Spring In Prague
I have dreamed of taking a long, leisurely vacation in Europe for as far back as I can remember. The vision of hopping on a train to get to a destination, seeing the beautiful architecture and natural scenery, experiencing history first hand, and meeting the European citizens has long had great appeal. Up to last fall, though, taking this dream trip never reached the top of my priority list as far as time and money were concerned.
Every fall I try to plan a trip for the spring so that I have something to look forward to during the looonnngg, coooold Maine winter. In 1995 I realized that I had enough vacation time available to take a six week vacation in the spring. After my supervisor reluctantly approved my vacation request, one thing led to another, and soon I had made rough plans to be on European soil for about 5 1/2 weeks. (To have this much time away from day-to-day responsibility was very unusual and special for me. I’m now 37; I hadn’t had more than three weeks without working/attending school since I was 17!)
Ahhh…the planning was so much fun; so many choices of places to see and modes of transportation. After many revisions (some DURING the trip), I took the following route:
shuttle from home (Portland, Maine, USA) to Logan airport (Boston, MA) (via road)
fly from Logan to JFK (New York, New York), to Prague, Czech Republic
(spend a week using Prague as a base) train to Nurnburg, Germany, cab from train station to airport, pick up rental car
drive southwesterly toward Haute Nendaz, Switzerland (use as a base for a week)
drive north-east to Lofer, Austria (use as a base for a week)
drive northwest to Munich, Germany (drop off rental car), subway from airport to train station
overnight train from Munich to Rome, Italy (spend 5 nights in Rome)
ride to Civitavecchia, Italy. Car and passengers take night ferry to Olbia, Sardegna, Italy
(spend three nights in Cannigione, on the Costa Smeralda) night ferry back to Civitavecchia, ride back to Rome
(spend one evening in Rome) train to airport, fly Rome to JFK to Logan
drive from Logan to Portland, Maine
My trip had many different facets and emotions to it — The joy of being able to visit a free Prague, the sadness felt at historical sites relevant to World War II (Prague, Dachau, Hitler’s Eagle Nest), the calmness when encircled by the majestic and beautiful Swiss Alps, the excitement of driving four hours out of the way (on winding mountain roads – fast) to catch a particular train in a race for time, the lightheartedness felt yodeling, drinking beer, and dancing with Bavarian citizens, the awe of seeing structures built many centuries ago, the adrenaline rush felt in international cities knowing that I was with people from all over the world, the sadness felt upon returning home ….. well, you get the drift.
For me, the most difficult part of taking a trip is actually closing the front door behind me. I hate to get out my suitcase(s) because as soon as I do the cats start sulking. They’ve been through the suitcase routine too many times. They know they won’t have me to cater to their every desire for awhile and they don’t like it one bit.
Shortly after midnight on Wednesday, April 10, I realized that I’d be leaving my home in about 10 hours and better start packing. I begrudgingly realized that I was going to have to take both my carry-on bag AND the rolling duffel bag. I seriously thought of leaving the down coat at home but wound up taking it — fortunately! I left lots of room (I thought) for souvenirs I would be buying along the way. Right before I laid down at 2 am (8 am in Prague) I called Delta to see if I could use one of my frequent flyer upgrades to fly first class down to JFK — success! I thought I might as well start off in style.
I woke later that morning to find several inches of snow already on the ground and it was still snowing hard. I ground my teeth and sputtered about having to fly through Logan and JFK — my flight BETTER get off after all this planning! Sputter, sputter, snow in mid-April, sputter.
Dad was going to fly over to Prague with me and fly home from Geneva two weeks later. I kept looking at the clocks wondering where he was — the shuttle bus was going to pick us up at 10:30 sharp for our drive to Logan. I called Mom (who chose not to take the trip) to work up a contingency plan in case Dad didn’t arrive. Of all the days for him not to take the car with the phone! Fortunately, Dad arrived at 10:25, and right behind him was the airport shuttle. I kissed the cats goodbye, locked the front door, and got into the shuttle bus. The trip had begun!
There were six other passengers on the shuttle bus besides Dad and I. All of us were in a great mood because we were all going somewhere on vacation. It was unanimous that we couldn’t wait to get away from the snow — it sure had been a long, cold, snowy, winter. I knew one of the passengers on the shuttle and found that she was going to be taking the same flights from Boston and JFK as Dad and I. Mrs. Peabody is 92 years old but one would hardly know it. She’s very active in the community, and is best known for forming the local AIDS Project after her grandson passed away from the illness.
Dad and Mrs. Peabody found they had a lot of common interests and talked non-stop. The three of us checked in together at Logan’s Delta desk. I got my seat assignment in first class and Dad got his in coach. I heard the reservation agent tell Mrs. Peabody that she was entitled to a first class seat as she was flying business class to Europe, but there were no first class seats available. As I debated whether I should give her my seat in first, she and Dad were excited to realize they were seated beside each other. I decided to quietly leave well enough alone.
After a wonderful lunch of Legal Seafood clam chowder we headed toward the gate and were able to board shortly thereafter. I curled up in my seat with a glass of wine and a book of Franz Kafka’s short stories. Ahhh….six weeks without having to work, this is the life! I looked back to see how Dad and Mrs. Peabody were doing and noticed that they were talking like old friends. Good. I reflected on how excited Dad was about this trip; he had never been away from North America before. I hoped that he wouldn’t have any health problems during the trip which would ruin things for him. He wears two hearing aids, had open heart surgery a couple of years ago, has difficulty walking at times because of past injuries to his legs, shoulders, and ribs, just to name a few physical challenges. It feels so odd to be looking out for my parents well-being instead of them looking out for mine — I guess that’s part of the aging process.
We arrived at Kennedy late but had plenty of time before our international flight. I was one of the first people off the plane; everyone else on the plane got off before Dad and Mrs. Peabody appeared; Mrs. Peabody in a wheelchair. The steward who was pushing her was saying that he was a volunteer at the AIDS Project in Portland and that he considered her to be VERY precious cargo. Her daughter, who was waiting at the gate, agreed. We met up with several other people in the airport terminal who knew this wonderful woman. It was really fun to bump into people from my home town in such a busy place. We boarded our 5:50 pm flight for Prague in a very festive mood.
Mrs. Peabody and her daughter took their seats in business class; Dad and I went further back to our seats in coach. I immediately moved my watch ahead six hours so that my body would get adjusted to Prague time. The flight plan took us up the east coast of the United States (back up the same route we had spent the better part of the day coming down!), over Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, the British Isles, and into Amsterdam. I dozed most of the way; Dad was far too excited to sleep. Mrs. Peabody and her daughter deplaned in Amsterdam; Dad was disappointed that he couldn’t get off the plane and help them. I was rather pleased that we didn’t have to get off the plane, claim our luggage, go through customs, then check the luggage again. I curled up in my window seat and fell asleep, after asking Dad to please wake me when we were about ready to land in Prague.
I’m glad I asked him to wake me because the next thing I know he was nudging me awake. I had slept through takeoff and breakfast — we were beginning our decent into Prague. While circling the airport, we saw a McDonald’s corporate jet. It seemed so out of place; we were in Prague, not the US. This was but a prelude to the Westernization we would see during our stay.
The plane pulled up to the gate at 9:50 am – right on schedule. We noticed that there was a lot of new construction at the airport — it looked like new terminals, gates, and runways were being built. We entered the smallish airport terminal (by international standards), quickly cleared customs, exchanged some money into Czech currency, grabbed our bags, and climbed into a cab bound for the Bed and Breakfast where we would be staying. (I had heard that some cabs charge tourists outrageous rates — I pointed to the posted standard rate before climbing into the car and the cab driver nodded in agreement.)
The cab driver skillfully drove through the heavy Prague traffic on this chilly and rainy day. I showed him the address of the B & B where we had reservations. He dropped us off in front of a dirty yellowish-brown building which was being renovated. Dad and I were finally able to locate someone to help us and we checked into the facility. The B & B preferred payment in cash, rather than credit card; we were allowed in with the understanding that we would go to an ATM and return with cash the next day. My passport was held as collateral.
I was disappointed at the accommodations. I wasn’t expecting a five star hotel, but I was expecting more than a hot plate for the “full kitchen” and one towel for linen. I also thought we had a three bedroom place; instead I found we had a three*bed*room. Quite a difference. There was no way Dad and I were going to share one bedroom for an entire week! I’m used to living alone in a two-bedroom house.
The owner knocked on the door and asked if all was OK. Had I been traveling by myself, I would have stayed in this room. After all, it was only $30 US per night. However, Dad was already talking about leaving Prague immediately and moving on toward Germany. Knowing I had to come up with different accommodations, I asked if there were any larger rooms available. We were eventually placed in a room (at twice the cost) which slept 10 people. Now we could get on to seeing the City, or so I thought. Then Dad encountered cold water when he tried to shave and refused to stay in that location any longer.
Drawing on all the knowledge I’d accumulated about Prague, I suggested we take a walk to the main train terminal. I knew that there was a government run tourist lodging facility there; I also had heard that locals often are there with rooms to let. The fresh air did us wonders. We walked past architecturally beautiful structures, although many were black with soot. Finally we arrived at Hlavni nadrazi, the main train station. We marveled at the enormous size of this structure. First we looked on a lodging reservation board on the lower level. Not quite sure what to do, we wandered upstairs. Here we found the government run tourist lodging facility, but it was closed for the time being. Within seconds of our arrival, a woman approached us (with pictures) and asked if we would like to rent the spare room in her home. Upon hearing that we needed *two* bedrooms, she motioned to a gentleman to come help us. Dad didn’t know what to do or say. I explained to Stan that we wanted to be in a relatively safe neighborhood, near public transportation, and we required our own rooms. Stan showed us pictures of different places, we negotiated the rate for a seven-night-stay ($420.00), and he walked us over to the apartment I had selected.
As we walked, “Stan” explained that his name was really Zdenek, but it was difficult for foreigners to pronounce. He had his own business acting as an agent for women who had rooms and apartments to let. It is quite common for Prague citizens to rent out their homes to tourists and double up with friends/relatives. The rental money tourists pay for a weeks stay exceeds what the citizens may be able to earn in a month. Stan took a percentage of the room rate, and his clients didn’t have to market their own properties. It sure seemed to me that Stan had a firm grasp on the concept of capitalism.
After about a ten minute walk, Stan unlocked the outside door to a run-down building. He turned on the dim hall light as we walked past trash cans and up a staircase. I felt very apprehensive, wondering if we were risking our safety. Dad evidently felt the same way as he lagged a sizable distance behind me. Stan knocked on an apartment door, chatted with the resident, then invited us in. Within minutes we realized that this was on the “up and up”. We were inside a lovely flat which had a nice eat-in kitchen, living room (with a pull out couch), bedroom, and bathroom. I said “Yes, we’ll take this” and we paid for the apartment in US currency. The flat was in a residential neighborhood, but within a block of the subway and very close to the places we wanted to visit. It was an ideal base.
We had two problems, though. First, our luggage (and my passport!) were at the first place we had checked into. Second, the owner of this apartment had just done a lot of washing and would not be able to vacate the place for another five hours or so (at about 7 pm). We asked Stan if he would help us get our luggage, then we would treat him to dinner. Stan seemed pleased to be able to help us and share his knowledge of Prague. The next few hours were so much fun it reminds me of something out of a movie — a very funny movie.
Stan, Dad and I walked to the end of Vladislavona street, the street which would be our “home” for the next week. Stan hailed a taxi, told the driver of our “mission”, and off we went in the tiny car. The driver had lively Czech music playing as we zoomed around traffic, up streets, down streets, and through places I never thought we would fit. Finally we arrived at our destination. Stan helped Dad and I pack up our belongings and bring our bags to the car. Unfortunately, not only was the cab tiny, the trunk was nearly full with the drivers possessions. Laughing, we stuffed things in the trunk as best we could and decided we would have to hold the remaining luggage on our laps. My final stop was to check out and get my passport back. I asked Stan to accompany me. We walked into the smoke-filled lobby. I explained in English that we were not satisfied with the accommodations and we were checking out. An argument ensued as to whether I would have to pay for one night or not. Stan said forcefully (in Czech), “They will not pay”. My passport was handed back to me in exchange for the key to the room. Out the door we went, gagging from the heavy smoke…… [Note: a month later I found that the owner had charged my AMEX credit card for one nights lodging. I protested the charge but was not successful in getting it off my bill.]
The four of us squashed back into the cab and headed to the “new” apartment. We were all laughing and joking and having a wonderful time. I was so glad that we had met Stan, and I could tell Dad felt the same way. The cabby dropped us off in front of the apartment and charged us just $5 for the hour-long jaunt. Stan explained that we had paid the “Czech price”, as opposed to the “tourist price” for the trip. We dropped the bags off in the apartment, then the three of us headed across the street for a bite to eat and some good conversation.
Stan led Dad and I into a building which housed a TV station, down a corridor, and down a flight of stairs. He said it was a restaurant frequented by “locals” not “tourists” and they served great food at very reasonable prices. Sounded fine to Dad and I. First, Stan ordered a round of Pilsner Urquell (the local brew) for us. Neither Dad nor I cared much for beer but we sure took a liking to the Pilsner Urquell. It quickly became our beverage of choice. Once we started to relax, we realized how hungry we were so we asked Stan to order a traditional meal for the three of us. Stan happily obliged. He seemed delighted to be able to practice his English and talk about his home town; we were delighted to hear about Prague from a local citizen.
As we drank our beer and dined on a hearty soup, meat dish, dumplings, and vegetables, Stan (who appeared to be in his late twenties) gave us some background on Prague. He said that during the 40 or so years that Prague was under Communist rule, nothing was done to preserve the buildings. Some improvements occurred during this era, such as the subway system, but nothing was done to improve the life of everyday citizens. After the Communist regime ended with the 1989 “Velvet Revolution”, Prague had received a great influx of capital for internal improvements. He said that we would see many buildings which had been renovated/cleaned during our stay. In fact, the building we were staying in was to be renovated shortly.
Two other comments Stan made stayed with us throughout our week-long stay. First, he emphasized that we be careful about the prices we paid for things. There were “tourist” prices and “local” prices. He suggested we do as much business as possible away from the traditional tourist streets. Then, he suggested we buy some Bohemian crystal to take home. We had seen some lovely colored glass with gold trim and porcelain flowers in the apartment. Stan explained that this was Bohemian crystal. It is hand blown, painted with gold leaf, then individually made porcelain flowers were attached. Thus, each piece of crystal is unique. I was fascinated by the process.
Eventually, we finished our delicious meal and Dad picked up the tab for the three of us; it came to $18.00 total. We used these prices as a benchmark throughout the rest of our stay to determine if we would be paying tourist or local prices. Stan left to go meet a train at the station (he had a few more rooms he wanted to rent before the day was over); Dad and I wandered up towards the Charles Bridge to kill two more hours until we could enter our apartment. We really enjoyed poking around the City as it was bathed in lights. We both felt that the beauty of the City was best experienced at night. Our favorite nighttime site was near the Charles Bridge, which crosses the Vltava River, with the well-lit Hradcany castle on a hill in the background.
Finally 7 pm approached and we could enter our apartment. I felt so bad seeing the owner, her daughter, and their little dog leave the place so that we tourists could live in comfort. However, I also was exhausted. I moved my luggage into the bedroom and laid down for a nap. Dad organized his things around the sofa bed. I slept right through ’till morning.
I woke the next morning (Friday) to find that Dad had already showered and gone out for sweet breakfast pastries. We split each pastry in two so we could sample twice as much. This became our routine for the rest of our stay.
The first place I wanted to see was the Jewish Museum. Dad and I walked up from our apartment (it took about 15 minutes) and waited in line with many, many others. It seemed so hard to imagine that this pleasant neighborhood was once a Jewish ghetto. According to the brochure we were handed, “Present at the origin of the Jewish Museum (in 1906) were the historical Salomon Hugo Lieben and Augustin Stein, head of the Prague Jewish Community and Council of Jewish Communities in Moravia and Bohemia. The original intent was to preserve precious art objects from the Prague synagogues that were liquidated during the clearance of the Prague Ghetto at the beginning of the 20 th century. In 1942 the Nazis established the Central Jewish Museum to which were brought art objects from the 153 liquidated Jewish communities and synagogues of Bohemia and Moravia. The museum remained closed to the general public. Following WW II the Jewish Museum became the property of the Federation of Jewish Communities. In 1950 ownership of the museum was transferred under pressure to the state, which as of 1948 was ruled over by the Communists. In the ensuing years the activity of the thus created State Jewish Museum was marked by a number of restrictions that made it impossible for the museum to fully develop its professional, exhibition, research and educational activity. The fall of the Communist regime in 1989 created conditions that led to a change in the museum’s status. On October 1, 1994, the building and collections of the State Jewish Museum were returned to the Jewish Community thus giving rise to the present Jewish Museum. Today this institution is in charge of one of the largest collections of Judaic art in the world containing some 40,000 museum exhibits and 100,000 books. It is unique not only in terms of the number of its exhibits but primarily because they are from a single territory – that of the whole of Bohemia and Moravia. In its entirety the collection thus presents an integrated picture of the life and history of the Jews in this region.”
It was so cold this day that I was wearing my down coat. The wait seemed especially long. Finally, Dad and I paid the nominal entrance fee and we shoved through the door. (Had we patiently waited we may still be outside the entrance today!) We were now inside the Jewish Museum. An entry sign explained, “The names of Czech and Moravian Jews, victims of Nazi genocide between 1939 and 1945, are inscribed on the walls of the Pinkas Synagogue, built in the 1530s by Aaron Meshullam Horowitz. The synagogue where for centuries Prague Jews came to worship is now a memorial to some 80,000 innocent men, women and children who have no grave and would otherwise remain forgotten. It also commemorates the 153 Jewish communities in Bohemia and Moravia which were destroyed during the War, as well as other localities where Jews lived before the War.” I was extremely moved by this museum, in much the same way I am moved by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. The white Synagogue walls were printed in red and black with the name, date of birth, date of death, and place of death for 80,000 humans. So many of the people never lived beyond their teenage years. I walked in silence, looking at the names, trying to humanize them, wondering how this tragedy could have happened — and how it could have been prevented.
Dad and I then exited the Synagogue and walked through the Old Jewish Cemetery. Land in the Jewish section of Prague was at a premium and there was not enough space to bury the dead. So, soil was brought into the cemetery and the deceased were buried in layers. We learned that about 12,000 grave markers are in the very small land area, many of them in angles covering the same spot of land. This was a very unique cemetery, and also very moving.
Finally, we entered an area which displayed writings and pictures done by Jewish children who lived in the Ghettos. Again, a very effective and emotional exhibit. I would have liked to explore this exhibit longer but there were so many people in the museum that I could barely see anything. Reluctantly, I exited and found Dad had had the same idea. We talked about the museum in length, then decided that we needed to do something to “pick up our spirits”.
We made a lot of human/lifestyle observations during our week-long stay in Prague. I really enjoy seeing, and experiencing, how the local citizens live. (These are just random observations, in no particular order. They are things I will remember when I think of Prague.)
The first thing which struck me was the lack of a phone in the apartment. We were staying in a very nice place which had a modern stove, refrigerator, television, stereo, washing machine, etc. It didn’t seem logical that the owners couldn’t afford a phone. I also heard no telephones ringing in the rest of our building, nor in the other residential buildings, even in the still of the night with the windows open. There was often a queue at the public phone down the street. Amazing what I take for granted…..I’ve been considering having a second line installed so that people can reach me when I’m on the ‘net. We used the phones at the Inter-Continental hotel when we wanted to call the US.
I found an internet cafe which was conveniently located within a short walk of the apartment. It was called the internet kavarny cybeteria. There were 14 terminals located in this facility and all were in use both times I visited. I tried to telnet home but found the 2400 baud connection rate to be far too slow.
We noticed that the lights in the apartment were dim despite the fact that high wattage bulbs appeared to be used. We had a difficult time reading even if we sat right under the bulb. It was almost as if “brown-out” conditions existed.
The outside street lighting and traffic signals reminded us of what was used in the USA a few decades ago. We saw kids riding bicycles which went out of style thirty years ago; I couldn’t imagine any child in the town where I live being caught on one of these bikes. It was as though the “old” equipment from the US had been recycled in Prague.
Prague seems to have grasped the American lifestyle and demand for consumer goods with a vengeance. We saw many McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, and Burger King stores, all accompanied by many street signs. American Express has an office. Coca Cola signs were everywhere, as were Marlboro cigarette ads. There was a K-Mart store at the end of “our” street. I was pleased to see a multitude of ATM machines. I recall walking into a shoe store which was located right near a McDonald’s, being greeted in English, and hearing Bruce Springsteen starting to belt out “Born in the USA”. I actually had to stop, get my bearings, and remember what country I was in.
The major grocery store near our apartment was modern, but the empty shelf space suggested they were out of a lot of items. I wondered if this was unique to this store or indicative of the living conditions.
The streets were very clean. Dad and I were surprised to hear the garbage truck drive down “our” street at about the same time each night. Not only were the street containers dumped, the workers opened up the door to each apartment building and emptied all the receptacles. A street sweeper followed a short while later.
I was surprised by the lack of ethnic diversity in the citizens I saw. Most everyone looked just like me — a fair skinned Caucasian. I’m accustomed to this where I live in Maine, but was really startled – and a bit disappointed – to also experience it in Prague.
Dogs were everywhere! We saw so many dogs, mostly small breeds, being walked. They were quiet, well behaved, and clean. Dogs were welcome in stores and restaurants and on the subway. Yup, there was a fare posted for dogs. I didn’t see any cats and near the end of my stay asked a saleswoman if people also had cats for pets. This started an extended conversation as we found we each had two cats. She told me that yes, cats are common, but they stay inside because it’s too dangerous for them outside.
The danger she was referring to was the heavy traffic. It’s not a place I would want to drive as a tourist. People drive mostly sub-compact cars and I noticed many dents and scratches on the cars parked on “our” street. Parking appeared to be a major problem, too. I figured there must be a fair amount of well-to-do citizens in Prague when I spotted a Jaguar dealership. I walked by daily and drooled.
Many people utilize public transportation. The street cars appeared to be bulging beyond capacity. The subway network was also popular but didn’t appear to be as crowded as the trams. I never tried the street car; I either walked or took the subway. It cost about thirty US cents to ride the subway for 70? 80? minutes – exiting and returning to the station allowed in the fare. There were no turnstiles to go through to enter the trains, the entry was on the “honor system”. The subway stations were all very clean, no odors, very little if any graffiti. I kept shaking my head thinking the New York subway system could learn a lot from the Prague System.
I always paid for my subway pass, but by midweek was wondering if I should bother as I never saw anyone checking the passes. I didn’t see many other people paying for/validating passes, either. Fortunately, I decided to be my honest self and spend the 30 cents. I exited a train on one occasion, wearing jeans and tee-shirt with my day pack over one shoulder, and encountered a scruffy-looking guy who stared right at me and said something. I kept on walking assuming he was mentally ill or selling something. The scruffy guy kept speaking to me. Dad got scared seeing what was going on and hit the guy on the shoulder. Only then did I find he was saying “Ticket Check” and wanted to see my subway pass. I grabbed the tiny piece of paper out of my back pocket, showed it to him and apologized for my lack of understanding. That’s what he wanted to see; he smiled and wished us a nice day.
One of the must-sees in Prague is the Hradcany Castle. In fact, one can’t help but see the enormous structure as it towers over the City.
I’ve neglected to mention that we relied very heavily on the Knopf Guides “Prague” guidebook during our week-long stay. It carries a list price of $25.00 US and $32.50 Canadian, but was money well spent. To give you an idea of the importance the authors place on Hradcany Castle, this 392 page tour book devotes 194 pages to tourist itineraries (the remaining pages discuss nature, history, arts & traditions, architecture, practical information, and a few miscellaneous topics); 26 of the 194 pages are devoted to the Castle itself, with another 20 pages to the adjacent area.
Knopf describes the Castle as follows: “The building known as Prague Castle is a series of vast structures whose history of over a thousand years invests them with a character of marked complexity. It incorporates a palace containing hundreds of apartments, a cathedral, churches, a convent, museums and gardens. Prague Castle has been the seat of supreme temporal and spiritual power since the earliest days of the Czech State, as well as being an important cultural center. Today, as the Republic’s seat of power, it is an impressive symbol of the Czech nation.”
Very much intrigued by this description, Dad and I each spent parts of three different days exploring the Hradcany area. My memory album contains dozens of pictures of this area. The daily admission charge was about $3.20 US. We didn’t feel that we saw everything even after devoting this much time to the area.
I enjoyed entering the Castle through the south facade. Two military guards stood outside the entrance gate beneath statues of “Fighting Giants”. We walked through the gate and into one square (called the first courtyard), through another gate, and into a larger square (called the second courtyard). Dad was positive he recalled seeing this square in a WW II news film when he was a child. (As this was before the age of TV, people would go to the movie theater to see government produced news clips about the war.)
We walked through yet a third gate and were inside an even larger square (called the third courtyard); we were also at the entrance to the massive and ornate St. Vitus’ Cathedral. We learned that work began on St Vitus’ in 1344 but was not fully completed until 1929 due to the lack of funds and various wars. (Scaffolding inside the cathedral while we were there indicated that restoration work is currently being done.) The church building is 400 feet long, 200 feet wide and 110 feet high. The vault is supported by 28 pillars. For an additional fee of about $1 US we could walk up a staircase to the very top of a 300 foot high tower, the tallest of the towers. Dad said “let’s go” so we did.
I realized how out of shape I was as I climbed the 200 plus steps which made up the granite/marble circular staircase to the top. I noticed that this was also a bell tower. I sat down as soon as I reached the top, panting, trying to regain my breath. I found comfort in the fact that nearly everyone who arrived after me had the same reaction. I began to get concerned when Dad didn’t show up right away….I was afraid that perhaps his weak heart couldn’t take the exertion. Dad finally appeared on the top landing just as I had regained my breath. We both agreed that this was a much harder climb than that to the Charles Bridge Tower, but well worth the exercise. We were high atop the highest structure in Prague with a 360 degree view of the City below. We could see the intricate detail of the spires very well at this height. Absolutely breathtaking. It sure was cold, though; I was glad I was wearing my down coat. Fortunately, the walk down was much easier than the climb up.
The inside of St. Vitus’ Cathedral was every bit as ornate as the outside. I spent two hours just wandering around inside this structure. I was amazed by the largesse of everything. For example, I learned that one particular tomb was composed of two tons of silver. A wall in a specific chapel contained 1,000 semi-precious stones set in gilded plaster. No wonder there were quite a few guards in the church. One evening I attended a short concert in the Cathedral and found the acoustics to be superb; despite the Cathedral’s size, hearing well was not a problem.
Opposite the side of the Cathedral stands the Old Royal Palace. The palace was the residence of princes and kings from the 12 th century to about the mid 16 th century, when newer parts of the Castle were used. It’s rarely used now. I was disappointed with the lack of period furniture in the Palace. Most of the rooms are empty and it’s up to the visitor to visualize what life must have been like.
Dad was really impressed by Vladislav Hall. This room, which is 200 feet long, 50 feet wide and 40 feet high, occupies the entire second floor of the Palace. The Hall was used for jousts (among other events) and a special broad staircase was built so horses could enter/exit the Hall with ease.
Another part of Hradcany which I enjoyed was the “Golden Lane”. This Lane is composed of very tiny, colorful homes. Even I, at just 5 feet tall, had to duck to enter some of the rooms; I felt like a giant. Legend has it that King Rudolph II ordered the construction of alchemists’ laboratories and workshops for artisans working in gold and making elixirs of life. The authors Franz Kafka and Jaraslav Seifert lived on this tiny street during the early 1900s. There was an interesting medieval military museum on the second floor of these homes.
The area outside the actual Castle was also fascinating. We wandered down narrow cobblestone streets, encountering something we wanted to see at nearly every turn. There weren’t as many tourists in this area and we enjoyed having more “space”. We once had lunch at a restaurant which gave us the feeling of having gone back a few centuries in time. The food was so hearty in Prague that I found myself eating just one meal a day. I enjoyed all the little shops which lined the stairs leading to the Castle. I recall having a very good pizza, accompanied with Pilsner Urquell beer (of course), in this same area. I remember on a number of occasions feeling very grateful that I had brought good walking shoes.
After a few days in Prague proper, Dad and I were looking for something different to do. Stan had suggested that we take a train to Karlstein and visit the castle; we heard this suggestion from a few other people we met, too. One day, Dad saw a kiosk advertising trips to Karlstein. He asked the young man who was staffing the booth what the cost would be. I stifled a chuckle when the young man told us he was only sitting in for a few minutes while a friend ran an errand. Further, he suggested that we just take a train as it would be much cheaper than taking the organized tour.
We went to the train station and found that the round trip would cost us approximately $1.20 per person in second class. Our train was scheduled to leave at 8:20 in the morning and left right on time. We sat with Czech citizens who tried to communicate with us, but with no great success. Instead, we simply shared smiles. We were able to see the castle, situated high atop a large hill, shortly before we arrived at the Karlstein station 33 kilometers later. We walked across and down a street, over a bridge, and down another street before seeing a sign which directed us toward the castle. We wished that we could rent the same bicycles that we noticed the locals riding.
I was disappointed to see that there were many other tourists already on the streets, including many schoolchildren. There was an option to take a horse and buggy ride to the top of the hill but we opted to walk. We walked past a dozen or so “tacky” tourist stores before we decided to stop for a coffee and breakfast pastry. The visiting schoolchildren were taking up all the seats at this proprietors outdoor cafe (without purchasing anything) and he seemed pleased to be able to tell the children to make way for us. They did. We were there on a very nice spring day. I was happy to be able to shed my down coat and be able to sit outside wearing just a polo shirt and jeans.
Energized by our sugar and caffeine fix, we continued to walk up the steep incline toward the castle. We continued to pass more “tacky” tourist places right up to the entrance of the castle. Once again, Dad amazed me by being healthy enough to make the trip on his own two feet. As with our walk up the Charles Bridge Tower and the climb to the top of Saint Vitrus’ Cathedral, the end result was well worth the exertion.
Karlstein Castle was not as large as Hradcany Castle, but it was every bit as fascinating. Unlike Hradcany, in order to see the interior of Karlstein it was necessary to take a formal tour. We paid the nominal admission fee and waited half an hour for an English tour to start. The half hour went by quickly as we were enthralled by the beauty of this structure and the view of the countryside.
We learned that construction on Karlstein Castle started in 1348 but the castle was expanded and renovated, in different stages, through the early 1900s. It has a very rich political and war-related history. I was pleased to see that many of the original pieces of furniture and decoration are still in place. (I imagine this is why a tour guide must be present.) Many original paintings grace the walls. There were several displays of royal icons.
Our train back to Prague left at 4:45 in the afternoon, giving us time to see the entire Castle and have a good meal.
According to my postcard journal, it was about this time in the trip that Dad and I started to have conflicts about time. Long before we left Maine, I had emphasized to Dad that he was welcome to join me in Europe but I wanted a travel PARTNER, I did not want to be a tour guide. I told him that I am used to living alone and traveling alone and I am perfectly comfortable with that — plus I need some time to myself during the day. Dad said he understood. I suggested that he buy some books (even wrote even wrote the suggestions down and showed him my copies) to help prepare for the trip. Unfortunately, I neglected to suggest he read the books.
By this point on our journey, having left the US about a week before, Dad had become very dependent on me. He didn’t want to leave my side for fear of “missing something.” I asked what he wanted to see in Germany and Switzerland and he replied, “Nothing, I’m just tagging along at this point.” I started to get really annoyed as I thought I had made the rules clear prior to our departure and he wasn’t living up to his end of the bargain. I thrive on all the decisions one can make when planning a vacation; Dad seemed overwhelmed by the same decisions. I was glad that we were able to vacation together, but I was equally glad that he was only accompanying me for two of the six weeks.
We both spent a great deal of time shopping for Bohemian Crystal. I was especially attracted to the rose colored glass trimmed with gold leaf and decorated with porcelain flowers. I learned that rose is the most expensive of the colors available as gold is added to the clear glass to give it color. Dad was attracted to the green colored glass. We both liked the blue but preferred the other color. Dad also liked the clear glass which reminded us of Waterford crystal.
We spent the week stopping in shops all over the Old Section of town, trying to figure out what to buy and how to bring it home. We also saw many beautiful antique pieces of Bohemian crystal which were not available for sale. Decisions, decisions. We eventually decided to make our purchases at a store called Philadelphia on Vodickova Street. I bought four red glass brandy snifters and a large basket with a handle. Dad bought a set of four clear Manhattan glasses, eight clear wine glasses, eight green glass brandy snifters, and a large green glass vase. The cost of our shopping spree, including insured air freight back to the US, was $649.00 US. The goods we ordered arrived in perfect condition within about three weeks.
We enjoyed visiting the sites around the “Old Town Square”. This square is dominated by the Town Hall Clock Tower and the Tyn Church. One evening we accidentally discovered the Tyn Church just as a Mass was starting. Dad and I sat down and participated in the Service. I read later that the Tyn Church is the most important church in Prague after St Vitus’ Cathedral. Renovation work was also going on inside this structure.
We discovered a glass museum and saw an interesting display of glass blowing, the men using the same skills which have been handed down from generation to generation.
On our final evening in Prague, I went to see an Opera at the National Theater while Dad stayed home and did laundry. I purchased my ticket the day before the performance at the Theater box office and paid $5.00 US for a reserved orchestra seat. (Sometimes it’s nice to go to performances alone; I’ve been able to get wonderful seats on short notice when purchasing just a single seat.) I didn’t understand the performance, but I sure enjoyed the setting. The interior of this structure is almost overpowering. It is decorated in gold and deep red, with ornate paintings and statutes. There are seats on the floor and several rows of balconies which envelope the floor. This is the most famous of all the Theaters in the Czech Republic; I could feel the sense of history just sitting in this structure.
The National Theater is located at the end of Narodni Avenue, right near the Vltava River. After the opera, I walked the short distance down Narodni Avenue toward our apartment. I had walked that street several times during the day but did not realize the true beauty of the buildings until that evening when I saw them bathed in light. Beautiful paintings and sculptures adorned the unique architecture of each building. I went back home, got dad, and showed them to him. We then continued walking beside the Vltava until we came to the Charles Bridge. We stood there gazing at the statutes on the Bridge with beautiful Hradcany Castle in the background, talking about how much we had enjoyed our all-too-short stay in Prague.
We boarded our train to Nurnberg, Germany on Thursday, April 18 at about 8:00 in the morning. Our second class tickets on the EC train cost $40 per person for the one-way fare. We had enjoyed our week in Prague but were looking forward to seeing and experiencing new places.