Saturday, 3 November 2012

Prague: The Final Day

My parents and I had very different last days in Prague. They needed to be at the airport by about 11 AM in order to make their 1 PM flight, whereas my flight wasn't until 10 PM--giving me another full day of touring before I had to head back north.

There is not a whole lot that you can comfortably and easily do in a single morning, but we still managed to make the most of our last couple of hours together. First, we headed back to the Astronomical Clock in order to grab ourselves a good position and see the full display--not just the bell-ringing of the skeleton, but also the parade of apostles going past the window. We arrived about 15 minutes before the hour, and simply stood our ground until the big event. That seems to be what you have to do to get a good view; if you get there just before the show, as we had done previously, there will already be a big crowd, and you'll be forced to stand off to the side.

My mom and I had both read about the Prague Metronome, and were interested in seeing it but didn't want to have to walk that far away (it's to the north of the Old Town Square, and across the river). Fortunately, we discovered that you can see it very well from the Square itself, and so we walked over to the north side of the Square and looked down Parizska street in order to admire the Metronome from afar:

The structure was erected where a statue of Stalin once stood--and not just any old statue, but, at 30 m high and weighing 14,000 tons, the world's biggest. It was created in 1955, shortly after Stalin's death, but then dynamited in 1962 to aid Krushchev in his goal to "airbrush Stalin out of history." 

You'll notice that the sky looks a bit gloomier than usual in the Metronome shot; that's because the weather had taken a decided turn for the wintry. It was quite chilly, and the blustery air was full of finger-stiffening moisture. I was very glad that I'd saved my warmest outfit for the last day, because I definitely needed it. I had laughed at my mother for packing gloves, but by this point in the trip I was beginning to see how those might come in handy. There are few things that can make you appreciate British weather, but this put our relatively mild autumn and winter temperatures in perspective.

While walking across the Old Town Square to head back to our hotel, we stumbled across the Prague Meridian, which I'd read about before but not noticed during our previous trips through the Square. It looks mysterious and unusual because there is absolutely nothing around to give it context. A little research revealed that it marks the spot where the Marian Column (now gone) used to cast its shadow at noon.

Another thing we stopped to admire for the first time was the Grand Cafe Orient, Prague's only Cubist cafe (this trip was full of Cubism). On several occasions, we had noticed groups of people standing outside the Cafe, snapping pictures of its facade, but because it doesn't look all that exciting, we couldn't figure out what the big deal was. Amazingly, the cafe was closed in 1920 and only reopened just a few years ago (in 2005). It's sad to think that the building sat unused for all that time, because its designer, Josef Gocar, put an amazing amount of effort into his creation; every single detail, from the windows to the stair railings to the coat hooks, is in the Cubist style. I can verify this because, later in the day, I went back to have lunch there.

It's actually quite a neat little place; because it had such consistent historical decor, I could easily imagine what it was like 100 years ago. I think I would be tempted to frequent the Grand Orient if I were a Prague resident--and, in fact, some of the patrons who were there during my visit seemed to be regulars, judging from their interactions with the waiters.

But I digress--back to doing things in chronological order. My parents and I headed back to the hotel, where we all grabbed our bags and checked out. Their hired car (or, as I called it, "escort service") arrived early, so before we knew it, we were saying goodbye and parting ways. In some respects it was quite weird to see my parents in Prague, since we're all from the US and I live in the UK, and there we were having a family reunion in this third country to which we'd never been before. If we'd all arrived together it wouldn't have seemed so unusual, but showing up separately and reuniting in this new place kind of made me feel as though the rendezvous was a huge coincidence (I had the same feeling a couple of years ago when my husband and I met up in London after flying in separately from different countries).

I think that a lot of the weirdness stems from the fact that it is strange to live as an expatriate. No matter where you go, everything is simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. Prague felt familiar in many ways because it's European, and I live in Europe (yes, that's right, no matter how much British people may protest it, the UK is still part of Europe). But, even though I live in Europe, I'm still American, and so Prague also felt foreign. Whether you're a long-term traveler or a permanent expat, you can go long periods of time feeling very comfortable in your new location, but then you will inevitably have an encounter or an experience that reminds you that you'll always be an outsider in some way or another. Then you go back to your country of origin and feel the same way there. Suddenly, no matter where you go, you don't quite fit in. But, you know, that's life, and if nothing else, at least it's interesting.

Since I'm on the theme of not fitting in, I suppose it's a good time to mention the Dancing Building, a.k.a. the Fred and Ginger Building, which is one of the first places I went after my parents departed. It was built in 1996 by Frank Gehry and Vlado Milunic and, as you can see, contrasts rather starkly with the lovely old-fashioned facades of its neighboring buildings. When you first see the Dancing Building, you are tempted to say "Ugh!" but the longer you look at it, the more appealing it becomes; it's just so unusual and interesting and seems like it must have required quite a bit of skill to achieve.

It's located along the river in the Nove Mesto section of the city, which is farther south than I'd previously ventured. I took my time wandering around the district and taking in the sights along the river, before heading northwest and returning to Wenceslas Square. There, I was able to admire the National Museum up close and personal--this time in the daylight, as opposed to the view I'd gotten the night before when we drove past in our taxi on the way to dinner.

(This picture was taken through the car window, so please ignore the reflections in the upper right!)

I also headed over to see good King Wenceslas riding on his horse. As with the St. George and the Dragon statue over next to St. Vitus Cathedral, there were some serious lighting issues because of how overcast the sky was--and, of course, the statue (like pretty much every other structure in the city) was quite dark because it was covered with more than a few layers of residue from various sources of air pollution.

Towards the other end of Wenceslas Square, I ran into the impressive Grand Hotel Europa, which I'd somehow managed to overlook during my last visit to the area. Lonely Planet says it's now become a tourist trap, which is a real shame--it's a gorgeous building and I had been tempted to go eat lunch there in order to see if the interior was as attractive as the exterior.

Instead of having any sort of proper lunch, I wound up having just about the unhealthiest thing I could find on the whole square. But you know what? That's what vacation is all about. Mostly I was just performing an experiment; I'd seen people wandering around eating tubes of bread, and I wanted to know what that was all about. So, when I located those tubes for sale, I just had to have one. Judging from the sign, this particular baked good is known as "motanec." All you need to know, though, is that it tastes amazing.

You start off with batter/dough that is brushed on to very hot metal tubes that hang over a charcoal fire. Judging from appearances, there are multiple layers of batter/dough on each tube.

You let the tubes heat up and bake through the batter/dough until, eventually, the bread has a nice brown exterior. Then you brush some butter over it and roll it through a mixture of sugar, cinnamon, and almonds:

Then you pull the bread off the tubes in ~6-inch chunks and upend them on the counter so that customers can easily grab them:

As a customer, you pay your 50 crowns and then are given a paper towel so you can choose which tube you'd like.

Then you go find a nice quiet place where you can eat every last bite in stunned and satisfied silence. Or, at least, that is what I did. As I was licking every morsel of food off my fingertips and paper towel, I recalled that I'd once seen something similar to this on the Food Network; if I remember correctly, it was a traditional indulgence made somewhere in Germany. I'm curious as to whether this became a "traditional" Czech food because the country was once part of the Hapsburg Empire, or whether there are many versions of this delicacy throughout this particular region of Europe. Either way, if I had steady access to this wonderful thing, I think I would become very fat, very fast.

Something else that looked quite tasty, but which I did not try, were the skewers of baked potato slices (basically, as I mentioned in a previous post, thin, round French fries).

On the topic of food, I also visited the Prague Tesco in order to do some food shopping for my Foodie Penpal. I kept trying to find little specialist markets, but was having a really hard time locating a place to buy "regular" food. It felt weird to go grocery shopping in a Tesco, where things looked very familiar but were mostly in Czech. I never got a response from my Foodie Penpal after I mailed her package, so I guess she wasn't very excited about what I sent. That is too bad, because I spent ages trying to find things that were appropriate, within the 10-pound budget, and portable. I bought her some candy, a spice rub, some powdered soups in Czech flavors (they seemed to be quite popular--I saw one guy grab at least 10 of them while I was picking out the ones I wanted), and some cracker-y snacks. Admittedly it was all on the junk food end of the spectrum, but I figured it might be fun and interesting. I guess not. It's a shame I wasn't able to get the thing that Czechs really seem to specialize in:

Sausage. Lots and lots of sausage. And, in fact, meat in general. This portion of the store--and the part of Wenceslas Square where they were selling all the traditional Czech food--smelled amazing. My mind knows that sausage is gross, but my nose and stomach feel otherwise.

After lunch, I changed focus completely, and headed back to the Jewish Quarter in order to tour the synagogues and cemetery. Until my mother showed a great deal of interest in this part of the city, I hadn't felt that much urgency about seeing these destinations. However, decided to go and document the experience so that she could live vicariously through me. I ended up finding the sites interesting and beautiful, and I was glad that I had gone to see them. Unfortunately, several of the places I visited--including the two most impressive ones--allowed no photography.

That was the case with the first stop on the tour--the Pinkas Synagogue, originally built in 1535 and used for its intended purpose until 1941. After the war, it was converted into a memorial. Its walls are covered with the names of the nearly 77,300 Czech victims (Jewish or otherwise) who were killed by the Nazis during WWII. It looks as though all the names were hand-painted; I can't imagine how long it must have taken to create the memorial. There are several rooms with floor-to-ceiling lists of victims, which really helps you comprehend just how massive a number 77,300 really is. I have seen several such memorials around the world, but this was definitely the most powerful.

Outside the synagogue is the Old Jewish Cemetery, which is full of thousands of gravestones--an estimated 12,000, atop as many as 100,000 graves. The cemetery was used from the early 15th century until 1787, at which point, I'm guessing, the city's Jewish community began using the New Jewish Cemetery (they're very inventive with names in Prague) across town. Although the Lonely Planet says that you should not expect any solitude in the Cemetery, given how popular it is with tourists, I actually spent quite a lot of my visit alone--which was great for doing photography unhindered.

Many of the gravestones have little images, at the very top, that indicate what the deceased did during their lives. I'm guessing the person who was buried here was a fisherman or fishmonger. There are also little pairs of hands to indicate pianists (of which there appear to have been quite a few).

Although the bulk of the gravestones were fairly subtle, there were a few with more ornate carvings. The lion, below, seemed to be a good hangout spot for ladybird beetles:

The most amazing sight/site of all, the Spanish Synagogue, was just a couple blocks over. I was able to take a photograph of the exterior, but, sadly, was not allowed to document the inside. This is a real shame, because the Synagogue was easily the most beautiful building that I saw during my entire time in Prague. There was seemingly not a single square inch that was not decorated in some fashion or another; the predominant color was a rich maroon, covered with gilt scroll work. It was truly breathtaking. The entire facility doubled as a museum, and contained exhibits on history and culture. My favorite display was the one containing all the Torah pointers that people use to keep their place and turn pages while reading the Torah; the tips are almost always in the shape of little hands with outstretched index fingers.

(Very strange statue outside the Spanish Synagogue)
Just across the street from the Synagogue was a Christian church, and both of the buildings were capturing the late afternoon light in a very dramatic way. By this point in the afternoon, the sky had cleared up considerably, so the spires and cupolas and towers were all very photogenic.

I also saw this attractive display outside a restaurant around the corner:

By the time I was done with the synagogue tour, the sun was beginning to set and my feet were beginning to feel sore, so I headed back to the hotel to have a cup of tea and await the arrival of my taxi. The rest of the evening was pretty uneventful, really--I checked my e-mails and re-packed my carry-on and prepared to return to real life the following day. 

Once I arrived at the airport, I indulged in two delicious regional specialties--goulash and soft pretzels:

Upon my return to the UK, I grabbed a taxi and headed to my hotel for a much-needed night of sleep before the long train ride home the next morning. Amazingly, my Somali taxi driver had family and friends in both Ohio and Virginia, so we struck up a conversation about the US, the growing communities of African immigrants in some states, and the potential outcome of the upcoming election (for the record, he was very pro-Obama, but felt sure that Romney would win on November 6th). My conversation with him was a striking reminder that the world is somehow both very big and very small, all at the same time. There we were, two immigrants from totally different places and with totally different experiences, yet still linked in some way. Our surprising and pleasant encounter seemed a fitting way to end my journey.

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