Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Prague: Surprises Around Every Corner

Welcome to Prague, in the Czech Republic!  Over the course of three days, we toured Prague and took day trips to the nearby towns of Terezin (which will be covered in a different blog post) and Kutna Hora.  From a seemingly ordinary country church which revealed a ghoulish creativity, to a simple statue which revealed the history of the country, we were often surprised during our short visit to the Czech Republic.  Click the link to read more.

Our first surprise greeted us just after we landed in Prague from South Africa.  We imagined that, in general, Czech people would be rather dour as a remnant of their years under Communism, but this advertisement reveals the humor and good nature that we found in our contacts with Czechs.  After a travel publication called Prague's Zizkov Television Tower the second ugliest building in the world, the Czechs decided to use that ignominious ranking as a humorous selling point.  I'm guessing Baltimore, which is the home to the ugliest building in the survey, didn't turn those lemons into lemonade with nearly the panache of the Czechs.

Above are two photos of the Prague skyline.  It's easy to see the Television Tower, which stands out of place with all of the other buildings in Prague's historic old town areas.  But the main reasons the Television Tower was ranked so high on the ugliest building list are the strange sculptures of naked babies crawling up the Tower (you can barely see them on the advertisement photo above).

The ugly Television Tower stands out as the exception is what is otherwise a city filled with beautiful buildings.  Above are a couple of photos showing Prague's signature Charles Bridge and the Prague Castle complex.  The Czech Republic has more than 2,000 castles, one of the highest numbers of castles in any country in the world, and the pictured castle complex is the largest castle in the world.

Included in the Prague Castle complex is the gothic St. Vitus Cathedral, the largest church in the country.

Prague is a beautiful city, and it is no surprise that, during the August high season, there were many other tourists there enjoying the city.
This led us to wonder more than once why some tourists were taking photos of particular buildings.  For instance, tourists crowded into the rather nondescript alley pictured above and took photos in all directions.  After watching a group of tourists take photos of this yellow building, Beth is shown with her arms out, saying, "What am I missing here?"
Of course, just as soon as we make fun of other tourists for taking photos of plain-looking buildings, I see the rather plain house where writer Franz Kafka lived, and I ask Beth to take my photo in front of it.
The above photo shows a row of typical Baroque and Art Nouveau buildings for which Prague is known, with a more modern building on the corner.  That building was designed by Frank Gehry and a Czech architect, and it is named the "Dancing House," or the "Fred and Ginger Building" (after Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; Ginger is supposed to be the all-glass portion of the building).  The place where the building stands was hit by an American bomb during World War II, and the corner lot was vacant until 1992 when this building was erected.  It was controversial at the time, but now it much loved among the locals.
No building in Prague is more loved than the clock tower in the main square of the Old Town.
Every hour, hordes of people gather in front of the clock tower.  What are they looking at?

The pictured clock is a medieval astronomical clock built in 1410, and it's the oldest working astronomical clock in the world.  Each hour, the windows to the clock open and statues of the 12 apostles parade in front of the windows before a guy on top of the tower plays a song on a horn.

In case you're interested, above is a video of the hourly clock show.

One of the biggest pleasures in Prague is sampling the city's culinary treats.  Czech people are the world's heaviest consumers of beer, so we felt (happily) obligated to sample some local brews.

We hopped on a bus and took a day trip to the nearby town of Kutna Hora.

On the way to Kutna Hora, we passed a couple of things that reminded us of home: a local production of Grease, aka, "Pomada", and a large Philip Morris factory.  If anyone is a Philip Morris shareholder, no need to worry, while smoking may be on the decline in the United States, smoking is still quite popular in Central Europe.
Under this seemingly ordinary complex of buildings in Kutna Hora lies one of the richest European silver mines in history.  Between 1300 and 1340, the mine produced 20 tons of silver each year.

Beth and I put on our miner coats, hats, and lamps in preparation for checking out the medieval silver mine for ourselves.  Above, I point to a place in a painting where I would have worked if I were a miner.

We then descended many flights of stairs into the heart of the mine.  In the 1300's, the miners did not have such nice stairs or flashlights.  Indeed, while miners were paid well, they often were killed on the job, and virtually every miner who worked in the mine for longer than a few years went totally blind due to spending so long working in almost total darkness.

After learning that life as a miner was no picnic, Beth decided that she would have preferred being employed as a supervisor of the guys who made the coins from the silver the mine produced.

Not content with finding silver underground, the medieval Czechs were avid alchemists.  Here I am in the site of an alchemist's underground studio.

While in Kutna Hora we passed the above-pictured church, which looks ordinary from the outside.  Inside however, as a different story....

In 1278, the abbot of this Catholic church sprinkled earth brought from the holy land on the church's cemetery.  That made the church's cemetery the preferred place for anyone in the area to be buried.  Sadly, over the course of the next few centuries, the Black Death and the Hussite Wars led to over a hundred thousand bodies being placed in a mass grave around the church.  In 1511, a monk exhumed the bodies, and over the course of many years, the local monks created the macabre masterpieces pictured above.  Each chandelier in the church is made up of every bone in the human body, and the bones from a total of 70,000 human bodies were used to outfit the inside of the church with some ghoulishly creative decorations.

Outside of the church, we came across this seemingly ordinary statue depicting Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, the founder of Czechoslovakia.

The brief inscription behind the statue's pedestal recounts the statue's history, which parallels the country's troubled 20th-century history: erected on the 20th anniversary of Czech independence in 1938; torn down in 1942 by the occupying Nazis (who disliked Masaryk as a symbol of Czech independence); erected again in 1948 after the defeat of Hitler; torn down again in 1957 by communists who considered Masaryk an enemy of the working class; and erected once again in 1991 after the fall of communism.  The ever-practical Czechs have left blank space below the last entry....

At the end of our three days in the Czech Republic, we packed our bags, went to the train station, and boarded the train bound for Krakow, Poland.  See you there!

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