Friday, June 5, 2015

Peeking in on Prague

The next series of Near-Normal Traveler Blogs reviews our tour/cruise with Viking. Since I’d
Alexej on the right
not taken a formal tour of anywhere in years, I had a bit of adjusting to do. First, and happily, I wasn’t in charge of anything. Second, and irritatingly, I wasn’t in charge of anything. In this episode we were taken around the old area of Prague by an excellent local tour guide. Alexej had been speaking English and doing tours for about 20 years – since she’d been in high school. When she began taking her required foreign language courses, the only language provided was Russian. However, midway through her junior year, Czechoslovakia became the Czech Republic; the students in the language classes refused to learn any more Russian and demanded to learn English. Luckily, their teacher spoke English and could comply with their wishes. That summer Alexej’s mother got her hired by a tour company and she’s been leading groups ever since.

Prague, with its surrounding environs, is extremely old because it is located at the hub of trade routes. The earliest known inhabitants arrived around 500 BC and trade trundled
Clockwise from top: Royal gardens, Prague Castle,
Art on horse barn, St Vitus Cathedral
happily along for about 1000 years with Germanic, Bohemians, and Western Slavs migrating in to the area. Prague (Praha) Castle was built in about 880 AD by Prince Bořivoj of the Premyslid Dynasty. It’s still in use and changes to its interior continue depending on who is using which part for what. The gardens were beautiful the day we visited, but I was most impressed with the friezes on the horse barn. One of the later rulers was enamored with riding and with horses, so the barn is much nicer than some places I’ve lived. Next to the castle is Saint Vitus Cathedral with its towering Gothic spires and beautiful arched stained glass windows; the construction was begun in about 930 AD and finally finished in 1929. If you look closely at the sculptures around one of the doorways, you’ll see the two architects who completed the cathedral; they are wearing business suites. For much of its Christian history this country was ruled by the clergy. Holy Roman Emperors (Catholic Bishops) were the top dogs, being in charge of not only the spiritual but the secular lives of the people. Presently there is a bishop who lives very near the cathedral and the castle and participates in the running of the country. Alexej said that during one of her tours a guest asked her if the Czech people really sand the Christmas carol, ‘Good King Wenceslas’. Alexej was really surprised that around the world Saint Wenceslas was known as a King, because he was only a Duke. She does her best to dispel this misconception during all of her tours!

Along with the Germans, Bohemians and Slavs, Prague had a thriving Jewish community. In
Jewish Cemetery
the 17th century Jews made up about 30% of the population, creating all sorts of businesses and serving as theologians and academicians. However, discrimination began with Maria Theresa of Austria who had them thrown out of the city and continued at some level until 20th century. Oppression and persecution were at their worst during the Nazi occupation. It was not until May 12, 1945 that all fighting ended in the Czech region. Prejudice caused the death of 77,297 Czechoslovak Jews, whose names are inscribed on walls of the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague. This is a moving place to visit; if we remember our history, perhaps we won’t make the same mistakes, again. 

You’ve not really been to Prague until you’ve walked across the Charles Bridge. From its center you really understand why Prague is referred to as the city of spires. The horizon is
Left: St John of Nepomuk
Right top: Spires seen from Charles Bridge
Bottom: Gondola
littered with towers from churches, castles, and even homes. However, what caught my attention was out in the Vltava River. There were gondolas sliding over the surface, carrying passengers back and forth between the banks. This is the celebration of St. John of Nepomuk, the patron of sailors and bridges. This Saint John is always shown as having a halo with stars attached to it. During his canonization, Venetian gondolas came to Prague; St. John of Nepomuk’s statue is the only Baroque statue found on the banks of the Grand Canal in Venice, Italy.

Across the Charles Bridge and in the old city is the Prague astronomical clock. Once again I
Astronomical Clock
stood in a crowd of enraptured tourists and watched as the hour was struck. With each hour the doors open to show a parade of saints, but the main attraction is the four figures, two on each side of the clock. The two on the right as you face the clock are Vanity, represented by a figure admiring himself in a mirror and a miser holding a bag of gold representing greed or usury. On the left are Death, a skeleton that strikes the time upon the hour and a Turk who represents pleasure and entertainment. When the hour strikes, the skeleton rings the bell and immediately the other three figures shake their heads, showing that they are not ready ‘to go’. It’s a real crowd-pleaser!

Part of the tour group went back to the hotel on the tour bus, but Dave and I wove our way through the old town so I could introduce him to Saint Wenceslas Square and to some of the
Top: Three musicians
Bottom: Two musicians and graffiti 
buildings inspired by Musca. We also discovered some sculptures by Anna Chromy called Czech Musicians. These statues are a bit different and add a touch of whimsy to the gothic towers we’d been seeing all day. Another oddity in this interesting city is a graffiti wall that began as a tribute to John Lennon. Although the art evolves almost daily, the area dedicated to Lennon remains unchanged. There is usually someone near the wall playing and singing songs by the Beetles.

Since I’ve been to Prague previously, there are some other links from the Near-Normal Traveler Blog that provide more information about Prague:
·        Art Time after Time
·        Just Bead It
·        Weirdness in Bohemia

For information on What we did, Where we stayed and What we ate, stay tuned for the ‘Review of the Viking Cruise from Prague to Paris’ which will come out in a few weeks.

Saint Wenceslas Square

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