Prague Travelogue

Thursday, October 16 – Friday, October 23, 2009

written Tuesday, November 10, through Thursday, November 19, 2009

I composed this originally as a letter to my brother Stephen and then to my Aunt Alaire. My youngest brother David always churns out long travelogues on each of his many travels, but this is a first for me. At the time originally I wrote this, we had been back from Prague for two weeks, and I wanted to get everything down while it was still relatively clear in my mind.

First of all, Prague was amazing. It was surrealistically old in the part of town where we stayed (supposedly, Prague is the only European city left undamaged by bombing during World War Two). Some buildings were a thousand years old (not even counting castles and the like), plenty date to the middle ages and the Baroque, and the streets are an incredible and complex medieval maze in which you truly get lost (although by the end of our week, we were both getting pretty confident and capable in the area of several square miles around “home”).

We flew out of OʹHare on Thursday afternoon, October 15, and of course lost the whole night and a good part of the next day in flying eastward. In our research to find a cheap flight, we settled on Swiss (used to be SwissAir), believing that—based on our previous experiences—foreign airlines treated their passengers better than American companies. We were wrong this time. On the flight over to Europe, it was okay—except that when Janet tried to choose our seats 24 hours before our flight, as the rules required, everything choice was already taken. The seats she chose—on the aisle of the four-seats-across middle section—turned out to be right beside one of the toilets, which the seating diagram of course did not indicate. Fortunately, a very nice, fairly gay flight attendant took a shine to her and he at least treated us pretty well. They also supplied eye masks and ear plugs to passengers in our kind of seats for the “night” part, and as a result we did both sleep for most of the flight. Although not the best flight, it could have been worse (coming home was worse).

We had to fly in two legs—Chicago to Zurich and then on to Prague. We had about two hours to wait at Zurich Friday late morning, so we didnʹt even arrive in Prague until well after two in the afternoon. Our second plane was pretty small—although totally full (much like the kind of planes that fly from Moline or Cedar Rapids to OʹHare). Cloud cover was heavy the entire second flight, although we were above it all, and we landed in big, wet flakes of snow! (Little did we know that gray, cold and wet would be our weather experience for the entire week.) Astoundingly, there was absolutely no customs to arriving in the Czech Republic: a uniformed woman just waved us from the luggage-acquisition area to the departure lobby.

Unfortunately, although we had booked a driver to take us from the airport to Old Town (the part of Prague inside the northeasterly curve of the Vltava/Moldau River, and truly the oldest part of the city), I had somehow let the pick-up time be 3:30 in our e-mail exchanges. And then the guy didnʹt show. Finally, about 3:50, I used the $100 international cell phone I had decided we might need (and I guess, because of this incident, we did) to call the driver, who acted stunned (“What? You are in already?”). However, he actually did show up in under twenty more minutes. So we didnʹt arrive at our hotel (Hotel Haštal on Haštalaska Square—the “short-vowel” sign over those “s”es in Haštal and the first in Haštalaska makes the sound “sh”) until nearing 5:00.

Hotel Haštal exterior (yellow building on the right)

The drive to downtown made Prague look pretty much like most European cities—lots of poured-concrete construction, walls around things, alien traffic signs, public transit tracks (trams), tiled roofing. (The red tiles of the roofs were to become the main element I still recall as typical of Prague.) From our preparations, I had a pretty good idea of where we were until we crossed the river—from the west to the eastern parts of Prague, and then proceeded to get confused fast, so we arrived at our hotel from a side I hadnʹt expected and much quicker in the end than I had started to imagine.

While we waited for our car, I had exchanged some American money for Czech coruna (crowns) in a machine—a pretty bad exchange rate, the books all said, but it was there; and in the end, about the same rate we had to take on most of our exchanges due to various unpleasant circumstances. So I was able to pay his rate in local currency, and we made sure he would pick us up on Friday (a week later) at 7:30 in the morning—for certain—before we separated.

Haštal writing nook

The hotel was pretty much as I had expected from their web site, small but interesting. We had worked out a deal for an “exclusive room,” which after I noticed that their prices had plummeted during September and we renegotiated, turned out not to feature the view of the square we had been promised. But I liked it, on the very top floor (the elevator only went to the floor below, so we had to climb one flight every time), kind of like a semi-luxurious garret. We had two windows looking out over red-tiled roofs and courtyards of neighboring buildings.

Sitting at the little desk by one window, underneath an odd overhang, I really felt like a medieval poet (yeah, Iʹm dumb that way). Above right is what that overhang-nook looked like… (And this is where I sat to write all our postcards that we eventually mailed from the post office within Prague Castle on Wednesday of our trip.)

Friday night we unpacked and headed out in the dark to explore—and promptly got lost. Seriously. I thought I knew where were, where we had been, but I was thoroughly confused. We wandered for about an hour, somehow returning to the same intersections, no matter what direction I tried to leave from. Eventually, Janet used her superior observation skills to point out stores and restaurants she had recognized to take us the right direction back toward the hotel—the exact opposite of the direction I would have chosen. We decided, exhausted as we were, to eat at the hotelʹs restaurant, which featured what seemed like good food at decent prices. It was pretty good: Janet, trying to go Czech, had goulash (but they had no bread dumplings, so she had to take potato pancakes, most of which she passed on to me—they were spicy but excellent), and I had chicken in a mushroom and paprika sauce—wonderful.

Breakfast was included in our stay—one of the reasons we picked the Haštal. However, every morning except one we slept late. We still got our breakfast—usually arising between 8:30 and 9:00 (breakfast was from seven until ten)—but it wasnʹt exactly our original plan to sleep so long. The offerings at breakfast were interestingly different from here. There were cereals to choose—a kind of foreign corn flake (very dry, slightly puffy) and two variations on muesli/granola, lots of different breads (we fell in love with toasting a very light rye) and rolls, pastries, various cured meat slices (hams? sausage?) and cheeses, scrambled eggs… Quite a bit of other stuff, but Iʹve started to forget the ones we didnʹt choose. We enjoyed it every morning.

Anyway, on Saturday we rose by nine, went down to breakfast, cleaned up after and got dressed, and headed out to explore. Our hotel was northeast of the Old Town Square (Staremĕstské namĕsti, the marked “ĕ” making the sound “ye” with a short E)—most famous site to visit with the astronomical clock and many medieval and Baroque buildings. But that had been my vague destination the night before, so we made sure to take a map along today. Our actual first destination was further south—Wenceslaus Square (Václavské namêsti—Václav being Czech for Wenceslaus, in case you like me had not already known that)—where we were supposed to find an American Express office to exchange the AmEx travelers checks we had foolishly invested in. I had studied the maps in the room and made a list of the streets to follow in addition to keeping a map and two guidebooks in my vest. And we arrived, in a light drizzle, pretty efficiently, passing through the Old Town Square (which we had missed only by a block in several directions the night before) to the very long boulevarded street, Wenceslaus Square, that was the site of the Velvet Revolutionʹs first stirrings (and lots of other political protest, including 1968) and which in no way is a “square.” Actually, none of the squares are rectilinear, usually: a Square is just where more than two streets intersect. Most are strangely shaped open areas with lots of exits.

Vaclavské namêsti, looking north

As you can tell, I hope, by the picture, although it wasnʹt actually raining hard, it was pretty heavy drizzle. We searched for about an hour, maybe more, but although we had an address and figured out where that address should be, and although we bothered people for directions (with fair success in English), the AmEx office wasnʹt there. Eventually, Janet pushed me into a place that advertised taking travelers checks, where we got a crappy exchange rate and paid a fee on top of that (dumb us), then we each walked up the street to another change place—possibly at a bank because we got a much better exchange rate turning in some American cash. No more travelers checks for us, I think: using your bank cash card works better, as I would find out on Tuesday. Our exchanged travelers checks were to pay the hotel, and we did.

Astronomical Clock, Old Town Square

Anyway, after shooting some pictures on Wenceslaus Square, we wandered back to Old town Square, where we checked out the famous astronomical clock (picture to the right). It shows lots of information—astrological sign and solar and lunar positions, season (but not the actual time). The figures around the dials and within the two blue doors overhead move on the hour, bearing a message about the inevitability of timeʹs passage and the approach of death—such a medieval religious moral. All of the figures (like those on the Charles Bridge, which weʹll get to later) are replacements, but it looks very cool. We sat across the street in a restaurantʹs outdoor seating and had the most expensive (but wonderfully delicious) hot chocolate to watch the activity at the hour. It worked fine because tour groups pack in the street for the hour, and being somewhat raised up, we had an excellent view.

We explored lots of things on the square, and even went into a Salvador Dalí/Alfons Mucha exhibit in one of the buildings (it was kind of a cheat: most of the works were unsigned prints, and the Mucha stuff was very repetitive; but Janet loves Dalí ever since we visited the Dalí Museum in Florida). The buildings for the exhibit were in front of the towers (one of my favorite Prague sights, especially at night) of the Church of Our Lady before Týn (usually called the Týn Church for sake of simplicity)—almost directly across the square from the end of the Old Town Hall buildingʹs right end in the picture. We looked inside and around the church, and found, much to our relief at this point, a restroom—which we had, typically for Prague, to pay to use!

We also took a good look through the Church of St. Nicholas—once Catholic, now run by the protestant Hussite Church (the Hussites had at one time taken over Týn and removed its golden Mary over the doors to be replaced by a more protestant communion cup—now safely Catholic again with a golden Mary back). It is Baroque magnificence sheer and anything but simple (unfortunately none of my photos inside turned out). Tyn is on the eastern side of Old Town Square, St. Nicholas on the northeast, the Town Hall and astronomical clock on the southeast.

Old Town Hall, looking west across Staromêstské namêsti (Old Town Square) Tents are set up for the Saturday food festival.

By now it was getting on in the afternoon. We had spent quite a while in the exhibition of Dali and Mucha (whom Janet now refers to as “Puke-a”). She decided it was time for our first Czech beers (having invented the pilsner-style lager in nearby Plz, Czech beer is some of the best in the world). Our search for a reasonable price on the tourist-laden Old Town Square led eventually to the southern side, where as we were searching for one restaurantʹs menu, a lady charged forth and asked us if we wanted to have a drink. When we responded affirmatively, she led us back into an archway into a building and then around and down and down a series of steps until we arrived in an ancient cellar—Bilyʹs Jazz Club, where we sat and had a couple of dark beers. I had wanted to eat in a medieval cellar while in Prague (we never did), so this experience came as close as possible. And it was pretty cool.

Church of Our Lady before Týn

After that we wandered around some, getting north into the Jewish Quarter (originally the walled ghetto, now called Josefov after the Austro-Hungarian emperor who granted Jewish social equality; our hotel is probably technically within the original ghetto). We had actually covered a lot of this territory Friday night, but we never knew then. Wandering past our hotel, we went around the corner to find without intent a little corner grocery store (run by an Asian family it turned out—none too certain with Czech or any other European language: their main technique to get paid was to ring up the items and then turn the register readout to the customer to see the price). There Janet bought a bottle of Italian wine—Nero dʹAvola by grape, a Sicilian wine, which we took back to the room to enjoy.

We relaxed for about ninety minutes and then went out for dinner. Once again we didn’t get very far from the Haštal, going deliberately a few doors down the street to find a place I had read about favorably in several guidebooks—Chez Marcel (yup, a French bistro/country restaurant-style place, supposedly popular with the French embassy crowd). Its greatest appeal for us, other than reasonable prices for good food, was the “nonsmoking area” listed on the menu out front. Yeah, for two former smokers, the biggest issue in being in the Czech Republic was the omnipresent smoke. Chez Marcelʹs nonsmoking area was about five tables in a small space wedged between the all-smoking bar and the larger smoking area of the restaurant—i.e. not perfect but better than otherwise.

The smell of smoke became my personal biggest enemy once I came down with a bad cold starting on Monday. By Tuesday afternoon I was glaring at anyone with a cigarette even out on the street in a good stiff breeze. Smokescent seemed to crawl up the headboard wall of our hotel room. Janet insisted that it also came in under the door from smokers in other rooms. It was never really bad, but this sick boy was bothered into coughing fits and sleeplessness by it Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights. There was nothing we could really do, but it seems (now that weʹre safely back in the land of nonsmoking legislation) just desserts to us for our Eighties behavior.

Regardless, Chez Marcel was relatively smoke-free, and we enjoyed our food and a liter of their house red wine—really quite good stuff. I went for chicken again—this time in basil sauce, while Janet ate duck in balsamic with mashed potatoes (still Czech, since her grandparents on her momʹs side served lots of duck for dinners). Both very good, and we decided then that we would probably choose Chez Marcel for our last night, since we would be arising before dawn on our final Friday to depart.

Sunday, October 20, 2009

Janet before the Frank Gehry-designed "Dancing House," looking south (Ginger on the left, Fred right)

Sunday was my big excursion (read: walk) south to Vyšehrad, the “old castle,” made legendary by Czech Romantic nationalists during the nineteenth century. We awoke to pretty solid rain, breakfasted and got ready. The rain was still falling. So we both took our umbrellas, which we needed. We headed out north to the eastern-flowing Vltava and went around the bend, following the river west and then south. The rain kept up, got worse. We passed the National Theatre, which we appreciated more on the way home. After about a mile, we arrived at one of Pragueʹs newest scenic wonders, the Frank Gehry-designed “Dancing House.” Itʹs a business building with a restaurant on the ground floor. The part on the left is Ginger (Rogers) and the corner is Fred (Astaire). We kept going; Vyšehrad was still a lot of blocks further south.

looking back down the climb up to Vyšehrad

Castles are on hill/cliff tops for security. Vyšehrad was. The sidewalk went steeply up, and we followed as the rain lessened and lessened and finally quit. The castle isnʹt much now except battlements, which we walked about halfway around, a church—the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul—and a major cemetery. It became fashionable to place the great and important on Vyšehrad and remains so. We wandered the cemetery for quite a while, finding Dvořak as the only great one we really knew anything about. The basilica was closed, but we peeked inside. There was an archaeological exhibit in the Gothic Cellar—the remains of what structures had once been there as a castle. We enjoyed that. (I had a great time overall at the old ruinous place!)

view of Cathedral of Sts. Peter & Paul, across Vyšehrad

When we left the Gothic Cellar, we found the rain had returned, harder than ever. Great. Just in time for our long walk homeward. My umbrella immediately collapsed, but we persisted and fought our way through the downpour back past Fred and Ginger (I appreciated those plastic “skirts” as we waited for the light to change) and through the parking arcade of the National Theatre and on into some twisting and winding and confusing streets and squares to Staromĕstské namĕsti once again and on to the hotel. It was about four, and we consumed the rest of our bottle of wine for a long while and then went out for dinner.

This time we ended up at Kolkovna, a star restaurant for Pilsner Urquell (the original pilsner lager) and essentially in the traditional Czech manner. At old-fashioned Czech taverns/restaurants/pubs, you sit down wherever thereʹs room, even at tables with other people (asking if the seat is free first) and having placed out a beer mat to show you want beverage, drink and eat plentifully. Once you order a beer the waiter supposedly just keeps bringing them until you place the mat over the glass or mug to indicate youʹre done. Being well-touristed, the Kolkovna staff had a seater to guide us to a table, which was a small one jammed right between two others in a big row of little two-person spots along a wall. Everyone around us was not Czech, as well—German, French and Italian, I think. The place was large (we had gone up some stairs from the bar level into the eatery level), bright with lots of light wood and pretty noisy. At first, I was uncomfortable being right next to people, but once I got relaxed about that—read on, youʹll understand why—I had a fine time, and this was in many ways my favorite meal (and nobody around us was smoking until shortly before we left).

looking south from Vyšehrad over red-tiled rooftops

Janet tried a glass of wine first (the deluded fool) and ordered her third Czech meal—beef in white sauce with mashed potatoes and bread dumplings and cranberry—more childhood memories for her. I went for their dark beer Krušovice (excellent!) and tried their venison goulash (large) which came with slices of toasted or grilled rye bread (thus giving us the idea to toast the bread at breakfast thereafter). The beer came in three sizes, and I ordered the large, which made the waiter question me, but I kept to it. When the drinks came, a large was a huge mug (a full liter); I didn’t notice, but Janet says everyone watched me drink it. I ended up drinking two, and Janet switched to a small Pilsner Urquell for her second drink with the food. It was good, not expensive, and I had fun (especially with that second liter going into me—thus the relaxation about other people crowded so near). It was almost as close as we came to the old-fashioned authentic Czech experience, and I had a good time.

Kolkovna is named for the street itʹs on, actually on a “square” where five roads meet, so the entrance is a very narrow point between two radiating streets. When we left, we wandered around by night some more: the city is really beautiful by night. Unfortunately, once we were back to the hotel, I had a rotten nightʹs sleep—probably coming down with my cold. So the next day arrived with me having only several hours of sleep.

Staronova (Old-New) Synagogue

Monday became our Jewish Quarter day, perhaps the closest we stayed to the hotel the whole week. Our Haštalaska street, going west, turned into the former main way through the ghetto, Široka (“Straight Street”), at a square. Does anyone else think itʹs ironic the ghetto had a Street Called Straight? All we had to do after breakfast to get to our “tour” was go directly down the street about four or five blocks. Široka is one of the streets where Kolkovna intersects, so we passed the restaurant again (as we had repeatedly on our first night).

Six synagogues, two active, remain in Old Town Prague. The Nazis had collected Jewish art and crafts from all over Moravia, Bohemia, Austria and other parts of Europe to create a “museum to a defunct race,” so most of that stuff remains in Prague. Pity the Nazis are not yet defunct. You buy a ticket to get you into the five synagogue/museums in the old ghetto, Josefov (most people just buy four, skipping the still active Old-New Synagogue, but I wanted to see the revered seat of Rabbi Loew, the Maharal, who officiated there in the late sixteenth century and who, contrary to legend, did not build a golem—although we did pass the Golem Restaurant, and little golem souvenirs are available for sale everywhere, usually right next to the Franz Kafka t-shirts). The no longer active synagogues are  museums, each with a different purpose or theme in explaining the history of Czech Judaism and the religion in general.

Spanish Synagogue

We bought the tickets at the Spanish Synagogue, so-called because of its Moorish design. The information here focuses on the later parts of the Josefov experience—the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We moved on to the Pinkhas Synagogue, which commemorates the Czech Jews lost in the Holocaust. The whitewashed walls inside the building are all covered in black and red with the names and places of origin of all 77,297 killed. It is sobering to walk through, even among rude crowds of tourist groups. On the second floor is an exhibit of art created in Terezin (Theresienstadt in German) concentration camp, just forty miles north of Prague. A Jewish art teacher had the children draw and paint various assignments or activities until she was sent to die at Auschwitz. Even the Italian tourists were quiet and reflective looking at that, and Janet found the childrenʹs art the most moving part of the day.

Monday, October 21, 2009

Old Jewish Cemetery, Josefov

We passed out of the Pinkhas into the Old Jewish Cemetery, from the medieval ghetto days. Jews were not permitted to own land, so all burials had to occur within the ghetto walls for centuries. Therefore, bodies are often buried ten or twelve deep in the small area, quite high in relation to the surrounding streets as a result, and the gravestones are mostly cockeyed and awry. It was very quiet there, under the trees, within the walls and surrounded by synagogues and other buildings. We saw Rabbi Loewʹs tomb, where about a half dozen people stood touching the tomb and praying. It looks like a bed between two gravestones (indicating a man and his wife are both buried there) in a redder stone than most of the others. You follow a path that winds through the space and takes you out at Klaus Synagogue, where exhibits deal with Jewish ceremonial practices, rituals and the holidays. Thereʹs a Torah on display in the middle of the lower level.

Shops lining the old cemetery wall

We exited onto the street outside to find the next stop, the Ceremonial Hall was closed for lunch, so Janet took the time to shop in the touristy stores right there, finding a set of nested dolls to get for a friend who wanted just such a thing, and trying to search for something for her mother (she finally succeeded on Wednesday). When it opened, the ceremonial hall exhibits dealt with death and funeral customs and the funeral societies that were organized to fulfill all the necessary rituals and activities, bury the dead, and care for his or her survivors.

We moved on to the Old-New Synagogue, the interior of which sits lower than street level. Here mostly you see what a traditional synagogue interior looks like, since it is still used for worship. The last stop is supposed to be the Maisel Synagogue, but we got distracted or forgetful (remember I was getting hit with my cold, and it was a doozy) and therefore missed the exhibits on mysticism (which I would really like to have seen). We walked right past it but didn’t go in. Instead we headed toward the river along Široka, looking for the Metro station, believing we would be using it soon to travel out of the city for a day (we ended up not ever doing so). We did find a tiny little postcard booth where we bought the cards we sent to family and some friends.

Powder Tower, Republic Square

We went back to Old Town Square, where we bought tickets for a concert that evening at St. Nicholas Church. (Dozens of these tourist concerts are held pretty much daily in all kinds of beautiful buildings everywhere around town, including the Spanish Synagogue, but Janet felt that listening to Gershwin—that eveningʹs program at the synagogue—wasnʹt quite the thing.) We left the square in a new direction, going due east, looking at shops and just wandering until we happened upon Namêsti Republicky [Can you translate that one yet?] with the medieval black Powder Tower and the grand Municipal House (where concerts are also held). I pleased myself by figuring out what both sights were without use of a guidebook or our map. We departed the square to the north, although I didnʹt think about or realize the direction at the time, and immediately got into a noticeably Czech area (lacking signs in English for us tourists and looking rundown), turning onto a street called Dlouha which eventually surprised us, mapless, by leading to our Asian grocery, where we bought a second bottle of wine and returned to our room to write postcards for about two hours. Disappointingly, our hotel wouldnʹt post them for us, even if we paid the postage—we needed a post office.

For dinner, Janet really wanted to goto a restaurant called Les Moules (which for us nonFrench does indeed specialize in mussels), but it was really quite expensive, and we elected instead to try the elegant-looking Bistro Pravda (also not cheap)—both off into the Josefov area to the west. Janet thought Pravda was our best meal of the trip, ranking for her right at the top of her restaurant experiences. Her scallops must have been significantly better than my very nice veal in mushroom sauce. I had a Pilsner Urquell (because bottles of wine were Chicago-expensive) and she enjoyed two glasses of white wine. Then we went off to our concert: lovely inside the church, although quite chilly, with the music—featuring the church organ—sounding brilliant  and resonant. It lasted just an hour, so we went back to the hotel for dessert in their restaurant and then off to bed.

Tuesday morning, October 22, 2009

Janet on Karlův Most, Tuesday morning, October 22, 2009

Tuesday was our early rising. This day we were going to cross the Charles Bridge (Pragueʹs number one tourist attraction, which we had avoided mostly so far except to look at) to the western side of the river—to experience Malá Strana (“Lesser Town” or “Little Town” beneath and up the huge hill on which stands Prague Castle), Hradčany (the č is pronounced “ch”) and Prague Castle. We were down at breakfast promptly at 7:00 and out the door on our way by eight. We wanted this early start because the Charles Bridge (Karlův most) is so popular with tourists that itʹs absolutely jammed most of the day, thus spoiling its supposedly romantic atmosphere. We were out of luck for atmosphere anyway because the Czechs are doing a renovation on the bridge in sections for about a decade, I think, and it seemed like at least a third of the bridge was fenced and ripped up—especially on the Old Town (eastern) end while we were there. However, we were rewarded for our early rising: the bridge was nearly empty as we crossed over to  Malá Strana, as you can see. The bridge is famous for its age (at one time—until 1741, being the only one, it was simply called the Stone Bridge) and for the thirty statues that line it on each side—most of which are now copies because of age, pollution and general wear (we had missed a chance to see some originals on the far side of Vyšehrad). The bridge, named for Charles IV, actually makes a gentle S-curve crossing the river. We gazed at what statues we could actually see around the fencing and workers and trucks in the construction zones, reaching the western shore in about fifteen or twenty minutes.

We started pretty much directly uphill, passing through Malá Strana Square (a big parking area with a tram stop on the lower side and a church—another Church of St. Nicholas), and kept on upwards, fortunately choosing a street that did lead right up near the huge square outside the Prague Castle complex. As we arrived, people were crowding around the fence outside the castle, so we naturally hurried over to see. A line of castle guards were awaiting something, including a cluster of guard musicians. Almost immediately a car came into the square behind us, with two escort vehicles, passed through the entrance gate, and pulled up on the far side of the guardsmen. When a man and a woman got out, the band began playing as another woman guided the man through what protocol he had to fulfill, and then he and his wife were taken inside the castle (used today as the seat of the Czech government). Immediately after that the guard was changed at the gate in an amusing little ceremony (created by Václav Havel who had the costumer for Amadeus design the guard uniforms; one moment included both the departing and arriving guard adjusting their ascots). Having enjoyed the spectacle, we passed into that first courtyard.

outisde Prague castle, perring at guarrds in the first courtyard

people peering into the first courtyard of Prague Castle

castle guard awaiting official visitor, Tuesday, October 22. 2009

changing of guard at Prague Castle

At the Castle, all the courtyards are public and free. Sights inside buildings need a ticket. We decided, against guidebook advice to buy the long ticket for more sights and forego the audiotour. We undoubtedly missed out on learning many interesting facts, but I felt a lot more free than others tourists seemed to be, and we seemed to have more fun than all the serious-faced people attending to their listening devices. We certainly had more fun than the harried tour groups we were trying to evade (and tried to avoid the entire trip, everywhere). The main site is St. Vitus Cathedral, so popular and jammed that the guidebooks recommend getting there right as it opens at nine. We ended up waiting in line to get in (around noon or after) but noticed no line whatsoever—on two different days—after 2:30. The tour groups move on to Old Town in the afternoons, as we already knew.

One site not visited much is a museum exhibit, The Story of Prague Castle, which is where we started, immediately after realizing that there was a post office right next to where we had purchased our tickets. (We mailed everyoneʹs postcards from the precincts of Prague Castle!) Located throughout a lower level of the Royal Palace, the exhibit got quite long, but it was very informative on history, archaeology, technological developments (like stoves), architecture, clothing and lifestyle changes and featured lots of actual things to see. We wandered through, both of us reading and examining the items that interested us, with several groups of Czech schoolchildren guided through by teachers at a much more rapid rate. Probably only about a dozen other tourists were there. One thing we later realized we appreciated about it was being indoors; it was a cold day.

Having loaded up on background, we started for the major sites, beginning with the Royal Palace, featuring a huge hall of the medieval days vast enough to accommodate tournaments with one doorway and the steps down from there (the Riders Staircase) large enough for mounted knights. We also learned plenty about Hapsburg legal stuff as the “land rolls” and courtrooms were in areas around that central chamber, Vladislav Hall. The infamous defenestration of 1618 occurred at a particular eastern window there, initiating the Thirty Years War. Looking down, it was incredibly hard to believe the three people thrown out the window had survived (by landing on a dungheap).

22 Golden Lane, Prague Castle (a Kafka residence)

looking northwest up Golden Lane/Alchemists Row

We also examined St. Georgeʹs Convent, more incredible Baroque detail and painting and St. Georgeʹs Basilica. Then we wandered further east to the end of the castle complex to  Golden Lane (or Alchemists Row) where Hapsburg artisans lived (and where Franz Kafkaʹs sister dwelled in the twentieth century briefly). The communists interestingly redid that area and painted the buildings the bright pastels they are now—each containing shops and souvenir places (#22, Kafkaʹs temporary residence, is naturally a bookstore). Some movie company had created an armor display on the second floors of the cottages (all connected on that level). At the end of the lane is the Dalibor Tower (with an exhibit on torture devices), where a knight named Dalibor was supposedly imprisoned for his egalitarian views. The legends (Prague is full of ghostly legends) say that while in his tiny cell Dalibor learned to play the violin, and today on dark nights you can hear the eerie strains of his fiddle wafting up the lane. Historians note that “violin” was slang for the rack, so his eerie music must actually be his screams of torment. The tower itself was interesting architecture (our first of two towers to examine).

flying buttresses supporting St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague Castle

We went back up (and the hill does go downwards westward) to the cathedral and stood in line, me being pressed too closely by some female Italians, for about fifteen minutes to get inside St. Vitus. My favorite moment was on the steps about to get inside, I noticed I could see gargoyles against the sky, and in leaning back to get a picture, I evidently just about knocked into the too-close women. The cathedral was huge and gilded with interesting stained glass and lots of statues and church stuff (but I think tiredness was setting in; we both just looked and wandered). I did learn about the renovation of the southern entry, the Golden Portal, and I do still remember the interior as I write, but at the time… well, we may have looked as stunned as the audioguide victims.

Janet in the third courtyard, Prague Castle, with St. Vitus Cathedral to the left

looking eastward down sgrafitto wall at Prague Castle (St. Vitus spires visible)

We wandered around some more, stopping in the Lobkowicz Palace, within the Castle, back downhill westwards, for coffee and dessert (at 10% off, using a flyer weʹd been handed) and used what had to be the fanciest restrooms we encountered the whole trip. On our way back toward the entrance, we passed the Powder Tower, a site on our ticket, so we went in to learn all there is to know about the Castle Guard—history, military service, uniforms and uniform history, the guard under communism, and contemporary service (it was interesting but kind of peculiar, with dozens of mannequins dressed in historical uniforms complete with labeled weapons; my favorite had to be the guard musician mannequin, identified as “with cornet”). We went back up and east to the second courtyard, which is the one most of the government offices face, and out onto the huge square. Although it was getting darker by now, we trudged uphill (west) from the square into Hradčany—originally fancy residences for those who didn’t dwell within the castle itself. In the picture on the left above, you can see light and dark designs on the residence wall; thatʹs sgrafitto, etching away an outer surface to reveal a contrasting inner color. Janet by now was decidedly weary, and I had been feeling the full assault of my cold all day, even with medication in me, so we decided to head back downhill toward home.

Ungelt Square, east of Týn Church

Crossing the now crowded Charles Bridge, Janet stopped to examine some of the displays by artisans selling their work and listen to some of the musicians. Back on our own shore, we wandered all over looking at restaurants for this eveningʹs meal, eventually wandering into a square (actually rectangular and with only some little alleys leading into it) behind the Týn Church. This square, Ungelt, was the home in the middle ages of German and other foreign merchants in Prague (the ones who built Týn), so that was interesting, but it also provided a restaurant (Italian) where we did eat that evening (and the only restaurant where we encountered a notorious Czech trick, offering bread or nuts to diners who later discover that offering cost extra—but since our delicious bread was only two crowns, about 34¢, we did not mind). Meeting an American family from Colorado with Iowa and Minnesota connections (college) at a neighboring table was fun, and we lingered over tiramisu and excellent coffee as dessert before heading home to bed. Another long night for me again, coughing, dreaming strange visions, and waking a lot.

Wednesday took us back to Malá Strana, not so early as the day before (we arose as had become our usual about 9:00), so Janet could shop. There were gifts to buy for some people (not very many because she had started to become a little disillusioned about prices on such things). Today is when she noticed that her favorite scarf, which she was sure she had packed for the trip, was missing, although we hoped she had just forgotten to include it in the suitcase somehow; and I was feeling my cold the most yet. We ate breakfast as usual and headed out for Old Town Square and from there to the Charles Bridge and across the river.

heading uphill through Malá Strana

We took the steps down from the bridge onto the Kampa Island area, which even though it features the “John Lennon Wall” from the communist days and a few other sights (so therefore tourist groups were present) it was pleasantly quiet, deserted and relaxing. As usual, we wandered without really knowing where we were, except I had a fair idea what streets might take us back into Malá Strana. As we started uphill from the bridge tower, Janet immediately found several stores to investigate. As each had a stock of what seemed fragile items (glass is a popular Czech manufacture), I elected to say on the street and watch people go by—lots of smoking people as it turned out (tourists rather than Czechs), making me cough (one of the cold effects this time, along with a runny nose and stuffed head—although Janetʹs Claritin did help with the congestion). We took a different street, but still ended up at Malá Strana Square, where Janetʹs eagle eye spotted a… (shamefacedly I admit it) Starbucks, where we spent too much (as ever with that chain) for weak lattes, but the huge cup of warmth did make me happier as we ascended and examined some more shops.

me beside a Malá Strana pub advertisement

Janet got fascinated with pub advertising along this route (big statues outside just to intrigue folks as they had her), so I got my picture taken next to one (not the devil we had passed half a block earlier, but a jolly guy with a mug of beer (notice the window to the right—a typical display to tempt us tourists).

Strahov Monastery

Heading upward meant back toward the Castle, but I figured we would pass on and further upward into Hradčany, which we did, heading straight by accident up toward the Strahov Monastery on the highest point of this hill (outdone a little further south by Petrin Hill, where a miniature Eiffel Tower permits supposedly outstanding views over the city and castle, but we didnʹt ever get to Petrin). We enjoyed the view out over the monasteryʹs vineyard, and Janet had me play artist, trying to get the monastery framed by a berry-bearing tree branch. What had started as a very bleak and cold day temporarily broke into a fairly pretty and almost warm late morning and early afternoon. We went all the way to the monastery, but since the guidebooks indicated the big draw of going inside was to peek into their medieval libraries and as we were getting weary of normal tourism, we just wandered around in Hradčany and wound up back in the square outside the Castle.

heading eastward along the Stag Moat, Prague Castle

We chose to see if we could explore the castle gardens to the north (and find— unsuccessfully—a WC) but wound up by choice getting into the old moat (deep depression outside the walls on that northern side) where we had a pleasant semi-nature walk for quite a while, getting stranded at the eastern end of the castle with nowhere to go, high up beside a busy avenue, then going back the other way, passing under the street into the castle and eventually climbing up on that side of the street overhead to where we had started. We wandered through the castle courtyards again, as the day got chillier and grayer again, but stopped for nothing and never did find a restroom.

Then it was back downhill toward the river again, with Janet stopping to actually make some purchases at those shops she had visited in the morning. She got some eggshell Christmas tree decorations for the neighbors, some crystal item for her mother and earrings. As we started across Karlův most, she decided to look very closely at the street vendorsʹ stuff (we had also looked closely yesterday, but now it was going to culminate in a purchase, I knew). After some wandering back and forth and starting to leave, she finally decided on three sepia photos of Prague sights—the astronomical clock, an evening street scene, and a cluster of streetlights with steeples (Týn?) in the distance.

With our gifts and souvenirs in hand, we wandered back into Old Town, looking at stores and architecture and checking restaurant menus (I love the big-city/European fashion of posting menus outside the doors) for a place to eat tonight. In our wanderings we went past a courtyard opening (like the one beside the little advertising statue man) that we had passed frequently and noticed this time a sign about a place within. So we went inside (sort of), winding in and around and through quite a little distance until we came to the restaurant. What we were after at this point was an afternoon drink, and when we saw the sign that said “nonsmoking,” we joyfully went inside and had our first and almost-only Czech-only encounter: the waitress (and evidently everyone else in the tiny place, which was furnished like a university coffee house—all old couches and armchairs around tiny tables) knew no English. But we communicated well enough. I had a Pislner Urquell (their only beer choice) and Janet got a white wine, and we had a very enjoyable time sitting down at long last and actually relaxing.  Another group who came in shortly after us had some kind of problem and more trouble communicating their issue, but it was all quiet and pleasant there. As darkness descended, we continued on home to rest briefly and change for dinner.

Dinner held one unpleasantness. We had chosen a place right off Old Town Square, directly opposite Kafkaʹs birthplace because they had really inexpensive pizza that appealed to Janet. But when we sat down and got menus, their alcohol and other beverage prices were outrageous! After a bit of hesitation and difficulty with each other, we just got up and left, eventually finding another Italian place like the night before to have really good pizzas (I guess the novelty of Czech cuisine was wearing off) and dessert with coffee afterward.

Church spire (and streetlight), Hradčany

Thursday morning we had to check-in and choose our seats online with Swiss. A lady whom we had come to like well (she had checked us in to the hotel and worked nearly every day we were there from the time we awoke until perhaps 7:00 in the evening) was on the desk, so we asked if they had a laptop we could use for this process. They did, and so after breakfast, with some confusion (Czech keyboard!!) we got online and onto the Swiss site. Once again, every seat was already taken, so we just stayed in the two midsection seats we were pre-assigned.

Charles Square (medieval cattle market), Nove Mĕsto, Prague

Janet wanted to do more shopping (or at least looking), so we went south to New Town, passing more slowly and happily through Wenceslaus Square. She also was intrigued by Charles Square, the medieval cattle market, so we walked further south and a bit west to there, getting definitely off the tourist track once again. New Town is also medieval in its origins, so the streets are only somewhat more gridlike than Old Town, but enough so that finding your way is not quite such an adventure. Charles Square is a city park stretched across three blocks, so in a way like three little parks in a row. The  tram has a major stop on the far southwestern end, and we could have gotten on and gone anywhere today (I was tempted), but we just watched commuters and other citizens get on and off and then wandered back through the park other ways than we had come. I needed to sit down (the cold—or the medication—was making me tired today) briefly, and while I did so, Janet realized she was watching a guy we had seen get off the tram urinating in the bushes. He walked back to the tram as calmly as could be after finishing his business.

art nouveau Hotel Evropa, Wenceslaus Square

We kept wandering Nove mĕsto for a long time, getting back to Václavské námĕsti where Janet tried very hard in one store to buy for her sister a scarf (which was displayed on a mannequin in the windows but which neither of us could find anywhere in the busy clothing emporium). We left the square a different way (turning right) than we had ever done, and after some more shopping on the pedestrianized Na příkopé street, found ourselves strangely back at Námĕsti republicky (with the Powder Tower and Municipal House from Monday)! The map makes it obvious, but we werenʹt using a map, so we were both surprised. This time we headed toward Staromĕstské námĕsti, still window shopping all the way (including a visit inside a chocolate shop) but with no buying. I was really tempted while we were in the chocolate place, even though the purchase wouldnʹt be for us.

Kafka (riding on the shoulders of an empty suit) and me

Well into the afternoon by the time we reached Old Town Square, we headed not exactly homeward to the hotel, still wandering and shopping. Janet decided we had to return to the Spanish Synagogue to take my picture beside the really rather odd statue honoring Kafka (featuring an empty suit from one of his stories), so we did, and then wandered northwestwards to streets we had not visited. We came to a pastry/bread shop, and Janet went to her Czech roots again, deciding she wanted to see if they had kolaches (which we had seen or heard nothing about the entire trip, yet thatʹs everyoneʹs idea of a Czech food here in Iowa). They indeed had little pastries called kolač, so we had to buy one or two of the prune variety and see what they were like. I also got a cheese croissant. Once again we had to communicate without English (well, we did anyway, whether we really had to or not). Continuing back to the hotel, Janet remembered seeing a grocery store on Haštalaska, so we stopped there, a local place definitely for the Prague citizens and not tourists, and bought some Czech (actually Moravian) wine and a very inexpensive little baguette (and I made Janet actually pay for the stuff, since she hadnʹt yet even handled Czech money the entire trip).

Old Town arcade en route (one route anyway) to Staromĕstské namĕsti

At the hotel, to celebrate our final day in Prague, we enjoyed our pastries and the wine (really very good stuff: we bought another bottle on the way home from dinner to share with Margaret—perhaps this very weekend, since she and David are coming on Saturday, November 20, to see me play Scrooge in A Christmas Carol). And it was time to pack as well. But we tried to make it as pleasant as possible because we had really enjoyed this trip (even with the hideous cold—both the weather and my illness). When we were finished, Janet suggested that we go out in the evening dark just to see everything and be romantic, so we did, wandering new ways to the river, quite north of the Charles Bridge, and taking an excessive amount of experimental nocturnal photos (just a few included here). After much more than an hour, we headed back to have our final meal, at Chez Marcel as we had planned—steak in pepper sauce with frites for me and tiger prawns en brochette for her. For our final night, we also had dessert again: crème brulee for me while Janet enjoyed some apricot tart (made by our waiter, who was very pleased that she took his recommendation). And then it was home to bed, where we both actually slept quite well until the alarm shattered the night at 5:40 a.m. when we had to shower and get ready to leave.

Prague Castle and Malá Strana by night

Friday was lost in returning home. Our driver was prompt at 7:30, and we were at the airport in plenty of time. The drive to the airport was essentially the reverse of our arrival in that the sun was out. However, things meant more now, and I could keep track, roughly, of where we were, even well out of the range we had covered on foot. Today at the airport there was definitely security to pass through (unlike our very strange arrival). We got to sit in the departure lounge for an hour or so. The flight to Zurich was completely full again, and at Zurich we had hours to spend before boarding our overly full flight across the Atlantic. It was a very poor experience (enough said?), bad enough that I actually hassled the man in front of me who had reclined his seat into my face as quickly as possible, and bad enough that Janet wrote a letter of complaint once we were home (partially about her lost scarf, which had indeed gone into the luggage but had disappeared, probably in security check). Worse, it took nearly ten hours. I watched Angels and Demons and North by Northwest and still had plenty of time to be thoroughly uncomfortable, bored and furious about everything. Janet, worse off really, had to sit next to and in front of unwashed Frenchmen. We were both miserable for the entire endless flight.

Chicago was deep in frigid, gray rain, but we got to our car about 5:00 p.m. and I drove us home, as my cold turned vicious and debilitating, through rush-hour traffic (we only bogged down in Oak Park, although the traffic was very, very heavy). We had talked about eating dinner in St. Charles (or nearby Geneva), but the reality was that we were both filthy and exhausted when we got that far, so I just kept driving, reaching Maquoketa about 9:30. We just showered and collapsed into bed (although my dreams, hyped by an old pseudephedrine cold tablet, were psychedelically vivid). I realized later we had been awake and miserable for long over twenty-four hours. I lost Saturday and Sunday (more or less) and the week thereafter to the cold, even though I had play practices to attend every weeknight. HOme was comfortable, but Prague will always remain a wonderful set of memories, tingling with exciting epxeriences unlike anywhere else we have been.

I have many more pictures on Facebook (with independent commentary), if anyoneʹs interested.

And that is my summary of our trip to Prague—much more like a David travelogue than I had intended (but I hope the pictures would be of interest). I actually took nine days (with about four off for no good reason except laziness and the weekend) to write this. Twelve pages of 10-point text with pictures. Incredible.

©2009 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

2 thoughts on “Prague Travelogue

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