(outside the Loreta Church in the Castle Quarter)
Our visit to the city started with a walking tour of the Old City and Jewish Quarter by Bohumil Auersperger who, besides being an excellent tour guide also teaches high school English and Russian (firstname.lastname@example.org, cell +420 724919510). Like most historic European cities, Prague streets follow old cow paths rather than the easy-to-follow grid of most American cities, so the walking tour provided a great orientation to this potentially confusing city. In addition, Bohumil’s often moving accounts of growing up in the city, much of it during the Soviet occupation, added a personal touch that is frequently lost in the usual recitation of historical dates, names and events.
As with many of my trips, food was an important element of our visit. Most notable was lunch on our second full day in the city at the world famous Triton Restaurant in the basement of the historic Adria Hotel in the heart of Prague on Wencelas Square, our residence for our four night stay. As the guests of Jakub Pazout, the Food and Beverage Manager of the hotel, we were able to sample the sophisticated cuisine in a setting that is at the same time whimsical, fantastical and elegant.Created by a movie set designer in 1912, the restaurant looks like a cave with touches of Greek mythology, Walt Disney, and Game of Thrones, though a much more upbeat version of the latter. The restaurant has been a favorite hangout for the artistic and creative community of Prague since its opening. In what was the best meal of the entire trip so far, we dined on halibut ceviche with chile and coriander, sage risotto with baked pumpkin and chorizo salami, grilled red mullet with olive pesto and candied lemon, and steak with grilled marrow in pepper sauce.
It was a helluva way to start the day. I could have gone back to our room and spent the rest of the afternoon in a food-induced stupor, but we wisely decided to walk it off. From the hotel we took a tram to the base of the Castle Quarter across the Vltava River from Old Town. The Quarter contains the Prague Castle, a castle complex that has been the traditional seat of Czech power since the 9th Century. From the tram stop it is a steep walk uphill, including a long flight of steps that helped us digest our huge mid-day meal. While catching my breath I managed to squeeze out a few panoramas of the city below.The highlight of the visit was St. Vitus Cathedral….…especially the stained-glass windows, including one by the famed Art Nouveau artist, Alfons Mucha. Mucha more (sorry) about Mucha shortly. (this is the Mucha window)
After wandering through the Castle Quarter for a couple of hours, we made our way back across the river on the Charles Bridge, a pedestrian bridge built by Charles IV who ruled Prague in the 14th Century and also established Charles University, built much of the castle including St. Vitus Cathedral, as well as many of the other sites that form the historic core of Prague. The bridge is great spot for photos of the river.
Prague isn’t all medieval history and grey Gothic buildings. Just a mile or so south of the Charles Bridge is the ultra-modern Dancing House designed by Frank Gehry (the house is also known as “Fred and Ginger” for obvious reasons). And in a nod to cross-cultural influences on the modern urban landscape — and to deal with our aching feet — we treated ourselves to the best Thai foot massage I’ve had this side of Bangkok in an establishment just a few doors from our hotel.
We started our last full day in Prague with more Mucha, mucha more Mucha (again, sorry), at the Mucha Museum just a short walk from the hotel. Mucha is famous for his Art Nouveau posters, especially for Sarah Bernhardt’s performances in Paris and the US in the late 1890s and early 1900s.
After the graceful, naturalistic, light and cheery Art Nouveau images, I needed something darker and more surreal, so we walked to the Franz Kafka Museum back across the river. For a short while in my late adolescent I was a big fan of Kafka, especially Metamorphosis, the tale of Gregor Samsa who is transformed into a giant cockroach overnight, and The Trail, about Josef K. who spends most of the novel fruitlessly trying to figure out what he is on trial for.
It’s a fascinating museum, especially if you are a fan of Franz Kafka or like being depressed. Seriously, it provides a lot of insight into Jewish intellectual life in Prague in the early 20th Century (including Albert Einstein for a few years while he was a professor at Charles University) and its impact on Western literature and philosophy. Much of the museum addresses the strictures placed on Kafka’s life by his autocratic father, by the constraints of being a Jew in late 19th and early 20 Century Prague, and by working as a government lawyer within an opaque and oppressive bureaucracy.
The museum is excellent — creative, informative, absorbing and evocative. Reading the descriptions of his life from the exhibits brought me back to my own awkward adolescence when my life and my future looked almost as bleak (I’ll spare you the details). The sources were different, but the effect was similar. I felt some of the same alienation, powerlessness, and ennui. Of course I now realize that this is not all that uncommon among adolescents who think too much, but at the time I felt pretty much alone in my misery.
I had almost forgotten about how unhappy I was then, a memory that has been pretty much masked by a life that has turned out a lot better than I expected. Remembering that dismal history makes the present seem even sweeter. I can thank Franz Kafka for giving me something to identify with when I was younger and the museum for giving some perspective on how life can turn out a lot better than it looks through the gloomy lens of an unhappy adolescent.
Enough of the Kafkaesque ruminations. It was time for a drink. We headed to a cafe recommended by Rick Steves. We found the cafe, but discovered U Kunstatu, one of the few craft beer pubs in Prague, next door. Another thing that has improved since my adolescent years is my taste in beer. I ended the day in the pub’s peaceful courtyard with an American style Pale Ale, Apollo Galaxy (5.5% ABV), then toured the art gallery in their 14 Century basement.
A great way to end our visit to Prague. Now it’s on to Budapest…..
(Note 1– The first night of our hotel in Prague was hosted by REI Adventures)
(Note 2 — In true blogger fashion, I am writing this post several days later from Budapest in a spacious, modern apartment in the Adina Apartment Hotel in a section of Budapest similar to the upper west side of Manhattan. I will start posting about Budapest in my next post which should be up in 2-3 days)