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Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Trip to Prague

There we were, in Germany in the summertime, two parents, a teenager, and an almost-10-year-old, with two weeks off work, but low on money. We were being lazy--reading, watching videos. I was working madly on writing the second draft of my YA novel and making great headway. Yet it seemed a crime to not make the most of the opportunity and take a trip somewhere. So we decided to head for the Czech Republic, where the dollar isn't so weak as in other parts of Europe.

On a whim, I bought a copy of National Geographic Traveler's guidebook on Prague and the Czech Republic. I'd already seen that hotel rooms in Prague are pretty expensive, but a place in Melnik, listed as a "Day Trip" from Prague, caught my eye. The listing sounded nice--right next to the castle, with kitchenettes and comfortable accommodations. It said "Some of the rooms have four beds, making the hotel a useful option for families." We decided to try it. It was listed as from $50 to $80 for a double room, so we were disappointed when we calculated the price in dollars and it was $150 a night, but at least we could all be in one room. We booked three nights.

Incidentally, I so wish that someone would publish a European hotel guide for families! The guidebooks always list the price for a double room, but we've found that that has little correlation to how much a hotel is going to cost us. If the hotel doesn't even have rooms that fit four, we usually have to pay twice the price. If they do have rooms, it depends on whether or not they give a discount for children. How nice it would be if prices were listed for families of 3, 4, 5, or 6 members! (Though we'd settle for the price for a family of four.)

We left at 10:30 in the morning. It was a cloudy day, and the temperatures were perfect for driving. The green hills, fields and forests didn't change much as we passed from Germany into the Czech Republic. The main difference was that now the signs appeared as gibberish. (What kind of language has one-letter words that are consonants? I saw the word "k" here and there.) There also was more advertising across the overpasses than in Germany. The Czechs seem to have embraced the capitalist spirit. The highway was smooth and straight and well-maintained.

At 5:00, we were just coming into the city. Timothy was hungry. Steve asked we should stop and eat, but I wanted to press on to Melnik (on the other side of Prague). What a mistake! I hadn't been thinking about rush hour. We crawled forward. What had looked like a simple ring road around the city ended up being a complicated series of turns and exits. My map showed that several different route numbers were involved in the ring around the city, but it didn't tell which route joined where, and we took a detour south for a bit.

Well, we finally made it to Melnik and found our hotel, "U Rytiru." It's a rather old building, but had nice furnishings downstairs. There was no elevator, so we hauled our bags up two flights of stairs, hoping we weren't paying all that money for some dive.

We opened the door and all said, "Wow!" It wasn't a room; it was a suite. The door opened into a huge living/dining room with a balcony and window with a grand view. The "kitchenette" was about twice the size of our kitchen at home, and more modern. (Though it didn't have any dishes or utensils, and we never asked if we could borrow some.) There were three bedrooms, all big and with nice chests of drawers and desks.

There wasn't one simple bathroom. There was a shower room, a room with a toilet and sink, and another big bathroom with a toilet and bidet, a double sink, and a jacuzzi!

Needless to say, we suddenly felt much better about spending three nights in this place. The price wasn't high at all for what we were getting.

After settling in, we roamed around the town a bit. There was a palace and a church next to the hotel, both high on a ridge overlooking the Vlatava River, with grapevines growing on the side of the ridge. It was a lovely evening, still cloudy but at a perfect temperature, not too cold and not too hot.

Melnik reminded me strongly of Pordenone, in Italy. Both towns had galleries in front of shops with Romanesque arches. The Czech shops were a little shabbier, with some peeling paint, but the idea was similar, a nice place for strolling.

The next day we slept late, then drove into Prague. It only took about a half-hour, though then a bit longer for me to navigate the one-way streets and get us close to the Castle.

Prague reminds me a little bit of Edinburgh, with a big castle complex on a hill overlooking the city. Only Edinburgh's castle and hill are more rough and rugged. The dominating feature of Prague's castle is St. Vitus's Cathedral in the center of it.

We were there just in time for the Changing of the Guard at 12:00. Rather than push our way through the crowds, we went into the National Gallery next to the castle, located in Sternberg Palace (and so is our 158th Castle). We only saw one wing, with lots of masterpieces by Dutch painters, and also a beautiful painting of Christ by El Greco. We had lunch at the museum.

In the castle, we wandered through the cathedral, the old palace, and the lanes of shops. I bought a couple of books by Kafka--It seemed the right thing to do in Prague.

We visited the Toy Museum, which was having a special exhibit of Barbie through the years. I spotted a couple of Barbies my sister used to have. Remember Walking Jamie, Becky? She was there. Most of the costumes I recognized were from the early 70s. You know, pinks and oranges.

On Saturday, we visited the part of Prague on the other side of the river. We started with the Charles Bridge. It reminded me of the Rialto Bridge in Venice--crowds of people, and lots of things to buy. Saturday, the weather had turned to glorious sunshine. It felt good to be over the river in a great city, with bright sunshine and cool breezes.

We went across the Charles Bridge, with me madly snapping pictures. So many towers and spires in Prague! We ate lunch in a nice cool and peaceful Italian place, away from the crowds, before going back to the other side. Then we made our way slowly to the Old Town Square, stopping in lots of shops along the way.

A marathon was going on in the Old Town Square, so we couldn't examine too many buildings too closely. But I still managed to take lots of pictures, and we even found an English-language bookstore in which to go nuts.

After that, we walked on, heading for Wenceslas Square and the National Museum, which Timothy wanted to see. We had passed its imposing building the day before, and he liked the sound of it in the guidebook. We ended up taking too long to get there before it opened, distracted when we saw the headquarters of the Cowparade.

Did I forget to mention the Cowparade? Cowparade 2004 was my almost-10-year-old son Timothy's favorite thing about Prague. All over the city, there were cow statues in three different poses, all decorated in different ways. Timothy's favorite was the Matrix cow, with letters and numbers going down its sides. I liked some of the pretty designs, but I also liked the cow that was reading a book. Timothy also enjoyed the cow that was surfing the Internet. I took pictures of all of them, planning to make a Cowlage when I'm done. At the Cowparade office, we got a map of the Cow-ordinates of more cows and Timothy got a Cowparade T-shirt. Josh also got one that said, "Make Cows, Not War."

I was amazed that, no matter how long we walked, the buildings continued to be grand and palatial. I loved the carvings and statues on the fronts of the buildings. No matter where we were, we couldn't forget that we were in a grand old European city.

Our final day was Sunday. We stopped at the National Museum on our way home. It was nothing special, but a nice excuse to go into Prague again. I liked the collection of Rocks and Minerals. Or at least the first 500 or so were interesting.

We decided to drive on another hour to Plzen for lunch. Steve (my husband) has been there twice on trips with the band. He took us to a nice restaurant where their sponsors had fed them while they were there. The food was wonderful, and the prices were low. Plzen is another lovely little town on a river. It has a beautiful cathedral in a grand town square. It was a Sunday, so none of the shops were open, and it was slightly shabby, like Melnik, but seemed a beautiful place.

Now we're back home in Germany, enjoying our cool summer weather. And I've got about 300 more pictures to develop. (I'll try to figure out how to post some on this site.)

10 comments:

Rick said...

Hey, look, your first sibling gets to post your first comment!
So, Sondy, do you now see why Prague is my favorite city in the world? I can understand that not everyone would rank it quite as high as myself, but I can't understand anyone who wouldn't at least put it in their top ten or so! I always described it as Disneyland, only for real. Did you go on Charles Bridge at night? I like it so much more then. Many of the best photographs I've ever taken were in Prague... that was pre-digital, but I really should scan them for sharing on the net.
I must say I was surprised to see the nice things you said about Plzen. I guess it has changed since I saw it in 1989 when it was still Communist. At the time we drove through, you could smell the city miles away and see a scary brown cloud of smog hovering over the city. It was far and away the most polluted place I've ever been, and I remember L.A. in the 70's before clean-air laws took effect. Even with our windows rolled up tight as we drove through, we were all coughing, and the visibility was probably only about 75 yards inside the city. And that was in August... I've since learned that the coal-burning winter months have much worse pollution in Eastern Europe than the summer.
Anyhow, I'm glad you had a great time in Czech!
Love,
Rick

Rick said...

Oh, and FYI, in case you weren't just jesting, the single consonant "words" are pronounced with the words following them and are really just prefixes that modify those words, not really considered words in their own right. I think they are separated because if they were included with the word, it would make reading difficult when the first letter of a word changed depending on how you use it in a sentence! Did you know that studies show that people can easily read entire paragraphs of scrambled words, as long as the first and last letters remain in their proper positions! Now I'm not trying to say the Czech language makes sense here. Mostly you look at their signs and think to yourself, "Somebody should buy a vowel."

Ron said...

In Tagalog "ng" is a word... but it's really just an odd spelling. I can't seem to remember which vowel is actually in the word or where it fits, though.

Oh, and nice to see the blog going up, sis... I first heard about blogs on foxnews.com and since then I've been seeing articles about how to set up a Linux server with blog hosting software (a lot of different features are available). Fun stuff.

Marcy said...

Well, now your 11th sibling will post your 4th comment. (= In addition to what Rick said about "k", it's quite possible that it's spelled as a separate word because historically there was more to it, which eventually stopped being pronounced and now isn't even spelled. And if you think Czech is bad (then you're right...) you'd love Abaza. It's the language one of my linguistics professors is working in, and it has two vowels and (if I remember right) about 60 consonants. So of course there are some truly amazing consonant clusters!

Anyway, it is good to see your blog up. Since I've looked at my own Europe pictures so much, your pictures look wonderfully familiar. I always like reading about places I've been to. Prague certainly is a beautiful city. And I can see why Charles Bridge reminded you of the Rialto, although in my experiences of the two the crowd on the Rialto was far more dense -- and of course the Rialto is less picturesque.

Sondy said...

I love your explanation of the single-letter "words," Rick! That makes good sense. Probably easier on everyone than the huge German words with all the prefixes and suffixes and compound nouns smashed together. And I so agree with you about someone needing to buy a vowel!

Speaking of language, for nervous Americans out there, everywhere we went waiters and others spoke plenty of English. Every restaurant had menu choices also listed in English. I'm ashamed to say I didn't get a phrase book or even try to learn how to pronounce Czech, but we didn't have any trouble communicating. (We did use a little bit of German, but I don't think that was totally necessary.)

Yes, I can see why you love Prague. I'm afraid we didn't see the Charles Bridge at night, though. For me, Prague didn't have the magic of Paris or Venice or London, but that's mainly because I haven't read much of anything set in Prague or seen many movies set there. With the other cities, besides their beauty, I think, "Wow! I'm really here!" However, I can agree that it will stay in my top ten. A lovely city.

Sondy said...

Hi Marcy!

For me, we were on the Rialto Bridge in February and April, and the Charles Bridge in July, so the crowds were about exactly the same, maybe even a little less on the Rialto.

The Rialto less picturesque? I'm not sure I agree with you. Maybe less picturesque when you're actually on the bridge (because of the crowds), but pictures of the Rialto are even better, with the little shops on the bridge and the Grand Canal going underneath. Maybe I should dig out a picture from a couple of years ago and post one. But the Charles Bridge is undeniably beautiful, too.

Suzanne said...

Howdy,
Well, I think I'm going to talk Joe into a trip to Prague....I wouldn't have thought much about it before I read your stories. By the way, I'm looking forward to more chapters of the Mystical Mantle of Meterorology:)

Karise said...

Your Buhler (now Buell) cousin posting here! So great to see pics of Prague, the main city on my YWAM mission trip (13 years ago!?!)... my first European trip. Hope to plan a trip back w/ Scott in the next year or 2, he's never been & it's been 11 years since I've been to Europe. Thanks for sharing the pics & stories, it's especially fun since it's family. It's motivating as well. :)

Marcy said...

Hi Sondy!

Well, I suppose the denser crowd on the Rialto could have biased me. You couldn't see anything when you were on it, and the ugly sign plastered on its side at the time didn't help matters when you weren't on it. I do have some beautiful pictures of other bridges in Venice, though.

And as a side note, another thing that contributes to the magic of Venice is the lack of cars! It gives it an entirely different air, especially as compared to a busy city like Florence, which preceded it on my tour.

Rick said...

Hi Sondy,
I was amused that Prague was less magical to you because you hadn't seen it in movies as much as places like Paris and London. I think it was partly for that very reason that Prague seemed MORE magical to me, like a wondrous land discovered in a wardrobe. I visited Prague first by car when Czechoslovakia was still Communist, and wasn't impressed at the ugly outskirts of the city or with the depressing Stalinist architechture of the hotel we checked in at in a disreputable district of the town. But a colleague who had been to Prague before said, "Just wait." We took a subway to the stop nearest Old Town Square and things already were better upon exiting the underground, but when we came into Old Town Square at night with its spires and glockenspiel and view of the castle on the hill, well, that was really magical. And if you haven't been on the Charles Bridge at night, well, no offense, but in my opinion, at night it's my very favorite place in the whole world and in the daytime would perhaps barely make my top 100. For a romantic, like I know you to be, it's kind of like comparing the beach at night to the beach in the daytime. (Charles Bridge can be downright unpleasant on a hot summer day due to crowding.) My best photographs in and of Prague were taken on the bridge in the late afternoon and at dusk.