Saturday, February 14, 2009

2008 River Cruise: Prague in the Morning

On my first morning in Prague, or Praha in Czech, our group had a city tour. The weather wasn't bad, somewhere in the lower 50s. I felt odd being alone but decided not to worry about it. In my usual fashion I stayed somewhat apart from people at first, but people in my tour group soon took an interest in me, particularly when they saw me attempting to take self-portraits.

A frantic shot of the Vltava river taken while the bus rolled over one of Prague's many bridges.

Our tour started at the top of Prague Castle. You can just see it in the photo above on the distant right. The weather was cold, but splendid. As we all assembled outside the bus we had to wait for our local guide. While waiting two older women, cousins who were traveling together, struck up a conversation with me. They clucked in disapproval when I told them I was traveling alone and before I knew it they had adopted me. I'll call them G and N.

It was colder at the top of Prague Castle. I had to put my gloves on. Prague Castle is a complex of the main castle, St. Vitus Cathedral, lessor castles, gardens and halls. The President of Prague lives there and it's a place where most Czech government functions occur.

A properly stoic guard although I did manage to get him to crack a momentary smile.

We were just in time to see the changing of the guard at the entrance of the castle. I watched the proceedings with curiosity since I missed the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace when I was in London a few years ago. Our tour guide explained that the guards are properly stoic, that is not allowed to smile, move, or speak, just like in London. People took tons of pictures of them, posing and giggling. I was wearing my ray bans when I snapped the picture above. I got the guard to smile just for a moment when I lowered my sunglasses, smiled hugely, and said "Thank You" in sugar-coated tones.

We were herded into one of the many courtyards in the complex. While our tour guide did some explaining I wandered off a little taking care not to venture too far off. I was not yet familiar with my group and worried about losing them as there were other tours coming in by the bus load.

One of the courtyards at Prague Castle.

We went through a side entrance at last and I saw our first destination: the grandiose St. Vitus Cathedral. I was terribly excited. I love church architecture.

The real deal complete with all the elements to make you look upwards so you feel properly humbled before God.

The cathedral is massive, dark, and cold. All that stone and stained glass everywhere. We were asked not to use a flash so I took plenty of pictures, but many of them didn't come out.

A particularly splendid stained glass specimen, the Mucha window.

I kept wandering around and soon realized that my new friends G and N were a little disconcerted with this behavior. They didn't say anything, of course. On the tour we had these headsets so we could still hear our tour guide even if I wandered off a bit. These pictures simply cannot show the grand size and scale of this place.

This picture might give you a better idea. Note the flying buttresses, one of my very favorite architectural features.

Here's the front entrance of St. Vitus' with its rose window.

Although the spectacular chapel of St. Wenceslas (his relics are kept here) was undergoing renovations we were still allowed to take a peek inside. There are over 1300 semi-precious stones and paintings here and the chandelier is made of gold and more precious stones. I couldn't get a very clear picture but you can still get a general feel for this place.

Absolutely breathtaking...

We left St. Vitus for the front entrance of Prague Castle and the huge courtyard. I took pictures from the viewing area on the hill, but was shooting directly into the sun so none of them came out well, but I'll post better pictures in a later post.

I continued to wander around without my new companions and away from the tour group. I noted happily that they had a National Gallery in the complex which would inform my plans for the next day.

We made a pit stop at the water closet and while everyone was waiting around, I noted that G and N were chatting with people from our group. I was more standoff-ish until a nice man offered to take a photo of me since I kept trying to take self-portraits. G and N introduced me to a few people and I talked them for a while. Then we piled onto the tour bus and made our way towards Old Town which is situated on the other side of the river from Prague Castle.

On the way to the Old Town Square we did get to see a bit of the Jewish Quarter (the Josefov) in Prague, but only just. The tour guide was moving too fast. G loves cemeteries and since N is Jewish she wanted to see the synagogue and the cemetery, but both were closed up tight. I was as disappointed as they were.

Old Town or Stare Mesto is where the Prague was first settled as our guide told us. We had been told by the tour guide that we would have a few hours to explore Old Town after the tour and then we could make our way back to the hotel on our own since it's within walking distance. I was getting antsy. I was feeling the confining effect of being on a group tour.

The Old Town Square is very beautiful.

We were told about the history of the Square and surrounding buildings. The tour was finished up by giving us a short history of the world famous medieval Prague Astronomical Clock which shows the positions of the Sun, Moon, and some planets.

The beautiful clock.

After getting directions so we could make our way back to the hotel, G, N and I left the tour group. G had been in Prague eight years earlier with her daughter and they had found a vegetarian restaurant just off the Square that she claims was the best vegetarian food she ever had. In the spirit of adventure, we set off to find it. After some twists and turns we finally asked a clerk in a jewelry shop down one of the side streets and she gave us general directions. I found out quickly that G has a terrible sense of direction, but we managed to find the place and she was very happy.

In front of the restaurant. If you take the street directly opposite the Clock and wind your way down the narrow street you'll see it off to the right side after the equivalent of a block or two.

The restaurant was very stripped down, cafeteria style. We gathered our trays and started piling food on our plates. N was very skeptical, apparently she's not a very adventurous eater. Each dish was labeled in English, but sometimes what the card said didn't correspond with what the food looked like. No matter, we pressed on. By the time we got to the cashier it became clear that this was a place were locals like to eat lunch. It was very cheap and we were the only tourists. The cashier barely spoke English, but we managed to pay for our food and find a table. The other folks at the tables looked at us in surprise as we passed them.

Here's a picture of my plate. Don't ask me what the food was. All I know is the soup was a lovely carrot soup.

The food was spectacular. As G promised it was the very best vegetarian food I've ever had. I couldn't believe it! Eagerly we gobbled up our food while N sat with us. She barely picked at her plate. I guess she didn't like it much. Most of the food was in a kind of casserole style with plenty of grains. Yummy! I highly recommend it (if you can find the restaurant) for a delicious, off-the-beaten-path experience.

After our meal the three of us wandered around the various gift shops around the Square. My feet were cold so I looked for socks, but there were none to be had. The search for socks became a running joke between the three of us. I bought a couple of things but wandering the gift shops isn't really my deal especially if you keep going into one gift shop after another that keeps selling the same shit over and over. I soon realized this seems to be how many people visit other countries: they go on a tour and afterwards go shopping in tourist gift shops. Yick.

After wandering for a while the ladies decided we should make our way back to the hotel. We thought we were following the proper directions, but I turned out to be wrong.

Next up: Sort of Lost in Prague

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