Monday, August 10, 2009

My feet are killing me, but my heart is singing

Another huge day here in Prague. After walking a total of 4.55 kms yesterday, we slept really well (and even with the fan on!) and rose a little earlier this morning. Breakfast is a repeat of yesterday, although much less busy - there is only one other couple and us eating. The lass serving breakfast could do with a very healthy dose of cheer - she is only happy when we say thank you and goodbye. Yes, the tourist season is busy, and yes some of them can be demanding, but gee, if you choose to work in the hospitality industry is it asking too much for you to be a little hospitable??

Prague is very definitely the City of Towers. While I put the finishing touches on the blog for yesterday (and agonize over which photos to add), Michael takes a walk over the bridge to go up the Old Town Tower and brings this photo amongst others - isn't it fab!
My feet are bearing up remarkably well and I can't believe how easy it is to put my shoes on again this morning! We head out and almost as soon as we reach the street, I spy a porcelain shop across the road. I have been keeping an eye out for something small to buy as a reminder of our time here in Prague and finally, a few shops further down, I spy it. There in amongst all the china plates and mugs and servers are some large ceramic buttons in my favourite colour of blue and white and once inside I also find some amazing small ceramic bells for our christmas tree. I buy a trinket or three and Michael takes them back to our room as we know it is going to be a long day.

We are headed the opposite direction to yesterday - through the Lesser Town up to the Castle and back. The Lesser Town has been least changed through recent history of any of the areas of Prague. We start by walking up to the Lesser Town Square and its dominant building the Church of St Nicholas with its stunning domed roofs. And like many of the churches we have seen recently, this is an ornate baroque church. Now, at the risk of offending some with a little history . . . On second thoughts, read how there came to be some many baroque buildings here! One of the artistic merits of the baroque era is the use of cheaper materials with elaborate decorations so that at first glance they appear to be something else. This includes stucco work, faux marble and trompe l'oeils. So these vast caverns of marble and gold are not quite what they seem! There are a lot of people in here and again I am hot, hot, hot. Thankfully I have my little Chinese folding fan with me.

Back out in the Square we turn to follow the advice of two locals. Karim, our waiter at dinner on Saturday and Tony, our guide on the boat cruise last night who both suggested that we get out of the city and up to the Petřín Gardens by taking the funicular train. And so we head south in the searing midday heat to catch it up the hill. And thank god we did - there was no way I was going to walk up that slope! Now not only are the gardens an oasis of peace and quiet and beauty in the city, they afford a remarkable view back over the whole of inner Prague. Ah yes, there is definitely merit in asking the locals for a non-tourist tip! There are a few tourists here, but many more locals enjoying this little haven. The rose garden (the youngest of the gardens) was established in 1932 and is truly beautiful for all the senses as these are fragrant roses. We sit in the shade enjoying an ice cream for a few moments and watching the butterlies dancing in pairs and the bees busily buzzing about their daily tasks.

And while I finish my ice cream, Michael goes around to the Observatory, also located in the Gardens. And another of the wonders here - to add to a maze, a mirror hall and led horse rides for the kids - is that it is home to an observation tower that resembles the Eiffel Tower! Up 299 steps for spectacular views. Hah, they are great (and free) down on the ground from up here!

From here we want to walk around to the Prague Castle and St Vitus Cathedral. IT IS ALL DOWNHILL - steep paths and steps, lots and lots of steps. Oh, my poor hip. Thank god for the drugs! The walk takes us through shaded wooded areas as well as sculptured gardens. Some of the paths are covered in a fine yellow powder - pollen and crushed petals from a stand of trees.

We get glimpses one minute of the city below us, and then the next of the castle around on the ridge to our left in the next minute. Truly a lovely place and it is easily understandable why the locals love it. So far today is the exact opposite of yesterday - calm and cooler (now we are in the gardens) and with much fewer people around. A nice contrast, but we know that all of that is about to change!

For now we have reached the last climb up to Pražský hrad (Prague Castle). There is a steep slope of 200 m where we are jostling with the elbow of many others - back to earth with a thud! There are followers with their leaders and their silly flowers, and families, and couples young and old and the backpacker groups. There are walkers, and bikers and prammers! And we are either headed up to, or down from a castle that looks so amazing from its city below.

Once we are through the ornate gates, Michael goes to get tickets and manages to snap part of the changing of the Guard - with a cheeky young lady in tow! Our first stop once we have paused to take in the size of the first courtyard is St Vitus Cathedral. Entry into this gothic masterpiece is free attesting to the huge number of people wandering through it. Wow, it is amazing! Quite dark inside but probably because the stained glass windows are full of intense colours and they let little unfiltered natural light through. There is a Rose Window that is as nice as any of them we have seen anywhere. And then there are the amazing early artworks preserved on the walls. The pews are all roped off - presumably in an effort to keep people moving! We keep moving, trying to stay ahead of a group with a very loud Spanish guide.

Our ticket covers us for three restricted areas of the Castle grounds - the Old Royal Palace, St. George's Basilica, and the Golden Lane with Daliborka Tower. And while this doesn't sound all too much, please take note that the Cathedral is at one end of the complex and the Golden Lane at the other end with our other visit spots between the two. And this complex? Well, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the Prague Castle is the largest coherent castle complex in the world, with an area of almost 70,000 m²!

And where the Cathedral was jam packed with people, the other areas are much much quieter - well, you do need to pay 250 CZK (€10) each to get in to them! I won't go on too much about them other than to give a brief description:
The Old Royal Palace was used for royal state ceremonies most recently and dates back to the 12th century. It has a fantastic view from its balcony right over the City and River.
St George's Basilica has an imposing facade because of the gorgeous red colour it is painted. Inside it is much calmer than the nearby Cathedral. It contains a wealth of history and its existence pre-dates the cathedral by a couple of hundred years. Today, only the foundations of this early church remain (still visible) with much of what is now there being also built in the 12th century.
The Golden Lane originated after the construction of the northern wall of the Castle. The area of the northern bailey was used for the building of modest dwellings, which are now the last remainder of the small-scale architecture of Prague Castle. They were inhabited by the castle servants, perhaps goldsmiths (the name "Golden Lane" is documented from the 16th century] and the castle marksmen.
And the tower was built and used as a prison and contains macabre instruments of medieval torture - I can only hope they were never used for real!

We are both pretty knackered by now and are both very hungry. So on our way out of the complex into the greater castle compound we see a sign for Lobkowicz Cafe that advertises a panoramic view terrace. Sure the view would be one of the best from the site - if it weren't for the trees! Still we do get glimpses. And lunch, though late, is very tasty. We just opt for something light - sandwiches - Tomato, Mozarella and Pesto for Michael and Prague ham, brie and spinach for me. Both toasted and we ended up sharing half each. Served with chips and salad - translated this means potato chips (crisps) and coleslaw! Tonic water - 2 bottles each finished it.

It is now after 6 pm. We head back down (yes, still more down, still more steep paths and steps) to the city below, walking through the Saint Wenceslas Vineyard and the classicist summer house Villa Richter. Its been a ripper of a day, although a long and arduous one for my hip. Am still surprised how well it is holding up! And no complaints from me!!

We walk back through the Lesser Town from near the Mánesův most (bridge) around to the Charles Bridge. The streets are a little quieter here, but then I guess most of the locals have headed home for the day. Of course, once we get back to the area around the bridge then we hit that people wall again!

About 8:30 pm Michael heads out to get some night pics and to take a walking tour - The Ghost Tour of Prague. He needs to head back across the bridge and in to the Old Town to the meeting point. Tour guide was good he says, but really, a little too corny for his taste - nothing like the fabulous one he did in Edinburgh! But a nice photo of Our Lady Before Týn by night as well as a few others.

So Prague comes to an end. We have managed to see heaps in a rushed two days, but have just scratched the surface. This is a city you could spend your life in and still not uncover all its secrets! And those towers, guess by now we might have seen maybe 10% of the official ones, but lots of unofficial ones as well. Tomorrow we head for Poland.

Yesterday: 4.55 kms walked, Today: 5.6 kms walked

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