The One with Prague, Czech Republic

Thursday, October 17, 2013

After Karlštejn Castle we went on our way to our final destination: PRAGUE!
Fair warning, there are 123 pictures/collages in this post! Feel free to skim on through, these posts are mostly for me and my posterity :)

Where do I even begin? Prague is the BIGGEST chapter in our Rick Steves' "Eastern Europe" travel book. So much to see, so much to do. When I was in college I went on a Study Abroad to London for four months in the summer of 2005 and we took trips to Berlin and Paris and Madrid and Prague and I remember Prague being my favorite city of them all. Nothing can compare to it's over-the-top romance and evocative Old World charm.

We took a wrong turn, our GPS is hard to follow sometimes, and got stuck in major traffic. Felt like we were back in good ol' LA!
Something I recognize in English - Michael Bublé posters!
Prague (whose name means "threshold" in Czech) has always been a natural entry point to Eastern Europe. With its privileged positions on a major river in the very center of bowl-shaped Bohemia (one of the three regions of the Czech Republic), Prague has long been the beating heart and soul of the Czech people. From the Czechs' humble beginnings under a duke named Wenceslas (yup, from the Christmas song!), to the flourishing of culture under Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, to the devastating Catholics-versus-Protestants warfare of the 17th century, Prague has seen more than its share of history rumble through its cobbled streets. In the 19th century, back when most of its residents were elite German-speakers proud to be subjects of the Habsburg monarchs, Prague was a low-rent mini-Vienna (and played host to the likes of Mozart). But by the century's end, the city had become a hotbed for the Czech national revival, as people across Eastern Europe looked to Prague as the region's cultural capital and standard-bearer for shunning imposed Germanic ways and embracing their own deep Slovic roots.

While the 20th century (and its four decades of communism) was hard on Prague, at least the city escaped the bombs of the world wars, making it uniquely well-preserved among Central European capitals. Now that the shroud of communism has lifted and the facades have been dutifully scrubbed, visitors can fully enjoy the streets and lanes of today's Prague - a veritable textbook of architectural styles. In addition to its glorious buildings, Prague intoxicates visitors with its almost mystically beautiful cityscape and a host of other things that don't really apply to us (like beer and wine). 
My Warner grandparents have traveled their entire lives - so it's in my blood to love to travel! I love getting emails from my Grandma Doris and this one was no exception. It was all about her experience in Prague back when it was scary:

We first went to Prague with a big tour group about 23 years ago. Your mom and Wendy Gardner were in the group. The country was still held (by the throat) by the communists and it was the most depressing place we had seen. Most houses were dark (electricity was too expensive). We could see some shuttered homes with lights visible behind the shutters. We had been held up at the border by Russian border police while they searched everything on the bus, so it was very late when we arrived at the only really nice old hotel in the city. An orchestra dressed in formal wear, tails no less, started playing American music. They, and our dinner, had been waiting several hours.

I will always remember our guide, Maria, who was too poor to take a bus and walked about 2 hours each way to work. She arrived to see that most of us had not eaten any of our meat for breakfast. She asked why, and when I said we were unfamiliar with it and asked what it was she said, "I think donkey". I asked if I could collect it and let her take it home. She said she would lose her job. She came over later and said if I would collect it in a napkin she would stand at the bus entrance and as I came by she would open her bag and I would drop it in. It was a couple of pounds at least. She was lecturing and didn't look at me nor miss a word.

She told me so many sad stories like the government had dissolved all church activities and told the nuns and priests to go out and get jobs. She took us to a wonderful show of native dancers one night. If you get a chance to go in the hotel that was the main or nicest one 20 years ago, please ask about Maria. Maybe call her, if she is still alive. I think she was younger than me.

Ted and I went to Wenceslas Square or the main square to sit at a table and have a coke. There was one young couple there and we spoke with them. They were on their honeymoon. Otherwise the huge square was empty. Ted and I went back after they threw out the commies and the square was jumping with bands and merrymakers. We were doing the U-rail and didn't have time to look up Maria.

Well, enjoy! Take a boat under the Charles Bridge and think of your old grandparents who are too old to travel anymore.

We stayed at a Marriott hotel. It was much too nice and we definitely paid the price. Live'n'learn. We unpacked our things but it was pouring rain so we sent Chris out to get some dinner - he came back with McDonald's. I'm lovin' it.
The kids played around and discovered every nook and cranny, then it was bathtime and bedtime!
The next morning at 6am sharp we went up two floors and enjoyed a continental breakfast.
Then we hit the ground running - it was only 7am so the town was empty! Our hotel was smack dab in the center of town which made getting places nice and convenient.

Until about 1800 Prague was actually four distinct towns with four town squares, all separated by fortified walls. Each town had a unique character which came from the personality of the people who initially settled it. Today, much of Prague's charm survives in the distinct spirit of each of its towns. There's Castle Quarter, Little Quarter, Old Town, and New Town. 
There is graffiti everywhere! And I mean everywhere! Why people, why?
Just around the corner from our hotel is the Municipal House.

The Municipal House celebrated its centennial birthday in 2011 and it's the "pearl of Czech Art Nouveau." On the front is a mosaic of the Homage to Prague featuring a goddess-like Praha presiding over a land of peace and high culture. The building (1905-1911) is Neo-Baroque with a dusting of Art Nouveau. The cultural and artistic leaders who financed it wanted a ceremonial palace to reinforce self-awareness of the Czech nation. Built under Catholic Habsburg rule, it was drenched in patriotic Czech themes to emphasize how the Protestant Czechs were a distinct culture. In 1918, Czechoslovakia's independence was declared from the building's balcony - pretty cool!

Across the street from the Municipal House is the Divaldo Hybernia Palace/Theater. In the 14th century it was an Ambrosian monastery. After the Thirty Years' War (1618 - 1648) Ferdinand II allowed the Irish Franciscans to establish a college on the site of the desolate monastery. Since this time, the house has been called U Hybernů. Next door to the Municipal House is the Powder Tower. 
The big, black, Powder Tower was the Gothic gate of the town wall, built to house the city's gunpowder. Quite a structure for something as simple as gun powder! The decoration on the tower is the best 15th-century sculpture in town. This is the only surviving bit of wall that was built to defend the city in the 1400s. When Empress Maria Theresa was crowned the Queen of Bohemia here, she came down this road and through this gate.

I found this gem of a picture our Study Abroad group in this exact same spot, 8 years ago. I'm in second row, second from the left, in the light blue jacket.
Continuing on our walk we passed a Museum of Torture and a wax museum with Harry Potter out front - how enticing! But nothing beats a Madame Tussaud's :)
Old Town Square! We quickly passed through - we wanted to get to Charles Bridge before it got crowded, so more about Old Town Square later on.
These streets are so enchanting.
If we were kidless we'd sit down and have a nice dinner here! But Fox and Jane need food fast and needs to be easy and not complicated. Maybe in a few more years!
Cobblestone road | Swans on the Vltava River | Pretty yellow flowers | Fancy church gates
I think it's a hotel. In any case, I just like the way it looks.
Doorknob | Alleyway
PRAGUE! Wowie wowzers wow. This is the famous Charles Bridge and Prague Castle in the background.
Among Prague's defining landmarks, this much-loved bridge offers one of the most pleasant and entertaining 500-yard strolls in Europe. 
In the 17th century there were no statues on this bridge - only a cross, which is still part of the third sculpture on the right. 
Bridges had previously been built at this location but all were washed away by floods. After a major flood in 1342, Emperor Charles IV decided against repairing the old bridge and instead commissioned an entirely new structure. Initially called the Stone Bridge, it was Prague's only bridge across the Vltava River for more than 400 years. 
Me on Charles Bridge in 2005.
Me and my husband and two kids on Charles Bridge in 2013. If you had told me back in 2005 that I'd be back 8 years later with a hubby and two kids in tow, I would have laughed! Life is funny.

Handsome Fox. He was enjoying himself, despite his troubled look.

Chris sporting his BYU shirt. I think he's trying to see how many different places he can get a picture like this.
We walked to the other end of Charles Bridge and then turned around.
The view to the right of the bridge on the mainland is breathtaking.

Had to get a shot of just the two of us!
I guess it's like a "thing" to put locks on gates and fences.
Charles Bridge. Don't worry. We came back. Two more times :)
So then we backtracked and headed to Old Town Square. The focal point for most visits, Prague's Old Town Square is one of the city's top sights. This has been a market square since the 11th century. It became the nucleus of the Old Town in the 13th century, when its Town Hall was built. Today, the old-time market stalls have been replaced by outdoor cafes and touristy horse buggies. But under this shallow surface, the square hides a magic power to evoke the history that has passed through here.

The square's centerpiece is a memorial to Jan Hus.

He lived and preached a century before Martin Luther. Both were college professors as well as priests. Both drew huge public crowds as they preached in their university chapels. Both condemned Church corruption and promoted a local religious autonomy. Both helped establish their national languages. Hus gave the Czech alphabet its unique accent marks so that the letters could fit the sounds. And both got in big trouble. Hus was burned at the stake as a heretic. This monument, erected in 1915 (500 years after the Czech reformer's martyrdom by fire) symbolized the long struggle for Czech freedom. Hus looks proudly at the Týn Church (seen and described later on) which became the headquarters and leading church of his followers.

One of the more prominent buildings in the Old Town Square is the Astronomical Clock. You wouldn't believe the crowds that gather to witness the striking of the hour on the Town Hall clock.

Walking Jane around waiting for the clock to strike 9am. Side note: Jane, you can start walking on your own now! You're almost 15 months old! Okay, moving on.
With revolving discs, celestial symbols, and sweeping hands, this clock keeps several versions of the time. I won't go into the details because it's all too complicated - it's just fun to look at! The clock was heavily damaged during WWI and much of what you see today is a reconstruction. At the top of the hour (don't blink - the show is pretty quick!) Death tips his hourglass and pulls the cord, ringing the bell; the windows open and the 12 apostles parade by, acknowledging the gang of onlookers; the rooster crows; and, finally, the hour is rung. The hour is often off because of Daylight Savings Time - completely senseless to 15th century clockmakers, hardy har.

After seeing the show (Fox loved the skeleton) we headed up into the Clock Tower and took the ultra modern elevator up to the tippy-top.

Oh me oh my the views the views the views!
Church of St. Nicholas (well, one of the two in this city) | Jan Hus Memorial | Rooftop dining that I'd give anything to eat at!

Looking out towards the castle.
Týn Church
I never wanted to come back down! But we had to. Then we headed to Týn Church. 
Though this church has a long history, it's most notable for its 200-year stint as the leading church of the Hussite movement. It was Catholic before the Hussites, and was returned to Catholicism after the Hussites were defeated. As if to insult the Hussite doctrine of simplicity, the church's once elegant and pure Gothic columns are now encrusted with noisy Baroque altars.

Pictures weren't allowed inside, boo, but here are some from the interwebs.
 The church interior is uncharacteristically bright for a Gothic building because of its clear Baroque windowpanes and whitewash.
Behind the Týn Church is perhaps the most beautiful church in the Old Town, the Church of St. James.
The Minorite Order has occupied this church and the adjacent monastery almost as long as merchants have occupied Ungelt. Artistically, St. James is a stunning example of how simple Gothic spaces could be transformed into sumptuous feasts of Baroque decoration.

The blue light in the altar highlights one of Prague's most venerated treasures - the bejeweled Madonna Pietatis
Lovely and over-the-top details.
No big deal, it's just a black shriveled-up arm with clenched fingers, dangling 15 feet above and to the left of the door.

According to legend, a thief attempted to steal the Madonna Pietatis from the altar, but his hand was frozen the moment he touched the statue. The monks had to cut off his arm to get the hand to let go. The desiccated arm now hangs here as a warning.

Then we walked back across Old Town Square to the Church of St. Nicholas.

Originally Catholic, now Hussite, this church is a popular venue for concerts. The ginormous crystal chandelier inside is particularly amazing.

How fun would it be to take a horse-drawn carriage all around town?
We stopped for a sweet snack from one of the market vendors. It was as good as it looks!
We walked back to the hotel to rest up a bit and then headed out to lunch. We're classy and went straight to McDonald's, again. I love that they're everywhere :)
Then it was time to figure out the metro and venture out further into the city!

Fox got a balloon during lunch from one of the McDonald's employees and that thing kept him entertained and happy for hours!
The metro.

We were trying to get up to the castle, but the metro stop we wanted to get off at was closed and then we couldn't find where the #22 bus would pick us up, so we said forget it, we'll try tomorrow, and decided to walk to Wenceslas Square. On the way we stopped to marvel at the Dancing House.
If ever a building could get your toes tapping, it would be this one, nicknamed "Fred and Ginger" by American architecture buffs. This metallic samba is the work of Frank Gehry (who designed the equally striking Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao Spain and Seattle's Experience Music Project). Eight-legged Ginger's wispy dress and Fred's metal mesh head are easy to spot.

Cool architecture and buildings.

Looking across to the other side of Prague and admiring the red ivy-covered island wall.
There were six women dressed in peach gowns dancing super slowly to weird music. It was so strange. I should have taken a video.
Continuing on, we saw the National Theater.
The National Theater opened in 1883 with Smetana's opera Libuše, this theater was the first truly Czech venue in Prague. From the very start, it was nicknamed "Cradle of the Czech Culture." The building is a key symbol of the Czech national revival that began in the late 18th century. In 1800 "Prag" was predominantly German. The Industrial Revolution brought Czechs from the countryside into the city, their new urban identity defined by patriotic teachers and priests. By 1883, most of the city spoke Czech and the opening of this theater represented the birth of the modern Czech nation. It remains an important national icon: the state annually pours more subsidies into this theater than into all of Czech film production. It's the most beautiful venue in town for opera and ballet, often with world-class singers.

Next door to the National Theater is the Nová Scéna. This boxy, glassy facade is the "New National Theater" building, dating from 1983 (the 100th anniversary of the original National Theater building next door) and reflects the bold and stark communist aesthetic.
We walked out on to a bridge to get this shot and see Charles Bridge in the distance.
Slovanský Ostrov island - covered with chestnut trees, this island boats Prague's best beach and you can also rent a boat. Much too cold for either activity while we were there :)
Textured, crumbling, tiled streets.
Painted walls.
So many cool buildings, I can barely stand it!

At long last we made it to Wenceslas Square.
More a broad boulevard than a square, this city landmark is named for King Wenceslas. It functions as a stage for modern Czech history: The creation of the Czechoslovak state was celebrated here in 1918; in 1968 the Soviets suppressed huge popular demonstrations at the square; and in 1989 more than 300,000 Czechs and Slovaks converged here to claim their freedom.

Wenceslas is the "good king" of Christmas-carol fame!

He was the wise and benevolent 10th century Duke of Bohemia. A rare example of a well-educated and literate ruler, King Wenceslas I was credited by his people for Christianizing his nation and lifting the culture. He astutely allied the Czechs with Saxony, rather than Bavaria, giving the Czechs a vote when the Holy Roman Emperor was selected. After his murder in 929, Wenceslas was canonized as a saint. He became a symbol of Czech nationalism and statehood and remains an icon of Czech unity whenever the nation has to rally. Legend has it that when the Czechs face their darkest hour, Wenceslas will come riding out of Blaník Mountain (east of Prague) with an army of knights to rescue the nation. In 1620, when Austria stripped the Czechs of their independence, many people went to Blaník Mountain to see whether it had opened up. They've done the same at other critical points in their history (in 1938, 1948, and 1968), but Wenceslas never emerged. Although the Czech Republic is now safely part of NATO and the European Union, Czechs remain realistic: If Wenceslas hasn't come out yet, the worst times must still lie ahead...

At the top of Wenceslas Square is the National Museum.
Inside you can find Czech fossils and animals and the interior is richly decorated in the Czech Revival Neo-Renaissance style that heralded the 19th century rebirth of the Czech nation. The light colored patches in the museum's columns fill holes where Soviet bullets hit during the crackdown against the 1968 Prague Spring uprising. Masons - defying their communist bosses who wanted the damage to be forgotten - showed their Czech spirit by intentionally mismatching their patches.

Across the street from the National Museum is the Communist-Era Building. 
This structure housed the Czechoslovak Parliament back when it voted with Moscow. A Socialist Realist statue showing triumphant workers still stands at its base. Between 1994 and 2008, this building was home to Radio Free Europe. After communism fell, RFE lost some of its funding and could no longer afford its Munich headquarters. In gratitude for its broadcasts - which had kept the people of Eastern Europe in touch with real news - the Czech government offered this building to RFE for 1 Kč a year. But the RFE energetically beamed its American message deep into the Muslim world from here, it drew attention - and threats - from Al-Qaeda. So in 2009, RFE moved to a new fortress-like headquarters at an easier-to-defend locale further from the center. Today, this building is run by the National Museum and hosts special exhibits. The real draw here is to see and get the feel of a typical fancy government building from the days of Brezhnev.

A few buildings down from the Communist-Era Building the Prague Opera House.
Then it started raining, even though the weather said it wasn't supposed to. And we were tired so we hopped on the metro and headed back to the hotel for a spell.
Rush hour traffic.
For dinner we went across the street to an actual American-type mall and ordered pizza. Then we wanted to go and see the Jewish Quarter. Along the way we walked down Pařížská Street which is like unto the Champs-Élysées in Paris - which is why it's called Paris Street! Filled with fancy shops that are ultra expensive and high-end.
A VW Beetle Batmobile? Wicked.

More interesting Art-Nouveau buildings along the way.

Prague's Jewish Quarter neighborhood and its well-preserved museum tell the story of this region's Jews. As the Nazis decimated Jewish communities in the region, Prague's Jews were allowed to collect and archive their treasures here. Although the archivists were ultimately killed in concentration camps, their work survives. Seven sights scattered over a three-block area make up the Jewish Quarter.

The Maisel Synagogue was built as a private place of worship for the Maisel family during the 16th century Golden Age of Prague's Jews.

Maisel, the wealthy financier of the Habsburg king, lavished his riches on the synagogue's Neo-Gothic interior. In WWII it served as a warehouse for the accumulated treasures of decimated Jewish communities, a collection that Hitler planned to use for his Jewish museum. Since it was Saturday, everything was closed. But it was still an enjoyable experience just to see the buildings.

Old-New Synagogue. This is the New part.
For more than 700 years the Old-New Synagogue has been the most important synagogue and the central building in Josefov. Standing like a bomb-hardened bunker, it feels as though it has survived plenty of hard times. The Klaus Synagogue (bottom right picture) is from the 17th century.

It started raining again and we saw all that we could see with everything being closed so we walked back down Pařížská Street.

Back to the Old Town Square. Much more alive at night than in the wee hours of the morning!
People enjoying their dinner. 
Fox and Jane fell asleep in the stroller so we decided to walk to Charles Bridge. Again, it's like it had come to life with tourists and merchants! 
The fog and clouds gave everything a mystical glow.
Back to the hotel and in for the night! What a day! We must have walked 10 miles!

Sunday morning we were up and at 'em again at 6am.

This time we correctly figured out the metro and the bus to get to Castle Quarter.
I don't recognize a single thing in this vending machine!
Waiting for the bus and admiring the city.
Riding the bus. Fox loved getting to ride all these different kinds of modes of transportation!
Up in Castle Quarter there is a lot of greenery.
Fall colors. Swoon.
Looming above Prague and dominating its skyline is the Castle Quarter. Prague Castle and its surrounding sights are packed with Czech history.

For more than a thousand years Czech leaders have ruled from Prague Castle. Today, Prague's Castle is, by some measures, the biggest on earth. It wasn't open until 10am and we had to be out of the hotel by 11am, so we've vowed to come back and tour the castle.
Here is St. Vitus Cathedral - the building you think of when you think of Prague because of how it dominates the city skyline.

The Roman Catholic cathedral symbolizes the Czech spirit - it contains the tombs and relics of the most important local saints and kings including the first three Habsburg kings. Started in 1344, construction was stalled by wars and plagues. But, fueled by the 19th-century rise of Czech nationalism, Prague's top church was finished in 1929 for the 1000th anniversary of the death of St. Wenceslas. While it looks all Gothic, it's actually two distinct halves: the original 14th-century Gothic area around the high altar and the modern Neo-Gothic nave. For 400 years a temporary wall sealed off the functional, yet unfinished, cathedral.
Continuing on past the cathedral to see views of Prague.
All is well when Fox has a sucker!

Rather than take the bus back to where we started we decided to walk down Nerudova Street and weave our way through the city. 
This steep, cobbled street leading from the castle to Little Quarter Square is named for Jan Neruda, a gifted 19th-century journalist. It's lined with old buildings still sporting the characteristic doorway signs (the lion, three violinsists, house of the golden suns) that once served as street addresses. The surviving signs are carefully protected by law. They represent the family name, the occupation, or the various passions of the people who inhabited the houses. In 1777, in order to collect taxes more effectively, Habsburg empress Maria Theresa decreed that numbers be used instead of these quaint house names. 
Such a pretty collection of fallen leaves! There were two workers sweeping them all up, I wish they would leave them be!
Loving all the green.
The neighborhood along Nerudova Street is filled with old noble palaces now generally used as foreign embassies and offices of the Czech Parliament.

Cool archway | I have no idea. A man talking to a deer?

We weren't planning to see anything else but when we spotted this in the distance we had to figure out what it is!
It's the Church of St. Nicholas - the second one that is.
When the Jesuits came to Prague they found the perfect piece of real estate for their church right on Little Quarter Square. The church (built 1703-1760) is the best example of High Baroque in town. It's giddy with curves and illusions.

Inside was as gaudy and decorated as all get-out!
We were pretty close to Charles Bridge at this point so we just decided to walk back to the hotel.

Goodbye Prague! I'm sure we'll see you again since you're so close by!
Tomorrow I'll post the last stop of our super fun trip to Prague - the Sedlec Bone Church. Trust me, these are some pics you won't want to miss! (Unless you don't like creepy/scary things... but 'tis the season!)


  1. Fabulous photos!! LOVING the email from your grandma! And I had an Aussie friend just recently visit there too and showed a pic of the Fred & Ginger building too! :)

  2. Wowza! That was a mega post! Thanks for doing such a great job documenting all our adventures!

  3. Aw, how amazing! I really wanted to go to Prague while we were there. Oh well, someday! I love all the beautiful Fall leaves! Making me miss the changing of season since no such thing exists here in FL :/

  4. Jeez Louise, Paige! What an awesome adventure! I remember going to Prague with my parents many years ago. It was very depressing, just as Grandma described. I'm so glad that it's different now. Great post!

  5. I am really loving these posts! But I have to admit, I am so sad you are not enjoying the local foods! I know how hard it is to get toddlers to try new things but you never know what they will like! Food is such an important part of culture!

  6. that was one of the coolest posts ever!!! LOVED all the photos and you are soooo lucky to see sooo many amazing places!!!

  7. Fascinating, awesome to see all of this! Thanks for documenting and sharing!

  8. Holy Cow!! I kept thinking it couldn't get any better...and then I'd scroll down to the next picture. Such an incredible place, and I love all your descriptions! What amazing memories!

  9. Absolutely stunning!! Love the photo of you from your abroad study and the one of the family on the bridge!! And I must say, the dangling hand...pretty freaky!! :)

  10. Thank you so much for sharing your European adventures. I love your pics and explanations.

  11. Paige - just had to comment on your posts on your trips around Europe. Just loving them, your thoughts, the history details, and the photos. Thanks for taking the time to share.

  12. Thoroughly enjoyed seeing Prague through your photos...the stunning architecture, and all the little the shriveled hand and vending machine with unfamiliar foods.

  13. I loved seeing your pictures with the history. When I went to Praugue - I should have studied up. The history is awesome.

  14. Gorgeous photos!! Loved the jewish quarter pics!

  15. Researching for a trip to Prague. This was really a great read with beautiful photos. Thankyou


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