Sunday, August 9, 2009

The City of 100 towers - and we saw many of them

Prague - ahh, for those who have been here, just the mere mention of the name paints the most wonderful pictures in your head. And an apology right up front - there is no way I am going to be able to put enough photos on the blog today to really do this city justice.

Our room is incredibly hot. Although it opens onto a courtyard, it is enclosed, so there is no way for fresh air to come in to the room. We have quite a powerful fan, but it is too noisy to sleep with it going! Still, sleep we do - until after 9am. Then it is a rush to get to breakfast before it is cleaned away at 10 am. Breakfast is limited, but ok. We probably could have done without it seeing that we ate so late last night, but we need something in our bellies to start what will be a big day.

Another Skype video call from Amanda and Antony and Bella this morning. I love having them back home - we missed the contact while they were travelling. They are all very talkative and full of news! Bella is a delight the way she just chats on and on and on as though I am sitting there with her - gosh, technology can be wonderful! She has just had a bath and is one happy little chappy!!

We set off to cross the bridge back to the Old Town this morning. The sky has cleared from overcast earlier and now it is a beautiful sunny day with whispy high cloud promising a little breeze. As soon as we leave the front door of the hotel, we hit a wall of people. Gosh, there are so many tourists in Prague at the moment. We first go to the Touristika Information in the Lesser Town Bridge Tower seeking information on cruises, walks and a map. They are surprisingly unhelpful, can't supply a map in English and don't make tour bookings for private companies - gee they are missing out on a lot of commission here, judging by the number of people who walk our of their office dissatisfied.

And so on to Karlův Most or to the unitiated, Charles Bridge. Now only a pedestrain way, this important link between the Old Town and the Lesser Town was not all that long ago used by vehicles as well. This damaged the structure and today there are massive works underway to repair and strengthen the bridge and clean it up at the same time. In fact, if you type Charles Bridge, Prague into Earth Google, then the resulting image will show you the massive canopy that is presently over the work site!

There are 30 statues or groups of statues along the length of the bridge. While not the originals (which are safely housed in the Lapidary) these replicas certainly look old. As the bridge work progresses, they too are being repaired and cleaned. One task I set myself for today was to get a photo of each. Most I manage without the interference of people, but there are just a few that I had to take with some stubborn mutt or rudely 'oblivious' or uncaring git in them.

Eventually we clear the tide of humanity and get to the Old Town side, passing through the Old Town Bridge Tower. First stop is the St. Francis Church just over the bridge. There is an Organ recital here each night for the next few nights and so to get in to have a look, you must run the gauntlet of the ticket sellers. Still, they are not overly pushy and we get in to take a look. And now I am hit with the first of the serious hot flushes of the day - egads! The church is typically baroque, lots of art works and gilt. And did I mention hot?!! And just outside, we get the first of heaps of panoramic shots across the Vltava River to the Castle.

From here we mean to go to the Old Town Square, but in Prague it's almost impossible to walk in a straight line - and not just because the streets are twisting and turning, but also because you eyes are caught by new things to look at every few steps you take. So we meander to the left and in to the complex known as the Klementium and the Church of St Salvator (Church of the Holy Saviour). This space was once an old Jesuit college and today houses the National Library of the Czech Republic. Interestingly, the Order of the Knights of the Cross with the Red Star (see yesterday's blog) were also involved here! The church although decorated is much whiter and calmer (and cooler!) This complex is amazing with quite a bit of public art in here, including the figure of a little girl with a paper aeroplance sitting high on the corbels of one of the buildings! (That photo will have to wait for the book!) and even more so when we read a plaque that tells us that the Jesuits have been taking climatological measurements here sine 1 January 1775 - one of the longest unbroken records in Europe! This has been a centre of learning for so long.

And given that I am so hot, and I need to put something in my stomach to ensure that the codeine I took this morning doesn't eat into it, we stop in the next small square we come to and have yummy drinks at a Häagen-Dazş franchise. Ooh yeah - great on a warmish day. Thankfully though it is a little cooler than it has been for the last couple of days.

And so we wend our way through narrow back streets passed hundreds if not thousands of souvenir shops - crystal, marionettes, jewellers, and soon find ourselves coming in to the Old Town Square. We enter this impressively large square passing in front of the Old Town Hall that is almost 700 years old! It is an amazing building made all the more so by the Astronomical Clock that faces the street. Anyone who has seen my photos taken during our trip here in 2006 will know that this piece of artisitic engineering is so beautiful! I got a fantastic photo back then, and today too we get more!! By the time we get here it is 2:20 pm and the figures will not appear for another 40 minutes - and that explains how it is that we can easily walk past - the crowds have not gathered again yet. So we keep moving.

The Old Town Square is enormous with restaurants, cafés and souvenir shops all jostling for the prime positions looking out to the square. It is crammed with people and there are lots of groups 'following the leader' - that is their tourist guide, with umbrella or silly looking flower held high in the air. The Japanese particularly are funny to watch - they scurry along looking worried - as though being parted from their guide will result in some horrible torture! And people from all walks of life walk by us - from the Jewish rabbi to the Catholic monk.

We are starting to rack up photos of the 100 towers of Prague by now. In fact if you take into account the numerous towers on some of the residential buildings then I think that the true figure is closer to 1000. But if you want to see more of them, I have provided the link - just be warned, that once you start to look, you will need hours to work through them all!!! And sure, there are similarities between some of them, but overall it is amazing to be looking up and seeing such beauty. Michael is claiming a crick in the neck by now. Perhaps two of the more amazing ones (as if you could choose) are those on the Church of Our Lady before Týn, another of Prague's most recognizeable landmarks. Today, one of the towers is shrouded by scaffolding, but it cannot diminish the beauty of this edifice. And although it dominates the space, it is actually set back behind a row of commercial buildings.

And so we continue to explore. In and out of buildings and small streets and smaller alleys. And we have almost 600 photos from yesterday to lay testament! One place that I really wanted to see was the Jewish museum in the area known as Josefov or the Jewish Quarter. The stories of the Jewish people in Prague is one of those horror stories from our recent past. At the outbreak of WWII there were almost 94,000 Jews living in Prague. The Nazi regime moved almost all to a ghetto camp set about 45 minutes away in the former Small Fortress in Terezín and from here many were then transported to concentration or other camps. In all, 80,000 of these people died under the oppression by the nazis. In the Pinkas Synagogue built in the early 1500s, the names of all these 80,000 victims are incribed on the walls. How powerful a memorial. Done to ensure that these people without a grave will never be forgotten. It is a frightening thing to see all those names written. And shameful. Please God, that we never ever let something like this ever happen again. Obviously we cannot take photos here. But I will never lose the picture in my mind.

Once through this Synagogue, the tour of the Museum continues through the Jewish cemetery, the Ceremonial meeting hall, the Spanish Synagogue and the Old-New Synagogue that was built in the 1700s! We see all but the Spanish Synagogue. In fact, the Jews had always been encouraged to live in an enclave and so the cemetery is in face 4 and in some places 10 burial spaces deep - meaning that the tombstones are jammed in. And there are way more bodies buried than there are tombstones!

Now, I am not only physically tired, but mentally and emotionally too.
It is time to move on and we walk down the most expensive street in Prague (and 15th most expensive in the world) with the shops of the likes of Chanel, Prada and Louis Vuitton lining the footpath. Interestingly, the footpaths are not in as good condition here as in many other areas! Back to the Old Town Square we head. Its almost 4:30 pm and time we had something to eat, so we find a square-side table at one of the cafés - the Restaurant Kamený Stůl where Michael has a Sendvič hovězí, hrandky (Beef sandwich with french fries) and I have Hamburger Praha, hrandky (Hamburger Prague with french fries). They are surprisingly very very good. As we sit eating, the light of the day changes as the sun begins the slow downward slide towards evening. Ah, I could sit here taking photos forever in that changing light!!

So, what to do now? We had wanted to do a river cruise with dinner but too late realise that we should have booked earlier and have not brought the mobile phone with us today. Bugger. We decide to continue with a little more exploring and then go back to the hotel where Michael will do the Ghost Tour of Prague late tonight (10:15 pm!) So off we set again, still walking away from the bridge and our hotel. Hey yes!! There it is. I have managed to navigate around to the Powder Tower that I wanted to show Michael and beside it the Municipal Building with its beautiful canvas painting high on the external facade.
And so now we turn back towards the Charles Bridge and our hotel on the other side. We walk down past the ever present fast food outlets that I will not name (don't want to tarnish the blog!) in a street filled with beautiful buildings with sgraffito and even mosaic tiled murals. But what is this? We have come across another boat tour operator AND they do a combined mini-bus tour and boat cruise (like the other one we were interested in) AND they have spaces tonight AND they leave in 20 minutes - whoo hoo! So we buy tickets and walk back half a block to their departure point.

So at 6:30 pm we find ourselves on a mini-bus with other English and Italian speaking tourists in part of a convoy of 4 mini-buses and off we set. We do a tour of the city for the first hour, seeing many of the sights we have walked today, but others as well - such as Wencelas Square, the Dancing House, the Opera House and other buildings that house more government offices. And then it is on to board the 'Classic River' for our 3 hour cruise on the Vltava River. Dinner was almost totally forgettable - typical hot and cold smorgasbord, but believe me, the trip well up the river well and truly made up for it. We travel up past the weirs through the lock, past the second palace - or what remains of it after a massive gunpowder explosion in the 1800s. We see Prague from a totally different perspective - and it is lovely.

As the day faded and twilight sank over the city, the changing light gave the most beautiful colours to the buildings. And as it deepen, the silohettes became sharper. It is amazing for us two hicks from some little city on another river from across the world to be sitting here and watching this city take on a new life as the night closes in. There are people canoeing and paddle-boating, there are diners in riverside cafés and all around the population scurries to their homes. Absolutely magic. Tony our guide, who speaks four languages fluently and jumps in and out of Czec, English and Italian as though he is dancing some strange lilting dance, is a historian by profession, but his true passion lies in this, sharing the city of his birth that he has returned to, with its visitors.

Night has fully arrived. It is 10 pm when we berth again and on to our minibus for delivery back to our hotels. And we are the first off! So sad, too bad - the Ghost Tour will have to wait until tomorrow night! And I am so frustrated as there is so much more I could have told you about today - but I gotta stop so we can get back out there! See you again tonight!

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