Thursday, 25 October 2012

Prague: Day 2 (The Wild Goose Chase)

I am not a very decadent person, but I do have quite a weakness for massages. When I found out that the Hotel Central has a spa, I wasted no time in booking myself a 90-minute full-body massage for the morning of my second day in Prague. I was so eager to begin that I even showed up before the masseuse did. The hotel's exercise and spa facilities were tucked away on the bottom floor, and what they lacked in size, they made up for in pleasantness. I especially approved of the massage room's 3D wallpaper, which prominently featured birds:

Some time towards the end of the massage, my parents arrived at the hotel and settled in to their room. After the masseuse had finished working her magic on my muscles, I went upstairs to rinse off all the massage oil and meet up with my family. Nobody had eaten lunch yet, so we headed out to find a suitable restaurant. Along the way, we passed the Powder Gate in all its glory, and my parents were treated to their first taste of the moody stone structures that are so prevalent in Prague.

We ate in a restaurant in Republic Square, where, for the first time, we all got a sense of Czech (or, perhaps, eastern European?) customer service. It was very hard to get anyone's attention for much of anything--ordering, asking for refills, asking for cutlery or condiments, requesting the bill. My poor mother had to eat a beet root salad that had no beet roots, all because she was unable to get the waitress to come back over so she could explain what had gone wrong with her order. While we were in the Square, we also checked out the restaurant that I had booked for that evening's dinner--the Kolkovna Celnici, one branch of a local chain that came highly recommended by multiple different "best-of-Prague" lists.

After our meal, we wandered over to the Old Town Square. The goal was to spend the afternoon seeing the sights nearest our hotel, so that we could spend the next day wandering around on the opposite side of the river.

One of the main features of the square is the statue of Jan Hus, a 14th-century church reformer who was burned at the stake for being a heretic. The anniversary of Hus' death, on 6 July, is celebrated as a national holiday in the Czech Republic.

Also in/on the square is the Church of Saint Nicholas, which provides only very limited access to visitors during the daytime. If you are interested in seeing more of the church, I guess it's wiser to go back in the evenings, during one of their frequent organ concerts. To be honest, though, I found the outside of the building more attractive than the inside, though there was a very cool decoration on the door:

Next, thanks to some fortuitous timing, we were able to walk over and watch the Astronomical Clock display that kicks off every hour on the hour. Unfortunately, we were slightly off-center, so although we were able to see the movement of the skeleton as he rang his bell, we were not able to see the 12 apostles as they paraded in front of the open windows. We decided that we'd need to visit again later in order to see the entire show. While we were there, we admired the sgraffito on the Minute House, and I captured the cheerful colors of this lovely facade just around the corner:

Just north of the Old Town Square is Josefov, the Jewish district. We decided to head up there and check out the old cemetery and the many synagogues. Along the way, we passed these wonderful balconies, which were just some of the many structures in the city being supported by long-suffering, chiseled stone men:

(If this is what it takes to get abs of steel, I'll just live with what I've got)

Unfortunately, we discovered that the cemetery/synagogue tickets were quite expensive, and also that the grounds were very busy that afternoon. So, we decided to put that attraction off until the next day, and instead go stroll across the Charles Bridge; by that point in the afternoon it was late enough that we thought we could avoid the horrendous crowds that tend to gather there during the peak of tourist activity.

On our way to the bridge, we passed by this doorway, which I never would have noticed if I hadn't been with my parents. However, having recently gone on many guided tours in cities along the Danube, they were replete with cultural awareness and so recognized this bit of "graffiti" for what it really was: a blessing written in celebration of Epiphany. Although some people think that the three letters (K, M, and B) stand for the first names of the three wise men, that is apparently just a coincidence; instead, they are a modern derivative of "Christus Benedicat Mansion" ("May Christ bless this house").

From the bridge, we had an excellent view of some of Prague's many spires; the most dominant in the image above are those of the Saint Vitus Cathedral. Our walk across the bridge was quite leisurely, since we read about each of the bridge's 30 statues as we walked. My favorite was the statue of Saint John of Nepomuk, whose church I had walked past the evening before.

I obviously have very good taste in statues, because St. John is an important guy--he is the patron saint of Czechs. He was tossed off the bridge by Wenceslas IV, and reportedly "the stars in his halo allegedly followed his corpse" as it floated down the river. The gold halo--and matching quill--are the main reasons I like this statue, though I also think the weathering is very striking. 

The base of the statue contains several bronze panels, each of which possesses a patch that has little or no oxidation. We were puzzled by this until we read that there is a legend that says you will return to Prague one day if you rub one of these panels; the polished areas were places where hundreds of tourists had touched the plaques each day over the course of many years. We all partook in this tradition, as demonstrated in the photo above. After reaching the far side of the bridge, we turned and retraced our footsteps, leaving our exploration of the west side of the Vltava for the following day.

Back on the eastern side of the river, we located our restaurant for the following evening, V Zatisi. This was not too difficult, though it did take us down several windy backstreets. There were many lovely serendipitous finds along the way, including this incredible bit of vegetation:

Next, someone (okay, maybe it was me) thought it would be a good idea to try to find the Cubist lamppost mentioned--in, I might add, an incredibly vague way--in the Lonely Planet guide book. My parents both agreed to this readily enough, which is crazy--especially since their plan was to follow me as I led the way there. Nobody should ever follow me anywhere, since my idea of navigation is going with my gut and adhering to Douglas Adams' advice to tail other people who look like they know where they're going.

After managing to accurately locate a couple of shortcuts to get us to a main road, I then directed us in exactly the opposite direction from where we needed to be; we soon found ourselves back at the riverbank, staring at the hideous monstrosity of the Nova Scena, the modern extension of the National Theater:

(This modern monstrosity is what they decided they should build next to the beautiful, elegant, historical National Theater?)

We then followed a series of dead-end leads attempting to locate what was not only theoretically the only Cubist lamppost in the world, but definitely the hardest-to-locate lamppost in the world. The problem was not so much our navigational skills, but rather the detail (or, more accurately, lack thereof) on our map. We walked down so many streets, and around so many blocks. Eventually, and totally by accident, we found ourselves in Wenceslas Square, which happens to be very beautiful in the latter hours of the day.

 (The yellow building on the left is the famous Grand Hotel Europa, which I visited on my last day in Prague; the building at the end of the square is the National Museum, in front of which is a statue of King/Saint Wenceslas himself.)

Throughout our visit, Wenceslas Square was full of vendors who were selling traditional Czech food; they were all part of a special food heritage celebration that happened to coincide with our trip. The entire square smelled incredible, thanks to things like pastries, sausages (and more sausages, and even more sausages...), fried potatoes, roasted nuts, and various other things I couldn't quite identify. 

By this point in time we were beginning to despair, and I was feeling guilty for making my poor parents walk halfway across Prague for something that probably wasn't even going to be that exciting. Then, miraculously, we exited an arcade and found ourselves at the lamppost, completely by accident--which, I guess, proves that old saying about only finding things once you stop actively seeking them.

(Don't ask why the lighting is so different here; I can't explain it. Perhaps the lamppost was illuminated by the halos of otherwise invisible angels that led us there in order to end our long and painful trek through the city.)

So, there it was, the only Cubist lamppost in the world, in front of which my mother melodramatically collapsed in faux exhaustion. We weren't really sure what, exactly, would make a lamppost Cubist, but once we saw it, it seemed pretty obvious--all those angles and facets and lines. It is kind of interesting, and I'm glad that I can say I saw it, though I'm not 100% convinced that I wouldn't choose to do something else if I could have a do-over (though, to be honest, I probably would seek it out all over again--I find strange enjoyment in doing totally random things like questing for lampposts).

Thankfully, our hotel was pretty near by, so we did not have far to drag ourselves back home so we could rest up a bit before dinner. Unfortunately, my father was still recuperating from a cold that had plagued him during his entire vacation, so he stayed home in bed while my mother and I went out for a ladies' night--one that lasted not only through dinner but also the rest of the evening, since my mom stayed in my room in order to escape my dad's snoring. She definitely needed to get some good rest, because our next day of sightseeing would be even more action-packed than the first.

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