Someone mentioned in a comment on the last post that I had been dealing with a cold and the damp weather probably wasn’t very good for me. I am happy to say, that by the time we hit the cold weather in Prague, I was feeling pretty darn good. In addition, my knee was actually responding to all the walking and seemed to be getting stronger. As we left the high walls of the Castle to walk down into the Mala Strana neighborhood on the west side of the Charles Bridge, I found that I needed to go a lot faster than the rest of the group down all those stairs. The knee was working just fine going uphill, but going downhill my brakes were pretty rusty!
It was finally getting a bit warmer as we meandered through the beautiful old streets of this part of Prague. The group tour was planning to continue through the streets, cross the Charles Bridge, and then pick up the bus at the Old Town Square to go back to the hotel. Melody and I were walking along with everyone else when the smell of vanilla started wafting our way and we found a lovely young woman in a Czech costume cooking up some lovely fried thing in front of an authentic Czech restaurant. Of course, we didn’t know until after we finished our meal that the restaurant had nothing to do at all with the girl on the street.
Either way, we looked at each other and once again let Lorena know that we would be ambling off on our own and said goodbye to the group. We were hungry, and that food smelled soo good! Besides, we had other plans for the afternoon anyway. Originally there had been a planned excursion to the Jewish Quarter and we wanted to do that one, but Lorena needed a minimum of 10 people for the trip and only 6 had signed up. Ah well, we figured the rest of the afternoon was enough time for us to do it on our own.
In the mean time, though, we slipped down the heavy timbered stairs to the entrance to the U Tri Pstrosu Authentic Czech Restaurant, established in 1597. Time to try out some real Czech food! It was still just before noon, a bit early to eat, and the restaurant was completely empty except for the lovely waiter who seated us under the old leaded glass windows. The tablecloths were white, the silverware was heavy, and the art work was old and interesting on plastered white walls accented with heavy old dark timbers. Perfect.
We asked for a sample of “real” Czech food, but didn’t much feel like eating duck or liver so settled on some amazing chicken spaghetti. I don’t suppose it was truly Czech, but it was really good. Especially with the good Czech beer in the Budweiser glasses to wash it down. We laughed and ate and had just so much fun. Besides. We were WARM! For dessert I asked for a traditional dessert that Mo had asked I find. She had no idea what it was called, but just remembered that her Czech aunts would make it when they came to visit. I think these Czech dumplings with fruit inside floating in a lovely sweet warm vanilla sauce must have been the right one.
As we finished our very leisurely meal and asked for the check, I handed my credit card to the waiter only to discover another one of the very huge lessons to be learned when traveling. Always ask if they take a credit card! Of course, we hadn’t had any time to get some Czeck Kron and had spent all our Euros in Vienna. UhOh. The waiter was very nice and said, “There is an ATM just outside the door”. The only problem with that was that I had left my debit card in the safe back at the hotel thinking we would get cash later in the day. Melody saved the day, with her check card she managed to get out the hefty sum for the fancy lunch hoping that she had enough money in the bank at home to cover it! Whew! I don’t think I have ever felt quite so stupid in a long time. Duh! So much for travel smart mom treating daughter to a nice lunch!
After that momentary scare, we laughed a lot, and warmed by good food and beer, we climbed the steps to once again cross the Charles Bridge and marvel at the river, the views, and the amazing sculptures. The Charles Bridge is one of Prague’s most famous symbols. It joins Old Town and the Mala Strana area near Prague Castle and was completed in the early part of the 15th century. The Vltava River has been subject to flooding over the centuries, and two of the arches had to be rebuilt in the late 19th century. The bridge itself is 10 meters wide and is supported by 16 arches and decorated by more than 30 magnificent statues and groups of sculptures, and entered on both ends through two mighty towers.
On the Mala Strana side of the bridge, the shorter tower was built in the late 12th century and the higher tower in the 15th century. The statues and sculptures have been placed there throughout the ages, with many of them added between 1706 and 1714. We took our time watching people selling their art, making music, touching the statue of St John, the Five Star Guy, and just enjoying the ambiance of this most famous piece of Prague. On the Old Town side of the bridge, the Tower of Stare Mesto stands over the entrance on the right bank of the river. As we passed under the tower into the main part of the old city, we had to make a decision. Which way to go and how do we get to the Jewish Quarter?
It was another one of those times when I broke out the iPhone and turned on the map to try to get a feel for where we were and where we were going. Heading along the bank of the river, we passed some beautiful performance buildings, saw a lot of people and cars, and then even more traffic until I looked across the street at what appeared to be a very old, very sturdy wall with a small door and a gate. Funny how you know what it is when you see the walls of the Jewish Ghetto.
Sure enough, we crossed the street and discovered we were on the back side of the ghetto walls and the Jewish Cemetery was just visible through the barred window in the wall. Finding our way around the crooked streets into the Jewish Quarter took a bit of doing. Once in the area, found that we needed to get tickets from the Jewish Museum.
The Jewish Museum in Prague has one of the most extensive collections of Jewish art, textiles and silver in the world; there are 40,000 exhibits and 100,000 books. The collection is unique, everything in the museum was gathered from Bohemia and Moravia and evokes the Jewish history and a valuable heritage for the present Czech Republic. The ticket you get from the museum covers a guided visit of the Ceremonial Hall, Old Jewish Cemetery, The Old-New Synagogue, the Pinkas Synagogue, the Klausen Synagogue, the Spanish Synagogue and Meisel Synagogue.
The only problem with this was that it was a bit difficult to understand where everything was located on the map, and the Ceremonial Hall was closed for some kind of renovations. We were really interested in the cemetery of course, so headed to the entrance. There we found someone in a kiosk renting audio machines for the two hour tour. Once again, cash only. Oh for pete’s sake! Why in the world did I think I could get around Prague with no cash in my hand. We did manage to buy our tickets with a credit card, but this was a glitch I hadn’t counted on. The saleswoman made sure that we knew that we were extremely stupid to think we could figure out where to go and what to see without her audio tour. She was probably right!
In spite of the glitches, we found our way into the Jewish Cemetery, and even managed a couple of forbidden photos with the iPhone. I am really wondering just how curators are going to continue to prevent people from taking pictures of things when it is so easy to do so with tiny little phones that are nearly invisible. The cemetery is haunting. The gravestones are piled upon each other helter-skelter due to the lack of room and the practice of burying people one on top of the other up to 12 deep. I did wish for some kind of guide or interpretation of the site but we decided that we could go back to our hotel and read all about it on the internet after the fact. What a world we live in!
The Hebrew characters told hidden stories, and the small stones placed on the gravestones represented prayers for the deceased by people who visited their graves. The cemetery, founded in the first half of the 15th century, was used until the last 18th century, so these stones are very old.
We visited only one of the Synagogues in the quarter, and were reprimanded by an old women sitting on a bench to “show respect”. I am not quite sure what we were doing that wasn’t respectful, but we were very careful after that to be silent and to sit quietly. She seemed to think that because we didn’t take the offered brochures at the entrance to the building we weren’t being respectful.
I could have spent hours in the museum and book store. There were books on the history and the legends of Golem and stories of what it was like to live in the ghettos in the middle ages. Jewish history has always been fascinating to me, monumental and sad, a human story that must be part of our genetic memory whether we are Jewish or not. If I were to go back to Prague, I would read more first and spend more time in the Jewish Quarter. I would take the time to peruse the museum, would go to all the Synagogues, and would be sure to do the audio tour so that I might have a better understanding of what I was seeing. Still, just walking through the cemetery was worth the price of the ticket for both of us.
The afternoon was wearing on, and we left the Jewish Quarter and found our way through the side streets back to Old Town Square. As we got closer to the square, the shops began to change and before long we were once again on some fancy shopping row with Dior and Versace and in between we found the Image Theater, home of one of the Black Light Theater performances that have been made famous in Prague. We went inside, to discover that tomorrow night was too late and that tonight would be our only chance to see the show. I paid with a credit card and we decided it was time to get back to the hotel so we could catch a bit of rest before walking the mile and a half back to the city for the show.
On the way home we wandered through Old Town Square, and then enjoyed all the shops along the roads leading from the Square back toward the city gate. There was just so much to see, but by this time we were both pretty burned out and ready to just sit and be still for a bit. As we walked back to the hotel it started to rain and we realized that our night out on the town was probably going to be in the cold rain. UhOh. So much for dressing up!
We were only back at the hotel for 90 minutes or so before it was again time for us to walk back to Old Town Square and the theater. We went a bit early, thinking we could find something to eat in the square before the show. Melody dressed up in her beautiful long black dress and did her hair up in a wild mohawky looking thing. She looked gorgeous, and of course I didn’t get a single photo! Walking through the square assaulted our senses with lots of good food smells and as the rain came down we sought a bit of shelter at a small table next to a food cart. They were selling huge hunks of ham and Kielbasa sausages with mustard on simple brown bread. It was fabulous.
Again, looking back on the trip, this moment with Melody was one of the more special ones that sticks in my mind. The smells of the smoky sausages, the sounds of unintelligible conversations all around us, the square lights glowing in the dusk, the gentle rainfall. I have no idea what makes one moment stick among all the others, but we both knew at the time that this was going to be one that did.
After the show, here is how Melody described the Black Light Theater:
”It was like Blue Man Group in neon meets Cirque de Soleil. With grand dancers doing contemporary and ballet and Argentinean tango, wearing black light reactive costumes. They started with butterflies and bugs and went on to monkeys and then lions. I cannot describe the amount of awesome involved”.
The principles behind Black Light Theater are fairly simple. The human eye can't distinguish between a black background and black on stage. Plus, UV light is just as bright as regular light, but we can't see it, except when fluorescent items reflect it back to the human eye very brightly! So black light theater concepts have been in use in Asia for millennia. And the style was perfected by a man in the 1950's and 1960's. But Prague is THE place to see a Black Light Theater, and the one we went to is known all over the world.
The show had no words, so it's very universal. It was called Afrikania. It started with a 3-person skit on stage about a mailman who is trying to find the recipient of a lovely red letter, when he finds a hotel front desk unattended. He trades hats with the hotel concierge, who left his on the desk, and becomes the concierge long enough to help a couple check in and have adventures. This action is obviously there to allow the dancers to change costumes.
The first dance is three creatures that look like caterpillars with long arms that are made of flowing fabric. These creatures turn into butterflies with flowing, diaphanous wings and the creatures float on flying harnesses. The dancers are fabulous and with the black light costumes and ballet style tights incorporated into the dance, it felt like a ballet with wondrous contemporary elements. I loved that.
And the music was incredible. It was kind of African meets Pink Floyd. And there were animal noises that were obviously made by humans, but they were intense and very well done; it took a moment to realize they were human. The whole affair was breathtaking, and knowing the Image theater is world-renowned made it feel truly unique and wondrous. Like seeing a play on Broadway in the US. But better. As a theater geek, I was humbled to realize later that what mom and I saw is one of three production houses known around the world for their Black Light shows. Google the subject, then multiply it by a hundred.
Needless to say, by the time we walked the mile and a half back to the hotel in the rain we were exhausted but very happy at the adventures of the day. I am sure I fell asleep immediately.
Next: Our free day in Prague, The Metropolitan Building and Mucha, Old Town Square, and the Astronomical Clock