Exploring Prague

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Praha.. Praag.. Prague..

No matter how you spell it, I knew we could expect amazing architecture. All I had every heard about Prague, had to do with beautiful buildings and history. It all turned out to be true. We’ve been here for a week now and walked many, many miles. The city has a great public transit system with busses, trams and metro, all accessible on one inexpensive ticket. But when you zoom from one part of the city to the next, underground, you miss the sights and you lose your sense of direction. So we chose to walk.

First we stayed on the north side of the famous river Donau. Locally, in Czeck, its name is Vltana but I have fond connections to ‘Donau’ – as a child I learned to love that gorgeous music composed by Smetena. I saw the music’s images in my mind and now I cannot call that river by any other name than Donau.
We walked all the way around a huge city park where mothers pushed strollers, where old men met friends on benches, where joggers and cyclists all spent a sunny afternoon being active. Prague is a very green city, in the old parts as well as in the new.
Then we moved into the Old City. I had spent hours searching for accommodations. We wanted inexpensive and with a small kitchen – something more than just a bedroom. I finally hit the jackpot by going to Google Maps, zooming in on the old city and then searching for ‘accommodations’ nearby. I found a restaurant/pub that seemed to offer a room. Tricky. Would it be noisy all night? But the location was great and the price was good. And we had run out of time and needed a place for the next night.
So here we are, in the attic of a small, 12th century building. The beams are ancient but everything else is beautifully new: new floor, brand new modern kitchen block, bathroom and toilet all within our half of the attic. The space is huge.
When we step outside we are in the oldest part of Prague – cobblestone streets leading to many squares. A church bell gently chimes the hours next door.
We walked along the river first and decided to take a river cruise. There are many choices and we picked a dinky old boat but it was better than the large ones loaded full of tourists and better than the tiny bathtubs that bobbed by. There was some commentary – all on the buildings, their ages, owners and struggles. Just a lovely way to see this beautiful city from the water.
Then we walked to the main squares, including the one with the clock tower. Everything is so old and ornate. Every building, famous or not, is crafted with statues and curls and gold. Prague looks like a large candy shop full of beautiful pastries… Pink, light green, yellow houses with angels and flower boxes under each window. I hadn’t realized it but the reason there is so much history in Prague is that it was never bombed. So many European cities lost their historic centres during the wars. But Prague was occupied and never bombed. That explains why there are more naked, overweight men and women in this city than I’ve ever seen – all carved from stone.
We strolled across Charlesbridge – an ancient pedestrian bridge packed with tourists and artists: musicians, painters, and sellers of all sorts of made-in-China memorabilia from Czech Republic.
One of our favorite, free activities is to sit on a square and people-watch. Like tonight, when we watched a street sweeper make people on benches lift up their feet so he could sweep the cobblestones…

We are not your average tourist in that we don’t do guided tours where you have to follow a guide with a flag on a long stick. We also no longer pay to see more insides of churches or castles. So we probably miss out on a lot. But we can handle only so many castles and churches and so we choose to spend our money on something outstanding that we haven’t seen before. Like the Hallelujah Concert that was advertised for Thursday night in the Spanish Synagogue. The Spanish Synagogue turned out to be an innately painted dome – every inch of the inside was painted with different colours, mosaics, pillars and carvings. It was glorious and rich with history. Add to that a small audience of maybe 50 people and an orchestra of violins, cello, bass and trumpet and a soprano with a voice that could, but didn’t, shatter the stained glass windows. Then put on the program music by Mozart and Händel, the theme song of Fiddler on the Roof and Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah! It brought tears to my eyes and joy to my heart.
One morning in Prague, we boarded a bus for a three hours ride to a village in southern Czeck Republic, on the border with Austria. For 15 euros, we bought tickets on a comfortable, airconditioned bus. We mostly wanted to see what the Czech countryside looked like.
Through rolling, green farm fields we reached the UNESCO World Heritage Village of Cesky Krumlov: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/617
The castle on the hill dates to the 13th century and the lovely village is like that from an old world picturebook, with crooked cobblestone streets and little shops leaning into each other, all conspiring to lure tourists inside and dazzle them with souvenirs.
We resisted most of the temptations but did have coffee and apple strudel on the edge of the Moldau. The very second we started our stroll through this medieval village, an elderly lady approached us, asking if we spoke German or French or Dutch. I told her we did. She gestured wildly, explaining that she couldn’t find her friends back and that their bus was almost leaving. After some questioning we found out that she had left a friend on a patio while she was going to look around the village. But which patio? She remembered seeing the castle on her left and coming across a bridge. The village is full of patios and bridges but we decided to see if we could help her to find her friends.
We walked down one alley, traipsing through puddles, the Moldau on our left and the castle up on the hill. Finally we spotted a patio that she thought looked familiar. But no friends. A waitress explain in Czech and broken English that her friend had left for the bus.
Rosalie, as she was called, told us many memories and stories as we walked along, but no recollection of where she had to catch the bus. Kees decided to sprint ahead and let the bus driver know that she was coming. She did remember the tour company but there are at least three bus parking areas around the town. Kees took off – I yelled a Plan B as he left. Just in case we’d never find each other again.
So Rosalie and I trudged, arm in arm, across bridges and through alleys. I dragged her up steep staircases toward the castle. Through the courtyard. “I was here this morning,” she’d say.
“Good,” I thought, “at least she came this way.”
She was panting and puffing and I thought she’d collapse right there and then. No sign of a bus or a parking lot.
Across another bridge, up more staircases. “I’m 84, you know,” she puffed. But she kept on trudging.
I asked in a shop “Where are the bus parking lots?”
They pointed and gestured – a long way away.
We went through the castle grounds and found more long roads around. No Kees in sight. No bus in sight. I finally spotted a car with a lady in it and ran over. “I don’t know this lady,” I explained, “but she can’t walk much further and she’s going to miss her bus!”
“I’ll drive you,” the lady said.
We got in and this kind lady drove us way around, across the main road and to a bus parking lot! A frantic, white haired lady with a cane spotted us and came running!
“Don’t tell her what happened!” hissed Rosalie, kissing me on both cheeks.
The bus driver had been at the intersection on the look out for our missing lady. He,too, kissed me on both cheeks for returning what he had lost so carelessly. They should not let little old ladies loose in this medieval town without a map or a phone number for a taxi!
We saw the entire village in record time while racing around with Rosalie. But we did relax over a nice dinner in a “medieval castle” that night. What do you eat for dinner in a castle in Czech Republic? Why, wild boar of course!

Czech Your Wallet

At least that chapter had a happy ending. Unlike the adventure we had in Prague itself.
When we moved into the Old City, we took the metro. Pulling our little suitcases, we came up from bowels of the city onto a large square hemmed by ornate buildings. As soon as we stopped to look around and get our bearings, a guy approached us and asked if we wanted to exchange money. Of course we looked like total tourists.
“No thanks,” we waved and briskly walked away. Ten minutes later we had found our hotel and Kees discovered that his wallet was gone. “That guy!” we both said.
Kees hurried back but of course, no one was there. We spent the next several hours canceling credit cards. It was no problem and everyone was very helpful. Within ten minutes of having the card stolen, a cash withdrawal was already made. We found out at which ATM and spent the rest of the afternoon at a small police station. We hope they will actually follow up by finding the guy on the ATM’s video. The police were very thorough and helpful. The worst thing now is a missing driver’s license but that, too, can be replaced.
What we learned from this mishap was that we had done the right thing by only carrying one or two credit cards in the wallet and keeping another card in a different place. Keep your passport separate from a wallet and behind zippers! Velcro isn’t good enough for professional pick-pockets! Keep a piece of paper with your account numbers but also with your social security number handy. And 1-800 numbers to call if needed. We were grateful to have money on our Skype account so that we could use our own laptop to phone.
Live and learn…