Bohemian Rhapsody
OR
Czech Under the Hood

July 2003
 
How many more times can I gush about a new city I've visited? Geesh, I'm like a broken record. Am I just that easy to please? I keep thinking that, eventually, I'm going to become jaded and bored about traveling, that I'm going to find myself saying, "Oh, gosh, not another charming European city. Oh, no, please, no more incredible ancient structures." But that seems to be a long way from happening.

Once again, I've visited a new city and country and fallen in love with it: Prague and the Czech Republic.

When I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1990s -- a rather special place as well that I used to gush about all the time -- I met various people who had just visited Prague, and they went on and on about it. Their pictures and stories, coupled with my fascination with how creatively and passionately the Czechs rebeled against the Nazis and the Soviets, put Prague high on my list of places I wanted to visit before I died. When I found out I was going to get to move to Germany, I made a commitment to see Prague before I left Europe.

What makes Prague so special? An abundance of beautiful, beautiful buildings representing more architectural styles than a course in college; very friendly, laid back people who love passionately love theater and music, from Mozart to the Rolling Stones; a variety of good food (if you don't like the meat-and-gravy-heavy Czech cuisine, Prague offers just about everything else); GREAT prices; and a political and cultural history you can't help but admire, and which permeates the city. It's a city you can simply walk slowly through or sit down and watch and fall in love with, just because of its look and feel. I had no idea Prague would have this young and fashionable side -- but without any feeling of snobbery.

There is also oh-so-much great shopping! I'm sure it was better 10 years ago -- the commercialism can be a bit overwhelming at times, and a lot of shops are filled with nothing but obviously mass-produced, cheesy stuff. But if you keep looking, you find many wonderful, unique things. For instance, I bought for a few friends these tiny crystal globes that I saw all over Prague, and now wish I had bought even more, including one for myself, as I have yet to see them outside of Prague, and they catch the light so well on a desk for shelf near a window. Garnet is sold everywhere as well -- although I'm sorry to say that I never found a ring or necklace of my favorite stone that spoke to me.

I took the Lonely Planet guide for the city, but a couple of co-workers had said the best part of Prague was just walking around and enjoying whatever comes your way. So we did that quite a lot, using the book more to figure out what we were seeing than to decide what we needed to see.

We flew German Wings, the first time for both of us. It's a low-cost, no-frills carrier, it's decent (though not on-time), and unlike Ryan Air, goes to easily-accessible airports that are actually near where it is you want to go. The flight took about an hour -- and for some reason it made me really happy that a flight attendant asked me about Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which I was carrying (it's available here in English, and will be available in German in October). Customs took longer than it should of -- there was a guy in front of us who got turned away. He was Asian, and they asked him a ton of questions, but his English was not-so-great, and after a long while, just as we were thinking of switching lines, he was told to go back. I wonder what happens when you are turned away? Actually, I know what happens if you are on a train -- three years ago, a Canadian friend travelled to the Czech Republic two days after the country revoked automatic visas for Canadians... those dang Imperialistic war-mongering Canadians...)

We had printed out directions sent to us by the Ab Dagmar Pension Prague, a pension that Stefan had found online and I had booked, that directed us to take a particular bus. But first, we had to get money changed, and then get small change. While Stefan went out for a smoke, I went to a small kiosk to buy pens and chewing gum in an effort to get small change (plus, I really did need the pens and gum).

We found our bus stop and then found the archaic and confusing ticket machine. It's not that the machine is hard to use -- it's that it's difficult, if not impossible, to find out how much you are supposed to spend for a particular trip, even with explanations in English. I think we either overpaid or underpaid, but we will never know for sure.

The bus ride was long and hot, but interesting -- and, thank goodness, I was wearing my sea bands. We road through the cement suburbs that make up the outskirts of Prague. You knew you were in a former Soviet bloc country by the stark, awful architecture. In the U.S., this housing would be for people on welfare; here, it's for lawyers and doctors and other professionals. But Lonely Planet says that the apartments inside are quite nice, that the buildings have a very strong sense of community, and that the structures are actually quite well-built. I'll have to take their word for it...

At the Nové Butovice stop we got off, and found ourselves right next to a new, lifeless office park. You have to realize that I HATE office parks. I hate them because they are ugly and cold, particularly after working hours. They are all sculpted cement walkways, not much greenery.... you feel like the Apocalypse has come and you are the last one on earth, and that the new ape rulers are going to come trotting out any moment. Or worse. They just really make me uncomfortable, because if you were in trouble, who would hear you? Anyway... We weaved our way through the deserted sidewalks, past the deserted modern buildings, towards the gas station that was our landmark. The Ab Dagmar Pension Prague is on a tree-lined street right next door, in a comfortable three story home. The daughter of the host was there to greet us, and she was wonderful. I was not thrilled about being so far out of town, but the pension itself was perfect. The bed was comfortable, the private bath was large, and we had a large fridge (which we never really took advantage of, other than for a few bottles of coke and some chocolates). And being so close to the train station was a big plus.

We dumped our stuff, unpacked a few things, freshened up, and headed right back to the Nové Butovice stop, which was also an underground station, to head to the city proper. The Prague underground is fabulous -- very modern (those Soviets sure knew how to build efficient systems to move people around), and very easy to figure out. After about 15 minutes, we got to Mustek stop, and walked up into the downtown of Prague.

I'm not going to do a day-by-day, as we were there for just one weekend. Instead, I 'll simply list random thoughts and highlights:

The huge Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Square (Staromestské namestí) was a big highlight for me. I adore antique mechanical things, and this is a treasure. It was installed in the Old Town Hall in 1410. It tracks the hour of the day, the traditional 24-hour Bohemian time, the phases of the moon, the houses of the zodiac where the sun and moon are in, stellar time, seasons, saints and who knows what else. There are figures that move on the hour representing Vanity, Greed, Death and Pagan Invasion, plus four static figures of the Chronicler, Angel (not the Metatron, sorry), Astronomer and Philosopher. Plus, a little door opens on the hour and a parade of saints go by. There are no lights, and very little sound -- it's not so much a spectacle as a mechanical marvel. I adored it . It needs to be in a Harry Potter book. What magical function would it have in a Harry Potter book? Anyway... we went into the clock tower as well, and got a nice view of the city around us.

In addition to the Old Town Square, another town square, Ovocný trh, is also lovely, a good place to have a meal outside and, if you are lucky, listen to an outside orchestra. As you walk through and between these squares, be sure to look up, as well as at eye-level -- you will see interested facades, towers, gargoyles and what not.

The Jewish district was fascinating (just remember that Saturday is the holy day and everything will be closed, something we forgot...). The Nazis didn't destroy the district because they wanted to preserve one neighborhood of what they planned to be a soon-to-be-dead race. So walking through it is bittersweet. I kept wondering how many other such lovely districts could be found in other countries of Europe once upon a time, and now are no more... We visited the Staronová Synagóga (Old-New Synagogue), which was completed around 1270. Neither Stefan or I had ever been in a Synagogue. We had really enjoyed visiting Mosques for the first time in Cairo, so this was part of our continuing tour of houses of worship. I thought it only fitting that since I had to keep my shoulders covered in the Mosques, that Stefan had to wear a yarmulke in the Synagogue. I loved how small and intimate the Synagogue was, how wonderfully medieval. It's much lower than the city around it, showing how often cities are built up and up and up over the years. At least one version of the golem legend is told for this place, and little golem figures were for sale in several stores. Security is high in the district -- several men were obviously part of neighborhood security, and keeping a watch on everyone. While in the district, we passed a store and saw men outside, and one inside, each with an ear phone -- knowing that the Rolling Stones were in town, I decided Mick Jagger was picking up some shampoo or something.

The first and second days, we walked around until after dark. Prague is quite magical at night. Next time I go, I'd like to take a siesta after midday and then go out to enjoy late-night Prague. I definitely need a nap in the middle of the day when I'm doing intensive sight seeing. I'm a wimp...

I loved the food in Prague. We had a couple of hearty Czech lunches, but what I really liked was that there was such a diversity of restaurants (similar to Berlin). We got a Tex Mex fix twice -- I can't get that in Bonn, so I wanted to take advantage of it while I could. And the Pivo (Czech for beer) is FABULOUS.

At first, so many of the items for sale were disappointing -- overpriced and cheesy. Although the X-Files nested dolls were tempting... Gradually, we started to come across not-so-cheesy marionettes (particularly Malá Strana, the quarter below Prague castle -- very beautiful and the best marionettes we saw), and some really lovely things for sale on Charles Bridge (Karlův Most). We also found a terrific store selling wooden toys. Though the wooden aligator was way tempting, I settled on a wooden puzzle that Stefan found. Stefan longed for the job of the guy who walked around the store demonstrating toys. What a wonderful thing to get paid for.

The massive Charles Bridge (Karlův Most) is an amazing site, and definitely worth crossing at least a couple of times. It is more than 600 years old, and wasn't harmed at all by the flood of 2002. It's massive and amazing, and would be even without the Baroque religious statuary lining both sides. The bridge is packed with musicians and merchants, but you can find times when it isn't completely overwhelming, and its worth a visit just to stroll slowly over, at least once, however crowded it is (just watch your wallet). I would like to have spent more time on it, but there was a storm coming, with lots of lighting, and I don't like being outside during lightening, let alone that near water...

On a lightening-free day, I was determined to do a boat ride on the Vltava (the river that cuts through downtown). I wanted to take a little boat, not one of the really big ones. It took us FOREVER to find a boat launching point -- we couldn't find any of the ones noted in Lonely Planet. As we waited, there were four people standing in front of us. I knew immediately they were with the Stones tour. How did I know this? I don't know. Yes, I could hear the British accents, but I had heard lots of accents in Prague, by various people decked out in Rolling Stone t-shirts. But this group was different. One guy was wearing a t-shirt for an obscure British band. The others included two young, attractive women -- not overly made up, and wearing very casual, comfortable clothes, but obviously the model types. They got a boat by themselves, and I knew right then they were with the stones. At last, we were allowed to board a boat. We got our complementary drink (I had a coke, ofcourse) as the tiny boat filled up and off we went, putt putt putt, with our guide who was wearing an awful, very-worn sailor suit, but who turned out to be very knowledgeable and quite funny, even at one point comparing an ancient government works project to the programs of FDR. It was he who told us, indeed, that five some were with the Stones -- one was Mick Jagger's daughter. The guy gave us a great tour of the city -- thanks, Reb, for suggesting this tour, as it was most definitely worth it.

I laughed a lot over "Bus linky", a oft-seen phrase on all city maps. I'm sure Stefan was sick of hearing me say, "Let's take the Bus linky!" I'm so easily amused.

Petrin Hill was worthy of a much longer visit -- and a lazy nap on a blanket amid the cool shade. It took us forever to find the well-hidden funicular railway (the entrance is not marked, and you think you are walking into someone's private garden when you find yourself brave enough to go the old, not-so-well-kept archway and, at last, find the entrance). Petrin tower sits atop the hill, a 62 meter replica of the top of the Eiffel Tower. Going up the 299 steps was okay; but going down them was terrifying... the museum downstairs features an antique fire fighting bicycle! Sadly, I was too utterly wiped out to stick around for the opening hours of Stefánik Observatory... have I mentioned yet that I'm such a wimp...

Our tour of Prague Castle was somewhat rushed -- I don't recall why. We walked up to the Castle from the train stop, and the views were spectacular. If I didn't have so many framed photos and art work already, I would have bought one of the beautiful original paintings of various views of the city being sold along the walkway as we ascended to where the castle was. Prague Castle does not look the way an American would imagine a castle -- it's actually a series of palaces and chapels and buildings, of various ages and architectural styles. We spent most of our time at St. Vitus Cathedral, which had particularly interesting crypts. We got to see a small group of guards after the changing of the guard ceremony, in their spiffy sky blue uniforms (which Lonely Planet says were designed by the costume designer from Amadeus). We also stumbled onto a children's art show about the European Union that was adorable and hilarious all at the same time.

All around the city were signs of the Great Flood of August 2001. The city had already done a remarkable job of fixing a lot of the damage, and I hope they leave reminders of the water height up all around the city. I think most of where we walked around our favorite parts of Prague were underwater during that flood.

Our last day in Prague was probably the highlight of our trip: we had seen a picture somewhere, in some shop, of the inside of a Harry Potter-esque looking library at the Astronomical Tower in the National Library of the Czech Republic. It's within the vast complex of The Klementinum, but is hard to find because the archway to enter the unimpressive courtyard has a table out in front of it that makes it look as though you have to pay just to walk around outside (you don't -- it's an information table and ticket seller for one of Prague's MANY concerts held within one of the Chapels). There was only a short mention of the Astronomical Tower in my Lonely Planet book, nothing that makes you think it's anything special. But that photo we had seen stuck in our mines, and it was a cheap tour, so, what the heck. We bought our tickets and I was happy to wait 30 minutes on a park bench outside, resting my ever-so-tired feet. We were joined on the tour by a nice young couple from England just starting their backpacking adventure across Europe. The tour was lead by a very sweet and pretty young Czech girl, who did a great job of showing us around but was so nervous -- we comforted her as best we could, telling her what a great job she was doing. I really did think that the tour ROCKED. It was worth it just to see astronomical tools from the 1600s and 1700s -- I don't understand math, but I am fascinated to see the way it's used on various tools to chart the days without watches or computers. The "Meridian Room" was particularly interesting.

It is around the year 1750 when a new period begins in the Tower's history - a period marked by intense astronomical and climatological research: measurement, observations, and installation of sophisticated astronomical equipment... the Jesuits constructed a special device in the Astronomical Tower that would allow them to identify noon with high precision and, upon a signal from the Tower's top, a canon was fired from the top of the slope on the opposing side of the river. The precision of time measurements performed at Klementinum's Astronomical Tower extended its usefulness well into the twentieth century -- it was equipped with a state-of-the-art pendulum clock, whose precision went unrivalled until the 1920's. Until 1926, it was used in time signaling for nationwisede radio broadcasting.
But the best part was the spectacular Baroque Library. We walked inside and I thought I had walked into Hogwarts. It was every bit as breathtaking as the library at Trinity College in Dublin (read about that here). The library is kept quite dark to protect the old books and the ceiling covered in paintings (my favorite is off to your immediate left as you enter, up near the ceiling -- it's some important church guy, dressed very nicely, looking down on you, unperturbed by the huge knife sticking out of his chest; the tour guide said that's to show he was martyred). The globes in the center of the room are huge and mysterious-looking. It was a room filled with magic and I so wanted to get locked inside for the night...

After the tour, we walked out to a platform that went all the way around the Astronomical Tower. We were only about four stories up, but it was one of my favorite views of Prague -- by now, we knew what all of the landmarks were. A very large helicopter kept flying around the city and over the huge stadium in the distance, where the Rolling Stones would soon be playing (the opening band was on stage then). I kept saying the Stones must be in the helicopter, so we kept waving, with me yelling, "Mick, Mick, throw down tickets!"

We walked around the city for one last to time, rubbing the bronze plaque on the statue of St. John of Nepomuk, the patron saint of Czechs, on Charles Bridge (Karlův Most) to ensure that we would return one day (per the legend). The Stones started playing as night was falling, and we could hear them all over the city, including from the room where we were staying far outside of the city proper -- though we could rarely figure out what song was being played.

Lidice

We had time for only one excursion outside the city during this long weekend, and I had my heart set on Lidice. Ever since the Lee Family came to visit me in Germany that second time during their year-long excursion around the world and showed me their incredible pictures from the memorial at Lidice, I have wanted to visit this town.

Some background: As you know, Britain screwed the Czech Republic by handing it over to the Nazis (agreement happened right down the street from where I live, in fact) in order to appease them and prevent WWII. It was a stupid strategy and didn't do anything but save the Nazis time, money and effort in taking it over the usual way. During WWII, the Nazis brought in the SS General and anti-subversion specialist Reinhard Heydrich, to crack down on the well-organized Czech underground. He was brutal and ruthless. Two Czech paratroopers, trained in Britain, actually managed to get back into the country and assassinate Heydrich. They were later killed in a stand-off with the Nazis in downtown Prague.

The Nazis responded by obliterating two entire Czech villages, Lidice and Lezaky. They killed every man and older boy in Lidice. ALL of them. ALL of them. They sent some of the children to live with German families, and sent the rest to concentration camps -- and for many, that was to their deaths. Of this village's 500 citizens, 340 were killed. The Nazis burned every building, including the church. Then they bull-dozed every building. They even dug up the grave yard. Their goal was to wipe Lidice utterly from the face of the earth.

Think of Spottsville. Or downtown Corydon. Or Höhr-Grenzhausen. Or Artes. Gone. Completely. Think of never even knowing they were even there.

This outrageous, disgusting act horrified the world. A Chicago suburb renamed itself Lidice. A city square in the capital of Uruguay became Plaza Lidice. This was repeated in other countries as well.

I wanted to see Lidice.

We followed the Lonely Planet directions and took a train to another part of town to catch the bus to Lidice. The bus was hard to find, and we actually missed a bus going to Lidice because we weren't sure if it was, indeed, going there. After about 30 minutes of sitting in the only shade we could find (and dang but it was hot), we boarded a bus, made sure it was going where we wanted (always good to have your destination written down on a piece of paper to show the driver), and headed out of town, past the airport. We were on the highway for most of the trip, passing vast wheat fields. Then we turned onto a two-lane highway, and at the Lidice stop, got off in what looked like just empty fields all around. If you go, cross the street from the bus stop, and walk back the way you came, towards the fork in the road, and make a right on the road that then veers to the left. From there, you should be able to see the memorial.

The small museum at the memorial does a great job of telling the story of Lidice -- budget plenty of time to walk through it, and don't miss the film downstairs; the women at the desk are happy to put the English version on for you. The museum is surrounded by a large memorial, and walking along it gives you a wonderful view of a beautiful valley, where once was the village of Lidice. A path leads down into green fields, with statues at the site of the former school, and around where the church once stood.

I cried the first time I merely heard of Lidice. I cried as I wrote the above. I cried when I went to Lidice. Not only for these people, and all of the other people the Nazis killed, but for the people that Stalin killed, and for the people of Rwanda, the people of Congo, the people of Bosnia, and all the other people and communities that are being subjected to well-organized annielation as the world looks the other way.

Good things are happening now, because of Lidice. There are activities that focus on peace, disarmament and reconciliation held alternatively in the Czech Republic and Germany. There are exchange trips for young people from Breman, Germany and from Lidice. Its legacy has become one of hope and prevention and peace. For me, the village of Lidice will never be forgotten, and the deaths of the people will be avenged, by continued acts towards peace, justice and reconciliation.

My next trip to Prague, I hope to go to Terezin -- and I will save telling that story for when I go myself.

Final Thoughts

If you are making a first trip to Europe, I HIGHLY recommend Prague as your first visit, particularly if you have never travelled outside the U.S. before. The city is compact and easy to navigate, there's something to see around every corner, the city drips with history, and you don't need a guide -- you can just hang out and walk in the direction your instincts take you. The underground is oh-so-easy to use, as are the buses (not that you won't make mistakes, but you will be able to correct those mistakes rather quickly). It's a very friendly city -- if you feel out-of-place after a day there, well, maybe there's something wrong with you (grin).

So, where are the pictures?! I have some... but I think the best ones are, truly, on the web. Any place or thing I've bolded above is worth your time to type into Google -- you will see much more interesting photos than mine.

What I was reading on this trip: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix . See pictures from other travels.

 
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