Saturday, 4 February 2012

Frozen Czech

This morning we all woke up feeling incredibly refreshed. A good, long sleep can do wonders. We have skylights in our room which lets the sun flood in, but it didn't even wake us. I eventually got up and Skyped Mum and Dad (and Riley and Brondi) and it was wonderful to catch up after a week. We thought we'd try to catch the 10.45am walking tour, but we ended up taking too long with showers etc and so we went out for a lengthy breakfast. That ended up costing more than dinner last night. Okay, so we learnt from that. European street/supermarket food is incredibly cheap and tasty, but restaurants are a bit of a rip-off, particularly, and obviously, in touristy areas. We went and bought an enormous bunch of groceries to make pasta tonight, with lots of meat, vegetables and bolognese. Then we ducked back into the hostel (where it was WARM) for an hour or so to organise photos etc. We ended up making the 2pm walking tour instead. I can't recommend these Sandemans tours highly enough. They are so entertaining and informative and it only costs you a tip (or nothing, if you want to be uber stingy and mean).

We met in Old Town Square, where our lovely guide, Jakub, told us that he was actually born in Prague, grew up in London and Kenya, and went to uni in Scotland and Barcelona, before returning to Prague to live. Over the course of this tour, he told us about his family, using his two grandfathers as examples of the impact historical events can have on relationships between people, even if the people involved are from the same place. Having such a personal touch (Jakub was a toddler during the Velvet Revolution, and attended the peaceful protests with his grandfather, much to his grandmother's chagrin) really enhanced the tour. In the Old Town Square we saw the Tyn Cathedral (with the right column slightly bigger than the left column, to represent Adam and Eve), St Nicholas' Church, and the place where the old town hall once stood before it was bombed. You can still see the half-formed windows that were blown apart in the explosion. There is the statue dedicated to Jan Hus, the religious reformer, and of course, the Astronomical Clock. The clockmaker was blinded by the government to ensure he could never recreate such a beautiful clock in another city. It is 600 years old, still operates on the same mechanism, and in that time has only become 9 minutes slow. It also won an award for most underwhelming attraction in the world. Hmmm. Well, I thought it was lovely. Jakub did an excellent and very humorous impression of the 23 second long display by the clock statues.

We saw the oldest part of Charles University where the graduations take place, and the theatre where Mozart's 'Don Giovanni' was first performed (and Amadeus was filmed). There is an extra creepy statue of a hooded figure out the front to commemorate this (think Ringwraith/Dementor). The statue is hollow and legend has it that it goes all the way down to Hell. If you write down an evil you wish against your enemies, you throw it in the statue and Satan receives it in Hell and will review it, to see if he wants to carry out your wishes. It's also famous because drunk English tourists seem to think it's a good idea to get drunk and try to climb in it. They get stuck and the statue has to be cut open to get them out. We saw Wenceslas Square with the Muzeum at the end (where Casino Royale was filmed). There are plaques commemorating students who doused themselves in petrol and set themselves alight in protest of the Soviet invasion of 68-69. We walked along what was once the moat around the city - Powder Tower, that stored gunpowder, is pretty much all that is left of the city walls. It marks the entrance that leads up to Prague Castle and is next to Municipal House. We then walked to the church of St Jakub, where we were told a fascinating story about a thief that broke in to the church and decided to steal the Madonna's necklace. As soon as he reached for the necklace, the statue of the Madonna came to life and seized his wrist. No matter how the thief repented and pleaded, the statue would not release his arm. The next morning, the priests discovered him and tried to soak his arm in oil and butter to slide it out of the statue's grip. Nothing worked, and eventually they decided to chop off his arm. The thief freaked out and told them to get rid of the statue's arm, but the priests feared reprisal from the statue, which had now proven itself alive. So they chopped off the thief's arm. He screamed and carried on and fell to the ground, armless. As soon as this happened, the statue released the dead arm and went back to cradling Baby Jesus. Don't mess with Mary. The thief regained consciousness and fled, never to be seen again. The priests hung the hand from the ceiling as a warning to thieves and it remains there to this day. I took a photo of it.

After this we had a break and consumed mulled wine. This is amazingly yummy. It's basically hot, sweet wine, and goes down like a treat when you are that freezing. Then it was onto the Jewish Quarter. We saw the statue of Kafka, on the shoulders of one of his characters, and the Spanish Synagogue, we saw buildings built with Communist and Cubist architecture, and the Old New Synagogue (the oldest synagogue in Europe). According to legend, the Golem is inside the attic of this synagogue, and no one has been up there in centuries, with the exception of a Nazi soldier. This soldier insisted on seeing the attic, so they opened the door and then shut him inside, locking it. He's not been seen since. Nearby is the Jewish cemetery. I referred to this earlier in my blog - it is the inspiration for the memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. The ground is extremely hilly and the gravestones are very close together because the Jews were not given enough room to bury their dead. So they added more soil and stacked grave upon grave. The only reason the cemetery still exists (as the Nazis tried to wipe out most evidence that Jews had ever occupied any residences in Europe) is because Hitler apparently intended Prague as a future museum for the future extinct race. Bite me, Hitler. Bite me.

We then saw the Pinkas Synagogue, which is now a Holocaust museum. There are 80,000 names and dates, of the 80,000 Czech Jews that died in WW2, carved on a white wall. There is also an exhibition of art done by Jewish children in the Terezin concentration camp. Mrs Freidl Dicker-Brandeis organised it as a sort of therapy to help the children deal with what was happening to them and their families. She told them to draw their happiest memories and hold onto that memory as tight as they could. Friedl Dicker-Brandeis boarded a train to Auschwitz knowing she was headed to certain death, so she hid the drawings in the attic and they were discovered after the camp was liberated and were then put on display. We heard all this from our guide, but we didn't have time to actually go in and see any of it. This was so disappointing, because it sounds fascinating. We were also told about the humanitarian work of Sir Nicholas Winton, a hero of the Holocaust. Google him, he's amazing.

We ended the tour in the freezing cold (apparently it was minus 11 but it felt like minus 2000) in front of the Rudolfinum, which is a beautiful concert hall with amazing views of Prague Castle and the Parliament House. Our tour guide told us about a hilarious episode with the President of Prague stealing a pen in front of the world media. Watch the youtube clip, it's great:

Apparently, after this happened, a Facebook group was started and the people of Czech mailed him 18,000 pens and pencils. Silly, silly man. Here, Jakub told us more about his grandfathers, Dimitri and Josef. For decades, they couldn't stand to be in the same room as one another, having come from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Despite both being Czech men, neither of them Jews, the country has gone through so many political, social and cultural changes that have seen many people betrayed by those they put their trust in, and many people have been elevated to levels of such status, only to have it snatched away by the arrival of a new ruling power. As a result, it took years and years for Josef and Dimitri to bury the hatchet and the painful memories in order to get along for the sake of their joined families. It was a terribly interesting story, and a great way to put perspective on everything we had learned in the previous three hours.

We were nicely frozen by now, unaware if any of our toes had survived. We headed back to the hostel, taking a train to stay warm, even though it wasn't a very long walk. We got back and Cara cooked up an amazing spaghetti with the groceries we had bought and now we are chilling in our room. Being so cold is amazingly tiring, but we want to be feeling good for tomorrow, so it will probably be another early night!

Until tomorrow then!

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