Friday, September 22
It was about a 2.5 hour drive by bus to Prague, and when we arrived, we had a mass lunch at the crepe restaurant across the street from our hotel, Bishop’s House, both owned and operated by the same family (as was our dinner spot for our first night, a restaurant called Pod Vezi, where they really put on the dog with a four-course meal and lots of local wine exclusively made for Pod Vezi).
But I digress. The crepes were fine, although not extraordinary, and we exited there to head straight to a pre-arranged tour of the city with a guide whose name I never quite “got.” We got started about 2 and stood around our lovely hotel for waaay too long, so she could tell us a bit of background and history of the city. It was at this early stage that I knew I was going to have a problem with our guide, because she told us with great conviction that Prague has no crime because the Czech Republic doesn’t allow Muslims into the country. She then explained that they do have some small crimes committed by other “problem” populations including Hungarians, Roma, and Poles.
Shortly thereafter, she led us off into Prague, over the Charles Bridge from Bishop’s House (which is right at the end of the bridge on the “Little Town” side of the river Vlatava, or Moldau (if you’re a Smetena fan), or in the anglicized pronounciation, Voltava, or sometimes Vitava.
I could not believe how many bodies were traipsing across Charles Bridge, which is pedestrian only. When Jack and I were here last, a mere 14 years ago, the bridge was quite habitable. Now, it is thronged with trinket-sellers, caricature-drawers, folks taking wedding pictures, and billions and billions of tourists and tour groups like ours.
Getting off the bridge was no better, but we threw in the added chaos of traffic. Jack and I kept trying to figure out where the trolley had left us off (near Charles Bridge, we knew, but exactly where, we never quite pinned down) those 14 long years ago when we had not the first clue what we were doing. On top of which, that time was very soon after the great flood of 2002, and Prague was still quite devastated by that catastrophe.
When she stopped again, near the University, and someone asked about government-sponsored higher education, she said that she and her husband (I now believe that she meant that her own generation) were the last people who had had to pay for their college/university educations, because shortly after they graduated, the Czech government came into its own after the Communist era, and made higher education virtually free to its citizens. But then she said, “Even Slovaks are allowed to get their educations subsidized by the government.”
It was at that point that I stopped listening, because I thought I would certainly have to confront some of her — shall we say, “biases” — if I didn’t just walk away. I did not confront because I was rather certain we’d have a serious issue with the language barrier; and also I did not want to hijack Allen and Mary’s schedule (nor did I know at that point what the general political views of our group were, although I came to discover later that the majority, and possibly all, are like-minded; and they, also, had issues with our guide).
Anyway, it was a very long but comprehensive tour, and we saw parts of the city that Jack and I had missed before, and also that we marked for more thorough study later during our 2.5 day stay here (including the Jewish quarter and the Jewish cemetery and memorials to the Holocaust).
One of the interesting plaques I read, near the University (and which our guide never mentioned) was about climate science. It said, “You stand before the place where regular climatological measurements, are taken from the height of the first floor [we would say “second floor” in the US]. These were started in the Klementinum as early as the middle of the eighteenth century by Jesuit scholar, Joseph Stepling, the founder of the observatory here. An uninterrupted series of measurements taken every day date back to January 1, 1775, and ranks among the oldest in Europe.”
One more thing about our guide: Very late in the tour, someone asked about a poster we read near the theater presenting a “Black Light” show. She said that Black Light Theater was invented by Czechs, and that it involved a dark theater with a stage on which actors dressed all in black presented a show. Because that statement was patently untrue, I came to discount even more of what we managed to hear and understand from her that day. We got a much more accurate description of the theater’s magic from our excellent hotel staff, including our primary “go-to” guy, Marek. Yes, it’s a dark theater, and yes, the actors wear black, but on those clothes are painted fluorescent designs and when the black lights hit them, they glow. Thus, the audience sees colorful designs capering around in the dark, dancing and interacting in ways that allow the black light paint to “trick” the senses.
In any event, the tour took longer than expected, and while some went off to recoup at Bishop’s House, a small gaggle of us enthusiastic beer appreciators retraced some of our walk back to a brewery, to sample their wares. Staromestsky, or Old Town Brewery served a nice flavorful lager-style beer, and we indulged long enough to capture sunset over the Charles Bridge before racing to the truly stupendous dinner at Pod Vezi by 7PM. During that dinner we toasted friends old and new, and raised glasses to loved ones and missed ones who, for various reasons, were unable to be with us on this trip. Here’s to y’all, Woody, Gaye, and Larry.