Friday, September 19, 2014

Prague - Day 12

Monday, September 15
This morning we took an early tour of Prague Castle - which is one of the two largest in the world - the other being Windsor. It consumes the entire hill overlooking the city.
Positioned across the Vltava River, it afforded us terrific views of the river, the bridges and older sections of Prague (although it was very hazy). By starting early, we avoided some of the crowds but it was still busy. The complex is overwhelming, and too big to fit into pictures. (Alternately, the town is almost too crowded to get in a photo.)
The Castle Square was the focal point of Medieval power - the King, powerful noblemen and the archbishop lived here. It has been added on to and renovated over the course of 1,000 years and is a mixture of different styles.  The current exterior dates to 18th century. There are 350 rooms, most of which are not open to the public.
The grounds are so large that all we did was walk around all the buildings. The complex is used for some official business, but mostly it is used as an art gallery and for special events.
One of the buildings is the home of the Czech president, although he is only a figurehead. We did manage to see the changing of the guards along with 100s of others. (Not sure why people are always fascinated by this.)
Then we toured St. Vitus Cathedral, well worth an interior visit. Started in 1344, construction was stalled by wars and plagues. But spurred by 19th century nationalism, it was finished in 1929 for the 1000th anniversary of the death of St. Wenceslas (10th century king who christianized his people).
It is two different styles of gothic - 14th century around the high alter and the modern neo-gothic nave. For 400 years a  temporary wall sealed off the functional, yet unfinished church.
We saw the 1931 art nouveau window designed by Alfons Mucha with its nationalistic themes.
Other highlights were the royal mausoleum where several Habsburgs are buried, a wood carved relief of the city circa 1630,
and a royal oratory connected to the palace where the King could attend mass in his jammies.
An impressive feature was the Wenceslas Chapel, where the sainted king is buried. Many Czech kings were crowned here in front of his red draped coffin.
Then we left the complex and took a short van ride to Strahov Monastery.  To us, as literary people, this was more impressive than the castle. A local bishop made a pilgrimage to the holy land in 1138 and decided to found a monastery of regular canons in Prague, with the support of both the rulers and the church. Thus a monastery was founded in 1143 and focused on preserving written religious documents while developing the usual business of farming, wine making and beer brewing. Over the years the literary role expanded. Today the monastery has 260,000 volumes (of which half are religious), 3,000 manuscripts and 1500 artifacts. They possess Bibles in 23 different languages and the Lord's Prayer in 70. The oldest manuscript is the Strahov Gospel (bible) dated 860. 
Our first room was the Theological Hall. It was impressive with its high ceilings and books tightly packed on shelves rising to the ceiling.
There are over 16,000 books in this room dating from the 16th century. The ceiling decoration was painted in 1720 by a monk who had an avocational interest in painting. The globes date from the 17th and 18th centuries and came from Italy. At the end of the room over the door is a locked cage which contains books banned by the church, usually those dealing with science.
The second room was equally impressive with books from the 18th century.
The ceiling must have been 20 ft. high, with a fabulous ceiling painting depicting various Bible stories.
How to reach the books on the upper level? Behold a hidden staircase behind some fake books. 
There were other rooms with exhibits dedicated to the natural sciences. One had small boxes with the preserved attributes of an individual plant stored in each -- leaf, bark, seed etc. - from 200 years or more.
Included in the room was a dodo bird (extinct since 17th century).
There were other artifacts too numerous to mention, but what we saw was impressive.
Afterwards we drove to the famous Charles Bridge, named after Charles IV who had it built in the 14th century.
We got off on the far side with friends and walked across, stopping to get some photos with great views of both sides of the river.
Notice the castle behind us on the first one. The distinguishing features of the bridge are the gallery of 30 statues added in the 1600s and the numerous artists' stalls.
We stopped to have lunch at a cafe in the Old Town Square with friends.
Then we walked past the famous Astronomical Clock while it was chiming. The clock's face not only tells the current time, but relates the movement of the planets around earth and the sun and moon through the signs of the zodiac.
On the hour, "death"  (a skeleton) tips his hourglass and pulls the cord, ringing the bell; the windows open and the. 12 apostles parade by, acknowledging the large crowd of onlookers; the rooster crows and the hour is rung. Look closely at the close-up to see the characters in the windows.
This afternoon we opted for the Communist tour. I thought we might get some socio-political insights, but our guide was a simple woman who just wanted to tell us how awful it was living under communism -- poor health care, poor economy, etc. No surprise there.  She took us to Wencelas Square (more of a broad boulevard), with the national museum at its end. I guess I was expecting a religious experience, since this is the place where the creation of the Czechoslovak state was celebrated in 1918, where Soviets quelled a rebellion in 1968, and where the citizens converged in 1989 to claim their freedom.  Instead, it was lined with cheap souvenir stalls and greasy food and lots and lots of people.
Then we went to the Museum of Communism, again, not what I expected. It seems cobbled together by a haphazard arrangement of artifacts -  an empty display case to show the shortage of food, a typical classroom with textbooks using Russia's language and an interrogation room. There was a 20-minute film that needed a lot of editing and narration. Overall, an amateur effort, but I'm sure the locals don't want to relive it. Interestingly, it is right next to a casino, something the communists shunned.
Tonight was the grand finale of our tour and it was fabulous. Tauck arranged for us to have dinner at the Lobkowicz Palace, located on Castle Hill.
We arrived just as the sun was setting and you can see the Palace has great views.
The owner of the palace, Prince William, greeted us and told us his story. The palace was built in the 1500s but came into his family's possession in 1604 with the marriage of his ancestor to Polyxena Pernstejn. All went well until WW II. Then the family lost the palace twice, first with the Nazis and then the communists. William's father's family had fled to the US in WW II and started a new life.  However, after communism, William, with his father's support, moved to Czechoslovakia (still was then) in 1990 to regain the family's property. With 4 lawyers working full-time, he has regained 4 of the 10 palaces owned by the family. Fortunately much of their original art collection which was stolen by the Nazis was returned by the Monuments Men.  Today he has started the Center for European Culture - to make history relevant. His collection includes 20,000 moveable pieces including fine art, furniture, armaments, silver, musical instruments and compositions and thousands of books. We were treated to a very small sample on a tour. Notable was Handel's "Messiah" reorchestrated by Mozart in his own hand, Peter Brueghel the Elder's painting "Haymaking" 1565, and two paintings of the Thames by Canaletto, 1746.
Now it was time for dinner and good-byes.
We have had a fantastic time on this cruise. Everyone has been lovely - from the other guests to the tour directors to the staff. But two couples became very special to us. Ironically, one of them were acquaintances of ours in Louisville who have since moved to Palm Beach Gardens - Bonnye and Allan Fine. The other is Ed Harper and Gayla Moilanen from northern Virginia. I enjoyed Bonnye for her incredible sense of style and Allan's wealth of knowledge (and stories) on all topics. Gayla was a delight for her wonderful sense of fun and Ed, who made a great dinner partner, for discussing nuances of world history. We will miss them and hope to see them all again sometime.
I am now off to another adventure. Three nights on the move - back to Vienna and then back to the Czech Republic for a 10-day hiking trip. Stay tuned.

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