We spend the morning in Regensburg, a medieval town, cobblestone streets, narrow alleys, archways. Tiny shops sell handmade trinkets. The twin spires of St. Peter’s Cathedral soar over the skyline. In a small café, we have chocolate and cappuccino, and buy the scrumptious goodies that are sold in the shop downstairs. Mary Jo and I walk to the bridge, a beautiful old stone pedestrian walkway, which spans the Danube River. We gaze back over the medieval buildings. The architecture is known as “Romanesque meets Baroque”. All I know is that the ornate sculptures and stonework are incredibly beautiful.
We sit in the cathedral for a while and listen as an orchestra and boys’ choir practice for the concert later today. The sounds echo and re-echo under the domes, filling the air with magic.
Back on the bus, we munch on crunchy sandwiches that we bought in a bakery. It’s one of our most delicious lunches. It’s a long trip to Prague, the traffic is terrible, and rain clouds hide any views, so we doze fairly often. It’s my first encounter with the Autobahn as vehicles whip past our lumbering bus.
Our hotel is absolutely enormous. It’s a conference centre, too, so hundreds of people and buses swarm in and out. Our room is very large, especially the humungous bathroom. The food is like a camp for kids – plentiful but tasteless. There’s an indoor pool, but I don’t feel like swimming. In fact, I sit down to write, while Mary Jo goes out to see the lights of the city.
The next morning, we leave for our tour of Prague. Our guide, Lida, tells us that we are staying in the newer part of the city, which has a population of 1.2 million. The sleek glass and steel buildings, curved in contemporary design, are testimony to the modern construction.
When Czechoslovakia was under communist rule, there were no elections, but now, the democratic process is in plain sight. Election posters dot the landscape, announcing upcoming elections. In 1993, Czech Republic separated from Slovakia, and there are now three very different political parties. They have both a President and a Prime Minister. Lots of reforms have occurred recently, and Lida says the more conservative elements are attempting to overthrow the current government because of them.
We now enter New Town, which was begun in the 1400’s and was therefore new…
Balconies, statues, carvings, transform the tall, narrow buildings into architectural wonders. As well, the colours are astonishing: soft green, blue or yellow, deep coral – every street is a work of art. Leaves, ribbons, lions, and angels dance across rooflines, window ledges and balconies, carved or painted in exquisite detail.
The music hall is enormous; a big copper cupola sits proudly on top. Even the railway station, built in the late 1800’s, is lavish. The stately Ministry of Agriculture used to be the headquarters of the Communist Party.
There is a good, safe subway and tram system in place here. We pass the Vitava River; Lida explains that there are quite a few islands throughout the area. On the hill by the bridge, an enormous metronome has replaced a huge statue of Lenin. The Town Hall displays an odd statue in its front yard: a twist of heads and armless bodies; one looks like a skeleton. I wonder what it symbolizes.
We are approaching Prague Castle, perched high on a hill above the river. We draw in our breath as we climb the hill, forest on either side, when we reach the enormous area that houses the Castle. From here, we can see right across the city, where over 400 towers and spires reach for the sky. The castle grounds accommodate so many structures, which have been developed over centuries, that every architectural style is on display here: gothic, Roman, Egyptian, art nouveau...
St Vitus Cathedral is a beautiful Romanesque structure, with too many decorative surprises to list. We gaze in astonishment at several palaces, gardens and towers. Nowadays, the castle houses several museums, including the National Gallery collection of Bohemian baroque and mannerist art, an exhibition dedicated to Czech history, a Toy Museum and the picture gallery of Prague Castle, based on the collection of Rudolph II. I am eager to spend some time with the history of Czechoslovakia. Among others, this was one of the seats of the ruling Hapsburg dynasty.
When we’re finished the tour, we head back down the road toward Our Lady of Victory Church. It’s situated in “Lesser Town”, which used to be its own township until all four areas were amalgamated into the city of Prague. This is also an exquisitely lovely area. It’s almost impossible to describe, with its winding streets, pastels and carvings.
Considering the area upon which Prague stands was settled in around the year 200, and has largely been untouched by various wars, the sights are incredible.
Wendy, Mary Jo, Carolyn and I decide not to follow the group. We need a spontaneous, unstructured day. We hop in a cab and head for Old Town.
We are absolutely blown away by the Old Town Square. Mary Jo pronounces it the most beautiful square of all the cities she’s visited – and she’s been all over the world. Once again, the buildings are a myriad of beautiful shades. The plaza is dominated by the old town hall, which contains the famous Astronomical Clock, a decorative glockenspiel that attracts appreciative crowds every hour. The Church of Our Lady Before Tyn Cathedral towers in the background. Due to its two large spires, surrounded by smaller peaks, the building looks like something out of a gothic fairy tale. Its black, brackish colour shines slick in the weak sunlight. At night, it transforms, but that’s not until later. Another church, facing the platz, is now a music concert hall. People stroll along, staring, drinking in the numerous cafes; there is an air of amiability and reverence.
It’s a cold, cloudy day, in contrast to the promises of the various weather sites that we checked out last night!
When we pass by the U Prince Hotel, I remember my fellow crime writer, Peggy Blair’s, suggestion about the terrace on the roof. The hotel itself is worth perusing: it’s a classic stone and wood beauty, likely with ancient roots. One of the dining rooms reminds me of Turkey; the small rounded cave with a round table worthy of knights. We take the elevator in deference to Carolyn (or so we say) and then climb two sets of stairs until we are on the highest floor. Here is the terrace: a beautiful patio surrounded by tiled rooftops, the clock, the cathedral spires, the towers sprouting out all over the city. Warmed by tall heaters spread among the tables, we drink wine and other boasn’s (beverages of a social nature) and eat gourmet food, served by two very friendly, English-speaking waiters. It turns into a leisurely, memorable time. We can scarcely believe our luck in being able to sit up here, with this exquisite view, and enjoy our friendship as well as our repast.
When we reluctantly come back down, we go into a little crescent where a band is playing a mix of polka-New Orleans toe-tapping music. We notice huge old convertible cars, deep red and yellow, advertising a tour around the city. Wendy-Cugina, Carolyn and I talk Mary Jo into it. Our guide is Stenic, dressed in an old leather jacket and sunglasses that somehow match the flamboyant garishness of the car. The car was made in Prague eighty years ago; he shows off her sleek wooden and leather interior, the little signal light that pops out from the side, and speaks of her as a “lady”.
He turns out to be a superb guide who can speak great English. As we pass through the city, Mary Jo’s nightmare comes true: everyone points, laughs, and takes our picture. We don’t really care, though, because we don’t see any of our group, so no one knows us. We just hope we don’t show up on YouTube.
Stenic takes us through the winding streets, past Franz Kafka’s house, Wenceslas Square, the enormous library that must hold millions of books (Stenic says there are tons of historical documents here), the municipal building, various hotels. When we remark on the astonishing colour and carvings, Stenic tells us that, during the communist regime, all the buildings were painted grey. In their freedom, the Czechs have reclaimed the glory of the past, preserving and restoring. He remembers the enormous Lenin statue and finds the replacement of a musical metronome a fitting tribute to the vibrant people and its dramatic city as they threw off their shackles. We pass the new town hall again and I point out the odd sculpture. Stenic agrees that it is strange: it appeared a few weeks ago and everyone in Prague is talking about it, mostly shaking their heads in bewilderment. (When I look it up on the web later, I can’t find any information about it.)
We visit the Jewish Quarter, where a stately synagogue and a museum exist. It’s ironic, and a triumph of human will, that these places survived as museums under the dreadful Nazi “plan”. They are now restored and preserve the history of the people, as well as serving as reminders of how dreadfully cruel our species can be. The Jewish Cemetery is an enormous walled garden. Stenic tells us there are seven layers of bodies underneath this scenic ground. Perched from one wall, I see a statue of a woman with a book clutched in her hand. It hasn’t been restored, so the black scars of time run down her face. She is terrifying. I think she should be left as she is, to frighten us into thinking before we act, or being complacent as world atrocities occur.
We motor alongside and then under the Charles Bridge. It’s amazing. Every few feet is a big sculpture, all stone and handsome, representing legendary figures of the past. People are strolling in the wind, coats clutched around them as the cold whips across the Vitava and under our clothing. I wish I’d dressed better, but right now I am warm it the back seat of this car, jammed between Cugina and Mary Jo until I move slightly and sit on the edge. Still, I am protected by the seat and The Lady’s wide windshield.
When we pass by the Tyn Cathedral, Stenic says that the spires are nicknamed Adam and Eve. Adam is somewhat larger than his female counterpart.
Later, after we reluctantly leave The Lady and Stenic, we wander through the shops, through winding streets, past some of the famous spots once again. An Amaretto coffee piled high with whipped cream seems a fitting end to the shopping spree. Mary Jo finds a lovely Czech café down a side street, where we feast on traditional food. I drink a couple of beers in my son’s honour, though they don’t have the kind he told me about.
When we reenter the Old Square, it’s a glorious wonderland of light. The Tyn Cathedral is alit with stars and tiny spheres of gold. It’s spectacular. Cafes and restaurants and other buildings are striking in the soft illuminations.
The Astronomical clock strikes seven to the delight of the crowd: two small doors at the top slide open and a series of figures stutter past. St. Peter with the golden keys to the kingdom and St. Francis of Assisi are the two that I recognize. When the doors shut behind them once again, a trumpet plays an inspiring tune, to which the crowd applauds. Another hour has begun and we are standing one of the most beautiful cities in the world! It’s a fitting celebration.
On the way back to the hotel, Carolyn coaxes the taxi driver into speaking about his life. He tells us about his two marriages, his children, and his life in Prague. He was a police officer, but makes more money driving a taxi. When we get out and pay the bill, we can believe it. However, we wish him well in his life; he seems like a proud, attentive dad.
What a slice of the culture and the life here that he has given us!
I decide that I must return to this city, and to the town of Ceski Krumlov (please excuse the spelling!), which James adored. I can understand how you might leave your heart here.