Free Day in Prague October 13, the very last and final post about this trip!

Prague Free Day 10-13-2012 11-09-52 AMcoffee.  the best part It was our last day in Prague and we woke to the beautiful blessing of gorgeous clear skies.  Melody and I had some important things we wanted from our day and first on that list was breakfast at the Municipal House in Prague.  Designed by Alphons Mucha, the building is one of the finest examples of the Art Nouveau style for which he was famous. 

our breakfast table was at the far end of the dining room in the alcoveThe walk to Republic Square was becoming quite familiar to us, and within fifteen minutes after leaving the hotel we were seated in the glorious sunlit restaurant.  Breakfast was a simple Czech omelet, served with a variety of peppers, but the coffee and the sunlight is what made the morning magical.

After breakfast, we toured the magnificent complex with the touch of Mucha everywhere we looked.  I wished so much for more time to spend in Prague, more time to eat, since the beautiful Francouzska Restaurant on the main floor was breathtaking, (as were the prices on the magnificent menu) and the Plzenska Restaurant in the basement had a more traditional Czech lively beer hall atmosphere.  Next to the restaurant was the dramatically beautiful American Bar, claiming to be the oldest continuously operating bar in Prague.  Oh oh, for more time in this amazing city. 

gorgeous interior of the Municipal Building in PragueThe marble staircase that leads up to the Smetana Concert Hall was embellished with carved white stone and gold trim, with hundreds of lights and Mucha art everywhere.  Municipal House opened in 1912, and became famous as the site of the historic proclamation of the independent state of Czechoslovakia in 1918. The rooms and halls were filled with beautiful frescoes, intricate stonework, richly colored tiles, and stained glass windows.  Municipal House is home to the Czech National Symphony Orchestra and concerts are held here. What a treasure!

Prague Free Day 10-13-2012 1-12-34 PMAfter breakfast we once again walked beyond Republic Square, and under the Powder Gate, one of the original entrances to Prague’s Old Town. We wanted to spend some time just hanging out in Old Town Square and it was just a short walk away.  We meandered along the streets taking time to window shop and decided to try to find the jewelry shop we had seen on our first day. The Czech Republic is famous for its garnets, and I knew I wanted to bring something special home to my other daughters.  Of course, since the area between Republic Square, Old Town Square, and the Charles Bridges is so incredibly popular with tourists, it is also lined with incredibly touristy shops.  The ones that really caught our eyes most were the shops filled with those Russian nesting painted dolls, and beautiful lacquered little boxes, costing upwards in the hundreds of dollars.  I still couldn’t quite figure out why Russian nesting dolls would be such a big deal in the Czech Republic, but they were certainly gorgeous.

Prague Free Day 10-13-2012 1-42-09 PMI did manage to hold on to my credit card until we finally found the sweet little shop selling garnets with two sweet little Czech guys inside just waiting for an easy mark like me to walk in.  Nice part of this was that I had my jeweler daughter with me with her jeweler’s loup between me and the sales!  She knew good gold when she saw it, and she knew the pieces that were set properly.  It was great fun, and by the time I walked out I was the proud owner of a couple of great presents for the daughters who didn’t make it to Prague.

clockI think an entire hour had passed since morning coffee, so we found a lovely open air restaurant with a great view of the square and settled in with another coffee.  It was fairly chilly, and we snuggled in with the cozy fleece blankets provided on the back of each chair.  People watching and coffee drinking in Old Town Square is entertainment bar none!  Before long we heard throngs of people screaming and saw someone carrying signs and thought maybe we were in for one of the demonstrations that are so famous in this part of the city.  Instead, it was just hordes of teenaged girls screaming over some singing idol that was in the square that morning. 

After warming a bit, it was time to explore the old city hall building that houses the Astronomical Clock .  People gather here day and night at the base of the clock to watch the apostles do their thing, and hear the chimes.  From the outside, it is a lovely clock face on a very old building, but the true secret to seeing the clock is to go inside the old city hall and climb the stairs to the top of the clock tower. The clock itself was first installed in 1410 and is the third oldest astronomical clock in the world, and is the oldest one still working.

2012-10-13 14.26.23Something I didn’t even think about until later is that the clock has the earth as the center of the universe. The clock was created to show the then presumed rotation of the sun and the moon around the earth. The clock also shows the movement of the sun and the moon in relation to the signs of zodiac.

2012-10-13 14.43.50Climbing the old stairs and reading the interpretive panels on the walls made the clock come alive in a way that it never would simply viewed from the base of the tower.  The panels told of the amazing history of the clock maker, how the clock came to be, how it has languished for as much as a century in disrepair, been repaired and restored, even bombed for fun by the Nazis, and how it survives. 

Then when you finally reach the top of the tower, the view of the square and the city of Prague unfolds before you in a breathtaking vista, all the more magnificent because you are trying to squeeze your way around the balcony with literally hundreds of people.  Yes, it was still fun.  Melody even got all excited about donning some Renaissance garb and getting her photo professionally done at the top of the clock tower, and it is beautiful. 

lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe  After exploring the tower, we wandered off through the streets on our way to the Bridge and when Melody saw the Hard Rock Cafe, she of course wanted to check it out.  Somehow after nearly two weeks of eating wonderful, fabulous, interesting food a big fat hamburger sounded pretty incredible and I found a table for us in the outdoor pavilion while Melody went off to buy Hard Rock stuff for her kids.  The hamburger might have been the best I ever tasted, with fat french fries and a side of macaroni and cheese washed down with pints of really good beer.  We shared the burger between us and it was still huge. 

Check out the warm fuzzy blanket on my chair.  Yup, more chair blankets in the outdoor restaurants.  You can see a guy behind me with a fuzzy blanket on as well. We watched a rather snotty guy get his comeuppance when his chair collapsed underneath him and he fell in a heap.  His companions were laughing so hard they couldn’t breathe, but of course Melody had to go over to help him up and make sure he was OK.  I figured it was what he got for trying to take my blanket when I first sat down! That little episode provided endless moments of silly laughter for us. 

We spent what was left of the afternoon wandering the narrow streets of the city, checking out the shops, going once more to the Bridge to watch the people and listen to the street music.  It was the time of day as light was waning and we wanted to do more and more, and yet we knew that the trip was ending, and that it was time to let it go. 

IMG_3069Instead we found one more magical moment behind the huge cathedral in the square.  It was twilight, after 6pm and the cathedral was closed, but we found a street vendor selling hot red wine in paper cups with fresh placinkas and decided it was time for more sustenance.  You haven’t had wine till you have had it hot, in a paper cup on a narrow street in Prague. A toast to an amazing city, and to the daughter to shared it with me.

IMG_3051 Our morning wake up call was coming at 2:30 AM, in time to dress and be downstairs for the bus to the airport.  Lorena was no longer around to run interference for us, and there was a bit of confusion as we tried to decipher the signs and figure out just where we were supposed to stand in line to check in for our flight.  We waited in the wrong line, with a few others, and by the time we got to the right one it was incredibly long.  It was stressful at the time, but now looking back I feel a bit like I look in this photo.  “It’s all good”

Every city that we visited on this trip is a place that begs for more time to explore the hidden and not so hidden wonders that we never managed to see.  We only barely tapped Melody’s original list of things to do in Prague, but in spite of the short time in each place, it was perfect. 

It has been just over a month now since we returned and writing the story has been so much fun for me.  I know I would never remember it otherwise, everything would be a huge blur, with crystalline moments thrown in, but all out of context. 

Tomorrow morning Mo and I are driving south to San Francisco to board our ship leaving for Hawaii, and I do have great plans to keep up with writing every day.  The cruise has a lot of sea days, so I might actually manage to do that.

Tour Day in Prague Part 2 October 12

Mala Strana neighborhoods Someone mentioned in a comment on the last post that I had been dealing with a cold and the damp weather probably wasn’t very good for me.  I am happy to say, that by the time we hit the cold weather in Prague, I was feeling pretty darn good.  In addition, my knee was actually responding to all the walking and seemed to be getting stronger.  As we left the high walls of the Castle to walk down into the Mala Strana neighborhood on the west side of the Charles Bridge, I found that I needed to go a lot faster than the rest of the group down all those stairs.  The knee was working just fine going uphill, but going downhill my brakes were pretty rusty! 

walking down from the castle to the Mala Strada in Prague It was finally getting a bit warmer as we meandered through the beautiful old streets of this part of Prague.  The group tour was planning to continue through the streets, cross the Charles Bridge, and then pick up the bus at the Old Town Square to go back to the hotel.  Melody and I were walking along with everyone else when the smell of vanilla started wafting our way and we found a lovely young woman in a Czech costume cooking up some lovely fried thing in front of an authentic Czech restaurant.  Of course, we didn’t know until after we finished our meal that the restaurant had nothing to do at all with the girl on the street.

Czech Restaurant Prague-001 Either way, we looked at each other and once again let Lorena know that we would be ambling off on our own and said goodbye to the group.  We were hungry, and that food smelled soo good!  Besides, we had other plans for the afternoon anyway.  Originally there had been a planned excursion to the Jewish Quarter and we wanted to do that one, but Lorena needed a minimum of 10 people for the trip and only 6 had signed up.  Ah well, we figured the rest of the afternoon was enough time for us to do it on our own.

Czech Restaurant Prague-009 In the mean time, though, we slipped down the heavy timbered stairs to the entrance to the U Tri Pstrosu Authentic Czech Restaurant, established in 1597.  Time to try out some real Czech food!  It was still just before noon, a bit early to eat, and the restaurant was completely empty except for the lovely waiter who seated us under the old leaded glass windows.  The tablecloths were white, the silverware was heavy, and the art work was old and interesting on plastered white walls accented with heavy old dark timbers.  Perfect.

Czech Restaurant Prague-008 We asked for a sample of “real” Czech food, but didn’t much feel like eating duck or liver so settled on some amazing chicken spaghetti.  I don’t suppose it was truly Czech, but it was really good.  Especially with the good Czech beer in the Budweiser glasses to wash it down.  We laughed and ate and had just so much fun.  Besides.  We were WARM!  For dessert I asked for a traditional dessert that Mo had asked I find.  She had no idea what it was called, but just remembered that her Czech aunts would make it when they came to visit.  I think these Czech dumplings with fruit inside floating in a lovely sweet warm vanilla sauce must have been the right one.

Czech Restaurant Prague As we finished our very leisurely meal and asked for the check, I handed my credit card to the waiter only to discover another one of the very huge lessons to be learned when traveling.  Always ask if they take a credit card!  Of course, we hadn’t had any time to get some Czeck Kron and had spent all our Euros in Vienna.  UhOh.  The waiter was very nice and said, “There is an ATM just outside the door”.  The only problem with that was that I had left my debit card in the safe back at the hotel thinking we would get cash later in the day.  Melody saved the day, with her check card she managed to get out the hefty sum for the fancy lunch hoping that she had enough money in the bank at home to cover it!  Whew!  I don’t think I have ever felt quite so stupid in a long time.  Duh!  So much for travel smart mom treating daughter to a nice lunch! 

Cloudy day on the Charles Bridge After that momentary scare, we laughed a lot, and warmed by good food and beer, we climbed the steps to once again cross the Charles Bridge and marvel at the river, the views, and the amazing sculptures.  The Charles Bridge is one of Prague’s most famous symbols.  It joins Old Town and the Mala Strana area near Prague Castle and was completed in the early part of the 15th century.  The Vltava River has been subject to flooding over the centuries, and two of the arches had to be rebuilt in the late 19th century.  The bridge itself is 10 meters wide and is supported by 16 arches and decorated by more than 30 magnificent statues and groups of sculptures, and entered on both ends through two mighty towers.

Cloudy day on the Charles BridgeOn the Mala Strana side of the bridge, the shorter tower was built in the late 12th century and the higher tower in the 15th century. The statues and sculptures have been placed there throughout the ages, with many of them added between 1706 and 1714.  We took our time watching people selling their art, making music, touching the statue of St John, the Five Star Guy, and just enjoying the ambiance of this most famous piece of Prague. On the Old Town side of the bridge, the Tower of Stare Mesto stands over the entrance on the right bank of the river. As we passed under the tower into the main part of the old city, we had to make a decision.  Which way to go and how do we get to the Jewish Quarter?

first view of teh ghetto walls It was another one of those times when I broke out the iPhone and turned on the map to try to get a feel for where we were and where we were going.  Heading along the bank of the river, we passed some beautiful performance buildings, saw a lot of people and cars, and then even more traffic until I looked across the street at what appeared to be a very old, very sturdy wall with a small door and a gate.  Funny how you know what it is when you see the walls of the Jewish Ghetto. 

walking in the Jewish Quarter in Prague Sure enough, we crossed the street and discovered we were on the back side of the ghetto walls and the Jewish Cemetery was just visible through the barred window in the wall.  Finding our way around the crooked streets into the Jewish Quarter took a bit of doing.  Once in the area, found that we needed to get tickets from the Jewish Museum. 

DSC_0213  The Jewish Museum in Prague has one of the most extensive collections of Jewish art, textiles and silver in the world; there are 40,000 exhibits and 100,000 books. The collection is unique, everything in the museum was gathered from Bohemia and Moravia and evokes the Jewish history and a valuable heritage for the present Czech Republic. The ticket you get from the museum covers a guided visit of the Ceremonial Hall, Old Jewish Cemetery, The Old-New Synagogue, the Pinkas Synagogue, the Klausen Synagogue, the Spanish Synagogue and Meisel Synagogue. 

The only problem with this was that it was a bit difficult to understand where everything was located on the map, walking in the Jewish Quarter in Pragueand the Ceremonial Hall was closed for some kind of renovations.  We were really interested in the cemetery of course, so headed to the entrance.  There we found someone in a kiosk renting audio machines for the two hour tour.  Once again, cash only.  Oh for pete’s sake!  Why in the world did I think I could get around Prague with no cash in my hand.  We did manage to buy our tickets with a credit card, but this was a glitch I hadn’t counted on.  The saleswoman made sure that we knew that we were extremely stupid to think we could figure out where to go and what to see without her audio tour.  She was probably right!

Jewish Cemetery in PragueIn spite of the glitches, we found our way into the Jewish Cemetery, and even managed a couple of forbidden photos with the iPhone.  I am really wondering just how curators are going to continue to prevent people from taking pictures of things when it is so easy to do so with tiny little phones that are nearly invisible.   The cemetery is haunting.  The gravestones are piled upon each other helter-skelter  due to the lack of room and the practice of burying people one on top of the other up to 12 deep. I did wish for some kind of guide or interpretation of the site but we decided that we could go back to our hotel and read all about it on the internet after the fact.  What a world we live in!

Jewish Cemetery in Prague The Hebrew characters told hidden stories, and the small stones placed on the gravestones represented prayers for the deceased by people who visited their graves.  The cemetery, founded in the first half of the 15th century, was used until the last 18th century, so these stones are very old.

We visited only one of the Synagogues in the quarter, and were reprimanded by an old women sitting on a bench to “show respect”.  I am not quite sure what we were doing that wasn’t respectful, but we were very careful after that to be silent and to sit quietly.  She seemed to think that because we didn’t take the offered brochures at the entrance to the building we weren’t being respectful. 

Prague doorways are amazing I could have spent hours in the museum and book store.  There were books on the history and the legends of Golem and stories of what it was like to live in the ghettos in the middle ages.  Jewish history has always been fascinating to me, monumental and sad, a human story that must be part of our genetic memory whether we are Jewish or not.  If I were to go back to Prague, I would read more first and spend more time in the Jewish Quarter.  I would take the time to peruse the museum, would go to all the Synagogues, and would be sure to do the audio tour so that I might have a better understanding of what I was seeing.  Still, just walking through the cemetery was worth the price of the ticket for both of us.

walking back toward Old town Square The afternoon was wearing on, and we left the Jewish Quarter and found our way through the side streets back to Old Town Square.  As we got closer to the square, the shops began to change and before long we were once again on some fancy shopping row with Dior and Versace and in between we found the Image Theater, home of one of the Black Light Theater performances that have been made famous in Prague.  We went inside, to discover that tomorrow night was too late and that tonight would be our only chance to see the show.  I paid with a credit card and we decided it was time to get back to the hotel so we could catch a bit of rest before walking the mile and a half back to the city for the show.

IMG_3655 On the way home we wandered through Old Town Square, and then enjoyed all the shops along the roads leading from the Square back toward the city gate.  There was just so much to see, but by this time we were both pretty burned out and ready to just sit and be still for a bit.  As we walked back to the hotel it started to rain and we realized that our night out on the town was probably going to be in the cold rain.  UhOh.  So much for dressing up! 

street music We were only back at the hotel for 90 minutes or so before it was again time for us to walk back to Old Town Square and the theater.  We went a bit early, thinking we could find something to eat in the square before the show.  Melody dressed up in her beautiful long black dress and did her hair up in a wild mohawky looking thing.  She looked gorgeous, and of course I didn’t get a single photo!  Walking through the square assaulted our senses with lots of good food smells and as the rain came down we sought a bit of shelter at a small table next to a food cart.  They were selling huge hunks of ham and Kielbasa sausages with mustard on simple brown bread.  It was fabulous.

Again, looking back on the trip, this moment with Melody was one of the more special ones that sticks in my mind.  The smells of the smoky sausages, the sounds of unintelligible conversations all around us, the square lights glowing in the dusk, the gentle rainfall.  I have no idea what makes one moment stick among all the others, but we both knew at the time that this was going to be one that did.

After the show, here is how Melody described the Black Light Theater:

”It was like Blue Man Group in neon meets Cirque de Soleil. With grand dancers doing contemporary and ballet and Argentinean tango, wearing black light reactive costumes. They started with butterflies and bugs and went on to monkeys and then lions. I cannot describe the amount of awesome involved”. image

The principles behind Black Light Theater are fairly simple. The human eye can’t distinguish between a black background and black on stage. Plus, UV light is just as bright as regular light, but we can’t see it, except when fluorescent items reflect it back to the human eye very brightly! So black light theater concepts have been in use in Asia for millennia. And the style was perfected by a man in the 1950’s and 1960’s. But Prague is THE place to see a Black Light Theater, and the one we went to is known all over the world.

The show had no words, so it’s very universal. It was called Afrikania. It started with a 3-person skit on stage about a mailman who is trying to find the recipient of a lovely red letter, when he finds a hotel front desk unattended. He trades hats with the hotel concierge, who left his on the desk, and becomes the concierge long enough to help a couple check in and have adventures. This action is obviously there to allow the dancers to change costumes.
The first dance is three creatures that look like caterpillars with long arms that are made of flowing fabric. These creatures turn into butterflies with flowing, diaphanous wings and the creatures float on flying harnesses. The dancers are fabulous and with the black light costumes and ballet style tights incorporated into the dance, it felt like a ballet with wondrous contemporary elements. I loved that.

And the music was incredible. It was kind of African meets Pink Floyd. And there were animal noises that were obviously made by humans, but they were intense and very well done; it took a moment to realize they were human. The whole affair was breathtaking, and knowing the Image theater is world-renowned made it feel truly unique and wondrous. Like seeing a play on Broadway in the US. But better. As a theater geek, I was humbled to realize later that what mom and I saw is one of three production houses known around the world for their Black Light shows. Google the subject, then multiply it by a hundred. 

Needless to say, by the time we walked the mile and a half back to the hotel in the rain we were exhausted but very happy at the adventures of the day.  I am sure I fell asleep immediately.

Next: Our free day in Prague, The Metropolitan Building and Mucha, Old Town Square, and the Astronomical Clock

Tour Day in Prague Part 1 October 12


My oldest daughter Deborah has always loved James C Christensen and his fantasy paintings of magical worlds.  The entire time I was in Prague, I tried to remember his name, because the city reminded me so much of what I saw in his art.  I am not sure how a man from Culver City, California, a modern painter, could capture the feeling of a place so perfectly, and yet this painting somehow embodies all I felt during the entire time I was in Prague.  There is something about the city that feels almost too Disneyesque, as if it were all created by Walt himself just for our modern day delight.

St Vitus at the entrance to Prague Castle Instead, this place sometimes called “The Magical City”, “The Golden City”, the “City of a Hundred Towers” (actually there are closer to 435 spires in Prague) and the “Paris of the East”, came into being in Neolithic times, and the first recorded fortified settlements were built in the 9th century.  Over the centuries it has survived wars, invasions, disasters, more invasions and wars, and yet it remains, magnificent in its complexity and loveliness.

Castle of Prague Morning tour-021  Our tour day was to include a long walk through “The Castle”, one of the largest fortresses in the world. The fact that it was about 33  degrees F and the skies were socked in with a dank fog made it all that much more mysterious. We were to see the Royal Palace, St Vitus Cathedral, and walk the Charles Bridge; places that have endured for centuries. Somehow it is impossible to talk about visiting Prague without at least getting a taste of its history.

(I am paraphrasing from a book called “Art and History in Prague – English Edition”, with a few tidbits added in by our local guide):

off to see the castle on a frosty Prague morning In the 900’s as a focal point for craftsmen and merchants, Prague attracted mainly Jews and Germans, becoming a Bishop’s See ruled by Dukes until it became an actual city between 1232 and 1235.  The first University in eastern Europe was founded in Prague in 1348, and in 1419 some rebels threw out the Catholic leaders.  Religious conflict followed for centuries and Prague actually declined during the rule of the Habsburgs when the capital was moved to Vienna. The city became more Germanized until the Czech revolt of 1618 and the “Thirty Years War”, and then losing that war caused even more decline in the city.

Castle of Prague Morning tour-020 Between the 19th and 20th centuries Prague continued to develop economically and industrially, and with the influx of people and money, it became a center for cultural and intellectual development.  It endured the brutal domination of the Nazis from 1939 to 1945.  Our local guide talked of a treaty agreement between Prague and Germany during that time which was supposed to protect Prague but instead only allowed the Germans free reign to the city.  She did say that the agreement managed to keep Prague from being completely decimated by the Nazis, even though thousands of Jews were killed. 

guarding the entrance to Prague CastleThe Russians liberated Prague from the Nazis, but the Soviet leaders thought the city was getting too uppity and on August 20, 1968, tanks were sent into Prague to let the people know they could not stand up against the USSR.  The Communist Regime fell at the end of 1989 and on January 1, 1993, Czechoslovakia was separated into the Czech  and Slovak Republics, in one of the few peaceful separations of a country in Europe.   Our guide, Yarmilla, discussed the unrest during that period with dry humor.  She lived most of her life under Communist rule, and seemed to take most of it in stride.  She said every time the Soviets were on top, the statues would go down.  Then the Czechs would be on top and the statues would go up again.  Up and Down, over and over.  Now the statue of Stalin is no longer on Castle Hill.

waiting for the changing of the guard at the entrance gate to the Grand Courtyard One thing she did say that was interesting, is that the Czech people have had religion foisted on them since the 9th century, and usually it wasn’t a religion of their own choice.  The Czech people aren’t all that excited about religion at all, with more than 80 percent of the population claiming either Atheist or Agnostic beliefs.  Seems strange to me in a city that has a skyline dominated by the spires and steeples and domes of some of the most beautiful churches in the world.  On our free day (tomorrow), Melody and I slipped into a cathedral near Old Town Square during mass.  My grandmother was Catholic, I listened to Latin mass as a child with her, and felt her pain when the Mass was no longer said in Latin.  In this church in Prague, Mass was in Czech.  It was beautiful, and the voice of the priest still haunts me.

detail of the Fighting Giants at the entrance gate to the Grand Courtyard But I am getting ahead of myself.  As we boarded our tour bus at 8am, most of the group were dressed in big coats, hats, and gloves.  Melody and I were not.  We had checked the weather over and over and decided not to bring heavy clothes for the cold.  Instead I had a fleece shirt, a wool sweater, and another wool sweater.  I also had some nice thick tights under my jeans, but the gloves and hat didn’t make it on the bus with me.  Dumb!  Melody at least had on her boiled wool jacket, her comfy staple back at home as well, and lucky for me, her jacket had pockets.

Castle of Prague Morning tour-042 When we got out of the bus, we were assaulted by really really cold damp air and I managed by walking with Melody and keeping a hand in one of her pockets, and switching when the free hand got too cold.  It was COLD!  The bus let us off outside the castle gates and we walked past an old Czech building from the 13th century, across the moats, and through the castle gates into layer upon layer of history.  Many of the buildings that were first built in the 1200’s had been destroyed and rebuilt over and over, and the austere architecture of the Viennese period was evident in the Royal Palace and some of the courtyards.  Still, the wild nature of the Czech people could be seen in the statuary guarding the main gate to the First Courtyard, and then as we walked through the Matthias Gate into the Second Courtyard, the magnificence of St Vitus Cathedral was overwhelming.

This Cathedral took my breath away.  Only completed in 1929, St Wenceslas built the Rotunda of St Vitus in 926 on the same site. More than a century later, a Romanesque basilica rose, and then on these foundations a Gothic cathedral was later erected in the first half of the 14th century.  The Renaissance steeple was added in the 16th century, and the bell tower holds the largest bell in Bohemia from the 16th century.  Plans were drawn in 1872 to complete the grand building and the main portal wasn’t actually completed until 1929, 1000 years after the death of St Wenceslas.

10-12-2012 St Vitus Cathedral1 This cathedral is a masterpiece of neo-Gothic architecture, with a gorgeous rose window, many beautiful stained glass windows, magnificent tombs and crypts, the tomb of St Wenceslaus, and my favorite of all, a gorgeous stained glass window by Alfons Mucha, famous art nouveau artist and resident of Prague.  The tomb of St John Nepomuk , patron saint of Bohemia, is made of tons of solid silver. Legend has it that St John Nepomuk refused to tell the King what the King’s wife had confessed to him and was tortured and thrown in the Vltava River as a result.  There are other versions of the story, but he was canonized as a worthy saint in the 1700’s and it is said that when he was killed, seven stars appeared in heaven.  In the statues, there are only five, so where are the other two?  Either way, if you touch his statue on the Charles Bridge, it is said either that a wish will come true, or you will return to Prague. There are many more photos of St Vitus Cathedral online here if you are interested.10-12-2012 St Vitus Cathedral

Castle of Prague Morning tour-080Even inside the cathedral, it was chilly, and once back out on the courtyard the air was still foggy and cold.  I was really looking forward to the promised coffee shop which didn’t open until ten thirty or so.  I was also very glad for Melody’s warm hands and pockets!  We next entered the Royal Palace, that was originally built in the 12th century on the site of the 9th century prince’s court. 

Vladislav Hall in the Royal PalaceThe most important and impressive room was Vladislav Hall, built at the end of the 15th century.  The floor was originally packed dirt for the horseback jousting matches held there, and the stairs were built especially to accommodate the horses entering the hall.  The room had a quiet dignity, and our guide gave us another architecture lesson discussing the use of the beautiful gothic ribbed vaults.  Melody and I got a kick out of the small hidden laughing faces tucked away into the arches, something that no one seemed to notice but us.

We wandered through more of the palace to the room containing the famous “Defenestration Window”.  Defenestration actually means the act of throwing something out the window, in this case people.  Prague is the defenestration capital of the world, with two major events, and many others in between.  You can read about it here.  The stories are a bit funny, with the third floor window not being high enough to cause the death of the people thrown out due to the huge pile of dung that was below the window. By this time I was really wishing that the huge green ceramic heaters were actually working, because it was still really cold.

nice place for a break from the cold

the famous Defenestration Window in the Royal Palace Finally we walked across another courtyard to a quiet little coffee shop, all warmed up and cozy with the smell of pastries and coffee and actual HEAT!  Whew!  Our group squeezed into the small space and were treated to coffees by our guide Lorena.  I also had an apple strudel which was nearly perfect. 

After warming up in the coffee shop, we continued our tour through the castle by wandering to the famous Golden Lane, a picturesque little street also referred to as “Alchemists Lane” where alchemists pursued the myths of the production of gold.  Yarmilla thought the truth of the name was more picturesque, with chamber pots being emptied out the windows daily and turning the streets “gold”.  ewwww.  Once home to the craftsmen and the poor folk of the castle, there are now little shops and lots of tourists. 

view of Prague looking east from Castle Hill We descended the stairs from Golden Lane to an open view of Prague below us, but not before Melody found the stairway to the castle dungeon.  By this time I was getting a bit tired of stairs so I left it to her to explore the depths of the dungeon.  Dungeons are really creepy, sort of like catacombs.  Melody loves all that kind of stuff.

If you are up for it, there are more photos of Prague Castle, the Royal Palace, the dungeons, and Golden Lane online here.

Next:  The afternoon of our tour day: a Czech lunch, the Charles Bridge, walking through Prague, Old Town Square, and the Jewish Quarter. 

Travel Day to Prague October 11

beautiful Austrian countryside Was it really almost a month ago that Melody and I were tromping around Eastern Europe?  A bit of snow is falling from the sky here in Rocky Point today and finally I have a moment to remember, to look again at the notes I took and the photos I processed and to write again.  Melody and I talk on the phone or write to each other almost every day, and there almost always seems to be some kind of reference to a funny memory, a beautiful sight that we shared, a tough moment that we muddled through together. 

No room to pass but they do it anyway Melody works full time and with teenagers at home that gets to be a big bunch of busy.  I am now only working one week a month, thank goodness, but during that work week there wasn’t a moment to think about writing or photos or anything at all but taking care of business. Mo and I ran off to “the cottage” a couple of times and of course, with all the work over there, I didn’t even think about writing.  I am so glad I at least took some rudimentary notes so that I can remember the last three days of our magical trip.  Funny, we both wrote like crazy during the first two thirds of the trip, but on the last third, we didn’t seem to have the energy to even think about keeping notes, much less doing any real writing. 

village in Austria on the way to Prague I guess it is a bit like the baby book.  Remember that?  The first child has a big one, with every tiny thing filled in, and by the time the fourth comes around the baby books get a bit smaller, just a bit, right?  I guess it was like that for us.  We certainly didn’t love our last destination any less, but we just couldn’t keep writing about every single detail!

another Czech countryside village When we woke to brilliant sunshine on the morning of our departure for Prague, we were thrilled.  Vienna is a big city, and the dreary days had been a bit tiresome.  We had a short distance to Prague from Vienna, only a couple hundred miles or so, and the day would be broken up by a nice lunch along the way and an early arrival in Prague by mid afternoon.  Within minutes of driving north from the city, the beautiful Austrian countryside opened up in front of us with all the magical vistas of imagined fairy tale towns dotted among the hillsides.

01 Travel to Prague-065 Most of the fields had been harvested and the ground was freshly plowed.  The skies were clear and blue with just a bit of haziness from early fall hanging in the air.  As we passed through the villages and in view of lovely small farm houses, I was impressed with how orderly and clean everything looked.  Most of the villages had a tall steeple dominating the skyline, with similar architecture that seemed characteristically Austrian.

I felt myself getting more and more excited as we got closer to the Czech Republic.  The landscape began to change a bit, with verdant hills and distant castles, and once over the border, the characteristic steeples dominating the skylines changed dramatically.  The more austere rectangles of Austria gave way to the gentle swirls and curves of a different way of looking at the world. 

01 Travel to Prague-064 We stopped right near the border at a lovely little eating establishment along the highway for lunch. I can’t believe that I don’t have the name of the place because it was so charming and lovely. Again it was a cafeteria type lunch but the food was incredibly good, at least what we ate was good.  There were some really interesting looking sausages and meats offered that were a bit beyond my need to be adventurous.  Especially the white glutinous looking fat sausage floating in some kind of colorless broth.  Maybe not.

Melody and I marveled at how similar this part of the world was to the valleys around Eugene, Oregon.  Everything was green with beautiful lush conifers punctuated by oaks with red and golden leaves and brilliant green fields already showing a good crop of winter wheat, or at least that is what it looked like.  The skies were so blue they almost were impossible to look at directly, and the sun had that slanting fall light that illuminates everything in a way that doesn’t happen any other time of year.

outskirts of Prague, looks just like a big city anywhere On the road again, it was only an hour before we approached Prague, what appeared to be a very big city with a lot of freeways and more traffic.  At first we only saw the ugly leftovers of “Architorture”, gray cement and steel with no character at all.  But as we rode deeper into the city, the valley of the Vltava River opened up below us and the spires of old Prague appeared on the western horizon. 

this is one great deep and long bathtub at the Jury's Inn in PragueOur hotel, the Jury’s Inn, was just a little over a mile from the main part of Old Prague, and across the street from a major metro station.  The room was lovely, with a bathtub bigger than either one of us could fill, lots and lots of hot hot water, and a wonderful comfy bed with more down comforters and duvets. We were so happy that Lorena offered to do an unscheduled orientation tour of the city starting at 4pm for those who wanted to walk to Old Town and get a taste of what Prague had to offer.  She was really surprised when every single one of the 30 people in our group showed up for the impromptu tour!

Melody on the Charles Bridge We walked along the streets, enjoying the people who all seemed to be smiling and talking and laughing.  Within ten minutes or so we were in front of the Municipal House in Old Town Prague, one of the finest examples of Art Nouveau decor in all of Europe.  Even from the outside it was impressive, and we knew that we would return for a closer look during our free time in the city.  Passing through the dramatic Powder Gate into Old Town Prague was thrilling.  Lorena explained the history of this gate, dating back to the 11th century, once the entrance to the city and the road all Czech kings traveled to their coronations on Castle Hill. 

at the Charles Bridge in Prague It is hard to explain how excited I was, and Melody as well.  It was an inner feeling of excitement, an amazing thrill to be entering this beautiful city on this gorgeous afternoon.  The group walked as far as Old Town Square, the location of the famous Astronomical Clock.  Hundreds of people were gathered at the base of the clock waiting for it to do its thing, and as it struck , Melody took photos and cried with pure excitement.  She had read about this amazing clock and it was one of the big things on her list to see.  Again, we had much more to see in the days to come, but this first afternoon everything seemed gilded in golden light as we walked through Prague for the first time.

Lorena and the group dispersed, but Melody and I knew that we had to go to the bridge, the famous Charles Bridge on the Vltava River.  I could go on and on about the history of this place, of the city and the bridge, but I somehow wish that I could convey how it felt to be there, to stand there, to see this magical, historical, world destination place with my youngest daughter.  We laughed and walked, and ooohd and aaahhhd at the river, at the golden light on all the spires, at the amazing architecture and at the people!  oh My.  The People!  It was a perfect moment for us, one made even better by the fact that the next days were dreary and gray again, and our second trip to the bridge was in cold fog.  I am sooo glad that we took this time to go find the bridge and see it on our own that first afternoon in the city.view from the Charles Bridge

We made it back to the hotel in time for the nice dinner offered to us, with some very tasty chicken and vegetables accompanied by lovely glasses of good wine.  Lorena warned us that the next day would be all about walking, with several hours of a walking tour through Prague Castle and back across the Charles Bridge.  The weather prediction was for record breaking cold weather with fog and rain.  We didn’t care, we had seen it at its very best on this first magical afternoon in the city of Prague.

our guide called him