Sweet Gentle Prague
It was just a week ago yesterday that I found myself in the world class city of Prague with a personal day on my hands.
The work part of the trip had been both busy and exhausting. My coworkers all left for home that morning but I had a tourist Friday ahead of me. The challenge: To see as many of the must-see Prague sights as possible in one day.
Now just eight days later, it seems almost like a dream.
A week ago it was very real. So real I had a fair bit of anxiety and no idea what lay ahead. The Good Man managed to talk me down from nine timezones away and with a deep breath, I screwed up my courage and headed out of the hotel room.
As luck would have it, there happened to be a Metro station right under the hotel.
So this is where my journey began:
A simple suburban Metro station that would take me *everywhere*
The hotel where I stayed is in the suburbs of Prague, but the Metro is so damn good it was a less than fifteen minute ride and I emerged at the bottom of Wenceslaus Square.
I had done some reading before arriving in Prague and I knew a bit about Wenceslaus Square.
Well, I knew three things:
Thing 1) The square is dominated by a statue of King Wenceslaus. As in “Good King Weceslaus blah blah, on the feast Stephen, nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh, deep and crisp and even…”
What the hell is that song even about, anyway? Wait, let’s hold that question for another time.
On that day, I knew that Saint Wenceslaus is considered the patron saint of the Czech Republic.
So I walked uphill and gawked at the shops and restaurants and soon found myself in the shadow of the Good King and his steed.
That there is a gooood king
Thing 2) Wenceslaus Square is incredibly historic, considered the very heart of the city of Prague, and it is a World Heritage Site because it was on that very square in 1989 that the Velvet Revolution happened.
What is the Velvet Revolution, you say? I’m so glad you asked.
The Velvet Revolution is when the then Czechoslovakia decided it had had just about enough (MORE than enough) and threw off Communist rule. They then became their own self-managed country with a parliament.
This is a very, very big deal. It utterly changed the course of the Czech people. For the better.
I have a coworker who grew up in Prague. She left as a teenager in 1984. She said, “We had to leave. We had so much despair. We believed it would never change.”
It would eventually change, but it would take a few more years.
So I stood on this square, a lost little girl from New Mexico, and thought about how much happened right where my feet stood. How these people took back their own destiny.
See where all those tourists are? History happened there.
Thing 3) At the top of Wenceslaus Square, behind the statue and in front of the museum something particularly sad and historic happened.
In 1968, a student named Jan Palach protested the invasion and eventual fall of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union during what was called the Prague Spring. He did so by committing suicide by self-immolation.
“…Palach did not set himself on fire to protest against the Soviet occupation, but did so to protest against the ‘demoralization’ of Czechoslovak citizens caused by the occupation.” – from a doctor who treated Palach (wiki)
I think that sense of demoralization and despair runs strong through the history of the Czech people. In my experience, they are a very laid back and easy going people, but there is that sadness underneath. Well, maybe not sadness, just…world weary.
I wanted to find the small marker of Palach’s history that is embedded in the brickwork in front of the museum. I have to say I was greatly moved. There were flowers at the site, meaning people still remember and still care about what he did.
This is a simple but powerful marker
Well, that was a bit of a dark start to my day of exploration, but it also really touched me.
From there, I hopped back on the Metro and made my way to Old Town Square. The mood and attitude in the Old Town area could not have been more different.
The Old Town Square is beautiful, but incredibly overrun by tourists. Okay, sure, I was also a tourist, but you get what I mean.
Along with tourists there were an awful lot of flim-flam men (and women), grifters and pickpockets. At one point I stopped to look at maps on my phone to see if I was heading the right direction, and saw no less than three people make a move toward me.
San Francisco is a tourist town and I’m fairly used to this sort of untoward behavior, so each person got my patented City Stink Eye. The one that lets people know I am not to be trifled with.
They soon backed up, but that kind of predatory behavior was pretty rampant in the Old Town area. I was waving off sellers, beggars and all around questionable sorts left and right. I also kept a firm grip on my bag as I heard from several places that the pickpocketing is quite bad.
The main reason to be in Old Town, apart from admiring the amazing architecture, was to see the Astronomical Clock located at the Old Town Hall building.
Of course my favorite part was the skeleton
This clock was installed in 1410. Um, what? 14 freaking 10? Wow.
As luck would have it, I was there at about twenty minutes to the top of the hour, so I waited with all of the many tourists, in the rain I might add, to watch the clock’s mechanics at the top of the hour. A skeleton rings a bell, the animated figures come to life, and above the clock statues of the twelve apostles zip by and look out the windows.
It was very quaint and lovely, and I’m glad I saw it. Not much more to say than that. More than a Clark Griswald shrug, less than rapturous delight.
After taking some photos of the beautiful buildings on the square, I then made my way onward to the Charles Bridge.
The most famous of the bridges across the Vltava River, the Charles Bridge began construction in 1357.
You know how sometimes Europeans give Americans a wry smile when we talk about our deep history? Yeah, this is why. In 1357 they were building bridges that would safely transport my tired little toes across the same river some 659 years later. America wasn’t even a twinkle in the eye of Columbus in 1357.
The stroll across the bridge was certainly lively. Lots of people, lots of selfie sticks (ugh), quite a few pickpockets and an awful lot of Catholic statues. Like, a LOT of Catholic statues.
Felt like I needed to go to confession when I got to the other side, ba-dum, tish!
It was hard to pick just one photo from my walk across the river, but let’s go with this one:
The walk across the bridge was quite pleasing especially since the rain had moved on and a bright blue Czech sky emerged. Quite lovely.
The part of Prague on the other side of the bridge is known as Lesser Quarter, which I find quite a rude name. There was nothing lesser about this side of the bridge in my opinion. It is much quieter, calmer and less busy. It suited me just fine.
At this point, my legs, feet and bladder asked nicely if we could stop, so I landed at a coffee shop.
Over a lovely icy coffee, I tweeted exactly how I felt in that moment on that day.
As my legs relaxed, I listened to a group of four Czech students argue and debate and I watched life happen outside the glass door. I felt enormously contented. It’s those moments I will remember long after I’ve come back to my regular life. It’s those moments I wait for on each international trip I take. It’s what makes all of those long and ugly plane miles worth it.
Yeah. Seriously, may I never forget how good I felt in that moment.
Now fortified, I moved on to my last stop of the day, St Nicholas Church.
The guidebook I pondered over coffee told me that it was a beautiful example of a baroque church. I do like to see some of the old and over the top churches in Europe, so I was game.
The guidebook also mentioned the bell tower at the church. How it had been used by the communists to keep an eye on the American Embassy nearby, and that it offered some of the best views in all of Prague.
Impulse overtook me and I smacked down 90 koruna for a ticket and began climbing the stairs.
What in the utter hell was I thinking? One, my legs were already tired, two I’m in okay shape but stair climbing is tough, and three my asthma was like “hey, what’s up?”
But I kept climbing the spiral stairs and narrow ladders until it got more and more exhausting and claustrophobia inducing (and I don’t often struggle with claustrophobia).
At more than one point I had to remind myself that I managed to get myself into this situation and had to figure out how to get myself out.
My bullish determination kicked in and I made a promise I would make it all the way to the top.
Along the way I found the watchmen’s quarters, a sparse room with a small bed, rough wood table and open brickwork fireplace.
When there were windows, I looked out then kept climbing. Finally, I could smell the fresh air of outside and found myself at a narrow deck that encircled the tower. There was a guide there and she told me to go outside (I didn’t understand what the signs meant and had hesitated).
Wow. Truly. Wow. I was stunned at seeing all of Prague laid out before me.
The sky stippled with clouds and the sun began its slow descent toward the end of the day and there I stood taking it all in.
And hey, I wasn’t even at the top of the tower yet. After taking quite a few photos with both of my cameras, I kept climbing. The very, very top of the tower, at the end of 215 steps, was less interesting. It was low ceilinged, cramped, stuffy and the windows were small.
So I went back down to the narrow deck and took another spin.
With that, I declared myself done for the day. Ready to head back to the hotel.
I came down all 215 steps a lot faster than I went up and made myself dizzy. Wobbly on my pins, I chose instead to stop for some dinner and I’m glad I did. I found a funny little restaurant where they treated me nice and I ate something they called Slovak gnocchi, which a short Google search later assured me is actually a thing.
A very delicious thing.
I wanted to have a nice Czech beer alongside, but worried a beer would drop me right to the ground so I opted for something milder.
After eating my fill, I set out back across the Charles Bridge. The mood on the bridge had changed. I crossed east to west at about 2:45pm and came back west to east at close to 6:00pm. There were more people out and the Friday revelry had begun. It was funny how quickly the mood had shifted.
On the way back, I made sure I touched the two lucky spots on the bridge, once with my left hand for my husband, the southpaw, once with my right hand for me.
One of the two lucky spots, though a bit grim. So this priest was thrown in the water…
A nice twilight stroll and I soon found myself back at a Metro station waiting to head back to the hotel and the end of my stay in Prague.
There are quite a few more things I wish I could have found time to see while in Prague. The Apple Museum, the castle, and the art gallery, to name but a few, but I was grateful to have one full free day to see the best of what Prague had to offer.
Prague is a gorgeous, easy and fun city. I loved every minute of my time there and wonder if someday I will ever find my way back.
I suppose I can dream.
Meanwhile, at a week later I think my legs have finally recovered. Seriously, 215 stairs? C’mon!
And to the good people of Prague, I say děkuji for treating me so very well.
All photos ©Copyright 2016, Karen Fayeth, and subject to the Creative Commons license in the right column of this page. Taken with either a Canon G10 or an iPhone6.