Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Prague I: Mluvíte anglicky?

First of all, I need to thank everyone who supported me through my latest paper-writing escapade. You'll all be glad to know that I finished it well ahead of time, and that my lemonade and Oreo-induced madness has come to an end. Chad, Elizabeth, and I went to Prague - the capital of the Czech Republic, for you geography illiterate bunch - last weekend. This city is amazing. I don't have any good strategy to break it down into blogging pieces, and since I have well over 100 photos these posts could get a little unwieldy. I'm going to do my best, though, so if it gets a little hairy just skip that paragraph and move on, OK? First things first: our hostel - a place called Hostel Downtown - was lovely, clean, and we found a cheap shuttle to take us there from the airport so we didn't get lost on public transportation. Lucky, I know! I'm usually good for one or two early-morning treks down the wrong line in the metro on my first day in any new city.

I have every intention of returning to Prague some day when I'm older and have more time on my hands. We spent our weekend - literally - walking around the city. Twice! It's much smaller and more compact (the points of interest for tourists, not the whole city) than we originally thought; our map was scaled at 50 meters per centimeter. Talk about a "blown up" picture. But walking was nice. The weather stayed in the high to mid 50s all weekend, it didn't rain, and we got to see much more of the city's local colour by walking than we would have by taking the metro.

Should I start with the buildings? The bridges? I just don't know... There isn't an ugly building in Prague. The city is a composite of styles dating from the Middle Ages through the 21st Century, and you can't walk down a main street without seeing dozens of Atlantes, cherubim, mythical creatures, and high reliefs everywhere you turn. The buildings are all topped in red terracotta tile or greening, gold-gilt copper, and every time I peeled my eyes off of the offerings in front of me I spotted an elaborate church steeple or large dome that required further exploration.

This is the National Theatre building. It was located at the intersection of our street (Národní) and the river (Vltava). We saw it every day, and every day we stopped to pull out our cameras, only to remind ourselves that the 3 pictures we took yesterday were more than we were ever going to need. The gilt top of this place is visible from almost any 3rd floor window in Prague. It's really impossible to miss. We didn't go see any shows or performances, but I'm definitely booking tickets for everything I can find if I'm ever in Prague again. Even if the shows are terrible, at least I'll be able to see what's inside places like this.

Speaking of "places like this," this is where the Prague philharmonic orchestra performs. We were pelted with fliers for concerts - if there's a light on in that building, there's a concert of some kind being performed - and sadly declined them all. Prague, as far as the arts is concerned, is really the place to be. Everyone goes to the concert halls, the opera house, the theatre... it's just part of their culture. Even the street performers are members of some orchestra or another earning extra cash. We heard string quartets and violinists on the street corners better than almost all of the formal recitals and concerts I've attended back in the states. And really, don't we all want to be in a place where it's perfectly acceptable to take an hour or two in the evening for Motzart, or catch a matinee at the opera if it tickles your fancy?

This is the old town hall, and next to it is the astronomy clock (located on the hall's southern wall). This clock keeps track of - you guessed it - astronomical happenings and time. It's a medieval design that shows a procession of saints, the month, and somehow calculates the position of the sun and moon. I'm not sure how that last bit works, but part of the clock's design (the offset circle within the face of the larger, blue portion) features an astrolabe, so maybe that's how they do it. Personally, I don't think it would be very useful to chart stars or moon phases on a clock, because that means all of your calculation equipment would have to go with you to the town square each evening. Unless you knew how to read it just by looking, I guess. If you did know how to read one, though, you could probably also figure out the position of the planets and all sorts of fun things with it. It's really quite impressive when you realize that they built this thing in the 15th century.

1) More of the Old Town Square. The Town Hall and clock are to the left.
2) This photo was taken from the same place as #1, except I'm facing the opposite direction. Aren't those spires amazing? It's called Týn Cathedral, if you're curious.

We also visited Prague's New Town Hall. Actually, this one was sort of by mistake. We were walking home from the National Museum, and I asked if we could try a different route because I saw a tower near the edge of our map and thought it would be fun to explore. Anyways, it turned out to be the New Town Hall, and it has a lot of really beautiful architecture in and around it, plus a rather large park opposite its lawn. The second photo is more of the same, it's just taken a little further down the sidewalk. This is one of the more modern buildings in Prague, and I think they use it for processing criminals and setting court dates.

While we were wandering the city streets, we found ourselves in front of Prague's municipal building and the Powder Gate. The gate is from the 11th Century, and it used to be one of the entrances into the Old Town. And no, no one tried (very hard) to blow it up. It got the name "powder" because they used it to store gunpowder in the 17th Century. As far as the municipal building is concerned, its really quite dull. It used to be the royal palace, but that was basically demolished and built-over with this Baroque replacement. In other news, these buildings are really close to a HUGE shopping arcade called Palacia, or something similar. We only went in to use the restrooms, but we ended up just walking around and looking at things for about 15 minutes.

This one (in the back, with the double towers) is St. James' Church. It - like so many others - started as a monastery full of Franciscan monks, and parts of it date from 1232. We did not go into this church, but that's only because I didn't know that they have the 400 year old, mummified arm of a jewel thief hanging next to the door! Here's the story: "[The thief] tried to steel some jewels from the Madonna on the high altar one night. But the Madonna grabbed his hand and didn’t want to let it go. The thief had to wait there until the next morning. The next day, when the Minorites came to the Church, they tried to separate the thief from the Madonna, but in vain. They had to cut his arm. Then the Madonna let the hand go. The monks hung the arm to remember this event and as a warning for other thieves."

And here we have the Old New Synagogue, located right in the heart of Prague's Jewish district. Really, I don't find this building very interesting, but it's located near the Old Jewish Cemetery which looks ridiculously cool. We didn't enter either because they were deemed too expensive by a majority vote, so I'm ripping a picture off the Internet to show you what we missed. It's acres and acres of tomb stones piled one on top of the other. Archaeologists think that there are around 12,000 people buried here, but there's no good way to calculate it without digging them all up, so they just keep making a new guesstimate every few years. The oldest known tomb in the area is dated from 1439, but there are several similar sites that were only recently rediscovered dating much earlier. They stopped taking new "admissions" in the late 18th Century, if you were curious.

Here we have an unforgivably low-resolution image of one the Vltava's old locks or guard towers. I'm not really sure wich. The building looks medieval to me, but I'll leave that for the professionals to decide. I took this on our twilight river tour (one of the few touristy-things we actually spent money on), and while the experience definitely ranked among my favourite parts of the excursion, my photos are terrible. I learned something about my camera: night pictures, no problem, distance shots, lovely, distance shots at night... not so much.

Then there's the "just odd" stuff that you find in any major city. The first image is the Petřín Lookout Tower - modeled after the Eiffel Tower, since it's not immediately obvious in the picture. They've got an observation deck up there, but it was a little too far to travel just to get a higher vantage point. After all, the hills around the castle work just as well, and we were going up there en route to the palace and cathedral anyways. Oh! The second photo features a giant metronome. Yep. Giant metronome. You'll always be on-beat in Prague, I guess.

And, even though it's not a building, I'm throwing in this picture of a red Ferrari. There were dozens of luxury vehicles in Prague, ranging from Hummers to this little number. Normally I don't even pretend to care about cars, but since this one's owner felt the need to block nearly a whole lane of traffic when he parked it, well... Besides, boys (cooties, oh no!) like cars, and boys read this so it can't hurt to put a red Ferrari on the page.


Anonymous said...

I want a red ferrari..... I do I do...

Burkesmouthpiece said...

I wouldn't pass up a ferrari if it was just parked across traffic and I'm a girl!

I think I would have sold it to pay to go see all those amazing buildings in Prague...::sighs and swoons::