Jewels of Bohemia September 2016 part 2
We are to meet our friend Birgit at 2:30 at the entrance of the Old Jewish Cemetery. Milan was kind enough to help us select the cemetery as a meeting place prior to our journey to Europe. The restaurant where we ate lunch is just a block from the Old Jewish Cemetery so this is perfect.
Jennifer, Paul and I arrive on time but upon looking about we don’t see Birgit. We are debating on whether we should walk down to the actual entrance, which is across the street but below street level, when I hear Paul exclaim “here she is”! I turn around and see a smiling Birgit standing by Paul. After giving Birgit a hug, I introduce her to Jennifer and then ask Birgit if I am finally pronouncing her name right. Birgit, in her matter of fact way, tells me that I still am not saying her name correctly but assures me that she has become used to my mispronunciation of her name and that it’s okay! Ha, this is one of the things I like about my friend Birgit; she tells it like it is!
Paul, Birgit and I met when we were all part of a group in 2010 that traveled to Russia and joined Biosphere Expeditions, an organization studying the habitat for snow leopards in the Altai Mountains. Birgit and I discovered that we had a mutual love of cats, nature and that we simply enjoyed each other’s company. Since our meeting in Russia six years ago we have continued to stay in touch via email. When I told Birgit we were coming to Europe she made time in her busy schedule to travel from Austria so we could spend some time together. As I step back and take note of my petite friend I see she hasn’t changed at all and she sure hasn’t gained an ounce!
The four of us are going to Vysehrad the site of Prague’s first castle although the castle no longer exists. I had researched the web for places that most tourists don’t visit while in Prague and Vysehrad was always near the top of the list of recommended sites to see. We know that we will have to take the metro to Vysehrad but we don’t know where the nearest metro station is. As luck would have it, Milan and the rest of our group appear on the corner not far from where we are making our plans. I walk over and ask Milan where the closest station is and he says that we need to walk back to the restaurant and continue on for a couple blocks. I might add that this afternoon is scheduled as free time for our group but Milan has unselfishly volunteered to take anyone who wishes to go with him for further exploration of Prague. I believe the rest of our group took Milan up on his offer.
We wander around a bit but eventually find the metro station. Birgit, (because she speaks a little bit of Czech) approaches the woman in the ticket booth to buy our tickets. Birgit requests senior tickets for we Kansans but the ticket seller informs her that only Czechs are eligible for the discounted tickets. Oh well, the tickets don’t cost much anyway. Tickets in hand we walk over to get on the escalator and see two or three freestanding “posts”, each equipped with a shining green light, situated a few feet from the entrance to the escalator. People are just walking past these curious structures as they step on the escalator. Green means go right? We join the other metro riders and get on the escalator that takes us deep under the ground.
We find the metro red line that will deliver us to Vysehrad station and soon the underground train arrives. We pile into the nearest car and within minutes we have arrived at our destination. I am completely disoriented once we are above ground but my cohorts, using a map and common sense, decide we must go “this way” and sure enough we soon find a sign for Vysehrad prominently displayed. From here on all we do is follow the frequent green signs pointing toward Vysehrad and after a nice stroll we arrive at the ancient castle grounds.
We walk under the arch of the massive stone gate and are immediately struck by the sparse number of other humans. A few people can be seen scattered around but most are natives enjoying the peace and quiet of this attractive green space. How nice to be in this solitude after the crush of tourists and bustling activity of the city this morning.
One of the reasons I wanted to come here was to see the St. Martin Rotunda which we spot a short distance from the arched gate. This unique stone structure is touted as one of Prague’s oldest surviving buildings. There is a sign on the door giving the times that mass is held in this 11th century chapel but I can’t see how in the world many people could fit inside the fascinating rotunda. If I recall correctly this rotunda is only one of three original rotunda that have managed to survive wars, “progress”, or just the decay of time.
Another reason I wanted to come to Vysehrad is to see the cemetery which is located next to the Church of St. Peter and Paul. I read about the uniqueness of the cemetery at home where one writer described it as an open air art exhibit, where prominent Czech composers, artists, writers, scientists, etc. are buried. I found that description quite intriguing and thought the cemetery would be worth visiting.
Again we follow the signage directing us to the Church, although it isn’t long before we can just walk towards the obvious spires of the church. After using the restrooms, (where I ended up tipping the attendant the equivalent of two dollars because I didn’t pay attention to what the coin was worth), we walk back to the cemetery. Birgit and I wander through the interesting monuments while Jennifer and Paul sit down on a bench, one to rest a sore back, the other to rest a cranky knee.
Birgit and I visit as we wander the cemetery pathways often stopping to photograph or comment on the unique monuments of various graves. Naturally, I have no idea who the people or what their occupation was that lay beneath these interesting gravestones. Knowing that information probably would have helped understand the monuments that marked the graves. One of my favorites is a stone sculpture of a fallen Eagle lying on its back with an obvious broken wing, claws clenched and bill open in death. Some markers, like the one where three hands appear to be trying to turn a wheel, leave me completely bewildered.
When Birgit and I have toured most of the cemetery we rejoin Paul and Jennifer who have seen much of the cemetery too and we walk over to an adjacent park. We casually stroll through the park where stately trees tower over us while unseeing statues appear to be staring at us. There is a high point on the edge of the park protected by an iron rail fence and we climb the stairs to see what is up there. Ooh, what a beautiful view of the Vltava River. There are two people standing on what look like surf boards paddling down the placid river. There is a formidable wall below us that I assume was part of the ancient castle fortress walls.
We leave the pretty park and walk back toward the entrance gate but notice people walking up a hill near the Rotunda. The four of us decide to find out why people are climbing the hill. Wow, this was worth the climb as we have a wonderful overview of Prague and the river. We can even see Prague Castle far away in the distance. Looking down on people strolling along the Vltava River, I suggest we find our way down to the river’s edge and perhaps even walk back to our hotel following the river for much of the way. I think we three women are more enthused about this idea than Paul is!
As we try to find a different way out of Vysehrad that will deposit us next to the river, we watch in awe as Birgit runs down a steep hill to see if the arch gate in the fortress wall below us might be an exit. Birgit also runs back up the hill and informs us that the gate is locked. Holy Smokes, now I know why Birgit does so well in the orienteering races she participates in. I am feeling very old and out of shape after witnessing that!
We do find our way to the river and stroll along the water’s edge on the uneven cobblestone walkway. There are lots of people here, mostly locals with a majority of them appearing to be college age kids. It isn’t hard to figure out why this is a favorite place for young people as there are open air bars every few feet it seems. Some of the restaurants and bars are situated on old ships docked all along the river’s edge. There are also joggers, bicyclists, and people feeding the numerous ducks and swans that ply the river’s edge. The atmosphere is very laid back in this area.
The four of us meander along the calming river, taking time to sit down to allow Paul to rest his knee from time to time. At one point Paul has about had enough walking but Jennifer consults her handy-dandy gps on her phone and we find that we are only a half mile from our hotel. We decide to stop at the first suitable cafe once we are back in the city center to give us all a longer break from walking as my legs and hips are pretty sore too. Jennifer who carries a fitbit informs us that we walked around nine miles today!
Once we leave the river it doesn’t take long to find a cafe with outdoor seating. I don’t recall what we ordered for dinner but we did enjoy people watching while eating our meal. One thing we notice is that many of the local people have leg tattoos, lots and lots of people smoke, and we marvel at how many women manage to walk on the rough cobblestone in high heels! When we have finished eating our waiter is walking by and I call out “check please”. I know what I’ve said immediately and Paul bursts out laughing. Paul says he had this vision of the waiter returning with all of the staff in tow. We all laugh over the double meaning in this instance and the use of the word check becomes a running joke throughout our time in the Czech Republic. Oh well, maybe you had to be there.
Feeling refreshed, we continue towards the hotel. We pass by a storefront with a lit sign hanging over the door that says beer spa. There are advertising posters in the window and one pictures a handsome man soaking in a barrel of beer while holding a stein of beer in his hands. On other posters scantily clad women are shown serving beer to the beer spa customers. Which poster do you think I photographed? Someone, (Paul?) wonders if you just fill your empty beer glass from the vat you are soaking in:).
When we reach our hotel, Paul and Jennifer decide to go to their rooms. I walk with Birgit to the train station where she takes me inside to show me how huge it is. After “checking” out the modern train station we return to the street where we say goodnight. Birgit is staying at a hostel that is on past the train station in the opposite direction of our hotel. It is getting dark and I am a bit nervous about walking alone as there is a small park across from the train station where several inebriated people are sitting and standing around. There is a young man pulling his suitcase along the street and I do my best to stay close to him. I am definitely out of my comfort zone in this situation.
We are up at six, eating breakfast at seven, and sitting in class at eight! Yes, you read that right; we are having a lecture from a history professor this morning. The woman whose name I can’t recall talks to us for an hour and disseminates information over a long time span of Czech history. Unfortunately she has a soft voice and I have to strain to hear her part of the time and I am sitting right next to her. The professor also talks very fast and I’m afraid I and others had trouble keeping focused the full hour.
Milan gives us a ten minute break after class and then we meet in the lobby where Milan will take us via metro to the Charles Bridge. Paul, who for some reason after the fact read the directions on our metro tickets we bought yesterday, hands Milan his metro ticket that we never validated. Milan looks shocked and tells us we are so lucky not to have been stopped by a metro controller as we would have had to pay a fine. We then hear the horror story of another couple in this group who visited Vienna prior to coming to Prague. They had validated their tickets at one point but not at the next point if I remember right. The two were checked by the controllers and were ordered to pay a fine, on the spot, of 103 Euros each. They didn’t have that much money on them so the metro “cops” reduced the fine to 103 Euros for both of them. Are you kidding me! Wow, we really were fortunate that we weren’t caught with non-validated tickets.
Milan takes us to the upper end of Wenceslas square first where we look out over the statue of St. Wenceslas and the square. There is a cross laid out amidst the cobblestones where we are standing and Milan tells us the story of this icon. In 1969 a 21-year-old college student, whose name is Jan Palach, set fire to himself on this very spot to protest Soviet occupation. By committing this extreme act the young man hoped to inspire the Czech people to not give up hope of becoming a free country. As hard as the Soviets tried over the years to stamp out the memory of this young man,(who died three days after setting himself on fire), the Soviets failed to do so. Twenty years later the Velvet Revolution took place and Czechoslovakia was a free country.
Milan then takes us to the metro station where he shows us how to validate one of the tickets that he handed out to us in the lobby:). The escalator seems to be very fast and it is a little scary getting on and off of it. We pack into a car on the yellow line and after a couple of stops we get off and go deeper underground to catch the red line (I think) that will take us to a station close to Charles Bridge. Milan tells us to hang onto our validated tickets until we are above ground as the ticket checkers can be anywhere!
At the base of Charles Bridge, Milan goes to buy tickets for our river boat ride that we are taking this morning. Birgit isn’t here yet so I give Milan some Czech crowns so he can buy her ticket when he purchases the groups tickets, I don’t want Birgit to miss the boat! Birgit arrives shortly after this and explains that she stopped to watch the pageantry of the Astronomical Clock on her way here.
Our group climbs aboard the small, enclosed boat along with a family that includes three young children. Refreshments are passed out before we cast off and our captain welcomes us aboard. Between taped recordings, (first in English for us then repeated in German for the family), with some input by our Captain, the history of Charles Bridge and of the buildings we float by is narrated to us. Our Captain also has photos of some major events, including the blowing up of the enormous Stalin shrine that sat high on a hill above the river, once the Soviets were expelled. He also shows photos of the devastating flood of 2002 that affected much of Central Europe. I found the boat tour a pleasant experience plus we received a different perspective of the bridge as we sailed under it and of the city of Prague as we look up at it from the river.
Once we dock, Milan and three members of our group leave for Nizbor to take the optional tour of the Ruckl Crystal Factory, (optional means it will cost you 120 bucks to partake in the tour). The rest of us strike out on our own to visit more of Prague. Our quartet walks across Charles Bridge to Lesser Town as we want to explore this area a bit more. We take some photos of each other on the bridge and then search for a place to have lunch. We get off the main street in hopes of finding some cheaper eating places but don’t have much luck. We end up back in the busy part of town and sit down at an outside table in front of a small café.
There are menus on the table but they don’t include prices so Paul asks to see a priced menu. Well, it is a little high but not bad for being in the midst of a tourist area. Hmm, what did we eat? I don’t remember but I do recall Paul looking at the bill and seeing an eight dollar charge that he can’t figure out. When he asks the waiter what the charge is for the young man informs Paul that it is a cover charge. Oh get out; no wonder this place isn’t very busy. We made a mistake of not writing down or taking a photo of the name of this cafe because Paul surely would have written a review on Trip Advisor warning other Prague visitors to steer clear of the cafe. Live and learn I guess.
After lunch we are looking for Wallenstein Gardens, another place the website author recommended to visit for a quiet refuge. We find the small side door cut into the imposing white washed wall and walk in. Once inside the walled garden the noise level decreases substantially. There is a maze of manicured, hedge-lined paths, so we choose one path that leads us to a palatial building which is the home of the Czech Senate. Another path takes us alongside an enormous fish pond where colorful fish are swimming and an impressive fountain sets in the middle of the pond. A moorhen and her two chicks are hiding among the tall reeds that grow in clumps here and there.
There is also a refuge for owls on the grounds that I want to see but when we ask a young woman in the museum where the owls are located she has no idea what we are talking about. Our foursome leaves the museum building and walk along the perimeter of the spacious grounds in hopes of stumbling upon the owl refuge. We come upon a bizarre manmade wall that looks like dried mud stalactites. There are faces and creatures hidden in this strange wall and we have fun searching for and finding several of them. At the end of the stalactite wall is an enormous wire cage with a half-dozen owls perched high in their enclosure. They remind me of our barred owls at home but are much larger. After admiring another part of the gardens filled with statues depicting Greek mythological scenes we leave this beautiful place.
We use an exit on the opposite side of where we came in and see an intriguing street that we decide to explore. The street climbs steadily up and we find ourselves in the midst of buildings for foreign ambassadors and government workers. This is a very upscale neighborhood and even the massive doors are impressive and imposing.
It is time for Birgit to return to the train station to catch the train that will take her back to Austria. We walk to the metro station that is next to Wallenstein Gardens and say our goodbyes to our Austrian friend. Birgit invites us to come to Austria sometime where she would like to show us some of Austria’s’ National Parks. We tell her perhaps we will come and that she should visit Kansas someday too! So much to do and so little time. Being able to spend time with our friend gave special meaning to our trip to Central Europe. Thanks for putting out the effort to come see us Birgit.
Jennifer, Paul and I debate what we should do now and for a time we just sit and rest outside the metro station. We talk about going to the beer museum which a colleague of Jennifer’s suggested was worth the visit but it is in the opposite direction of our hotel, and by now it is late afternoon. Instead, after punching our tickets, we take the metro back to New Town, take a seat outside at a cafe, order a beer (Bernard beer which we all agree is better than Pilsner), and watch the parade of people go by which includes a group of Hari Krishna’s playing homemade instruments.
On our way back to the hotel we find a restaurant close by our hotel so Jennifer checks the reviews about it using her phone and finds that it has very good reviews. When we get to the hotel Jennifer wonders if we should make reservations for the restaurant. Since non-smoking areas are limited we decide this is probably a good idea. Jennifer has taken a photo of the restaurant’s name and shows it to the woman at the front desk who is happy to call and reserve a table for us.
The restaurant is very nice and our waiter is delightful. Jennifer orders the deer steak which is one of their specialties, Paul orders smazak (fried cheese) which is a Czech favorite, and I opt for a vegetable/mushroom dish. The food is quite tasty and we all share some of our meal with one another.
After eating we decide to walk over to Wenceslas square and Jennifer takes the lead. Jennifer turns on a random street to cross over to the square and we find ourselves walking down an “adult” themed street. The explicit names and steamy photos on the various buildings don’t leave any doubt what is being advertised!
Ugh, we reach the square and there are just too many people here for us. We walk back to the hotel and decide to have a cup of tea on the restaurants small terrace. We about choke when we pay the bill as we each just consumed a cup of four-dollar tea! A small beer costs a bit more than a dollar! Beer please :).
Next installment-Leaving Prague and traveling to Cesky Krumlov