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June 4, 2007

Dipping into the past–visiting Prague

Filed under: Prague,travel — by maggiec @ 1:05 pm

People keep asking me where the posts are. Well, they are in my head, where they will stay until I get a few free minutes. This is a hectic time for college teachers–finals, finals, finals. Grading ad nauseum.

But while preparing to move files to an external hard disk, I found a short, rather geeky narrative I did about a visit to Prague in 2001.  Today I found the picture files, so I will add some of them as well.  The rest you can find at my Flickr site.The Beauty of Prague

Not my best piece of writing, but something to make a post with!

Originally written in May 2001

Since lots of people have asked about our trip to Prague, I thought that I’d write out a generic description of things for you all.

As many know, we traveled by night train from Munich. That meant that we had to get to Munich first. We left Geneva for Zurich, a 3-hour trip. There we got the train to Munich, a 5-hour trip, and it was there that we finally boarded the night train to Prague, a 10-hour trip, which we attempted to sleep through, and we would have had a shot at it if it weren’t for the Czech and German border patrols.

Now this may sound like a lot of train time, but it’s not bad at all when you have music, books, books on tape, a Gameboy, snacks, and a dining car for dinner. The train is also relaxing since you can sit and have leg room, unlike airplanes, and you don’t have to worry about the driving.

Anyway, taking the night train got us into the Prague train station at a little after 8 in the morning. Our plan was to get breakfast someplace outside the train station and then check into the hotel. With Sören as navigator, off we went. Good plan, though we couldn’t find anyplace serving breakfast! The Prague train station and its surrounding area made pre-Guiliani Port Authority look good. Too bad the building itself is such a beautiful Art Nouveau place. I wanted to look around, but it was no place to be lingering.

Turns out that the hotel was about a 20-minute walk from the train station. Since Prague was heavily booked for the Pentecost weekend, we were in a French chain, Manotel, with all the amenities of a business-class hotel-breakfast buffet, pool, sauna, jacuzzi, exercise room. Usually we stay at non-chains, so this was a different type of place for us. They also let us check in before nine! Heaven! We dropped our bags and ate a hearty breakfast at the hotel then went out for an explore. We only walked around about an hour or so as we had booked an afternoon bus tour of the city.

The tour was spartan, but informative, and it was nice to be shuttled around in order to orient ourselves to the city. The only real stop of the tour was the Prague Castle, a collection of palaces in an enclosed courtyard. These were given a uniform façade in the 18th century, and since our tour didn’t go inside, we missed the Renaissance elements. The castle also includes the Cathedral of St. Vitus and St. George’s Convent. To see inside all of these places would have taken more than a weekend. Many of the palaces are now art museums, so I guess I will just have to go back. Some of the palaces are government offices and include the offices of President Vaclav Havel.

We did get inside part of the Cathedral and saw the St. Wenceslas Chapel with its saint’s grave, Gothic frescoes and walls covered with semi-precious stones and gilding. It was very beautiful. A favorite part of the Cathedral was a stained glass window dedicated to SS Cyril and Methodius done by Alphonse Mucha. Now Mucha has been a favorite of mine for a long time, and I always thought he was French. Ha! He was Czech! The things ya learn traveling.

The exterior of the Cathedral was stunning, especially the 14th century Cathedral entrance. The cathedral was started as a rotunda in the 10th century, expanded to a basilica in the 11th century, made into a Gothic cathedral in the 14th century and has a number of 19th and 20th century additions to increase its size and grandeur. The façade of the cathedral has a 14th century fresco of the Last Judgement. Gorgeous. (No, I don’t memorize this stuff. I have the Eyewitness Travel Guide to Prague in front of me.)

Another great feature of the Castle was the views it afforded of Prague. It’s built on a hill, in good defensive form, so we got some lovely shots of the surroundings.

After the tour, Matt and Sören decided to avail themselves of the pool and sauna, but I hit the Mucha Museum, a wonderful collection not only of his graphics work but his oils. It also outlined his fervent nationalism. When Czechoslovakia became a country after WWI, he was so thrilled that he designed the money, the stamps, the medals, and had a hand in designing the magnificent Municipal House. Mucha was then a world-famous artist, so this was a great service. The museum also had a brief film about his life and career. It was sad that this fervent nationalist lived to see the Nazis invade Czechoslovakia. Indeed, they called him in for questioning since he was both famous and a nationalist. This broke his health and he died shortly thereafter, at least being spared full-blown WWII.

Next day I was off again in the morning since I have a taste for churches and walking not matched by my spouse and offspring. Thank God for pools, eh?

Of course I had to visit the Church of Our Lady Victorious, home of the famous Infant of Prague. It’s a small Baroque church with a special chapel for the Infant. He’s small–that was my initial reaction, but in good counter-reformation style, He’s surrounding by angels, cherubim, gilt, silver, you name it. He is a wax effigy, presented to the Carmelites in the church in 1628. I don’t know what it was, but there was definitely “something” in the air around Him. I prayed for everyone there, and had one of those moments of awe that are so miraculous to feel nowadays. It was something I won’t be forgetting.

I had joked about it before I got to Prague, not really knowing much about the Infant except it was something prominent in Polish-American homes (Poland being next to the Czech Republic), but that didn’t last long! There was a sense of something sacred in that little church.

After that experience I made my way over to the High Baroque Church of St. Nicholas. Whew! It was like gorging on a kilo of truffles visiting that place-gilding, copper, faux marble statues three times larger than life. It’s beautiful in its own way, but not to my tastes. That counter-reformation showing off isn’t my style. Prague churches seem to be heavy on it, though. Still, I recommend a stop.

A little story-after I left the church, I strolled around the neighborhood, looked in some shops and then crossed the Charles Bridge over the River Vltava and headed to a shop that had been recommended by a friend. I get there, chose some things, went to get my wallet-it’s gone! Panic! The only place I’d had my wallet open was in St. Nicholas, but there’s lots of warnings out about thieves. So I rushed back to St. Nicholas–a 15 minute walk if not futzing–panicking on the way–my money, my Amex, my permit for Swiss residence, my license. Oy! I get to the church and someone had handed it in to the desk with everything intact! I guess all that church visiting and praying paid off.

So, after my little adventure I walked back to the hotel to meet up with the guys, just soaking up the beauty of Prague.

That afternoon we all strolled through the oldest part of Prague, with its astrological clock. On the hour, Death strikes a bell and the windows above the clock open and the 11 apostles and St. Paul walk past. Then at the final bell, a cock crows and it’s another hour’s wait. More beautiful frescoed buildings, statues, just took much to take in, really.

From there we strolled over to the old Jewish Quarter. We looked in at the old Jewish cemeteries but didn’t go in. In the 1920s-30s the old Jewish ghetto was razed and the most gorgeous Art Nouveau apartment buildings were put up in their place. I fell in love. I could move there in a minute, loving the style as I do. All I could do was ogle and take pictures. If I didn’t have to deal with yet another language, I’d move there in a minute! I couldn’t believe how well kept they were, either. Next stop was the gorgeous Municipal House–Mucha’s Art Nouveau treasure. I could be a happy woman in Prague!An apartment building in the Jewish Quarter

The next day we did something a little different. We took a bus tour out of the city about an hour to a place called Terezin. It had been built as an imperial fort and prison, but it became infamous as a concentration camp and Gestapo prison after the Nazi invasion. Sören told me about it–the Nazis used it as a dupe in some propaganda for the International Red Cross.

The Gates of TerezinOff we went early Sunday morning. Sören and I expected it to be evil with an oppressive atmosphere, but except for a slight shiver and raised arm hairs when we went in, it was basically a neutral place. It was sad hearing the stories and seeing the place–imagining the suffering–but the evil went with the people who perpetrated it. The entire complex is now a memorial to the people who were there as prisoners. So many were sent to the death camps, many more just died. Few made it out.

We toured the Gestapo prison–a scary enough place–and then went to the concentration camp side. A school from when it was a town was made into the barracks for boys 10-15. This has been turned into a memorial museum mainly about the children who were killed, but including some information on the adults as well. It was a sad history lesson for Matt, but one I’m very glad he experienced.

Then we drove through the town on the bus and went to the cemetery and crematorium. At the beginning, the Jews were buried, but then there were too many. Terezin was never an extermination camp, but the death rate due to hunger, cold, disease and trauma was horrible. It was chilling to hear about it, but the cemetery itself has many memorials put in after the war and it’s in the middle of a beautiful, peaceful meadow. The only noise we heard was birdsong, really. There’s also a small section of cemetery for Soviet soldiers.

I know I spent a lot of time there praying–for the dead but for the living as well, so that we may stop our senseless killing of one another. I don’t think we learned anything during WWII and its aftermath–name a continent where we’re not killing senselessly. Even my native country, while not actively maintaining a war on our continent, has an appalling murder rate, a legal death penalty and a careless attitude towards life. The cemetery itself was oddly not a sad place, but the thoughts it made me have about humans’ inhumanity to humans made me sad.

It was a sobering trip and not a usual holiday stop, but I’m glad we made it. Our tour guide was a former teacher. Her father was Jewish and he lost both of his parents in Auschwitz. He was able to escape to Palestine where he joined the British Army and fought with them for the duration. She didn’t mention this until the trip back, and then only in a quiet conversation, but it lent authenticity to her presentation.

Well, that’s the highlights of Prague. One final word about the food–it’s heavy! Pork, duck and dumplings prominently featured! And of course, beer. The beer is good-the food is good, as well, but not for those on diets! Between the three of us over the weekend we had duck with dumplings, goulash with dumplings, fried chicken and chips, wiener schnitzel (spelling anyone?), steak with plum sauce (delish), lots of pickled red cabbage and apple struedel. Thank goodness we walked a lot! I don’t think I could eat like that for long, though. I felt leaden. I did have a delicious local white wine at dinner one night. It was unlike anything Swiss or German–very light and dry. Too bad one never sees Czech wine in the local shops.

So, that was it–our three days in Prague. I heartily recommend you visiting! And I can’t wait to go back.

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