fan of the first call to prayer emanating from the neighborhood mosque shortly before sunrise, the evening call to prayer was always a moment to pause and appreciate the soft hues of twilight.

The courtyard of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi can accommodate 30,000 worshippers. 

Due to its unique lighting system designed to emulate the phases of the moon, the mosque's facade and domes take on a slightly different color every night. When the moon is a small crescent, the mosque's lighting is a dark shade of blue replicating the color of the sky. During the full moon, the electronic control system reacts to the intensity of the moonlight and casts gleaming white lights on the mosque. The lighting design, which was the first of its kind in the world, ensures that the mosque is always in total harmony with its surroundings.

The Sheikh Zayed Mosque welcomes visitors from Saturday to Thursday (9am to 10pm). The mosque is closed for worship on Friday mornings but reopens for visitors after 4:30pm. Complimentary guided tours are offered in English and Arabic. To plan your visit, please check the official website.

Special thanks go to my son, Philippe Bosshart, for allowing me to include some of his pictures in this post. It was fun watching the enthusiasm with which he photographed this inspirational building. The results are impressive.

Next stop: Muscat, Oman.

The unique lighting system of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi emulates the phases of the moon. 
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Photo credit: Philippe Bosshart

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Cruising to the United Arab Emirates, Oman and India aboard Celebrity Constellation

Celebrity Constellation docked in Muscat, Oman

Rather than watch the snow rapidly accumulating outside my window, I decided to indulge in a bit of escapism by scrolling through the hundreds of photos taken during our recent Arabian Sea and India holiday cruise.

Unlike other types of vacations, cruising is somewhat of a controversial topic. It seems that people either love cruises or hate them. When I told friends that we were going on a family cruise for Christmas, they alternately shuddered at the thought of vacationing with a group of 2,000 people or revealed that they obsessively scan travel boards for last minute deals and information about future sailings.

With five cruises behind me, I'm firmly in the "love" camp. Because I'm usually the one who books the hotels and restaurants for our trips, I appreciate the ease of one-stop shopping that cruising offers. After you've determined what matters most to you (size of the ship, itinerary, demographics of the other passengers), your accommodation, nightly entertainment and meals are set for the duration of your vacation. The added advantage is that you'll also have a fairly good idea of the total cost in advance.

When our daughter mentioned that she was planning to go somewhere warm for Christmas, Stéphane and I started plotting ways to entice our adult-aged children to spend the holiday with us. Stéphane quickly trumped my proposal, a home exchange in Dubai, with a 14-night holiday cruise spanning both Christmas and New Year. Not sure that Sara and Philippe would be able to take that many days off from work, much less if they would want to spend such a lengthy vacation with us, Stéphane and I were delighted when they enthusiastically agreed to another family trip.

Booking the cruise was easy enough but the logistics involved with coordinating a trip for four adults traveling from three different countries required more work than I would have anticipated.

Sara watching the dancers who welcomed us to Cochin, India.
 Christmas 2016

The most worrisome task was getting Stephane's and my visas* for India, without which we wouldn't have even been allowed to board the cruise ship. While I can look back and say that the opportunity to visit India was well worth all the administrative hoops, not knowing if we would actually receive our visas before our departure date caused me quite a few sleepless nights. The process was made even more difficult than normal for Sara, Stéphane and I because we aren't citizens of the countries in which we reside. To ensure that Stéphane and I didn't have plans to abscond to an ashram in Goa, the Indian Embassy demanded copies of a monthly bill in our names, the lease for our apartment and a bank statement showing our current balance. When our passports were returned to us, I ran my fingers lightly over the precious piece of paper granting us entry into India. Too bad its validity was only for one month!

If you're planning a cruise, be sure to check out Cruise Critic. The website provides a wealth of information about cruise lines, ships and ports of call. Additionally, join the "cruise call" for your specific cruise if you want to connect with fellow passengers online. Not only does the forum help build excitement before you set sail, it's also a good way to join privately organized tours, as opposed to the more expensive ones offered by the ship. A member of our cruise call even planned a get-together and holiday gift exchange for one of our days at sea. It was a fun way to meet people from England, Australia and the USA.

Tomorrow's port of call: Abu Dhabi.

*Know before you go applies to visas! Be sure to check if there are any visa requirements before booking a cruise. Some of the people booked on our cruise cancelled when they learned of the visa requirement for India. Also, don't assume that the visa requirement for you will be the same as the visa requirement for your friend from another country. It can vary according to nationality.

Listening to music and enjoying the sunset while cruising aboard the Celebrity Constellation.