Prague

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We were looking for the most beautiful cafe in Prague. This is hard work, since so many of Prague’s cafes might, in one respect or another, lay claim to this title. Besides, there’s no way we could check them all out in only three days in the city, not to mention the harmful effects of the caffeine overdose.

Fortunately, we had a tip from one of our guidebooks–Obecni Dum is an Art Nouveau gem. Located on the ground floor of the Prague Municipal House on Republic Square, the cafe looks out over the vibrant street scene. And it is elegant in its grace and proportions, and in its understated Art Nouveau ornamentation.

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We also came upon the nearby Cafe Imperial, a much more wildly decorated Art Nouveau gem. Alas, we were by then all “coffee”d out. The scowling waiters did not seem to take kindly to tourists coming in to photograph their establishment without partaking of its fare–but I was able to get in a few apologetic shots.

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Crazy as Dan and I are for markets, it should come as no surprise that we stumbled upon not one but three of them while we were in Prague. One–the Havelske Trziste–is a permanent fixture of the Old Town. The other two, lacking names, seemed just to spring up, dare I say, to welcome us?

The Havelske Trziste (Havel’s Market) is a permanent market of fruits and vegetables, flowers, knick-knacks, and souvenirs. It’s small and charmingly situated in the middle of a pretty street. It seems to cater to tourists as much as to locals. While we were charmed–as we usually are, by markets–it wasn’t one of those ones that would knock you off your feet.

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On our way to the palace compound, we stumbled upon a kind of French market in the Na Kampe Square just across the Charles Bridge in Lesser Town. There is no regular market in this square, although on July 14th they hold a French market here, across from the French embassy–as you might expect. This one, in early September, must have resulted from an excess of Francophile enthusiasm. We could have bought everything from olive oils to olives to grilled-vegetable wraps to lavender sachets and woven goods. There was even free music.

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The next day, earmarked for exploration in a section of the old city known for its art-deco buildings and ornamentation…

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…we came across a market that offered, among the fruits and vegetables and tourist goods…

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…some interesting crafts. Here we watched a woman making hand-blown glass beads;

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a stall selling sausages of venison and wild boar;

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a stall selling home-made honey mead;

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a craft brewery offering its wares next to a stall with hand-sewn cloth dolls and other items;

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a woman weaving light-as-air shawls and afghans on an old-fashioned loom.

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And–of all things–a team of people determined to make the Guinness Book of World Records with the World’s Largest Salad.

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All of their work seems to be paying off: They’ve brought out the scale.

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76.4kg!

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And it’s beautiful!

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We decided to walk across the Charles Bridge, or Karlovy Most, a beautiful pedestrian bridge across the Vitavy River in the old city of Prague.

View of the Charles Bridge

View of the Charles Bridge

We, that is, and about ten thousand other tourists.

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You can see a good number of them in this view of the Gothic bridge tower guarding the Old Town end of the bridge.

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The views across (and up and down) the river are lovely.

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The Manes Bridge

The Manes Bridge

The Lesser Town (with St. Vitus Cathedral)

The Lesser Town (with St. Vitus Cathedral)

Old Town with painted house

Old Town with painted house

Old Town with churches

Old Town with churches

The bridge is adorned with thirty mostly Baroque statues–replicas of the originals, which are now housed in the National Museum.

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On the day we were there, it was also adorned with a talented band of jazz musicians.

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These places are probably not one-of-a-kind. But they have an undeniable charm, and I am glad to share them with you.

Yummy breads & pastries

Yummy breads & pastries

Freaky people of all sizes

Freaky people of all sizes

Heavy-duty consciousness expansion

Heavy-duty consciousness expansion

Beautiful music

Beautiful music

And finally, our down-the-street neighborhood bar in Praha 3, the Cocktail Bar Puerto Rico, where you can get two mojitos for the price of one during Happy Hour–and they aren’t half bad.

Cocktail Bar Puerto-Rico

Cocktail Bar Puerto-Rico

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The cemetery in the Jewish quarter of Prague has been a burial ground for members of the Jewish community since ancient times. The oldest known grave is from 1439, but many believe that it has been a burial ground for much longer than that. Over 12,000 gravestones are visible. At least 40,000 people are buried here, and some people estimate that as many as 200,000 may be buried here in total.

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The cemetery was in use until 1890. It fell into disrepair by the middle of the twentieth century.

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Late in the century, it was placed under the auspices of the Jewish Museum of Prague, which has been restoring it.

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Many revered members of Prague’s Jewish community were buried here. Perhaps the most widely known nowadays, due to his appearance in a number of popular, even bestselling, works of fiction, is the legendary Rabbi Judah Loew (c. 1510-1609), a great mystic and scholar of the Kabbalah and also the storied creator of the Golem.

You may be wondering at how close together these headstones appear. There’s no way a body could be buried in between them–not even if they buried them upright (which they did not).

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This is not an optical trick of the camera. The headstones are incredibly close together.

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This is because the limited physical area of the cemetery was inadequate to store the bodies of the number of people who died over the centuries. And so it was necessary to bring in earth from outside and to layer the bodies with the requisite amount of soil between each one.

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As the layers grew, the older headstones were preserved and moved up alongside the newer ones. There are at least ten layers of bodies in the limited space of the cemetery–and maybe twelve or more.

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Between the intensity and ages of use, and the disrepair only now being corrected, the place has a surrealistic quality, as if Death itself rests here in the evenings, after the tourists have gone home.

 

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After these various and lovely churches, it seems time to turn to the synagogues of Prague. A visit to the Jewish Quarter is in order.

As everywhere in the historical center of Prague, the streets are charming.

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But there is a bit of a twist–Jewish themes appear here and there in the building adornment.

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Here, the ladies gracing the entryway are modestly attired, and they’re wearing hats, in stark contrast to the nudes and near-nudes elsewhere in the city. Also, look closely at this detail. Is that a pile of *coins* by the Star of David?

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And of course, inevitably, some of the retail establishments also take advantage of their location. Here we have (in translation) the “Restaurant at the Old Synagogue.” It’s quite pretty, actually.

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The Jewish community, though located in and associated with Prague, had its own government. The town hall has a clock tower–of course–and also an additional clock with Hebrew letters that runs–you guessed it–counterclockwise.

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The Old New Synagogue was built in 1270. And yes, there was an Old Synagogue, but it was demolished in the nineteenth century. I was unable to determine which, if any, of the other synagogues might be the *New* New Synagogue.

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The Spanish Synagogue, built in 1868, did not house a Spanish or Sefardic congregation, but the name refers to the Moorish style of architecture, as ornate on the inside as on the outside.

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The Maisel Synagogue, built in 1590, was named after the mayor of the Jewish town, Mordechai Maisel, who funded its construction. Damaged by fire, it was completely rebuilt (preserving only the floor plan) at the end of the nineteenth century.

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Originally built in 1535, after the second world war the Pinkas synagogue was turned into a memorial for the eighty thousand Jews of Moravia and Bohemia (parts of the Czech Republic) who were murdered by the Nazis. Its walls are covered with their names. So many, so many…

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Appropriately, from this synagogue visitors can walk through the Jewish Cemetery (see the next post), coming out near the Ceremonial Hall (belonging to the Burial Society).

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The Klausen Synagogue, the largest in the ghetto, now contains a permanent exhibition of Jewish traditions and customs.

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Like Dan, you don’t have to be Jewish to be fascinated by the richness of this quarter. And like him, you don’t even have to like museums very much to be interested in the exhibits and the buildings. All these locations, as well as the Jewish Cemetery shown in the next post, may be visited with a single ticket purchased from the Jewish Museum of Prague, which is doing a wonderful job of preserving Prague’s Jewish heritage.

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Since I’ve gotten on the topic of beautiful churches, it’s natural to turn next to St. Vitus Cathedral up in the Royal Compound. Like all of the tourist attractions in Prague when we were there, it was, well, full of tourists. Despite which, the soaring nave was awesome and stunning.

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Outside of the space as a whole, I most loved the stained glass windows. Many an ancient European stained glass window was lost in the bombings of World War II, so it was particularly gratifying to see many of St. Vitus’s windows intact.

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St. Vitus Cathedral also contains the tomb of King Wenceslas I of Bohemia, a.k.a. “Good King Wenceslas” of Christmas carol fame. In fact, he was a Duke, not a King, but was posthumously elevated to kinghood. Son of Vratislas I, Wenceslas ascended the throne in A.D. 925 at the age of eighteen and was the founder of the cathedral dedicated to St. Vitus. He was murdered by his brother Boleslav the Cruel in A.D. 935 at the age of 28. Wenceslas had a reputation for princely character and strength exceeded only by his piety. He was elevated to sainthood shortly after his death.

The chapel containing his tomb is beautiful.

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Some people say it’s the most beautiful library in the world–but it’s not on our tourist maps. The maps focus on the central areas, but the Strahov Monastery is farther out of the center, outside the borders of the maps. But we manage to determine from a very small map in one of our books the approximate location–at least good enough to figure out which train to take. We have three-day unlimited train passes, so getting on and off trains is very easy for us. And after all, once you’re on the right train, a monastery of such significance should be easy to spot, right?

Wrong.

So somewhere near the end of the line, when the car is almost empty, an elderly gentleman asks if we are lost, and can he help us find something. We tell him we’re looking for the Strahov Monastery, and he tells us that we’ve gone too far, and exactly how many stops we have to go back (three). We do as told, and find the monastery, which from the outside is quite modest. Only the spires of the church are visible from the street below.

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We pay the fee to enter the library, which is on the second floor of one of the buildings. And indeed it is beautiful.

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This is the “Philosophical Hall,” built in the late 1700s. My pictures gives a good idea of the room, but you can find the Picture To End All Pictures here. Zoom in for close-ups of the ceiling or of the books. Somehow, these old volumes tied a knot in my throat that doesn’t seem to want to go away.

There was, it turned out, also a second library room, known as the “Theological Hall,” that was built a hundred years earlier. If not so gracefully proportioned, it was most wonderfully decorated.

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The monastery church, the Basilica of the Assumption, has been rebuilt a number of times and now looks to be of a similar Baroque vintage as the Theological Hall.

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After enjoying these sights, a nearby restaurant offers a view of a different kind.

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We had a dinner reservation elsewhere that evening, so we planned to go back for dinner the next evening. Alas, the weather turned cold and windy and rainy. But someday–who knows?–we may yet return. Especially now that we know where to get off the train.

 

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I feel a need to get out of the details for a while. So let’s look at these buildings in context–and in the city, that context is the street.

Come take a walk with us…

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And finally, a street in the local neighborhood of our hotel, the excellent Louren Hotel, not in the tourist area but in District 3, a neighborhood just a couple of metro stops away from the city center.

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Prague buildings are to architecture as Viennese pastry is to food.

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Beautiful, sweet, and delicious. Hard to carry on without other things in the diet, too. Maybe now I have to visit some ugly city just to cleanse my palate.

Okay, that was a joke.

I know I said I wasn’t going to do any more posts about the human figures on Prague’s buildings. But. I can’t not. They really are everywhere. However, in this post I will focus on ornamental features found near the tops of various buildings, including (where it happens) human figures. 

Some of this ornamentation is quite ornate.

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It can be sculpted or painted.

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We saw a lovely sundial…

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…and elegant second- and third-floor bridges between buildings.

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This crowded boat looks like it might have some allegorical significance–but what?

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Best of all, these rich buildings seem content to live together side by side. It’s like having all the helpings of dessert you want and never getting sick!

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