Thursday, November 19, 2015

That Girl and Her Sister in Prague

That Girl and Her Sister
Blogs From Across the Pond

The most charming thing about Prague is the Astronomical Clock located in Old Town Square. We arrive about twenty minutes to five and find a place amid the crowd that has also gathered to watch the top of the hour event.

After Berlin, Prague is a bit of a shock. A new country, a new language, a new metro system, a new currency. I fold the bills and drop the coins in my wallet and check the currency exchange application I’ve downloaded to my phone. The exchange rate is 24 Czech Korunas to one US dollar. A cup of coffee costs 40 or 50 crowns, lunches and dinners total several hundreds of crowns. As I count out the money, I feel both extravagant and profligate.

Prague is cleaner than Berlin. There is significantly less graffiti, and the cityscape set up next to the river does indeed showcase Prague’s many spires. The people here are more open, willing to look you in the eye. Although Prague is very much a tourist location, every eye to eye encounter does not signify an asking for money as is so often the case in Berlin, Lima, Madrid, Rome. In that sense, Prague feels much friendlier.

My muscles ache from our two day strenuous walking tour of the city and I sit down with my back to a pillar.
Jesse sits beside me.

Yesterday, we ascend a bell tower and see Prague with all its beautiful spires laid out before us like a precious toy city. Then we climb up Petřín Hill to visit the Lookout Tower, a 60 meter tal iron tower, which (according to the Map of Prague and City Guide that we found in our apartment) was erected as part of the General Land Centennial Exhibition of 1891 as a smaller copy of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. An online review of the Tower said something like: You may not think that 60 meters is very impressive, very significant, but you will change your opinion when you reach the top.

The tower, which rises up about six stories tall (a measurement I understand more easily than meters), is impressive especially from its location at the top of the Hill which rises to an impressive 1043 feet of its own. Our opinion is definitely changed as we go up the 299 steps and see even more of the city than from the bell
tower we had only just been up. The structure seems to shake, to shiver with the activity of people going up and down the stairs, or with the pushing of the wind, it is hard to tell. I have my view at the top with one hand on the railing, and then we both descend with the rapid intent of getting out of the thick of the crowds.

Prague is definitely a tourist location.

While we are there on the Hill, we also visit the Mirror Maze.

Before we had left the States, I’d read out loud to Jesse that the Mirror Maze is “a place that makes hundreds of Praguers laugh every day!” And we'd been charmed by that. From the comfort of our basement apartment here in Prague, we read more reviews online to refresh our limited knowledge. One visitor exclaimed that it was the, “worst mirror maze ever!!!!!!!” which makes us all the more intent on visiting it ourselves. There, at the Maze, we laugh and are completely charmed. But then again, we don't have that many mirror mazes in our lives to judge this one by, so who are we to say if it's the best or the worst?

Once we leave Petřín Hill, we make our way over to Prague Castle. It's a city within the city; massive, impressive, huge. We visit the Royal Gardens and then go back to Prague Castle to purchase tickets for a classical ensemble concert being performed that night which Jesse had seen and said, "I think we should do it."

The ladies selling the tickets wait patiently as I dig around to try and find the right amount to pay. I’m trying to calculate exchange rates at the same time as I am adding together the cost of the two tickets. I fail dismally at the mathematics and hand over one thousand too many korunas. The lady who takes it from me hands it quickly back and says, “You must be careful, very very careful.” I tell her thank you. And thank you again. Then sheepishly put the 1000 CZK bill back in my wallet. I’m too walk-tired to be properly embarrassed. But I am grateful for her honesty and chiding kindness.

On our arrival, we had asked the lady who handed us over the keys to our basement apartment how to pronounce "thank you" in Czech. It’s spelled "Děkuji", and the Internet says it's pronounced something along the lines of "Dya-koo-yee". She had rattled off a series of sounds and the closest we could get was "d-qwee". Later, Jesse masters "Nemluvím česky" which means "I don't speak Czech." And I keep practicing "thank you" and "hello". With the thick words and unfamiliar sounds in our mouths, at times we wish we could just go back to Berlin where at least we could ask for scrambled eggs. But, like so many other places, the world now caters to English and if we can’t speak three words in Czech then chances are we’ll find someone who can speak English. And if that language fails, there's always hand signals and pointing. Here, now, the ladies speak English to us and eventually we walk away with our tickets in hand.

After that, we even find time to visit the Church of Our Lady Victorious (home of a creepy wax statuette called the Child of Prague which was donated by Polyxena of Lobkowicz in 1628—and which unfortunately, means nothing to me or Jesse who missed that part of our history lessons) and cross the famous Charles Bridge which is jampacked with people also there to walk across the famous Charles Bridge, and artists, and vendors, and street performers. We make it back to the cathedral where the concert is being performed and listen in delight as the music fills the barrel vaulted, high ceilinged apse.

We are grateful for the chance to sit, close our eyes, and listen. We've probably walked seven hours or more just this day alone and most of it up stairs. Jesse is in stair heaven and I am trying to calculate miles in my head by the tightness of my leg muscles.

Today, before we make it to Old Town Square to watch the wooden apostles parade across the Astronomical Clock, we take the Metro several stops away and go to Olšany Cemetery where we walk down the cracked paved paths with the arms of the comforting trees arching over our heads. Here, among the dead, we find peace that we hadn't experienced yesterday in the crowded bustle of the living, of the tourists. Olšany Cemetery is the largest cemetery in Prague with over two million people buried within its walls. We walk the many paths, and I keep an eye on our direction, knowing full well we could easily get lost here. The monuments rise up around us, pieces of art set in among the plots and trees. The cemetery was built in haste in 1680 to accommodate the many dead by the plague who needed to be buried rapidly and away from the still living. It was used again in 1787 when the plague returned and Emperor Joseph II banned the use of the city for burials. Even today, there might be room still for more who would like to rest in peace here among these trees, within these walls.

When we’ve paid our respects to time and nature, we head over to the train station to buy tickets for the next day’s daytrip to Kutná Hora where the Sedlec Ossuary is located, and to purchase our tickets from Bad WildBad, Germany to Bordeaux, France. We hadn't been able to get that leg online before we left as we had with our other tickets. The clerk from the Deutsche Bahn office who helps us, types in the information I give her and then with wide eyes and a, “Ooofh, oh, ooofh,” tells us that it's very expensive and with many transfers. We had already known this would be the case and are not taken aback. We tell her it's okay, but she looks up from her work and says, “Are you sure you need to go there?”

With our tickets purchased and our next day’s daytrip set up, we make our way to Old Town and sit with our backs against a pillar to wait for five o'clock.

As the minutes tick closer to the hour, I stand up. A minute later, Jesse does as well. The hand moves. And then the show begins. Death rings out the beat while the apostles showcase themselves, one after the other, in front of the two wooden windows that have opened. When they have all passed by, the golden rooster, roosting above it all, stretches out his wings and crows.

Jesse and I laugh out loud.

“He's just like one of the fluffies!” Jesse says with delight. The fluffies being the chickens raised as broilers at the ranch where we worked over the summer--who in their fast growth tried so hard to be grownup roosters, crowing wholeheartedly with their adolescent voices cracking like teenage boys’ around the cock-a-doodle-do.

I am also delighted by the Astronomical Clock, by the bell ringing Death, by the apostles, by the golden fluffy. I wish it were already six o'clock so that we could watch it all over again. But we have a show to attend. We head off around the corner, to find the theater where we will watch Mozart's Don Giovanni Opera performed by puppets.

That show, performed by puppets, laughed at by child tourists, grownups, and us (Praguers or not), is the second most charming thing about Prague, and is a story for another time.

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