An American Couple in Delft
Home Up Initial Dispatch Letter from Holland Christmas in the Netherlands Thanksgiving Driving Initimate Experiences Intimate Experiences - followup Two Wheelers Big Night Out in Delft So This Was Christmas Word Play Space Domiciles Bringing a Car up to European Standards St. Who? Weekend in Maastricht Dutch Health Care The Sun, The Moon, and the Stars Queen's Day Liberation Day et al Power Cycling I Love It in the Springtime Independence Day Far Away We Moved! A Real Home Train Ride from Hell Berlin On the Road Again - Part 1 On the Road Again - Part 2 Striking It Rich Christmas Bazaars Istanbul Turkish Rug Dealers You Are Invited to Take Advantage of the Chambermaid Barcelona It's All Greek to Me Singapore Sydney Adelaide Perth Prague Copenhagen Getting What You Ask For European Dogs Ye'll Take the High Road and I'll Take the Low Road Normandy Roman Holiday London at 60 Tijuana Jail Tijuana Jail - Part 2 Winter of Our Hibernation Blizzard of 07 Milan Schiphol Men's Room Sweden Dordrecht Grand Tour Neuschwanstein Russian Consulate Stockholm Munich Dachau Moscow St Petersburg Switzerland Vienna The End


Springtime is beautiful here in Europe. The sun is bright and warm, the flowers are in bloom. It’s a great time to be here. Except for this year. This has been the coldest and rainiest spring in anyone’s memory. But no matter. We thought it would be a good time to take a long weekend in Prague. We had heard lots of great things about Prague: great food, a beautiful place, cheap prices. They’re all true; Prague has a lot of "Oh, wow!" moments. They even had a welcoming committee for us, sort of. After we got through immigration and cleared customs, we walked into the area where travelers are met by whoever’s meeting them and the first person we saw was a big guy wearing a T-shirt that said "Atlantic City, NJ."

Prague sits on both sides of the Vltava River, Staré Mesto to the east, Hradcany to the west. The river is pretty wide through Prague so the panoramic vistas are beautiful. On the west side of the river is the Prague Castle which sits high on a hill. It’s visible from almost everywhere. According to our tour book, it’s the largest ancient castle in the world, about 1870 feet long and averaging 420 feet wide. The book said it covers seven football fields. I don’t know if it really meant futbal fields or FOOTBALL fields. Whatever, it’s big. It started being built in the 9th century and has a whole lot of different architectural styles because each new ruler had his own tastes so it’s a real hodge-podge. Since that time, it’s been the official home of the Czech head of state although the Czech Republic’s first president, Václav Havel, chose to live in his own home. The castle has three courtyards, a toy museum (where they were featuring, of all things, Barbie dolls), a couple chapels and a large cathedral, the St. Vitus Cathedral.

There are many bridges that cross the Vltava River, one being the Charles Bridge (Karluv most) which is pedestrian only. The bridge is loaded with vendors selling arts and crafts and to my very uneducated eye, the stuff appeared to be of high quality in most cases; it wasn’t garden variety junk. Along the bridge there are about 30 different baroque statues lining both sides of its 1,600 foot length. A previous bridge on this site, the 12th century Judith Bridge, was washed away by floods in 1342, and in 1357 Charles IV commissioned the current one. (There was a serious flood there in August 2002 and we were told that tourist areas have fully recovered but some other places have not.) It took almost 40 years to build this thing but it didn’t take Charles’ name until the 19th century. The bridge withstood wheeled traffic for almost 600 years (according to the legend its endurance was because of eggs mixed in the mortar – make sense to me) and became pedestrian only after World War II. At the eastern end is the Old Town Bridge Tower (also here) said to be "the most beautiful gate of the Gothic Europe" and at the western end is the Mala Strana Bridge Tower.

Not far from the eastern side of the Charles Bridge is the Old Town Square (Staromestské Námesti). This is a large open area that looks substantially like it did 700 years ago. It’s dominated by the Astronomical Clock and Old Town Hall Tower. This clock strikes the hour and every hour there is a large crowd waiting for it to happen. A figure of Jesus marches out followed by the disciples in a grand procession. The crowd loves it. It was fun to see but I was underwhelmed. The clock itself, though, is pretty impressive to a clockophile like me. This thing was built in the 15th century and somehow it shows signs of the zodiac and phases of the moon and maybe even the next solar eclipse.

Just north of the Old Town Square is the Jewish Quarter, Josefov. This geographically very small area was the home to six synagogues. The oldest of these is the Old-New Synagogue. The odd name comes from the fact that when built in 1275 it was the "New Synagogue." As the years went by and there were other, newer ones, it sort of morphed into the Old-New Synagogue. Prague makes more of its Jewish area than any other European city we’ve encountered although the current Jewish population is only about 7,000. Josefov is prominently mentioned on maps, tours are offered and it’s a major tourist attraction. The story of the Jewish Quarter started around the 13th century when Jews were forced to move into a single area. For some time prior to that, they had been forced to wear yellow caps or Stars of David on their clothing. It seems that Hitler wasn’t original. In 1781, Emperor Joseph II of the Austrian Empire issued an edict giving the Jewish population civil rights and removed the requirement of caps and Stars of David. This Joseph is the namesake of Josefov. Part of the reason that area is preserved is a perverse piece of history. The Nazis apparently wanted to make the area an "Exotic Museum of an Extinct Race." It didn’t work. I’m still here.

Our hotel was on a street called Václavské Námesti. We learned that in English this means Wenceslas Square, the same guy as in Good King Wenceslas. According to our tour book, he was definitely good but not a king, merely a duke. There’s a large statue of him at the south end of the square. The square is actually a rectangle. It’s a very wide boulevard and about a half mile long until it abruptly ends at a pedestrian area. Along with zillions of shops selling crystal, china, and silver, nightclubs, casinos, and restaurants galore, the place is filled with history. In 1848 a giant Mass was held there during the revolutionary upheavals. The creation of the Czechoslovak Republic was celebrated there in 1918. In 1989, a week after the Berlin Wall came down, there was a police attack on a student. Thousands of people gathered there night after night for a week protesting the action. Finally, Alexander Dubcek and Václav Havel appeared on a balcony before an enormous crowd. They were greeted with a deafening ovation as they declared the end of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia.

There is some amount of modern architecture in Prague, too. On the river there is a building called Tancící dum, Dancing Building. It was designed in part by Frank Gehry, the American architect who designed the Walt Disney Concert Hall (and the one they'd rather you see) in Los Angeles and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. He lives in Santa Monica and I have some pictures of his house. There are more here. The building is on a gap site left by a stray American bomb. Older Czechs think this building has hit them with a second bomb. Sometimes referred to as "Fred and Ginger" they complain that the "Ginger" side looks like a crushed Coke can. However, two thirds of Praguers feel positively about the building so apparently it works.

We saw leaflets being handed out everywhere for a Gershwin concert at Obecni dum, the Municipal Hall, on our last night. The place is a grand concert hall like the Kimmel Center or the aforementioned Walt Disney Concert Hall, but this concert was in one of the smaller rooms. The musicians, five strings and a trumpet, were from the Prague Symphony. They played not only Gershwin but some Broadway favorites. We were homesick. Homesick and very happy. Two Americans left Prague the next morning on a very high note.

See all my pictures of Prague.

See videos from Prague


© 2008 Rick Wexler   last updated February 21, 2008