Sunday, September 8, 2013
Prague: Uncovering a Beautiful City
I’m excited to be in Prague. I had heard this was a beautiful city but neither of us have had the chance to visit, so we grasp the opportunity to spend a few days here. We make our way to another airbnb find. This one is walking distance from the old city – so perfect for our visit.
Prague is the capital and largest city of the Czech Republic. It is situated on the Vltava River and is home to about 1.3 million people, so not overly huge and more importantly a ‘walkable’ city, which is ideal. We are staying at the apartment of an American man who has moved to Prague. He greets us warmly and shows us to a spacious room with a large desk and extra bed. He is going away for the weekend so we don’t get a chance to get to know our host but the positive side of this is that we have the run of his entire apartment to ourselves. We make use of the large kitchen and dining area, the spacious bathroom complete with spa and the living room with great leather couches to lounge in. But we are here to explore Prague, so we head out to enjoy a beautiful warm day, with perfect blue skies...
I’m dying for some spicy Indian food so our first stop is the Himalayan restaurant where we indulge in some Chicken Buriyani before heading to the Old Town Square. While Nigel did not have a lot of time to orient us to the city, he had left us a Rick Steve’s guidebook. When I lived in California, Rick was my favourite travel author, so this is a real find. Over lunch we orient ourselves to the city and learn there are about 4-5 distinct areas to explore. Our 3 days here will more than suffice to discover Prague.
I am blown away by the beauty of the Old Town Square and realise why this has made the UNESCO world heritage list and it is on the top of the list for millions of travellers to Europe!
The square is bustling with activity. The fountain with a statue of Jan Hus takes centre stage and I learn a little about the history of this courageous man, who instigated the Protestant reformation in this part of the world, causing as much controversy within the Christian community as Martin Luther did in a century later in Germany. His statue, erected on the 500th anniversary of his death, faces the Tyn Church, a church where Catholics once worshipped, now converted to be a place of worship for Anglicans. He believed quite passionately in the true concepts of Christianity including the fact that a priest did not have to mediate on behalf of a believer and that the Bible should be written in a language that could be understood by the congregation! He was burnt at the stake for daring to voice these ‘radical’ ideas. Interesting to note that the self-preservation spirit of the status quo has not changed although their methods of ‘torture’ might be more ‘refined’!
One of the attractions that really draw the crowds in the town square is the very elaborate astronomical clock, built in 1410. It is a work of art but what is quite amusing is that every day on the hour, the upper glockenspiel-style section of the clock performs the same scene of miniature figures file past. Death waves an hourglass, the 12 apostles shuffle past small windows, and a rooster crows. After the hour strikes, a Turk wags his head. Crowds stand around long before the hour, just to see this played out each day!
The buskers are also a major attraction for everyone at the town square. Travellers gather around, willing to be entertained and happy to applaud anyone who is game enough to get up there and perform in this incredibly beautiful place. The square never seems to empty and no matter what time of day you pass this space, there are swarms of people just hanging out, eating, laughing, enjoying the incredibly architecture and watching the world go by. It is a photographer’s paradise but how do I convey such beauty?
There is something about the charm of Prague that also begs you to listen to a performance of classical music. As we walk down one of the little alleyways, we discover the ticket office and are tempted to buy tickets for a concert that evening. Later we realize these concerts are a bit of a tourist trap but the pieces they’ve chosen were some of our favorite’s and the Neo-Renaissance building Rudolfinum, where the concert will be performed a spectacular venue. The concert included pieces from Mozart, Vivaldi, Pachelbel, Bach, Bizet, Brahms and the Czech composer Dvorak. Listening to pieces such as Pacehlbel’s Canon and A Little Night Music after days of the road was a wonderful treat - we just wished it had lasted a little bit longer!
As we came out of the Rudolfinum, we found that the night-lights had been switched on in the city. The river is a breathtaking site, but I’ve left my camera at home. We walked back slowly, enjoying the balmy air and the beauty of Prague at night. We buy gelatto and relax in the square, before heading back to base.
The highlight of Day 2 was walking across Charles Bridge, with Baroque statues lining the bridge on either side. Elaborate Bridge Towers on either side protect the bridge from possible attacks. The bridge was completed in 1402 and for 3 centuries it was the only link between the two sides of the river! The bridge is another draw card in this city and the crowds on this glorious summer’s day were huge. There are portrait artists, people selling cheap jewelry, cartoonists all vying for space with hundreds of travellers all over the world trying to have their photograph taken or to touch a stone relief under one of the statues. I discover that in 1393 then-archbishop Nepomuk was tortured to death and his body thrown off the bridge here. Touching the relief is supposed to bring you luck – go figure!
It gets quieter as the throngs spill out in various directions at the end of the bridge. We discover an area full of character, lots of cobblestones streets and hidden alleyways. We sit on stone steps to eat our lunch and people watch. Prague Castle is close by and the throngs are making a beeline for the next attraction on the list. We don’t actually go inside but walk up there for the incredible views. Suddenly there is a huge throng standing outside the palace gates and I notice they are changing guards at the Prague Castle. Nothing quite compares to the pomp and pageantry of Buckingham Palace though.
We wander the streets in search of the John Lennon memorial. On the way we cross a little bridge and notice the number of padlocks that have fastened to the railings. The padlocks are a token gesture from the many lovers who have walked through – a symbol of their undying/internal love for each other. We reflect a little sadly that for many people locks, knots and contracts have come to symbolize love!
We eventually arrive at the John Lennon memorial. The wall has been covered with messages of peace and love that have been inspired by Lennon himself. There are familiar lines from Beatles songs as well as other inspirational quotes. Steve’s favourite -
“Everything will be all right in the end. If it isn’t all right, it isn’t the end.”
The graffiti started in the 1980’s and while the communist government of the time tried their hardest to eradicate the writing, it just kept coming back. The writing once started a riot on Charles Bridge between students, who were protesting against the communist regime and the police. I love the wall. It is a symbol of people had the courage to defy authority…to stand up and make a statement about their own beliefs. The graffiti has been written over many times and the bright colours themselves were perhaps a symbol of hope.
The sun is almost setting so we make our way back to the square to shoot a bit of night photography. But the sky was not as blue as the previous 2 nights and I am a little disappointed. Still, the square is always amazing at night and the buskers return with new acts. Today, a fire dancer has taken centre stage. We sit on the cobblestoned ground to watch her.
We start Day 3 at Wenceslas Square, named after the patron saint of Bohemia, Saint Wenceslas. This is the commercial heart of Prague and the new part of town. The main street separates the old Renaissance buildings from the more modern, glitzy buildings. This area does not have the charm of the Old Town Square but this is the equivalent of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, with many recent historic demonstrations such as the protests again Soviet occupation in 1969 as well as the protest march in 1989, which led to the Velvet Revolution and the fall of the Communist regime taking place here.
We walk up to the Jewish Quarter created when the Jewish community of Prague was ordered to leave their homes and settle in this one area. As time passed, this area became more crowded as restrictions for Jews became more severe. The area contains many old and new synagogues as well as other well preserved monuments. The Jewish cemetery is quite remarkable in that over 20,000 people are buried in this small space in over twelve layers of graves.
Our day ends at the top of the tower in the Old Town. We are looking down from the Town Hall Tower on an incredible scene.
The sun sets; The sky turns an inky blue and the lights of Old Town are turned on slowly to cast an amber glow on the square. People are dining on the courtyards below. A busker strums his guitar and people listen mesmerised by his words, which rise up to us and fill the air...
If I lay here
If I just lay here
Would you lie with me
And just forget the world?