Tuesday, October 13, 2009

It's hard to believe that vacation is over





It’s hard to believe that vacation is over. I’m sitting here on the plane, flying back to the U.S. I still can’t believe how wonderful Prague was. I had only heard good things about the city, but I didn’t think I would consider it to be on par with Rome, Paris, or Barcelona.

The truth is, I enjoyed Prague more than any of the other cities just
mentioned. Every street was charming, every square was picturesque, every park was enchanting. Totally mesmerizing.

We arrived in the city at 2:30 and figured out the metro system pretty quickly(being a New Yorker definitely helps). We were in our hotel at 3:30, and we were ready to explore the city at 4:15. No time to lose!

While everyone immediately heads toward Stare Mesto (Old Town), I put Mala Strana (Lesser Town) on the itinerary first. We took the metro to the Malostranka station, and followed the map to our first landmark, St. Nicholas Church, a masterpiece of high Baroque. From the church, we meandered up Nerudova, a street lined with stunning Baroque houses, many of them having their own little name and history. For example, at Number 12, Nerudova, is “The House of Three Violins”, and there’s a little painted sculpture of three violins above the doorway. The street is dotted with these little palaces, and they’re amazing. We continued up the street, but rather than head to Prague Castle at the top, we turned left halfway up the street and went down a few steps onto Jansky Vrsek, a little street that takes you into the quiet heart of upper Mala Strana. As we strolled, we encountered the American Embassy (the police guarding the embassy looking very out of place). Further down, we went into the Church of Our Lady Victorious, which contains the famous “Infant Jesus of Prague”, a wax statue of baby Jesus on an altar. A service was being conducted, and we got to see the ceremony; I filmed the congregation singing in front of the statue. From there, we went to Maltezske namesti (Maltese Square), a church that belongs to the Knights of Malta. Great Romanesque design. I followed the walk outlined in my guidebook, and spent the next hour completely amazed at the architecture around me. The quiet, cobblestone streets, the beautiful restaurants, and the buildings. Oh, the buildings! Each one more charmng and impressive than the next. We wandered into Velkoprevorske namesti, another big (but quiet) square, and saw the French Embassy on the right. To our left, though, was quite a sight: The John Lennon Peace Wall. Allow me to digress a bit and give you the history of this fascinating wall.

On December 8th, 1980, John Lennon was killed. Lennon's death sent shock waves around the world, and Prague was no exception. In 1980 though, simply singing a Lennon song in public could get you thrown in jail for perpetrating subversive activities against the state. Despite this, an anonymous group of youths stole away in the middle of the night, and risking capture and severe punishment, set up a mock grave to honor their underground hero. It ticked off the Commie police, and captured the imagination of the population at large. Despite repeated warnings, Lennon's fans, and believers of his message of peace would slip into the square and stealthily jot town their thoughts on the subject. The wall was whitewashed over and over again, but paintings and lyrics of love and hope continued to appear. The wall soon became an informal political forum for those daring enough to voice their grievances against the Communist regime. Shortly after the Velvet Revolution in 1989 the wall was returned to its original owners, the Knights of Malta. The Knights weren't much more understanding than their Commie predecessors and were about to whitewash the wall again, however, the French Ambassador intervened. His office looked directly onto the graffiti covered wall. He liked the wall. He called up the municipal authorities and asked them to leave the wall as it is. This sparked a minor diplomatic incident, but the wall remained. The wall has evolved over the years, and while the current messages lack some of the anti-communist punch of the old wall, but you can still see the occasional heartfelt message from believers who continue to imagine all the people living life in peace. Vising the wall was one of my favorite moments in my entire time in Prague.

From the wall, we walked over a little bridge over the Certovka stream, to a beautiful little park, Kampa Park. One one side of the park were quaint little footbridges and mills. On the other side, a wonderful view of the Vltava river. The peacefulness of the park, the view over the water, and the color of the sky as twilight approached was just overwhelming.

We walked out of the park and headed north to Na Kampe, a scenic street lined with little hotels and restaurants on both sides. As you wander up the street, you encounter the steps that lead to Prague’s best known site, the Charles Bridge. The bridge is magical, like a scene from a Disney movie. As we walked quietly among the hundreds of other visitors, we checked out the statues lining the bridge, each with a story to tell. We listened to musicians on the bridge, and weaved around vendors selling handcrafted jewelry and paintings. I looked to the north side and couldn’t believe how lovely it was, the water below, Kampa Park in the foreground, and the moon rising above. On the left side, rows of ornate houses, with Prague Castle gleaming above in the twilight. It was a picture postcard come to life, and I was starting to experience sensory overload. I started to wonder if anything could possibly top this, and then I looked off down into the river below, and I saw two white swans, gliding along side by side. Amazing.

We arrived on the eastern side of the bridge, along with the throngs of other tourists. The majority of them were continuing their walk toward Old Town Square, we took a left and went into St. Francis church. A classical concert was about to begin in a few minutes, featuring compositions from Handel, Mozart, and Bach played on the church’s organ. The interior design of the church was incredibly ornate, and the church’s acoustics were perfect. I took many photographs as the organ played in the background. The concert ended at 9:00, and we walked back over the bridge, back to the Mala Strana, for a quiet, romantic meal in a nice restaurant. In looking back over the trip, this night was undoubtedly the most memorable.

Thursday started out a bit cloudy. The plan was to check out Stare Mesto, the Old Town. We took the metro to the station Namesti Republiky and began our walk at Powder Tower, a late-Gothic remnant of the Old Town’s original fortification system. It marks the start of the Royal coronation route. It’s called Powder Tower because that was the tower’s early purpose: to hold gunpowder to defend the city. We climbed to the top of the tower (a brutal set of spiral stairs) and got a great look at the city.

Before proceeding down Celetna street and starting the Royal route, we took a peek inside the Municipal House, an ornate Art Nouveau building from the early 20th century, and current home of the Prague Symphony Orchestra. The building also housed a café, French restaurant, traditional pub, and cocktail bar.

We started walking the coronation route, and our first building was the Museum of Czech Cubism, also known as the House of the Black Madonna. We took a little detour to the left to see the Estates Theater, a historic theater that in 1787 saw the world premiere of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, conducted by Mozart himself. Back on the main route, and in no time we were in Old Town Square , the heart of Old Town. The square has been the center of the city’s economic life for nearly 1000 years. It is one of the most beautifully preserved Gothic and Baroque spaces in Europe. In the center is a statue of Jan Hus, the Czech Protestant reformer. Behind the statue is the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, a beautiful church with twin Gothic spires that dates from the 14th century. Across the square is Old Town Hall. On the ground outside the Hall you can see 27 X’s marking the spot where in 1621, the Hapsburgs beheaded 27 Bohemian noblemen, to frighten the locals into accepting Austrian rule. We took the elevator to the top of the tower, where the view of the square below was fantastic.

Right next to the Old Town Hall is the city’s number one crowd pleaser: the astronomical clock. At the top of the hour, a brief, eerie little morality play unfolds; two doors slide open and the 12 apostles go past, while some 15th century symbols of evil – death, vanity, corruption, and greed, shake and dance below. It’s almost as much fun to watch the crowd as it is to watch the clock.

After the clock, we went down Melantreichova Street to see a genuine bit of Prague: the Havelska Market, where we saw vendors selling fruits and vegetables, as well as souvenirs. From there, we meandered down busy Karlova street, which eventually deposited us at the base of the Charles Bridge. This is probably Prague’s most beloved attraction, as I noted above. Once again, we wandered over the bridge, enjoying the performers, the vendors, the statues, and the views.

From the bridge, we walked beneath, to the Smetana Embankment, and encountered the neo-Renaissance National Theater, a true architectural stunner. From there, we walked up Narodni street, and armed with my guidebook, we wandered into a very unassuming arcade and found a small but powerful plaque honoring the students who started the Velvet Revolution on November 18, 1989, the movement that overthrew the communist regime. Narodni led to Wenceslas Square, the most famous square after Old Town Square. More of a boulevard than a square, it has evolved into the commercial heart of the city. It’s also the symbolic center of the nation’s conscience. Crowds tend to gravitate here to celebrate important events, whether independence from Austria in 1918, the Nazi occupation in 1939, the Soviet-led invasion in 1968, and finally, the Velvet Revolution in 1989. We wandered up the right side of the square, checking out the fancy stores and hotels. At the top of the square is the most prominent equestrian statue in the city, the Statue of St. Wenceslas. The statue is the most popular meeting spot in the city. If a Prague resident says to meet him “at the horse”, this is where he means.

Right behind the statue of St. Wenceslas is the National Museum. I read that the displays are mediocre, but the elaborate interior is the real show-stopper. I tried to get a photo, but some grumpy woman guard said that I couldn’t. Grrrr. Next to the National Museum was the funky building that now houses Radio Free Europe, and next to that is Prague’s Opera house. Of the three Opera houses in the three cities, this one was the most low-key, but still a stunner. On the way back up the square, we wandered up the left side, toward the pedestrian street Na Prikope, where there was some great shopping, including Zara’s flagship store! (I love Zara’s.) Na Prikope led to Namesti Republiky, and back to Powder Tower and Municipal House. We decided to go into the café at Municipal House, called Obceni Dum. This café is an absolutely stunning Art Nouveau café, with amazing chandeliers, tiled mosaics, and of course, scrumptious desserts. Then, back to the hotel, and then dinner afterward.
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