Monday, June 25, 2012

PRAGUE, Part 1: Wenceslas and Old Town Squares

Twenty years ago my mom wrote in a letter to Rachael: "One of my favorite cities in the world is Prague, or Praha as they call it. Mozart was there and wrote of it as a city of great inspiration--'the golden city' he names it. It is full of history with an old city part that will put you back into the 17th or 18th century."

We started off our Grand European Tour in this most beautiful of cities.  Mom and Mozart were right--it is a city of inspiration. However, Mom was wrong about the time frame.  Some of the buildings in Prague took us back as far as the 15th century!

Lucky for us, most  of what we wanted to see in Prague is in a fairly condensed area. Still, we did a lot of walking in Prague.  A LOT. We were joined on this first part of our trip by my sister Chris and her husband Stan, whom we found to be excellent traveling companions and very willing walkers.  They can come with us any time! (Um, more about Chris's gelato-enabling behaviors later.)
My brother-in-law Stan Jones and Bob lead the way.
Our hotel was a few blocks from Wenceslas Square.  I had recently reread the book The Year That Changed the World: The Untold Story behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall by Michael Meyer, who was the Newsweek correspondent in Eastern Europe in 1989, and had been reminded that during a six-week period in 1989, about 200,000 protestors gathered in this square (It is really a half-mile-long rectangle) to make a stand for freedom. The Velvet Revolution, as their revolt is called, succeeded in overthrowing the Communist government and was a key part of the stunning collapse of the Iron Curtain.  It was exciting to be in one of the pivotal places from that year.  It is one of the politically important historic city squares, along with others such as Tienanmen Square in Beijing, Red Square in Moscow, and the area around the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
Chris and I in Wenceslas Sqaure.  We had a stripe thing going on that day.
A wonderful modern mosaic of St. George slaying the dragon in a side courtyard off Wenceslas Square
From Wenceslas Square it is a few more blocks to Old Town Square, the Medieval center of the city.  In between the two squares, we ran into this outdoor market where Bob was able to find some fresh produce to meet his vegan dietary needs: 

Old Town Square is beautiful.  Prague had one of the few old town centers in Europe that was relatively untouched by World War II bombing, and so everything in the square and in the surrounding blocks is certifiably old, not just rebuilt:
The Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, finished in 1411 and now somewhat hidden behind more "modern" structures.  The two towers, differing in size, are known as the "Adam and Eve" towers. Unfortunately, we were never able go inside.  It was closed every time we tried to get in.

Another view of Old Town Square (with the same guy in blue pants bending over in the foreground)

The beautiful facade of one of the buildings on the square reminded me of Wedgwood china
How about this gorgeous building for a Hard Rock Cafe?

A statue of Jan Hus, the Czech reformer who was burned at the stake in 1415 for his heresy against the Catholic Church, more than 100 years before Martin Luther led the Reformation in Germany. Hus preached in the Czech language, advocated open communion for all, and was against the selling of indulgences.
There were a lot of horse-drawn carriages offering rides to tourists, and all the horses had these cute little "ear hats."
I love the street performers in Europe.  This sax player was pretty good!

This giant screen was set up in the square to show the ice hockey match between the Czech Republic and their opponent.
Disappointed fans return home, wrapped in the Czech flag, after their team lost.
Old Town Hall
One of the key sights in Old Town Square is the Astronomical Clock, located on the left side of the Old Town Hall above.  Our guide told us that in a recent survey, the Clock was listed as the #2 Most Disappointing Tourist Site in the World.  (#4 - Stonehenge, #3 - The Glockenspiel in Munich, and #1 - The Mona Lisa)  Actually, I loved it.  It was installed in 1410 (82 years before Columbus!) and is the oldest working astronomical clock in the world.

There are three main parts of the clock: at the top is the Apostles' Walk, then the dial that shows the time and the position of the sun and moon in the sky, and finally the calendar dial showing the months.  Every hour the clock goes into motion, with a tolling of the hour and the "Waltz of the Twelve Apostles" through the doors at the top.  I didn't get a recording of the actual clock, but I did record our guide Filip demonstrating what happens:

When it is all over, a live trumpeter--in a Renaissance-y looking costume--plays a short tune from the top of the tower.
This spot is not just popular with tourists.  Here is a bride getting some photos taken:
We climbed 299 steps to the top of that tower and were rewarded with the most beautiful city views of our entire trip:

The huge white church with the green towers is the St. Nicholas Church, completed in 1735.  For 44 years before World War I, it was a Russian Orthodox Church.  After World War I it became a Hussite church, which it still is today.  We were lucky to be able to see a few minutes of their Sunday service, which was led by a woman.

One more thing: a note about the wonderful street food in Prague. Here is a man barbecuing whole hams right next to the Old Town Hall:
 A sausage stand we passed every time we walked to Old Town (Czech fast food):
 Bread dough twisted around metal rods that rotate, evenly browning the bread.  When it's done, the bread is sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar:

The pastry shop where we ate breakfast one morning:

 The chocolate shop with a siren call that lured me inside:

I should have been more like Bob, who wanted Kobe beef, but had fruits and vegetables:

However, his face sure lit up when he found a Schweppes Bitter Lemon in an Irish Pub not far from our hotel!

A few years ago Megan Richey Olsen, whom I've known since she was four years old and who now holds a master's degree in English, wrote a terrific young adult novel set in Prague entitled Rusalka. It has a bit of romance, a bit of the supernatural, some good Czech legends, and a lot of the well-known sights of Prague written into an engaging, fast-moving story. If you're traveling with a young adult, or if you enjoy good young adult fiction, I recommend this book, available on Kindle.

NEXT: Sights from other parts of the city


  1. I'm looking through your post, realizing I've made several mistakes on mine. I many never get everything straight....

    Love the guide video! I think he was more entertaining than the real clock. And I agree, the clock was wonderful. Whoever thought it was disappointing did not see the same clock I did!

  2. Good start on a long trip that will have you blogging until you're 80. Looking forward to future installments.

  3. I LOVED that clock! Much better than the one in Berne, which is the one Einstein's Dreams is based upon. And I'm surprised your guide didn't tell you about the building the the Germans blew up in the city square, and which the stubborn Czechs left half- standing just to show them. I thought that was a hilarious story . But our guide was much older, so perhaps he knew about that because he was more familiar with it.

    1. We did hear that story--I said "RELATIVELY untouched." It is the truncated red brick building connected to the Old Town Hall in the picture above, right? That hardly seems like damage compared to the rest of Europe!

  4. I'm re-reading your blog again. And still loving the feeling of being there as well as enjoying my memories of Prague.