While I was pondering the Pragueness of Prague and the Kafkaesqueness of Kafka, Mary was observing, listening and taking notes. Her report, which she sent to a few friends, tells it like it was!
WE found it all Incredibly beautiful - building after building - well really ALL the buildings(!) in the centre of Prague are just jaw-dropping. Almost totally restored nowthanks to being given UNESCO World Heritage Site status and many generous donations. Was it ever bombed? It's hard to think so, although the church in the main square was burnt and completely destroyed and there is an empty space there with a few small trees. The only thing that marred this exquisite city was the graffiti - it was so awful to see it in all colours and sometimes in huge scrawls on such elegant and newly painted buildings.
We were so lucky with the weather - mostly sunny with summer-blue skies which made the gold on the buildings sparkle. We had a 3-hour tour on the first morning - partly by (mini)bus, so just a few of us, with an excellent guide. It started with a tour of the main sites of the townpassing by the opera house, the nationaltheatre and the modern 'Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire' building which looked to be slightly swaying/dancing and with a nipped-in waist(!). We also passed a huge and extraordinary Art Deco building - all a-glitter at night and still amazing by day, like something out of a child's picture book.
We walked around the extensive hill top castle complex - with more amazing buildings including the Black Tower - formerly copper which turned green, and then made gold, then black and now just tiled! - and St. Teresa's house (she the saint of widows and women over the world), a monastery, the King's house and the astonishing St Vitas cathedral, the biggest church in the Czech Republic, and surely the most amazing - especially the outside. It took 100 years to complete, with work going on right up to the 19th century. Such complicated architecture! Towers, turrets, gargoyles buttresses... with gold plate and even a solid gold mosaic on the outside!
At the King's house (at which we were later to see the changing of the guard) our guide pointed to two large glass doors at the side of the building. 'Look,' he said, 'See those doors? That's where the king keeps his car. Can you see it? No! That's because he's gone out...' Ha!
The tour continued with a river cruise which gave us a magnificent panoramic view of Prague, and passing many swans and ducks, and finishing with a walk around the main square, finishing at the amazing clock - which needs you to look at TWO clock faces to work out the time! As well as telling you all sorts of astronomical facts. The figures [left] do a three minute parade every hour.
Our guide, a middle-aged, multi-lingual man, said he now did this job full time (having been a tour planner for years) and enjoyed it. (Earlier he took our picture for us and then we took his.) John said 'You must be able to 'suffer fools gladly!' '. He replied that sometimes it could be a bit difficult. For example, the day before he had had a party of Russians who, he said, only wanted to talk Russian politics. 'So', he said 'I told them: you want to talk Russian politics? All right we'll talk Russian politics. See that building over there? For years the Russians occupied it and nearly ruined it. In the end we were able to throw them out and restore it.'
He also had a chat with us about Russian/ American politics: John said that Putin was God's gift to the US: while he talked like the devil, he was actually very cautious, such as over Ukraine, in spite of insane American interference there. On the other hand, Obama talks like Jesus Christ but is the very devil. The guide agreed heartily and they both shared a good laugh!
We noticed very little traffic, although there were plenty of cars parked in the unpedestrianised streets which made walking about extra pleasant. But we were struck by the number of signs in English everywhere. One optician's sign read 'Eyetests, glass contact lenses', another said 'Thai restaurant and music club', and, also to our surprise, everyone spoke English to us. Restaurants menus were in Czech and English, and one also had German and Russian! I think they realise that very few tourists will speak Czech, but will understand - if not actually be - English, so that's an essential language to use - the lingua franca, which they spoke it to all tourists, even to the Japanese - who replied in English! I had learned a few very basic words in Czech, but really had no occasion to use any of them. On entering restaurants, for example, we were always greeted by a friendly 'Hello'. We found everyone very friendly and helpful wherever we went.
I suppose you could say that the shops in the central area were 'tourist shops' but considerably above the usual low standard, with the vast majority selling quality goods: beautiful leather bags and shoes, lots of glassware [left] - like Venice - but, we thought, of much better design and some of it absolutely beautiful. Jewellers sold chiefly amber and garnet and some diamonds. A number of shops were selling marionettes, with 'working models' in the window! In the most expensive streets were all the international chains, including the most prestigious. And we were lucky in that they were just beginning to put up their Christmas decorations - again, all very attractive and tasteful!
Our dinner on the first evening was at 'The White Bear' a very old, historical bar/restaurant with an impressive ceiling of old painted beams. [right] All the places we ate at were simple, full of ordinary people in ordinary clothes - I didn't feel the need to dress up at all - and the food we ate was everyday, 'ordinary' fare, in the very best sense of that word, and it was all scrumptious! At the White Bear we had tripe soup, which was a rich brown colour and was maybe the most delicious soup that either of us had ever eaten.
We had wonderful soup on other days, too, and hearty main courses such as a quarter of a crisply roasted duckling on a pile of sweet red cabbage with potatoes and apples, and dishes were usually served with dumplings and sometimes a generous basket of bread. And there was pork in dark brown beer sauce with mustard, horseradish and barbecue sauce; and pork belly (complete with crackling!) with steamed red and green cabbage; or boiled neck of beef with mushroom sauce and spinach puree.....
Everywhere we ate was well-filled with other eaters and it was always lively, just noisy enough but, we noticed, never rowdy: no sudden loud guffaws or explosions of talk. All very civilised. And everywhere, we lapped up wonderful dark brown beer! If ONLY we could get that kind at home! For lunch one day we had a pizza at an Italian restaurant - large and excellent, and frankly, better than I'd expect to get at home even in well-recommended places.... Sigh....
As for dessert, we noticed a very popular one was a dish of 'hot raspberries'. topped with a pile of excellent vanilla ice-cream - something I've since copied at home! At one place I had a first class apple and bramble pie with perfect short pastry and plenty of delicious filling - and also with ice-cream.
Of course, we walked and walked, and gawped and gawped....another amazing ancient doorway, another ornate and gaily painted facade,another distinguished house with exquisite decorative features.... And of course we walked over the Charles Bridge (1357) with its sixteen statues, mostly still rather black, but gradually getting cleaned up. It reminded us of our first visit to Prague in (I think) 1990 or 91, when it had just emerged from the Soviet yoke and seemed all black - and shabby, impoverished, with appalling food, even in our so-called good hotel, and somehow seemed primitive and belligerent. WHAT a change! And what a relief.
We finished with a visit to the quite large Kafka museum on the river bank. A fascinating and rather amazing experience - all floaty images and sounds, and music coming and going....but with a wealth of photographs and information (and oh yes, in English!). It occupied us well for a whole morning!
Outside, there was a strange sculpture depicting two men standing facing each other in an irregularly-shaped pool of water - and peeing into it! Very odd - but then we overheard a guide telling his group that the pool was in the shape of Czechoslovakia, and the men represented 'all the officials and people who, over the years, had pissed on Czechoslovakia'!
We'd already explored two good-sized art collections, full of treasures, one with a stunning display of early Italian mediaeval art full of gold. Almost no English art there (most of that seems to have finished up in the US!), but many great masters, and artists such as Cranach [right] who are very little know over here. I think we shall have to return to Prague one day and see even more!!