Pozdravy z Prahy, Ceska!

23 Aug

Greetings from Prague, Czech Republic!  OK, so this AWESOME weekend getaway couldn’t have come at a better time!  Remember how, last weekend, nothing went the way we’d hoped?  Well, exactly the opposite can be said for this go around and let me tell you, it was JUST what the doctor ordered for Thomas, Party of 4!

This was our longest weekend trip yet, about 5 hours- 6 when you stop for lunch.  I suppose because of the novelty and drastic change of scenery, we rather enjoy the drives themselves- the land and the towns here are so very different than in the States.  Everything is so green…rolling hills as far as you can see…quaint little towns perched atop the mountains…farm after farm…Here’s an idea of what you see when you gaze out the window driving down the highway…

A perk about European road trips?  They seem to go quicker than usual…Oh wait, because that’s probably because you ARE going faster than usual!  Contrary to what you’ve heard, the Autobahn (this is not just one road, but rather what all German main highways are called) does have general speed limits, although they seem to be more of ‘suggestions’ rather than enforced laws (this is NOT the case in cities where the speed limits are definitely observed!)  What makes it safe is that everyone is driving a high speeds, so there’s less ‘weaving’ around the slow pokes.  Also, the left lane is only used for passing, so if you’re in it and you see someone approaching from behind, you move to the right so they can pass.  Voila!  Neat concept, huh? 🙂

Yep, we figured out how to get our speedometer to show both kilometers per hour (large number in the middle- standard for Europe), plus miles per hour (smaller righthand number below). Cruise control just won't be the same when we get home!

Now, onto the Czech Republic!  So, we were all prepared- passports, pup paperwork, etc.- for crossing the border.  The speed limit dropped down to 80km/hr. and we could see the gates in the distance…Then…nothing.  Through the gates we went, the speed limit went back to ‘suggested’ and we were in another country!  So I did a little research right then and there (I have no clue how people survive without internet on their phone!) and learned that, in an effort to cut spending, the country opened all borders with neighboring countries (see map page) in 2007.

Crossing into Czech Republic

Car window cam 🙂 Czech country side lining the highway...

Now let me give a little background about the Czech Republic…After the Holy Roman Empire, the country (then known as Bohemia) became part of the Austrian Empire.  After WWI, this Empire collapsed, giving birth to the independent Czechoslovakia in 1918.  Within a decade or so, because of discord among all the minority groups, Hitler took advantage and united them under his Nazi coalition- the Czech territory was now occupied by Germany.  Approximately 345,000 Czechoslovak citizens, 280,000 of whom were Jews, were executed.  Hundreds of thousands of others were sent to prisons and concentration camps, the closest one being just north of Prague.  The Allies, thankfully, recognized the Czech resistance to Nazi occupation and the German occupation ended in May 1945, with the arrival of the American and Soviet armies.  At this ‘Prague Uprising,’ more than 140,000 Allied soldiers died fighting for the liberation of Czechoslovakia. The country remained Communist for the next 41 years, when in the late 1980s, protests began to increase.  In 1989, the peaceful ‘Velvet Revolution’ brought it full circle, back to a liberal democracy.  After splitting with Slovakia in 1993, Czechoslovakia became the Czech Republic, continued building its capitalist economy and joined the European Union in 2004.

OK, ok, I know it’s probably way more history than you like, but you can just learn so much more about a place if  you have an idea of where it’s come from!  So before I get into the background of its capital city, let’s have some pictures! 🙂

Coming into Prague, crossing the Vltava River...

Making our way into the city...

Nearing our hotel...

OK, so a little about Prague, capital of the Czech Republic…First settled in 200BC (yes, the Paleolithic Age!), the city as we know it today began to take shape in about 1000AD, where it flourished as a central slave market.  In the 14th century, King Charles IV ordered the Nove Mesto (New Town) be built on the opposite river bank from the Stare Mesto (Old Town), connected by the Karluv Most (Charles Bridge).  For many decades, Prague was the permanent seat of two Holy Roman Emperors and was, thus, also the capital of the Holy Roman Empire.  Skipping ahead a few hundred years…

Hitler ordered his army to enter Prague in March 1939, proclaimed the land a German protectorate. For most of its history, Prague had been a multiethnic city with important Czech, German and Jewish populations. From 1939, when the country was occupied by Nazi Germany, most Jews fled the city.  In 1942, one of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany, Reinhard Heydrich, was assassinated in the city’s center, which caused Hitler to order bloody reprisals. At the end of the war, Prague suffered several bombing raids by the Allies. Thousands were killed and hundreds of buildings, factories and historical landmarks were destroyed (although the damage was small compared to the total destruction of many other cities in that time).  However, the war was now over and the rebuilding could begin…

OK, onto the fun stuff!  We LOVED this city!  From a distance, Prague looks much like other cities- it’s huge, with buildings sprawling miles and miles across the land.

The city goes on for miles in all directions!

But the good part comes when you delve a little deeper…wandering through the narrow streets between the old buildings…trying to walk a straight path on the uneven cobblestones…taking in the wonderful smells of fresh baked breads and roasting pork knuckles (yes, the regional favorite 🙂 )…

Walking around, you just can’t help but feel like it could easily be hundreds of years earlier (alright, minus the cars…)  Speaking of eons ago, the city is home to one of the largest castles in all of Europe, the Prague Castle, set high above the city and the river.  Not only is it where the kings of Bohemia, the Holy Roman Emperors, the presidents of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic have had their offices, but it’s also where the Bohemian Crown Jewels are kept…

Climbing the hill to Prague Castle

There are actually lots of buildings and courtyards that make up the Castle- it’s like its own little city in there!  The most impressive buildings are the St. Vitus Cathedral, St. George’s Basilica and the Old Royal Palace.  The St. Vitus Cathedral (that’s the spires you see in the picture above) is actually Prague’s most recognizable landmark.  Built in 1344, this Roman Catholic Cathedral is one of the best examples of Gothic architecture (coincidentally, John’s and mine favorite style) in the world.  Words can’t describe…

Main entrance to the Cathedral...

Best overview I could get...the camera lens can only capture so much!

Walking in the Cathedral...

Far end of the Cathedral...Altar, pulpit...

Ceiling detail over the altar...

Incredible sculpture...SOLID SILVER. I wish there was something for size reference, but it's at least 20 feet tall...

One of my favorite pictures from the Cathedral...the stained glass here was breathtaking...

St. George’s Basilica is actually the oldest building within the castle (900AD) and one of the best preserved Romanesque architecture styles in the country.  Today, it’s used as a classical concert hall.

St. George's Basilica

Inside the Basilica

Finally, the Old Royal Palace was, up to the 16th century, the seat of the Bohemian Royalty.  It was mainly used for ‘business’ with meeting halls, courtrooms, gathering halls, etc.

Main Chamber in the Old Palace

Court Room

The horse steps into the court room...How funny is this? So the noblemen didn't have to actually walk themselves into work, they could ride right to their seats! Ha!

Ah, yes...the Crown Jewels...Every jewel (diamonds, rubies, emeralds...) you can imagine, set in solid gold. Yes, it looks as heavy as it sounds!

This reminded us of the Vatican Museum in Rome...Although it looks like it, this is all one solid surface, painted to LOOK 3D...WOW.

Street within the Castle...See? It's like its own little city!

Heading down from the Castle back into the city...

At the base of the Castle is ‘New Town,’ so we spent the rest of the morning exploring its little shops and cafes, making our way back to the river.  Decided to stop for lunch at a delicious ‘Pacific-inspired’ restaurant at the base of the famous Charles Bridge.  John had what he deemed ‘one of the best meals so far…’ and mine wasn’t too far behind, although mine was a bit on the small side considering I like large-and-in-charge salads 🙂

Lunch view of the Vltava River and Charles Bridge...

John's Negro Sesame Risotto with Squid

My Mango Salad with Chicken Satay (minus peanuts, of course!)

Next, it was on to Old Town by way of the Charles Bridge!  Built in 1357, the bridge is said to have had egg yolks mixed into the mortar to increase its strength.  Baroque statues of saints and kings were added in the 17th century.  Today, it’s a completely pedestrian zone and lined with artists and musicians.  A very lively place from early morning to late at night!

On the Bridge, looking back toward New Town...You can see the vendors along the sides...

Bridge statue of John of Nepomuk, who was thrown into the river (executed) in 1393. See the two shiny areas on the base? Rubbing those is said to bring good luck to all entering Old Town 🙂

Looking up river…The white building with red roof on the left (beneath the hot air balloon, which is wildly popular here, by the way!) is where we had lunch 🙂

Prague Castle in the distance...No wonder it's a landmark!

Leaving Charles Bridge into Old Town. There's a watch tower on each end. Funny note: see John in the blue shirt? He's such a doll- he offered to help carry my purse, so he bought a canvas sack to put the purse inside so he'd still look 'cool.' Awww... 🙂

Our next stop was the Josefov (Jewish Quarter) and afternoon tea (OK, we all know the translation for ‘tea’: beer for John, water for me 🙂 )  A little background about the Josefov, also called the Prague Ghetto…Its torrid history dates back to the 13th century, when the Jewish community in Prague were ordered to vacate their disparate homes and settle in one area.  Over the centuries, more and more people were crowded into the area, as Jews were banned from living anywhere else until the late 1800s.  Although it thrived during the 16th century, once the higher class Jews were permitted to move elsewhere, the Quarter became a place of poor people with horrible conditions.  As a result, most of the area was demolished at the turn of the century, leaving only six synagogues, the old cemetery, and the Old Jewish Town Hall.  An ironic- and disturbing- note…Originally, Hitler, when the country was occupied by Nazi Germany, had planned to complete the demolition of the old ghetto. However, he decided instead that the area should be preserved in order to provide a site for an “exotic museum of an extinct race,” which meant that the Nazis gathered Jewish artifacts from all over central Europe for display here.  Fortunately, his brilliant idea worked out great for everyone involved…except for him!  Currently, the Jewish Quarter is overbuilt with buildings from the beginning of the 20th century, so it is difficult to appreciate exactly what the old quarter was like when it was reputed to have over 18,000 inhabitants.

Jewish Quarter...good thing we had a map- it looks just like the rest of the city!

What better way to choose an afternoon tea spot than by the car parked out front?! She was gorgeous...not me, the car!! 🙂

Refueled and rehydrated, onward we trekked to Staromestska (Old Town Square), which was BY FAR our favorite part of town.  Dating back to the late 12th century, the Old Town Square began as the central marketplace for Prague. Over the next few centuries, many buildings of Romanesque, Baroque and Gothic styles were erected around the market, each bringing with them stories of wealthy merchants.  Lined today with sidewalk restaurants, cafes and pubs, the Square’s most notable sights are the St. Nicholas Church, the Astronomical Clock on Old Town Hall, and Tyn Church.

View of Old Town Square from our dinner table 🙂

And a quick one of us at said dinner on our first night in Prague 🙂

The Annual Summer Festival was going on in Old Town Square while we were here! Lots of artisans and lots of carnival food! For those of you Summervillians, think 'smaller Flowertown Festival without the YMCA!'

St. Nicholas is a Baroque church built in 1735 to resemble Parisian chapels.  Russian Orthodox until 1914, the church is now controlled by the Czech Hussites and is used as both a church and classical concert hall.

St. Nicholas Church

The crystal chandelier hanging in the church is in the shape of a Russian crown and weighs over 3000 lbs.

Across from the church is the famous Astronomical Clock, built in 15th century into the side of the Old Town Hall Tower.  Every hour, on the hour, a small trap door opens and Christ marches out ahead of his 12 Apostles, while the skeleton of death tolls the bell to a defiant statue of a Turk.  Above, at the top of the tower, a live person blows his horn and waves the flag for all to see.  Below are 12 medallions with the signs of the zodiac, added in 1865.

Town Hall with the Astronomical Clock (toward the bottom, facing the left). The horn blower comes out at the very top, just above the small clocks.

As close as we could get to the Clock. We do have fantastic video of the hourly festivities 🙂

On the opposite side of the Square is the Tyn Church, built in 1385.  Although it originally belonged to the Hussites, the ruling Roman Catholics took over the church, recasting the bell and replacing the Hussites symbolic chalice with a large figure of Mary nailed between the towers.  The two uneven spires (representing the masculine and the feminine- characteristic of Gothic architecture, although the interior is Baroque- neat, huh?) can be seen from all over Prague.  For us, this was the most beautiful building in the city, our ‘landmark.’

Tyn Church, peaking from behind the buildings of the Square...

From further away, so you can see Old Town Square with the center sculpture......

Up close and personal...making our way around to go inside...

Definitely not the Gothic architecture from the outside...

And while we’re on churches, we stumbled on another one off the beaten path, the St. James Church.  After doing some research later that night, we learned that it was built in 1232 as a Minorites monastery.  Like the Tyn Church, it has a Baroque-style interior.  A neat, albeit gruesome, tidbit…The most valuable work of art is the Baroque tombstone of the Supreme Bohemian Chancellor.  Well, the chancellor wasn’t really dead when he was buried there and he awoke in a coffin. People could hear him banging on the tombstone, but they thought it was ‘supernatural phenomenon’ and they just sprinkled the place with a holy water, never opening the crypt. Obviously, the Chancellor died eventually.  Decades later, another person was to be buried in the tomb and when the monks opened it, they found the chancellor’s coffin wrecked and his body lying aside, with a horror look in his eyes and stone fragments from the tombstone under his fingernails.  Now tell me that didn’t just give you chills!

St. Peter's Church

Inside St. Peter's...this one was just a little too ornate and gilded for us.

And now, I’ve saved the best for last!  Remember last week I told you about John planning a romantic rooftop evening in Prague? Well, folks, he did more than plan- he delivered!  It was so perfect…So, he had said we’d be dining on the roof, but he’d left out that we’d be dining ALONE on the roof!  That’s right, we take the elevator to the top floor, take the stairs up onto the red clay tiled roof, are greeted by the maitre’d and shown to our corner table overlooking the Charles Bridge and shadowed by the Prague Castle.  The sun was setting, sultry French music was playing…and not another soul in sight.  I looked at John and just smiled…then he said, ‘I hope it’s OK, I thought it would be kinda neat for it to just be the two of us up here for dinner.’  *Swoon*

View from our table...

Prague Castle in the distance...

Now, you know how some fancy restaurants survive on reputation and ambience?  Well…that was definitely NOT the case here!  We both had the best meals we’ve had so far.  Delicious is an understatement, seriously.  More like decadent and succulent and fabulous.

John's Crispy Duck over Purple Sauerkraut with Czech Bread Dumplings

My Roasted Herb Pork Tenderloin with Onion Relish over Dark Lentils

Yes, ladies, he's most definitely still taken!

So, the big question after dinner was ‘dessert or no dessert?’  Being big kids at heart, we decided to forego the fancy raspberry sorbets of the restaurant and work our way back to Old Town Square for some REAL sweets!  But first, we had to wander back over the Charles Bridge…

Moon over Prague from Charles Bridge

If you look closely, you can see 'Betsy' peaking over my shirt...She's always with me...

Now for that dessert!  We weighed our options…elephant ears, cinnamon bread knots, gelato…and decided on one of our alltime European favorites- CREPES!  We always get the same kind…Nutella and bananas for John, cinnamon and sugar for me 🙂

Here, they fold them differently than in France...Still tastes the same, so it's all good!

Finishing it off 🙂

Could there be any better place to indulge a sweet tooth?!

So there you have it!  Our splendid (finally warm and sunny, too!) weekend in Prague, Czech Republic!  John Google-mapped it and estimates that we walked about 8 miles on Saturday, our full day.  Jeez, no wander we were so tired by the time we made it ‘home’ Sunday night!  The pups had a blast, too.  Need proof?

Pooped!

Happy Monday!  Tschuss! 🙂

One Response to “Pozdravy z Prahy, Ceska!”

  1. Susan August 23, 2010 at 10:56 PM #

    Wonderful Adventures….. I wish I had the opportunity to live in Europe so that I could travel as you are!
    Thank you so much for sharing!

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