March 29th, 2010
Note: this post written on March 20-21 and posted after our return.
We’ve had a good couple of days in Prague. The city definitely feels more, well, foreign than Germany — and that is perhaps accentuated by the fact that I don’t know any Czech at all, while I know some basic German.
It’s been slow going at times, and surprisingly easy at others. Despite my lack of knowledge of Czech, I’d say communicating here has been roughly as easy as in Germany. That is perhaps partially due to the fact that, of the places where we’ve needed to communicate, we are either making simple requests (buying bread at a bakery) or the people we’re talking to know some basic English. (Or, in one case, a guard at a museum at the Prague Castle complex used German to ask me to check a bag at the coat check, mildly surprising me and confusing Terah when I started to comply with instructions she didn’t understand, and didn’t know how I did.) The very first time we had a situation where it was a bit difficult to communicate, in the bakery, I got into my “difficult to communicate mode” and accidentally slipped in a couple of German words. Oops. Terah was laughing at me later, and commented that the store owner might have also been laughing at me — or perhaps at his employee that also accidentally slipped into basic German mode.
On Friday, we visited Vyšehrad Castle, the one that nobody that visits Prague seems to know about. That is perhaps because the palace/castle part of the complex has been mostly destroyed (but we did know that before going there.) It is in a nice, quiet, and beautiful park, and has the beautiful and old Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, as well as a large ornate cemetery.
Then we visited two iconic Prague places: Václavské náměstí (Wenceslas Square) and Staroměstské náměstí (Old Town Square). Both were beautiful. And, unfortunately, also packed with tourists and made-in-China plastic trinket shops. There I got my first clue that large tour groups tend to have a detrimental effect on any free site in Prague. They come in, the guides yell, they clog up things, and also generally miss the sites of true interest because buying tickets to them makes the price of the tour uncompetitive.
On Saturday, we took the tram out to Pražský hrad (Prague Castle) — the one that everybody knows about. We got there at about 8:15, and although the grounds are open, most of the buildings weren’t open until 9. As a result, we had 45 minutes almost to ourselves in the nearly-empty castle complex. We could walk around on the giant squares, take some photos, and generally enjoy a crisp and quiet morning.
At 9, it was still pretty empty and we went into the ticket offices to buy our tickets. By the time we got out a few minutes later, it was packed — mostly due to the arrival of innumerable tour groups from all over Europe and, apparently, Japan. We went to the Starý královský palác (Old Royal Palace) first, since I knew from their website that it would close at noon due to a visit from Prince Charles.
That was a beautiful building, and it’s amazing to read about the features of it that are centuries old — or even almost a thousand years old. The Vladislavský sál (Vladislav Hall) and chapel particularly caught my eye. Underneath the palace is a museum, including some 1000-year-old jewelry and flooring, and some clothing that is several hundred years old recoverd from burial plots.
Next, we went to the iconic (and free) Katedrála svatého Víta (St. Vitus Cathedral). Our audioguides fortunately allowed us to bypass the long line, and we could step inside at a side door.
That was one of many times in Europe I stepped inside a building, and suddenly came to a stop with a “wow”. That building is every bit as much impressive as it is made out to be, even crowded as it was.
We also went to Bazilika Sv. Jiří (St. George’s Basilica), which one of the guides described as “ancient”. It was another “wow” moment, and it felt like the oldest church we were in yet. I think it probably was, actually; last rebuilt in 1142.
For lunch, we asked for a recommendation from our hotel. They suggested one place, which we walked to. It was a nice easy walk down some Prague side streets, but the restaurant — and all the others along our walk — were closed on Saturday. We eventually made our way back to the hotel and asked for a new recommendation, which was successful this time. Terah ordered some ribs, while I ordered a more traditional Czech goulash, which happened to be served in a bread bowl. A minute later, the waiter brought Terah a fork and knife. And he brought me a bowl of water with a slice of lemon, and announced “wash for you.” That was a surprise, and a bit puzzling one at that. Turns out that eating bread that had stew served in it is indeed a bit messy, and having some water to clean up with is indeed helpful.
We met up with Anna from Leipzig and one of her Czech friends for dinner Saturday night. We found a nice local Czech place. I had ham with sauerkraut in a folded potato cake. It was excellent, and the total bill for Terah and me came to 235 Kc — or about $12.50. We had a nice walk back to the hotel in the crisp, dark evening.
Sunday morning we had breakfast at our hotel — the only time we ate a meal at a hotel this whole trip — then got on the tram, the metro, and the bus to the airport. Total cost for that trip for two: 52 Kc, or about $2.75. Far cheaper than a taxi.
One weird thing happened to us in Prague. We were riding the tram towards downtown, and as we would be on it for several stops, Terah was sitting. I was standing as there wasn’t an available seat for me. Terah and I were both looking out windows, until Terah was startled because her arm was wet. She looked around and it turned out a middle-aged woman had spit on her, and was glaring at her. We never did figure out why. About all we can think of is maybe someone else, such as a very old person, had gotten aboard but Terah hadn’t noticed and therefore didn’t offer to give up her seat. That was probably the only real rude gesture towards us on the entire trip. We ran the story by Anna’s friend (the native Czech) and she was as surprised and baffled as we were.
As I wrap this up, we’re sitting at our gate in Prague waiting for our flight to Munich. In this airport, in an out of the way corner on the very lowest floor, I spotted only the second drinking fountain I’ve seen in Europe this entire time – and also perhaps the continent’s most expensive cup of coffee.
After we get to Munich, it’s a flight to Chicago, another to Indianapolis, and finally a drive home Monday.