25 November 1999
So we found ourselves as Tourists in Prague. We wandered into the evening around the central square, until we were so hungry we couldn't think straight. We stopped in a resturant, however we DID think clearly enough to check to see that the prices on the English menu were the same as on the Czech menu. I had a traditional Bohemian dish that was chicken with a HUGE mound of potatoes. After we left we discovered a smoke free Vegetarian resturant just one block away! At one point we found ourselves on the Boulevard to toward the palace, but it was 100% covered with American and German franchise outlets so we scurried back into the old town!
We continued to wander the tight curving streets and little alleys and courtyards and finally found ourselves standing, by mistake, in front of the famous astrological clock exactly at 8pm. The crowd around it was small and we saw it chime the hour (each of the 12 apostles comes out and takes a bow!). It is a very pretty clock with elaborate astronomical and astrological symbology as well as actual time keeping. The clock is on the old town hall. Ever hear that bizarre and rather nasty word from history, DEFENSTRATION? This is where it happened. They threw their opponents out the window! The landing area is marked on the pavement. Really.
The town hall is at one end of the square, which isn't a square but shaped much more like a lower case letter Q, and at the other end is a large, old, somewhat boring building. But rising high above that building is an enormous church, called, I believe, our Lady upon Tyne or something like that, which is right BEHIND the building (weird location). This is an interesting church, for one thing, the seminal astronomer Tycho Brahe is burried in nave; AND at night, it is by far the most sinister looking building I have ever seen! It is all black with several huge towers and dozens of little poles and crosses and things sticking up from each tower and the way it is lit, with upward facing lights and little orange lights in each of the hundreds of tiny windows in the tower is downright scary. It was like a bit of Halloween hovering over the thriving Christmas market in the square. Oh yeah, and there was a stage with rock bands playing bad covers of Christmas carols in front of the boring building. The Christmas market was touristy but still rather nice: lots of painted eggs, oat straw mobiles, winter clothing and wool, sweet treats and of course marionettes! (Which are a traditional Bohemian theater for the poor.) There is also something called the Prague Meridian marked in brass in the square. We couldn't figure out the significance of it though. One advantage of the touristic aspect of Prague was a very good English language bookstore, which we visited and picked up a couple of interesting titles and sold them our copy of The Hobbit.
Something to remember about the Czech Republic. Postage is VERY cheap. Postcards to the USA generally run one half to one dollar, but here they were about 12 cents and a full letter to San Francisco was less than it would've cost from Seattle, about 27 cents!!!! The Czech coins were pretty cool, especially the multicolor 50 crown coin. There were also some pretty bizarre signs on the banks. All the banks had a series of red circles with the slash indicating no smoking, no food, no dogs, no celphones and always, NO GUNS. This was bizarre for a couple of reasons. First of all, we had only been in countries where there are no guns at all, this was the first time we had seen any indication that there might be guns floating around and secondly, um, isn't it OBVIOUS that you don't take a gun in to a bank!?! We thought it was weird.
We did the Prague things. We walked the Charles bridge where we saw a Jazz band playing "Take the A Train". They were GOOD too, but the choice of songs was a bit odd. At the end of the bridge we found a place selling Potato Pancakes which I had been craving for a week or so since we couldn't get them in Seiffin. I was quite happy about that! We walked up castle hill and around the old town -- there is another church up there covered with Astrological symbology. We followed a tour group around the castle a bit and then as we walked down the hill we ran in to a large group of people from the hostel we were staying at -- Canadians, Aussies and South Africans -- so we walked home talking to them! We found ourselves in the town square every day we were there, and if you could see past the tourists, it was a very pleasant place to be.
We walked along the river and we even walked past a Frank Geary building (Netherlands National Bank) that was typically weird, but especailly so in the setting. However, he does have a way of making it work -- I can't really explain it. On one of our last days we wandered around the Jewish Quarter -- we had been hearing about it all week and figured it would be interesting and pleasant. Much to our disappointment it was the most touristy part of the city! There were lots of lovely looking cafes with nice pastries, but the prices were sky high! We got out quickly!
Our hostel room was very large -- 16 beds and it still felt huge. As with all of the commonly visited places in Europe, it was packed with Australians. But it was 1 degree Celsius in Praha that day and none of them had ever felt COLD like that! I didn't want to be mean, but I really was quite amused. The people who worked at the hostel were all friendly and all spoke english, but we noticed something very strange. It took two of them to do anything. When you would ask a question, or check in, or try to pay for internet time, they would chatter amongst themselves and both reach into what ever book or box was needed. If there was only one person around, they wouldn't help you, but when ever there was more than one, they were very helpful. They wouldn't even sell me a bottle of water without a second person to help out! It was weird at first we thought it was just someone being trained, but EVERYONE who worked there was like that!
There were a number of interesting people in the hostel and we often sat and chatted during the week we were in town. Of course there were dozens of Aussies, and this VERY bizarre American named Star who was at the end of his trip and a bit strung out. Another was a facinating Bosnian Serb dwarf (really!) name Jadranko who was shy at first but really had a lot of things to teach us. It was amazing to hear firsthand accounts from Bosnia! He talked a bit about the ethinic differences, and though you could sense his viewpoints on the issue, he did say several times that killing people because of that was just stupid. He also made a pretty frightening comment about how he expects to have to fight a war someday. Almost offhand, he pointed out that they have a war every generation. We think about all these wars as having different reasons and participants and triggers -- but to the people who live there, it is: "Shit. Another war." Over the weekend Prague became a ZOO. Americans and tons of Aussies decended on the city to drink and drink and drink. And that meant that our hostel room, which had been rather comfortable was now filled with crazies. The worst of which were six scary American boys who were going to school in Stutgart. They slept during the day, stayed up drinking all night and they said that they "really loved Prague because of all the live sex clubs!" Obviously they were very loud when they arrived drunk in the room, but luckily it was usually only an hour or so before we were going to get up! We were happy when THEY left! And there was this strange older French guy who was friends with Jadranko and would talk constantly about all sorts of bizzare things. But he was nice and helped us out a couple of times.
Every morning the hostel provided a small breakfast, which I made work by getting lots of extra helpings of muslei. The worst part of it was that they played German MTV really loud all the time with these horrible vidoes! Ug. Anyway, we did wind up going to that Vegetarian resturant for lunch several times. It was cafeteria style and very cheap and quite good with a very nice decor. And it wasn't until the third time that we noticed it was a Seventh Day Adventist organzation -- it made sense, we should've seen it comming, but they were so low key about it we didn't notice. We cooked for ourselves most nights, and that was very welcome after a month or so of not doing it. Nice and cheap and easy and good. We also found two very nice bakeries, one had wonderful gooey chocolate things for about 3 US cents and the other had amazingly good bread. Cheryln could smell the place a block a way and it was so comfortable inside we just wanted to stand there all day! We did our daily shopping at the giant Austrian grocery store, the Julis Menl, which was underground and very close to the hostel. This was most interesting because it was a two level grocery store with a moving sidewalk type escalator for the carts! The carts even had special wheels which locked into the ridges on the escalator!!
We spent quite a bit of time on the internet catching up with our email and trying to type some Travelogues. Prauge was one of those rare places where there were internet cafes all over the place. We didn't have to seek them out, they found us. (There is a city ordinance against most signs in the old town, so all the businesses hire people to stand out front holding signs!!) But the two that we tried had pretty lousy computers and slow connections and were not especially cheap, so we just did it at the hostel after that. However, before all of that we decided to try to go to the public library -- generally a good place to find internet computers. The library in Praha is in a huge, ancient building. It was actually a building that was on our list of things to see. We wandered around for awhile trying to figure out how to get in (this was, we found, rather a common experience in Eastern Europe). Once in we were immediatly stopped by the rather friendly guard, but not speaking Czech we couldn't figure out what he was trying to say to us. But we went to the right, as he suggested, although it was pretty clear that the main part of the building, including the computers, was straight. We walked past the coat check and into the reading room. After floundering for a while we walked up to a woman behind the counter and asked about internet. She asked if we had a library card, and when we said no, she said that we could get one for 10 crowns (about $0.20 US). So we both now have Library Cards for the Praha library system -- which expire at the end of 1999! Now we put our coats and bags in the coat check and went and waited in line for our time on the computer. It was a fascinating building, ancient on the outside, decrepit in the hallways and ultra-modern in each room. The furnishings were these gorgeous wooden desks and tables! And the halls were lined with thousands and thousands of card catalog drawers!
We went to the Tourist information centers several times. People were very nice, but not tremndously helpful. We have found that info centers, which EVERY town in Europe has, are a good place to visit, and about 15 percent of the time they are exceptionally helpful and about 30 percent of the time are not useful at all. But you can always get a map, and generally talk to someone. We did find out what that weird thing up on the hill that we could see at breakfast over the beautiful roofs of the city was. Every morning we watched this thing, it looked like a ski lift or something but it seemed to just swing back and forth. Finally we asked and they told us that it is a piece of art called the Metronome -- just a base with a long arm that swings back and forth. When they tore down the huge statue of Stalin this is what they replaced it with. No one explained it further but I think it is really fascinating considering the attitudes people have about change in Eastern Europe (that things swing back and forth and there is nothing they can do about it).
One day we did get away from the touristy center and perhaps saw a bit of the real city. First we went to the City Museum -- in this city of dozens and dozens of museums, this is one that most people miss; in fact the only guide book that mentioned it at all said, "If you have some time before catching your train out of town". It was a really well done museum. We spent time in 3 exhibits and enjoyed all of them. The first was an extensive collection of prehistoric artifacts from the Prague basin. Facinating to see the extensive culture that the Bohemian people had 5000 years ago. (The name Bohemia comes from the Celtic tribe that was there in neolithic times.) There was also an exhibit about a club for 12-16 year olds that recreates that time. It was pretty neat, but the most interesting part about it was that they do REAL science! Since they go out and live like the neolithic people did, scientists work with them to figure out how things might have been done, what would work and what wouldn't and what would be left behind. It was really amazing. I wish I could've done something like that when I was a teenager. The website is at http://www.mamuti.cz/. The last thing that we saw in the museum is an amazing very precise, huge paper model of the city from the 1850s -- almost the entire city from that time is represented in exquisite detail. Wow. Outside of the museum at the subway stop there was a clock with the time in about 12 cities around the world. I thought it was cool.
Then we hopped on a tram to the outskirts of town. The buildings were somewhat more run down and there were hardly any signs or advertising, but there were shops and lots of activity. We even walked past the staidum for FC Sparta, the Praha soccer team! It was interesting -- in the touristy center, there were lots and lots of German and French and American cars, and almost all of them drove like jerks. But out here ALL of the cars, new or old, were Skodas (the Czech car) We even saw at one time an old old Skoda, from before the changes -- looked like a Trabant, parked right next to a brand new one, looked like a Honda. The emblem was still the same! It was quite amusing. If I had a camera I would've taken a photo of that!
We walked around for a while and bought an ice cream before catching the #22 and
taking another long tramride halfway around the edge of the city and back into
the touristy center. The #22 tram dropped us off at the Tesco Department
store. Tesco is a large British Grocery store chain that has a huge presence
in the former Czechoslovkia. This was not just a grocery store but a
gigantic, three block, 6 story department store with everything from food to
staples and anything else you could imagine. We bought cardboard to make
scrabble tiles and walked into the center of town. It was our best, and most
interesting day in the city.
© Copyright Mark Canizaro 2000
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