Looking back down toward the Old Town from the Castle.
We began the Rick Steves self-guided tour starting with the St. Vitus Cathedral. The entire façade was covered in scaffolding, but the interior is quite stunning – not because of any particular ornamentation, but because of its height. It just seems like it’s twice as tall as it really is, because the vertical lines created by the columns and pillars aren’t broken up by any horizontal decoration. The Cathedral was built in two distinct halves – one during the 14th century, and therefore genuinely old, and one during the 20th century and made to look old. (Apparently, on the façade that we couldn’t see there are carvings of men in suits – the men who helped finish the building in the early 1900s.) There are several pretty stained glass windows, including one by Czech artist Alphonse Mucha. It’s quite modern-looking, and pays homage to historical Czech heroes.
Top row: The Cathedral from the side, and the scaffolded front.
Middle row: The nave (in the left picture, it's the far end that's the genuinely old bit).
Bottom row: The tomb of Prince Wenceslas, and a pretty muraled chapel.
Next up, we wandered into the square between the Cathedral and Old Royal Palace, and eventually into the Palace itself. There’s not much that’s worth seeing (at least according to R.S.), but the grand hall is really lovely – it’s where the Czech Parliament met until the 1990s, which is pretty amazing. The ceiling looks rather art nouveau, as the ribbing is curvy and shapes itself into flowers at the intersections. The wooden floor planks are large, and worn shiny from centuries of footfall. There are two rooms off the grand hall from which two Catholic governors were thrown out the window in 1618 when the Czech Protestant nobles rioted, in what is called the “second defenestration.” Y’know, it’s crude, but it’s certainly one way to let the leaders know you’re not happy with them. (And the fact that this was the “second” one implies that this method had worked in the past!)
The grand hall in the Old Royal Palace.
After deciding that the rest of the castle's museums weren't interesting to us, we headed back down the hill and caught the Metro to the main train station to make reservations for our trip to Berlin on Friday. The Prague Metro is as easy to understand as any other Metro. And the wall next to the train, which in every other Metro station I’ve ever seen is covered with advertising of some kind, is in the Prague stations a piece of art. The three subway lines each have a color associated with them, so the walls correspond to those colors and have rows and rows of alternating concave and convex half-circles. It looks almost like a wall of colored bubble wrap. Quite pretty.
Pretty Metro wall art.
We got to the train station where we’d arrived Monday afternoon, and went to the first ticket counter we saw. We waited in line and found the woman didn’t speak English. She managed to direct us to the appropriate section of the counter, however, so that was pretty good. Then we waited in one line for quite awhile before realizing the guy ahead of us was taking far too long (why we always end up in the wrong line anywhere we go, I’ll never understand) so we switched to the other line. Then when it was our turn, we said we wanted to make reservations on the tickets we already had for our trip to Berlin. The woman at that window told us (nicely) that she couldn’t help us with the schedule, we had to know exactly what train we wanted to take first. (Huh?) She directed us to the information section of the counter, in the opposite corner of the room. Fine.
We walked to the information section and waited in another line (if you’re keeping track, this was our third line – fourth if you count the one we eventually abandoned) which was specifically for information only, no purchases. And just as we had in Germany, we watched helplessly as one old woman just jumped ahead of the quite visible and substantial queue. When it was our turn, we asked for the schedule, and the kind man behind the counter printed it off for us. That was it, that was the extent of his work on our behalf. We then waited in the line at the other end of his counter to actually purchase the reservations. We were waiting, next in line, when a man came up and looked like he was going to cut in front of us. We had been leaving about a foot of space between us and the person in front of us in line – out of courtesy, and out of habit. What we realized is that no one here does that – the next person in line is practically sitting on the shoulder of the person in front of them, so our foot (or more) of space looked to them as if we weren’t in line at all. Or at least that’s what we’re telling ourselves to make the people here seem less rude.
At any rate, this guy was looking like he was thinking about jumping ahead of us, so I moved around from Chris’ side to his front, between him and the woman who was currently being assisted and just in front of us. The guy looked over, saw us waiting there, and it clearly registered that there was a queue – so he moved. Finally, we caught on to the system. We’ll see if this new knowledge sticks.
Mission finally accomplished (and the train leaves at a quite dignified 9:18am), we walked back toward the hotel and hunting for lunch. As we rounded the corner next to our hotel, we stopped to look at the menu of the restaurant on the corner. It looked good, the prices were more than reasonable, and the Visa sign in the window was practically calling our name.
The food at this place took longer than normal to arrive, but it was well worth the wait. I had duck leg confit with baked cabbage and bacon over potato gnocchi. It was spectacular, truly mouth-watering. Chris had potato gnocchi with sun-dried tomatoes and mascarpone and parmesan cheeses. Also wonderful. We get a 5% discount on one meal at our hotel’s restaurant, but I find it hard to believe it could be any better than that food – so we’ve already resolved to eat there again. Perhaps for dinner tonight…
After a brief break at the hotel, we walked over to the Old-New Synagogue to finish our tour of the city’s Jewish sites. It was built in 1270, and is the oldest synagogue in Central Europe. The 13th century floor is easily 10 feet below the current street level – it’s like in Rome, where the Forum and Pantheon are at lower levels than the present-day city. Amazing to think of the crap that builds up on the ground over the years.
The synagogue itself is quite small, yet notable for a few key features:
- Jews weren’t allowed to build things, so it was built by Christians.
- The roof structure would have been the typical four-rib design in the vaults, but as that would have created a cross design (quite inappropriate for a synagogue) a clumsy fifth rib was added.
- There are two strongholds in the entryway of the building which were used to keep Jewish valuables safe, as the Jews were the most heavily taxed group in medieval times.
The front of the Old-New Synagogue, and the two clocks of the Jewish Town Hall next door - the top clock is like any other you'd be familiar with, and the one underneath (on the left) goes couner-clockwise. Why not? Hebrew reads right to left...
We thought we’d check an “easy” errand off of our list, and walked back to the wine shop we’d seen the day before to get some Becherovka (a uniquely Czech alcohol) for a friend who'd requested it. There was a Visa sign in the window, but the woman told us that “only wine was in the computer,” so the hard alcohol we wanted to buy was cash only. And we were down to 500 Kč, possibly enough for a taxi on Friday to the train station, and didn’t want to deal with another cash advance. We said we were sorry, and walked out. Chris is under the impression that the more times we tell people we can’t buy anything because they don’t take cards, the more potential the establishments have for getting the message they should take cards. I’m not sure that’s the message they’re getting, but who knows.
We generally both like to shop for shoes and clothes when we travel, and we were making an effort. But my feet were getting achy, and I was feeling really tired in general. Even if I’d seen the perfect shoes, I’m not sure I’d have been able to get excited about them. I saw a few pieces of clothing I liked at one store, but the thought of having to get in and out of my own clothing to try anything on exhausted me. We strolled back to the hotel via the Old Town Square and then via another road where Chris thought he’d seen another liquor store (we couldn’t find it), and relaxed in the room until dinnertime.
We weren’t exactly starving, but eventually went back downstairs (after 9:30) for dinner – at the same place where we had lunch, of course! The place was nearly empty, and it was slightly embarrassing to have the same waitstaff there as the lunch crew (we hoped they didn’t recognize us). We ate far too much, and didn’t have far to walk to get back to the room, so we went to bed with very full tummies.