We arrived overland from Germany. Whew, I'm glad I started learning some Czech before I arrived!
Late Friday we arrived in Cheb, a small border town. Passport control happened right on the train and went without problems. That's another stamp in the collection. We didn' t have any plans but ended up in a cheap hotel without too much trouble. So begins my fourth and last major destination of Eurotrashed 2007. The first was the Netherlands and Belgium, second was the Western Alps, third the UK, and now the Czech Republic. I don't end my trip here because I will see a bit more of eastern Europe before I leave, but my time here is coming to a close.
The underrated town of Cheb turned out to be a wonderful stop. The guidebooks paint a dreary picture of the town but what we found was quite different in the center. We don't know if it was some sort of fair or special festival or what but something was going on that was part medieval fair and part street festival. Below the castle there was a camp of people in period garb and horses. In the square below our room all sorts of booths were set up selling various things and there were performers. By the time we were through looking at the castle and walking around town the festivities were still just getting started. It was a shame but being tight on time we had to leave Cheb.
Our next stop was Plzen (Pilsen). This is the republic's fourth largest city and most well known as the birthplace of pilsner style beers. The Pilsner Urquell brewery is still located here. Once you look past the brewery tour it is easy to find many more things to do. We quickly realized we didn't have time to do it all. We substituted the Beer Museum for the brewery tour and the Patton Memorial Museum for the Underground which which didn't have the required 3 people to run a tour. We also poked our heads in to the big church on the square and climbed the clock tower. This is a really beautiful city - at least the historic center is. Modern industry and urban sprawl is visible in the distance.
The Beer Museum included a token for a free .3 liter beer at either of the two adjoining bars so that is where we stopped for lunch and I took the photo of my platter of food. I'm really going to enjoy trying all the traditional foods here. Meat, potatoes, and beer. Brilliant.
Another noteworthy item was Hotel Slovan where we spent the night. It's glamour was a bit faded but still beautiful and historic. Near the end of WWII it served the US Army as an Officer's Club. It also served us the best included breakfast we've had yet in the adjoining restaurant.
Holy smokes! What a great castle and to think that we almost skipped it on the way to Prague because we were not quite sure we would have enough time with travel. We decided that we would and were glad that we did. This is a really popular day trip from Prague and it is one of the country's best castles. Unfortunately due to some heavy reconstruction in the 1800s it lost a lot of old construction. As we found out later it isn't pure enough to become a UNESCO site. Still it is an impressive beast looming over the small hamlet of souvenir shops.
Walking up the hill to the castle afforded some excellent views. That is where I took the picture to the right. You can just see a little of Karen and her pack in the lower left. Once inside gate we discovered that there were two English tours leaving soon. We chose number 2 since that included the Great Tower and the most important rooms. It was also quite a bit longer. Sadly photography wasn't allowed inside so we don't have many pictures. Once near the top of the tower we were able to take out the cameras and we were able to sneak some photos in the recently restored Chapel of the Cross. Shhh. That's a secret just between the three of us.
Really we arrived yesterday night but since we didn't have time to do much besides find a hostel and see the main square all lit up I am just beginning the Prague story today.
We had talked a little about what to do today. The obvious choice would be to see Europe's largest castle but by the time we were ready to go it was 10 o'clock and I wanted to move into my new place around noon. I'm taking Czech classes here and am staying in the same building. (It is an excellent deal at 4000 Kc til month end or about USD $6.95/night) Since that didn't leave much time we opted for something just as good: The Arm. This is was a common theme with us. We brought it up in conversation over an over. Gothic-Baroque St. James church (of Camino de Santiago fame) boasts gorgeous baroque trimmings, a "splendic pipe organ", famous acoustics, and an "over-the-top tomb of Count Jan Vratislav" but who cares? We've seen all that before. What we craved was a view of the hanging shrivelled arm. As the Lonely Planet guidebook says
In about 1400 a thief apparently tried to steal the jewels off the statue of the Virgin. Legend says the Virgin grabbed his wrist in such an iron grip that his arm had to be lopped off. (The truth may not be far behind: the church was a favorite of the guild of butchers, who may have administered their own justice.)Now that is something to see and I have chosen that as my representative pic for the day. Behold!
As if it was necessary to see anything else after the Arm we walked across the Old Town to famous Charles Bridge with its towers, street venders, sculptures. Just getting there through the winding streets was interesting. Once at the bridge we paid a pittance to climb up the tower and get the pigeon's eye view of our surroundings. Now you too can see it as we did, well almost. Here's Karlov most.
In tune with viewing The Arm, there is the Loreta. This church contains 2 skeletons of Spanish saints in noble garb with wax masks in cases on either side of the altar. Unlike The Arm in St James Church here we couldn't see the macabre details. The saints in off limits glass wall cases on either side of the altar could have been statues by the looks of it. So it was a bit of a disappointment. I have a few sneaky Loreta photos.
After the Loreta we hiked up onto a wooded hill. There is a mini Eiffel Tower here with good views although the cloudy and drizzly weather wasn't the best. We climbed up the steps in the cold wind for some nice enclosed vistas. It is a good place to get an overview of the city even if most tourists skip it since it isn't a big attraction. We looked for our next destination, the Mirror Maze, below us but didn' t see it.
Or rather we did see the maze but did not recognize it. I think we were both expecting a big outdoors maze but this is enclosed in a castle style building near the foot of the tower. It is pretty small. Regardless it was a good laugh. The maze is really two distinct parts. The first is the labrynth of narrow reflecting passages and the second is the room of funhouse mirrors where I took the photo here. We were amused.
The other interesting thing in the area is the Hunger Wall. It was built in the 1360s by the city's poor in exchange for food - a medieval welfare program of Karel IV's.
Time to relax a little bit. Since I have been taking daily language lessons here I haven't been on a hectic siteseeing schedule. I have a student dorm two floors above the classroom. I lucked out and might be the only student there.
I'm slowly getting to know the city. Because the weather hasn't been that wonderful I haven't taken my camera out with me very much yet, but I have been exploring. I'll add some pics when the weather is nicer. I'll probably add a special night photo section too. It seems like I'm in the center a lot usually prowling for food before returning to my neighborhood.
By the way the photo was actually taken some days ago off of Charles Bridge with Karen but I thought it would suit here and didn't have anything else.
The Krkonoše are the country's largest mountains. In fact the name means Great Mountains. They are located 3 hours north of Prague on the Czech-Polish border. It is an area of natural beauty and outdoor pursuits. Too bad I couldn't enjoy it because of the weather. The latest forecast gave me high hopes but it was still a roll of the dice and it didn't come out in my favor this time.
My plan had been to spend the weekend in Pec Pod Snezkou at the foot of the republic's highest mountain and most well known ski resort. I had wanted to hike up the mountain for the best views around but when I got there the conditions were bad. Still hopeful I found the chairlift thinking that they would know the weather up top. There I found that the second stage of the lift was closed due to high winds. Not good. Then while I was debating what to do they closed the lower section. Okay. Obviously hiking up there today wasn't going to be nice and tomorrow also was supposed to be rainy. I decided to salvage something of the weekend and just go back to Prague. Then I could do a daytrip Sunday.
Sunday I took the train to Kutna Hora. This was an extraordinarily rich silver and copper mine during the middle ages but most people know it today for the Sedlec Ossuary. In the 1800s a bone filled chapel was redecorated by a local woodworker using what was handy - the bones of some 40,000 individuals stacked up in the small building. For 30 Kc extra visitors are allowed to take pictures. I paid my due and snapped away. The result can be seen in my Sedlec photos. Honestly I was expecting it to be larger but it was still impressive in it's variety.
The rest of the town was interesting too: Kutna Hora. Highlights included the Cathedral and the Silver Mine Museum. That last one had authentic artifacts, many full sized recreations of differnet machines related to medieval mining and minting of silver, and lastly a lamp and helmet tour of 400 meters of 500 year old mine passage below the city. That is old enough that some interesting cave formations have formed in some areas. I had a lunch of wild boar and local dark beer in a traditional Bohemian beer hall for around $8.
One more thing. When I first arrived at the train station I met a pair of cousins from Barcelona. What a relief to get to talk Spanish instead of choking out a little Czech. They were surprised and happy with that too because they had been having to communicate with everyone in the little bit of English that they knew, but there are precious few English speakers here. Throughout the day we kept bumping into each other and ended up on the same very late and overfilled train back to Prague where I read a few more chapters in the French language edition of Eragon. That isn't bad. Some degree of successful communication in four different languages in one day.
Back in class. My remaining weeks are less intensive. I am only doing 1.5 hours with the instructor Monday through Thursday. Then of course I do some studying on my own. Now I'll have 3 day weekends to go farther afield.
Wednesday morning I finally visited Prague Castle. It is close to where I am staying and I just walked over. I arrived before the buildings opened because I knew I would need all the time I could get before class and of course to beat the crowds. The tourist masses were right behind me. I can't believe what it must be like midday during the height of the season! The castle may be Europe's largest but it doesn't look like a castle at all. You really have to look hard to find the former fortifications. It does however look very much like a large palace surrounding a cathedral. There is a lot I could say, indeed I had the audio guide and took three hours even though I was moving quickly through some parts. This is a time where I'll let my castle photos tell the story for me.
I decided to break this long page up into two: My continuing adventures in the Czech Republic.