Prague, Czech Republic
Imagine, for just a second, that you are at the original performance of Don Giovanni, with Mozart himself conducting. Imagine, for a moment, that you knew the man who had an integral part in the 30 years war. And, think how it would have been to live in a land filled with intrigue, political and spiritual battles for the hearts of wo/men, a place that has played a major part in the development of western culture. You can. That place is Prague, Czech Republic.
Prague has been described as one of the most beautiful of all European cities. That it is. The general area of Prague was first settled by the Celts between 500 and 200 BC. It appears that this settlement was inhabited until around the 400 AD. The Slavs came to this land as others disappeared. It continued to be sparsely inhabited until the second half of the 800s. Legend has it that the foundation of Prague was attributed to the Princess Libuse and her husband, Premysl. They were the founders of the Premyslid Dynasty. The dynasty was in power in that region from the 800 until 1306. During this time power was consolidated, and Prague grew to be the nucleus of the Bohemian state. One major advantage was the location of the city – near a river with a large hill close for fortifications. The community continued to thrive and it was described as a "…busy trading center…" in 965. The Premyslids fell when John of Luxembourg took power. He was the King of Bohemia. His son, Charles IV, would figure prominent in the development of the City of Prague.
Charles IV ruled from 1346 to 1378 and was responsible for the establishment of the first university in Central Europe. It was also during his reign that St Vitus’ Cathedral was begun. By the 14th century Prague was a major central European City. This wonderful city endured the 30-Year War, changes in the seat of power, two World Wars, foreign invasions, and the Communist rule. These factors and many more helped it become the great European city it is today.
This trip was my first taste of the "new" flying security. I soon found out that the "new" security was nothing more than the "old" lines with new uniforms. I stood in the line to get my boarding pass. A nicely dressed woman walked up to the man just in front of me and asked to see his documentation. After studying it they asked him to come over to a table close to the counter. This counter was in full view of everyone, no doubt to show everyone what may happen to them. A stern woman behind the table asked the traveler to unlock his bag. His luggage was "investigated". Not the usual cursory look here. I mean they went through his ENTIRE bag, unfolded each and every piece of clothing, studied every article, book, shaving gear, shoes, etc this poor person had. And, they unceremonially dumped each piece in a pile at the end of the table when they were satisfied.
I stood in line for about 15 minutes while this traveler was being scrutinized. No doubt this was done in public view so everyone could see that the security was serious. It worked. I closed my eyes and hoped that my name was not displayed in some computer in some back room operated by some faceless soul who would rather be doing something else. Finally, I made it to the counter, exchanged the usual dialog, got my bag checked and I was off to wait for the plane. I found even a longer line as I entered the corridor going to the plane. The security person made everyone take off their shoes and put them through the x-ray machine. Every man, woman, child, and even a baby in a stroller. Shoes??!?! I asked the guard why shoes. He said that they found plastic knives in a person’s shoes the previous day. PREVIOUS DAY!!! Yikes!!
The 8-hour flight to Prague was filled with anticipation. It was just a little longer than the flight from Phoenix to NY. I have always wanted to visit this European center for art and music. It has developed a world reputation for classical music. No doubt it started when Mozart, Dvorak, and Chopin lived and wrote in this vibrant young city. And, it continues today as many of the great musicians the world over come to this city for training, and to perform the music they love. There are museums dedicated to Chopin, Dvorak, and, of course, Mozart. Prague was at the cultural center of Europe for a time, and it still enjoys a special relationship to music lovers the world over.
The landing and unloading was uneventful. The customs were almost non-existent. I walked up the customs agent who casually checked my photo, stamped my passport while carrying on a conversation with the guard standing next to the booth. Off I went. I made a hotel reservation through the travel agent, and a car was waiting for me. As we drove I could see the vestiges of years under the collectivist government – decaying buildings, poor streets, everything painted that ever-present dreary gray color, and those lack luster, dingy block, and square apartment buildings. I thought I was back in Moscow. I arrived at the hotel at approx 8a on Sunday morning. They would not let me check in as the hotel was full and no one had checked out. So I left my bags and took a short walk in the early morning brisk air.
My first impression of Prague was it was cold, but magnificent!!! I saw a few people walking their dogs and jogging in the brisk morning air. The hotel was just north of the river in a residential area. I sat on a bench in a nearby park to watch humanity pass. I struck up a conversation with a man walking his dog. He kept saying how warm it was (approx 39 degrees). In fact, most of the locals were amazed how warm it was. I just about froze with the temperatures in the high-30s and low-40 while it dipped into the high-20s at night. It was the dead of winter for me!
I walked around the many small parks that dotted the cityscape. All areas in this part of the city was clean and well kept. The streets were typical old European – mostly single lanes with some winding side roads to keep things interesting. The old crumpled Communist buildings are being revitalized by a new attitude and economy. The streets were not so lucky. Potholes and the like are the rule, not the exception. The Czechs are a very independent people, and they have paid a heavy price for this wonderful characteristic.
After some walking I found myself in the old Town Square with its beauty and history. It was here that the kings walked down the "coronation path" to the castle on the opposite side of the hill. It was very near that Jan Hus defied the authority of the Roman church which added fuel to the ever-increasing flames of the European Religious Reformation, and this was the spot where the courageous masses stood against the oppression of the Communist leaders. I sat in this historical place trying to imagine who had walked these streets years ago. These lofty thoughts were soon interrupted by a blast of icy cold air that slapped me back to reality. So I made my way back to the hotel finding a restaurant along the way for a hot bowl of soup. There is something soothing about sitting in a warm building with a bowl of hot soup watching the winter wind flex it's muscle against the outside walls.
The hotel was a very nice 5 story building in Lesser Town. Although Prague has over 1 Million people, the tourist locations are confined to the downtown that existed 600 years ago. That area is broken down into 4 districts – Castle, Lesser Town, Old Town, and New Town. All are contained in about 2.5 square miles. So, it was no problem walking. The hotel was about .25 miles from the Castle, and the Old Town was even closer. The US Embassy is up on a hill near the Castle quite close to the hotel. I tried getting close to the Embassy, but guards met me well away from the gate saying that it was "closed to tourists until further notice". So much for the hospitality of my countrymen…
Although Prague lived through two world wars, it was never bombed. So, this city has the rare distinction of having four architectural styles gracing its streets. This mixture of styles are augmented by the quaint, small cobblestone streets that seem to go on forever. But, they seem to eventually bring everyone back to the heart of the old city – the city square. Downtown Prague grew and developed over several hundred years, so today’s streets were nothing more than foot paths in the beginning years. Several of the streets in downtown Prague are reserved for pedestrians only as the width is little more than an adult spreading his arms straight out. They were clean, and appear to be very safe. The "streets" meander every which way. And, one can take advantage of several "connections" between the streets by going through alleys or through existing buildings and plazas. Everyone does it, and it is quite a time saver. It was a real adventure trying to find my way. As the day wore on the Prague population began to come out to enjoy this place. There were lots of families traveling to church, out to lunch, or to the Old Town square to participate in the wave of humanity including a Dixieland band, magicians, various artists, and, of course, lots of tourists clicking cameras. I felt right at home. I visited a few churches as I got oriented to this great city. I ate a very hearty meal of beef and potatoes before heading back to the hotel to unpack and get settled.
The next day was a real adventure. After a hearty continental breakfast I took out my trusty map, plotted my course, and started out. The first order of business was to get oriented and to see if I could find my way back to the hotel. As I walked I was amazed at the charm of the city. The first thing that struck me was the architecture of the buildings. People understood the existing buildings and planned the "new" structure to complement them. There is a theme in most parts of the city. I followed a very narrow street that seemed to weave through every corner of the city. The streets in that part of town developed from footpaths and have no rhyme or reason that I could tell. I turned a corner and was pleasantly surprised to find St Martin-in-the-Wall, a church where Jon Hus ministered. It was tucked away behind a small building containing shops. Hus was a scholar at the university in Prague and was able to translate Roman dogma so the average person understood. This made him quite popular as you can imagine. It was here that Hus first gave the sacramental wine to the common people. Prior to this time the wine was reserved for royalty and the clergy.
This act of defiance in concert with other acts of disobedience fueled the rebellion that we now call the Protestant Reformation. At that time the political and religious leadership was concentrated in the same person. It seems strange to us that there ever was a time when organized Christian religion was so discriminatory. A definite caste system with the clergy and royalty at the top. And, of course, the common person at the bottom doing all the work and paying the bills. Hey, wait a minute, that sounds like today…
I kept going and eventually found the Opera House where the Mozart opera Don Giovanni was first performed. He conducted it himself. He lived in this part of town when he wrote part of it. It was well received in Prague, but discarded throughout the rest of Europe. It has grown to become one of the most famous operas in the western world. Another testament to the ability of this city to understand great music. I followed more winding streets and finally meandered my way back to the hotel exhausted, but excited. This was a perfect day to begin exploring this great city.
The next days seemed to be a whirlwind of activity. I awoke early, had a nice buffet breakfast and headed out. I met and had breakfast with a German couple. They were from Munich, and we spoke about one of my favorite places in the world – Bavaria. It was a nice way to share experiences with others who love to travel. These days were filled with new and interesting sites including the City Square, the Charles Bridge, and, of course, Castle complex.
The city square has the astronomical clock which keeps track of the cycle of the moon, cycle of the sun, position of the astrological signs, prances out statues of the original 12 disciples, and, oh yes, tells the time. What a timepiece! The Charles Bridge was named after a King Charles. He was one of the early architects that made Prague what is today. He began a university, built the bridge which helped it grow into a place where commerce was able to grow. There are several statues on the bridge, and each has it’s own story. Most of the statues have either a religious or military theme.
The castle is a very short walk up the hill. The village at the bottom of the castle appears much like it did over the centuries. The narrow streets are dotted with small shops and cobblestone streets – each with their own hand made specialty.
The castle complex is huge. And, the Vitus Cathedral is almost beyond words. It has a prominent spot on the hill and can be seen from almost every spot in Prague. What a beautiful site. It must have been quite a site to the awe struck peasants who arrived new in the area. Next to the church was a tower that was used by the alchemists to try to convert lead and other metals into gold. I saw some of their pots and chemical jars as I visited it. We laugh at their ignorance, and glory in our own enlightenment. But, was their quest any different than ours of trying to convert war into peace, greed into equality, or pollution into prosperity?
The last day I did what I love the most. I took a few of the mass transit lines to the very end to see what was out there. The first trip was on a trolley. It was great as I watched the inhabitants of the car vary from business people, to young people, to middle aged women shopping, to retired folks getting to their desired location. I stopped at one of the plazas far from the city center. It was filled with people of all ages who were crossing this area as they made their way to another. Most of them stopped and stared at me not quite believing their eyes. I tried speaking to a few of the older men and woman. No one seemed to be willing to test their English, and there was no way they could understand my "Czech".
I walked up a winding street leading away from the square. It was interesting to see this part of the city. I found the streets clean, although the buildings were much more run down than the tourist sector. The streets were in their usual state of disrepair. There was some buildings with gang tagging on the side. A few new cars graced the sagging sidewalks. There were lots and lots of small shops as the government tries to move from a central government to a more market based economy. Most shop owners seemed to be doing quite well and were selling everything from hardware tools to designer soaps to hand made crafts. Eventually, I made it back to the trolley line and continued my journey.
I stopped a few more times and ended up in a very nice business area where the trolley line ended. I knew it was the end of the line when the car stopped and the driver got off. I found myself sitting in a car all alone. I got off, walked across the street, and waited for the next one going the opposite direction. These stops did not seem that much different than the last ones. All of the buildings away from the tourist center were lacking in color. There were not many trees, grass, or even colorful paint on the buildings. This is quite different than the buildings in the Americas where vibrant colors are an important part of the culture.
I came to the conclusion that in a collectivist environment no one wants to stand out from the crowd. No one wants to be noticed. This is reflected in the man-made environment. However, on the other hand, and no one approached me for a handout. I never felt threatened and the people seemed to be caught up in their own activities. It was comforting to know that again the pot of humanity was grown in fertile soil. All in all it was a wonderful way to end a visit to one for the great cities in Europe.