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Adventures: Prague, pride of the Czech Republic
‘In 1989, when our president stood up in Wenceslas Square after the Velvet Revolution, he simply said, ‘Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.’ The crowds cheered, and cheered. I was there. This is something you will never understand.”
Miloš, our independent Czech guide and historian, clearly remembered how it felt when the weight of Communism was lifted from the country he loves.
Pointing at a sealed door behind which SS officers once spied on locals, he says, “I was considered a rebel, and was interrogated.” He doesn’t elaborate.
I knew that the SS headquarters had been located next to my hotel. At that time, the ornate Boscolo, a former bank, was a massive post office. My guide had worked there.
Now divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the former Czechoslovakia is actively courting tourism. Prague is proudly reaping the benefits after decades of oppressive austerity and thousands of years of complex Czech history and drama.
Prague is a fascinating city with its 8th century medieval roots still visible. Renaissance and Baroque architecture vie for attention.
There is an underground, but I opt to roam on foot in uncharacteristic 90-degree heat.
“You can’t get lost,” I was assured. “We are a small city.”
Having no sense of direction, I was skeptical, but – despite being solo – a good map, plenty of trams, and endless landmarks, gave me confidence.
Rumbling along cobbled streets the tram crossed the Vltava River. I hopped off at the nearest Petrin Hill funicular stop.
[St. Vitus Cathedral dominates the red tiles of Prague. Photo Ursula Maxwell-Lewis]
An American couple, now living just across the border in Vienna, are here for the weekend.
“We were here years ago,” they tell me. “We liked it better when there were fewer tourists. But, it’s still good to be back.”
Tour groups swarm the 14th century castle grounds and souvenir shops – a clear sign to me to explore the peaceful gardens and parkland. Hiking down the hill, I stumble on a local café overlooking the distinctive burnt-sienna-coloured tile roofs, and gratefully accept a Moravian light beer for 40czk (about $2).
Fortified, I tackle the rest of the hill ending up in cobbled alleys sporting marionette shops, bakeries and assorted independent small businesses.
Joining crowds streaming across the Charles Bridge, I inspect the religious statues dotting the sides of the bridge. The originals are gradually being relocated to a museum for protection. For example, touching the statue depicting St. John of Nepomuk (King Wenceslas IV’s court priest) is said to bring luck, and guarantee return to Prague. Too many hands looking for luck is damaging the valuable work, so try your luck now before the reproduction arrives.
Increase your fortunes, too, by keeping a weather eye out for Roma and Russian pickpockets who find bridge traffic easy pickings.
This is a city of legends, such as the one based in the 600 year-old Astronomical Clock in the old town square. Every hour the complex mechanism kicks in. Two windows open revealing the 12 Apostles. Nearby a skeleton rings a bell, a Turk shakes his head, a miser clutches his gold, Vanity checks in her mirror, a rooster crows, and the great bell tolls on the tower. Apparently this chases ghosts and devils from the city at cockcrow.
Leaving the clock, I set off in search of Jewish Town. Jewish history intrigues me, and I’ve read the synagogue, museum, and cemetery are fascinating.
I find it, but the gates are locked. One of the many nearby jeweller tell me this is an orthodox Ashkenazi synagogue. It’s Shabbat. I’d forgotten it was Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. Annoyed with myself for not remembering, the merchants offer to compensate with ‘a Jewish discount’. “Gold and our Czech garnets will make you feel better. We’ll give you the Jewish discount.” We both grin. I’m tempted! Garnets remind me of my grandmother.
[Prague's 600-year-old Astronomical Clock. – Ursula Maxwell-Lewis photo]
En route back to my hotel – it’s still sweltering – I stop in the town square to listen to some jazz, a busker tapping out a Mozart interpretation on a set of water glasses, two students playing flutes. Music is ingrained in Prague’s soul. I long for time to attend a concert.
I settle for a swim in the grotto-like hotel pool, and a sound sleep in my cavernous bedroom. The following morning an accomplished young harpist plays during a substantial breakfast buffet.
The harp is her passion, she tells me. Music lessons are paid for by the state.
“But,” she says, “the salaries are so bad the teachers often don’t show up.” She plays on, dreaming of studying overseas.
Graffiti isn’t normally on my list, but I make an exception for the Lennon Wall. After Lennon’s murder in 1980 young Czechs expressed their anger, opinions, and independence, by spraying the wall with Lennon lyrics. Despite repeated coats of Communist whitewash, the wall (owned by the Knights of Malta) prevails. It’s a magnet for musicians, tourists, and Asian newlyweds.
The Kafka Museum, a cubist museum and St. Vitus Cathedral are still on my list. I was told three days was enough time in Prague. I’ve decided it is. But, only if you move fast.
For more information go to www.czechtourism.com.
– Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is an active member of the Society of American Travel Writers.
Video: Prague. Park Serenade. Ursula Maxwell-Lewis video.