Monday, April 27, 2009

Prague: Czech

(The requisite photo album. You can also linger over the images when you're done reading, or after the next installment which will elucidate some of the images.)

The number of possible puns for this post title are truly mind boggling. Czechpoint. Czech it out. Czech yourself. Czech-ered. Getting Praguers. A Prague in the right direction. Prague-rock. Prague-ressive. Prague-gress….the list goes on. If you have any doozies, please leave them in the comments. Moving on…

An alternative perspective on this trip to Prague can be found on Marty’s blog.

Back in February I went for a little skiing jaunt with my fellow Fulbrighters. Around a cozy table in Mittelwald we discussed places we needed to see before real life begins next August. Nearly everyone I’ve talked to has said, “Prague. You have to go to Prague.” After the Iron Curtain took a bow, Prague became the “it” city to visit in all its unbombed-out glory. Unfortunately, this means everyone has been to Prague and most people have new places on their dance card. During the conversation I discovered Marty wanted to hit the Czech Republic and couldn’t find anyone who wanted to head East. Over dunkel beer we swore to make the trip.

The rumored beautiful Prague, seen through a fog of imagination or maybe just morning smog.

By the following weekend, we had our tickets booked. Thus, at the beginning of April I was cruising towards the abandoned-air-force-base-now-Ryan-Air-hub of Frankfurt/Hahn Airport (which is nowhere near Frankfurt). The bus was slowed up by a wreaked Audi that was hauling a horse trailer. The trailer rolled into view, and I wasn’t sure if I should avert my eyes or stare in agonized horror at what I expected to be inside. With a little more progress I saw the horse calmly standing on the highway. His owner was holding his reins and the animal glanced at the car as if to say, “Ya know, I know of a way to get around that wouldn’t involve engines and mangled steel.”

The rest of the ride I tried to take in the spectacular rolling scenery without making eye contact with the girl across the aisle who seemed mildly creeped out by my frequent glances in her direction (really past her direction and out the window). We arrived with plenty of time until take off with only a minor meander through the parking lot. Note: never follow someone who walks with purpose without first checking the signs. Chances are they have less of an idea where they’re going than you do.

Ryan Air is notorious for charging cheap fares but wringing you for every penny. I had to pay a couple of Euros for not having an EU passport. Then my bag was barely over weight and I had to check it and pay again. They’re even talking about charging to use the toilet on the plane to which I say, “Empty plastic bottles don’t cost a dime.” Side note: Actually in Germany they do cost roughly a dime. Every beverage purchase you make includes a deposit on the container which you can return to the cashier when you’re finished or take to your local grocery store’s recycling center.

An hour after boarding we were touching down in Eastern Europe getting ready to explore one of the jewels in the Hapsburg crown. But first we needed a bus ticket and cash. One of the pleasures of traveling is discovering the coinage in a new country (one of the minor tragedies of traveling so much in the Euro Zone), then trying to constantly remember the exchange rate, eventually giving up the cause and treating it all like Monopoly money.

After a long bus ride and subway connection with fellow Americans, Italians, and Mexicans, we emerged near the heart of Prague at Wenceslas square, but we didn’t have time to explore. We needed our hostel. The streets of the city are narrow and wind like an exchange student who drank too much Pilsner (the most famous export of the Czech Republic). Somehow we arrived at the Prague Square Hostel without event, dropped our bags and went for a wander into the ciy’s night.
Tyr Church, a crazy Gothic edifice that looms over Prague Square.

We were both told Prague can be a deal. You just need to wander off the tourist beaten track. Once the buildings ceased to be reminiscent of movie set, we decided we could start looking at menus. We found a restaurant that sported a witch’s theme, and had great prices. We stepped inside and found one other table of two people with beer in hand. I asked if they were still serving dinner (it was around 10 PM. I’m used to things getting ready to geschlossen around then). The waitress looked like she would resign herself to foreigner stupidity for one more table and said, “Yes.”

Traditional Czech spread (according to the guidebook. Know that I know nothing about tradition that Lonely Planet doesn't tell me.)

We feasted on roast pork, beef, cabbage, and dumplings as you only can in Prague. Washed down with Pilsner Urquell and finished off with a tiny bill. It all went down that much smoother. Another drink then bed. We had a castle to explore. Unfortunately our roommates were still up and about and the light was on. I rolled over and drifted into oblivion. Marty wasn’t able to shut out the light and only got a few hours of interrupted sleep. This would be a theme.
A view down Charles Bridge. Unclear what the concrete barriers are for. If it's to keep cars from barreling through, I feel like the organ grinder could take care of any vehicles. It's not like he does anything but spin a crank all day.

We started with the landmarks of Prague, crossing the Charles Bridge to the massive staircase that ascends to the castle. The bridge has been around since the 14th century and was built in the spot of an even older bridge that united the two sides of the river (Prague means “Ford”). It was spruced up by Baroque artists who wanted saintly statuary and watch towers to loom over the proceedings. Now the bridge is only open to pedestrian traffic and features sketch artists, kitschy baubles, and small music acts. It also features hundreds of tourists posing with the saints and even more taking their pictures.
The view of Prague Castle from Charles Bridge. The high steeples are St. Vitus Cathedral, the smaller white spires are St. George's Basilica. The rest of the surrounding building is where the Executive branch is set up along with a couple thousand tourists.

A view over our shoulders as we climbed up to the castle.

The weather warmed as we climbed the steps to the castle, finally dropping layers at the top. We queued for tickets in a tiny room with that dead-ended into the desk causing every member of the line to do an awkward waltz every time someone walked away with their admission. We also rented “the best and ONLY audioguide for Prague Castle!” available in both British and American English as indicated by the Union Jack and Stars and Stripes on the poster (I have a sneaking suspicion our flag, the last one on the poster, was required after one to many American tourists railed at the hapless vendors, “I don’t speak British! I speak English!”).

The castle complex is the largest in the world when you factor in the Cathedral, monastery, museums, ministerial residences, shopping district, and dungeons. Most royal families relocate a couple of times but the Bohemians deemed their hill suitable for 1700 years of development. Now you have a tourist magnet that actually has plenty of room to let everyone wander without fighting for elbowroom.

The highlight of our excursion to the castle was St. Vitus Cathedral. They broke ground in the 1300’s and didn’t finish until the 1920’s. Six-hundred years of construction (not constant of course) meant the design could be tweaked by each builder creating a living textbook of Czech history and art. In the cathedral we met the patron saints of Prague and the Czech republic who cropped up on street signs, town squares, Charles Bridge, the Opera house, royal clothing and so on. King Wenceslaus, a good guy who lead the Bohemians to Christianity. He was assassinated by his brother (who, ironically, ended up a pretty decent ruler) and had a Christmas carol written about him that dogged Marty and I until we made a break for Vienna. St. Ludmila, his grandmother who introduced King W. to Christianity. She was later strangled. St. Adalbert, who went north to convert the Poles and was thrown off a cliff by the Prussian. St. John of Nepomuk who wouldn’t break the oath of the confessional and was hurled from Charles Bridge (hurled from heights happened quite a bit in Prauge including the Defenestration of Prague which tipped off the Thirty Years War). And finally St. Sigismund, an early king who strangled his son for maybe plotting to take the throne (strangling apparently isn’t rare either) but felt just awful about it and became a saint. There are some hermits and martyrs as well, but these guys were the biggies and the Cathedral and St. George’s Basilica nearby had remnants of all of them.
The final resting place of St. John of Nepomuk's remains. He was dredged up from the river with his tongue still intact. This was considered a miracle since he was killed for either speaking out against the king or for not revealing the queen's confession (this is an ambiguous point). The tongue was later revealed to be a piece of his brain. It all looks the same after a couple years in the river.

Mucha's window in St. Vitus. He was an Art Nouveu master and brought it all to bear on Czech history in this window and The Slave Epic.

A view down St. Vitus's nave.

A close-up view of the spectacular St. Vitus windows.

Other highlights of the castle include foundations from the dark ages, armored corpses from the fourth century, and Czech art by artists whose names I won’t defile with pronunciation. Part of the royal gallery was on display, but most of the collection was looted by the Swedes during the Thirty Years War. Never trust the Swedes.
František Ženíšek's "Oldrich and Bozena" (1884). It tells the story of Oldrich, a Czech prince, discovering a simple Czech peasent to fall in love with rather than wasting his time with those stuffy German princesses. It probably helps that Bozena has forgotten

We ate expensive (but delicious) Goulash, and walked through one of the oldest shopping districts in town that included a flat once inhabited by Kafka (a more recent favorite son).

We also learned there is a fraternity of royal guards. It includes the guys who guard Prague Castle, Buckingham Palace, the Royal Palace in Copenhagen and so on. I don’t really know what they chat about, or what language they would do it in. Maybe they just vent their frustration at all the obnoxious tourists who try to get them to flinch.
He didn't move, though his eyes were covered, so it's hard to say if he gets distracted. At the fraternity meetings these guys get to claim the most wearable uniforms (the Brits come in last with those crazy, fuzzy poo-bah hats).

Our exploration continued around Castle Hill where we saw Baroque convents and the houses of Parliament. Doubling back to the castle to descend the hill we saw scaffolding being assembled and a guy getting his picture taken with a shabby cardboard sign. Our curiosity piqued we investigated the sign. “April 5. President Barack Obama.” Really? The president was coming here? We scurried back to the hostel and free internet via the U.S. Embassy which was closed “As we prepare for the arrival of the President of the United States.” Great for us, bummer for a tourist who lost his passport to the Vltava river.
A sunset shot of St. Nicholas Church. We'll see the interior tomorrow.

After hopping a fence to investigate a mysterious building flying the Stars and Stripes over Prague (turns out we own several acres of Prague’s city park) we finally confirmed the president’s arrival the following Sunday. Gates opened at 7 AM. We spent the rest of the night in a state of giddy anticipation by first visiting Restaurant Mozart (creepily quite restaurant again, but cheap food) then on to Reduta Jazz Club, a venue Clinton played when he showed up in Prague a decade ago.
Yeah, we're hip.

We felt pretty hip, offering our cover and settling in to listen to a five-man combo led by an Alto sax. Marty had heard about my foray into Absinthe in Barcelona and was game to try it once. I went to the bar and ordered two absinthes. I was given a minty looking fluid with no other accessories. Being inexperienced, I supposed this was diluted or already had the sugar thrown in. Turns out you’re supposed to order the water and sugar separately.

The first sip was biting into a handful of black jelly beans set alight after a week-long soak in gasoline. Marty smacked his lips and brushed away a tear. I apologized and offered to get the water. “No, we need to finish what we began.” By the end of the set our mouths were numb and our esophaguses refusing to cooperate. We decided to call it a night.

Next: We meet the president along with 20,000 of my closest friends (in the most literal sense of “closest”)!

The photos again. Enjoy!

P.S. If you want a different perspective on Prague, here's a trailer for a movie that's coming out in a few months called "The Brother's Bloom." The cast got me pretty excited (Mark Ruffalo, Rachel Weiz, Adrian Brody etc.) along with the writer/director and mixed styles, but mostly I was just excited to recognize a few key locations (even if the say "St. Petersburg." I think that was the trailer's editor's error.

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