Friday, June 20, 2008

Prague Blog (sorry, I couldn't resist)

Dobry-den (hello) from "Praha"! Well, I finally got to see one of the top cities on my list. I'd heard great things about Prague and the pictures I'd seen looked beautiful, so I made sure to stop there on my way west. The capital of the Czech Republic is a fun, safe, interesting place with some impressive views, grand old buildings, stunning cathedrals and just a great place to visit. I call it a "honeymoon" destination, right up there with Paris and Venice. It has that special romantic magic that just makes you wish you were with someone you love while you're there.

On the night train from Krakow I briefly met Gregg and Chris, a nice American couple from Indiana that I took an instant liking to, but little did I know they were heading for the same guesthouse "Lida" I had booked! When Jan, one of the Lida's owners, picked me up at the train platform we found out we were all going together, so fate seemed to decide that we share the first day sightseeing in the city too. Jan was a fantastic help in explaining how to get into and around the city, which can be at little confusing at first. We had our choice of tram or subway, and took the subway as the station was next to an ATM (bancomat) which we both needed. After resupplying our wallets with Czeck kroners, we took the efficient metro into the heart of the old town at Wenceslas Square.

It's really more of a big, broad avenue than a square, and it's loaded with shops, restaurants, tourists, statues and the odd beggar. (They have a new twist on panhandling here, some of them kneel and bow, forehead touching the ground, perfectly still, like muslims praying to Mecca... and hold their little cups out. There's always some new way to get money, I guess.) Anyways we strolled down the "square" along with hundreds of other tourists (I'm really starting to see them come out... must be in season) and down a lane into the REAL heart of the old town, the Old Town Square (Staromestke Namesti) maybe not as big as Krakow's but packed with wonderful sights like the astronomical clocks on the Clock Tower, Tyne church, the Old Town Hall, and the churc of St. Nicholas.
These "churches" are really cathedrals, huge and tall and centuries old. I love visiting them. I think buildings like them are what I love most about Europe, and why I'll always like it more than, say, Australia. Sorry for you mates Down Under, but I'm afraid you (and the U.S.) just don't have the history they have here!

And guess what else was going on in that square? If you've read any of my recent blogs you'll probably suspect--and you'd be right-- that there were huge TV screens set up and hundreds of people watching the Europe soccer games, of course! It kind of takes away some of the sense of history when you're trying to appreciate the cobblestones and old spires, and booming sports figures ten feet tall block half your views. I know, it's a great place to watch it and it gets everyone outside, but still... No, I didn't mind too much and I won't start complaining now, because we were in Prague and in the thick of everything! Gregg found a great little tavern (I think its Czech name meant "By the Golden Tiger", correct me if I'm wrong, Gregg) recommended by the Rick Steves guidebook that we popped in, and as Rick warns, the barmen keep bringing you beers until you ask them to stop! It was good, too, very smooth. It went down easily, in fact perhaps a little too easily, it's hard to tell the barman to stop bringing them! But we had to see the Charles Bridge, so we pushed on.

The bridge goes from a few blocks past the Old Town Square across the river Vlatva to the Castle up on the hill. We decided not to make the climb that day as it was evening and we were going to tour it later anyway. After exploring the area a bit and checking out another restaurant, we went back to the square and watched a bit of "football" (although I was watching people more) until a fight broke out and we decided to head back to the hotel.

I won't weary you with descriptions of all the places I visited and all the walking I did over the next few days, but a few highlights were the St. Vitus Cathedral within the Castle walls, whose gothic spires are what you see towering over everything in the photos, and with stained-glass windows that are about the best I've ever seen.
Also the St. George Basilica where I saw a little concert with a 12-piece orchestra. It was an hour of classical music, selections of the best of Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi and others, and was an absolute joy to hear echoing in the Basilica's hall. Earlier that day I was even luckier when I happened into the Wallenstein Palace Gardens where a full orchestra and choir were practicing Beethoven's 9th, and I got to sit in the front row and watch it all for free--incredible. There were also peacocks wandering the park, adding to the renaissance air of the day, and they even keep huge owls in an aviary, whose sad hooting presence was even more mystical. I don't like to see wild birds caged, but I love owls and was thrilled to see them.

Speaking of birds, I'd say I still seem to have a way with them: walking into town the next day a pretty black & white bird (a magpie, maybe?) was standing in the middle of a side street. I moved to the curb and it just stood there. The behavior seemed a little odd and I wanted to make sure it was ok, but didn't want to scare it off either, so I just squatted down and called to it--and wouldn't you know it hopped right over to me! That's when I noticed its feet seemed to be useless; it could stand on them but they seemed limp. It hungrily pecked at my hand, but all I could offer it was a capful of water from my bottle, which it drank thirstily. After we both hung out there for a while he showed no signs of leaving, so (and this is the amazing part) he let me scoop him up and put him in the nearby bushes. I don't know if the birds are just more trusting here or what, but it's kinda fun to hold a wild thing and have it wholly trust you. I went and bought some granola biscuits but it was gone by the time I returned, so I assume it was able to fly. Anyway sorry to bore you with yet another bird-feeding story.

Other than that I'd say you just have to come here and appreciate it for yourself: the museums, churches, the beers and Czech food, the stunning vistas from different towers and castle walls. It was a great end to my eastern European tour, and one of the places I just may have to come back to.... but next time it'll be with someone special, I hope.

Next: Cesky Krumlov and Salzburg

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