Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Magical City of Prague, Czech Republic

On May 4th, we left the Wienerwald campground and headed for Prague in the Czech Republic. 
The countryside driving between Vienna and Prague was lovely. I had the opportunity to stop once and took this photo of a palatial building by a small town and vineyard.
Our campground destination was Triocamp located on the outskirts of Prague. James, my co-pilot that day, and I arrived about 40 minutes before Vincent so found out where we could park. Here, wifi was only available about 40 feet within the range of the office which made it pretty inconvenient for internet searches or blogging. We really depended a lot on the internet and I was beginning to remember back to many of the campgrounds earlier in the trip, prior to Camping Split, that had limited weak wifi or wifi that didn't permeate throughout the campground, or both. We solved the problem by buying a country-specific card for our mifi (UK, France, Italy) and found the further south we went, the cheaper the cost per gigabyte of usage was. The last couple months we had gotten spoiled by our road trip and staying in apartments, all with pretty good wifi included. While, there were some glitches with the wifi at Camping Split in Stobrec, Croatia, management had upgraded and tuned the wifi such that it could be accessed at the pitch and was pretty good (at least when the campground wasn't full).

Putting the wifi hurdle aside, one of the better features of Triocamp was that it had a couple of trampolines on which the kids loved jumping both in the mornings before we got going and in the evenings when we returned from our outings.
On May 5th, I decided we should take another one of those “Free Walking Tours” in order to get a good overview of Prague. We drove into the city and parked in an underground parking lot that we hoped would be more secure than street parking. I had read a lot of warnings about petty crime in Prague including that many rental car companies don’t allow cars to go into the Czech Republic due to vandalism. I wasn’t sure if I was getting overly alarmed because Prague indeed had a higher incidence of crime or if it was because I finally picked up a guidebook, that included warnings, after having navigated many countries through only the guidance of the internet. Anyway, to lower the risks, I removed the front license plate of the Prius once again so that it did not wander off anywhere.

We walked to the old town square (Staromestske Namesti) and found lunch right on the square, which was surprisingly good for being in such a touristy location. 
Having lunch just outside of St Nicholas Church.
After lunch we stepped into the Church of St Nicholas and then wandered to where the Sandeman Free Walking Tour started. I signed us up and given we had about 45 minutes before it began, we walked around taking in some of the neighboring sights. The last time I had been in Prague was in December 1996; I was moving to the US from Sweden and flew Czech Air because it was the only airline from which I could get at reasonable one-way ticket. I had chosen to do a lay-over in Prague for a couple days and was struck by how beautiful the old town was. At that time, it was covered in a blanket of white snow and I was one of the few tourists walking the streets. Today, of course, it looked much different; no snow, more tourists but just as lovely.
St Nicholas Church is a baroque church that was completed in 1735. In 1781 the decoration  inside St. Nicholas was removed after emperor Josef II ordered the closure of all monasteries without a social function. In 1870, St. Nicholas became Russian Orthodox. During the second World War Czech army units were stationed at St. Nicholas, and working alongside artists of the day, the troops were set to work restoring the church. Much of what we see today is thanks to their meticulous work. After the war, St. Nicholas was handed over to the Czech Hussite movement, with whom it remains.

The church holds classical music concerts almost daily.
Old Town Square: In the background is the Church of Our Lady before Týn, founded in 1385, with its two gothic spires.
Astronomical Clock: The clock was installed at the old town square in the early 1400s. Much of it has been refurbished, most notably, after damage during WWII.
The clock puts on a bit of a show on the hour. The four figures on either side of the upper dial are a Turk with a mandolin representing hedonism, a Jewish money lender (greed), a figure with a mirror (vanity) and a skeleton with an hourglass representing death that we all are inevitably facing. On the hour, the skeleton representing death tips the hourglass and pulls a cord, ringing the bell; the windows open above and 12 apostles parade by, the rooster crows and the hour is rung. One has to watch carefully because the movements are so slight that it's easy to miss parts of the show.

Walking along the Havel Market, located off of Melantrichova Street, which dates back to 1232.
Yummy produce for sale at Havel Market but at tourist prices.
Before joining the walking tour, we stopped and purchased some of these donuts that were cooked over coals and then rolled in a sugar cinnamon mixture. All, goodness.
Jan Hus Memorial: The monument was erected in 1915 and symbolizes the long struggle for Czech freedom. Jan Hus was an advocate for the participation of common people in worship rituals (challenging the Catholic church hierarchy and doctrines) and was excommunicated and burned in Germany for his beliefs.
We were introduced to our guide, Tijo, at 14:00 and then set off on a ~3 hour tour of the Old Town, New Town and Jewish Quarter, with a 30 minute break about 2 hours in. Here's a rapid run-through of a few of Prague's historical highlights in more recent years: Under Emperor Charles IV (1316-78) and his son, Wenceslas IV (1361-1419), Prague became the capital of the Holy Roman Empire and of the German Nation and flourished culturally, economically and politically. Towards the end of the 16th century, Prague became again the residential city for the court of Emperor Rudolf II and all the extravagant baroque palaces and churches date from this period. Due to the large influx of Slavs from the rural areas, the majority of the city was no longer German speaking by about 1860, although a large German population remained there (mainly in the Old Town and Lesser Quarter). After the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Prague became the capital of Czechoslovakia in 1918. In the first half of the 20th century, Prague was a place where three cultures flourished side by side and significantly influenced one another: Czech, German and Jewish. Franz Kafka, as a Jewish-German-Czech author, is the most prominent example of their interconnection. Since 1989, Prague has been the capital of the Czech Republic and since 1992, the historic center has been included in the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. Walking around the historical districts, one can see that Prague is a European textbook of architectural styles with examples of romanesque rotundas, gothic cathedrals, renaissance palaces, Jewish synagogues, baroque churches and cubist and secessionist monuments. As we started the walking tour, Paul hadn’t forgotten that he didn’t like walking tours and he reminded us of how much he disliked the one in Budapest (which was one of the best walking tours on which I had ever been). Nevertheless, Paul (and all the kids) seemed to be more into this one and they said it was quite okay at the end. I guess it really depends on what state of mind the kids are in at the time. Here are a few more photos taken as we walked around Prague.
Estates Theater: Built in the 1770s, this Classicist building was the prime opera venue in Prague for many years. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart premiered Don Giovanni and directed many of his other works here.
Looking down Wencestas Square towards the National Museum: Wenceslas was known as a wise and benevolent 10th century Duke of Bohemia; he's also known as the "good king" in the Christmas carol of the same name. In November 1989, Wencestas Square was the location of the Velvet Revolution (where 30,000 students congregated to celebrate the communism victory over facism 50 years earlier but spontaneously turned it into a peaceful protest against communism). The students were beaten by the police and many arrested. In the days following, students across Czechoslovakia decided to strike and other sympathizers (like theater actors and parents) came to the square in support of the protest. Eventually on December 29th,Vaclav Havel was elected president of a now free Czechoslovakia.
Just look up and one can often spot beautiful details on the buildings.
Powder Tower: Built in the later part of the 15th century, the Powder Tower is one of the original 13 city gates in Prague. It didn't gain the name of Powder Tower until the 17th century when it was used to store gunpowder.
The street connecting the Powder Tower to the Old Town Square.
In Utero by David Cerny: This pregnant woman sculpture was somewhat controversial when it was installed. Apparently one can enter the sculpture between the legs and the sound inside is imagined to be akin to being in the womb. After listening one can emerge like being "born again".
Monument to Franz Kafka by Jaroslav Róna.
During the walk, we found out random trivia such as the Czech Republic resident drinks 1.5 liters of beer a day and this statistic includes "everyone" so some people are drinking more than the average in order to make up for the babies, children and non-drinkers.
Spanish Synagogue: This Moorish-style synagogue was built in the 1800s and houses displays of Jewish history through the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
The Old-New Jewish Synagogue (opened in 1270) is located in the left foreground. The Jewish Town Hall (1586) with the two clocks is adjacent.
After the walking tour, we decided to buy tickets to a classical concert. (Or rather, I decided that we should see one. The kids weren’t too enthusiastic about it.) Prague offers several of them in various churches as well as at the Rudolfinium, which is the venue we chose. The concerts are literally a nod to “the top ten classical hits of all times”. They’re targeted at the tourist, the masses, and even if one hasn’t listened to a classical album or CD in their life, one should recognize most of the music. I thought this would be a perfect introduction for the kids; if they were ever going to be open-minded about classical music, this would be the entrée. The concert was held in one of the smaller halls in the Rudolfinium and, while our seats had very poor visibility near the back, the string quintet was very good and they filled the hall with the music. Among the “hits” we listened to were Mozart’s “A Little Night Music”, Pachelbel’s “Canon”, selections from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” and a suite from Bizet’s “Carmen”. The kids recognized a number of pieces. Sarah pointed out she recognized some music from Warner Bros. cartoons and while no one was pleased to be there at the start of the concert, they all thought it was quite alright by the end.
The Rudolfinum is a neo-renaissance building built in the second half of the 19th century and was named in honor of Rudolf of Habsburg, son of Emperor Franz Josef, who committed suicide in 1889. Since 1946, it has been the home of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.
The ensemble taking a bow.
On May 6th, Paul wanted to stay at the RV and work on science. As it had been quite a while since he (or anyone) had a day off, we were fine giving him some alone time. Vincent, James, Sarah and I decided to go to Prague's Castle Quarter which is situated high above Prague and affords great views of the city. When we arrived, leveraging Rick Steve's advice, we purchased a ticket that gave us entrance to St Vitus Cathedral, main rooms of the old royal palace, the basilica of St George and the Golden Lane. 
Schwarzenberg Palace: Located in the Castle Quarter, it's named after the Schwarzenberg family who gained it through marriage in 1719. Since 2008, it has been used as an art gallery.
Historic street lamp near the gate of Prague Castle.
Archbishop's (Sternberg) Palace: Located near the Castle Square, the Archbishop's Palace was originally built in the renaissance style though later it was rebuilt in the baroque style. Another reconstruction took place in the 18th century and so elements of the rococo style can be seen on both the facade and the interior. The palace houses the National Gallery's collection of European paintings, including those by Albrecht Durer, Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt and El Greco.
The castle grounds had some lovely lawns and pockets of flowers in bloom but it was this contraption that caught my eye and that of most other tourists. This Roomba-like self-guided machine zig-zagged across the lawn unmanned and, over time, the entire lawn was trimmed. Like most lawn mowers it didn't do well with edges, leaving about 6 inches that would have to be cut the old fashioned way with clippers or a weed-wacker.

The view behind Sarah was the view from the castle grounds.
Sarah wore her Junior Ranger shirt and shorts that day and assumed the personality of someone in charge. Through our self-guided tour of the castle, she was constantly reminding us, "No flash photography allowed; photography only permitted with a license; please, do not touch the rope barricades; do not touch any of the carpets or furniture beyond the barricades; please follow the arrows", etc. She was pretty good...and funny. And the exercise kept her (and us) entertained throughout the castle. 

The old royal palace dates back to the 12th century and was designed in Gothic and Renaissance styles. Its Vladislav Hall was used for inaugurations, being the most important representative hall in the country. (As Sarah frequently pointed out) photos were not permitted in the palace without a license so if you wish to see a few photos, they can be found here.
St Vitus, St Wenceslas and St Adalbert Cathedral: The cathedral was started in 1344 but due to wars, plagues and other reasons was never completed until 1929. It contains the tombs and relics of the most important local saints and kings including the first three Habsburb kings.
A sample of the detailed facade, much of which was completed in the 1920s.
The overall layout of the cathedral was designed by a Frenchman, Matthias of Arras, who designed it as a gothic triple-naved basilica with flying buttresses and radiating chapels.
Basilica and Convent of St George: This is considered Prague's best preserved romanesque church.
Founded in 920 by Premyslid Duke Vratislav I, St George's Basilica was intended to be the main sanctuary in Bohemia. It was a burial place of rulers from the Premyslid dynasty till 1055.
Upon leaving the basilica, one walks through the St John of Nepomuk Chapel; there is an altar with these bones arranged in a window underneath. Apparently they are not St John's nor are they even real. Why or why would they include these if they were not real? Well to fool the naive tourist, I gather. I hate that. To the management of historical sights: If you don't have authentic things to show, don't show a fake; it's cheating the paying visitor.
In the process of changing of the guards, which takes place every hour on the hour.
The Golden Lane: This picturesque street originally housed castle servants. The houses were occupied up until WWII. Franz Kafka briefly lived at #22. Today the dwellings are filled with a mix of shops and reconstructions portraying medieval life in the lane.
In one of the buildings in Golden Lane, is a huge display of several suits of armor, torture aids and weaponry. Visitors can also try shooting a crossbow.
Amongst the weaponry was this combo pistol/knife. On the blade of the knife is a calendar with the names' days throughout the year. What a great gift idea for that someone who has everything!
After leaving the Golden Lane, we stopped for a drink. Behind Sarah and James is the entrance to the castle complex.
On May 7th, we went to another "room escape" venue called MindMaze which is rated #2 of 273 attractions in Prague. (It's competitor, Trap, was #1). Clearly TripAdvisor is being monopolized by a younger user set. While these escape games are fun, should they really be #1 and #2 in a city like Prague or Budapest? While we obviously are fans, evidenced by our frequent visits, I wouldn't put them as the "top sights" in some of these cities. But that's just me.
The theme around the MindMaze room was around alchemy and reaching the philosopher's stone; like the other games, we had to find missing puzzle pieces, decipher codes, open locks and solve puzzles. We managed to complete the mission within our 60 minuted allotted time period. This was a very good room experience.
After leaving MindMaze we went to the Karel Zeman Special Effects Film Museum. Sarah commented afterwards that this was one of her favorite museums of the trip. Karel Zeman (1910–89) was a Czech film director, artist, production designer and animator, best known for directing fantasy films combining live-action footage with animation. Zeman received international recognition and many of his works received awards. The museum was opened by his daughter and shows a number of his films along with describing how he created some of his best special effects. These were the days before any computer-generated special effects, so all the techniques were really tangible. Sarah left the museum ready to make movies.
Sarah trying out a flying machine: Someone would move the back drop while the person in the machine would pedal, making the wings flap. The effect on film was that it looked like the person was flying.
Scenes from "The Fabulous World of Jules Verne" (1958): This was the first of several Zeman films inspired by the works of Jules Verne. Here, Zeman tried a new artistic style to bring to life the black and white engravings made by the first illustrators of the Jules Verne books. The scenery, costumes and props all had varying degrees of black and white stripes. The film was showered in prizes and became one of the greatest films of the 20th century.
Zeman used flat scenery painted with a 3-dimension feel and placed in such a way to give his sets on film depth.
The kids hanging out on another film set.
When we finished up at the Special Effects Museum, we took a walk on the Charles Bridge, which is a 14th century stone bridge that spans the Vltava River, connecting the Old Town to the Lesser Town (Mala Strana). King Charles IV commissioned the bridge and the foundation stone was laid in 1357. The initial intention was to build a functional construction for knight tournaments.
Lesser Town Bridge Tower which sits at the Lesser Town end of the Charles Bridge.

Looking across the bridge at the Old Town Bridge Tower at the entrance to the Old Town.
There are now 75 statues on the bridge but most are copies as floods and catastrophes over the centuries damaged the originals.
We then drove to the State Opera House to see the opera Madame Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini. This was the kids' first opera and the State Opera House in Prague was a great venue in that it was on the small side (good visibility), it offered English subtitles and the ticket prices were really affordable. The choice, Madame Butterfly, was also good in that everyone grasped the story and we all had a good discussion afterwards about what selfish, horrible person Pinkerton was. And why do they stage Butterfly performing harakiri behind a screen rather than center stage? (The ending, for me, falls flat.)
The State Opera originally opened in 1888 as the "New German Theater"; at that time the Czech land was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and there was a large German minority living in Prague.
Vincent got us box seats so we had our own balcony. Sweet! Good precaution in case anyone wanted to crawl up on the floor and nod off. But no one did. The kids had staying power.
Details of the elaborate neo-rococo decor around the box seats.
This was our last day in Prague and the Czech Republic. It was just an introduction for most of us and worthy of a return visit one day. Again, there were many sights not well-explored so we'll just have to add Prague and more of the Czech Republic to the growing list of repeat visits down the road.

2 comments:

  1. I just subscribed! Saw the article in SJ Merc. It appealed to me because I, too, have 3 children, live in SV, and have been planning a year trip with the family abroad. We will depart in 2 years, and the plan is to go "Around the World". I'd love to hook up with you once you are back to learn more about how you made it happen. My husband and I have been talking about this since before kids, and now we are waiting until our oldest is 13 and youngest is 10. What a great adventure you are having!!

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    1. Thank you for your kind comment Shawn. We'd be happy to talk to you when we are back early August. Our email is ilovelandshark@gmail.com. In the meantime, I recommend you check out http://www.familyadventurepodcast.com/. Erik Hemmingway interviews families who have done all kinds of extended travels via RV, sailboat, bike, etc and asks them how they prepared for their trips. It's pretty helpful to those who are thinking of doing an adventure like this. And even if you're not, listening to it will make you want to start planning one...

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