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Prague Impressions

We’ve wandered around Prague for the last four weeks and have come to love the city.  The hidden passageways, the ancient libraries, outdoor cafes tucked into every nook and cranny combine to make this a city of intriguing charm.  A typical four day tour wouldn’t truly reveal this city; Prague requires a bit of work and we’re thankful we had the time to do it.  Riding the tram (streetcar) from one end of the city to the other; walking in leafy neighborhoods to see how the locals live, exploring the relics in nearly every bombastic church and following the lure of music coming from a hidden courtyard are memories that we’ll long cherish.  The guidebooks recommend rising at dawn and seeing the Charles Bridge before it’s overrun with tourists; we roused ourselves in the middle of the night this week and were amply rewarded by an experience that is now our favorite Prague memory.  Here are some random shots taken in the last few weeks:

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Legends & Lore in Prague

Published June 1, 2009 in The Rapid City Journal

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Prague-nosis:  the state of being hypnotized by the beautiful city of Prague.

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Straddling the broad Vltava River, ‘modern’ Prague is built atop a Romanesque city that regularly flooded.  These vaulted ceilinged structures form the basements of the dazzling gothic and baroque architecture that sprang up beginning in the 13th century.  (‘Modern’ being a relative term to the Czech people.) Every building either drips with fondant-like ornamentation or massive and muscular supporting corbels. Renaissance sculpture featuring angels, devils, saints and statesmen will assault your eye at every turn (in a good way!)

Prague is also a city of colorful legends. At historic Charles Bridge (serving the public since 1400) the sword of St. Wenceslas is secreted.  During a great crisis, it’s said the Saint will ride his steed to the bridge, uncover the sword, brandish it overhead and call for the decapitation of Prague’s enemies – at which time, their noggins will miraculously fall off.   Which had me wondering if he was so busy preparing for the Feast of Stephen that he somehow missed the Nazi invasion of 1939.   AND the Soviet occupation of 1958.   Let’s hope he’s more alert in the future.

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Charles bridge itself is rife with lore. Thirty statues of saints line the sides, with the most famous being St. John of Nepomuk, patron saint of Czechs. Bad King Wenceslas IV (yes, Good King Wenceslas I gets all the positive press) stuffed Father John in armor and tossed him off the bridge for not sharing the Queen’s confession.  Sounds like a trust issue to me.

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Picturesque Old Town Square, lined with sidewalk cafes and galleries, is dominated by an astrological clock tower that harbors its own legend. The genius creator, Master Hanus, built a mechanical clock in which, every hour, the twelve apostles appear in two doorways while a bell-tolling skeleton rotates an hourglass, a cock crows and various other characters move about. This performance has drawn crowds since 1570 (the clock was installed in 1470 and suffered technical difficulties for 80 years – just like my laptop).  The 1490 Prague town council was so fearful that Master Hanus would be commissioned to build another clock in a competing city that they had him blinded.  In despair, he laid waste to the clock’s innards – causing a near century of disruption.  Just like the development of daylight savings time.

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But the final, and perhaps most unbelievable event involves tripping into St. Nicholas on The Square Church on a sunny Wednesday afternoon and finding the North Dakota State University concert choir filling the cavernous space with the music of angels.  (That’s the church interior, left.)  Legendary!

Next:  Berlin!

Note:  The photo, below, is the National Museum – a photogenic pile if ever there was one.  The Museum used to sit at the very top of Wenceslas Square – an enormous venue for festivals and gatherings in Prague.  The Soviets decided they didn’t like the possibilities of this square, so they constructed a major highway directly in front of the museum – making it  inaccessible from the square itself.  (There are now pedestrian tunnels, but the highway remains!)

The National Museum

The National Museum

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A Day In The Life (in Prague)

Top floor is ours

Top floor is ours

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Karlova Universita Law School

Karlova Universita Law School

Hotel Intercontinental

Hotel Intercontinental

Parizski Boulevard

Parizski Boulevard

The shortcut

The shortcut

Our Front Door

Our Front Door

Our foyer

Our foyer

Off to the store

Off to the store

Polish Girl Heaven

Polish Girl Heaven

I thought I would walk you through a typical day for us while in Prague.  Since Roger is teaching 4 days a week, a routine has begun to evolve.  (If your IQ is above 50, this will move a little slowly.)

We leave our pink building,turn right and are instantly in Old Town Square, where we’ve turned tourism into a full body contact sport – it’s the only way to get through the masses who have assembled to watch the astrological clock strike the hour.  (It is pretty spectacular – the clock was installed in 1470 and has been putting on the hourly show since then!  All twelve apostles make an appearance through two doors while a bell-ringing skeleton slowly rotates an hourglass in his bony hands while a turk bearing a money bag shakes his head ‘no’ to indicate it’s not his time to go yet. Then a cock crows three times and all is silent.) The square tends to be the province of pickpockets and, just yesterday, while we were watching the clock (okay, sometimes we  can’t resist either) someone undid the clasp on my watch!  Fortunately, it doesn’t just fall off, but this made us heighten our consciousness when we’re in the huge crowds in the square.  From there, we walk about five minutes towards the River Vltava (we still can’t pronounce it!)  and part ways at Roger’s law school, Charles University, – which is right across the street from my gym (which is in the Hotel Interncontinental).  After working out  (and teaching), we have to choose between walking home via Parizska(Paris) Blvd (lined with trees, outdoor cafes and designer shops)  or the shortcut that runs past the New Old Synagogue ( you  have to fight through smaller groups of tourists here.  Everyone wants to see the Jewish cemetery (which is humbling) and the attic where the Golem reportedly sleeps.)  We reach our front door, are buzzed in by the porter and, after ascending 3 short stairways, come to ‘our’ foyer and then take the 3 CRAZY, tilting, flights up to our flat.  Back down a few minutes later, heading in the other direction, to go to Tesco for bread.  And my story ends there, in Polish Girl Heaven!

One more note about the astrological clock – the clock is an earth centric design, since it was built before it was realized that the sun was the center of our solar system.  It has a gear with 365 teeth on it, so it advances one gear every 24 hours – making it a calendar year long.  You can see in the picture that there are two big clock faces – one has the 12 symbols of astrology on it and the other has 365 saint’s names  – corresponding to the day of the year on which their feast day falls.  This was before the invention of leap year!  (It’s a good thing Master Hanus, the genius inventor of the clock, didn’t know about that OR about daylight savings time!  I haven’t found an explanation of how those two issues are handled now.)

Also, you’ll notice how narrow the street looks in the photo “going to the store”.  Pedestrians share these streets with cars!  And the cars do not slow down!  You quickly learn to hug the nearest building and suck in anything on your body that protrudes for fear of losing it permanently!  So, while this seems incredibly unfriendly to pedestrians, at the same time, the streets are slightly raised at every ‘official’ crosswalk so that you don’t have to step down from the curb – you just continue on your merry way.  The cars, however, have to drive up and down steps (actual steps!) to navigate these crosswalks – so I suppose it all evens out.  The Czech also have instituted some pretty stringent fines for doing things like letting your dog run off leash OR throwing your gum on the ground!  You can expect to pay $150. if the police catch you carelessly disposing of your gum (or your dog).

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(Let’s Do the) Time Warp (again)

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This blog will now step out of the time/space continuum.  Due to the lack of internet service for 2 1/2 weeks in England, I fear I’ll never catch up with myself, so I’m jumping to Prague as of today and hope to fill in ‘missing England’ as I can.  So… Prague.  Flying in from London, I was struck by how GREEN it is in the Czech Republic.  (Perhaps I should just settle down and admit that spring is green in this hemisphere and  get over it.)  We settled into our new apartment – we’re here for a month while Rog teaches International Arbitration at Charles (Karlova) University. The location is perfect:  just off the Old Square (which, in this country, is REALLY old) and within walking distance of school.  For the voyeurs among you, here are a few shots of the apartment (sans people, sorry!)  It’s quite a hike to our front door – we’re on the top floor of an 18th century building (can you say ‘no elevator’?) and the multiple staircases were modeled on a State Fair fun house.  My favorite aspect of  one of the staircases is that, at the steepest point,  the individual steps, instead of being flat like a normal stairstep, actually slope downward.  The tiniest slip of the foot and you will find yourself quickly deposited 3 floors down.  Sober is the only way to meet the challenge of the stairs.

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Prague is in the middle of  its annual music festival, “Prague Spring”,  and strains of classical music and jazz can be heard in any church, park, concert hall or  tavern all day, every day.  Since new music scares us, we attended a concert this evening of the Greatest Hits of Vivaldi and Mozart and the Greatest Hit of Pachelbel.  The concert hall, poetically named The Municipal Hall, (can you say ‘past communist control’?) is a gargantuan space, full of delicate putti, faded murals and seating for thousands.  You’ll notice the definitive nod to capitalism in the photo – please note the back of the concert stage – the artful and subtle acknowledgement of their corporate sponsors is something we should consider doing in our sports and ball parks (if there was a committe meeting that allowed this, I wish I’d been there!)  So, now we’ve attended the requisite festival concert and can go back to watching the BBC in our apartment.

River Vltava from the Palace Gardens

River Vltava from the Palace Gardens

The famous Charles Bridge is in the middle - dating from 1400

The famous Charles Bridge is in the middle - dating from 1400

St. Nicholas On The Square - where ND State U choir sang

St. Nicholas On The Square - where ND State U choir sang

Rog is convinced that the Eiffel Tower is peaking over the hill.  The hill is in Prague.

Rog is convinced that the Eiffel Tower is peeking over the hill. The hill is in Prague.

This sculpture is outside the gym.  I know how he feels.

This sculpture is outside the gym. I know how he feels.

St. Vitus Cathedral.  We found no statues of him dancing.

St. Vitus Cathedral. We found no statues of him dancing.

Gates of the Palace.  Very welcoming, except for the swords and clubs.

Gates of the Palace. Very welcoming, except for the swords and clubs.

Back-breaking building supports.

Back-breaking building supports.

Signs in English.. there aren't many and this may be why!

Signs in English.. there aren't many and this may be why!

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