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Backpacking-through-Europe Part V: Prague

Backpacking-through-Europe Part V:Prague

Sent Monday, March 30, 2009 9:51 AM

Prague is probably the city on this trip that I was most excited about.  All the capitals once behind the Iron Curtain have that appeal, I guess –  their one-time inaccessibility, their mystery, their time-warped technological advancement during Communist rule, which preserved a bygone way of life.  (I remember being so shocked when I went to work in the Soviet Union in 1990 at how their technology had seemingly frozen in time…the abacus being used at shops, rather than cash registers, street juice-vending machines having one, real glass – not disposable – and everyone using the same glass, etc.  But, Madonna t-shirts were for sale in my hotel gift shop!  Pop culture spreads faster than technology, apparently!)  Prague, however, is a modern city today, with all the modern comforts of home…but wrapped around a rich, medieval core.

Out of Berlin, with a stop in the famous German city of Dresden, we head for the Czech Republic.  The scenery changes as we glide beside the Vltava River…beautiful, sheer stone cliffs on the opposite side, an ancient castle or two above, and beautiful, tiny river-villages below.  The landscape turns hilly once we’re in the land of Kafka…and the hills are white!  It’s snowing heavily when my train pulls into Prague’s Holesovice railway station.  It’s a nice snow, big and fluffy; and with the onion-domed churches I pass on the brief walk to my hostel, I’m reminded of the movie ‘Dr. Zhivago’.  My hostel, Miss Sophie’s, is stunning.  It’s a boutique hostel, if ever there was such a thing…beautifully renovated in the latest style of furnishings, window treatments and chic lighting (after all, interior design is ALL about the lighting!).  This MORE than makes up for the strange hostel I just left in Berlin!

The snow has stopped; and the sun is trying hard to claw its way through the thick cloud cover (yeah!)…but it’s still freaking cold.  I’m staying in the Nové mesto (New Town) area of Prague.  The two main areas of interest here are Staré mesto (OldTown), where the Old Town Square is located and, across the Vltava River, Hradcany, the hilly area of Prague’s famous castle, Prazsky hrad.  A quick walk down Václavské námesti (Wenceslas Square…whodathunk good ol’ King Wenceslas from the Christmas carol was from Prague?!) into Staré mesto, and the best of Prague unfolds before my eyes.

As in Brugge, I’m dumbfounded by the absolute beauty of the Old Town Square, which originated in the 12th century.  From a quick cel-phone-pic I sent out, my friend, Jennifer, replied that it appeared as if I had stepped back in time; and that’s EXACTLY how I felt!  The architecture is typically medieval-east-European; but the thing that amazes me is the color…bright-orange tile roofs contrast and clash beautifully with stucco walls in lime sherbet, butter yellow, cool-mint blue and fresh-baked gingerbread. If color can be called “delicious”, this is it!  I can’t help but wonder if these are traditional color choices, or choices made to brighten up the days behind the Iron Curtain, or colors meant to draw the tourists like butterflies to a floral fantasy feast? Whatever it WAS, I’m glad it IS…I’m hooked on the aesthetics here!

The Old Town Square’s belfry (which I plan to climb tomorrow…a European tradition I started years ago at Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral) contains a famous, astronomical clock, with an on-the-hour, mechanized display of the Twelve Apostles passing by the windows, accompanied by bells and chimes galore.  At 10 minutes to the hour, the tourists have gathered below, cameras pointed and focused, as if the Pope himself were about to appear at the balcony…crowding each other, standing en pointe, shivering, all vying for the perfect position. The “spectacle” is over before you know it…cute enough, but I’m reminded of that song, “I Shaved My Legs for This?”.  My version would be, “I Froze My Butt Off for This?!”.

The sun is lowering over the hills; so I scurry towards the river for some (hopefully) great camera shots.  Parizska ulicka leads me directly to the Vltava. Walking the length of this beautiful street, I’m in danger of whiplash from the constant looking up, hypnotized by the luscious buildings on both sides, now housing the premier fashion boutiques from around the world.  I’m struck by the number of caryatids in the architecture: those fabulous architectural creatures, female (and sometimes, male) figures (usually in pairs on either side of a doorway) appearing to support the structure…in effect, columns in human form. They are one of my favorite architectural details. The fact that the male figures are beefy and RIPPLIN’ doesn’t hurt a bit…the fact that no one uses them in building anymore DOES!

The sudden, icy blast tells me I’m at the water…and what a view!  High on the hill, proud and strong, stands Prague Castle, the pride of Bohemia, both imposing and incredibly graceful. The effect is oil-painting perfect – the castle silhouetted against a mottled, grey-and-silver cloud background, pierced, sword-like, by rays of dusky sun.  I snap some shots and make my way south along the river to Karluv most, Charles Bridge, the most famous site in Prague. Crossing this majestic, stone bridge, guided safely across by the beautiful, blackened statues along its edges, leads you directly to the castle district. Looking up at the climb, I decide…uh…better make that journey tomorrow!

I did so well with my daily budget in Berlin that I’m treating myself to a nice, relaxing dinner back in Prague’s Old Town Square this evening.  Prague is proud of it’s traditional, roasted duck, and with good reason.  Succulent and falling-off-the-bone tender, accompanied by delicious, tart, salty-sweet red cabbage cooked with apples, not to mention the VERY filling Czech dumplings, it forced me into complete and utter gluttony.  Of course, it required the delicious, Czech beers, Pilsner Urquell and Krusovice, to wash it down! (My friend, Gloria, emails me that I’m going to come home sporting a beer belly!  If so, it will have been well worth it!)

On the way back to Miss Sophie’s, I happen upon the famous “Fred and Ginger” buildings.  Both modern buildings, “Fred” is geometric, rectilinear, proper and debonair.  “Ginger” is leaning against “Fred”, all curves and flowing, her “skirt” billowingly frozen mid-twirl.  I had seen a daytime photo in the travel guide of these 2 buildings and, not impressed, didn’t even put it on my to-do list; but at night, glittering with light, the pair is onstage and on fire, foxtrotting beside the River Vltava!  I’m so glad I stumbled upon them!  (That’s the beauty of wandering and getting lost in a place…the unexpected jewels you find along the way.)

Back at my oh-so-chic hostel, I meet 2 of my 3 roommates, Kurando and Barbara.  (A 4-bed “apartment”, which is Miss Sophie’s fancy-schmancy term for “dorm room”, I’ll meet my other roommate, Susanna, from Rochester, NY, later.)  This is the first hostel I’ve visited in which the dorm rooms are co-ed. Barbara and Kurando are a couple living in Dresden. He’s from the Dresden area originally; but she’s from Köln.  We hit it off immediately, mainly because we are all the offspring of multi-racial parents: Kurando is half-German-half-Japanese; and Barbara is half-German-half-East-Indian…and you know my mutt-mixture! (Ahem! That’s mutt with nobility in the Hawaiian AND German lines, thank you very much! Haha!)  Kurando and Barbara are thrilled that I, too, am part German (albeit just a little bit, “ein kleinen bisschen”)!

We carry our conversation downstairs to the hostel’s lounge/kitchen; so they can prepare their dinner.  On tighter budgets than mine, many of the younger hostellers cook their own dinners from groceries gathered during their daily sightseeing.  (Many of the hostels have a full kitchen for the use of their guests, complete with all the necessary accoutrements.)  Cooking wasn’t a part of MY particular backpacking plan; but I can dig it!  Having stuffed myself with so much duck that I’m about to “Quack!”, I politely turn down their kind offer to join them in their meal, but accept their offer to help them drink the wine they bought, provided they allow me to help them with the dishes afterward. Two bottles of wine later, our laughter and conversation probably annoying the few hostellers watching an old James Bond movie in the adjoining lodge (whatever!), we have become fast friends.  Their thirst for stories about Hawaii and New York now quenched, my list of places to visit next time in Germany appended, and dishes done, we call it a night.

A new morning, sunny and brisk, and my sustenance for the climb to the castle takes the form of a delicious, traditional pastry called trdelnik, a pizza-like dough wrapped around a hot, metal cylinder, spinning over an open flame. Once toasted perfectly, it’s rolled in sugar and chopped almonds and served hot…soft and crunchy at the same time, sweet and delicious!  Though marvelous on it’s own, I need some excuse to buy from a street-side stand another of what has become my beverage of choice in Prague, svarene vino. This hot, mulled, red wine has a nice, cinnamon-y spice to it; and though it’s quite strong, it goes down smooth on a chilly day.  Plus, I love a good buzz in the morning!

Always up for a good hike, and lightheaded from the sugar and wine, I take the old castle steps up to the top; but, if you prefer, a tram will drop you right at the castle gates. The castle complex is large, encompassing many buildings and several churches.  My favorite of all is the ornate St. Vitus Cathedral, which took 600 years to complete.  In Europe, the cathedrals are all so beautiful, each vying for your favor (well, actually, GOD’s).  It’s easy to get jaded after you’ve visited some of the more famous ones; but if you are patient and open, you will find something that makes each one unique…some little detail or story in its history that captures your admiration.

For me, it’s the stained-glass windows here that are so unique.  Normally, pieces of colored glass are cut into exact shapes to fulfill the design, then fitted together like a colorful, Holy jigsaw puzzle, with each piece in its special location in the finished work.  At St Vitus, though, I was intrigued by the tiny, uniformly-shaped pieces of glass put together at different angles and color combinations to form the design. They are, in effect, huge, sparkling mosaics of glass…absolutely amazing!  (Having recently finished a month-long mosaics class in New York and discovering that they’re much more difficult to execute than they appear, my appreciation for these windows is immense!)  That said, though, the piece de resistance is the one window designed by the world-renowned Czech artist, Alphonse Mucha.  Mucha was a brilliant designer of the Art Nouveau, probably my favorite stylistic movement of all.  (More about Mucha later.)  His window is the most beautiful stained-glass artwork I have EVER seen!  When you first walk into the church, a quick glance around at all the windows alerts you that one window is different from the rest.  Rather than the usual mixture of red, yellow, green and blue, this one glows a seductive, undersea palette of emerald, deep aqua, rich Prussian blue.  This is the Mucha window; and when you make your way around to it, you will stop, drop into a stupor, and want to get much closer to it than you can.  If you are already familiar with Mucha’s lithograph posters, imagine them in super-saturated, colored glass.  If you’re not, then you must go to see the window in person…you’ll understand when you are standing beneath it, gawking at its brilliance.  Note: If you can, find out about what time the sun will be shining through the great, rose window.  When I was there, this was around 3:30 pm.  If you go then (and it’s a clear day), the sun streaming directly through the colored glass will refract a kaleidoscope of rainbow-light-chips all over the cathedral’s interior…FABULOUS!!  It’s otherworldly; and I can see how, for the hard-working, down-trodden, Slavic townsfolk of several centuries prior, this WAS a religious experience!  Me? I felt like slipping on some bellbottoms and platform shoes and gettin’ DOWN, Y’all!

This area of Prague, Hradcany, has much to see; and it would be easy to spend an entire day on this side of the river.  I, however, have to head back across one of the city’s bridges to Staré Mesto to visit the Alphonse Mucha Museum, one of the things I most wanted to see on this trip.  When I was in college, I spent hours in the library, poring over art books.  Here, I discovered I was really seduced by the sinewy, underwater- and deep-forest-fantasy designs of the artists involved in the (quite-shocking-back-in-the-late-1800’s) Art Nouveau movement. I would get lost in the lithographs, paintings, sculpture, textiles and architecture of its great designers: Hector Guimard, Victor Horta, Gustav Klimt, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Alphonse Mucha.  (A few years later, on my first trip to Europe, I nearly hyperventilated upon approaching one of the original, Guimard-designed entryways to the Paris Metro.  At the end of this trip, I luxuriated in the Victor Horta Museum, originally his home, in the outskirts of Brussels!)  Mucha’s work is probably familiar to most.  His posters, usually featuring beautiful women with strands of their hair swirling around the image, flowers intertwined in their hair and the poster’s text, abound in the Mucha Museum.  It’s fascinating to learn about his life and see so many of his beautiful works of art.  I was most impressed, I think, with his preliminary sketches, which give you more of an insight to his thought processes, techniques and sheer talent than you get from the finished prints.  If you go to Prague, check out this museum.  You’ll also see his architectural prowess in several buildings throughout the city, including the most famous, the Obecni dum (Municipal House).

From here, I’m keeping my promise to myself to climb the Old Town’s belfry tower.  An easier climb than I expected, I’m rewarded by yet another fantastic view.  This is picture-perfect-Prague; and everyone else up here agrees with me. It’s nice, because you are on an outdoor balcony all the way around the tower, letting you soak in the panorama from every angle.  The soon-to-set sun is causing the orange-tiled roofs to glow like coals; and the long shadows being cast over the tiny cafe-sitters below on the cobblestone-paved square all epitomize this part of the world to me.  If any of my photos scream, “EUROPE!”, I bet they’ll be from the series I shot from way up here.  I could stay for hours; but it’s a small, cramped balcony; and before the awesome lighting fades, many more people waiting below should have this beautiful experience.

I leave for Vienna in the morning; and passing through the Old Town on the way to my hostel for the evening, an art gallery window brings me to a screeching halt.  In it are the most beautiful, fancy, fully-operational, crystal chandeliers…but they’re made completely of plastic water bottles. I peer beyond the chandeliers and see a display of potted cacti of all shapes, sizes and shades of green, some with spines, others sprouting blooms in vivid reds and yellow…again, all out of plastic water and soda bottles.  This is the work of Prague environmental artist, Veronika Richterova.  The gallery director invites me in; and I’m awestruck by enormous, rainbow-hued, plastic dragonflies, tranclucent schools of realistic, yet plastic, fish, and a tree hanging with a bevy of plastic, flying-fox bats.  A brief film documents the artist’s views on the problem of waste and shows her digging in trash receptacles for variously-colored plastic bottles (Dumpster-diving! I LOVE her!), cleaning them, and creating her art through various blow-torching and hot-wire-cutting techniques…wonderful!  She appeals to my own love of recycling, of creating beauty from the ordinary or offcast; and I feel an instant connection to her.  My last, engaging experience in Prague, this exhibit was also a reminder that this medieval city, capitalizing successfully on its Old World treasures, is yet a modern city with modern issues to deal with.  And Richterova symbolizes that modernism, calling for modern solutions to a modern ecological problem through her powerful, modern art.

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