August 12th is another nice day – sunny and warm. We have plans for more bumming around Prague, this time to take in the Castle, my old neighborhood and, in the afternoon, the National Technical Museum, a holy shrine near my old home where I used to “worship” almost every weekend. Cousin-in-law Jirka (let’s just say “cousin” from now on), who is likewise a technology nut, will try to play hooky at work and meet us at the museum. He hasn’t been there since they recently renovated.
Neither cousin Marcela nor the girls want to go – they just run from the living room, rolling their eyes as if to say “there goes Dad again with his technology thing!”
Heathens, all of them, hopeless heathens.
I score my first decent pics of the St. Vitus Cathedral which dominates the Castle skyline from all directions.
This cathedral, the third largest in Christendom (only St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London are larger), has rather a checkered history. It was begun in 1344 by Charles IV, but then funds apparently ran out and it sat “topless” for a few hundred years. The main tower was finally completed with a renaissance top. Despite the cathedral’s significance – it was used for coronations and other affairs of state – wholesale repairs and renovation did not take place until the latter half of the 19th century. The cathedral was officially dedicated in 1929 and renovations continued even after that. Some of the stained glass windows were contributed by wealthy entities. One, for example, was donated by the Slavia Bank and was designed by – you might have guessed – Alfons Mucha.
As is the case at Buckingham Palace in London, you can pose with the guard, and he’s not supposed to eyeball.
The admissions office is in the second courtyard. During my first visit in 1995, everything was still free. Progress, I guess… When you do get tickets, be sure you also buy the photography tic that will allow you to shoot inside most (not all) interiors.
I actually shoot most of the Castle interiors later on, after Lisa and Aaron had gone home and buddy Ken had joined me from Tacoma, Washington, but a few representative shots follow.
The size and magnificence of the St. Vitus, inside and out, is almost impossible to grasp…
The unprepossessing St. George’s Basilica, which is high Romanesque and which predates the St. Vitus by a good three centuries, is magnificent in its own way. Here are a few outside views, with inside ones coming in a later posting.
St. George is still there, trying to shish kebab the dragon.
We also take a quick peek at the main Castle gate.
Oh, if you prefer to tour Prague in something 1960sy, you can get chauffeured around in a Škoda Felicia 2+2. (If I’m not mistaken, a Felicia figures in one of those ridiculous Austin Powers flicks. I hasten to add that I only know this because I saw either a clip or an ad, with the Felicia in it.)
After some circuitous walking past and through street construction, we catch a streetcar that takes us to the Letná area of Prague 7. A few more steps, and there we are, in a small street called At the Letná Park (U Letenského Sadu). Number 18 is where we had lived until the summer of 1965. My first time back, in 1995, I had felt dissociated, dazed by the dissonance between memories of the street from when I was 14 and the way I saw it at 44. To the kid, it seemed wide, to the man, tiny and inconsequential. This time, in 2011, it’s just another street and just another apartment building, with no particular emotional impact.
Down Letohradská Street we go, then, and there stands my old elementary school, the 37th.
Memories crowd me now of my elementary school teacher, Vlasta Havlíková, who had for some reason “adopted” me when I had fallen ill in first grade and was then unable to attend school for 3-1/2 years. She had come to our house every Friday to teach, quiz and encourage me. She had sent me homework via my classmates, and always made sure I was included in as many class activities as possible. And every time she came, she brought candy. If there had ever been an angel in my life, it was she.
I never noticed until now just how much her husband, a sweet and funny man who always had a smile and a kind word for me, resembled Jan Masaryk.
For the first time, I notice that the school building is 117 years old: just under the cornice are the words Léta Páně 1894, or Year of our Lord 1894.
Full of vivid memories now and scarcely able to take note even of Lisa and Aaron, I walk toward the Letná Park (Letenské sady) where I had spent so many days of my youth; under my own power before and after my illness, but helpless in a carriage while I was down hard. We walk past a dilapidated pre-school building which I don’t remember at all. An sad, old water pump stands in its yard.
I actually remember very little of the layout of the Letná Park, but I think I recall this walkway.
This banner is definitely new.
The park is set atop a bluff that generally runs east-west where the river bends eastward and then makes a large loop, bending again westward and enclosing Praha 7 until it turns north again. The affords great views of the river, its many bridges, as well as the New Town and other city quarters on the opposite bank. In the early 1950s, the Czechoslovak community organizers had decided to build a huge statue in a central location over the river to honor Stalin. I understand it was the largest statue of Stalin in the world. (Dubious distinction at best…) Fortunately this monstrosity, which I remember all too well, leered over Prague for less than a decade. Once de-Stalinization began in the USSR, orders were given to take the damn thing down and crunch all that wonderful granite and marble to pieces that were so small that no one could tell it came “from Stalin.”
The thing was 30 meters tall, including a 15 meter pedestal, and 30 meters long. Comrade Stalin stood there, looking into the distance, one hand thrust into his coat, Bonaparte-like. It was unveiled on May 1st, 1955, and demolition began in 1961. Sic transit gloria mundi, as eddycated people might say.
We walk past a few places that I recognize. Over there stood a group of boat-shaped swings which I loved. Nearby is a merry-go-round that’s being repaired now, a small band pavilion, a mansion-style building called the Belvedere that I remember as being dilapidated and disused but which is now refurbished and obviously in use.
Then it’s finally time to cross a few streets and head to my childhood Holy of Holies – uh, I mean the National Technical Museum – where we rendesvous with Jirka.
As almost everywhere else, you can take as many pictures as you want, but for a price. Naturally, I do shell out the extra 70 crowns for the sticker which I then proudly apply to my manly chest, click off the safety on my camera, and a-shooting we go.
The National Technical Museum tells a remarkable story of a tiny nation that was once – and can again be – an industrial and technological leader. The Czechs (though not the Slovaks) had some major advantages: a large percentage of the natural resources and industries of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was in Bohemia. This called for an educated workforce, which the Czechs were. Then – tadaaaa! – came World War One and the breakup of the Empire; and Czechoslovakia came into existence with advanced heavy and light industries, near-universal literacy and a strong tradition of (American liberals, plug up your noses, please!) free enterprise and individual achievement.
Regrettably, Slovakia was much worse off. Under direct Hungarian rule for centuries, the Slovaks were a downtrodden, dirt-poor nation with backward dirt-grubbing agriculture, little in the way of industry and minimal educational level. Their resentment of the Czechs who tended to be the ruling class is understandable if viewed through this prism, but throwing in their lot with the Nazis in 1939 seems to me to be a bit of an overreaction. When the Slovaks decided to break away from Czechoslovakia in 1993, a great many Czechs said good riddance and the “divorce,” after 75 stormy years, went quite smoothly.
Thomas Masaryk, the first President, had hoped for at least forty years of peace to allow the new country an opportunity to come together. Alas, poor Czechoslovakia only got twenty, but even in those two short twenty years between 1918 and 1938, the country had accomplished miracles.
Then came Munich…
Anyway, that’s (almost) ancient history.
The National Technical Museum has one main exhibition hall, with three levels of galleries the wrap around the inside of the hall. The ground floor is dedicated to planes, trains and automobiles, the first gallery to motorcycles, the second gallery to all kinds of large-scale working and educational models and the third to bicycles.
Alas, we have only two hours before the place closes. But we give it our best, even Aaron. Jirka and I are in absolute hog heaven, though Lisa gives up on us comparatively early and goes off to sit in the lobby.
Pre-war Czechoslovakia produced many car and truck marques. Tatra, Skoda and Praga were the most prominent, but Aero, Avia, Wikov, Jawa, Walter, Z (aka Zetka) all built vehicles: some ordinary, some quite extraordinary.
This is my all-time favorite Tatra, the awesome T-87 that was first produced in 1936.
It was a slick 5-seater featuring a rear-mounted 3.4 liter air-cooled V-8 located behind the rear axle. (This is where the inspiration for Volkswagens and Porsches came from.) It was a 100 MPH car, which was pretty good for the time, especially given the small engine size. And, yes, it was a hemi!
Tatra produced an astonishing variety of vehicles – but more of Tatra later, as part of my tour of the Tatra Museum.
Here’s a 1939 Jawa sports car, at the time one of the least expensive and smallest cars produced in Czechoslovakia. Jawa’s main line was motorcycles, but they made a very successful foray into cars as well.
The Walters tended to be large and elegant.
Foreign cars are also represented: there is a 1938 SS Jaguar, a 1955 Soviet ZiL, an armored 1942 Mercedes 540K that used to belong to the Nazi administrator of the Czech Lands, K. H. Frank. (He got slightly suspended by the neck after the war by a bunch of unaccountably angry Czechs.)
Jeeez, I could spend days writing just about this museum…
Okay. Time to speed up. There’s a Supermarine Spitfire that was flown by one of the Czechoslovak squadrons under British command during World War Two,
trains, some complete with goofy firemen,
but there were literally dozens of other brands like Ogar, Satan, Jelínek, Slávia, JK, Poustka, Walter, Itar, Praga, Perun, ČAS and Premier. The 1930 Čechie (Czechia?) still holds the record for the longest motorcycle in the world.
The idea was that a motorcycle should offer you almost as much comfort as a car. This didn’t catch on until the 1980s when the Swiss company Peraves began to produce the Ecomobile.
There is a good selection of foreign bikes: Indian, BSA, Harley-Davidson, Puch, BMW, Ariel, Douglas and even the 1924 British Ner-A-Car.
Anyway, if you like technology at all and you find yourself in Prague, don’t miss this jewel of a place!
At one point, my hip and back begin to give out. It’s close to closing time, anyway, so we pile into Jirka’s car, head home for dinner. We pack for the weekend trip to northern Bohemia to see cousin Pavel and his family, then get some well-deserved sleep.