04.10.2017 - 09.10.2017 15 °C
The capital of the Czech Republic, Praha, one of Europe's most beautiful cities, was once the capital city of the Kingdom of Bohemia.
The historic centre of Prague is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many of its churches and palaces were built in the fourteenth Century under the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV.
It has a population of 1.3 million and is a popular destination for tourists. Even now, in October, the historic old town and the Charles Bridge, are pulsing with ‘too much of a good thing.’
Still there are quiet spots amidst the hubbub such as this leafy park below the castle:
The Charles Bridge, crossing the Vitava River, dates back to the fourteenth century. It connects the Old Town, Staré Mesto, with Prague Castle.
Two things to try: gingerbread cookies and the local spirit, slivovitz, plum brandy.
The Jan Hus memorial in Old Town Square:
Jan Hus was born in 1369 and became an early reformer since he advocated that Mass be given in the vernacular. He was burned at the stake in 1415. This led to the Hussite Wars.
Prague Astronomical Clock:
The Powder Gate:
The gothic tower was one of the original gates to the city.
Two famous Czech authors, Franz Kafka and Milan Kundera:
Franz Kafka (1883 - 1924) was born in Prague and died from tuberculosis at the age of 40. He is buried in the family plot at the New Jewish Cemetary which is not in walking distance of the city centre.
His most famous works were published posthumously and The Trial, The Castle and other works have been translated from the original German text into English.
The term, ‘Kafkaesque’ roughly means bizarre, incomprehensible, surreal. His writing became more popular in his native country following the Velvet Revolution in 1989 - the Czech Republic’s non-violent move from 41 years of Communist rule. Today Kafka references and souvenirs abound in tourist-dense Praha.
The Jewish Quarter is located between Old Town Square and the Vitava River:
The Gothic-style Old-New Synagogue was completed in 1270 AD.
It is Europe’s oldest active synagogue.
Hitler decided to preserve the Jewish Quarter as ‘a monument to an extinct race’ - very chilling. Kafka died before the Nazi occupation but three of his sisters died in concentration camps.
As you walk around Prague you may notice the engraved metal tiles embedded between the cobblestones. Names of Holaucost victims are recorded:
Prague Rudolfinum opened in 1885:
Reinhard Heinrich, a leading Nazi in the Second World War, was assassinated in Prague in June, 1942. Operation Anthropoid was the code name for the only successful assassination of a prominent Nazi during the war. It was a kind of drawn out process as he was merely injured in the attempt and managed to return fire but he died of sepsis in hospital a few days later.
Prague was left largely intact during the Second World War as it’s many well preserved buildings attest. However on Valentines Day 1945 American bombers mistook Prague for Dresden and over 1400 people were wounded and 400 died and a bridge, a few hospitals
and other buildings were destroyed. Another attack in March 1945 killed 500.
We attended an opera at the Estates Theatre where Mozart once received a thirty minute standing ovation:
Parts of the movie Amadeus were filmed at the Estates Theatre and Mozart’s work is frequently featured.
We, however, saw Thaïs, by the French composer, Jules Massenet.
The Opera seemed quite avant- garde. We were thrilled to be in such a historic building even though we were in the nosebleed seats and caught only a glimpse of the stage!
We could clearly hear and appreciate the beautiful violin solo, Meditation.
I booked the tickets online a few months in advance and the cost for two tickets was fifteen dollars. My treat?
Near Prague’s Second Castle, Vyšehrad, is a great Tourist Information Office with a small cafe:
The Rotunda of St Martin from the eleventh century (the oldest building in Prague):
The Church of St Peter and Paul:
Vyšehrad Cemetary, the final resting place of composers, artists, poets and politicians:
Among the famous Czechs interred here is Antonin Dvořak, the composer.
‘Hello’ is an important word in the Czech Republic and saying it properly - as in any country - is a bit endearing. I have heard that tone deaf people, like me, have more difficulty speaking a foreign language and I’m prepared to go with that! I do take a stab at it though: ‘Dobrý den’. Sounds like doe-Bree-den - fairly straightforward.
A more casual greeting - used among friends, sounds like ahoy, as in ahoy Matie, but I stick with Dobrý den followed up with a bright smile and a conspiratorial, ‘Do you speak English?’ In the old town merchants and service people pretty much do know some English. Some don’t. We got by.
The best dessert is this berry cake/pie, delicious:
We often ate in bakery cafes and enjoyed the experience.
Ok - pot must be legal here, this is a display in a corner store:
Just a few feet away is our hostel, we have a huge room and the garden is peaceful even though we are walking distance to everything:
Wenceslaus Square, named after Bohemia’s patron Saint, is just around the corner from our hostel:
Pilsen, home of the Pilsner Urquell brewery, is located in western Bohemia, just 56 miles from Prague. The world’s oldest lager beer has been brewed here since 1842.
We took the train from Prague to Plzeň - the station in Prague is close to Wenceslaus Square and was walking distance from our hostel.
Although Prague is a top tourist destination, Pilsen is not. English is not widely spoken. We liked it, very quiet this time of year, 9 October.
The Great Synogogue in Plzeň is the second largest in Europe. It was completed in 1883 when the Jewish population in the city was about 2000. It was in continuous use until the Nazi occupation, and was used then for storage so was spared demolition. There are today about 70 Jewish people living in Pilzn.
Pilzn was liberated by the 16th division of General Patton’s 3rd Army in 1945. The rest of the Czech Republic was mostly liberated by the Red Army.
Below is St Bartholmew’s Cathedral from the 16th century on Republic Square. It has the highest tower (335 feet) of any church in the Czech Republic.
There are 14 km of underground tunnels beneath Pilsen but less than a km is open to the public. An English guided tour costs seven dollars and includes a free beer at one of a selection of pubs, including the one next door to the ticket office.
The entrance is about a block from the main square and the brewery tour is adjacent. We chose the tunnel tour because it affords a glimpse of life in the Middle Ages. The underground labyrinth is about 10 metres below ground and may have been around since the 14th C.
Parts of the tunnels are quite low, you have to wear a hard hat. Also the floor is sometimes sloping and uneven, a bit of a tripping hazard.
There were wells for water in Pilsen’s Historical Underground. Beer making and other ventures were carried out and food was stored underground where the temperature stays at about 6 degrees C year round.
We actually got an extra beer voucher because the lady selling tickets liked me - she asked where we were from, likely statistical purposes, so I said Calgary.
The Czechs like hockey, know of the NHL and are familiar with the Calgary Flames. The Czech Hockey team is part of the big 6 in World Hockey - the other five are Canada, US, Russia, Sweden and Finland.
Since the attendant looked pleased when I mentioned Calgary I felt encouraged to chat. ‘We just signed Yuri Petrenko to the Flames’,
I related, you know, hockey, a famous Czech player, a few gestures, lots of enthusiasm on my part.
Jeff was shifting around and kind of distancing himself from the situation, the woman looked confused - you know, I forged on, the hockey player., Czech, mimed hitting a puck, ....
Under his breath, painfully, Jeff muttered Jeremir Jagr - oh right Jeremir Jagr I said triumphantly and the woman smiled at me warmly, produced another voucher and confided she was giving us extra free beer because I was ‘so nice’.
This whole exchange was remarkable on at least two fronts.
1. I never get free beer, even in Holland.
2. Czech people are notoriously glum, staunch and not customer service oriented.
Thirdly, who the hell is Yuri Petrenko!!
Jeremir Jagr, born in the Czech Republic, is one of the greatest professional hockey players of all time.
We had pretzels, fresh and warm from the oven and a very good pickled sausage for lunch. I enjoyed two Pilsners before the tour and afterwards had another along with a pretzel.
I tripped at the end of our tunnel tour, my toe caught a little protrusion on the uneven floor but I broke the fall by grabbing the rough wall and sustained a scrape which bled a bit and the lady who sold us the tickets bandaged me up.
Since then I have a kind of hard lump on my palm which may be the Viking disease Dupuytren's Contacture, although my hand hasn’t taken on a claw-like appearance so I chalk it up to my small injury.
We stayed in a one bedroom apartment near the outskirts of the city, it was kind of a down-market spa but we didn’t book any of their services.
Breakfast was included, served in the back room of the pub style restaurant at the end of our block - bread with liver pate, weak coffee, a Tang-like beverage, ok.
We got around fine once we figured out the bus stops and I do not regret going to Pilsen - mainly because of the free beer incident.
We chose Pilsen as a destination to break up the trip from Prague to Nuremberg. Online it appeared there were numerous buses, maybe even a train.
We checked into transportation on our second day, it was hours of futility and frustration. English is not widely spoken in Pilzen - we did remarkably well using
gestures and context until we tried to buy tickets to Nuremberg.
Lots of head shaking and no, no, no - and yes, some buses did go to Nuremberg because the wall-posted schedules indicated just that - but we couldn’t communicate with the ticketsellers.
As I was wandering around the depot I was asked for cash - well it was in a foreign language but you get kind of accustomed to beggars. I said ‘English’, and what do you know this guy could speak English. I toyed with the idea of enlisting him as an interpreter, but wisely, probably, refrained.
Eventually we roped in a nice young guy - a customer, to help, he showed us a kiosk outside where the ticket seller spoke fluent English - her bus left at midnight, not a good time. I know from experience that arriving in a strange city in the middle of the night has numerous drawbacks.
Long story short we decided to backtrack and take the train to Prague where more people spoke English and there were more buses leaving for Nuremberg throughout the day.