The enormous front gate (Matthias Gate), flanked by two palace guards, loomed at the top of the hill. Giant titans on both sides of the gate stabbed and beat
away at a critter, looking rather ominous and disapproving of all the tourists milling about.
Sunshine sparkled a bit on the huge second courtyard, illuminating the white walls of the palace. We purchased our tickets so we could visit all of the cathedrals and palaces within the confines. Our first stop was the the beautifully gothic St. Vitus Cathedral, officially begun in 1344 and consecrated in 1929. I was happy for the sunshine; it glittered in through the enormous and intricate stained glass windows lining each wall.
I tried to avoid the crowds of tourists following the umbrella, skirting around them to the silver-canopied monument of St. John of Nemopuk to the St. Wenceslaus Chapel, where the scenes of his life are painted on the wall. In one corner, a door with seven different locks holds safe the secrets of the Czech crown jewels. Essentially, St. Vitus Cathedral is the Westminster Abbey of the Czech Republic; kings and queens were coronated here, and many people pilgrimage to the site where many important historical figures are interred.
|St. John of Nemopuk|
From the chill of St. Vitus, we toured the Chapel of St. George, a less grand church on the castle grounds but no less beautiful in its simplicity. Then, it was indoors to the heated Prague Castle Museum, which detailed its colorful and storied history throughout the ages. I didn’t know a great deal of Eastern European history pre-WWII, so it provided great insight into the pre-medieval to modern day years of kings, queens, saints, sinners, murderers, and innocents. Particularly interesting was the photograph of Adolf Hitler standing in Prague Castle, having made good on his intentions to take over the country. From the feet of kings to dictators, from commoners to convicts – the castle has felt each footstep.
|St. George Chapel|
|Inside St. Vitus|
Before we continued our exploration of the grounds, we decided on some lunch, somewhere sort of away from the madding crowds in the castle. We snugged into the warm chairs, and the food was alright, but I was more disappointed by the incredible prices they decided to charge us. Our first clue should have been that the prices weren’t posted on the menus, but dang, we didn’t expect
them to be that high, especially since we’d eaten at several other places in the locale that were better tasting and much better priced. It was certainly out to fleece tourists, which was sad considering there were a load of other good places to try who were honest about their prices. Sigh. Lesson learned.
At noon, we lined up for the changing of the guard at the castle, a fanfare moment marked by too many tourists and just enough men in uniforms. They played music out of the second floor windows as the guards trooped up and rotated out. Cool to see, but people were way too pushy. Dang. You know, had to check that one off the bucket list!
After the ridiculous lunch, we burned off calories by going back up the stairs to the castle and perusing the dungeon – riddled with torture instruments, of course, which always fascinated people no matter how macabre the sight – and the armory. The early examples of protective “athletic” cups on the knight’s armor had me in stitches. I’m not sure it would really help if one got hit by a well-placed lance?
Ouchies. It also made me think of how cold the armor had to be in the winter and how much of an oven it was in the summer. Wonder if they had knightly man-pris or anything to help with the heat?
|Lit Fame: Franz Kafka’s house|
Out of the dungeon and the armor hall, we wandered into Golden Lane, a row of lovely, pastel-colored cottages down the far side of the castle. In the olden days, craftsmen essential to castle life lived there. The most recent residents just moved out not very long ago. Franz Kafka, of Metamorphosis fame, lived in one of the cottages and wrote many of his short stories there. Now, there are tourist shops and craft huts instead. It was a beautiful little piece of history, especially so when the fat, fluffy snow began to fall as we strolled down Golden Lane.
At the end of Golden Lane, we found the creepy toy store – more of those menacing-looking marionettes – and also the Rosenberg Palace, which had a few restored rooms from the women’s institution and an interesting exhibit on the St. Vitus gargoyles, of all things. By women’s institution, I mean it was a home for women of nobility who did not marry. They had to be 24 years old and unmarried to join, or they could be orphaned at 18 and live there. A rather nice concept, I suppose, if you were an old, rich hag at 24. Man – what would they do with me at 29?
We took one last look around the palace grounds before exiting and walking to Hradcrany Square, the enormous square just outside the palace gates. On the hill was the Plague Memorial, which, I believe, was a memorial to the Black Plague victims. I think. With the square disappearing below, we walked uphill to Loreta Square, trying to find the chapel with the famous “bearded lady saint” in a nearby chapel. It’s a crucified woman with a beard. Of course we wanted to see this sight – Prague is filled with statues of saints – as she was the patron saint of the needy – and single, apparently. Maybe lighting a candle to her will help move things along there!
|Palaces along Hradcrany Square|
We passed the Loreta, an absolutely enormous church just right of the square (and mercifully, downhill), but since we had to pay to go in, we figured that we’d pass it up and keep walking down the hill, trying to find the other chapel with the bearded lady saint (St. Starosta or St. Wilgefortis, depending on who you ask), but the wall to Loreta just continued all the way down. There was no other point of entry.
The sun began to shine through the clouds, but we were getting rather tired of walking. We came to an enormously looming wall on the side of a hill, and we had two choices: climb up the stairs or climb up the hill again. So, both involved climbing, but since we had to climb again, I suggested a hot beverage and something to sustain us, since it’d been awhile since we’d eaten lunch.
As if by a mirage, a little 13th century woodsman-type cottage appeared at the very bottom of the hill. It was a tiny inn and cafe, surrounded by a tall gate that had a sign reading, “Ring the bell.” Just as Julie rang it, I said, “I hope this isn’t some kind of Hansel and Gretel (crap) and we get shoved in an oven.” The door opened up to reveal not some ugly, witchy hag (thank God!) but a pleasant, cheerful young woman who welcomed us in to a beautiful old courtyard and then into the country cottage cafe.
It was warm, filled with a few locals, and had the most idiosyncratic items on the walls – drying herbs, seed packets, old farm implements, antique toys, and a particularly pretty cuckoo clock that cuckoo-ed the hour not long after we arrived. A warm fire glowed in the stone hearth, and we had a plug to charge our iPhones – old world charm mixed with modern convenience. Perfect.
The menu was fairly extensive for such a tiny, out-of-the-way place. I ordered a caffe latte and piece of homemade apple strudel. We warmed up as we waited, observing everything about the beautiful cafe. It was one of those places not on any map, but it simply appearing at the end of a quiet lane, an oasis from the busy and touristy streets of Prague.
The coffee was amazing – I think every little place had an espresso machine and excellent coffee in
Prague – and the apple strudel was out of this world, with toasted whole almonds on top. It was filling, warming, and delicious. I was so happy to have found it – well, stumbled on it, more like,
|Weathered copper, rusty red,
and buttery yellow:
the colors of Prague
After heating up and eating up, we climbed the wall, walked along the street for a bit, and then came back down, this time going into Loreta and deciding to take a peek. As it turned out, the small chapel with the bearded saint was part of Loreta, in a very dark and out of the way corner. Along the walls were paintings of various saints and their stories, which reminded of the Saints and Martyrs class I’d taken in college for my degree. Plenty of torture, self-sacrifice, angry parents trying to marry off chaste daughters.
|Finally – some sunshine!|
Poor St. Starosta. She had taken a vow of chastity, but her father wanted to marry her to a pagan king. She prayed all night before the marriage that God would prevent it somehow. According to legend, she woke up with a full beard (Jesus-type beard), and, of course, the pagan king wasn’t into hairy ladies. So, he called off the wedding, which ticked off her father. Her father had her crucified for her defiance. Now she’s the patron saint of unhappy marriages, single women, and the needy, as far as I know.
Since I didn’t pay for photography rights, I bought a postcard with her on it instead. It’s tucked in my journal – you know, for help with the singleness.
After wandering through the church and its beautiful treasury – the altar ornaments were absolutely stunning! – we kept going up the streets to the Strahov Monastery, a huge 12th century church on the top of the hill. We poked about inside – the air was quite heavy with incense – and decided to look around for a time before heading off the grounds to the restaurant and vineyard below on the hillside.
|View from the vineyard to Petrin Hill|
The hillside had the best view of the city imaginable – without tourists. I highly recommend this view, as you can take unlimited amounts of panoramic shots without being disturbed by hundreds of other people – such as we were by Prague Castle. Here, no one interrupted us as we sat on a park bench and drank in the pastel Easter colours of various buildings, the green Petrin Hill, and the looming, disapproving castle in the distance. The entirety of the Golden City was laid out before us in near silence – silence only broken by the toll of bells from Strahov Monastery and surrounding churches.
Oh, I miss church bells! I miss the tolling bells of medieval churches! It’d been seven years, since the bells of Oxford, Rome, and Cardiff enchanted me with their music. There is something sublime in the toll of old bells, a call to the world that so many generations, across time and history, trial and triumph, have heard.
I closed my eyes at the top of the hill in Prague and simply listened to the bells as the pale, ghostly sunshine began to dip lower in the sky.
Once the bells tapered off, their echoes dying one by one, we realized we had found the path to Petrin Tower, the Eiffel Tower lookalike atop of Petrin Hill, the largest green space in Prague. We were too tired and cold to climb up to the tower today, so we started our downhill ascent toward our hotel.
It was a rather steep downhill walk, one that I had to be very careful of my footing. Good thing I had practiced for this trip on the Great Wall, when we took the class trip to the “untouristy” part of the wall. Untouristy, by the way, means the wall as it probably was back when it was built. The cobblestones had nothing on some sections of the Great Wall near Jinshanling! At least I didn’t have to worry about Mongol invaders from the north…
|Another marionette shop. Ugh!|
We passed the gelato shop (closed!) and the absinthe shop (open, but very full of people, it seemed), and carried on to our hotel near the middle of the hill. We had completed a huge loop around the northern part of Mala Strana that day, and our feet were killing, to say the least. However, due to the little snacks along the way (and getting ripped off at lunch!), we weren’t very hungry for a heavy supper. Instead, we found a little crepe shop that was just closing, but they graciously let us in as their final service for the night.
I ordered a preserved raisin and cottage cheese crepe and, of course, another caffe latte. Preserved raisin meant “get drunk off rum raisins” crepe. Those raisins were so strong, it was like drinking a rum shot! The chunks of cheese (not like the cottage cheese we know in the States, by the way) did cut the rum a bit, but wow, it was hard to walk back up that hill!
The bill for the crepes came in a little treasure chest, which delighted us both. That definitely was the most creative presentation of a bill I’d ever seen!
|Hotel Residence Green Lobster:
My 14th century hotel!
It was back to the hotel now so I could use WiFi and plan out our first day trip from Prague – to Terezin, about an hour bus ride from the city. The Czech Republic has a phenomenal transportation website where one can find out any route on bus or train from the city. It’s great – and it made me wish the US had a better train system so I could explore more without flying and missing all the amazing sites along the way OR driving and still missing all the sites.
Tired, sleepy, and wary of the creeper’s return to my dreams, I watched CNN headlines as I explored various options for day trips and mentally prepared myself for visiting a Holocaust memorial site, something which I had wanted to do for ages, ever since studying it seriously in college.
But, as I found out quickly, even though I’ve taught Holocaust literature and history for five years to 8th graders, I really couldn’t prepare myself enough to walk through the silent, ghostly streets of Terezin.
Since I was a bit restless – and very desirous of seeing Prague at night, with all its beautiful buildings lit
up and shining in the darkness – I pulled on my warm coat and gloves, picked up a latte to go from the small place next to my hotel, and walked up the hill to Prague Castle.
Hardly anyone was out – just a few tourists here and there and the guards of the castle. The Matthias Gate was still open, so I walked into the courtyard and through to St. Vitus Cathedral, reveling in the chilly nip of the night air and the freedom of walking in such a dark, mystical castle at night without loads of people jostling and shoving to get in line. The boots of the guards struck the stones methodically, but otherwise, all was quiet. So quiet.
I ventured through to the back of the cathedral and took pictures, but before they could close the main gates – and my main means of returning directly to my hotel instead of wandering aimlessly in the dark – I scurried back through the Matthias Gate and walked around Hradcrany Square as well, observing Prague at night.
Legends and ghost stories always seem so much more plausible when darkness covers everything, including the shining glory of the city during the daytime. I stared out at the lights of the city and its monuments, simply thinking. Thinking of everything. Thinking of the past year and what I looked for and wanted in the future.
And, as the half-full moon glowed overhead, I walked quietly back down the hill, my mind full of a million things like the million stars hiding in the stray clouds above me.