Saturday, January 16, 2010

Dobrý Den from Prague! Part 2

After being in Prague for only half a day, we woke up in the morning with a vengeance to see as much as we could! We found a free English tour that started at 11am and took advantage of that! The tour started off in the Main Square by our hostel, and Starbucks in hand, we first learned about hundreds of years of Prague history in about 6 minutes. It went a little something like this: inhabited since 200BC by the Celts, Prague went from a small town to the seats of kings of Bohemia. By the 14th century, King Charles IV had a flourishing city but by the early 15th century King Wenceslas (yes, the guy from the Christmas carol) IV had a religious war on his hands - Protestants vs. Hussites. The Hapsburg dynasty soon took over and by the 20th century, Prague was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After WWI, Czechoslovakia was created and Prague named the capital city. But WWII came and from 1939 to 1942, Prague was an occupied city. When liberated, Prague then became part of the Soviet Union. In 1989, the Velvet Revolution took place and finally after many years, Prague became the capital of the new and current Czech Republic! Did you get it all?!

Our tour guide, a Welsh guy, told us this story while standing in front of the Old Town Hall. Well, I guess we were standing where the Old Town Hall used to be - because it as blown up at the end of WWII and is obviously not there anymore. This part of the rapid history lesson was my favorite because after years of occupation by the Nazis, the people of Prague saw that the Allies would soon be coming to liberate thier city and took it upon themselves, 30,000 strong, to show the despised Nazis a proper goodbye. Armed with kitchen utensils, garden tools, and anything they could get thier hands on, the citizens attacked the Nazis. Because of a confusion between USA and Russia about who was supposed to liberate Prague, what started as a quick attack turned into a few day ordeal, where somehow the militarily-untrained people of Prague held off 900,000 Nazis! During this process, the Germans, bombed the Town Hall, to let the people of Prague know that they were still a strong force and not to mess with them. But, the Allies came to the rescue and were credited with beating the 900,000 force, but the Prague people know it was they who managed the feat! So, the only building that was destroyed in WWII was the Old Town Hall. As a result, the rest of Prague still retains tons of history in its facades, lucky for us!

Our group of 30 made our way through the winding streets of the old town, passing the concert hall - Stravovské Divalodo. It was here where Mozart first performed Don Giovanni in 1787 and also the place where the Czech National Anthem was played for the first time when they became a country, only since 1993! Continuing down the road we stopped at the Powder Tower. Many of these dot the city, and are huge towers that used to hold the gun powder for Prague. This one was special because it's dark bricks and shiny gold adornments used to be part of the fortress wall that once surrounded the city. What I was wondering as he was telling us all this was that, if you were the enemy, wouldn't you just find all the towers and blow them up? I obviously don't possess too much military intelligence, but I kind of thought that was a no-brainer.

The road that starts at the Powder Tower is called Rybná and it was on this street that the Kings would start their after-coronation walk all the way through the town, across the river and to the castle. The road, meaning Crown Street, is now kind of a joke, as it is full of touristy shops that our guide said 'steal all your crowns' (the name of the currency in Czech Republic) haha. Along the street, we somehow ended up back by our hostel, to another church with a story. Listed as the city with the highest number of churches per square kilometer, Prague's skyline is dominated by the spires of the hundreds of churches. Legend has it, that in this church, one dark night, a nasty thief came to steal the gold necklace that hung around the statue of Mary. As he put his hand up to grab the necklace, the statue moved and grasped his arm! After considerable yelping, the priest came and the robber begged the priest to break Mary's hand so he could get his arm back. The priest, smartly, said 'if you tried to steal her necklace and she grabbed your arm, what do you think she will do to me if I try and cut off her arm?!'. Eventually, after trying every trick in the book, the priest had to cut off the arm...but not Mary's arm, the thief's arm! The thief vowed never to steal again, and his arm, now hangs by the door in the church to warn everyone against theft!

After that glorious story we headed to the Jewish area of town - named Josefov. Only a few blocks from our hostel was the Pinkas Synagogue, probably the most well-known synagogue in Prague, even though it is no longer active. Instead, it now houses the names of 80,000 names of Czech Jews from the Holocaust. Also on the walls of this solemn place are the drawings by many Czech children that were in the concentration camps. In the camps, the Nazis would record videos of children playing or learning to demonstrate that the work camps were not bad at all. Of course, during these filmings, life was horrible for them, and one Jewish art graduate decided to do something about it. She asked the children to draw what they were feeling, as a form of art therapy. When she was sent to the gas chambers, she hid two suitcases of drawings under the floor boards. Today, these drawings hang on the wall and for some of the children are the only thing that acknowledges that they ever existed. The saddest part of the drawings is that some of these poor children, locked up and awaiting death camps, actually drew happy families, when in actuality they were experiencing quite the opposite.

Another sad part of the Jewish Quarter is that during WWII it was walled off from the rest of the city. Of course, as time passes people die, and in the Jewish Quarter they ran out of space for corpses in the cemetery. Pleading with the people on the outisde to let them have more space for another cemetery, the Jews were told that the only space they would be given was inside those walls. Consequently, the Jewish cemeteries in this neighborhood are higher than the street because in some places, there are more than 12 levels of dead bodies buried one on top of the other.

Obviously times weren't just tough for the Jews in WWII, but in the 16th century in Prague, Jews were also being ostracized. One rabbi decided to help his people out. The folklore goes that he, with mud and a spell, created a superman that had the strength of 10 men named Golem, which means rock in Hebrew. Golem watched over the Jewish people during the week, helping and protecting in whatever way he could. However, the Golem because increasingly brutal, and awhile after he was created, he became violent and the Emperor begged the rabbi to deactivate this creature. Pleading and even offering to stop the persecution of Jews, the rabbi gave in. On the Golem's forehead was written a word - Emet, which in Hebrew means truth and reality. The rabbi rubbed off the first letter of the word, leaving met, which means death in Hebrew. After he was deactivated, Golem was placed in the attic of the synagogue and that if needed he will reactivate and protect his Jews. Supposedly a Nazi went up to the attic to stab this Golem and never returned...spooky! Either way, the attic is not open to the public hahaha.

Our tour then headed towards the Vltava River. On our way, we passed the Rudolfinum, the concert hall of Prague. Constructed in 1876, it now houses the philharmonic. The impressive building, with statues of musical greats lining the roof was particularly interesting during WWII. The Nazis, getting excited for Hitler's visit, figured out that one of the many statues was of a Jewish composer! Gasp! Of course, the Nazis wanted the statue destroyed because they knew Hitler wouldn't appreciate such a monument to Judaism. The roof did not provide them with any information and who was who though. Obviously if you make a building and put statues on the top, you don't leave plaques of who is who on the roof, because no one goes up there! So, the Nazis, intelligently decided to measure the noses of all of the statues. Jews have big noses right? When they found the statue with the longest nose, they pushed it off the roof and it smashed into smithereens on the ground. Hitler arrived with fanfare and later found out that the statue that was demolished was not a Jew at all, instead it was Hitler's favorite Austrian composer! Of course now the poor Austrian artist has been returned to his place on the roof.

The tour ended there and Theresa and I jumped into a cafe to warm our freezing toes and fingers and wrote our postcards. Once we had reached a suitable temperature we picked up where the tour finished and headed across the river. Taking a different route than the day before, we headed up the 100 steps to Castle Hill, the site of the oldest medieval castle in the world. Construction started on the castle in the 9th century and over the years just kept being added to and added to. Because of this, the architecture styles vary significantly. The most impressive and known building on the castle grounds is St. Vitus Cathedral (more on that later, because the next day we went to see it). We wandered around the grounds until it got dark, and as dusk was approaching we looked out over the city from the hill. Known as the Golden City, Prague derived this name from the fact that they used to put gold on the top of their buildings. When the sun shined, the roofs would sparkle beautifully. Covered in snow, we did not see any bedazzled roofs, but the red roof tiles did manage to peek out from their blankets of snow and create an impressive scene.

To warm up again, we this time got a Czech holiday treat called Trdlo. I never figured out how to pronounce it, and when I refer to it, I spell it out. I'm pretty sure more than once I said to Theresa, 'Let's go get some T-R-D-L-O. Regardless of how you say it, what really matters is that it was delicious! Dough is first rolled in a mix of sugar, vanilla and smashed almonds and then wrapped around some sort of metal rolling pin and cooked over a fire. The result is amazing and we made sure to have more on other occasions.

Trdlo in hand we headed towards the grocery store to pick up some food for dinner and of course some beer! Czech Republic is pretty famous for their beer - especially Pilsner, which I'm sure most of you boys know! Theresa and I knew we would try a Pilsner soon enough, so instead wanted to get some other Czech beers to test out. The aisle was full of beers brewed in the area, all of which I couldn't read, so we just picked the ones we thought were the best. I was oddly surprised to find bottles of Budweiser on the shelves. I mean, I know Budweiser is a good American brand, but it stands nothing against a Czech or German beer. I wonder who drinks it over here...

Our pasta dinner and beer set us up for a sleepy night and we woke up the next day on a mission: see the castle! When we got to the castle grounds, the lines were already enormously long. We bought our ticket and by spending 350 crowns (which sounds like a lot, but was only like 10€) we got an audio-guide which also served as a fast-pass sort of thing and let us enter any building without waiting in line. Well worth the money! First on the list was the church from before - St. Vitus Cathedral! Impressively huge, when we walked in, I was overwhelmed not only at the sheer size of it, but the intricacies of the windows and interior decorations. Built in 1344, the cathedral houses two organs - one from both the 16th and 19th centuries. The front part of the cathedral was built the 14th century and only later was the back part where we entered added in the 19th and 20th century. The stained glass windows that decorate the windows in the newest part of the cathedral were done Alfons Mucha - one of Prague's most famous artists. His art nouveau style turned into what is now called Mucha Style and is unlike any stained glass windows I had ever seen. As we rounded the nave of the church we came to the famed tomb of St. John of Nepomuk. I hope you are liking the stories, because here is another: John of Nepomuk was a priest working in Prague when a husband of a woman in his parish approached him and said 'I know my wife comes to confessional to you every week, and I want to know if she has admitted to cheating on me.' John said that was his wife said to him was between him, her and the Lord. The husband returned multiple times, each time more frustrated that the priest wouldn't tell. Finally he was so angry that he threw him off the Charles Bridge and he died. Later, he was dredged up and they found his tongue still intact! This was seen as a miracle and proof of his promise to the confessional and he was made a Saint and entombed in the cathedral. Current research shows that his 'tongue' was probably just remnants of his brain that slid down into his mouth, but I don't think they are going to be moving his ornate silver tomb out of the church anytime soon.

Next in the church was the Chapel of King Wenclesas. He is considered to be the only ever rightful heir to the crown, seeing as all other rulers of Bohemia gained the crown from winning a war or killing the King. Wenclesas was the son of a previous King and his chapel provides a tribute to the Czech's favorite leader. He was wrongfully killed when his power-greedy brother invited him over to his house. He was ambushed and his brother took the crown. Talk about sibling rivalry! Not only does the church pay homage to King Wenclesas, but also to his grandmother. Growing up, his grandma wanted him to be fully educated and as a strong Catholic. His mother did not appreciate her mother-in-law's advice and strangled her. The last chapel in the church shows his dear grandma being strangled with the scarf she was wearing. That's no way to treat a grammy!

After the church we headed to the next most popular place in the castle - the most visited street in all of Prague, Golden Lane. This multicolored street was once a fortification for the castle, and later on in the 16th century, houses were built in the the space between the towers. Originally goldsmiths rented the houses (hence the name Golden) for their work. After that, the street became more open to other workers and eventually Franz Kafka (probably the most famous Czech author) worked in number 22, a cute little blue house framed with white wooden strips. Impossible to get a good picture with the gazillion tourists, this is the best I could do for you guys! Imagine this but about 20 houses more, each a different color!

Last on our castle tour was the Old Royal Palace. With the audioguide and loads of reading inside, it seemed more like a boring history lesson and we didn't stay too long. One thing that really interested me though was the seat of the old throne. Off the main ballroom, which has been used as a jousting ring, market space, and a royal meeting place sits the Throne Room. The red velvet throne sits in the center of the room, surrounded by seats for who would have been his noblemen and the people of his court. The least interesting part of the building was a plaque stating who made the display case (which was just a glass box) that housed the copy of the Royal Crown. Honestly, does anyone care who made the glass box holding a crown? No. On that note, we left and headed to warm up with another coffee.

The problem with the Czech language I decided, is that it is way to hard. As I had been doing since I arrived on my first day, I would order a coffee, and then when she gave it to me, I would say 'it's my first day, how do you say thank you in Czech'. She would then say it to me, I would repeat it, and two seconds later the word had left my head. Shame. Warm, we jumped on a tram, which we though was going to a different neighborhood in town. It definitely went to a different neighborhood, just not the one we wanted. What should have been a 5-minute tram ride turned into a 40-minute adventure, and we finally made it to Mala Strana, the Lesser Town of Prague. Right below the castle, this part of town was dotted with gorgeous churches (I really wonder how many churches there are in this city!). Since it was dark we decided to come back the next day in the daylight and instead headed to a pub to drink the Pilsners we had been waiting for and then off to bed, another successful tourist day behind us.

For our last day, we had already seen most of the big sights, so we were excited to just wander and explore. We happened to be in the Main Square when the huge astrological clock began to strike 11. This clock is not only a clock but basically the coolest thing from the era it was built. In 1388 when it was made, there were no computers, no cell phones, no google maps, so this clock was the hit of the town! The contraption consists of two 'clocks'. The lower one has the coat of arms of Prague in the center. The next ring around are the zodiac signs, and next the farming months of the year. This constantly turning clock not only shows you what time it is, but also what zodiac time and what farming season you should be in. I couldn't see close enough, but I wonder if you tell March apart from maybe June or something by how ripe the berries are? On each side of the discs are two statues of angels and saints. The clock above it is even more complicated. The outer circle is of numbers 1-24 an old numbering style. Directly next are the same numbers but in Roman numerals. Inside of that is a circle that moves in time with the zodiac signs and has two hand for time...but not our time, the time of where the sun and the moon are! On each side of the clock are two statues, which symbolize what you shouldn't be doing to pass the time: the first statue is holding a mirror to his face, which symbolizes vanity; the second a man in hiding a bag of money in his jacket, showing off his greed; the third a skeleton, actually rings a bell on the hour and represents death; and the last is a dark-skinned person, meaning that at the time people were afraid of people from other lands and that to associate with one of them was bad. It impresses me now, so I imagine in the 14th century it was even more amazing. At the hour the clock strikes and two little doors above the huge clocks open and the 12 wooden apostles float by. Once the apostles make their appearances you hear a weak bird crow and then to the cheering of the crowd that has gathered under the clock, a man plays the trumpet from the top of the tower. If only every hour of my life were so exciting!

Next we headed to Mala Strana via the Charles Bridge. Finally we were seeing it in the daylight! Lined with 30 statues, we strolled along, gazing at the castle on the top of the hill and the bridge towers in front of us. Straight after the bridge we followed the curving road that was lined with pastel homes to St. Nicholas church. Goregous, like all of the rest, this church had an upstairs exhibition that allowed us to see it from a bird's eye view. The next church on the list was a hike, but worth it. Named the Loretto Church, it sits atop a hill near the castle. It is a huge pilgrimage spot because of its 27 Loretto bells that chime every hour. Home of the only remaining carillon (multiple bells hung in a tower), these bells were made in the 17th century by a Dutch bell maker. Planned nicely, we were there as it chimed. First the chime signals that it's the hour, then sounds the time. Lastly, and most impressivley, the bells play We Greet You a Thousand Times. As the bells chimed I couldn't help but smile and think about how I was in the City of a Hundred Spires.
Sadly though, we had to leave the city early the next morning, but every time I think about Prague I cannot be anything but 100% impressed. I think that I would rank Prague as one of my favorite cities in all of Europe so far. Every building, even nothing buildings, were beautiful to gaze at, the city was magical, like you had just walked into a movie set! I would love to go back when 1) I can remember how to say thank you and 2) when the average temperature isn't 30ºF like it was for January.

It was a long blog, but I truly loved this city wanted to cram in as much good stuff as I could! I hope you enjoyed! I hope you also like the photos that I put up on the side!


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