Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Fall Break Part II: Prague

For a more detailed photographic tour of Prague, click HERE to view the accompanying photo album.

After our delicious sausages in Dresden we set off on our train to Prague. As it turns out, the river that we took so many pictures of in Dresden winds through the countryside, meets up with some other rivers, and eventually becomes the Vltava river in Prague. Because of this, the train ride down to Prague was absolutely beautiful. The weather was still as cloudy and rainy as it had been up until that point in the trip but the combination of the gray fall clouds, the brightly colored fall foliage and the vibrant green of the grass was enough to keep me happy. This was my second trip to Prague; Hamilton Gibson children's choir (for those of you not from Wellsboro, HG is a community theater and choir group) did a tour of Prague and the Czech countryside back in 2003 that my mom and I went on. We had an incredible time in Prague back then so I was very anxious to get back and show Michael how wonderful the city is.

We came into the north station of town which was a part of the city that I don't remember ever visiting in '03. The streets and even the train station showed the telltale signs of years under communist rule with the massive concrete buildings, dilapidated streets, graffiti everywhere and vacant lots overgrown with weeds and junk. We again had a bit of a hard time finding a detailed enough map to find our hostel but we eventually bought one from the tourist information office and made our way through more dilapidated, vacant streets to our hostel which happened to be very close by. The hostel was still in that very depressing neighborhood but as we neared the hostel (and neared the downtown area) attempts at improvements became more and more apparent. You could see where nicer, older styled architecture apartment building were being put in the vacant lots between the 1970's era concrete block buildings, which cheered me up a bit. The hostel itself was very nice and even had a fully equipped kitchen which to took advantage of while we stayed by buying breakfast supplies at a near by grocery store, saving us quite a bit of money! After getting some pointers from the receptionist we started what would become our twice daily 2 mile walk into and out of the city, which was not the prettiest of walks. The picture below was one of our first views of the river.We made our way, winding through the streets until we finally came up on Old Town Square which is the home of the Tyn Cathedral (shown below), Old Town Hall, and the Astronomical Clock which is also known as the Praha Orloj (originally built in 1410). "The Orloj is composed of three main components: the astronomical dial, representing the position of the Sun and Moon in the sky and displaying various astronomical details; "The Walk of the Apostles", a clockwork hourly show of figures of the Apostles and other moving sculptures; and a calendar dial with medallions representing the months." (taken from the wikipedia article on the Orloj). People start to gather in front of the clock at about 20 'till every hour to get a good spot for the moving spectacle. We happened to arrive at the square just a few minutes before the hour so we witnessed the moving of the clock ourselves before walking and exploring the streets of Old Town Prague by night. For dinner that night we decided to get some traditional Czech food which translates into: we decided to each eat a fist-sized rock. It's not that Czech food isn't good, it's just insanely hearty and heavy. I had a rich beef stew with the traditional and very dense boiled bread dumplings; the only veggies on the plate were the 3 or 4 slices of cooked onion in the stew. Michael managed to go a little (but not much) lighter with a spatzle, pork and saurkraut dish. We both enjoyed some cheap but good Czech beer to go along with the meal. Everything was tasty, but not amazing, although the final bill was something like $12 for the two of us (even after being scammed out of $2 with a 28% "tax") so we weren't complaining.

Day #2 in Prague we ventured to the other side of the river and explored the Senate building, Prague Castle, and St Vitus Cathedral (which is surrounded by the Castle). My memory may be skewed but because of the sudden jump in tourism, what was a dirt-cheap city when I visited 7 years ago seems to have gone up quite a bit in price. I don't remember tours being quite so pricey back when we were there with HG and since we were working a pretty small budget on this trip,
we didn't opt to tour any of the buildings. We did walk through the streets and royal gardens (where we took the photo below) and since the Cathedral was free, we went in, admired everything, and took some pictures. In the afternoon we hiked up to the next hill over to see the The Petřínská rozhledna (Petřín lookout tower) which was modeled after the Eiffel tower but is much smaller (only 60m high as opposed to la Tour Eiffel at 324m), however, since it is situated on top of a large hill, the tip of the tower is at the
same elevation as the Eiffel tower. We hiked around the hill a bit more and found an obscure statue of Mary with an incredible vista of the city, then headed down to the the Strahov Monastery for dinner and more beer which served as another flashback from my trip in 2003 when we sang at a Sunday mass in this very Monestary. Obviously we had to practice in the Monestary the day before and while there, we realized that they had a brewery within the Monestary which we thought was pretty interesting. Most of our group of friends were 16 or 17 during the trip but the drinking age in Czech Republic is 15 so that night a big group of us and our parents made a trip back to the Monestary for some late night drinks. Needless to say, it was pretty novel as a 16 year old to be able to legally drink with your parents, at least for us Americans. The Monastery was a wonderful memory from that original trip and I was very happy to have found it again and to be able to return for dinner. The beers were wonderful, and for a little less than $2 for a glass, they were well worth the price. For dinner Michael had chicken roasted in beer with braised red cabbage and bread dumplings while I had a crispy trout with fried onions and herbed potatoes; while still being traditionally Czech, this meal was much lighter and tastier than our first meal here.

Day #3 in Prague was spent mainly in the downtown or Old Town area of Prague. We wandered over to Wenceslas square where we admired, yet again, the sudden boom in tourism and consumerism in Prague. The photo below is the statue on the square of St. Wenceslas.Then as a contrast, we walked up to the Jewish area to see the old Synagogue, the beautiful architecture and the Jewish Cemetery which is so old (and so small, I guess) that is consists of 12 layers of graves. We also walked over the Charles Bridge where we saw the exact vendor that I bought an orange barret from back in 2003. We wandered a bit on the other side of the river and eventually found what I was looking for, the Lennon wall, once a normal city wall that was converted into a peaceful wall covered in Beatles inspired graffiti. It was a constant source of irritation to the communist regime in the late 1980's, repeatedly the wall was painted over only to have the graffiti reappear overnight. The wall looks nothing like it did just 7 years ago but since much of this trip was focused on the atrocities of the communist rule in this part of Europe, I was happy to re-visit this ever-changing memorial to peace. After exploring the bridge and taking some pretty twilight time pictures of the bridge and castle, Michael was determined to buy a little bottle of absinthe as a souvenir so we went from store to store until we found a bottle of Czech absinthe (which is pretty gross, for the record). And after a yummy pizza dinner and one more night in our awesome hostel, we hopped on another train on our way to Belgium.

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