Prague, Czech Republic: Great Expectations
I was familiar with Prague, so I thought. I stumbled upon a TV program showing a video of Bedrich Smetana’s second symphonic poem in ‘Ma Vlast’ (My Country). The video opens with small streams swirling through the Bohemian countryside and widens towards the city of Prague. As the tempo rises, the video zooms in on the city of Prague. The city separated by the river Vltava and linked by the many bridges, the historic buildings, the imposing monuments, the castle and the towers that rise over the city provide a stunning backdrop to Smetana’s music. Conversely, the music tempo matches the mood and provides the background to stunning cinematography. I was so intrigued by the music and cinematography that I recorded the program and played it over and over. Prague, Czech Republic is steeped in history that to talk about Smetana’s music in terms of cinematography is deceptively simple. Maybe the sound of a swirling brook, the ripple and the wave in "Vltava", the second symphonic poem, is a metaphor for human struggle and triumph. I may have to go back and read on the history, but for now this mental snapshot of a breathtaking view inspired me to travel to Prague (click on the link below to watch it on You Tube).
We arrived in Prague late afternoon. This afternoon was gray with threatening rain, not the best for exploring an unfamiliar surrounding on our own. Besides, our hotel was outside the city center which was typical of this tour. Earlier that day, my sister signed us up for the ‘Czech Dinner and Music’ with trepidation, cognizant of the optional excursions offered by the tour operators as tourist traps. Under this circumstance, signing up for the optional dinner excursion seemed to have been a good decision. The coach took us to Restaurant U Marcanu (advertised as one of the best venues of the city). The program included folk songs and dances from Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia and some gypsy music and dancing. It included a 3 course dinner with specialty of the house - pancake with ice-cream and fruit - and limited wine, beer and soft drinks. It was basically a tourist trap. But the bus ride to the restaurant gave me a chance to see the non-tourist area, the dull and dark apartment buildings (a hint that the country was once under communism). For a brief moment, I was no longer a tourist, but a traveller observing the realities of living in a big city: the entertainers at the restaurant trying to put on a show, and the sweaty restaurant staff trying to serve a bus-load of tourists.
My Smetana Moment (Part 1 - The Scene)
We were blessed with a beautiful weather the next day. I thought I would not be totally disappointed if I didn’t get to check out the museums. I was there for the view. As it turned out, the city was a museum in itself. With a local guide, we explored the city on foot. We visited the Old Town and Jewish quarter, the Town Square and Charles Bridge.
I had a special request to send a postcard from Prague. But our walking tour was fascinating that it was easy to bypass the small shops (yes, even for a postcard). Besides, who needs a postcard when you can take a lot of snapshots? My mental snapshot of the city came to life at Charles Bridge. The view from the bridge was breathtaking.
Town Square, Astronomical Clock and Pastries
I did not pay much attention to our local guide’s narrative about the Astronomical Clock in-front of us. Instead, I reveled in the succession of different building architectures. Prague has a mix of architecture – from Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque and art nouveau.
So I did not understand the fuss about the Astronomical Clock until a huge crowd started to gather and the clock struck 11:00am. Then the bell rang and 12 figurines appeared above. It was part of the” Walk of the Apostles,” a clockwork hourly show of the Apostles and other moving sculptures and the calendar dials.
After the show, my new-found friends and I decided to have lunch. One of the coffee house (Grand Hotel Cafe) counterpersons overheard us talking how we did not want to go to the coffee shop in-front of the clock tower, a prime tourist spot. Smiling, he said, “No, it’s cheap” and led us upstairs. Surprisingly, we had the restaurant to ourselves. The waiters were so accommodating and rearranged the tables so the whole group could sit together. The ambience was great and the ‘pastry’ lunch was surprisingly good. We got to know our fellow tourists over coffee and pastries. The clock tower and the ‘Walk of the Apostles” provided a stunning backdrop to our pastry adventure.
The Biggest Castle Area in the World
Of course, a visit to Prague is not complete without a visit to the biggest castle area in the world: St Vitus Cathedral with the crypt of the Czech kings, the Old Royal Palace, St. George Basilica, the powder tower of Mikulka and the famous Golden Lane.
Soaring behind the Prague Castle is the St Vitus Cathedral, where part of the structure dates back to 14th century, and the other completed in the 20th century. Of the many chapels in the cathedral, the most lavish is the chapel dedicated to St. Wenceslas (patron saint of the Bohemia), where the relics of the saint are kept. The other chapels honor and house the crypt of the Czech princess and kings. Now I understand why Prague is usually included in pilgrimage tours.
St. George Basilica founded in the 9th century was rebuilt following a major fire. The façade that we saw there date back to 17th century. The building is now used as a concert hall.
The Royal Palace was the residence of the Czech kings and princesses from the 11th to 13th century. It was also where the first elected president, dissident writer, Vaclav Havel, was inaugurated. Another great attraction in the castle area was the “Changing of the Guard” at noon, and a small ceremony every hour. But if you missed the ceremony, check out the guards in their designer uniform. The guard uniform was designed by Theodor Pištěk, the Oscar winning costume designer from the movie Amadeus. (I thought the tour guides were required to mention this).
Walking through the picturesque hill town, provide breathtaking views of the river, Charles Bridge, and the skyline of spires of the lower Old Town.
After dark, we went back to the Prague castle area and Strahov Monastery (famous for its library and dark beer) for a wonderful overlook of Prague. Obviously, the library was closed this evening, but our evening was highlighted by a drink of beer at the pub.
Krizikova Fountain show was supposed to be a well-known show where the fall of water is synchronized with music and light show. The music is supposed to be different every show – could be classical, pop and sometimes with live performers on the stage. Although I’ve seen the dancing fountain in Las Vegas, The Impression of West Lake in Hangzhou, and the World of Color in Disneyland, I was sold on the ‘music’ part. This is Prague after all: the land of Smetana, Dvorak and had Mozart as a resident. But this evening, the fountain was synchronized to the sound of Michael Jackson. Not that we were not warned.
Now I can check off my bucket list on Prague, but I don’t want to put an end to Prague. I would like to go back and attend a music festival and experience the music that complemented the scene - something I can call ‘Smetana Moment (Part 2 – The Music).'
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