Sunday, September 24 –
Today was the beginning of our cycling tour, in that we got fitted for our bikes and took a very short “shake down” ride along the river near the company’s (AVE) headquarters. Before that happened, however, we had our morning/early afternoon to ourselves.
But before we all headed off to our self-determined mornings, we met at The Green Wall to talk about options for getting ourselves over to the place and the company that would rent us our bikes and lead the cycling aspect of the tour.
Having someone else be responsible for all aspects of the beginning parts of our cycling adventure was a good idea, because Allen came down hard with the yuks (along with a growing number of our group). We’d already lost one among our number, not because of illness, but rather because her goal was to join us for the Cesky Krumlov and Prague parts and not do any cycling at all. So Kathy jumped a taxi while we were all still sleeping and headed to the airport to start grinding her long, long way over to California.
And then we were 20.
Jack and I headed off with two of our group to hit the Jewish Quarter early. En route, we ran into a riverside park with a memorial to the death of Jan Palach, a Czech student of history at the Charles University, who self-immolated in protest against the end of the Prague Spring — ended due to the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact armies. The sculptures and poem were quite moving there, on a gray day beside the Voltava, to remember how difficult it had been for the citizens of this country to rid themselves of tyranny. Palach’s wasn’t the most recent instance of protest-immolation: in the spring of 2003 a total of 6 Czech students burned themselves to death, noting their inspiration for their own act by Palach’s example.
The Funeral of Jan Palach (by Basen-David Shapiro, 1969—translated by Preklad-Thomas Mika, 2003):
When I entered the first meditation/I escaped the gravity of the object./I experienced the emptiness/And I have been dead a long time.
When I had a voice you could call a voice/My mother wept to me:/My son, my beloved son/I never thought this possible.
I’ll follow you on foot/Halfway in mud and slush the microphones picked up./It was raining on the houses/It was snowing on the police cars.
The astronauts were weeping/Going neither up nor out./And my own mother was brave enough she looked/And it was all right I was dead.
We began at the cemetery, and once we figured out the ticketing system, went into that area, the memorial within, and afterwards, a couple of synagogues. Craig and Rosemary accompanied us into the cemetery and memorial, but peeled off for other adventures when we went to the Spanish synagogue.
It’s difficult to express in words the utter sadness and deep sorrow in seeing walls and walls and walls of names of the deceased Jewish populations from so many purges and erasures. And the persecution endured by less-horrific but nevertheless devastating acts such as prohibiting Jews from hiring Christians for tasks such as mending, cooking, or anything else. This area was seen in the 1700s as quite “tolerant” but such prohibitions resulted in those of the Jewish faith having to cluster together to hire one another; and to move away from the Christian areas because they would not be able to access basic services.
And to view the “old” Jewish cemetery with its helter-skelter gravestones and tombs, with loved ones piled on top of the previous generation, and none of them appropriately designated, is just another type of centuries worth of persecution, when the community was not allowed to bury their families beyond a certain area.
We noticed that small rocks were placed on several markers near the walkways, in the Jewish tradition of Yahrtzeit (literally “time of [one] year”), which refers to the anniversary of the day of death of a relative. Yahrzeit is usually a day-long remembrance of the day of death of a loved one, and the custom of placing a stone on the grave using the left hand is also old. First, it shows tha someone visited the gravesite and in a small way participated in the mitzvah of burial. Leaving flowers is not a traditional Jewish practice, and the stones left are also a way to “tend to” a grave. In Biblical times, gravesites were marked only with mounds of stones (a cairn), so when visitors place or replace the stones, it helps perpetuate the existence of the gravesite. It is a common practice when visiting Jewish graves, even of those we do not know, to place a small stone on the marker.
While the Spanish synagogue was seriously pretty, it was quite odd to see an organ and a choir loft – but the excellent (and unfortunately, printed very small) light boxes with documents and explanations pointed out that the government would tolerate synagogues, but only if they behaved like Christian churches by having organ music and angelic singing for their services. Quite strange.
We left the Jewish Quarter and walked back along the river toward Bishop’s House, stopping for a nice picnic at a park along the way. It had rained the night before, so the seats and little table we found were wet, and Jack had to pay the price of a pair of beers for two bottles of “Italian” water – but it was a nice interlude beside a pretty river in the heart of Prague. Not too shabby.
Some “seens” from our walk.
Arriving back in the Bishop’s House neighborhood with a little more time before we gathered for our boat ride and dinner along the river, we quickly headed over to the small island beneath Charles Bridge, where some of our group had discovered a display of photos about that infamous flood of 2002, called “After the flood: 15 years later.” They are large photos framed in a series for a “walking gallery” along the river. We checked that out and found a few extra things to take photos of, just for the record.
Then we joined the group to bus over to Ave (on the outskirts of Prague) for our bike fitting, met our new mechanical best friends for the next week, adjusted seats and such, and took a quickie ride to assure everything fit and shifted and worked right. We had our first “casualty” during the shake-down ride, when Laura turned too near a parked car and lost her balance, taking a header between the parked cars. She hit her upper lip and chin, and needed a couple of band-aides, but otherwise was okay.
Finally, we embarked on our private dinner cruise along the river. The food was quite good, and the best beer we could get came out of a can. But that was fine, because after the meal on the main deck, we took our drinks up to the top deck and many photos were taken as the light faded to black on our stay in Prague. (Apologies for the grainy pix. My camera’s not great in low light, but you can get the general feel for Prague at night.)