This is the last day of the Viking tour. Today, Viking has nothing planned except to take people to the airport (I do not understand how his counts as a “day.” You can read my review of the entire trip here.). Joanne and Luis, and Judy and Rod all leave today. Judy and Rod actually left for the airport at 4:30am!Joanne and Luis will leave mid-morning for Paris, overnight there and fly tomorrow to San Juan.
Cindy, Greg and I are on our own, and at about 9 am we began walking from the hotel towards the Jewish quarter. Starting out by walking along the river Vltava, our route eventually took us thorough a park and into the narrow streets of the old city. The buildings we see are wonderfully decorated – stucco work, sgraffito, statuary – you name it and you will see it. Lovely colors too! Our guide yesterday mentioned that a good portion of the redecoration of the city took place during the art nouveau period of the early 20th century, and we can see evidence of that, right alongside the romantic decoration of the 19th. The buildings in Josefov, the Jewish quarter are the most impressive. Elaborate stucco, plaster, or cement work on Easter egg colors, topped with a blue sky: The impression is wonderful.
The sun is out and it is nice and warm, and it is a beautiful day for wandering around. Though we found ourselves in the Jewish quarter, rather than seeing the “sights” we managed to see the place itself. We discovered lots of restaurants that were on “lists,” made or read. We saw urban art, drunks, students, street performers, lots of tourists and just about everything that you would expect to find in a large city. Our wandering found us back at the Old Town Square just before 11 again, but the crowds are much more manageable. We stopped to try the Trdelnik, a cinnamon-crusted bread cooked on a tube of metal over a hot charcoal fine, with a cup of coffee. (Not as good as it looks, but filling!)
We kept wandering, stopping to look in the stores, back to the Charles Bridge again, and across. This time we can enjoy being here. There are lots of people today too, but we can actually see the statues, the vendors and their wares along the bridge. On the Mala Strana side of the bridge we went down and underneath to find a place for lunch, and ended up sitting along the river in the Kampa Park Restaurant, enjoying the view and the beautiful day. After lunch we wended our way backwards to the hotel.
Tuesday, May 12 – Prague on our own
We awoke to another sunny day in Prague. Though it is cool in the early mornings, the sun rises early and warms everything up nicely. Cindy, Greg and I head off by cab to the Castle District. We walked through the castle and the surrounding area on Sunday with our Viking guide, but our intention for this trip was to visit the interiors.
The art history major in me particularly wanted to see the inside of the St. Vitus Cathedral, which is closed to tourists on Sundays. Interesting, the cathedral is not open to tourists at all on Sundays, not even when there is no mass in session. It is one of the few religious buildings still in use as such: The Russians did their utmost to outlaw religion when they were in power and the remnant of that is that though many Czechs are “Roman Catholic” very few are practicing. As a functioning religious building, Sundays the cathedral is open only to worshipers for worshiping.
My interest in the Cathedral is also historical, as it is the burial place of many of the “royals” and saints of Czech history. We were able to purchase a ticket that gave us access to the interiors of four different buildings or areas within the castle grounds. (There was also a more extensive ticket, but you would have to be quick as a bunny to look at everything, or have a lot more time and stamina to see than we did. As it was, we spent an entire morning seeing the four things on our tickets, one right after the other!)
First on our ticket was the St. Vitus Cathedral. We learned on our Sunday tour that a building on this spot dates from the 10th century! The current edifice is multigenerational, the earliest portions dating from the 13th century and the most
recent portions finished in the 1920s! Inside, the ceiling, the altar, and the rose windows all speak to the Gothic exterior. But the windows themselves are thoroughly modern in both their colors and execution. They are gorgeous – and the light with which they imbue the chapels they adorn is rich and saturated. Some of the windows were done by Alfons Mucha!
With our ticketed entry, we were able to sidestep the masses of Asian tourists taking selfies and pictures of everything else too, and walk through the side aisles to admire the collection of art and sculpture. I went in search of tombs, and found them, though without some external clues I would have had no idea of what I was looking at. One of the “truths” I have learned on this trip is that a Western education, even a good one, does not cover Eastern Europe. The names are totally foreign, most unpronounced-able, and the chronology a complete mystery. I recognized the tomb of St. John of Nepomuk only because the guidebook noted that it is made of silver! It is an impressive thing and crowds the aisle around the apse, forcing tourists into a single file line to squeeze around. (Squeeze and sneeze! The draperies look like something out of a haunted house and the dust is so thick that just looking at them made you think of sneezing!)
I also found the chapel of St. Wenceslas intriguing. Thankfully there is a series of explanatory panels, in English as well as Czech, on the wall of the transept that the chapel impinges on. There I found out how the painting tells the story of a king of Bohemia though he had himself painted as the saint…
Our second visit was the “Royal Place”. I am the world’s biggest sucker for castles (dreams of being a princess when I was little?) and fortunately for me, there have been many and will be more on this trip. I had read the history of the Czech Republic before I came on the trip, but as I said just two paragraphs earlier, the names are really hard to wrap your head around – just try to pronounce them! As a result, I cannot give you a nice, thorough or sketchy, idea of whose rooms these were. Suffice it to say that the building spans centuries, and the ethnicities of the kings and queens who lived here also changed frequently. It is a real history lesson – and one that was repeated in many of the other castles I visited.
The palace rooms we could tour were from the 12th through 17th centuries, and they were quite different from some of the others we will see later. Start with the fact that this is an urban palace,urban in the sense of a large city. The views from the windows would have been quite different from what we see today, and yet the same in crucial respects. The city then would have had only some of the same buildings, and those would have been new and modern! But the view would definitely have included all the elements we associate with cities – lots of people, commerce in action, bustle in general. As
a royal you would have surveyed your realm from those windows, seen your people below you, watched parades of visiting royals arrive from other kingdoms. And, just like any house, there is the story of the people who lived there, fairly dry in the case of history, with just an anecdote here or there, to humanize the tragedy, greed and betrayal.
Some of the more curious rooms we visited looked like a beer hall! They were painted with the family sigils of the rulers over the years, and each of those is framed in what looks like the profile of a beer barrel. See if you don’t agree when you see the picture. These were rooms used for the administration of the kingdom, and it was here that the Diet met and the land rolls were stored.
Crossing the wide Third Courtyard of the castle, we made our third stop at the Basilica of Saint George. (We did see Saint George all over the Czech Republic but I have not found out what his special significance is.) The Basilica is a contradiction of styles! Talk about trying to wrap your head around something! The exterior is 17th century Baroque (from a 1670 restoration), and the interior Romanesque from the 12th!. According to our reading materials, the building, like so many others in Prague with a multicentury history, had been updated and remodeled through the centuries. When the most recent renovation was planned, a decision was made to return the interior to one of its earliest incarnations – that of a Romanesque basilica, circa 1142. It was a felicitous choice in my view, especially as that is something we did not see much of on this trip.I love the austerity of the Romanesque interior, its simplicity invites an inward look, far different than the awe that St. Vitus evokes.
While we were caught up in a tourist bottleneck (many of our fellow visitors today are actually high schoolers) I got a chance to look at the displays about the renovation work. Not being able to read a word of it, I could see by the drawings that the renovators found an entire necropolis within the ancient floors of the building (there has been a church on this site since about 920!). Very cool! I have no idea what they did with all those tombs since I couldn’t decipher the words.
Coming out of St. George’s, which is currently a museum and concert venue) I took a couple of minutes to admire again, and in the sunshine, the south porch, also called the “Golden Gate” of St. Vitus’s that dates from 1399.
Our fourth and final stop within the castle complex was in the “Golden Lane.” Unlike the south porch, there is no gold mosaic here. Rather this use of “gold” refers to alchemy! (Alchemy is another them that ran through the Czech Republic trip. Hopefully I will remember to tell you about it when it pops up again.) The Golden Lane is a series of small house and shops that were built right up against the inside of the castle walls. Today they house nice gift shops, and a few have been set up to tell about noteworthy occupants, like a seer and a retired guard. They are painted in a rainbow of colors – a place it would have been fun to photograph without tourists in front of everything – but not something likely to happen.
Fairly exhausted by this point, we walked down from the Castle to the Mala Strana, through it to cross the Charles Bridge yet again. By today the crows are noticeably sparser (remember my advice to visit mid-week!).
Our destination now is lunch. Crossing the Bridge we head southwards, but the restaurant we are looking for is closed. Turning around, I see another restaurant that someone from our tour who is also hanging out for some additional “prague,” recommended. Despite the somewhat off-putting fancy vibes, we decided to eat there anyway.
Which brings me to an panegyric to the restaurants of Prague. Small personal sample, I know, but from the recommendations and comments I heard from other visitors, I think I am on “thick ice” (to use an apt metaphor for a Wisconsonian)! You can eat really well – whether your well is hearty or gourmet – in Prague and you should definitely try to do it. By “western” standards food is very reasonably priced in the Czech Republic, almost to the point of being downright inexpensive! Why eat regular food, when you can eat fantastic food (at the price of regular food elsewhere)? Why, indeed!
Our table, as was the table at Kampa Park yesterday, is right on a balcony overlooking the river with the Charles Bridge before us. Swans are floating around, as are our various incarnations of tourist boats that actually look like fun. Yesterday we were on the other side of the river looking at the other side of the bridge but the view was basically the same. Our waiters are excellent, and so was the food! And it was pretty – just take a look at the slideshow!
Following lunch, now mid-afternoon, we walked the 20 minutes it takes to return to the hotel, revisiting along the way, many places already familiar to us but becoming like old friends.
Tomorrow, Cindy and Greg leave for the airport and home, and I will begin my Czech adventure.