“The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.” ―G. K. Chesterton
Over the years, Prague worked its way to the top of my ‘must-go‘ list. Prague was not a ‘hot’ tourist destination in the 1970’s and 1980’s when I was making my young way through Europe. In the last 20 years, it has earned a reputation as a magical city with a lovely river, exquisite bridges, and baroque, rococo and art deco architectural phenomenon. It is also becoming a foodie haven with a myriad of restaurants offering unique gastronomical innovations. It is mystical with its churches, abbeys, philosophy and cafes. There is an intrigue about Prague that is hard to resist. In May 2016, older, wiser and with a slower gait, I arrived, excited and curious, at a train platform in Praha (aka Prague).
A Sweet Hotel Saves the Day
Our home base was the Questenberk Hotel which is a restored old abbey. On our arrival, we were greeted by the hotel staff with warmth and congeniality. Breakfast at the Questenberk was a worthwhile extravagance. Little did we know that the hotel’s elegant early morning repast would be steeling us for the battle of tourism in the city. A two-course breakfast offered an excellent fresh buffet and a menu of hot entrees. The homemade yogurt was exquisite. The Prague salami was home-made, delicious and novel. And the Eggs Benedict were perfect as were the scrambled eggs with truffle oil.
The vista from the windows of the breakfast room inspired a morning reverie. The Questenberk hotel is set high on a hill above the enormous Prague castle complex. The windows are tall and airy capturing the streaming, golden Prague light. There were roofs, domes, trees, streets and distant views of the river and its bridges. Crowning it all, the gallant blue sky with a new variation of cloud formation every morning. It was a outstanding breakfast setting.
The guest rooms have windows out on the courtyard, onto the park, or towards the functioning part of the abbey which is set behind the hotel. The active part of the abbey, which is also a brewery, is a beautiful, wide, white structure with a red tiled roof and lovely dark baroque steeples. It crowns the hill behind the hotel. There are bells, of which I am a fan, calling out at various times of the day. A lovely, sloping park borders one side with many trees and more great views. It is the perfect place for a sit in the evening. Our room was on a courtyard that shelters an old cherry tree with calling birds vying for the ripening fruit. The hotel was an excellent respite from what became the daily grind of Prague tourism.
The Prague Castle Complex
Leaving the peaceful hotel, I am anticipating a delightful walk through this lovely city. Almost at once, my expectations became a little dog-eared. Masses of tourists have arrived at this date in late May which is called a “shoulder season” in the tourist trade. As we walk down the hill and towards the castle gates, there are travelling bands of 35 with groups swelling to as much as 60, maybe 80 persons. The business and drive of Europe in summer is alive in the walking-people-hordes. Tourism dollars are what keeps these beautiful cities beautiful. I had expected a lot of tourists (I prefer to be a traveler rather than a tourist). But the scale so early in the season was beyond expectations.
The brooding massive St. Vitus cathedral looms in every vista as you make your way through the city. It is located within the Prague castle complex, the largest castle complex in the world. The dark Gothic spires of St. Vitus spring skywards from the center of the creamy yellow castle buildings and walls. The contrast of color and hue is palpable as the cathedral spires perform the watchful witness as muse dowager that has stood in that pointed place in some form or other since the dawn of the 10th century.
According to their website, the Prague castle complex is the most significant Czech monument. It is an ancient symbol of the Czech lands and one of the most important cultural institutions in the Czech Republic. And here’s the rub: this Prague castle complex is not well-organized to handle the tourist hordes. The palace grounds are a large-scale composition of royal, historical and ecclesiastical buildings of different architectural styles from the 10th and 14th-centuries. After passing through the grand entry gate adorned with its homicidal statuary and crossing a courtyard, we proceed through another vast arched construction and look for one of the ticket offices to purchase admission. The ticket sales offices, of which there are several, appear congested. They are rather small accommodations for the crowds that are here.
We proceed through the dilemma of choosing from the number of venues within the castle complex. This is an overwhelming task as you stand amidst scores of people in queues, reading brochures, and gazing up at the ticket menu board hung high behind the ticket counter. Brochures were scarce. The board of options was a maze of lists. What to see? The crown jewels, the cathedral, the treasures of the cathedral, the palace, the picture gallery, the powder tower, St. George’s basilica, the media-extravaganza story of the castle, a toy museum and/or a little street called “Golden Lane.” You cannot buy a ticket just to see the St Vitus cathedral or just the royal palace. In order to see the cathedral, your ticket will also include entry to the royal palace, St. George’s Basilica, and the Golden Lane. And that is the lower-tier price ticket. You can choose a more expensive ticket from the menu of circuits which will admit you to many more venues. The tickets are good for 48 hours.
The Royal Palace was closed on the day we were there. But we still had to buy the ticket for the Royal Palace because it was part of the group of ticketed venues; no exceptions. It’s Monday and the Palace will be closed until Thursday. Price of a ticket is the same whether the palace is closed or not. We were lucky to have our senior discount. We were only here for four days. Maybe no palace for us this time around.
The castle complex does not limit the amount of people that can enter a specific site at any given time. There is no assigned entrance time; it is a free-for-all to enter when you wish. Guided groups enter in groups of 30 to 50. There were a lot of guided groups with straggler pairs, like ourselves, hanging on the outskirts. We were overcome and swept up in the maelstrom. Smaller configurations of 2 and 4 persons have to wait for the ebb and flow of the large rambling bands to pass in order to move forward, or to cross the aisle, or to enter at the gate.
At St. Vitus: The Selfie Afflication
We are inside the colossal St. Vitus cathedral and are instantly mesmerized by the pictorial in the vibrant, gorgeous stained glass windows. The windows, installed in the early 1930’s, were created by eminent Czech artists. The window that depicts the lives of Sts. Cyril and Methodius was designed by Alphonse Mucha, an eminent Czech Art Nouveau painter and it is like a beautiful storyboard with characters and drama clearly depicted. I am having a hard time pulling away from this window, but the guided groups are pushing me forward.
More on the St. Vitus windows, click here for Lonely Planet: http://bit.ly/2aKEdd5
The center naive is roped off. The visitors are using the two side aisles to navigate through the interior. Awash with groups listening to their guides and singles and couples moving through, there were also scores of individuals performing selfies by every pillar and chapel. The attention of these visitors seemed to be focused on the scramble to assure their mug shot was placed in front of every prevailing feature of the interior of the church. We were amused, in this grand, austere setting, by the companies filing through with arrangements of selfie sticks held high in the air like flags in a parade. We squeezed through the tight areas and hoped for a glimpse of the roped-off areas. The high gothic ceilings were open to us. No one up there poking around with selfie sticks. Look up and breathe.
An incident near the chapel of St. Wenceslas left us chuckling. This ornate and beautiful room is the masterpiece and pride of the cathedral. Glowing Gothic frescoes cover the walls in their entirety with scenes from the life of St Wenceslas, the patron of the Czech Republic. The lower parts of the walls are decorated with 1,300 gems. The joints between them are covered with gold. It is a gaspingly, stunning place. The entrances to the chapel are roped off so a person must gaze into the room through the arched-gated entries over the shoulders of everyone else trying to steal a look. Photos were hard to position but people tried. The well-seasoned tourist knows that flashes are prohibited everywhere that original art is displayed. But still there was a man trying to take flash photos. One of the rarely-seen security guards appeared and publicly scolded him. “That is not allowed,” she shouted before wandering away. So he tried the flash again. She appeared quickly to repeat the vociferous warning. He paused and waited. The third time when the flash went-off, she quickly pounced and with a flick of her arm delivered a rap on his shoulder with a wand of some sort. It was a firm physical retort followed by “I said: that was not allowed” This time he surrendered. It was remarkable but, the crowd ever on its way to some guided itinerary, continued to move around the controversy.
We left St. Vitus Cathedral for Golden Lane, a short, tight, little cobblestoned street of colorful tiny cottages that are built into the rampart walls. We passed the entrance to Golden Lane twice as groups of people swept us away with them. Finally, we found and entered the gate to the venue after our 2nd trip up-and-down the cobbled hill. There were so many people in Golden Lane that we could not walk the stairway to the second level, we did not enter any of the shops and we made it to the end of this short venue dodging and excusing our way through the throngs. One of the houses was supposedly used by Franz Kafka for a writing retreat. It was like Disneyworld in January and really did not convey any picturesque or historical importance. It conveyed tourist-hordes and winks of something sweet and pretty. Limiting the access of people to this site is a no-brainer.
Our miss of the entrance to Golden Lane may have also had something to do with the statue of a 14-year old boy standing in a walled courtyard but clearly visible from the walkway. Young women and old women were so fascinated by it that a need ‘to touch’ it overcame them. As a result, the bronze patina was worn away to a contrasting brilliance in just one area of his body. This statue was a magnet for selfies and instant photos. For clarity’s sake, the photo of the statue does tell the story better than I can.
After a day of trekking, gazing, and weaving, we returned to our peaceful Questenberk hotel. The hotel held-out its quiet ambiance with a welcome pervasive peace and cooling calm. A common room for guests is a perk at the hotel. Here snacks and drinks were set out for refreshment in the mid-afternoon. The Questenberk staff seem to enjoy their positions as ambassadors of Prague and interaction with them was delightful. A late lunch on the terrace restaurant facing a vista of green was a welcome respite from the crowds. And the food was exquisitely delicious.
If you have recently ventured out with the masses of tourists hoarding the streets of the most beautiful cities of Europe, you might understand my frustration somewhat as I write about my walks through this long longed-for city. Contemplation and introspection in these old beautiful cities is a fleeting. But, again perhaps a return in winter with its contemplative aspects and empty moody streets. So, I have put Prague on the calendar for December with a note that we expect it will be less crowded. In the meantime, look for Part 2 – A Bridge, A Clock and The Castle as there is more to tell about our bustling Prague adventures.
For more beautiful photographs from our ex-pat life, make sure you click the links to enjoy Greg’s photos at http://bit.ly/1mtVVTW and http://bit.ly/1RsaN1M (Assignment 2015 and Assignment 2016)
“…Tourism is the march of stupidity. You’re expected to be stupid. The entire mechanism of the host country is geared to travelers acting stupidly. You walk around dazed, squinting into fold-out maps. You don’t know how to talk to people, how to get anywhere, what the money means, what time it is, what to eat or how to eat it. Being stupid is the pattern, the level and the norm. … Together with thousands, you are granted immunities and broad freedoms. You are an army of fools, wearing bright polyesters, riding camels, taking pictures of each other, haggard, dysenteric, thirsty. There is nothing to think about but the next shapeless event.”
― Don DeLillo, The Names