Sunday, April 20, 2014

Day 12: Czech it Out!

Sleeping on a bus is…..efficient.  I’ll leave it at that.  Arriving in Prague does an awful lot to make up for a lack of sleep!  Actually, like Luxemburg, the Prague bus station is in a bit of a run-down part of town.  A short walk, however, brings you to the Powder Tower; originally, a part of the walls encircling Prague.  As the fortified area expanded, the Powder Tower became storage for gunpowder.

After dropping my bag at the front desk of my hotel (it was 7am, so I couldn’t exactly check in yet), I saw the old city in rare form:

Deserted! I didn’t know it at the time, but the main tourist areas like Old Town Square, Charles Bridge, and Wenceslas Square are packed through the middle of the day!

Quite the Easter fans!

Jan Hus was possibly the first protestant within the Catholic Church.  He was burned alive for his protests.

To reconnoitre myself in Prague (and to take advantage of what time I had left before the inevitable crash this afternoon), I booked a tour this morning.  You guessed it!  Sandeman’s Free Walking Tours.  
(Unfortunately, this is my last Sandeman’s Free Tour on this trip, as they don’t have a presence anywhere else that I am going.) The group of us met our guide Martin in Old Town Square by the Astronomical Clock. Martin is a Prague boy – born and raised – and an architecture major to boot.  Could there be a better combination for a guide in Prague??!!  The buildings framing Old Town Square span eight hundred years of architectural history, from the gothic Church of Our Lady before Tyn (c. 12th century) to the early twentieth century examples alongside. The Church of Our Lady before Tyn is an interesting piece – it was expanded and expanded to the point that it is right against other buildings.  The only cathedral I’m aware of that you can’t see its front fa├žade.

The massive, Catholic Church of Our Lady before Tyn looks across the square at the massive, Catholic (Baroque architecture) St Nicholas Church – just a few hundred metres away. 

(Actually, St. Nicholas Church has been a Protestant church for the last ninety years or so…but it was built as a Catholic church…and let’s face it, they’re more or less the same.)   Prague has more churches per capita than just about anywhere else in the world.  The irony?  After forty years of religion-suppressing communism, 70% of Czechs identify themselves as agnostic or atheist.  Most churches in Prague are used for something other than church services – concert halls, museums, or in the most extreme example, a strip club! (What's that line from a Nine Inch Nails song...."you bring me closer to God"?)

This preponderance of churches provides visitors with breathtaking views of the City of a Thousand Spires, and beautiful architecture down every street in the city.  However, Prague is also home to what has been voted the most disappointing attraction – the Astronomical Clock.

With a bit of context, the clock really is fascinating…but you won’t know that just by gathering with the hordes to watch it chime in each hour. Three of the four characters on either side of the clock face represent human frailties: the man looking in the mirror demonstrates narcissism (no comment), the man with the instrument shows earthly pleasures, and the man with the bag of money represents avarice.  As the clock begins to chime in each hour, these men shake their heads “no”, as in – “I don’t want time to pass and bring me closer to death”.  The fourth character is death – embodied (or…um…not…) by the skeleton. When the clock chimes, the skeleton nods “yes” as he brings people one hour closer to his grasp. The shuttered windows above fly open and the Apostles look down on human weakness.  Finally, in conclusion, the rooster flaps his wings and crows to remind sinners that tomorrow is a new day; a new chance to turn one’s life toward the good. The clock face itself tells time according to both Roman time and Old Czech Time – hours in the day and hours since the last sunset.  Further, the sun on the face of the clock gets closer to or farther from the rings of numbers in accordance with its height over the horizon. Pretty damn impressive if you consider that this was all built in the fifteenth century!!

Prague came to prominence in the middle ages largely thanks to Charles Bridge.  Sort of.  There’s a big river, and few places to cross it.  Charles Bridge, which was built in 1357 (May 3rd, at 1am, making it a perfect numeric palindrome), replaced an earlier bridge which was washed away in a flood.  That bridge was a mere 200 years old, having also been built to replace an earlier bridge that washed away in a flood.  (Apparently Charles’ astrologers, who came up with the time and date to lay the foundation stone, were right.)  In any case, these bridges established economies in and around the river crossing as merchants carried goods beyond the Vltava river.  The bridge is decorated with a seemingly endless stream of statues, and – at 7:30am as I wandered across – a seemingly endless stream of Asian brides taking wedding photos. These brides were being realistic.  By mid-day, the bridge was a heavy crowd of tourists!

The custom of "love locks" is alive and well at the Charles Bridge.

Wenceslas Square which – according to Martin: “…is a rectangle, but we call it a square anyway, because that’s how Czechs do things” didn’t make it too high on my list of things to do in Prague.  It’s a shopping headquarters, and it’s home to two Starbucks (of the four that are in Prague), but the most interesting bits for me were the National Museum and the statue at the end.

Given the name of this place, you might have guessed that’s St. Wenceslas (or King Wenceslas, depending on when in history) on the horse. (You can kind of see it in the foregr4ound of the first photo.) I guess with my trekking from Luxembourg to here, I haven’t left his old stomping grounds!

The Czechs say that beer was invented in Bohemia…and while the concept of beer pre-dates Bohemia, they’re kind of right.  It was here that the pilsner was born – the difference between top and bottom fermenting of the drink, which produces the clear, light drink of such wonderful tastiness! (Ok, so the truth is I still don’t like beer, but I did find some worth drinking…or at least tasting…while I was here in beer-land.)  One of these was the unfiltered variety of Gambrinus.

Maybe it was the beer; more likely, it was the quality tour and the promise of Prague!  In any case, I bought a couple more tours of Prague while I was drinking – Terezin the concentration camp tomorrow, and Prague Castle the following day.  I’m transforming into a total tourist nerd!

I suppose it’s better than transforming into a big potato bug, which is more or less what Kafka writes about in the one and only Kafka story I’ve read.  He’s a celebrated hero in Prague, and the (so I am told) persistent theme in his works of transformation and loss of identity make a little more sense when one learns that he lived through the disintegration of the Jewish Quarter in Prague.

It wasn’t a terrible thing, really, that Jews were suddenly allowed to live outside of the Jewish Quarter, but it occasioned a shift in the Jewish ghetto (in the original, and not exactly negative sense of the word) from an excessively over-crowded place that at least retained a sense of community, to the most derelict neighbourhood occupied by students, squatters, and those Jews who lacked the wherewithal to go anywhere better.

After the earlier education in Christian architecture over the ages in Old Town Square, our tour into Prague’s Jewish Quarter examined architecture from another side of Prague’s religious development.  This temporary synagogue was built starting in 1270.  “Temporary”?  Indeed.  The Old New Synagogue includes stones from the original Temple in Jerusalem, and so these stones will one day be returned to Jerusalem when the Messiah comes.  Such poor planning.  Why build a structure that will only last for a eight-hundred or so years?  (Alternatively, one might ask whether the Jews are still quite as hopeful about this Messiah…)

Across from this synagogue lies the old Jewish cemetery.  When Jews were confined (by curfew!) to the Jewish Quarter, their cemetery had to be there, too.  As the Jewish population increased, and the cemetery filled, there was nowhere to build but up.  Apparently the cemetery is as many as twelve layers deep!  Eventually, when the restriction on Jewish housing was lifted, it was also recognized that it is very poor planning to have a mass of rotting corpses in the middle of a crowded city.  The new Jewish cemetery was moved to…what is now right within the city.  I guess at the time it seemed a long way out.

There's a certain natural platform that overlooks the city of Prague.  In homage to the Czech musical tradition, there's a giant metronome set up - symbolising the changing fortunes of this city over the last thousand years or so.  Previously, a giant statue of Stalin was up there...keeping a close watch over everything. (Stalin never actually saw this giant statue, but it would have been creepy to see it as a Czech, nonetheless.)  Between Stalin and the metronome?  A giant statue of Michael Jackson.  Equally creepy!

I was excited that this tour was being led by a local, even though most of the information could easily have been delivered by anyone with the right information and proper poise.  Every so often, though, Martin would insert something that reminded me why I was so happy to be toured by a local. 

Martin’s parents and uncle swapped spots in a two-day long line-up to get a car just like that.  It was excessively expensive.  It was slow, unreliable, and noisy. (It has a two-stroke engine…like my lawnmower.  I think – quite honestly – that the horsepower is about the same as my lawnmower, too.)  Nevertheless, it was a car, and there weren’t many car options in Soviet-era Prague.

This is where I saw a Czech string quintet perform Dvorak!

This is also where we sat on the steps of the Rudolphinum as Martin told us that his father had been a classmate of Jan Palach. A university student at Charles University, Jan Palach was just 21 years old when he burned himself to death to protest the Soviet invasion of what was then Czechoslovakia.  Martin proceeded to detail for us the interesting mix of Czech opinions of the Soviet experiment.  Martin’s father was against communism, and exiled himself to Western Europe until the Czech borders were being “permanently” closed.  Martin’s mother, conversely, was supportive of communism…until the full force of communism set in and the gap between the propaganda and the reality was revealed. Although he was raised in Prague, Martin spent a year living in the U.S. as he was growing up, when his father took a job at an American university.  When they moved back, Martin faced culture shock moving back to his home.  The silver lining?  He started correcting the English teacher at school!

It’s Easter Sunday, and while I am missing a dinner with my family back home, I wanted to make this evening stand out.  I went to see a concert featuring the Czech composer Dvorak, which was fantastic.  True to its original intent as a cultural building, the setting for this concert was the Rudolphinum.  This building has also served as the House of Commons and a Nazi headquarters.  Like so many buildings in Prague, the size and beauty of the architecture are mind-boggling.  Of course, a quick glance across the river shows the massive Prague Castle towering over everything else.  What a backdrop!

Easter dinner was a traditional Czech goulash with dumplings, more dumplings for dessert, and a digestif of absinth. I may see the Easter Bunny tonight!

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