Wednesday, January 30, 2013

An Official Walking Tour of Prague

I lucked out--my official tour of Prague was today, in the partly-cloudy-but-increasingly-sunny 50 degree warmth; much nicer than earlier this week, when the other group went!

We started off the tour looking up at the top of Václavské náměstí (Wenceslas Square--though I'm not sure how "Václavské" turned into "Wenceslas" in English) looking at the main branch of the National Museum (apparently, this weekend all seven branches have the entrance fee waived! Hopefully I'll get to one or two of them). 

This is looking down from Wenceslas Square, which is in the heart of "New Town," built by King Charles IV (he's recurring theme) around 1348. It's called "New Town" because it was new in comparison to "Old Town," which dates back to the 10th century, I believe. At one point, the Square was a horse market. Later, it became the site of all popular uprisings and protests in Prague; in 1969, Jan Palach set himself on fire there to protest Communism a few months after the Prague Spring. In 1989, the Velvet Revolution that overthrew Communism in Prague kicked off there. About 500,000 protesters gathered in the Square then. Now it's just a commercial shopping area--complete with a Starbucks and a McDonald's. Pay attention to the horse statue of Saint Wenceslas because in the next picture...

it's upside down! This sculpture/hanging statue is in the atrium of the Lucerna Palace shopping area, that was actually built by Vaclav Havel's father (grandfather?) and is still owned by the family [I think]. It's meant to be a parody of sorts of the horse/Saint Wenceslas (which is apparently the English of Vaclav. Then why don't we call the former president Wenceslas Havel? Who knows.) statue from the top of Wenceslas Square. David Černý is the artist, and the dead/upside-down horse is generally considered to be symbolic of the end of Communism.

The Old Town City Hall (as opposed to the New Town City Hall, which is half a block from my apartment, and has since been replaced by the New City Hall in Old Town) at the heart of Staré Město (Old Town). Old Town goes back to the 9th century. That was a really, really, really long time ago. 
Among the most iconic parts of Prague--aside from the Prague Castle and the Charles Bridge--is the astronomical clock on the side of the Old Town City Hall. It rings every hour on the hour (we missed it by about 15 minutes. Good thing I'm here for 4 months!), and the little skeleton on the top right dings his bell. The clock includes a ring that tells time according to the old Czech 24-hour method, Roman numerals for the way we tell time, and then some other outdated ancient method that I can't remember right now. There's also a ring with the Zodiac signs. And then below the clock is a full calendar of "svátek," or Name Days, which are a big deal here, although lots of people are now giving their kids non-traditional names.

This is a view of the Prague Castle from right at the beginning of the Charles Bridge. The Prague Castle complex (it's not just the castle-looking thing, but also all the buildings around it) is where government operations take place even today; the president works from the castle-looking thing, even though his power is secondary to that of the Prime Minister who works from the small-ish white building all the way on the right. But, the President chooses the Prime Minister. 

Closer-up of the Prague Castle. Though the sky looked like it was threatening to rain, luckily it didn't, and the color was beautiful against the rusted-reds of the roofs.
One of the many statues on the Charles Bridge named for, you guessed it, King Charles IV! Imagine having a city where almost every prominent building/structure/institution was named after you...

Peeked in past a wrought-iron gate and saw this old mill with a funny-looking goblin dude looking over it.
(Galya and Noa, this one's for you!) A tribute to John Lennon on the Lennon Wall--yes, it's that Lennon, not the other Lenin. I'll have to go back with a Sharpie so I can leave my mark!

On the way up to the castle complex! The building on the top right of this picture is the Schwarzenberg Palace; today it houses a baroque art collection and belongs to the state. Historically, however, it belonged to the family of Karel Schwarzenberg, who just lost the presidential election, to the dismay of many liberals. 

Looking down at Prague from the top of the castle complex!
And again.
The entryway to the president's compound. The statues on top of the gate are kind of terrifying--one is a guy about to stab someone, and the other looks like it's a guy playing Quidditch and about to use the bludger bat to block a ball from smashing his face, but actually he's about to use the bludger bat to beat someone. Other than that... the guards are part of the military, and switch every hour. Like the palace guards at Buckingham Palace, they don't smile.

Entryway into the second courtyard of the Castle compound. I lost track of how many courtyards there were, but it was a lot.

Ellie wins the prize of being the first (intentionally-photographed) human to make an appearance on my blog! This is in front of the St. Vitus Cathedral, built in the 1340s, which is also in the Castle complex. It's enormous. We walked past the side of the cathedral to get to the entrance (those doors aren't actually open to the public) and the gargoyles peed/spat down collected rainwater on us!

Stained glass in the St. Vitus Cathedral painted (!) by Alfons Mucha, the Czech Art Noveau painter.

More stained glass, not painted by Mucha. Every five--which happens to fall this year--the crown jewels are put on display to the public. I just might have to brave the long lines to snag a peak!

Side exterior of the St. Vitus Cathedral. If you look closely, you'll see that there are actually two clocks--the top one tells you the hour, and the bottom one tells you the minute.

This picture is meant to illustrate the contrast between the old part of the cathedral and the new part. One the right side of the picture you can see the blackened exterior of the building, which is actually from the original struture in the 14th century. On the right the exterior is much cleaner, and was built/restored in the 19th and 20th centuries. The gold-painted mosaic, however, is original I believe.

Tucked away in the back of a garden next to a pre-school that used to be a church. 
Next to the Old Town City Hall/astronomical clock building.

I forget where I saw this.

Next to the Lennon Wall.

St. Vitus Cathedral.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

An Unofficial Walking Tour of Prague (Read: Scavenger Hunt)

After getting through a few minutes of administrative details, the students from the three CET programs in Prague--Jewish Studies, Central European Studies, and Film Studies--were mixed up into 12 groups and sent out into the city with a map and a scavenger hunt list. The grand total of our walking distance was something between 5-6 miles (though that number is not exact; we did a lot of backtracking because the whole point of the scavenger hunt was to learn where things are, and we didn't necessarily know ahead of time. We also only took the metro one once, and for once stop.) Below are some of the pictures from things I saw today (and one picture not from today:

This is the Estates Theatre, one of the "branches" (?) of the Czech opera house. We went there because we were supposed to collect a leaflet from the Don Giovanni Puppet Opera (also "?"), but apparently we were totally wrong, because they thought we were crazy. We also originally went to the main opera house, which is pretty close to our program's home base, and they told us to go here. Understandably, they heard only the "Don Giovanni" part of our question, and not the "puppet" part. There's an ice skating rink in front of the Estates Theatre, which we contemplated ditching the rest of the scavenger hunt to enjoy. (Instead, we got lunch. Vegetable risotto, in case you're wondering. Not many vegetarian options, though I heard the goulash was wonderful!)

(Not from today). This is the typical length of the escalators leading down into the subway stations. There's only three lines (all very easy to navigate), so I'm not sure whey they have to be so far underground. Also, people are very particular about escalator etiquette here: standers on the right, walkers on the left.

Very Communist deco above some hip soup restaurant.

Door! (I love doors. When I get a chance to do some exploring on my own with the camera that Aunt Emily sent me I'm hoping to find the best doors in Prague!)

The Rudolfinium is the home of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. The statue in front is of Antonin Dvořák. We went here because each group was given a postcard with an unidentified landmark on it, and one of the tasks was to recreate the image on the postcard. The postcard my group got was of the Rudolfinium.
Conveniently, the Rudofinium is right across the street from the old Jewish quarter and the Jewish burial grounds, etc. One of the tasks was to collect a kippah from the synagogue. Though we didn't go into the museum (this picture, I think), I think that's part of the Wednesday tour that the Jewish Studies students are going on, and I plan on going back myself to explore the old Jewish quarter more extensively. 

This funky snow dude was in the back "yard" of the Old New Synagogue.

We thought we were really clever, and for some reason thought that Kafka was buried in the old Jewish cemetery right next to the Jewish Museum complex. (A picture of his grave was another item on the scavenger hunt list). Wrong. He's buried in the new Jewish cemetery. So that's another one for the to-do list. We also didn't get a chance to go into the cemetery because it costs money, but this view is from peeking over the high cement wall on the outside. I also plan on going back to explore the cemetery. I won't have class on Wednesdays after this week, so I'm hoping that will be my exploring day.
Better view of the gravestones, all on top of one another.

Still in the Jewish quarter. Not sure which synagogue this is. (Update: we think this is the Jewish Town Hall. Ricky is accountable if that's incorrect.)

Moving right along, this is in the middle of the Charles Bridge (and another item from our scavenger hunt list). For those among you who are non-Hebrew readers, the inscription above Jesus on the cross translates to "Holy Holy Holy, Lord of Hosts," and is originally from the book of Isaiah. It was apparently added to the top of the crucifixion in 1696 as a result of "improper court proceedings" against Elias Backoffen (according to the accompanying plaque), who was accused of "debasing the holy cross." The inscription was added to humiliate the Jewish community. (Love me some good old anti-Semitism?) 

Pretty view of the buildings right next to the Charles Bridge.

Looking out across the river from the Charles Bridge. Julie tells me this is THE Prague Castle. Guess I have to go explore!

After crossing the bridge, it feels like you're entering another century. The buildings are old, and colorful, and everything feels quaint and cute, although I'm sure it's all a tourist ploy.

We hiked up a long and hilly path, with the lights of the Strahov monastery in the distance as our beacon. It was a nice last trek--it had started to snow lightly, the lighting was perfect, and we had joined up with another group. The monastery was founded in 1149 (!). A brewery was started there in the early 17th-century, and the brewery restaurant is where the entire group was meeting up for dinner. 

Apple strudel for dessert!

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Šabat Šalom!

For the first three weeks that we're here, our program has arranged for us to attend Kabbalat Shabbat (Friday evening) services at three of the different synagogues in Prague.

Last night we were supposed to go to the Old-New Synagogue, which is the oldest of them all. (I'll be able to write about more about the synagogue after we actually go on a tour, but for now all I can do is give that link). Except that plan failed when the services usually held there were moved to the High Synagogue, because the heating in the Old-New Synagogue is not great and it was all of 15 degrees outside...and inside.

There were more women than men at services, though our program contributed about 6 of the women and a group of traveling Israelis about our age contributed another 5 or so. It was a nice service, and comforting that all the tunes were, for the most part, familiar. The d'var Torah was in Czech, translated into English after every paragraph. Still, very hard to understand. Afterwards we joined some community members for a delicious Shabbat dinner on the first floor of the synagogue, where it seems like they serve Shabbat dinner every week. Good to know. They also did a Tu B'shvat seder! (Tu B'shvat is the Jewish new year for the trees. It's customary to eat fruit and nuts in celebration)

This is the facade of the Jeruzalémská Synagogue, which is only about 120 years old. I went there for services this morning with two friends; we had passed it last night, so getting there was pretty easy. It was quite an effort to go in, though--we were interrogated almost as much as the El Al flight attendants interrogate you when you go through security ("Why are you here?" Shabbat services, we should be on the list. "What list?" The Jewish studies list. "What did you do last night?" Go to Shabbat services at High Synagogue. "Why don't you have an ID?" (Even though I did): It's Shabbat and you don't carry on Shabbat, etc.) A combination of poor heating/insulation and poor attendance means that services are conducted in a small side chapel and not in the huge, beautiful, high-ceilinged main sanctuary, although you have to walk through there on the way to the women's section so we got to sneak a peak. (Tours are closed in the winter because it's freezing, so it really was a sneak peak!) Using one of their prayer books made me feel like a kindergartner, because I couldn't read any of the translations! But I think the transliteration helped, because I got to see how some of the letters are pronounced. 

One of the girls had met a Czech woman in Israel at her seminary a few years ago, and got us invited to their house for lunch, which was delicious and wonderful! It was one of those very long lunches, the kind that take four hours so you're full but feel like you're snacking the whole time instead of stuffing yourself. And there was a lot of fruit (fresh figs, dates, pomelo, persimmon (!), pineapple) for Tu B'shvat. It was a very funny meal, though: there were about 10 guests and everyone could speak different combinations of Czech, Hebrew and English--I think only one person knew all three. Of course I go to the Czech Republic and communicate with people in Hebrew! But once our Czech classes start (next week) hopefully I'll be able to say more than "ahoj." 

The walk back--both last night and this afternoon were freezing. This says 17 degrees, but I'm pretty sure it was colder. At least it's not windy like Chicago! And the future is looking bright--50 degrees by Wednesday? Sounds like vacation to me!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Ahoj! from the Czech Republic

So apparently the Czech Republic is as fond of Pirate Speak as the CJL is on Pirate Shabbat, because the way they say hello is "ahoj" (pronounced "ahoy.") But that's only hearsay, as I haven't actually started taking Czech classes yet. And because I only got here about eight hours ago, this post is less about Prague and the Czech Republic than it is about the process of getting here.

Monday night I had a final. Tuesday night I had a final. Wednesday afternoon I flew. Between Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon, I had wonderful friends who came to hang out with me and who helped me pack my entire room into the two bags I brought to Prague and the ten boxes that went into Princeton storage (special thanks to Anna!). Those wonderful friends also placed lots of surprise notes throughout my suitcase, which were really nice to read upon unpacking in Prague.

This picture is for Mom, who always likes to have pictures of Abby With All Her Stuff. This time it's not so much! I don't even have the backpack on my front... Luckily for me, I got to take the train with Julie and Michal. And Anna met us on the Dinky to say goodbye and Dylan ran from Cap for a movie-esque departure hug. You guys are the best!

Indian vegetarian food on the plane? Yes! (It was delicious--TwoD, it feels like I never left...).
This should give you a good idea of how empty the plane was. There couldn't have been more than 70-100 people total on the plane, and it was one of those huge jumbo-jets. Despite taking over an entirely empty row for myself to lie down on, I couldn't really sleep, but on my second flight I crashed before we took off and woke up only when we landed. So I got 3.5 hours total of sleep in the past 57 hours...does that seem right? Entirely possible that my brain functions are not working probably after the lack of sleep.

My layover was in Oslo. No, I did not sign any peace treaties. This photo was taken around 8:30am, and it was surprisingly light outside. I didn't get to leave the airport, but I did get to hear a decent amount of spoken Norwegian. Strange language, I tell you. For a while I was scared I wasn't going to be able to get to my plane, because the gate was at the end of a strange glass-walled pathway, and the glass door separating it from the rest of the gates in the pathway was closed and nobody was there to open it. When I traced the whole path back and found an airport employee, someone had apparently just asked her about it (in Norwegian) because her response to me was: "Well, it seems this is becoming a problem," after which she turned and walked away. Luckily, someone came to open then gate about 20 minutes later.

At the Oslo airport, this is how employees get around. I saw two gate-checkers race each other down the glass-walled pathway, which was awesome. It's not just for getting around, though--see the newspapers? They're on a rack attached to that scooter, and the guy carries them that way! And you wonder why America is obese...

Okay, so no pictures of Prague/the Czech Republic yet, but hopefully tomorrow I'll be able to snap some (including of our apartment). We started orientation bright and early in the morning, and have got some Shabbat-y things planned for the evening.