Sunday July 06, 2014
EuroTrip 2014: Overwhelmed in Prague
You tend to overdo the first day. You’ve spent all that time prepping and planning and saving and traveling. And then it’s all there. How can you not go a little crazy?
The Rough Guide to Prague, which wasn’t all that rough, recommended taking the #22 tram for an overview of Old Town, etc., but we decided to walk it. And walk it. And walk it. And were overwhelmed. Prague is a beautiful city, and it was a beautiful day: blue skies and 60s and 70s.
I’m drawn not only to the old and Gothic but to the new and kitschy; to the pop cultural stuff. On our first day, for example, on Celetná, the touristy street between the Prasna brana (Powder Gate) and Staromestke namesti (the Old Town Square), I found myself staring in a shop window at rows and rows of nesting dolls. They were less the traditional ones than newer, pop cultural ones: singers and actors and athletes. Mostly athletes. Instead of the same figurine inside, each smaller doll would simply be another player on that team—whether that team was Manchester United or the Dallas Cowboys or the New York Yankees.
I was staring at the Yankees nesting dolls, of course, pissed off that they’d found me again on the other side of the world, when the salesman asked if I was interested. “You want?” he asked. I waved him off.
Me: I hate the Yankees.
He: What is your team?
Me: The Seattle Mariners. But you don't have them.
He: We can make.
Me: No no no no no.
He: [Pause] One ‘no’ is sufficient.
He said it matter-of-factly. The nesting dolls quickly became old hat—they were everywhere in Prague—but I never forgot that line. I should have bought something from him just for that.
Is there value in trodding the same path so many others have trod, and visiting the same sites millions of others have visited? Not much, probably, but it’s helpful to me anyway. Now when people mention Staromestske namesti or the Charles Bridge, I’ll have memories and images and feelings about them.
At Staromestske namesti, we arrived early, when the day still felt fresh and cool, and the square wasn’t yet overwhelmed with tourists like us. P was immediately attracted to the Tyn Church while I enjoyed simply being in the Square. I later realized that this was the place recounted at the beginning of Milan Kundera’s “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.” In February 1948, Slovak minister Vladimir Clementis put his fur cap on the head of Communist leader Klement Gottwald, who was giving a speech to a cheering throng. Kundera:
Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately airbrushed him out of history, and, obviously, out of all the photographs as well. Ever since, Gottwald has stood on that balcony alone. Where Clementis once stood, there is only bare palace wall. All that remains of Clementis is the cap on Gottwald’s head.
It’s one of the great openings of a modern novel. If I’d remembered that that was the square, I would have sought out the balcony. Instead, I took photos of the Hus monument, convinced myself that the astronomical clock was the Tyn Church, then was corrected by Patricia in time to see it in action. It was created in the 15th century by Master Hanus, who, according to Rough Guide author Rob Humphries, “was then blinded by the town councillors to make sure he couldn’t repeat the job for anyone else.” And you thought your Christmas bonus sucked.
I was less impressed with the Charles Bridge and its 31 statues, the No. 1 tourist attraction in Prague, simply because we arrived later in the day, noonish, when we were feeling peckish, and when the crowds were beginning to get overwhelming. I did a lot of dodging on the bridge. I also wondered over the plethora of caricature artists making a living there. Who visits a beautiful spot in a foreign city and decides to get a caricature of themselves or their children? Why bring home that souvenir?
We had the best french fries ever at a corner restaurant (whose name escapes me), sitting in the shade and trying to get our bearings, then hiked up to the other great tourist attraction in Prague, the Prazsky Hrad (Prague Castle), which, despite its name, was less castle than working community. We got overwhelmed by another cathedral (St. Vitus) and climb up one of its spires for a great view of the city. Throughout the trip, P was always about the quiet and majesty of the cathedral; I was always thinking, “Yeah, but can we climb up?”
After unsuccesfully trying to find the #22 tram for the trip down, we gave up and simply walked it, then headed over to the Kafka museum, which, being more form than content, impressed P, the graphic designer, and left me, the writer, a little cold. And sleepy. Plus there’s the incongruity of it all: the ignored writer, writing about the ignored, being celebrated so hugely nearly a century after his death. You got the feeling that if Kafka came back and saw what they were doing in his name, he would go mad.
Prague's medieval astronomical clock—the third oldest in the world and the only one still working.
A closer look.
A statue to Franz Kafka in the Old Jewish ghetto.
Just an ordinary street during our walk. Like Paris, it seems there are no wrong turns in Prague. (Although I managed to find them.)
The Charles Bridge.
A statue of St. Anne, Mary's mother, with Mary, Jesus, and winged friends: One of the 31 statues on the Charles Bridge.
Leaving the Charles Bridge and entering Malá Strana.
Best fries ever. Also the first of many Caprese salads for P.
P in the Church of St. Nicholas, before ascension to the Prazsky Hrad.
It must be dispiriting for American priests to visit European cathedrals. They must think, “Well, shit ...”
Walking toward the Prague Castle, with Prague in the background.
Our third cathedral/church of the day: St. Vitus. Each seemed to top the previous one.
I mean, just look at this.