Prague Diary: Day 1: City Tour, Castle, Mala Strana, Mozart

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National Museum

First of all, I want to apologize in advance — I can’t get the keyboard shortcuts for the various accents to work in the way I need them to work.

We’re up to Wednesday — our first full day in Prague apart from the arrival day, and we can’t believe it’s already Wednesday. We survived our first breakfast debacle in the hotel, and were out the door by 9AM and on the metro shortly thereafter.

We got off at the Musetek stop, which looked like it was the closest to everything we wanted. The first thing we saw, coming up out of the metro, was a place called “Coffee Heaven”. The sign alone made us laugh, and, as the week progressed, we figured it must be some sort of chain.

We turned towards a long, wide plaza with an imposing building looking down at it from the top of the hill leading away from the metro. We figured the building was an important museum or government building, and, in fact, it was the National Museum. We hoped to go back and visit it later in the week, but never actually managed so to do.

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We wandered up the plaza — very wide, stores and money change places and restaurants and hotels along it. The famous Hotel Europa is on that stretch, originally built in 1889, rebuilt in 1903 in the Art Nouveau style. When my mom was in Prague, sixty years ago, it had some of the most luxurious movie houses in Europe. Now, they’re tacky casinos.

We did find a discount bookstore called Luxor, with English-language books, though.
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It turned out that we were in St. Wencelas Square, where many famous events in Prague’s history took place, and the large statue near the top of the square on the horse is St. Wencelas, with four patron saints of Prague around him: St. Procopius, St. Agnes, St. Adalbart, and St. Ludmila (St. Wencelas’s grandmother, whom we would continue to meet frequently on our jaunts through Prague). The square was named in 1848 and the statue was erected in 1912. St. Wencelas is the Big Kahuna saint of them all, a murdered king whose legacy we will explore in more detail in our many hours at Prague Castle.
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The central plaza in the Square is beautifully kept, changed seasonally, and, currently, in the center, was a photographic exhibit. One photo, of a group of people supposedly listening intently to a tour guide, made us laugh because it was shot from the back, showing that, in reality, they all had their hands on each others’ asses.

We bought tickets for a city tour from a company called Martin’s, figuring that it would be a good way to get our bearings in Prague. We asked directions to the Old Clock at a hot dog stand, and just had enough time to scurry down the 500 metres of cobblestoned streets and take a quick peek at it before returning for our city tour.

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Old Town Square is pretty amazing. The clock itself has an astronomical dial with positions of the sun and moon and information on the constellations, and representations of the months, in addition to telling the time (although it’s hard to actually read the time, so they have a small, common black-type on white clock like one finds in classrooms on the side of the Town Hall so you know what time it actually is and what time the fun starts.

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Every hour, there’s a walk of the Apostles — the figure of Death bangs his drum, and, above, the figures of the Apostles slide across in those two little windows above the clock face. The whole thing takes about 45 seconds, and you kind of laugh uncomfortably and go, “That’s it?”, but if you’re in the area near the top of the hour, you still scuttle back and stare up at it with the hundreds of other tourists.

It’s actually quite wonderful, and the detail work on the clock is fantastic. It was created around 1410, with the calendar dial added probably around 1490. The sculpture of Death was added in the 17th century. The legend surrounding the clock is that a clockmaker named Jan Hanus built it. The City Council was delighted with the piece, and so upset when the unsubstantiated rumor reached their ears that he was under commission to build a clock for someone else that they had his eyes gouged out. We learned even more about the legend during the Ghost Walk on the Saturday of our trip, which I will share when I write about that day.

There’s controversy about the accuracy of both the legend and the names of the creator or creators of the clock, but, to me, the legend is quite consistent with Prague’s bloody and judgmental history.

We hurried back to the place where the bus tour began, and spent two hours that, in true Prague fashion, were both fascinating and frustrating. We were on a mini bus, with people from all nationalities. We had a driver, but our “tour guide” was actually a recording. They provided the guide in 26 languages — sort of like listening in on an UN session.

The person who taped the information had a thick Liverpuddlian accent, so it was kind of like having one of the Beatles early in his career talk you through Prague.

One of the funniest statements was that the recording provided the tour in “the language of your choice, no matter what the mood of the driver.”

Imp and I howled with laughter.

We were jetlagged, but still, it was obvious that we were driving around and around in circles for a good portion of the trip. Almost every building in the city has a fascinating history, but the tour galloped over most of them, picking and choosing only a few here and there. The problem was that we couldn’t really see out of the front of the bus (although the driver rolled back the roof so we could look up), so sometimes the guide spoke about a building we were approaching, but then got stuck in traffic, so by the time we got to the building, the recording was talking about something else. I started taking notes, but, as the tour continued, the notes got snarkier and snarkier, so I stopped. And because we were driving around in circles, we never really got oriented, which was part of the point of the tour.

And whenever traffic got REALLY bad, the recording switched over to classical music. Road rage prevention, perhaps?

Like I said, funny and frustrating.
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Here’s a photo of a building nicknamed “Fred and Ginger” because, supposedly, it looks like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing.

All of our frustrations melted when the bus rattled up the looooooong hill to the Castle and spit us out. The tour told us we had 30 minutes to wander around, and if we weren’t back at the meeting spot on time, it was assumed we had chosen to stay, and the bus would leave without us.

The Castle itself is amazing. I’d been warned to spend at least a day there –we wound up spending nearly three.

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But it was St. Vitus Cathedral that sent chills of delight up our spines and made all the frustrations of the tour worthwhile. It took 500 years to build, and the gargoyles, architecture, and just plain artistry of the place is stunning. We wound up spending a lot of time at St. Vitus, and, in those 30 minutes, we photographed a lot of the outside of it.
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We also witnessed the Changing of the Guard. The morning guards wore a lighter grey uniform jacket than those coming in, and I’m still trying to find out why. The uniforms were designed by the costume designer for the movie AMADEUS. The sentries are not allowed to speak, much in the way the Guards in London aren’t — so people treat them like props, which is just disrespectful.
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We had lunch in a little cafe on Old Town Square — sandwiches and iced frappucinos and macchiatas. Very good. We were fighting the jet lag, but wanted to see more.

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Walking around a bit, we found the Estates Theatre, where Mozart’s Don Giovanni premiered in 1787. It’s a gorgeous building, and we’d love to attend a performance there just to be in the space. In the small street on the side of the building containing the stage door, across from it, hangs a structure from a building that looks very much like a miniature version of St. Vitus Cathedral. Fascinating.

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We also stopped at Tourist Information to get directions to Betramka, the Mozart Museum, where we wanted to attend a chamber music performance that evening. We wanted to walk, but the woman told us it was too far, and through too much of an industrial area. She showed us how far it was comfortable to walk in Mala Strana, and then to hop onto the #9 tram and get off at the Betramka stop, and it was “right there.” I said, “We don’t have to take any streets or go anywhere else?” And she said, “No. It’s right there.”

Ha!

We walked back to watch the clock do its little dance, then wandered through Joseftown (formerly the Jewish Quarter) and along the Vlatva River to the famous Charles Bridge. The Bridge, which started construction in 1357 to replace the Judith Bridge, was renamed “Charles” in about 1870. It has 30 statues decorating it, and each statue has a story. Many of the stories are false, created by societies who wanted to gain more statuRE by putting up a statUE. Richard Burton has a wonderful chapter on the bridge and its statues in his book PRAGUE: A CULTURAL HISTORY.
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It’s also filled with vendors and pickpockets during the day. And, on our wander across, filled with construction, so about half the width of the bridge was not available, making it even more crowded.

Once we reached the other side of the bridge, the area known as Mala Strana, we found a small bookshop tucked away down a flight of curved iron stairs. I got a small book written for children about Prague history, because I figured it was easier to dissect the layers in a children’s book!

We skipped the Torture Museum. Hey, we lived under 8 years of Bush and Cheney. We don’t need to visit a Torture Museum. I couldn’t help wondering, though, if any of the devices in the Torture Museum were also in the Sex Machine Museum over in Old Town.

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We found a shop selling Cannabis Vodka, which struck us as funny. We’re both convinced it must taste awful. But I guess if you drink enough of it, you don’t care.

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(Inside the Glena Pub)

We found a place called The Glena Pub and stopped for a beer — this time a dark beer, which I’m not all that fond of, but it wasn’t bad. The bartender tried to get us to try Budweiser, explaining it’s very different than the American Budweiser, but I didn’t fly all that way to drink Budweiser!
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Along the way, we found a sculpture of a series of disintegrating people. We didn’t know what it was. Later, I read that it’s supposed to represent the disintegration of Communism. A plaque would have been nice, to explain it!

We got on the #9 Tram and, yes, it was kind of a long way. We got off at Betramka. There was nothing that looked like a Mozart museum, nor where there any signs. We walked around for a bit — this was not a tourist area, but more residential. There was a lovely old cemetery, unmarked, unnamed on any of our maps (which we want to go and investigate in detail on another trip). Finally, I pulled a Tourist Move, pulled out my map, and we figured out where we were and where we needed to go to get to Betramka.

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It was down a street and up a Very Long Hill. There were no delis or anything, and we were parched. We got to the museum, bought our tickets, and asked if we could buy a bottle of water, or even a glass of water. The guy at the desk refused. He said the cafe was closed and all he could offer was was “water from the toilet.”

That is not an acceptable way to deal with customers.

It is also typical of Prague.

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We sat in the garden, waiting for the concert to begin. It was beautiful — you can see why Mozart enjoyed writing here, in peace and quiet. I bet his hosts, Duskova and Dusek, would have been horrified at the lack of hospitality provided to modern guests by the current staff.

Additionally, the concert was nearly a half hour late starting because they were waiting for a busload of Belgian tourists who were “having trouble getting there.” Once they arrived, at least half of them were sick as dogs, and spent most of the concert sneezing, coughing, and hacking up a lung. H1N1 anyone?

The concert itself was lovely. It was a trio called Trio Orbis, with a young woman on violin, a young man on cello, and another young man on piano. They played three lovely pieces, and the concert took just over an hour. Completely lovely musicianship and beautiful interaction amongst them.

As I listened, I plotted two short stories. One of which is a Jain Lazarus adventure set in Prague, about six months to a year before HEX BREAKER.

I asked for directions to the metro stop that looked like it was close o the map. A young woman on the staff gave them to us. I did not ask the rude guy — he’d have given us wrong directions on purpose.

Going down the hill was much easier than going up. We easily found the Andel metro station. There was an Apple store in the complex — I was tempted to toss my iPod at them and pitch a fit, but I’m sure the customer service, Apple or no, would be typical Czech (as in non-existent). There was a Mexican restaurant filled with English-speakers on one corner — I’m pretty sure there were a lot of Americans, because the women had so much Botox they couldn’t move their faces to chew.

We avoided that restaurant and went across the street to a small local joint where, again, we were the only English speakers. There was only one waiter handling the entire restaurant and the bar. He was exceptionally disinterested in the customers, which I understood. I would have been very unhappy to be that understaffed.

It was cheap, the Pilsner was fantastic, and I had a gorgeous mustard-encrusted pork chop. We split an order of potatoes (vegetables don’t come with the entry, they’re separate. And usually you have 17 choices of potatoes and maybe some cabbage. But they sure know what they’re doing with those 17 choices of potatoes).

We watched a pair of cops outside ticket a car. The female cop (Asian) wrote the ticket, photographed, did all the work. The male cop (Czech), posed and swaggered. He was so aware we were watching him that it was hilarious.

We bought tickets at the Andel metro. A homeless guy was trying to get change from us, asking if we spoke English. I spoke to him in French and disconcerted him. A young Czech woman went off on him, as near as we could tell, berating him for being young, healthy, and not getting a job. We escaped into the metro while she yelled at him.

We were on the “B” line, and, two stops later, switched to our “A” line and scooted home.

You always feel watched in Prague, not because of leftover Communist regime energy, but because every building is full of statues staring down at you.
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Previously: Getting There
The Hotel

8 Comments

  1. Beautiful travelogue, Devon. It’s very interesting that the clock is astronomical, as well. I love that.

    What stunning photos! Thanks for walking us through your first day. 🙂

  2. Devon, I’m sure you were not being spun a line about Budweiser. Its originally a Czech beer.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Budweiser

    • Stevie, yes, I know the origin, and thank you for the link. I still didn’t want to drink it — I wanted to try the other beers.

  3. The clock and the story behind it is fascinating. Bloody, but fascinating. My Son learned about St. Wenceslaus last year for HIstory. Quite the tale there as well. *G*

    I’m glad you had a good time and your travelogue is quite interesting.
    Hope you have a pleasant day!

  4. […] background research for the essay and haven’t had time. But it gives you a chance to catch up on yesterday’s long jaunt, with photos, and you can keep scrolling back for the earlier ones as […]

  5. Husband and I spent a few days there for our honeymoon. We made the mistake of walking up to the castle. 🙂

  6. What a delightful read that was. The clock is absolutely fascinating; beautiful photos! d:)

  7. Great Post! You’re lucky to have an opprtunity to go to Prague. It is a very lovely country. I’d love to go there some day.


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