Articles by

ruxandra looft

Ruxandra was born in Romania and lived in Germany, Austria, Canada, and France before following love to Iowa. She holds a PhD in German and Comparative Literature from Washington University in St. Louis and writes about bikes and travel on her blog, Simply Bike. Follow her on Twitter @SimplyBike.

10/11/12 2:22pm

lennon 6

The original portrait of John Lennon that began it all is long lost under the layers of paint, marker, and found objects that now cover the John Lennon Wall in Prague. But inspirational lyrics from popular Beatles songs such as “the sun is up, the sky is blue, it’s beautiful and so are you,”  connect the present day wall to its original incarnation: a place to honor the message of love and peace shared by John Lennon in his work and music.

At a first glance, the wall is overwhelming to take in. Colors, images, pieces of found objects, and words in a multitude of languages cover every available surface. At any given time of day, at least one passerby can be seen adding her handiwork to that of the many artists and visitors to have already left their mark. That is perhaps part of the appeal of the Lennon Wall: in a city filled with ancient treasures and old-world charm, the Lennon Wall is consistently new and current. Its faà§ade is always changing and no visit to the wall is ever like the last. This what makes the wall a curious mix of transience and permanence, at once capturing the impermanence of street art and the tourist experience while also providing a simple subversive message as old as time:

No matter the social or political climate, there will also be a counter culture of idealists and dreamers defying the status quo.

Lennon wall 8

Lennon wall 2

Lennon wall 4

It is from this spirit of idealism and defiance that the Lennon Wall originally came to be. John Lennon served as a symbol of resistance and hope to Czechs under socialist rule. In the 1980s, young Czechs ascribing to a movement called “Lennonism” used the wall as a space to publicly voice grievances and disillusionment with the communist regime. As much as the government tried to censor their words, the wall continued to function as a space of anti-authoritarianism. No matter how often the wall was bleached to rid it of the artwork, graffiti and proclamations would soon cover it once again. Today the wall is owned by the Knights of Malta, who have given up trying to cover the graffiti and have turned it over to the public to function as a living and changing work of art.

One of the most alluring aspects of the Lennon Wall is that it’s not the kind of installation art that only allows the spectator to watch from a distance. There are no admission fees and no ropes keeping idling hands and curious fingers from palpitating the surface. Or from picking up a paintbrush and adding to the existing artwork, their presence woven into the history and story of the wall.

Lennon wall 1

Lennon wall 7

lennon wall 5

It is a space where visitors of all ages and from all walks of life can leave their mark, if only for a moment, before it inevitably sinks below the surface of fresh layers of images and words. It is a space where the narrative thread is buried underneath blistering and peeling paint with no clear beginning or ending and no monolithic vision or unified voice. A space as bright, colorful, and eclectic as the hands that have added their contributions to it, teasing passersby with the invitation to come out and play. After all, the saying’s on the wall: “The sun is up, the sky is blue, ” ¨it’s beautiful and so are you.” 

The John Lennon Wall: Location and Directions

Get in touch with the author @SimplyBike.

09/27/12 12:18pm

Biking in Prague

Prague certainly doesn’t hold a reputation for being the most bike-friendly city in Europe. But since its launch in 2001, City Bike Prague (the city’s first bike tour company), has increasingly grown its business of showing tourists the city by bike. Now, with several tour packages, a variety of bike styles (including tandems), and a team of well-informed and enthusiastic tour guides at its disposal, City Bike has become a staple in Prague’s tourism industry. Located just minutes  on foot  from the Old Town Square, the bike rental company is easy to find and perfectly positioned for a guided tour that starts with a bang. First up: Prague’s most famed historical and cultural artifact, the Astronomical Clock.

Biking in Prague

Biking in Prague

Biking in Prague

Prague’s Astronomical Clock dates back to 1410, making it the world’s third oldest astronomical clock and the only one still running today. Crowds of visitors gather daily beneath it to watch the dials turn and the figures move at the strike of the hour. The first stop on the tour allows cyclists to pause for a look at the clock and a glimpse at the Old Town Square, with its magnificently painted house facades.

From there, the tour moves on to the Franz Kafka museum, Milunià„”¡ and Gehry’s “Dancing House,”  the Lennon Wall, the Charles Bridge, the Jewish Quarter, and various other art installations and national monuments. (Each tour differs according to visitors’ demands and the events in the city). The tour moves at a manageable pace, making it accessible to recreational cyclists as well as children on youth bikes.

Biking in Prague

Biking in Prague

Prague is the fourteenth largest city in the European Union with over two million inhabitants making up its urban zone. The city suffered considerably less damage during World War II as compared to European capitals such as Berlin and Paris, meaning that untarnished and exquisite examples of Art Nouveau, Baroque, Renaissance, and Modernist architecture fill the streets and offer insight into the past. Originals, rather than reconstructed doubles, allow for a view of what Europe might have looked like were it not for the overwhelming damage done by the Second World War. Every quarter boasts unique and elaborately decorated buildings. The only trouble? Keeping your bike moving forward while resisting the temptation to only look up.

Although cars and pedestrians do not defer to cyclists as they might in more bike-friendly cities such as Amsterdam, being part of a group allows for added visibility and comfort. A knowledgeable tour guide also knows to lead the group through the more traffic-light parts of the city, avoiding large intersections and more heavily populated streets. Our tour guide, an Irish native, had been living in Prague for over a decade and knew the city as well as any local. Providing us with a narrative informed by both his status as permanent resident and his experience as an outsider, he showed us a Prague both rich in cultural history and fraught with the demands of a changing European landscape. And at the end of the tour, he left us with a cold beer in hand (courtesy of every City Bike tour package), and a host of information to be processed. The tour offered the perfect introduction to a city brimming with sights, giving us a general overview to help us answer the inevitable tourist question of, “now what?”

Biking in Prague

Having taken the tour on day one of our trip, we gained a better understanding of the city’s layout and were able to commit to memory routes that most closely resembled the walks we would later do on foot. The advantages of biking is that it makes possible to meander through alleys and parks that are inaccessible to automotive traffic, mirroring how one would experience a city as a pedestrian. Added bonus: one moves at a faster pace and covers greater distances, seeing much more of a given place than one would on foot. And with the promise of beautiful sights and a cold beer at one’s destination, it’s easy to see why touring Prague by bike has become an increasingly popular way to discover city of a hundred spires.

City Bike Location and Hours

Prague Visitor’s Information

Get in touch with the author @SimplyBike.

08/28/12 2:49pm

sfinx 3

The first time I laid eyes on the impressive rock formations called sfinxul and babele (Romanian for “the sphinx”  and “the old women” ), I was on a visit home during a college vacation. As my father puts it, the hike from Bușteni to the top of the Bucegi mountains is more of a “promenade,”  it doesn’t require extreme fitness or determination. One can hike the hills from the resort town of  Bușteni through meandering paths among stunning views or simply take a cable car up to the top. This means that even the more hiking averse can, on a whim, explore these beautiful monoliths with relative ease. Our group opted for the cable car and we soon found ourselves at an altitude of just over 2,000 meters in the Southern Carpathians.

Sfinx 1

Sfinx 2
At the top, the sphinx and the old women beckon. Stunning in size and detail (particularly the sphinx), they offer visitors views beyond the expected snow-capped mountains and rolling green hills. Their story of origin varies according to source. Some believe them to have come about naturally; others interpret the similarities between The Great Sphinx in Giza, Egypt as sign that Romania’s sphinx was constructed to mirror its Middle Eastern counterpart.  The first (known) photograph to be taken of the Romanian sphinx dates to 1900 and its name was formalized only as recently as 1936.

A short walk from the sphinx, the “old women”  await.   They resemble more closely two mushrooms than any feminine form but my father assures me that it’s their “hats” at the top of their heads that prompted locals to give them their moniker.  Like proper Romanian grandmothers, they stand and greet visitors with unwavering poise.  In the background, breathtaking drop-offs and impressive peaks provide the picture panorama of travel album dreams. At every turn, another spectacular view invites visitors to take in the beauty of the Carpathians. We hiked around, explored the top of the mountain and marveled at such beauty only a cable car ride from the city below.

sfinx 4

sfinx 5

At the end of the day, we took the cable car back down to Bușteni and drove the short distance to the city of Braà­”¦à… ¸ov (a mere 40 km away). Ciorbă de burtă (tripe soup, Romania’s National Soup) and  papanaș (cheese dumplings) filled our stomachs and paved the way for the cold bottles of Ursus (Romanian beer) already on order. And while the sphinx continued its watch over the world below, our group delighted in the finest of Romanian cuisine to a backdrop of old world charm in the heart of Transylvania.

Bușteni [MAP]

Tourist Information.

Cable car information and times.

Get in touch with the author @simplybike. Follow her blog.