Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Day 7: Traveling to and around Prague

Photo credit: SS
As we drove along the river on the way out of Vienna, our tour guide played us Johann Strauss, Jr.'s "Blue Danube Waltz," and Dear Husband and I enjoyed a little dance in our seats (left).

Out the windows, we could see the beautiful green countryside. I have always thought the German countryside looks like a patchwork quilt, with swatches of various greens punctuated by little villages of houses capped in reddish tile roofs. Karel explained that this is the case in Central Europe, because the land belonged to the aristocratic ruler, who rented it out to the commoners. They lived in villages with their land spread around around them in irregular strips as they were divided among heirs. In the American Midwest, by contrast, there are laaarge fields with individual farmhouses in the middle of them and connected by straight country roads at right angles, reflecting the way land was acquired (and, I might add, the way it is farmed today). He showed us the difference using Google maps, so I have included some links, the first to the place on the Austro-Czech border where I believe we crossed, and the second to a rural area in downstate Illinois.

"Hear ye, hear ye! Please check
your weapons at the door."

At this point in the trip, we were again crossing a border that used to be heavily guarded, with "barb-ered wire" fences and checkpoints during the Cold War. In fact, there are few modern highways over the Austro-Hungarian and Austro-Czech borders, because when those kinds of roads were being built after World War II, travel over those borders was discouraged. So we spent some time on small windy roads going through little villages before joining up with the national freeways. On one of those was the themed rest-stop pictured at right. In this restaurant/convenience store, everything had a "medieval fantasy" theme, from the inflatable dragons on the roof to the clock with a sword for a minute hand to the shopping carts (made to look like they were made of wood) to the "Viking" gal out front in a totally contrived Xena-Warrior-Princess get-up. Down the way was an enormous planet earth with a restaurant shaped like a jet plane, and in between were bumper cars for kids and a laundromat. I guess it was supposed to be a family-friendly place for vacationers to stop while on long drives, although I didn't think Europeans were as fond of roadtrips as we Americans.

Finally, we arrived in Prague. My family had been to the capital of the Czech Republic twice before (once when it was still Czechoslovakia), but this was DH's first visit. My first two impressions were a) disappointment that I could not read the signs and billboards and b) delight that the old streetcars look just like how I remember them (above). It was a treat to be in Austria, where I speak the language, but I know only half a dozen words in Czech.

After dinner, DH and I decided to head out into the city already. We were hoping to catch an organ concert. I hadn't been able to figure out the location of the church online beforehand, but the concierge at our hotel directed us to the castle, Hradčany. So we bought some tram tickets and hurried off. The tram was easy to catch and took us up the river (Vltava) to the square in Malá Strana (Lesser Town). Then we got off and hiked up the steep street, lined with shops and pubs, to the castle hill. (I'll share pictures of what we saw there in later posts.) We finally did find the church the concierge had indicated--but it wasn't the right one! No organ concert for us that night.

It was still only 8pm and light out, so despite the fact that we were traveling super light (no map and none of my planning materials), we decided to try to find the black-light theater that had daily 9:30pm performances. I knew it was on the other side of the river, but not more than that. Asking at one of the boutique hotels only got us a tram stop in the area, but I hoped there would be signage. Once there, we stopped at what looked like a theater but turned out to be some kind of hang-out joint. Neither the fourteen-year-old working the front desk nor the bar staff upstairs had any idea what we were talking about. As we set off down the street anyway--there, on the other side, was a large neon sign for a black-light theater! It turned out to be one of the half-dozen other black-light theaters in Prague, but next door was an (expensive) internet cafe, where I looked up the right place, which was within walking distance. Happily, we made it to the theater with plenty of time for a bathroom break and a snack from the concession stand. More on the show in a later post.

To the right have been snapshots of the various styles of tram for all you train and public transit geeks out there. Below is the view from part of the way up the looong, steep, subway escalator--something else I remembered from earlier trips. On our way back to the hotel about 11pm that night, Germany had just defeated the Netherlands in group play of the Euro 2012 championship, and there were German Jungs wearing football jerseys and carrying flags taking the same subway as us. They were in high spirits, chanting team songs, cheering when the subway arrived, and holding their flags up to flutter in the rush of on-coming air. As far as partisanship and national rivalry go, theirs was pretty mild compared to rioting Russian fans or "barb-ered wire" fences.

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