Saturday, 13 October 2012

Prague: Day 1

Apparently, Prague is known as the "City of a Thousand Spires." The logic of this name became clear to me during the taxi ride from the airport to my hotel, when a massive spire suddenly loomed to my right out of the rain and fog hanging over the city. I couldn't see much, but what little there was was impressive. Given that I'd already been hit on in the airport (admittedly, by a bunch of drunk Brits on a stag do, but whatever), Prague was looking pretty good.

My hotel, the K+K Hotel Central, was also looking pretty good. It's the kind of place I would never book for myself, but am quite happy to stay in when directed that way by a travel agent. From its stained glass windows to its frescoes to its elaborate metal filigree stair railings and elevator shaft, it is quite the shining example of Art Deco style (of which, incidentally, there is no shortage in this city). Also, it has a spa where you can get 90-minute massages for less than $100. What is not to love?

For my first day of sightseeing, I decided to follow the Lonely Planet's walking tour itinerary for the Hradcany district (apologies for the lack of appropriate diacritical marks throughout). Hradcany is the area to the north and west of Prague castle, which, in turn, is situated to the west of where the Vltava River makes a major bend southwards. The district is primarily residential, though it also contains a number of landmarks and other interesting things for tourists to see and do.

To get there, I would first have to walk through one of the biggest tourist areas in the city--the Old Town Square and its environs. Since I anticipated visiting those on another day, I tried to walk through quickly. However, it is difficult to navigate the press of tourists that seems to populate the square at any given time; people are forever stopping to take pictures or window shop or watch a busker, and nobody seems to realize that other people around them might actually want to get somewhere prior to sundown. It is immensely frustrating. 

Once you find yourself hemmed in and crawling along, it is hard to avoid looking at all the interesting things around you. The reason that so many people stop to take pictures is that there is a seemingly endless supply of things to photograph in Prague: gargoyles, frescoes, reliefs, spires, plaques--and those are just the "normal" buildings, not the landmarks.

By chance, I found myself in front of the Astronomical Clock with a bit of space around me, so I had to stop and take a photograph while I could. Right next to the clock is something potentially even more impressive:

This is the "U minuti" house, a Renaissance building with pretty incredible sgraffito decorations. The property, which dates back to the Renaissance, was once home to everyone's favorite Czech writer--Franz Kafka. In case you are architecturally uninitiated (as was I until 24 hours before I saw this building), I should mention that sgraffito is achieved by layering different colors of plaster. I read the word for the first time in my Prague guidebook while on the plane to Prague, after which I promptly forgot about it and didn't even know what I was looking at when I took this photo; it wasn't until I got home and did some research that I found all this out. That, my friends, is the beauty of traveling: It forces you to learn new things.

By accident, I eventually found myself at the entrance to the Charles Bridge, which I did not want to cross at the busiest time of day. It gets incredibly packed with tourists and, therefore, pickpockets and other scammers. I was happy to cross the bridge early in the morning or later in the evening, but not during the biggest crush of pedestrians. Instead, I walked up to the more northern Manes Bridge, and crossed the Vltava there. This was not only a more direct method of getting to my destination, but also a wonderful way to view the Charles Bridge from a totally different perspective; so many people want to see the iconic bridge from the structure itself, but you get a much better sense of totality and context when you see it from the next bridge over.

From there, I made my way up the hill towards the castle; part of this journey involved walking up a seemingly endless flight of steps (the Old Castle Steps) right in the midday sun. The reward at the end is a rather stunning view of the city:

By this point I'd deviated a bit from my original navigational plan and had begun making silly choices in order to get myself to where I eventually needed to be (a statement that may, in fact, be an accurate description of my life in general). The benefit of meandering a bit is that you wind up finding little treasures along the way:

There are little fountains like this all over the city. I can imagine why/how/when they came into being, but I'm guessing there is not a whole lot of practical purpose for them now. I love that they're still there, though--they add a lot of character.

Around the corner from the fountain was the St. Vitus Cathedral, the foundation stone of which was laid in 1344 on the site of a 10th-century Romanesque rotunda built by Duke Wenceslas (chief patron saint of the Czechs, and the "Good King Wenceslas" referred to in the beloved Christmas carol). It looked pretty breathtaking even though it was under construction:

Also breathtaking was the massive crowd of people lined up to get inside. I have visited a lot of churches and cathedrals--including biggies like Westminster Abbey and Notre Dame--and I have never seen so many people waiting to cram inside. If this is what it's like in October, I would hate to visit Prague during the peak of the tourist season.

I swung round the north side of the cathedral and eventually made my way over the Powder Bridge and up to the Royal Garden. Just outside the garden was a building with some more impressive sgraffito; from a distance, the dark triangles at the bottom made the wall look 3D, as though it is made of textured stones rather than flat plaster on brick:

The Garden itself was a lovely respite from all the throngs of people that I'd encountered everywhere else. There were only a handful of other people there, which I found surprising--it was an absolutely incredible day, with no trace of the moody weather from the night before, and with temperatures warm enough to render jackets unnecessary.

Perhaps because of the mild weather, the plants were still looking vibrant and happy, though autumn was in evidence thanks to the yellowing (and falling) of many leaves.

Also in the garden were the Summer House (a.k.a. the Belvedere) and the Ball-Game House, two beautiful buildings erected in the 16th century by Ferdinand I. I exited the garden next to the Summer House in order to proceed to the "starting point" of my tour, which should have been quite close by. Actually, it was quite close by, but I just wasn't sure how to get there. The walking path ran parallel to two tram lines, and I wasn't sure if I was allowed to just cross over the tram lines to go down a perpendicular street. Rather than risk being yelled at or, more importantly, electrocuted, I took the long way around. As a result, I wound up having a couple of wildlife encounters:


(Remnants of a massive flock of jackdaws and rooks that were foraging together on the lawn of the Ministry of Defense building around which I was walking.)

At some point during this walk, I was suddenly hit by the desire to listen to the third movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 17 in D minor. I realize how pretentious this sounds, so let me explain. Colin Farrell plays this song on the piano in the new version of Total Recall, and it is gorgeous. I had never heard it before, but I downloaded it at soon as we returned from the cinema. Since then, I frequently find myself needing to listen to it at random moments; in this case, I plugged in my headphones and wandered down Na Valech watching birds and looking at Prague's ridiculous collection of architecture. If you want to add drama to an already dramatic city, Beethoven is the way to go. 

Another way to add a bit of spice to your day is getting lost and walking in circles while looking for an obscure monument. Try, for example, locating the Pisek Gate from the southwest rather than approaching it, as the guidebook suggests, from the north. After a while I decided I no longer cared, and was happy to move on to stop 2 on the Lonely Planet walking tour. Only after I got home and looked for the Gate on Google Images did I realize that I actually had seen the monument, but simply hadn't recognized it for what it was. I really wish I'd known that before I wasted 20 minutes making an ass of myself by walking back and forth in front of cafe diners who were probably wondering what on earth I was up to.

In any case, near the Gate were two Cubist houses painted in very bright colors. I didn't take any photos because I thought how annoyed I'd be if I lived in those homes and always had people snapping photographs out front. To be honest, they weren't all that exciting anyway, though they did teach me that Cubism was a style that could be applied to architecture as well as paintings--yet another artistic fact of which I was previously unaware prior to reading the Prague guide book. 

With those two landmarks checked off my list, I retraced my steps back across the Powder Bridge, just in time to see 3 new soldiers arrive for the changing of the guard. The soldiers around the castle area (and perhaps the whole city?) are a curious mixture of British Beefeater and US Tomb of the Unknown Soldier guard; like the Beefeaters, they will stand completely still and show no expression no matter how many people pose in front of them and snap their pictures, and like the US guards, they have a very ceremonious changeover between shifts. I've never quite understood why people find these changeovers so exciting, but it was pretty impressive to see the new guards marching in with their bayoneted guns shining in the sun.

From there, I made my way through the bustling castle courtyard to Hradcany Square, where I was less impressed by the statue of Tomas Garrigue Masaryk (first president of Czechoslovakia) than I was by this incredibly ornate street lamp:

I also admired the ornate sgraffito (see, I told you it was everywhere) of the Schwarzenberg Palace:

From this point onwards, I had much better luck figuring out where on earth I was going, and how to get there. I exited the square along Kanovnicka, a small cobbled street that I shared with several people who appeared to have just attended a wedding nearby; a few minutes earlier, I'd seen the bride and groom getting post-ceremony photographs in one of the courtyards between the cathedral and the castle. Come to think of it, this may actually be why there were so many people waiting outside the cathedral--perhaps that's where the wedding took place, and visitors could not enter until the ceremony was over. Not that I've ever wanted a big wedding, but even I have to admit that the St. Vitus Cathedral would be a pretty amazing place to get hitched.

Speaking of religious buildings, I soon passed the Church of St. John Nepomuk, and although I would have liked to have gone in, it appeared to be closed. So, I proceeded to the eighth portion of the walking tour: Novy Svet, a lovely little residential lane that used to be inhabited by "court artisans and tradesmen." Although the Lonely Planet points out that these homes are not exactly on the scale of the castle and palaces just up the hill, I sure wouldn't complain about living there.

Novy Svet dead-ends at a massive wall, which I assume is the border to Cernin Palace. There is nowhere to go but up--northwards up a long staircase, or southwards up Cerninska. Before doing the latter, I stopped to snap some photographs of the lovely little Romantik Hotel U Raka, which sits in the shade provided by the wall, the hills, and several leafy trees. It is, indeed, quite romantic, and I could see that the hotel's owners anticipated their guests would do lots of romantic snuggling by the fire over the coming months:

At the top of the hill is the Loreta, a shrine to the Virgin Mary. This is a good point to mention that Prague is full to the brim with people who are "professionally religious," if you know what I mean--priests, friars, monks, and, in particular, nuns. All of these get in for free at Loreta, though (surprisingly) I didn't see any there when I arrived--something I found unusual given that Loreta is apparently "a hugely popular place of pilgrimage." I did, however, see plenty of other pilgrims elsewhere in the city, likely heading towards the hundreds of other religious destinations in Prague.

I hadn't intended to go into the Loreta, because it was around 3 PM and I had a couple of other places I wanted to go before they shut at 5. Somehow, though, I found myself wandering in and buying both myself and my camera a pass. I am so glad I did.

The Loreta was full of amazing things, literally from floor to ceiling. Above, for example, is one of the many frescoes that decorated the outdoor walkway. Notice the skeleton at the bottom? He was not the last I would see within the Loreta's walls.

One of the reasons I love old places--and European old places, in particular--is that they have such great stuff. Everyday items like doors and locks are transformed; the lock above, for example, is so fancy you could practically put it on a cord and wear it as a necklace (a bulky one, to be sure, but you get the drift).

Another thing Europe does well is religious decoration. Whatever else you may say about the Catholics, they know how to build breathtaking places of worship. I'm guessing that this level of opulence is not exactly what Jesus had in mind when he began spreading the word of God, but it sure is impressive nonetheless. Actually, my favorite part of this particular place was the smell--I love the smell of old buildings because I love the smell of old wood, and that scent permeated the air here. What I did not love was being watched by a hawk-eyed volunteer attendant who seemed convinced that I was about to deface the property in some way; she made it very hard for me to relax and enjoy myself.

Upstairs was the "treasury." I almost didn't go because I had no idea what that meant, but it was the best part of the whole visit. There was a vault lined with precious items made of diamonds, gold, coral, ivory, ebony, and other priceless materials; it was a small collection, but, still, the amount of opulence was enough to boggle the mind. 

This, for example, is an ebony crucifix with an ivory Jesus and skull-and-crossbones. The detail was amazing--Jesus even had toenails, and the skull had teeth. Speaking of skulls...'s Mr. Skeleton again (in the actual creepy lighting in which he was displayed)...

...and yet again. Early Catholics were a bit morbid, to say the least. The first skeleton was part of a mural on a wall at the far end of the hallway, set aside from the rest of the hall by thick velvet curtains. It had absolutely no explanation, so I'm not sure what it was, why it was important, or what it showed. The second skeleton, however, was a decoration on the door of what I'm pretty sure was called a "mortuarium." It was a cabinet that came from a monastery, and inside were details of all the monks who died--their names, for instance, and information on the important things they had achieved during their lives. Even though this is a pretty positive purpose for the cabinet, the decoration on the front makes it seem dark and depressing.

An antidote to all this could be found outside, where I walked up past a row of cherubs in order to make my way to the Strahov Monastery, founded in 1140 by Vladislav II. The buildings I visited, though, "only" date to the 17th and 18th centuries. I made a beeline for the Strahov Library, which is kind of like a real-life version of the library that is built for Belle in Disney's Beauty and the Beast.

Visitors can look into the two main reading halls, but they can't actually go in. However, it is possible to look at the many biological curios (with a few cultural items thrown in for good measure) that are crammed into the cabinets out in the hallways. There are several dozen birds' nests, many collections of butterflies and moths, shells, various sea creatures, and a narwhal tusk. Next to the tusk are also two whale penises. That's not something you get to see every day.

Across the courtyard from the library was the one attraction I knew I had to see while I was in Prague: the Miniature Museum. Described by Lonely Planet as "weird but fascinating," the museum features the work of Anatoly Konyenko. Appropriately, the museum is quite small--basically one large room with an alcove, housing 20-30 stands with either a microscope or a magnifying glass. On each stand is a miniature of some sort--miniature reproductions of paintings, the world's smallest book, carvings made out of poppy seeds, sculptures placed in the eye of a needle, and so on. They are incredible. You cannot see them and not smile. Perhaps the most amazing thing is that you can easily go back and forth between naked-eye viewing and lens-assisted viewing; this is useful for convincing your brain that you really are seeing what your eyes say you are seeing. That, without a doubt, was the coolest museum I've ever visited.

I finished up the walking tour by heading along the Petrin Lookout Tower footpath, though I didn't actually go up to the tower; I figured it would be closing soon, plus I thought it was a bit expensive for something that doesn't give you a view that is that much better than what you can get for free at the many lookouts strategically placed on this (higher) side of the river. So, I eventually wandered down the hill and through the streets that led me inexorably to Charles Bridge.

There, I listened to some buskers whose music was just too good to pass by. In fact, it was so good that I bought their album. The lead singer is Matej Ptaszek, and the guitarist and washboardist are the new partners he has recently acquired after parting ways with his former collaborator. Evidently, the new group do not yet have a name or an album, but I will keep my eye on Matej's website in the hopes that something will come along soon (click here to see a brief YouTube clip of their performance.)

After that, I finished my stroll across the bridge and meandered through the streets near Old Town in an effort to look for any restaurants or shops I might want to visit before leaving the city; I was particularly interested in buying some food to include in this month's Foodie Penpal parcel. I came up empty, though I did manage to locate a Starbuck's, a McDonald's, and a TGI Fridays (*sigh*). Had it not been Saturday night, I might have been tempted to try a Czech restaurant for dinner. However, even at just 5:30 PM, the atmosphere in the streets was rapidly changing from "family-friendly" to "party-friendly," and the last thing I wanted was to be a single lady out on the town in the middle of that. So, I made my way back to the hotel with the plan to get up early the next morning to experience Charles Bridge at sunrise (as recommended by--you guessed it--the Lonely Planet guide). My other big plan was to have a 90-minute massage at the hotel's spa--my reward for the nearly 6 (well-spent) hours devoted to exploring Hradcany on foot.

Next up: I rendezvous with my parents and do more sightseeing...and eating!

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