Prague: The Picture Post

After our, oh so delightful flight(s) to Prague we arrived nearly 7 hours behind schedule. Originally I had planned to take mama to see the castle, and a few other locations on our arrival day, simply as a way of getting her feet wet. She'd never been outside the US before, so I wanted to ease her in and show her around a bit. Unfortunately that didn't happen. Because we were renting a private apartment and not a hotel room we had to meet the owner to receive the keys, and by the time it was all done we didn't have time to do much beyond eat before we wanted to see the bed. We decided to hit the local grocery and get provisions for the morning, have a sandwich and go to bed. The idea was that to save money we rented an apartment, and planned to eat at least two meals a day at the apartment rather in restaurants.

If you haven't had the joy of shopping in a country where you don't speak the language, let me tell you... it's fun. Simply relying on the few cognate words that you can figure out, and the pictures on the box leaves you open for all sorts of surprises. After our culinary adventures we hit the sack and prepared for adventures the next day.

Part of the reason that I wanted to go back to Prague was an event called the PQ, the Prague Quadrennial. This is an international theatre design conference, possibly the only one in the world, that occurs every four years. 40 or so countries participate and send the best of their design work from the past four years. I love it because it is all about the design, not about performance the way most theatre conferences end up. So we set out for the exhibition grounds, only to be turned away because the conference was only open to members on the first day and the general public wouldn't be allowed in until the next.

We decided instead to start the sightseeing. We hopped on the tram, (you can see my discussion of the Prague transit system over here) and headed towards the Old Town. The first stop was St. Nicholas Church, an amazing baroque church that is a huge confection of marble and gold leaf that simply overwhelms you when you enter. It was actually a very good choice to begin with I think. Mama has a great affinity for old places, but old places in the US means 1800, or possibly 1700. In Prague it can mean 1500, or 1300 in a very few rare places 900. It blew her mind a little bit, and it was incredible to watch. We also made our first run at the Castle, but only managed to get in St. Vitus Cathedral before the museums started closing down for the day.

The next day we saw the PQ at the beginning of the day. I must admit that the PQ is an amazing sight. Each country has an allotted floor space to build their displays in and most of them go all out building huge complexes and towering displays full of models and videos and mannequins with their best costumes. Some even make interactive theatrical experiences, like the Czech booth that put the viewer into the role of performer manipulating puppets, sometimes unknowingly, whose performances were visible to the other people within the booth. As a theatrical designer it is amazing to walk through and to see what design looks like in Korea, Lituania, South Africa, Croatia or Ireland. A great, great experience.

After the PQ we decided to try and finish up the Castle, so we headed up the hill to take that in. This time we managed to see the museum attached to the castle, telling the story of the castle complex from 900 or so to present. And again we managed never to set foot inside the Castle proper! I was beginning to wonder if we would ever manage to see all of the things that the castle complex has to offer, but we had seen the Royal Gardens and the moat area, things that I hadn't seen on my previous trip to Prague four years ago.

The next day we went south to an area called the Vysrehad where we saw the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. This is a Gothic cathedral that stands on the area where another of Prague's original castles had stood. The interior though has been plastered and painted by Art Nouveau painters with gorgeous patterning and portraits of the various saints associated with Prague. Prague has an interesting relationship with it's saints, by the way. St Nicholas, St. Wenceslaus (who was martyred in Prague which you can see the site of), St. Ludmilla (who was part of one of the Prague royal families), and my mom's personal favorite St. John of Nepomuk.

Jan Nepomuk was martyred in Prague as well, and is considered the patron Saint of the city. He was martyred after he refused to reveal the confession of the Queen to the King, around 1393. The King tortured him to death, then pitched his body over the Charles Bridge, the most famous bridge in town to date. When he hit the water 5 stars appeared in the sky and so he was thereafter declared a saint. His body rests in a nearly 20 foot tall solid silver mausoleum at the main alter of St. Vitus cathedral. You can find depictions of him all over the city.

Prague has an interesting relationship to its mythology in general actually. The city is full of stories and legends that fill the place with tis great air of mystery and wonder. It's part of the reason that I love the place so much.

The Vysrehad also contains the oldest existing church in the city, a small Romanesque rotunda that was built in the 900s. How cool is it to lay hands on the stone of a building that was started when no one but the Indians knew that America existed? Before the Renaissance. Before the Middle Ages even.

The park also includes an amazing cemetery that is home to some of Prague's most famous people like Dvorak. The graves are often elaborate affairs with statuary and monuments, surrounded by vast mosaics of biblical scenes. The people buried here are the heroes of the Republic, and it is an interesting reminder that the country is small enough, and compact enough that all of these people can be buried in the same place with no problems.

In the middle of all this we visited the Old Town Square to see the Astronomical clock which has been keeping time in the square for almost 600 years. Besides keeping track of four different types of time, the positions of the sun and moon, and the current astronomical signs every hour the clock features a parade of the Apostles and reminders against greed, vanity and sloth. It's really quite amazing to watch knowing how long it has been operating, (give or take some stoppages due to damage during WW2, etc.). And the face of the clock with its complicated overlay of dials and faces is gorgeous to see. It is a beautiful piece of machinery and really really worth seeing in person.

We also visited several of the more unusual sights in Prague. The Lorreto housed two of them, the Casa de Santa Maria that the convent is named after and a statue of Saint Wilgefortis. The story of the Casa, or the "House of Mary" goes like this: In the 17th century infidels, (read: Muslims) were threatening the house in Nazareth where the angel had spoken to Mary. Angels appeared and mystically airlifted the house to safety in Lorreta, Italy. The residents of that town immediately built up a sort of cottage industry making replicas of the house and selling them to Catholic establishments all over Europe. Prague has one of them enshrined within a larger stone structure at this convent. I'll tell you... it doesn't really LOOK very much like a house that I'd imagine being anywhere near Nazareth, but who am I to speak.

St. Wilgefortis has to be one of the most unusual saints you'll ever read about, and there is a shrine to her just a few yards from the Casa within the Loretta. Wilgefortis was a young noblewoman, who had been promised by her father to a local pagan king. She had converted to Christianity, and intended to be a nun, so she prayed to God to save her from the marriage. Her salvation came in the form of a full grown beard that miraculously appeared on her face the next morning. The pagan king was suitably horrified and refused to marry her, but it enraged her father so much that he crucified her. She is often depicted with her shoes off because the first miracle attributed to her had to do with a golden shoe that miraculously fell off of a statue of the saint when a young girl prayed to her for help in getting out of her own unwanted wedding.

Like I said, Prague is full of stories like this. Another church has a mummified arm hanging from a chain in the foyer that was supposedly cut from a thief sometime in the 15th century. It is said that the thief tried to steal gems from the statue of Mary on the alter, but the statue grabbed his arm and held him so tightly that it had to be amputated by the priests in the church. Other churches in town feature gargoyles that are said to be street urchins petrified by the curse of a mysterious stranger that they taunted from the roof of the church. The Charles bridge has a host of legends about it including the eggs and cheese that were used in the mortar for the bridge, buried treasures, and mystical swords contained it the buttresses. You have to love a city that contains so many stories.

On our last day in the city we visited the Jewish Quarter, the small area of town where Prague's Jews had been confined over the years. Several of the more interesting synagogues are still standing including Pikas Synagogue which is now a memorial to all of the Jews from Prague who died during the Holocaust. The Old New Synagogue, which is where the best known Rabbi in Prague history, Rabbi Loew taught. Rabbi Loew is the Rabbi in the mythical story of the Golem and the Old New Synagogue is where the remains of the Golem were supposedly hidden after its rampage through town. Another of Prague's amazing legends. Also in the Jewish Quarter is the Old Jewish Cemetery which is simply an astounding sight.

Prague is a great, great city full of architectural wonders, mythological fantasy, and surprises all over the place. Not to mention good food, and great beer. (The beer is cheaper than water there. Really.) It is an easy city to navigate, with more public transport than you can shake a stick at, all around the city. If you've made it to the end of all this and you are still interested I would seriously recommend looking into a visit to the city. Besides being a great destination it is still relatively cheap, especially the food. If you can go after the high season the prices of rooms drops pretty dramatically too.

Go. See. It's amazing.

8 Response to "Prague: The Picture Post"

  • Nita Says:

    Fabulous tour, thank you! I have Czech blood (great grandmother born there) and Prague entices me.

    Have you ever seen the Tarot of Prague ( Each card image is made up of statues and architectural elements in the city. Created by a couple who lives in Prague.

  • Cully Says:

    YOu should visit Nita. It's great. I hadn't seen the tarot, I'm surprised it isn't in every shop there. They did a great job of finding the apporpriate images too!

  • Bonny Says:

    What a great post, Cully! I almost felt like I was there in Prague with you and your Mom. Going to Prague has been a dream for some time. My Mom used to live there just before the war and had lots of stories to tell. Reading your post has reinforced that desire to go. Just don't know when that will be.
    Thank you for writing this truly informative and interesting post. I really enjoyed your photos, too.

  • Big A Says:

    Some really great images here!

  • vinnie Says:

    it seems as if you had a great time, just reading about it makes me want to visit.

  • Anonymous Says:

    I 'photopainted' some pictures of Old Town square and made a site for it Prague Sketch . Enjoy it.

  • phthaloblu Says:

    Thank you for sharing your trip! I found your commentary so interesting and lively that I really wish I could go there some day and see it for myself. But, being the starving artist that I am, chances of that are pretty much nil. I loved the pictures, too, and I'm glad your mum and you had a great time.

  • Prague Hotels Says:

    Prague is beautiful city with architecture going back to the middle ages. Charles Bridge is a treasure, a great beauty. The last time I visited your city I stayed at the Three Pelicans hotel at the western edge of the bridge. I liked it best early on a drizzly morning with few people around.