August 11th is brighter than the 10th. The day is dedicated to bumming around Prague. There are a few indispensable places to visit, otherwise the plan is simply to enjoy ourselves and to drink in the atmosphere.
We’re up comparatively early, feeling refreshed. No sign of jet lag. We eat breakfast, which gives me an opportunity to pig out on that wonderful rarity, Czech bread. We then take the local bus to the terminus of the B (yellow) metro line. We get 24-hour tickets that are good on all forms of public transportation in Prague – trams, metro, buses and trolleys – within the core integrated transport area. The adult 24-hour ticket costs 110 crowns, a child’s 55. We’re set.
Of note, there s a 3-day ticket, for 310 crowns, but the discount is so limited and the convenience of the 1-day ticket is so great, that we never even consider it.
The metro runs on an honor system. You time-punch your ticket, and it is valid from that moment on. Then you simply enter and ride, but your tickets are subject to inspection any time; and if you’re caught riding for free, the penalties are pretty severe (I hear 8,000 crowns or about $500). That would be steep enough for us, but almost insurmountable for many locals.
There are some initial concerns about a certain picky eater and Czech food, but these prove largely misplaced (as long as we don’t feed him something he doesn’t like…).
Wherever we go, there are all kinds of interesting signs, which Lisa records assiduously. There’s even the Fashion Police, with a sign for a lawyer’s office right underneath. They must take fashion very seriously here. Indeed, one of the attorneys’ names, namely Krejčí, means “taylor.” How weird is that?
We wander quickly through the Castle (that’s for another day), then head toward the metro. We’re on our way to meet the E-fox. She has a day off work/work/work/school (she works three jobs besides going to school) and wants to bum around with us. We’re to rendezvous on Vítkov hill, a steep, wooded precipice in the Žižkov town quarter. The hill is the site of a major victory, in 1420, by Hussite troops led by the now-legendary general Jan Žižka over an invading crusader army led by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund. Of note, Siggi craved the Czech crown but the Czechs wouldn’t give him the job because he’d been instrumental in having Jan Hus burned at stake in 1415. This really frosted him, so he asked Pope Martin V for help. Martin V, eager to have the “Hussite heresy” suppressed, published his famous bull Omnium plasmatoris domini (Latin, roughly, for “Hey y’all! If you’re a good Christian, come and help kick some heretic Czech butt! Oh and by the way, Czech girls are wa-a-a-ay sexy!”). That was enough for crusadin’ folk all over Europe to hurry into the Czech Lands en masse, only to suffer humiliating massacres by much smaller numbers of Czech peasant folk hurriedly trained and converted by Žižka into a genuine “people’s army.”
On the way, we come across ET’s Prague hideout.
If ET doesn’t live there, then it’s got to be one of the Transformers, or another piece of sentient space junk.
We also find the Resistance and Army Museum at the foot of the hill, with the inevitable T-34 in front. It’s one of several new military/historical museums in the Czech Republic today, and like the others, very impressive.
Up the steep Vitkov hill we then puff, toward the Czech National Memorial where we hope to admire the equestrian statue of Jan Žižka (largest bronze equestrian statue in the world, I’m told) and rendezvous with the E-fox and her boy friend.
But oops! The statue, which can be seen here in Wikipedia, is being restored, and all we can see is the clever environmental enclosure.
To make matters worse, the E-fox is nowhere to be found. After some calling back and forth, we finally meet her and her beau, who immediately impresses us as a very nice guy. (Hope she treats him well.) We’re somewhat disappointed that the gallery at the top of the monument is closed too; so we tramp down the hill and make our way to the e-fox’s little garconniere, to see where/how she lives. (And, or course, to meet her cat.)
…we take the streetcar to the center of Prague, first to Wenceslas Square, then to the Příkopy (literally “ditches”) pedestrian zone, which used to be a busy street in my time.
Wenceslas Square, originally established as a horse market and initially known as such, is the largest square in Prague. It is a rectangle that slopes from the National Museum and the statue of St. Wenceslas on top to an intersection with Příkopy at the bottom.
The National Museum had gotten shot up a bit in 1968 because the invading Soviets thought it was the main radio station. Today, it is closed for renovation (unrelated to Soviet lack of intelligence), which was a pity. I haven’t been there since I was – I don’t know – five.
The square itself derives its name from St. Wenceslas, who was duke of the Czechs until 939 when he was “fratricidified” by his brother Boleslav I. St. Wenceslas is the patron saint of the country and the symbol of Czech nationhood. His statue is a favorite meeting place: in fact, it has given the Czech language a whole new phrase. If you’re meeting someone “pod vocasem” (“under the tail”), it means you’re meeting behind the statue or simply by it. Surefire way to make the rendezvous, that.
Looking down the square is pretty impressive. In my day, it used to be all streetcar and car traffic. Today, the middle third is reserved as a pedestrian zone, with open-air restaurants, flowerbeds, and such. All the buildings have been refurbished and now figure as the most desirable real estate in Prague.
Down Příkopy we walk, again enjoying the beautiful reconstruction of all the buildings, plus a few surprises. One of them is the “bageterie,” a rough equivalent to Subway. Prague does have Subways, but I liked the food in the bageteries, and cheaper, too, which contributed to the good taste.
One funny surprise is the Museum of Communism. The e-fox asked if I wanted to go in, but I explained that “I’d already been there.” and had no need. In any case the best part was out in front…
The babushka doll with shark dentures is about the most perfect graphic depiction of communism I’ve ever seen. And the idea of communism being relegated to a museum (at least in this more experienced part of the world) while the evil capitalist McDonalds is enjoying great success right in front is priceless. Highbrows may scoff at this “symbol of worthless American pop culture,” but I say let it reign for a good, long time, because while it’s alive, it means that there exist more or less normal relations among countries. Moreover, if Americans must endure escargots and arugula…well, you get the picture. Cultural reciprocity, and all that rot.
Anyway… There is also “art” on Příkopy. I’m not sure what this is supposed to signify, but there it is. The individual “bricks” have names and various phrases on them, and maybe that’s all there is to the meaning.
After all, why should there be a “higher” meaning inherent in everything? Maybe this is just another example of lowbrow “McDonalds pop culture.” Who knows?
We finally reach the Powder Tower (literally “Powder Gate”), which used to be part of the Old Town’s fortifications but had lost its importance when King Vladislav had moved from the former royal palace nearby (now destroyed) to the Prague Castle in 1483. It was then neglected – to the point of it coming within a hair’s breath of being pulled down – until the 19th century when it was finally completed in neo-Gothic style. It was briefly used to store gunpowder in the 19th century, hence the name.
Next to the Powder Tower stands the rococo Municipal House, with decorations by Alfons Mucha. The Municipal House stands roughly where the old royal palace used to be.
More of Alfons Mucha later – at this point, suffice it to say that he was a native of Ivančice, a small Moravian village. A gifted artist, he ultimately ended up in Paris where, for five years, he became the exclusive posterist for the legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt. And, cis boom dah and a tralala! – art nouveau was born, and with it Mucha’s undying fame.
Once we’re done gawking at the Powder Tower and the Municipal House, it’s time to start wending our way through the narrow streets of the Old Town toward the Old Town Square. That’s when the real gawking begins!
Each and every building, regardless of age, is painstakingly restored. Compared to the socialist gray and peeling stucco that I remember, it is as close to pure Czech heaven as you can get. The streets are clean, and there are shops everywhere, with oodles of goods in them. You can literally get anything you want, and no need for you to be in anyone’s restaurant, either. (Is number one, tops, clever American joke, yes?)
After a healthy hike, we arrive at the Old Town Square. This square, with its buildings, facades and monuments immaculately restored, is an extraordinary sight.
The heart of the square is a statue of Jan Hus, the medieval Czech religious reformer who was burned at stake by the Church on July 6th, 1415, an act that had precipitated the great Hussite uprising in the Czech Kingdom.
Somewhat to my surprise, I found out that the statue was unveiled in 1915, during World War One, to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Hus’s death. Interesting: I would have thought that, during World War 1, all expressions of Slavic nationalism would have been anathema to the supremely Catholic Habsburg monarchy. Imagine putting up a statue to a non-Communist during the Communist era. Unthinkable! Almost makes you want to love the Habsburgs (we-e-e-ell, not quite).
The inscription on the statue reads: Love each other, wish everyone the truth!
Anyway… The Old Town Hall, with its astronomical clock, dominates the other end of the square. The clock is an amazing piece of art and technology, dating to 1410. It’s the third-oldest such masterpiece still extant, and the only one that works. Wikipedia has a good, detailed description, so I won’t include it here. All I can add is this: be sure that you catch the hourly spectacle!
Every hour on the hour, the skeleton begins to ring the bell, the blue doors open and all twelve apostles parade before an open-mouthed audience. At the end of the parade, the golden rooster above crows. Then and only then does the clock strike the hour and the trumpeter announces the end of the spectacle. (Gotta figure our how to get my mpeg of this in here. Patience…)
If you are so inclined, you can tour Prague in an old-timer. Here’s a choice of a Škoda or a Ford Model A…
Yeah, I like cars. Live with it.
Of course, if you don’t favor cars or the pedestrian option, then there is the equine option!
Once we’re done with the Old Town Square, we hoof it to Josefov, a part of town that contains the Jewish quarter (formerly ghetto). There are six synagogues down there, a museum and, of course, the old Jewish cemetery. We find prominent police presence down here. We find that good – but also slightly ominous. (There are of course neo-Nazis and all kinds of old-fashioned idiots around, but I almost reflexively ask if there is prominent representation here of that “religion of peace.”)
The oldest of the Josefov synagogues is the Gothic Old-New Synagogue, dating to 1270. It is the oldest synagogue still in use in Europe, and features a unique double-nave style. The golem is said to lie dormant in the attic, but I cannot confirm it, not having seen it.
The comparatively new Spanish Synagogue (Moorish Revival style) stands on the location of a synagogue that had been the oldest of them all but that was demolished in 1867.
and well worth visiting.
At this point, it is too late to go inside any of the synagogues or the Old Jewish Cemetery, so we must save the tour for another day. But I do find a cemetery door with a grate in it, so in goes the lens of my camera…
But there are no dreams, just good, honest sleep that only physical exertion can deliver.