97 Days adrift in Europe (Part 11 – Prague)

I leave Berlin for Prague and Budapest, appropriately, from Ostbahn Hof, which used to be the main terminal in East Berlin, before the Wall fell. Like many things in Berlin it’s been modernised and scrubbed up, but it seems like an appropriate place from which to head to eastern Europe.

For whatever reason these two cities are inextricably linked in my mind. I’m not sure if it’s because travellers often compare them, because of their Eastern European history linked by the uprisings of 1956 and 1968, in respectively, Hungary and the then Czechoslovakia.

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Along the Elbe River

It’s about three hours from Berlin to Prague following the line of the Elbe river. I retreat into my train cocoon and absorb the passing scenery – sufficiently beautiful, in parts, to make certain that one has a seat on the left hand side when travelling to Prague.

Prague’s station, Praha hlavní nádraží has been converted into a huge soul-less barn of a station; upstairs a small piece of the original old station that has not been gutted remains, in the shape of a large ornate dome.

Arriving at a new station, I follow a standard routine. First money. Then I find the address to which I want to go on my phone or failing having a phone available, I write the address, phone number and any instructions I have in my notebook. Finally, find the information centre and get a public transport map, a general map, the relevant ticket and, showing them the smartphone map, I get specific instructions about how to get from the station to the destination.

Finally, find a cafe and sit for 15 minutes to study the maps and directions so that I feel completely orientated in the city. This is the other side of the idiot traveller. I may have none of my possessions due to my propensity to lose my possessions all over the world but I know where I am going even without them. I’m not sure if I am a future archeologists gift or nightmare. There are literally hundreds of my toothbrushes, combs, reading glasses, power adaptors, bottles of sunscreen, soap and miscellaneous other items scattered from Macchu Pichu to Broken Hill.

My first day in Prague is largely lost to the French lurgi, as are half of each of the succeeding two days. But this is not problematic as my AirBnb is a fine place to hang out. Spacious, cool and with good Wifi allowing me to pass the time writing and streaming videos.

The flat is run by two sisters, Kristýna and Anna. The official host, Kristýna is away so I am met by Anna, whom her sister has described as “My very nice sister, Anna”. I tell Anna this but she denies she is very nice and says it is her sister who is nice. So my expectations are high since both sisters think the other one is nice – at least one might be.

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Part of the Kampa Museum exhibition

As it turns out those expectations are not misplaced, especially after Kristýna Kůstková returns. It turns out she is an

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Street art in Prague

opera singer who has been away at a music festival . Likewise Anna’s boyfriend, who also materialises, is an opera singer. So in my lurgi-ridden state I am serenaded by arias in the afternoon (to listen go here).

Prague is an excellent city. The combination of its setting on the Vltava River, its music, both formal and street, its squares, buildings, museums, street art, public transport and general accessibility make it a pleasure to visit. Moreover, it has variety from the broad avenues of the new town, the narrow laneways of the old town and everything in between.

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Sculpture in the gardens of the Museum Kampa
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Interior of St Vitus Cathedral, Prague Castle

On Friday I head over to do a random foot tour of the city. This is always an excellent way to get a feel for the city because you largely avoid the tourist hot spots. Essentially you just plot a rough route and head off without any planned destinations – the end result being that you bump into many things you would not have normally seen, from sculptures, to museums.

By midday I have circled around to the centre of Prague’s tourism, the Charles Street Bridge and the old town square. As often the highlights of that part of town are not the things one expects but other things, such as buskers, street performers and choirs; the latter practicing their routine in one of the churches off the main town square. In the main square an NGO from South Korea is giving a dance performance highlighting the unresolved issue of the so-called “Comfort Women”, who were abducted and kept as sexual slaves by Japanese soldiers.

Like many other European cities, Prague, suffers from the ‘Plague’ in the form of hundreds of thousands of tourists but, in common with everywhere around the world, the saving grace is that humans are, largely, bone idle. Go early, go late or go off the beaten track and you can have the place, largely, to yourself.

Sunday is my last day in Prague. Fortunately the lurgi appears to have decamped back to France, and I’m finally able to have a full day. So, following the 7/15 rule of travel I leave the flat at 5.30 am. For those unaware the 7/15 rule goes like this. For every hour after 7 am the number of people at key tourist spots increases by 15%. Conversely after 6pm the reverse occurs.

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Charles St Bridge, taken from Prague Castle at Peak Tourist. Like lemmings
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Peak Tourist at Prague Castle

Prior to 6 am you are at less than 5% of peak tourist. By 7 am you will find around 15% of the peak number of tourists. At 8 am, 30%, at 9 am, 45%. Peak tourist by this definition is reached around 12-12.45 pm. This is a time of day to be avoided at all cost. Peak tourist continues until around 6pm with little apparent diminution. But by 7 pm numbers are down by 15% and this continues until, by midnight, you are at 10% of peak tourist. There are exceptions, of course, some very popular sites (Colosseum, Rome), reach peak tourist earlier. Others such as party destinations remain at peak later.

There are also other variations on this rule. These are places which, although they follow the numbers formula, have an exception called the Vomit Variation. It’s a bit akin to a cordon bleu restaurant except in reverse. The quantity may be small at a good restaurant but the quality is good and tasteful. By contrast the tourist Vomit Variation rules that the number of tourists may be small but the quality is invariably low.

In Prague you must apply the Vomit Variation because it is a party destination. Although there are few people about at 5.30 am, those that remain are best avoided. They are the latter day equivalent of the Huns, Goths or Mongol hordes. Found in large groups, loud, wild, frequently savage, lacking in any semblance of culture, frequently semi-naked, boorish, usually smelly. Invariably male, invariably British. They can be found staggering the streets, vomiting in corners or gathered outside MacShit or Kentucky Fried Cat. A hazard to any normal human being, they should be confined to soccer stadiums or Guantanamo Bay.

Like cockroaches and other lower life forms, they are best avoided. When seen, cross to the other side of the road and fondle your can of Mace. In the absence of Mace you may brandish a book, preferably non-fiction, since this is reputed to act in the same way that a cross effects vampires. If you are certain they are English wave a copy of the EU’s Schengen treaty at them. With any luck this will instantaneously transport them back to Xenophobia Island.

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Prague at dawn
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Charles St Bridge at dawn

I arrive at the Charles St Bridge, probably Prague’s most famous landmark at 6 am. It’s dawn and, in contrast to peak tourist when the bridge is awash with many hundreds of tourists, there are no more than 20-30 people on the bridge. Of these about half are photographing themselves rather than the bridge or the sunrise.

Studiously ignoring 2000 years of history and a Gaia’s worth of natural beauty they are taking their 200th photo of themselves this week, assuming you judge Sunday to be the first day of the week. I am always tempted to carry a pair of bolt-cutters and like some latter day Luddite, I will tear around the hordes of tourists disembowelling their selfie sticks and saving them from a future irredeemably damaged by narcissism. Failing that I will recommend they go into politics where their narcissism may serve a useful purpose – at least for them.

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Go the Swans

From the bridge, I am wander the empty back streets of Prague’s Mala Strana district, heading upriver from where the Charles Street bridge and it’s small army of sculpted figures is best appreciated.

Down by the river there is a flotilla of swans. Go the Swans (for non-Australians see here and here). Looking back the bridge is reflected in the river’s dawn light. I make my way up the hill towards Prague Castle and the Cathedral. As I go I pass the Pissing Fountain where two male figures rotate, urinating in the small pond beneath them and spelling out famous lines from local writers. Someone was taking the piss.

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The Royal Palace. Vladivas Hall – still one of the largest ceilings of its type in the world

By the time I arrive at the top of the hill, it is already 9 am. I detour via the Castle grounds so by the time I arrive in the castle proper it is 9.45 am. Prague Castle also does not quite follow the 7/15 rule and is already inundated with a torrent of tourists.

The line to get into the famous St Vitus Cathedral, which opens at 10 am is around 100 metres long. My queue phobia kicks in and I wander off to look at other parts of the castle. This includes the old 10th century royal palace of which a A highlight of the palace is Vladislav Hall. It is from here that one of the famous defenestrations took place (see below).

Prague Castle is more like a small city than a castle. Sitting above the city and the river it is reputed to be the world’s largest castle. For more than two centuries when Prague was, arguably, the most important city in Europe, it was the seat of the Holy Roman Empire under Charles IV and his successors.

Charles made Prague his capital, and he rebuilt the city on the model of Paris, establishing the New Town (Nové Město). In 1348, he founded the Charles University in Prague, which was named after him and was the first university in Central Europe.

This served as a training ground for bureaucrats and lawyers. Soon Prague emerged as the intellectual and cultural center of Central Europe. Prague remained one one of the most important cities in Europe until around 1620 and was the capital of the empire under the Hapsburgs between 1583 and 1611.

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St Vitus Cathedral – some of the finest stained glass windows you will ever see.
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St Vitus – stained glass windows

Prague Castle was the site of two of the famous defenestrations (from the French fenetre meaning window, so literally de-windowed) starting with the first when the nobles threw the empire’s bureaucrats from the windows. There were two subsequent defenestrations.

You can read about these here. I favour this technique for future Australian elections since this seems infinitely more interesting than voting. All MPs who have lied, cheated on expenses or committed violations of human or civil rights are simply defenestrated.

The most famous of these was the second defenestration when two vice-regents of the Bohemian throne (ruled by the Austrian Hapsburg emperor in remote Vienna) and some governors of Czech lands (also German Catholics) were tossed into the moat after they delivered a letter that sought to remove the religious freedoms of Protestant Czech nobles

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St Vitus Cathedral

Within the castle walls is one of Europe’s finest cathedrals and it is this that dominates the entire castle and the city skyline. By the time I return to the cathedral the line for entry has reduced to about 20 metres. This is within my queue tolerance. There is no doubt that the building is quite magnificent although in common with many of these famous, large, churches the tranquility which is, perhaps, the most important part of the aura of religious buildings is ruined by the numbers. Of all the aspects of the cathedral the most impressive are the enormous and intricately detailed stained glass windows which are the equal of any I have seen.

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Golden Lane, house of Joseph Kazda

Leaving Prague Castle one passes by Golden Lane, a row of 16th century dwellings. They were originally built as homes for castle servants, marksmen and possibly goldsmiths – hence the name.

The homes were occupied until World War II and Franz Kafka lived at No. 22 for a brief time. Other famous occupants include, writer and nobel prize winner, Jaroslav Seifert, and one of the Czech Republic’s historians and film collectors, Joseph Kazda, who saved thousands of Czech films from the Nazis.

Now it’s on to Budapest

Links to all Prague images: Prague Castle; Prague Cathedral; Prague Detail; Prague Music and Events

This is Part 11 of the blog series “97 Days Adrift in Europe”. Links to other episodes and related content can be found below:

  1. Part 6 – Travelling South

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