The Ghosts of Pragues past

Dwight Peck's personal Web site

It's time to go to Prague


The only time I had been in Prague was in late December 1983, a snowless Christmas in Switzerland -- we stayed overnight near the Charles Bridge, but we were dashing north to find snow in the Krkonoše mountains and we didn't stop to see a thing. That seems now like a poor choice -- and there wasn't any snow in the Krkonoše anyway, nor in the High Tatry in the Carpathians, so we gave up and went home, where it had snowed while we were away.

Now, mid-July 2007, it's time to see Prague properly. But quickly. Kristin's here, but has to go back soon, so we're going to try to see all the good stuff in four days, if you can imagine.

You may not find this terribly rewarding unless you're included here, so this is a good time for casual and random browsers to turn back before they get too caught up in the sweep and majesty of the proceedings and can't let go.

Here's our hotel, the Green Lobster (don't laugh) on Nerudova, or Neruda Street, named after Neruda the poet. Not THAT Neruda the poet -- you're thinking of Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto of Chile, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971 but ripped his pen-name "Pablo Neruda" from OUR Neruda -- Jan Neruda (1834-1891), born right here in the Malá Strana neighborhood of Prague and a famous Czech nationalist literary figure in his time. (Or so they say.)

Looking down Nerudova, the main thoroughfare up the hill from the historic downtown near the Charles Bridge to the Hradcany castle area. One's watching the street a little anxiously at this point, since in a brief moment of utter senility I left my money belt in the airport taxi, and now we're hoping that the taxi driver will bring it back. Promptly, an hour later, the driver drove back up the hill to hand it over intact, and persisted in trying to refuse any tip for that.

The Green Lobster hotel (notice the Greenish Lobster on the front), evidently named after its ancient tradesman's symbol. It's part of a Czech chain called Garzotto Hotels (www.garzottohotels.cz) and it's very nice indeed. The price was reasonable, we had in effect a "suite" (since there was an extra bedroom), and the location was perfect, at the top of the hill near the Prague Castle. Good breakfast, too. It was awkward only late Saturday night, when a large bunch of inebriated American girls had a one-hour group laughing fit in the street.

That's the ceiling in our room -- utterly lovely. We were in the Green Lobster Building Number Two, directly across the street from Green Lobster Building Number One. The staff was great, and the young desk chappie not only spoke serviceable English but also knew personally the taxi driver with my money belt ("white van, very big guy, bald, big moustache" -- Ah, yes, I know him!).

From our room looking up to the restaurant at the top of the street -- the one-way street continues leftwards out into the suburbs (and the airport), whilst the stairway on the right leads up to the Hradcany area and Prague Castle. What a location. (Good restaurant, too.)

Just settling in, we're walking down past the St Nicolaus Church towards the Charles Bridge on the river.

The gate at the western end of the Charles Bridge ('Karluv most'). The old 12th century bridge got trashed in a flood in 1342, and in 1357 King Charles IV laid the cornerstone for this one, completed half a century later.

The Charles Bridge itself is less a way to get to the other side of the river than an Event in its own right -- like the Ponte Vecchio over the Arno, but without the jewelry shops on top. Nice to stroll about and take photographs, have as many caricatures made as you can bear, but sometimes not the easiest way to get to the other side of the river. (In early times, however, it was the ONLY way to get to the other side, which is how Prague became a city.)

The mighty river Vltava, guarded by a skinny guy with a sword

Tour boats jockeying to turn around on the Vltava. Vltava?? - what's THAT all about, then? Well, the name comes from an ancient regional word meaning "river", but it's probably better known by its German name, the Moldau ("Moldau" also comes from an ancient regional word meaning "river") -- think of the great Czech composer Smetana's symphonic poem "Die Moldau" from "My Country", which brings to life the course of the river from the Sumava region of Bohemia to the Elbe river in Germany and eventually the North Sea.

On the Charles Bridge

Karlova or Charles Street, walking eastward into the Old Town.

Big churchy thing hovering a few streets over

The enormous Staromestské námesti, "Old Town Square", which has some other accents thrown in there that I can't make on my keyboard.

A view in Staromestské Square, with a neat pedally little cab for tourists pedalling towards the right

The Old Town Hall, first built in 1338 when the King of Luxembourg granted the citizens of Prague the right to govern themselves, more or less. (The King of Luxembourg?) The tower, 70 metres high, was built in the mid-14th century, and we're going to sprint up it in a few moments. The astrological clock was added in 1410, and every hour the tourists gather about in front of it (photo, right) to watch stuff happen! -- mainly apostles! -- up in the little windows. Can't hold a candle to the Strasbourg clock, but it's a nice thing to have in your town if you can afford the maintenance.

Franz Kafka's family lived on the far side of this building when he was but a young strip of a lad. (An anxious young strip of a lad, probably.)

The view from the tower: A wonderful centre for a city, despite some of its unpleasant historical associations -- in 1621, for example, during the Thirty Years War, an anti-Habsburg rebellion went all wrong and the heads of 27 anti-Habsburg gentlemen were removed here and displayed for some time afterwards, to "send a signal" as the Americans would say.

The Our Lady Before Tyn church overlooking the square

Our Lady Before Tyn church from the Old Town Hall

Serried streets and red roofs of the Old Town

Prague Castle up the Hradcany hill on the far side of the river

Kristin explaining how the city could have been laid out better

Time to go back down

A nice housefront near the Old Town Square

A nearby square

Sightseeing cars. Tourists bent upon the effortless scenic drive-through can choose from among these vintage cars, all apparently genuine and we saw at least 20 of them; the ubiquitous pedalos cabs powered by (presumably) very fit young people; and the little green train that chugs all around the main sights of the city . . .

. . . like this. Every city in Europe has got one! Including Nyon.

Late afternoon, and time for a teeny sip of excellent Czech dark beer in this little courtyard pub

Late in the day, and with a full programme of operatic marionettes in the evening. We're hastening back through the Old Town towards the Charles Bridge to freshen up a bit before our evening date with High Puppet Culture.

A lovely old street, especially got up for us summer tourists, and a great place to buy your useless gewgaws.

Like these, for example, or . . .

. . . like these. They've even got the NFL dolls!!! And quite a few Putins. And a couple of old Kerrys they couldn't unload.

The Charles Bridge at the rush hour

In the evening, we're going to have to miss this performance of Tennessee Williams's classic play "Sladké ptáce mládí", because we're already booked for the Mozart Opera on Strings.

There he is himself, Don Giovanni, or rather his body-double, as we're watching the original get tunefully thumped on the stage right now.

A delightful performance of Don Giovanni at the National Marionette Theatre. Especially when Don Giovanni wouldn't give it up at the end and the beefy puppeteer had to come down onto the stage and drag him off by main force.

St. Vitus cathedral in the middle of the Prague Castle. Constructed throughout the 14th century, with lots added later, it's an extraordinary edifice overlooking the city.

The front gates of the Prague Castle from the Hradcanské Square on the western end.
We're just in time to watch the changing of the guard!

Powder blue uniforms, distinctly civilized-looking for military chaps. At first blush, it's hard to see why military guards are needed for a picturesque medieval cathedral, but this is also the seat of the working government, and President Vaclav Klaus is upstairs working hard on his new policies right now.

Inside the Prague Castle, here's St Vitus, and the famous "Golden Gate" half cut off at the bottom of the picture.

At the far end of the cathedral, this is St George's Basilica (wearing red).

We're not pausing, because we're bound for the Lobkowicz Palace at the far (eastern) end of Prague Castle. That's a toy museum on the left, but the entrance to the Lobkowicz Palace is just here on the right -- first the café, and the art galleries a little farther on near the tower.

The view over the city from the Lobkowicz Palace café -- we've just been to a recital of short baroque and Czech classic pieces by a piano, violin, and viola in the music room, and now we've ducked into the café for a fast soup and a biscuit before we tackle the 20-odd rooms of the Lobkowiczs' art galleries. Fabulous stuff -- mostly family portraits back to the Pernstejn forebearers of the 16th century and curiosities like armor and dishware, but also a Cranach the Elder, two Canalettos, a Brueghel the Elder, a putative Velazquez, lots of exceptional items, and not a bad recorded audio tour of the highlights by the present Prince or Duke or whatever he is, and his wife, and even his mother, who from her accent evidently comes from Texas (and in fact went to college with Kristin's mother). The Lobkowicz family has been here easily since the 16th century, but were dispossessed by the Nazis in the late 1930s, but in 1947 got it all back again (30-odd castles all around the country), but then got dispossessed again by the Communists a year or two later. But then . . . under Vaclav Havel's humane administration in the 1990s, got it all back again, and lets the public in out of gratitude and a small fee to keep it all humming along smoothly.

Kristin is darting into the Prague Castle baroque museum, on the far side of St George's Basilica, and I'm going to join her there in a moment.

An admonitory piece that I took especially to heart and vowed to alter my ways.

St George's Square. As we're pausing for a lemonade.

Kristin dashing past St Vitus's cathedral in search of more art.

Kristin plunging down austere tunnels. In search of more art.

More art. The Powder Blue Guards are at it again. The fixed bayonets seem a little overdone in this day and age.

The Summer Palace of the Belvedere in the Royal Garden, just outside the Prague Castle to the north

St Vitus Cathedral from the north, near the Royal Garden

Ditto

Ditto bis

And back to Hradcany Square after the crowds have gone

A very civilized people, here, despite their appalling taste in monumental art on the castle gates.

We're back at the Green Lobster to freshen up, artworked-out for the day and ready for some Dumplings and Beer.

Next day, back to St Vitus's, and here's Prague's Special Pal, St John of Nepomuk (or, in Czech, Jan Nepomucky!), 1340-1393, Bohemia's favorite son, and a Genuine Saint. Whilst vicar-general he ran afoul of good king Wenceslaus (or one of the Good King Wenceslauses, anyway) and got put in a big bag and thrown off the Charles Bridge into the mighty Vltava. Most of the miracles ascribed to him are pretty silly, and it's not true that the name Nepomucky comes from the Inuit dialect of Nunavut.

St Vitus's insides, capacious and well-lit. We're going up the tower now, and as it turns out, we may regret it.

OOoof, we're at the top! The two-foot wide spiral staircase up St Vitus's tower rises two and a half miles over the city, over three hundred thousand well-worn narrow medieval steps, with a continuous stream of panting tourists behind you, seven cases of cardiac arrest above you, and a sweaty stream of desperate humanity trying to edge around you to get back down. Not an easy game.

But the views are worth the trouble.

Looking eastward along the length of the Prague Castle, St George's Basilica below

The Charles Bridge into the Old Town on the right, the Mánesuv traffic bridge on the left

The Vltava river wending east- and then northwards

The Charles Bridge and the Old Town from the top of St Vitus cathedral

St Nicolaus church below us, on this side of the river

A last look at the somewhat daunting surroundings before we try to fight our way back down that spiral staircase. One has to wonder about how they made all that ornatery on the towers -- hopefully well-paid medieval union guys with benefits suspended from ropes, or wooden scaffolding two and a half miles high alongside them.

A PTSD-look back up at St Vitus's tower. Reaching two and a half miles into the summer Czech sky.

Another look at St George's square, because the red basilica really sets it off.

The outside of the Prague Castle on the southern side, in the Garden Na Valech along the whole length of the front of it.

The entire South Gardens of the castle were entirely taken up, whilst we were there, by a photographic exhibition of the works of Ivan Pinkava (b.1961), 34 splendid haunting works, combining all kinds of traditions from nude painting, gay art, concentration camp starkness, existential blank expressions, and biblical and classical allusions in the titles. This one is just "Brother and Sister", though.

Kristin is scrutinizing "Scar", though the photo doesn't come out well in the photo. Or 'metaphoto', as you might say.

On the left, "The Lamb of God, the End of Time", kid with a ram's skull, and on the right, of course, "Medusa".

Wonderful photographs in the Maximálni Fotografie exhibit just from June to September 2007

The south gardens of the Prague Castle, with the Ivan Pinkava exhibit all along it

Something completely different. Trams filling up near the Vojanovy Gardens

A Transportation Competition on the Mánesuv bridge -- three pedicabs going head to head with two trams

Four pedicabs bound for the Prague Castle

St Vitus cathedral from the Old Town

Sights of Old Prague

(It's a 1996 sculpture by David Cerny, a guy hanging from one hand, not a memorial to Dubcek after the Soviet invasion of 1968.)

Kristin wandering through old Prague, after a brief stop at the wine shop for a little something for later in the evening.

A few views of Old Prague south of Charles Street

This narrator loves archways.

Archway

The open-air market in the Václavské námesti

Kristin waiting patiently for her turn at the trough

An enormous market, a couple hundred metres long by the look of it, but nothing here that Kristin really needs right now.

But we'll wait in line for today's Guardian and The Independent, and the International Herald Tribune if they've still got one.

The Powder Tower. The fancy medieval stuff on it is evidently early 20th century, but it's still evocative.

The old Tynska neighborhoods behind the church, little hidden treasures

More photos taken through arches, wherever he may find them.

In the Staromestské Square, not entirely safe from Segways whizzing past

A free, plein-air jazz and rock show for the tourists. Too good to miss.

The music was so good that we tucked ourselves into one of the sidewalk cafés for a couple of late afternoon dark beers, so that Kristin could plunge through The Independent and The Guardian and the narrator could smile fatuously at the passing crowds and listen to the music with a dark beer clasped firmly in hand.

The dark beer at the sidewalk café that helped to make this moment so special cost about three times what it would have in the pubs on the way up the Hradcany hill. The centre of the Old Town is expensive! Outside the centre, cheap! In restaurants up the hill near our hotel, our dinners -- nothing luxurious but good, solid fare -- cost a good deal less than they would have in our little villages up on the mountain here in French-speaking Switzerland.

After the 1) vintage cars, 2) little red pedicabs, and 3) green train, ANOTHER way to view the sights of the city recumbently.

Crowds are gathering for the apostles to do their little Apostle-Jig up in the clock windows, right on the hour.

The ornate housefront again. Who's that stoical fellow in the lower right centre, with the sign over his head?

Oh, that's just The Experienced Guide.

A brass band up on the Charles Bridge western gate, blaring out soulfully.

Winston Churchill and Dwight Peck in Prague, July 2007

The Charles Bridge in a Sunday morning rain. We're blasting through here on the way to the traditional Sunday morning antiques market in one of the back alleys of the Old Town. Those of us who are not licensed antiques dealers are just tagging along with yesterday's Guardian under our arm, in case things start to drag.

The Sunday morning antiques market, but virtually no antiques showed up. Kristin did, of course. (That didn't come out right at all!)

Kristin looking for antique bargains in a drizzly rain, and found some.

Little antiques bargains in a plastic bag under one arm, we're hurtling back through the now-familiar old neighborhood to arrange a taxi to the airport.

A quick look at Beethoven's house on the way

Beethoven, the music guy. The deaf one.

The American Embassy, sitting right out there for all to see. Some security. The Czech police were positioned a few doors down (at a 'czech point') to run a brief czech over all cars trying to get up this street, and the local drivers seemed perfectly resigned to the usual drill, hopping out, popping open the hood, jogging back to pop open the boot, whilst another cop ran a mirror all round the underside of the car, and back into his car, crunching into gear and going on his non-political way, to do his shopping or take the dog to the vet or whatever.

It's not clear if all countries' embassies need to have the shades pulled down all the time. The Italian flag on the right is not the embassy of Italy (that's just up the hill a ways), this is an Italian restaurant. Competing Flags.

It's time to go home already!

But don't for God's sake leave without your Czech snack!!!!!


Feedback and suggestions are welcome if positive, resented if negative, . All rights reserved, all wrongs avenged. Posted 15 August 2007, revised 16 September 2012.

Winston and Dwight, at parting

 


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