Sunday, March 8, 2015

Valentine's Day in Prague

We arrived in the Czech capital in the early afternoon on Saturday for our Valentine's Day weekend. The busy central train station - laid out more like an airport than most stations we've seen - is located right in the heart of the city, so within minutes we were walking down the cobbled streets of downtown Prague. Our rolling suitcase made an embarrassing racket on those cobblestones as we passed what seemed to be an unending series of currency exchange shops for tourists. This was the first sign of just how very swamped by tourists the center of Prague truly is.
View from our flat looking up Wenceslas Square

The flat we had rented for the night was situated directly on Wenceslas Square, which is really more of a long, wide, pedestrian friendly boulevard than a square. At the upper end, near our flat, the square is enclosed by the massive city museum. It then descends gradually, flanked by tourist restaurants, casinos, and banks, to a section of shopping centers that soon give way to the historic Old Town. Our flat - owned by a very friendly Prague native - was in an old building above a restaurant, with a balcony that looked out onto the square and the dramatic museum building. It was quite a location, beautiful inside and out. The fact that we were able to rent it for about 70 US dollars made us feel very happy (and grateful for AirBnB).

Soon, we were out among the tourist crowds. We needed some koruna (Czech Republic is a member of the Euro zone but retains its currency) so we stopped by an ATM - the exchange rate is heavily favorable, about 25 koruna to the dollar, and prices around the city are very affordable as a result. Armed with some 1000-koruna bills, we followed the crowds down Wenceslas Square, past the souvenir shops and through some narrowing streets until we suddenly found ourselves at the foot of the famous Astronomical Clock (Pražský orloj).

The clock tower, over 600 years old, is situated in one corner of the vast Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí). It's a beautiful place, surrounded by picturesque historic buildings. Most dominant is the incredible Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, built in the 14th and 15th centuries. It's dark, needle-sharp towers stood out dramatically against the blue sky. In the center of the square, there is a memorial statue of Jan Hus, a Christian reformer who was burned at the stake in 1415 for heresy against the Catholic church. Crowds of tourist buzzed around the square's cobblestone expanse, taking pictures, drinking beer and hot wine, and eating Czech street food.

Right in the middle of it all there was a wizened, white haired old man singing a very hypnotic tune while playing a droning hurdy gurdy. We learned later that his name is Jiri Wehle, something of a Prague legend and a tourist attraction all his own. He's been playing music in the city since the 1960s. According to his website, his compositions are original but medieval and folk inspired, using traditional instruments. The video embedded here is from 2008 (found on YouTube) but gives an idea of what Mr. Wehle's performance is like, though while we were there his song was even stranger and more mournful. Surprisingly, not many people were dropping donations into his basket, so we made sure to leave some coins.

We joined a huge crowd of tourists in watching the Astronomical Clock perform its very charming medieval routine of moving sculptures - apostles and other figures - announcing the top of the hour. There is a lot of hype and anticipation about the clock, so I think it's natural to expect something more spectacular. It was funny, then, when the doors of the clock closed, to realize that was it. The crowd sort of paused for a second and then there was an audible reaction of slight disappointment and amusement.

However, there was some laughter and cheering ahead of us in the crowd, directly beneath the clock. We moved closer and saw a bride in a flowing white dress with her new husband. They had clearly gotten married just moments before, and they were smiling and kissing while rose petals fluttered in the air around them. It was a beautiful sight.

A few minutes later, a troupe of Carnevale performers entered the square, led by costumed musicians and followed by a giant puppet. They made their way to the center of the plaza where a stage and booth were set up, and people gathered around to watch. Next to the Carnevale stage was a booth with signs and activists protesting against Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Our first taste of Czech street food was at a stand in one corner of the square. We shared a delicious sausage, Pilsner Urquell (which somehow tasted much better than the imported version familiar from the US), and a trdelnik, a sugar-coated pastry made from dough rolled around a wooden stick and grilled.

We walked to the river hoping to see the Charles Bridge, but by this time we had gotten so cold that we had to duck into a nearby cafe. Warmed up and fortified by cappucino, we walked down the street, hoping to see the baroque library, but we were just barely too late, and it was already closing. So we made our way back home and got ready for dinner.

As we walked home, past the many Thai massage parlors and Bohemian crystal shops - all vying for tourist business - we came across a homeless beggar, literally prostrating himself on the sidewalk, face down with dirty, weathered hands extended in supplication. It would not be the last time we saw men begging in this way around the city. It was a heartbreaking sight that we couldn't pass without trying to help with a little money. But it was made worse by the fact that more than one fellow tourist stopped to snap a picture or even laugh. That was hard to understand.

Later, we went to dinner at a place we'd heard about called Lokal. It's a modern beer hall that serves classic Czech dishes, and is very popular and crowded (and loud). The food was uneven - the appetizer dishes (mostly sausages and Prague ham) were excellent, but the mains we tried were bland and of poor quality. However, their beer was amazing. They had a few varieties of Pilsner Urquell, and one in particular, called "creme", was just outstanding. We both agreed it was one of the finest beers we'd ever tasted. And all you had to do to order another was to flip your coaster over and one of the roving beer servers would make one appear before you knew it. It was hard to stop!

On Sunday morning we walked a few blocks from our flat to have breakfast at Cafe Colore, a nice little place with English-speaking staff, great espresso, and good food. And they made a nice mimosa too (though the friendly waiter had to ask the bartender because he didn't know what the hell we meant at first). Their house breakfast of Prague ham, boiled egg, and homemade bread and jam was very tasty.

We hopped on the Metro, which runs through some very uniquely designed and colorful stations. It zipped us up to the foot of the hill, atop which sits the massive Pražský hrad - or Prague castle. It's more of a complex of palaces, churches, and other buildings than a castle, but its imposing walls high above the city certainly look fortified. We began the climb the long staircase up the hillside, and at first we thought we must have gone the wrong way because everyone was walking down the stairs rather than up. But it must have just been the time of day causing an outflux of morning tourists, because soon enough we had mounted the stairs and were staring out at the beautiful rooftops of Prague below us. Dodging all of the selfie sticks, we snapped some photos and then turned to enter the castle compound. There were two stoic, beautifully uniformed honor guards at the gate. A narrow passageway led out onto a broad square.

One side of this square was fronted by the thousand year old Basilica of St. George. This Romanesque church and former convent was founded in 920 and reconstructed in 1142 after a major fire. The age and history is palpable inside. It's beautifully austere and medieval, cold and mysterious. At the other end of the square is the east side of the towering, gothic Cathedral of St. Vitus. The entrance is actually on the opposite side, though, so we first visited the Old Royal Palace, which is to the south of the cathedral.

We loved being inside this palace. There is not much to see on the exterior, but once inside you walk immediately into the very impressive Vladislav Hall. Built around 1500, the hall's ceiling is a complex system of stone vaults. Tall windows let in lots of natural light from balconies that overlook the city, and you can almost hear the footsteps of kings and nobles across the creaking wooden floor. The hall was used for coronations, banquets, receptions and more, and is directly adjacent to rooms where the actual business of royal Bohemian government took place. We walked excitedly into the next space - a throne room with seating for the king's court, where daily governing took place. There was also a display of the crown jewels, though they were actually replicas. Up a narrow, winding spiral staircase, we entered a vaulted room that had been a sort of hall of records called the Office of New Land Rolls. The walls and ceiling were covered in coats of arms that represented the system of hierarchy and land ownership, and records of the Diet's debates. The preservation of this room was excellent, transporting us back to the time of Bohemia's royalty. Beyond this room were a few more linked offices, and there was a very old bookcase in one room with dusty volumes on an upper shelf.

Back across the Vladislav Hall we entered another wing that had once been the offices of civilian bureaucrats who worked for the crown as the system of government expanded and became more modern. One of these rooms had a famous window known as the site of the Defenestration of Prague, when in 1618 three men were tossed out the window for some political reason that no one cares about anymore - in short, they weren't killed, but the incident marked the beginning of the Thirty Years War. These days, it's a favorite spot for tourist photos.

Exiting the Palace, we crossed over to the Cathedral of St. Vitus. The exterior of this cathedral is classically gothic, with flying buttresses and sharp spires. Stepping inside, our senses were immediately overwhelmed by the powerful smell of incense and the beautiful multi-colored light from the tall stained glass windows. Our eyes were uplifted to the soaring, pointed vaults high above. It was an breathtaking space. We walked around, looking at each beautiful window and the diverse chapels and tombs. One of the most distinctive was the tomb of John of Nepomuk, a national saint of Bohemia, cast all in silver. The chapel of St. Wenceslas was also beautiful.

Walking out of the cathedral, I experienced a surge of emotion as a I remembered how my father loved to visit European cathedrals. He passed away over a decade ago, but fortunately I had the chance to visit one or two cathedrals with him in western Germany when I was nineteen years old. I didn't appreciate it at the time in the way I would have now, and in that moment outside of St. Vitus, I could vividly imagine him walking alongside of us, his long strides echoing on the paving stones. He would have loved to be there with us, and I couldn't help but shed a few tears in the cold winter air.

Our brief weekend in Prague was beautiful and we enjoyed it very much. The city is very tourist-friendly, with English signage and multi-lingual services everywhere, lots of amenities - including post offices - conveniently located and open even on Sundays (a rare thing around Europe), and easy transit. These are perks, but the drawback is that many areas feel over-crowded and kitschy, with souvenir shops, currency exchange places, and tourist restaurants on every corner. Prague is, after all, the fifth most visited city in Europe. Berlin, by contrast, is much less overtaken by tourism. But none of that can overshadow the incredible beauty of the Czech capital. We would compare it most to Paris, but with a medieval, Bohemian character all its own. And it's smaller and more walkable. The historic character of the architecture is well preserved. The beer is delicious, rivaling Germany's, and the food is excellent as well. Best of all, the prices are very cheap compared to France or Italy or even Germany. From our AirBnB rental to the Metro to the food and drink, we felt like we were always getting a pretty good deal. We had an awesome time. Děkuji, Praha!

Crowd eagerly awaiting the Astronomical Clock to mark the hour

The Astronomical Clock

Church of Our Lady Before Tyn

Carnevale musicians
Old Town Square

"Stop Russian Aggression in Ukraine"

Outside the gate of the castle. People jostling for a good spot to take a photo of the city below

Side door of the Basilica of St. George

Facade of the Basilica of St. George

Plaza in front of the Palace

Vladislav Hall

Diet with the king's throne

Hall of New Land Rolls

Back side of the Cathedral of St. Vitus

And more snapshots from the iPhone:

On the train between Dresden and Prague

Trdlo & sausage

If you drink enough beer to fill your card by the end of the night, you win... a free beer.

43 CZK is about $1.70. That's for more than a pint of the best beer ever.

This is about $40.

A sparkly black panther. What every home needs.

In the US, this would mean a sex parlor. Here, it means tourists sticking their feet in fish tanks. Really.

We don't know if this was our AirBnB host's idea of decorating the bedroom,
or if she was trying to give us a very special Valentine's day

The stairwell of our building

This metal statue was our neighbor and stared at us with evil lifeless eyes whenever we
entered and exited. The stuff of nightmares. Where's Dr. Who when you need him?!

The museum


Passed out in her mimosa.

Ascending the stairs to the castle

The queen in her abode

Basilica of St. George

Yep. That's a skeleton.

Cathedral of St. Vitus

Tomb of St. John of Nepomuk