Day 3 – Exploring Prague

Posted: July 21, 2014 in Prague
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Everybody woke up this morning feeling a lot better than the night before albeit not entirely rested. The room was pretty hot (30+ degree weather and no fan or air conditioning) and it had been a bit of a disjointed sleep but we all felt pretty chipper and were looking forward to a day of exploring.

First order of business was to head out and get something to eat… A task made more difficult by the fact that it was only 7am on a Sunday morning in a town that seems to get a pretty late start most days. So we ended up at McDonald’s… don’t judge… an egg mcmuffin is a perfectly acceptable way to start the day. Although their yogurt came with some kind of chocolately cookie bits (shaped like an almond with the taste/texture of a chocolately Teddy Graham… cannot have been remotely healthy). After breakfast we headed back to the hotel to settle up our account and properly check-in as we’d arrived after the office closed yesterday.

When we got back to the hotel last night, we’d noticed a very strong odour of BC’s finest herb (for my older, less worldly readers, that would be marijuana). Being from BC that really didn’t seem all that unusual to us but we did get a kick out of the fact that this is a Church-run pension… In any case, checking-in this morning we believed we’d found the source of last night’s odour… If this dude was any indication, Christians are decidedly more laid-back in Prague than they are back home. It took a bit but eventually we were checked-in properly, paid up and even had a receipt and some tips on where to go and what to do for today (his first answer of “find a place to go for a swim” unfortunately did not pan out…)

With officialdom satisfied, and a plan for the day decided on, we headed out to explore the old town area of Prague (Staré Město) with a plan to eventually make our way to the Charles Bridge (Karlův most) and the lesser town (Menší Město pražské). This was one of those days we like best when travelling… no fixed plan. No particular places we need to see. Nothing we absolutely need to do… Just wandering around seeing the sites.

We had figured out earlier that the large open air shopping mall (that’s what it felt like, not what it actually was) we’d eaten dinner at last night was Wenceslas Square and that we’d actually been pretty close to the old town… Not that it would have mattered, there wasn’t much exploration in any of us last night after pretty much 24hrs travelling. But we were pretty excited to see the old town today. We eventually found the town square with its famous Astronomical Clock (attractor of astronomical crowds for sure), the Church of Mother of God in front of Tyn (Kostel Matky Boží před Týnem) – more commonly known as Church of Our Lady before Tyn, and for Caitlin, the Tim Burton exhibition… Apparently she’d “forgotten” to tell us about this one… I won’t say she begged us to see it, per se, but it was awfully close to begging.

The exhibit was interesting. Tim Burton is not one of my favourite movie directors/artists but Caitlin loves him and his movies. The handwritten note to Johnny Depp outlining Burton’s thoughts for adding a quote to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (it eventually became one of the most famous quotes from the movie) was almost too tempting for her. The range of his artwork (from photography to pen and ink drawings on hotel napkins and everything in between) was really impressive and there’s no denying his talent or unique style/vision. Having said all that the thought that sticks out most for me was “the inside of his head is a scary place.”

While the exhibit was impressive and entertaining (cost was only about $20 for all of us to get in so good value too) the most impressive part of the exhibit for me was the building itself. Built in the latter half of the 14th century (that would be the 1300s for the non-history types out there) the House of the Stone Bell is an important city monument in its own right and it was cool trying to figure out what the place must have looked like back in the 1300s when it was home to royals and rich and powerful people. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take any pictures (I did get some of the inner courtyard) inside the exhibit (and they had a ton of scowling young staffers to ensure that no miscreants violated said rule) so you’ll have to visit it for yourself.

After the Burton exhibit we just wandered along the narrow streets of cobblestone… We watched the Astronomical Clock ring in the hour (along with about 50,000 other tourists – many of whom clapped… why did they clap? They’re mechanical figures. The makers are long since dead. Who precisely were they clapping for? Maybe some people just get really excited by hundreds of years old clocks doing what they were built to do…) We found the famous (infamous?) Museum of Beer (240 CzK – about $12 – each and includes 4 beers!) but did not partake… as 11am is kind of early for beer even for me. After a bit we found ourselves at the river and made our way to the Charles Bridge – very impressive old bridge with some cool Baroque statues and a gazillion tourists and hundreds of street vendors (regulated and licensed) hawking their wares. Actually, that’s what kind of stood out for us as we wandered around… No one hawks their wares in Prague. Nobody invites you in their store. No one promises the deal of the century or the buy of the week or anything… Case in point, the hundreds of people selling stuff on the bridge – we checked out some of the jewelry and paintings and other touristy trinkets and not one – not a single person asked us if we wanted to buy anything or even spoke to us at all… It was weird. Maybe it was the heat. Or maybe there’s a super-secret rule that tourists shall not be hawked at… But it seemed unwelcoming. Even a bit unfriendly. And it held up through the rest of the day… Until the evening when there were all kinds of people hawking pub crawls and clubs and restaurants… Although we did end up passing on two restaurants because we just could not get any service… At one place the guy came around and asked us if we wanted drinks… We said not yet and asked for menus… He wandered off – to get a menu we thought, but really it was just to wander around clearing tables and then lean on the bar chatting with someone… We bailed and went looking for another place.

After crossing the Charles Bridge into the lesser town, we wandered around a bit more (even found the infamous Piss Statues!). We stopped for a drink and something to eat at a little cafe/tavern/hotel… grilled sausage (more like grilled cocktail weinie) for me, pancakes with cinnamon and ice cream for Marie (what else) and a bacon and cheese toasty (basically a panini) for Caitlin with a vanilla milkshake (delicious) for Caitlin, a ginger lemonade for Marie (interesting) and a couple of cold beers (Budvar) for me. Prices were good. Service was decent. And the bill came to a total of about $40 all in. After “lunch” we made our way back to the Old Town looking for the Old Jewish Cemetery.

After a bunch of wrong turns, blind allies and walking in circles, we eventually found the cemetery and discovered that you have to pay for a pass to all the Jewish historical sites if you want to see the cemetery. So we forked over our cash and made our way into the grounds. First up was a synagogue where the names of the victims of the Holocaust from Prague and the surrounding area were inscribed on the wall. Imagine a good sized church where the walls are covered from floor to ceiling with the names of people neatly inscribed in 3/4″ high letters… Very sobering and a very effective form of remembrance. After that, it was into the cemetery itself. This is supposed to be one of the most atmospheric places in Prague. On a rainy fall day I think it would be. On a bright, hot summer day it was just kind of desultory. This cemetery dates back to the mid-1400s and there are about 12,000 gravestones jammed into a very small space. Jewish tradition forbids Jews from destroying Jewish graves or removing the tombstone and the Old Town city masters didn’t want to sell more land to the Jews so they had to keep burying on top of the old graves – adding a layer of soil over the old ground level and putting the old tombstones on top of the new layer. In all there’s supposed to be about 100,000 burials in the space and 12 layers of soil… It was interesting but not reading Hebrew prevented us from really making anything out on the tombstones and it was basically just a lot of old stones in a peaceful quiet space… Worth visiting but not mind-blowing.

After that we eventually made our way back to the Old Town square looking to go inside the Tyn cathedral (nope – closed at noon and not open on Mondays so that will have to wait for another trip). Because we couldn’t go inside the cathedral, we decided to hop on the little tourist train (1hr) and see some of the sites we didn’t walk to… I may have napped for portions of this ride… It was hot what can I say… After our train ride, we made our way back to the hotel for a major power nap… We emerged from our sauna of a room in the early evening and headed out for something to eat and to explore the old town at night. We had a good meal of goulash (Caitlin’s verdict: tasty but pretty similar to food we make at home), dumplings and salads (not up to Greek standards but very good). Then we wandered for a bit, maybe grabbed a gelato or two and then headed back to the hotel around 11pm whereupon we all crashed…

A few random things we’ve learned: 1) Prague has a serious spider issue. There are spider webs everywhere. It’s kind of creepy. 2) Prague beer is pretty weak by Canadian standards – at least their lagers are. 3) There’s more skin on display in this city than Las Vegas – maybe it’s the heat but there’s a lot of skimpy clothes and far too many shirtless manwhores (Caitlin’s term) roaming around. 4) Tattoos are popular here but many are very poorly done (heavy black ink smudges) 5) Gelato is a gift from heaven… And at $1-$2 considerably cheaper than we can get back home 6) Customer service is indifferent at best 7) It’s best to make sure the back end of the recycling truck is secured before turning on the compactor… otherwise 4 or 5 Prague city worked are going to have to clean up a mess 8) trucks driving around spraying water appear to be Prague’s version of a water park – and it works! 9) Absinthe is definitely an obsession – at least as far as selling it to the tourists goes… haven’t tried any but it’s on the list for tomorrow! 10) Hare Krishnas know how to rock out – they set up an info display and dance party in Wenceslas Square yesterday – we have no idea what the guy was saying but people were up and dancing and having a great time!

And so ended our first full day in Prague. It was a good day.

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