Prague Part Two

Saturday, September 23 – 

Bishop’s House is an incredible property, fashioned from an actual bishop’s house. In one section, there is a vaulted ceiling, and one of the walls is completely covered with growing plants of many species including pothos and other vining-style growers. That room was where we mostly met up for coordination of activities, etc. Allen referred to it as “The Green Wall.”

A few of us got up early to head over to the Charles Bridge to see if we might catch sunrise over the city. The forecast was for more clouds and rain to begin mid-morning on Saturday, so we hoped to have a clear morning. Alas, it was foggy, which offered its own splendor and we enjoyed the cool wet with very few (relatively speaking) other tourists crowding our photos. Then, after breakfast, we assembled at The Green Wall to get our marching orders for the day.

Unfortunately, at this point in our trip is when began the progress of illness that eventually, to one degree or another, hit half the folks in our group of 21. From the perspective of today, September 30 and the end of our cycle adventure, I can say with some authority that only Craig E., Bruce, Rosemary, Dave, Dennis, Richard, Bill, (possibly Ann?), and I were the lucky ones that did not come down with some degree of cold, flu, or bronchitis. Craig A. and Jack might have been patients zero, as they suffered first, back in Cesky Krumlov, with sinus/cough/headache and overall malaise. Jack took an afternoon “off” back in CK, and Craig took some time off in Prague to recover – but at about this time, Allen, Kathy, and Michael began to have symptoms. Further along in the tour, John, Damarius, Katherine, Pearl, Laura, Larry, and finally, Mary got whacked. Each had varying levels, with John and Michael getting the worst of it (John was able to ride only 2 days, and Michael only the last day), while Mary was taken down pretty hard the night after our final ride. Anyway, back to Sept. 23.

After breakfast, we all trundled up the hill at a punishing pace (trying to keep up with Allen, who had booked our tour and needed to get up to the castle and meet our guide. 

Seen along the walk up to Prague’s Castle.

We enjoyed an excellent guided tour of the Castle’s St. Vitus Cathedral. This guide was truly spectacular, and he made short work of ushering our crowd through the many other guide’s crowds, stopping at the significant points of interest around the structure. Jack and I were reminded of the guided tour we received in St. Petersburg, when we went to the Hermitage. We noticed there (as here) that the guides had a “secret code” they used with each other, to keep all the groups moving along, and to signal when each was ready to move to the next “station,” which indicated the guide standing and talking about that point of interest had to move along. 

Inside the cathedral. For the first time during our trip, the sun came out with some regularity and I was taken by the colors from the stained-glass windows thrown on walls when the sun shone through them.

This is a very detailed relief carving of the city of Prague as it was back in the 1500s. It was so large I wasn’t able to capture the whole thing.

I just loved that the balcony railing where the organ was installed was decorated with a variety of musical instruments.
This window measures 15 meters across and has something like 58,000 pieces of glass in it.

He also took us to see sections of the fortress, St. George Square, and the Basillica of St. George, where we enjoyed a grand view of the cityscape from high above. We were just outside of a room (the Bohemian Chancery) where the uprising of the Bohemian Estates against the Hapsburgs began in 1618, with the Second Prague Defenestration. For you history buffs, there’s more about that event and the players and consequences below.*

Exiting the Bohemian Chancery, where the Second Defenestration of Prague happened.
Views from the Chancery balcony.

A sitting area in the garden of the American Embassy.


This odd sight was not in the castle proper, but rather as we walked along the community up to the Monastery.

Next, we enjoyed a guided tour of the Strahov Monestery’s Library, led by an earnest fellow whose accent was so strong, few of us were able to understand him. He did, however, demonstrate that he loved his job. 

Among the most interesting sights in the library was a small bookcase filled with exactly 38 short but thick volumes (about 8 inches high and about 4 inches wide). Each was crafted to reflect separate species of the 38 trees they have in the Czech Republic/Bohemia. Inside, however, were not pages of illustrations and text. Each volume was a wooden box made from the wood of the tree it described, and inside were twigs, seeds/nuts, leaves, pieces of bark, and samples from the cambium of each type of tree. Finally, the books were “bound” with cambium layers, bark and even the lichens natural to each tree species. I was unable to get a photo but these volumes were truly clever and easily fascinated me. I know the “books” were old but I could not catch when they were made, unfortunately. In this place, however, I can imagine that they were carefully crafted by monks at the beginnings of scientific thinking and research.

I could have used this contraption when I was writing papers back in college. It holds up to 20 books, open to the pages you’re researching, and you can rotate them around to fetch the materials you want to add to your research topic. The scholar or scientist would sit at the front, and use the wheels at right and left to move from shelf to shelf of books for reference.
Throughout this library were ceiling murals painted. but not all of them were in praise of the Christian god. Many, many celebrated science and scientists. There was even a Latin phrase painted on the ceiling that said something like “Faith follows from science.”

The elaborately-decorated ceiling in the largest room of the library. It was two stories, and we noticed that there were no ladders or stairs to get up to the second level.
In every instance of the renderings of the huge number of people and angels and satyrs, etc. in the painting, only one is NOT looking at and/or engrossed with his/her fellows. That one is the self-portrait of the artist, upper right of this photo detail. (Also an owl, that I show below.) Those are the only two sets of eyes that are directed into the room itself.

This photo shows the “trick” for getting up to the second story. The books that appear set in a rounded arrangement are actually false spines, and this panel opens to reveal a spiral staircase to the upper level (thus the rounded appearance of the facade, to allow for the spiral staircase).
The scholars were big (HUGE) on globes. These things were numerous and beautiful, reflecting the “known world” over many centuries and iterations.

After the library, we were set free to do whatever we wished. A couple of our group had signed up for a “food tour” of Prague, while others set off for shopping. A sub-group had tickets to one of the many multitudes of musical performances in the city, and they headed back to the hotel to prepare for their concert, having an early dinner beforehand.

Lunch was definitely in order, however, so a small gaggle of us stopped at the Kolcavka Brewery for a brew and a light meal. Good beer, and excellent grub sitting on benches around a long table.

While the others made their way downhill, Jack and I stayed on the Castle Hill to stroll along the “Golden Lane” where tiny cottages are set up to resemble a tavern, a goldsmith’s workshop, a cobbler’s shop, and so forth, representing the ways of life among the castle’s commoners during the 16th Century. There was also a prison in the Dalibor Tower (or Daliborka) that we ventured into (with very close quarters—one dungeon had but one narrow stairway in and out so the crowd at the top had to wait for the crowd at the bottom to move up or down, so there was often a wait at the bottom that was not pleasant) to see the tools of torture used in the “olden days.” Pretty scary stuff.

These two pix are of the inside of the taproom and tavern typical of that which had served the castle since the 1500s. The Plaque says: With the benevolence of the sovereign and the spiritual administration, taverns appeared in many places. At one time, the Golden Lane had more than ten. The taverns in Golden Lane were lively. Often wandering jugglers and musicians would meet there. As the merriment grew, paddlers would appear as well as various swindlers luring people with dice or cards.

This is the workshop of a goldsmith along the Golden Lane. The Plaque reads: The original name of this street was “Goldsmith’s” Lane, first called that in the 1560s. The name reflected the fact that many of the inhabitants were small goldsmiths and beaters, who had fled the guild laws strictly applied at that time in all the Prague towns. The goldsmith boom occurred during the late 15th century. Goldsmith’s of the Lane always were the poorest representatives of their craft. They accepted smaller orders (jewelry to adorn clothes, cutlery, stamps, etc.). The characterization as “beaters” arose from those would would pound precious metals with wooden mallets, creating thin sheets of gold foil. These sheets were folded into “books” and sold to painters or guilders. No workshop of a goldsmith would be without a small cage bird, which acted as a natural sensor for the presence of toxic fumes arising from the chemicals that evaporated during their work.

The first and most important prisoner in Daliborka was the knight Dalibor z Kozojed. He was imprisoned in 1496 shortly after the tower was built. He had not only backed the rebels against Adam Ploskovsky z Drahonie, the merciless feudal lord of Litomerice, but also he had illegally confiscated the property for himself. After 2 years of bread and water, he was sentenced to the “forfeiture of his chattels, his honor, and his head,” and was executed on March 13, 1498. Much later, the romantic legend of Dalibor and his fiddle arose. The story has it that, out of boredom, Dalibor learned to play the violin so masterfully that people came from far and wide to listen, enraptured. In the chronicle of Beekovsky (in 1700) that the Czech maxim “necessity taught Dalibor to fiddle.” The reality is quite different, however. The “fiddle” was actually a nickname for the “rack” – a device on which the convicted was stretched until “out of necessity” (under the pressure of physical suffering) he or she would begin to “fiddle” (change his tune, confess). Smetana’s Dalibor opera is based on the life of the imprisoned and executed knight.

After a nice walk back to Bishop’s House along the river, picking our way along through strange streets without a map (where I got more photos of random sightings) we showered and checked email. Then Jack and I went back to Pod Vezi for a quiet dinner for two, which was delicious, and enjoyed more of the wine Allen had introduced us to the night before. We had heard that Prague was a great place for wild game dinners, so Jack had rabbit and I had wild boar. Good stuff. We even got the same waiter and sat in the same area as our group had the night before, although our table was quite a bit smaller <grin>.

Here are some random pics of our journey back to river level.

Another “creepy baby in a window” pic.

*The uprising of the Bohemian Estates against the Habsburg rule began with the Second Prague Defenestration in 1618 and ended wth the defeat of the Estates on White Mountain on November 8, 1620.

Those who had taken part in the event were representatives of the Bohemian aristocratic anti-Habsburg opposition headed by Jindrich Matyas Thurn and Vaclav Budovec. Under their leadership, a group of aristocrats broke into the Bohemian Chancery on May 23, 1618. At that time, the royal governors, Vilem Slavata of Chlum and Jaroslav Borita of Martinic, were at work there. Both governors were firm Catholics who pursued an uncompromising pro-Habsburg policy in their dealings with the Bohemian Estates.

The insurgents accused them of disturbing the peace in the Bohemian Kingdom. In the ensuing pandemonium, Slavata, Martinic and the scribe, Fabricius, were thrown out of the window of the Chancery (the definition of “defenestration”). Surprisingly, the men survived the fall [Our guide told us that they all fell into a rubbish {read “offal”} heap which cushioned their impact, although it covered them in poop]. The fact that they only suffered minor injuries was later attributed to a miracle. Fabricius fled, while Martinic and Slavata sought refuge in the nearby Lobkovic Palace.

The consequences of the defenestration were immense: it sparked one of the greatest European conflicts in modern history — The Thirty Years’ War.

Prague Part One

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).

This street artist was working on our hotel’s side of the Charles Bridge on our first day in Prague. This is what we saw when we left for our guided tour, and the next photo shows the nearly-completed work we saw when we returned.

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. 

A canal that separates an “island” directly below the Charles Bridge from the rest of the neighborhood it sits beside. That little island community was under water the last time Jack and I traveled to Prague.

Scads of people heading under the Charles Bridge “gate house” to and from the famous bridge.

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.”

This rooster crows at the end of the elaborate chiming and dancing of the famous Astronomical Clock that is a centerpiece of Prague’s Old Town Square.
I especially loved the dancing skeleton on the Astronomical Clock.
To see the brief working of the clock, check out my Facebook page and you can view its works.

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.

Sculptor: Anna Chromy. “Il Commendatore” in memory of W. A. Mozart’s Don Giovanni, premiered in this theater October 29, 1787.

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.