I never intended to visit Terezín. But the visit to Sachsenhausen a few days earlier had left such a deep impact on me that I figured I just might pull it off as a day trip from Prague.

From the documentaries I’ve watched, I found out a little about Terezín or Theresienstadt (German). This was Hitler’s propaganda camp – where he attempted to convince the world that the Jews were being well looked after. In fact, he tried to present it as a “model Jewish settlement”. In reality, Terezín was like a “bus interchange” of sorts. Jews deported here from all over Europe were housed temporarily before being shipped off to other extermination camps like Auschwitz or Dachau.

Today, unlike Auschwitz or Dachau, Terezín had not become a major tourist draw. On the day I visited, the place was deserted. Almost serene.

Terezín is about an hour’s bus ride from Holešovice train station in Prague. Constructed during the late 18th century on the orders of the Austrian emperor Jospeh II, the fortress of Terezín later served as a prison for military and political prisoners. After the Nazis marched into the former Czechoslovakia, they converted this red brick baroque fortress to house political prisoners. Later on, Terezín became known as an interim camp for Jews en route to other extermination camps in Europe.

It was estimated that approximately 144,000 Jews had been sent to Terezín. Of these, more than 60 per cent were transferred to Auschwitz and other camps. The remaining died in Terezín.

DSC01004Visitors to Terezín are greeted by an imposing church that stands in the middle of a large field. Inside the Jewish Museum Ghetta (just opposite the bus stop where I alighted), the image of this church was replicated in thousands of children’s sketches and crayon drawings on the walls of the Jewish Museum. Almost all these children had later been deported to Auschwitz and straight to the gas chambers.

I was not allowed to take any pictures here. But I will never forget those haunting images.   LS

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Where Doing Nothing Is Everything

There are many things you can do in Prague. But then again, you can also do nothing. Because wandering the cobbled streets of the Staré Město (or Old Town), sipping locally brewed Czech lager (and I’m not referring to Pilsner) at Holešovice or just sitting along the banks of the Vltava at sunset are some of the most effortless (yet ‘productive’) ways to appreciate this charming city.

DSC00558Prague may have lived past its post-Velvet Revolution tag of the “Paris of the East”. Tourist arrivals since the turn of the century have driven up living standards and costs, and made this once affordable city on par with its more illustrious West European neighbours. However, these have done little to diminish the city’s allure. Even on a weekday, Prague Castle and Charles Bridge are swarmed with visitors from an international potpourri.

DSC00898Thankfully, there are pockets of Prague to call your own. And you can find them in the less crowded neighbourhoods of Vinohrady and Vršovice, or the rustic back alleys of Provaznická and Karlin. But if you desire to do nothing, just pick a good spot in one of the many alfresco restaurants at Malá Strana (or the ‘Little Quarter’) and watch the world go by, with a Pilsner.  LS

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Jewel on the Elbe

DSC00354Almost entirely flattened by the Allied bombing raids in 1945, this Baroque jewel along the banks of the Elbe has risen from the ashes to become one of Europe’s most charming cities. Compact enough to explore on foot, Dresden makes for an easy day trip out of Berlin, or a quick stopover en route to Prague.

Do not expect a lot of fanfare or a vibrant nightlife though. The best way to appreciate Dresden is take it slow and let yourself be immersed in the arts, music and architecture – whether in the Zwinger Palace, the Frauenkirche and the Semperoper. Here, you can find works by Raphael, Titian, Botticelli, Rubens, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Giorgione, Vermeer, van Eyck, Veronese… In other words, Dresden is an art fanatic’s debauchery tea party!

Spend an afternoon with a book and coffee (or just people-watch) on the Brühlsche Terrasse. It’s easy to appreciate why this city bags the moniker of “Florence of the North”. Dresden is a feast for the eyes and soul. And after you’ve had your fill of the cultural spirit, it’s time to head to Altmarkt (Old Market) to satiate more earthly pleasures – and I mean, your stomach.  LS

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A Bungling Makeover

You don’t need to remind Berliners of their dark past during the Second World War or of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany – because these reminders are scattered all around Berlin. The city is chock full of these poignant epitaphs. Interestingly though, these are the same reasons why tourists are drawn to this historic city built out of swampland. A wave of optimism now surrounds Berlin as numerous construction projects are transforming the city.

The greatest transformation, though, is in the arts and entertainment scene. The city’s clubbing scene draws exuberant crowds from all over Europe. On the streets, artists / artisans are a thriving (and blooming) species in Berlin, and the streets are their open canvas.

Along certain sections of what remains of the infamous Wall, the government is having a hard time trying to preserve a historical blight (a major tourist draw) that Berliners from both sides zealously sought to tear down a little more than a quarter century ago. Desperate to shed its post-war shackles, Berliners have indeed come a long way. Today’s Berliners are progressive, liberal and they know how to have fun!

However, the city’s ever-evolving physical landscape seems to be struggling to keep pace with its cultural evolution. As we speak, the new Berlin Brandenburg Airport – intended to replace both the Schönefeld and Tegel Airport – has become somewhat of a misnomer for German efficiency. Plagued by numerous delays, poor planning and mismanagement, the airport’s opening has been pushed back to 2018 or 2019 from its original schedule of 2010. Until the afore-mentioned construction projects are completed, these now serve more as distractions than attractions. Berlin can best be described as a “city in transition”.  LS

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More Chinese Than China

Forget the Great Wall of China, or the Forbidden City if you want to trace the ancestry of the Chinese race. These UNESCO World Heritage sites may have been legacies of the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644 AD), often referred to as the greatest era of Han Chinese rule. However, do you know that much of ancient Chinese traditions and culture from the Tang dynasty (also known as the Golden Age of Chinese civilisation) reside in the Korean peninsula today? That’s a good 750 years before the Ming dynasty.

During the Three Kingdoms era of Baekje (백제), Goguryeo  (고구려) and Silla (신라), which pre-dates even the Tang dynasty, Buddhist and Confucian philosophies have become deeply entrenched in Korean society. The Tang dynasty, in particular, made Korea a vassal state during its reign. The Chinese written script was the de facto mode of communication and language until King Sejong (세종) the Great introduced the hangeul  (한글)  –  the script that you see in modern day Korea  – in 1446. Even then, much of the vocabulary had been preserved from an original Tang Chinese vernacular in hangeul.

Today, all Koreans still have two versions of their name – a hangeul version and one written using Tang Chinese script. Confucian traditions and rituals, including funeral and ancestral worship rites, are still religiously practiced and propagated in many Korean families, down to the very last detail. On the other hand, Confucian philosophies have almost disappeared from modern Chinese society, except perhaps in some of the less developed regions in China. No wonder the Koreans often refer to their country as Dae Han Min Guk (대한만국) – which literally translates to “The Great Han Nation”.  Indeed!   LS

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