Posted on January 17, 2011
So our central European adventure nears its end. We arrived in Prague on Friday and repeated our habit of walking hours each day. That may be the only thing actually mitigating the sausage and beer diet of these last three days. Central Europe has endless charms and we have thrown ourselves into the cuisine, the pierogies, borscht, goulash, sausage, wiener schnitzel, and more, but we would not describe this as a great eating tour. It’s serious, belly-filling, comfort food. Hannah, our vegetarian, has been a trooper and we were grateful for the good Indian restaurant we found in Budapest and her chance to venture beyond the salads and soups she has been living on.
But back to Prague. This is one of the most beautiful cities we have ever seen. It’s medieval square is vast and intact and gorgeous. Spared any real severe damage in WWII, the city is full of little alley ways and courtyards and churches and one amazing building after another. While medieval, the city has a large number of Ne0-Renaissance buildings, Baroque (it was part of the Hapsburg Empire for a long time), Neo-Gothic, Functionalist, and especially, Art Nouveau buildings. It is an astonishing collection of of wonderful neighborhoods, an invitation to simply wander, with picturesque bridges (especially the famous Charles Bridge, lined with statues and peopled with buskers and artists and tourists), and steeples, and domes. It has grand squares and small, intimate neighborhoods. It is quintessential old Europe, at once the equal of Vienna and Budapest in terms of grandeur, but intimate and beguiling as well.
We spent the first full day with a former SNHU student, Anna, and she was a wonderful guide. We took in the Municipal House, probably the best example of Art Nouveau in the city and just striking. We had coffee on the old square and from our table we were able to watch Prague’s hourly tourist highlight, the striking of the hour on the 500 year-old astronomical clock. Crowds gather to watch the complicated cock with the statue of death pulling a cord and tipping his hourglass, the 12 apostles making an appearance, the rooster crowing, and the hour being struck. The complicated clock is as much a marvel today as it must have been to its medieval onlookers centuries ago. We visited the baroque splendor of churches like the Tyn Church, the Church of St.Nicholas, and the majestic St.Vitus Cathedral that sits at the highest point of the city, Prague’s Wawel Hill if you will.
We had lunch in the Little Quarter, the medieval section below the palace hill that has few blockbuster sights, but many alluring little streets and alleys (and the American Embassy). It has become one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city and we can see why. Last night we saw Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni in the Estates Theater, the same theater where Mozart himself conducted its premier in 1787. There we were in the very same theater, 224 years, later watching the opera. One of the charms of all these cities has been the music traditions that they enjoy and still nurture and how much more affordable is that music than it is in Boston or New York.
Indeed, we have been overdosing on music and museums and churches and medieval lanes and today decided to do something different. We navigated the Prague metro and bus system and made our way to the outskirts of the city and the Prague Zoo, rated one of the top ten in the world. In 2002, massive floods inundated the city and wiped out its zoo. Many of the animals drowned or were euthanized to spare them their misery — a terrible event, but one that spurred a complete rebuilding and renewal of the old zoo. In our spring-like weather today, the zoo was packed with Czech families and little kids. We have all been reading Sy Montgomery and looked at the animals with more empathy and awe than before (really,if Sy runs for office, she has at least our four votes).
After a prolonged drop in birthrates, the Czechs are reproducing like rabbits and the product of their newfound fecundity was amply on display. It is hardly a surprise to see lots of little kids on a lovely day at the zoo, but this was a mob of toddlers and infants. It was fun to be away from our fellow tourists (and even at this time of year, Prague is one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations) and amidst Czech families. They make cute babies and watching young families together we were reminded that for all the differences in culture and mindset we have sampled these last weeks, some basics remain the same. Young fathers and mothers fawning over their children and working to give them a better future seems pretty universal. My last blog post was a reflection on the bloody past that haunts this part of the world. These little kids were a welcome declaration of the future.
We admire the Czech sensibility — a quirky resistance to all authority that helped it survive the Communist era. Its heroes include Jan Huss, who one hundred years before Martin Luther, condemned abuses in the Catholic church and said Mass in Czech instead of Latin. Condemned as a heretic, he was burned in 1415. When its aristocrats tired of Hapsburg rule, they threw the Hapsburg administrators out a window (the famous Defenestration of Prague). There is actually an old Czech law prohibiting the throwing of officials out windows (i.e. defenestration). In the 14th C. John of Nepomuk was a priest and confessor of the Queen. When he refused to tell the King the Queen’s sins, the King had him thrown off the Charles Bridge (detect a theme here?). There is a statute to him on the bridge and we dutifully rubbed his foot for good luck, as does every passerby. Remember that in 1989 their Velvet Revolution was led by poets and artists and had no deaths (thus the name). This is the home of Kafka, where the recent winner of a national poll for most popular Czech was actually a fictional and satiric character created by two comics. In a country that has been dominated by others for so much of its history, Czechs have refined the art of thumbing the collective nose at authority.
Restored by lions, tigers, and bears (oh my), we mustered enough museum-going energy to tour the small museum dedicated to Alphonse Mucha, the great Czech illustrator and artist whose Art Nouveau posters made him rich and famous. His stained glass window in St. Vitus Cathedral inspired us to see more. The tiny museum was quiet and spare (interestingly contrasted with detailed and highly ornamented Art Noveau posters on its walls) and beautifully done.
So a word about the price Prague pays for its myriad attractions. It has been discovered and has been the most crowded of places we have visited and while not packed by any means, it is hard to imagine the mob scene that summer must bring. Part of that crowd has been boisterous gangs of partiers from the UK and elsewhere, served by low cost airfares, and now sort of notorious. They have spawned tacky bars, strip joints, and the pick pocketing and scams that come that lower life sector. Warnings about pickpockets abound, even in the cathedral, and property crime appears to be rampant. To get into the apartment we are renting, we have a lock on the front door, a locked gate on the stairway, a lock on the elevator if you prefer to ride up, and a lock on the apartment. Anna’s uncle has had his house broken into three times. The Russian mafia moved in after the fall of Communism and their presence s apparently widespread.
Interestingly, none of what I just described is associated with any kind of violent crime. Prague is a safe place to walk around and no one described out and out mugging, just the best pickpockets in all of Europe. On the other hand, they marvel at the level of violence in America (30,000 handgun deaths a year!), where we worry much less about the kind of property crime that afflicts this part of the world. More to our experience o this visit, I would say that for all its charms, it charms us less than Budapest, clearly our favorite stop on this trip. Too many souvenir shops, too much scamming (not even locals will take the notorious taxis), too many crowds. The high price of real estate that comes with success has driven out of the old town those dusty little bookshops that we could find in Budapest. It is is the conundrum of success. Budapest wants to be the next Prague and if it succeeds it will actually be less interesting than it is now, though its residents MAY be better off.
All of what I’ve said here is admittedly filtered through a very narrow lens: stays of only a few days, staying pretty much in the cities and in their more touristy areas, our own sensibilities, of course. We find that with travel a place really needs two visits. One trip like this one that samples all the Top Ten lists and takes in all the history and culture (which we love), but then a second more subtle trip that gets off the beaten track. Maybe it means getting out into the countryside or connecting with the contemporary art or academic scene or “living” in a place for a bit. I feel like this trip has filled huge holes in my travel experience and I’ve finally seen cities and sites I have only ever read about or imagined and now I’d like to come back some day and experience these places in a more subtle and nuanced way. That may be the highest praise I can offer.