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Eastern Europe Tour

Day 3 Tuesday May 22, 2007

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I got up a little after five and worked on my journal in the bathroom. Pretty soon the computer's surge suppressor overheated. I seemed to remember this happening two years ago. I tried to use a different outlet, but it overheated again after a couple of minutes. I decided to try recharging the batteries that evening with the computer off. I had my spare battery pack with me, so I was not too worried about this.

Sue and I ate breakfast with Nedra Slausen. She has evidently traveled a great deal. Just about everyone in this group has been to Europe several times.

Going down.

Susana, her bonnet, Mike Brimmer from the back, and lots of elbows on Tram #21.

The group met outside the hotel and walked to the Metro stop. Our destination was Prague Castle, which is on the western side of the Vltava river. The escalator seemed to be very long, very steep, and very fast. We took the yellow line for one stop and then the green line for two stops. The subways seemed very clean and efficient. I have never understood why cities in the U.S. seem incapable of providing decent subwary service. We all then took tram #21 up to the vicinity of the castle. A very tall, very good looking young Czech girl got on the tram with us. There seemed to be quite a few members of that species around Prague.

Our first up-close view of St. Vitus's Cathedral.

Šárka awaited us at the tram stop. She told us that Prague now receives ten million tourists a year. In her opinion the Czech people were not ready to entertain so many people. She also claimed that the Czechs generally have low self-esteem and are therefore suspicious of strangers.

Šárka explains the castle's function before we enter its grounds.

Šárka exhibited one slightly eccentric mannerism. She always moved her sunglasses back on her head whenever she addressed us. I heard her mumble that she had been taught that it was impolite to wear them when talking to someone.

The group troops across the castle grounds.

We entered the castle grounds, which were still the site of some government offices, and official government functions were often held there. In some locations armed soldiers were in evidence. I was surprised to spot one of them wearing camos. It has always seemed so stupid to me for soldiers stationed in large cities to dress as if they were deployed in the jungle or the desert. I gave Europeans credit for being sensible enough to realize this.

We first went into a large hall. Šárka said that they had actually staged indoor jousting and other such activities in the hall.

We learned that a fire in 1541 destroyed Little Town, the area between the castle and the river. It also inflicted serious damage on the castle. Essentially everything flammable burned.

The ornate facade of the church, including the rose window.

Through the centuries gargoyles have protected the church from the devil.

We then had to get in line to enter St. Vitus's Cathedral, which was situated within the castle grounds. It was still an operational church, but they treated it like a museum. It was somehow jointly owned by the Catholic Church, which is not that strong in the Czech Republic, and the national government! Photography, even flash photography, was allowed in the Church, but tripods were prohibited. Sue suggested that this rule was probably designed to exclude professional photographers.

On the outside of the Church were numerous gargoyles. Šárka explained that their primary function was to keep out the devil, who, according to legends, is afraid of his own face. They also served as rain spouts.

King Wenceslas's crypt.

The cathedral contained the crypt of "King" Wenceslas. Prominently displayed was a painting of him and his mother, St. Ludmilla. Wenceslas died at 20 at his brother's hand. His mother was killed by her own daughter. The painting depicted Wenceslas's dastardly brother in a turban. His garb was evidently meant to indicate that he was a pagan. I understood this reasoning perfectly. The nuns taught us that all non-Catholics were heathens.

The church's stunning interior.

We learned that St. Vitus was associated with light, because the family that funded the constuction of the church was named Luxemburg, and "lux" is the Latin word for light. St. Vitus has also been associated with the rooster, which served as a symbol of the first light of the day.

Šárka told us the story of Jan Nepomuk, a fourteeth-century priest who was the queen's confessor. The king tried to get him to reveal the sins that the queen had admitted to in confession, but Nepomuk refused to do it. So the king's men bopped him on the head and threw him off the Charles Bridge. He floated. When the people dug him up later, they found something pink inside his skull. They thought that it was his tongue, and they concluded that it was a sign from heaven of his holiness for not ratting on the queen. He was canonized as a saint. Scientists later disclosed that the pink thing was what was left of his brain, not his tongue. Jan Nepomuk is always shown with stars in his halo. Supposedly when he landed in the water these stars appeared to the onlookers. Šárka also reported that the Church tried to use Jan Nepomuk as a substitute for Jan Hus, who had been condemned as a heretic but was still revered in Prague.

The art nouveau window by Alphonse Mucha.

Prague's west bank as portrayed in a wooden bas relief.

The east bank.

I think that this is the tomb of John Nepomuk.

Balconies are rare even in ornate churches.

That is real gold in St. Wenceslas's Chapel.

On one wall of the church there are symbols of the Czech (lion) and Slovak (bear?) peoples. The same fresco contains Hus's last words, "Pravda vítězí" (the truth prevails), which Vaclav Havel also took as his slogan.

The organ was two stories plus.

The rose window from the inside.

The fresco mentioned above.

The cathedral is equally impressive inside and out.

A view of both towers.

Parts of the cathedral are extremely old. However, other sections have been added on in subsequent centuries.

Susana produced tickets that allowed us to tour the rest of the castle. The seniors got a reduced rate. There was not really that much to see in the castle proper. In the first room Šárka pointed out the ceiling, which was a net of intersecting Y's. This technique, called net vaulting, was developed by the architect, Peter Parler, in the fourteenth century. He might have belonged to an early form of freemasonry.

Šárka showed us where the Czechs had defenestrated the Hapsburg governors and started the Thirty Years War. She told us several times that the Catholics won the war. It certainly is true that the war turned out badly for the Czechs, but the final peace settlement also weakened the Hapsburg's power. Sweden got great chunks of land on the lower continent. Richelieu's France, which fought on the side of the Protestants, picked up some territories as well.

Parler's room? Maybe this is the fake one.

The ceiling.

Another chapel.

We were then given a few minutes to explore a few rooms on our own and look at the views. The castle sits high over Prague. The vistas were quite good, but the haze made it very difficult to compose a clear photo that included much of the landscape.

Little Town, the river, and Old Town from the castle.

Šárka said that the Linden tree is the national tree of the Czech Republic. She also remarked that very little snow fell in Prague over the winter of 2006-2007. As a result the trees and grass were dry.

Looking south from the castle.

I noticed the same small tags in the curbs that I had previously seen all over Prague. They said "Silver Line Golden Prague." I never discovered what they were.

We marched up toward the monastery as a group. We were just in time to watch the changing of the guard. There was not that much to see. The army musicians stood in windows nearby and played uninspiring march tunes to accompany the ceremony. The Czech army needs more imaginative uniforms – maybe halberds like the Swiss guards (and the wicked witch of the west's army), or busbies like the British (and the wicked witch of the west's army), or skirts like the Greeks and Scots.

The basilica of St. George.

The Gothic portion of the cathedral.

The mosaic on the west side of the cathedral.

The old guard.

The new guard and the musicians in the windows.

The old guard on its way to lunch after the ceremony.

One building was painted with light squares and dark triangles to give a three-D effect. Šárka said that this was called graffito. She also claimed that graffito was the Italian word for envelope [Only the plural, graffiti, which means just what you might think, was in my Italian dictionary], unless I misunderstood her. The figures on the wall certainly looked like envelopes.

The graffito building.

Even in the shade the climb up to the monastery was physically draining.

The Loreta shrine.

A little farther up the street Šárka pointed out Loreta, a shrine run by Capuchin monks. It featured a copy of the alleged birthplace of Mary, which is located in Loreto, Italy. The Czech facility also had a poppular chapel dedicated to St. Wilgefortis, the young Portuguese woman who miraculously grew a beard overnight to avoid an arranged marriage. Her father was so upset at her that he crucified her. Šárka passed around a postcard which depicted the saint's demise.

The monastery has a very nice library, but the brewery has cold beer.

Šárka declaims to Paul, Liane, Anne, Joan, and Ray.

We then passed by the monastery, which was run by the Premontrententians, a splinter group of former Benedictines founded by St. Norbert. They apparently wore white robes, but I did not see any monks. Their fame was derived from their library and their brewery, Klašterní Pivovar Strahov. The vote was very close, but the group decided to spend time in the latter rather than the former.

The brewery's atmosphere was relaxing. The interior was decorated with posters and knickknacks screwed onto the wall. The Connecticut contingent ate with Steve, Janet, Angela, and Rawlins. I had goulash and dumplings, which I really enjoyed.

Steve was pondering whether one beer would suffice; Janet was calculating how many sips she could safely mooch.

A revealing moment occurred when Janet asked Steve, who was at my left, for a sip of his beer. He hesitated a second and then handed it to her. Janet asked me if he rolled his eyes. She said that he does not like to share. I doubted that that was precisely accurate. He probably likes to plan. Knowing that he had to decide whether to order one beer or two, he had gauged his own thirst with meticulous care. That sip might mean induce him to order a second beer, which might leave him bloated or even cause some kind of internal digestive problem that could take years off of his life.

Rawlins and Angela had trouble deciding whether to goulash or not to goulash.

Most people seemed to think that the monks' beer was the best that we had yet to consume. Of course, this was also the hottest and most tiring adventure that we had experienced to date. Even Old Milwaukee might have really hit the spot on that afternoon.

The other table: Lee, Joanne, Nedra, Pam, Lauren, Barbara, Andy, and Šárka.

We learned that it was Šárka's birthday. I brazenly asked her how old she was. She said thirty. She also said that Czechs had no problem disclosing their age, but they were reluctant to tell anyone what they did for a living. They felt that it was none of the other person's business.

Whatever Šárka was selling, Mike was definitely buying.

Šárka also announced that she could eat but not drink with us because she was allergic to glutens. Surely a Czech with a gluten allergy must join the proverbial giraffe with a sore throat and the centipede with corns as the worst conceivable medical conditions.

Steve and Janet then joined the New Englanders as we headed back across the river. We took the tram. We had been advised to take tram #21 or #22. It took us a while to find the tram stop, but almost as soon as we got there #15 arrived, then #3, and finally #22, our tram. It was almost empty when we got on, so we got to sit all the way. We took the same tram down from the castle, through Little Town, and across the bridge into New Town. It was quite full when we got off near the moat street, Napřikopě. I once again marveled as to why America's public transportation was so pitiful.

The other five (or maybe four) wanted to go to the Black Light Theater, which was not of much interest to me. I had seen Laterna Magica at the Word's Fair in Montreal, and it did nothing for me. Sue went off on her own to do postcards. The rest of us walked down to the Old Town Square to get the tickets. We agreed to meet Sue at the Mucha Museum. As we started to walk toward Old Town Square, it began to rain. Fortunately I had brought my umbrella. Even though it was a little the worse for wear since the two of us had been caught in the wind and rain in New York City the previous week, it kept me pretty dry.

It turned out that the Tourist Information Office right in the Old Town Square sold the tickets to Image, the recommended Black Light Theater. They even had tickets for that evening's performance. Sue had evidently been ambivalent about whether she wanted to go. Tom bought her a ticket and entrusted me with giving it to her.

Vladimir Ilych himself welcomed us into his museum.

The five of us then walked in the light rain up to the Museum of Communism. It was a little difficult to find. We had to walk through McDonald's. Then it appeared that we were entering a casino. We had to locate the stairs that led to the museum. A group of about twenty young people entered just ahead of us, but for some reason they were hesitant about buying tickets. Janet led us past them, and we went right in. The admission was 180Kč.

Half of a Commie fighter and other paraphernalia.

I liked this exhibit. It contained a great deal of information. Numerous statues and exhibits of what stores and schools looked like under Communism were dispersed throughout five or six rooms. It gave you a pretty good feel about what the Czech people have gone through. We got to see the kind of uniform that Šárka must have had to wear when she was a kid.

Šárka was twelve when the Communists left the Czech Republic. She must have done time in one of these outfits.

I took some time to fill in gaps in my notes about that big statue of Stalin in Letna Park that had been torn down. It was thirty meters high. Anonymous-looking men lined up behind Papa Joe. By the time that it was finished Stalin had died. Shortly thereafter he was denounced by Khrushchev as a murderer. The sculptor who committed suicide was named Otakar Svec.

All that remains of the monument are the wall and photographs like this one.

According to Rick Steves's guidebook one of the highlights of the exhibit was a film. The room in which it was shown was packed with people. Janet listened from the doorway. The others told me that they decided not to go to the Mucha Museum. I decided to blow off the film in favor of meeting Sue at the Mucha Museum. It was a little ways west on the moat street and then south on Panka Street.

Sue spotted me almost as soon as I entered. I put my backpack in locker #37, bought a ticket, and walked in. I had seen some of Mucha's posters before, but I knew nothing about him. Before I started going on these trips to Europe, I knew absolutely nothing about art. Now I know next to nothing. Sue and I watched the film about Mucha's life and his lifelong quest to create a Slav Epic. I was most interested in the historical aspect. He evidently was responsible for the resurrection of Jan Hus as a Czech hero. Šárka had told us that the Communists had called Hus the first Czech Communist.

A concert at St Nicholas church.

We went back to the hotel shortly after watching the film. Sue, who was a little irritated that Tom had bought the ticket for her, got ready for the theater. Patti came by to pick Sue up, but she was still in the shower. I had to give Sue credit, however. She made it to the theater on her own and even got to sit with the Corcorans and the Sharps.

The statue of Charles IV at the foot of his bridge.

I went by myself to the Internet café at the Kotva department store. I had a slightly cold Diet Pepsi while I looked at my accumulated e-mail. I sent my dad an e-mail, but I was uncertain whether he would be able to read it. I knew how to put it in 18 pt. on my PC, but I was unfamiliar with the web-based e-mail client. There was also a rather disturbing work-related e-mail that I felt needed to be addressed.

I then set out to get a little Slovakian and Croatian currency as Susana had advised us to do. I went to three exchange kiosks. One had no Slovakian or Croatian currency. One would only sell me units of five hundred crowns of Slovakian currency. This was more than I wanted. The last would only sell in lots of one thousand. I gave up.

St. Anthony and the Infant with their peculiar headgear.

Little Town is overshadowed by the castle and St. Vitus's.

Disgustingly young people were hanging out on the bridge.

I walked to the Charles Bridge. I wanted to see why the bridge was considered such an attraction. It was pleasant enough. I looked at quite a few of the statues of saints. One of them intrigued me greatly. A lot of ferocious-looking animals were entering or exiting caves on the base of the statue of some saint. There was no sign on this statue, so I could not ascertain the saint's identity. I hoped that the guidebook would say, but it did not. St. Anthony of Padua appeared to be wearing a propeller-beany.

St. Jan Nepomuk was identifiable by the stars in his halo.

A solitary boat, the dam, and the riverfront.

St. Nicholas Cathedral on the west side of the bridge.

On the bridge I noticed a guy in a white sailor suit wearing flip-flops. I could not think of an explanation for that combination of attire. I later saw a bunch of similarly clad young men hawking tickets for boat rides.

I offer ten Czech crowns to anyone who can identify this saint ...

... or his pets.

A flashy boat passed bneath the bridge.

This cross marked the spot from which St. Jan Nepomuk was tossed into the river.

The Charles Bridge at twilight. Note the sailors.

I went across the bridge and noodled around in Little Town for a few minutes. I wanted to see the interior of St. Nicholas Cathedral. I did not do so because I could not find the door. That seemed to be a pretty strange problem to face. I also remembered that they had concerts every evening, so I would not be able to go in any way. I therefore did not expend a lot of effort looking for the entrance. I later learned that they do not hold concerts on Tuesdays.

I then hung around south of the bridge waiting for it to get dark so that I could take better photos of the bridge and castle at night. It was quite overcast, so it was hard to tell when the sun would set. I waited until 8:15, but it was still light out. Then a north wind came up, and it became too cold for me, so I trekked back to the hotel.

As soon as I arived at the hotel I felt overwhelmed with melancholy. I decided to take a shower. As I was about to step into the stall, I heard a knock at the door. Tom asked me if I wanted to go out with them. I declined. I asked him where Sue was, and he told me that she was at the Internet café. I took a shower and then waited for her to return to the room. When she did, she told me that she thought that the show had been so-so, and I would have hated it.

Sue found out how to make an international call from the hotel room. We called the office. I ran up an outrageous bill talking to Denise about what to do about the proposal that I had been unable to finish before we left. This did not help my mood.

Afterwards I went down to the desk and paid for the phone calls. It used up just about all my Czech money. Then I tried to go to sleep.

Prague reminded me of Venice. They were both quite artsy and very crowded with tourists. The ones in Prague seemed very young. I liked the Italian approach better. There also seemed to be much more to do in Venice. I was still looking forward to the opera when we returned in a couple of weeks, but beyond that I had no great desire to return to either Venice or Prague, at least at that moment.