Hello, Praha!

Trip Start Oct 21, 2009
Trip End Jan 12, 2010

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Flag of Czech Republic  , Bohemia,
Monday, December 7, 2009

12.6.09/12.7.09     Hello, Praha!

We were up early yesterday morning (12.6.09), catching the 7:45am train out of Assisi to Rome, about a 2 ½-hour trip.  Once in Rome, we caught a second train for the 25-minute ride to the airport.  Both train rides went just fine, and everything went smoothly at the airport.  After a short (1 hour, 40 minutes) flight to Prague – the first thing we noticed when we got there?  The COLD!  From the airport, we quickly caught a shuttle bus to Prague's city centre, and then walked to our hotel from the shuttle drop-off point, getting to our hotel around 6pm.  Since it was so cold (and dark, and a little drizzly) outside, we hung out in our hotel room for a while and just relaxed (Murray going down to get some cold (and perhaps frothy, for him!) beverages from the hotel restaurant and bringing them back to our room!).

Our hotel in Prague – the Hotel Florenc – is my least favorite hotel on our trip so far.  It is quite plain, impersonal, and decorated in a dumpy 70s style.  On the plus side, it’s serviceable and clean, and it was INCREDIBLY cheap (cheaper by a mile than every other place we’ve stayed at so far!).  So, there you have it.

My first visit to Prague was in 2001, when I traveled here with a college friend (at that time, we visited Vienna, Prague, and Budapest over a two-week period).  However, this is Murray’s first time to Prague, and I’m excited to show him what I remember!  Already we’ve both noticed that the Czech Republic is a significantly new destination for us in many ways, which makes sense.  Up until now, we’ve been able to navigate the Romance languages very well (and in Iceland and Egypt, enough people spoke enough English that we got by without a problem).  Here, however, it’s totally different – we don’t know the Czech alphabet or how to pronounce any words, and there’s really no guessing any meaning of the words based on our English/Spanish skills.  (Also, we’ve already noticed that Prague is much cheaper than any other country we’ve been to so far (Italy was quite expensive!) – so I have a feeling that our AmEx card will be thanking us for the time we spend here.) 

Anyway.  Given the cold, wet night, we were not feeling at all ambitious to go out and do any exploring tonight, so around 8:30pm, we went downstairs to the hotel restaurant for dinner.  There, the lone bartender and cook (both appearing to be around age 13) gave us a rough translation of the Czech menu, and once we figured out what to order, both departed to the kitchen to prepare our dinner, leaving us completely alone in the restaurant for several minutes!  They did a decent job with our meal – we started out with a wonderful garlic soup (pretty much only garlic in a tasty broth – but quite nice!) and large wedges of fried cheese (how can you not like that?!) with tartar sauce.  For main dishes, I had rice with mixed vegetables and cheese on top (hearty and good), while Murray had steak with mushrooms, chives, and smoked sausage (and served with fried potato wedges) to go along with his Czech beer.  The bill for our entire meal was under $20 – can’t beat that!  After dinner, it was back up to our room for an early sleep.

Today (12.7.09), we set out fairly early to explore this new city (and new country, and new part of Europe)!  We ended up doing a "Royal Way" tour of the city, of sorts – walking the lanes from the Powder Tower, through Old Town Square, to the Charles Bridge and into the Mala Strana – dubbed the “Royal Way” because this is part of the original route of coronation processions held for centuries in Prague (even well into the 19th century). 

After a decent hotel breakfast (with really great cocoa granola), we started out by walking from our hotel through the Stare Mesto (the Old Town, and the heart of Prague) to Namesti Republiky, or Republic Square.  [Note: I’m not even going to try to keep up with all the accents and symbols over these Czech names…]

From Republic Square, we saw both the Municipal House (Obecni Dum) and the Powder Tower (Prasna Brana) right next door.  The Municipal House is a strikingly beautiful building, with a façade that looks like a Victorian Easter egg!  It is located on the site of the former royal court, the seat of Bohemia’s kings from the 14th to 15th centuries.  It was built by 1912 as a lavish joint effort by more than thirty leading artists of the day to create a vibrant cultural center for the city.  Located within the Municipal House is Smetana Hall, Prague’s biggest concert hall, and concerts are held here almost daily.  It also contains numerous galleries and exhibits.

Next to the Municipal House, the 65-meter tall Powder Tower was begun in 1475 on the site of one of the Old Town’s original thirteen gates.  The name comes from its use as a gunpowder magazine in the 18th century.  The tower is very neo-Gothic in appearance, but also could use a good cleaning/restoration, as it has been quite blackened by years of city pollution!

We passed under the arches of the Powder Tower as we continued walking toward Old Town Square.  Along these narrow, pedestrian-only streets (the largest and most famous of these lanes being the Celetna Ulice), we passed by the House of the Black Madonna (14th century) and other interesting sites, like the Chocolate Museum (Muzeum Cokolady)!  When we reached Old Town Square, we found it bustling and full of people, activities, market stalls, and delicious food smells.  The Christmas markets are in full swing here in Prague – apparently, Prague is engulfed by revelers from all over Europe during its furiously busy Christmas season.

The huge, 1.7-hectare Old Town Square has been Prague’s main square since the 10th century, and was its main marketplace until the beginning of the 20th century.  Despite the busyness of the square, and the throngs of tourists we encountered there, it’s almost impossible not to enjoy the place.  In addition to the numerous cafes and shops that line it, the buskers around every corner, and horse-drawn carriages that try to maneuver their way through the crowds, it also is a venue for outdoor concerts, political meetings, and even fashion shows!  Its pastel, gingerbread facades reveal little about the historical events (often brutal) that have occurred in the square (e.g., the execution of 57 Hussites there in 1437; the beheading of 27 Protestants in 1621; Nazi SS units trying to demolish Old Town Hall in 1945; a communist government proclaimed from the balcony of one of its buildings in 1948; etc.)

Our first stop in Old Town Square was the Tyn Church (Kostel Panny Marie Pred Tynem, or Church of Our Lady Before Tyn), located in the southeastern corner of the square.  This tall, spiky-topped, early Gothic church is strangely hidden behind a school and a few hotels – its entrance is down a small passageway down the side of the church – or one can go through a classical music store (!) to get there!  Given this awkward location, it’s actually easier to see the church’s façade from the opposite side of the square.  The church was built in the 15th century as a Hussite (Jan Hus) stronghold.  Inside, the church has an amazing rococo altar.  Interestingly, it also contains two tiny windows on its south wall that once looked into the bedroom of the teenage Franz Kafka (now the site of the Kafka Museum, also located on Old Town Square).

From the Tyn Church, we passed by the House of the Stone Bell, the House at the Golden Ring, and the Kinsky Palace (all flanking the northeast part of the square) before arriving at the impressive St. Nicolas Church (Kostel Sv Mikulase) at the square’s northwestern corner.  This church, resembling a baroque wedding cake, was built in the 1730s and is elaborately decorated inside, containing a huge chandelier as well as numerous frescoes trimmed in gold.  What struck me about this church was how light and airy the interior is (if I said “flavorful,” too, then it would be like a real wedding cake!).  (Franz Kafka was born right next door, too.) 

At this point, Murray and I plunged into the middle of Old Town Square, to browse through the Christmas markets and sample some treats from the vendors there.  We saw large spits of roasted Czech ham everywhere; smelled the frying of potato pancakes; viewed crafts by local artisans; and wandered over to the Christmas tree and the crèches set up here and there.  Murray enjoyed some hot mulled wine (aka, grog, glug, glughein) while I ate a trdelnik (known by a few different names, like trdlo), a cinnamon- and sugar-dusted piece of spiral dough, wrapped around a spit and slow-roasted over a charcoal fire (yum!).  [By the way, a few days later, Murray asked me whether or not I thought that trdelnik was the Czech name for “turtleneck”, since the bread is spiraled over a spit and eaten hot from the spit as a hollow tube of roasted dough, shaped like a turtleneck – so, yes, I think Murray’s on to something there!]

We also stopped to take a closer look at the Jan Hus statute in middle of Old Town Square.  Jan Hus was the Czech lands’ foremost (and one of Europe’s earliest) Christian reformers, anticipating Martin Luther and the Lutheran Reformation by a century!  His mythic memory plays a large role in the minds of the Czech people.  This statute, in his honor, was unveiled in 1915 at the 500th anniversary of Hus’ death at the stake.

From the middle of the square, we finally made our way to its southwestern corner to see the Old Town Hall and 60m tower with Astronomical Clock.  The Old Town Hall, founded in 1338, resembles a row of private buildings with a tower at one end – it being gradually assembled from existing buildings as a result of a medieval town council short on funds!  The Astronomical Clock on this tower is one of Prague’s most famous landmarks, and several lengthy books have been written on this clock alone (making it, perhaps, the world’s most overrated clock?!).  It’s almost a requirement when in Prague to stand in front of the clock and wait at least once for it to “chime” (every hour, on the hour) – massive crowds gather in anticipation of each hourly “chime”, something I remembered from my last visit here. 

So, five minutes before 12 noon, Murray and I dutifully waited underneath the clock with thousands of other people.  When the clock finally signaled the hour – doors opening to reveal different characters spinning by, a statute of death next to the clock ringing a little bell, a cock crowing when the hour was actually rung – it was pretty anti-climatic (also as I remember from my last visit here!). 

After the wonders of the Astronomical Clock, Murray and I continued walking toward Prague’s famous Charles Bridge (Karluv Most), passing some interesting shops and museums along the way – like the Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments! – as well as touring a few churches.  This striking bridge, pedestrians-only, was completed around 1400, and for nearly 600 years, it withstood both wheeled traffic and numerous floods (thanks, legend says, to the eggs that were mixed into the mortar!).  I think that crossing this bridge is everybody’s favorite Prague activity, as now it’s a 500m-long fairground of buskers, painters, trinket sellers, and caricaturists – all beneath a rank of imposing baroque statuary that lines each side of the bridge. 

As we walked across the Charles Bridge, flanked at both ends by tall towers, we were stalled by the pedestrian traffic a few times.  As we slowly inched along, we finally realized that the main cause of this standstill was rubbernecking – partway across the bridge, two sort-of-naked women (of course!) who were covered in body paint were there protesting the selling and buying of furs on behalf of PETA!  Once we passed the animal lovers (I say that with fondness), our walk across the bridge became significantly less crowded and we were able to enjoy the bridge itself – both the statues that line it, and the spectacular views of Prague that it affords.

Once we got to the other side of the Charles Bridge (delayed as we were by a small marital fight while on the bridge itself – but I will spare you those details!), we walked a little while through the Mala Strana (the Small Quarter), exploring the back streets and finally finding a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant for a late lunch (beer, and meat and rice dishes) near the Vltava River and the underside of the Charles Bridge.  After lunch, we took a long walk along the river, eventually crossing over to the Josefov (Old Jewish Quarter) via another bridge (the Manesuv Most) that runs parallel to the Charles Bridge

It was after 4pm by the time we got to the Pinkas Synagogue and the Old Jewish Cemetery within Josefov, and we quickly found that visiting hours ended by 4pm.  So – we will come back to the Old Jewish Quarter tomorrow.  After stopping for some hot drinks, we continued walking back to the Old Town Square – effectively, having done a huge loop of Prague today!  If possible, the Old Town Square was even busier at dusk – the markets were packed, and I enjoyed another trdelnik while we stood at the outdoor stage and listened for a while to the Czech musicians that were performing.

Back at the hotel, we rested for a while before heading out to find dinner.  Around 8pm, we took Prague’s Metro to Wenceslas Square.  I had been craving Mexican (or perhaps more accurately, Tex-Mex) food for a while now, and we had seen an advert for a “Buffalo Bill’s” Tex-Mex place here in Prague (yes, yes – I know).  So, Murray found the restaurant on a map (after agreeing to go there in the first place, but not without a lot of teasing!) and we headed out – only to find out about ½ hour later that after fifteen years in business, Buffalo Bill’s shut down last month “due to economic reasons”!  Doh.  So much for my craving for Mexican.

Dejected but not defeated (!), I followed Murray back toward Wenceslas Square where we found another interesting restaurant to eat dinner at – the Trilobit Restaurant.  Since it was quite late by this time, and we were very hungry, we started with two huge appetizers – fried Camembert cheese wedges and beer-soaked sausages in capers and onions.  Yes, delicious!  For my main, I had grilled chicken with spinach and potato cakes (the latter, too greasy for me), while Murray had a mixed meat stroganoff with bacon-cooked green beans.  Needless to say, we left the restaurant with full stomachs, getting back to our hotel around 11pm and going to bed shortly thereafter.  What a wonderful first full day in Prague!

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