Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Day 14: Storming the Castle

My time in this city is “Prague-tically” over! (Ok, I know that was terrible…) Nevertheless, it’s true.  I woke up this morning to my last morning in Prague.  Thankfully I have some exciting times planned to make the most of this last day!

I started my day wandering along the Vltava River to get to the Dancing House.  In a city that showcases old architecture, this structure is extremely modern.  Very fun to see!

I didn’t actually bother going in, as I expect the effect is pretty much non-existent from the inside.

A little farther along the street brought me to a different kind of “architectural effect”.  Specifically, the effect of bullets on several-hundred-year-old brick.

Reynhard Heidrich was one of Hitler’s most esteemed senior leaders.  Hitler, himself, referred to Heidrich as the man with an iron heart; Heydrich is apparently the brains behind the “final solution” to the “Jewish problem”, and was given the overall charge of carrying it out. The “Butcher of Prague” was a merciless and evil man. He was also extremely confident in the strength and efficacy of the Nazi soldiers under his command.  As a show of confidence, Heidrich often drove around in a convertible vehicle with only a driver as protection.  It was as though he was daring someone to try to assassinate him. 

The dare was accepted.  The Czechoslovakian government-in-exile and British special forces trained a Czech and a Slovak to carry out the assassination.  Once these two were secreted into the country, they determined that the best possibility of carrying it out was at a steep curve (which would force Heidrich’s car to slow down) on the route of Heidrich’s daily commute to Prague Castle.  On the fateful day, the car slowed, as expected.  A soldier stepped into the road in front of the car and opened fire with a machine gun.  It jammed. For some reason, Heidrich ordered his driver to stop the car and began to return fire with his handgun. This gave an opportunity for the other would-be assassin to step out from behind the car and throw an anti-tank grenade at Heydrich.  Despite the open roof of the convertible, the grenade fell to the ground beside the car. (Really?  What kind of bad luck did these guys have??!!)  When it exploded, shrapnel injured both Heidrich and the would-be assassin.  Both soldiers got away, though Heidrich’s driver gave chase (and ended up being shot a couple of times, himself). Heidrich went to the hospital with severe injuries, but was soon patched up.

About a week later, Heidrich was recovering in hospital when he suddenly collapsed, descended into a coma, and died.  The assassination had been successful. The most likely theory is that horse-hair from the upholstery in the car was not fully cleaned out of the wound, and Heidrich died of septicemia.

The Nazis reacted swiftly and brutally.  Two towns, believed to be involved in the plot, were razed.  Five thousand Czechoslovakian citizens were executed.  Finally, someone tipped the Nazis off that the assassins were hiding out in a church in Prague.  Nazi forces were overwhelming, but the seven rebels (the assassins and colleagues) held out in the crypt until their final bullets.  They used their last bullets on themselves. The bullet holes and damage from that battle has been left at the church, along with a memorial to the soldiers who gave their lives in order to weaken the Nazi hold on Czechoslovakia.

I walked back to my hotel (to check out) by way of Wenceslas Square.  Last time I’ll be here in a while.  I believe this is the last that Wenceslas will play into this trip, too.

Prague Castle is not, technically, a castle; at least not anymore.  Now it is the largest palace complex in the world, which makes it more like a small town overlooking Prague than anything else.  Prague Castle remains the seat of authority in Prague and the Czech Republic.  It houses the office of the Prime Minister, who still formally receives this office in St. Vitus church, in tribute to the Roman Catholic history of the country.

Although not one of their free walking tours, this was yet another Sandeman tour.  What can I say – I like their product! John Paul Franke, our tour guide, grew up all over the world; 8-10 countries, I think. Maybe more.  A German father and an American mother.  His accent?  American.  Go figure.

Our first stop on the tour actually wasn’t about the castle per se.  Just a really great view!

See that large antenna?  The ugliest thing in the sky?  That’s a radio jamming device built by the Soviets.  It was completed shortly before the Soviets withdrew from the Czech Republic, and it was never put to use.  Rather than tear it down, the Czechs realized it could be used as a very powerful broadcast antenna. Making lemonade, as the saying goes! The dark bumps on the side of the antenna are a sculptor by a prominent Czech artist.  These babies crawling up and down the antenna are the artist’s critique of our culture’s infatuation with television.  The babies have no faces; only barcodes where their faces would be.  The artist’s perspective on the integration with the electronic world (at the expense of the “real” world) as a result of this obsession.

There are reproductions of these statues in a park in Prague.  They were very smooth! ;)

Ever heard of St. Norbert?  He’s the patron saint of a monastery up in Prague Castle.  The founder of the monastery was the kind of priest who drank too much (and apparently even chased the ladies, but that might have been hyperbole on the part of John Paul).  One day, while stumbling home, a fork of lightning hit the ground just ahead of him.  He was thrown from his horse, and lay unconscious on the ground.  When he came to, he determined that God had given him a warning, and so he turned around his life, and founded this monastery.  The monastery is best known for the beers that it brews.

For someone who doesn’t like beer, I think I’ve done pretty well.  I drank Amstel in Amsterdam, two different lambic beers as well as a wheat beer from Belgium, Gambrinus in Prague….I didn’t bother trying this monastery’s beer, so I can’t say how it compares. 

Our next stop on the tour was St. Vitus Cathedral.  St. Vitus Cathedral is the most prominent building in Prague Castle.  I’m a little embarrassed to admit I thought the large gothic building at the crest of the complex WAS Prague Castle. (I thought it was bigger than it was.) It’s pretty damn impressive as a church!

Vitus was a twelve-year old boy in and around the year 300 AD who converted to Christianity from paganism.  The story of how he converted was left out but in any case, his pagan father was none too pleased.  He tried everything to dissuade the boy from this Christ fellow, including beating him.  That prepubescent stubbornness held on, though, and Vitus remained a Christian. Escaping from his father, Vitus made his way to the emperor’s court, where the emperor's son was possessed by an evil spirit.  Vitus exorcised him with the power of God; the miracle that welcomed him to sainthood. The emperor, though undoubtedly appreciative, was a little less welcoming.  He invited Vitus to convert back to paganism, or to be tortured to death.  Young idealism.  Somewhere along the way (after he was tortured to death), Vitus' arm was rescued, and King Wenceslas got a hold of it the better part of a century later. The arm is entombed in Vitus church.  The bas-relief on the doors tells the story of Wenceslas acquiring the arm, and setting out to build this church to celebrate it:

Wenceslas never saw the completion of the church, nor did several generations after him.  The structure remained unfinished as more palaces sprouted up around it.  When it was finally finished, the interior was incredible.  However, note the difference in columns from dark to light.  The same stone was used.  The dark sandstone was exposed to the elements for hundreds of years before the roof was installed.  Makes a leaky skylight seem rather insignificant….

Though Prague Castle may no longer be what we think of as a “castle”, some of the battlements remain.  Just as the skies opened up a deluge of rain, we retreated into the hallways of the ancient fortifications – the remaining walls of Prague Castle.  There is something fantastic about walking in hallways built in a thousand year old stone wall while vicious thunder roars outside, and hail pelts the roofing tiles.  The ingenious “windows” of the day (logs that were hollowed out such that they could be turned one way to afford a view of the outside, or the other way to close off the view, wind, and rain) demonstrated their efficacy (and their shortcomings, as they are not airtight), and the stone echoed the thunder.  The tour continued, but I opted instead to stay in the dry hallways lined with armor of every era from Roman times to the nineteenth century.  I tried to shoot a crossbow, but the man running that attraction was tired or something.  He wasn’t closing for almost another thirty minutes, but he preferred no more customers, it seemed.  

The armor and – in another room – torture devices from medieval times eventually lost their interest; coincidentally when the rain let up.  I made a dash to the nearest coffee shop for something to warm me up!  They only accepted cash.  Good thing I didn’t shoot the crossbow!  I only had enough on me for a cup of grog (rum with hot water and a slice of orange) – perfect when one is wet and cold! I nursed that until the rain had nearly concluded, then wandered back down through the lower town that surrounds Prague Castle in search of dinner.

On Sunday, tour guide Martin had recommended the restaurant U Parlamentu for traditional Czech fare.  It made for a delicious Easter dinner, so I returned to U Parlamentu for my last dinner in Prague.  I even ordered many of the same things, though I skipped the absinth this time. (At most I’ll get 4.5 hours of sleep tonight.  No need to complicate things with the green fairy.)

I dashed from the restaurant to finally witness the workings of the astronomical clock.  You see, my description earlier this week was based entirely on Martin’s description.  Since that time, I have walked through Old Town Square numerous times – anywhere from a few minutes after the hour, to quarter to the next hour (but with somewhere to be on the hour).  Three days in Prague, and I still hadn’t actually seen it! I witnessed it “at the eleventh hour”! (Really, the ninth hour, I think…)

The walk to the bus station in the dark of night (the street lights on many of those streets were out, so it really was dark) seemed dicey, but I had been assured that it was safe, so I ploughed on.  Then I noticed two well-dressed, middle-aged women strolling along the sidewalk on the other side of the street.  I guess it really is safe! 

Around 11:30pm, the staff at the bus station began shooing us outside.  The station was open until midnight (actually, until “12pm” as the recorded announcement kept repeating), but I guess they wanted to close early.  Sort of like the Laundromat this morning that opened at 7:30. Except it didn’t actually open until nearly 8am.  A different approach.  My bus did board on time, and so a few minutes before midnight, we set forth toward Vienna.

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