Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Day 19 - Our First Peak Behind the Iron Curtain


Well, we have left the "West" behind and are now moving into the portion of the trip where the countries are still working their way through all the fun they had under the former Soviet Union.  We have made our way to the Czech Republic, specifically, the capital city or Prague, or Praha as it's called here.  One of the reasons Scott came for the Germany and Czech Rep. part of the trip was not just because it looked like a good time, but also because about 75% of our family background originates in these two countries.

In fact, if you go about halfway between Houston and San Antonio on I-10 you'll find a little Czech community about 10 minutes away from Flatonia named Praha that our great, great times 3 (or something like that) Grandfather helped found and build the first Czech organized Catholic Church in Texas.  We even had the village names from where our ancestors came from over here, but unfortunately they were 4 or 5 hours away and not on the train lines, so we didn't get to go due to time restrictions.

Prague has a completely different feel to it.  English is still spoken, but not as frequently and by less people.  That combined with the fact that I know zero Czech made it a bit harder to get around.  It's a very nice and beautiful town but you can still tell the difference between places like France and here.  It's completely safe, and we had a great time, but I'm glad we did something a little more touristy for the first part of the trip.  It made it easier to navigate a slightly more difficult situation.

There are two names you need to remember when you go to the Czech Republic, St. Wenceslaus I (from the Christmas Carol.  And he wasn't a king either, by the way) and King Charles IV.    St. Wenceslaus I was a Duke of Bohemia in the 10th century and is the patron saint of the Czech Rupublic, Bohemia, and Prague.  King Charles IV was from the 14th century and was the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.  A huge portion of the famous structures in the city where authorized by this guy.  Scott and I started off our day with a tour of the city.  We had a guy who was from the Czech Republic named Radic who was really funny and knew his stuff.  We've been really lucky with our guides so far.  Here's some of the highlights.

This is Old Town Square.  On the right is the Church of Our Lady before Tyn which is from the 14th century.

On the left you can see a small statue of Jan Hus who was the inspiration for the Hussite Uprising which converted the surrounding region for a time from Catholicism to Protestantism a hundred years before Martin Luther and the Reformation .

The Catholic Church was not a big fan of Huss speaking against them.  Where would the indulgences, tithing and bingo night crowd come from?  So they decided to burn him alive.  Bad call it turns out because doing so rallied the troops and the Church was pushed out till the Hapsburg Empire took over.  And thus 10 generations never felt the joy of completing their line after hearing the oh so sweet words, "B-5. . . that's B . . 5".

This is the Astonomical Clock on the Old Town Square which I've still yet to figure out how it works.  There are about 12 hands on this thing  Every hour supposedly a little show happens with some moving pieces on the clock.  If you want to know the time, look at your wrist.  If you want to see pretty pictures and dials move in a circle, look at this clock.

This is the Town Hall and a statue of St. Wenceslaus I in Wenceslaus Square.  This is where the Velvet Revolution took place, which is where the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia) peacefully asserted it's independence from the USSR.

This is not just a picture of a hotel, but the picture of the building in Wenceslaus Square where the revolutionaries who lead the people out of Communism rallied the troop. The playwright Vaclav Havel, a rock star, and some other guy were the folks in charge.  Havel, who was imprisoned by the Communist regime for his complaints against the government is this country's Nelson Mandela and also the first democratically elected President.  The rock star apparently had some speakers, so they hooked them up and used them to address the 300,000 people in the square. . .no report on whether a spontaneous rendition of, "Freebird" ensued afterwards.

This is Radic, our tour guide.  By coincidence, he was on a field trip at the Square when the Revolution was going on so you are looking at someone who has had a first hand view of a historical moment you read about in school books.

The symbolic action to tell the Communists to stick it was getting out your keys and jingling them.  I found this amusing because if you go to certain sporting events, fans of the winning team will do this as well indicating it's time to "Start the Buses" for the losing side.  See, doing that at a high school football game isn't taunting, it's fulfilling your patriotic duty and demonstrating your solidarity with the democratic process..

Midway through the tour we hopped a boat and sailed down the Vltava River, which cuts right through town.  Here's a shot of Prague Castle, which is th largest one in the world.  It's not just the steeples (That's St. Vitus Church) but all the buildings surrounding it as well.

This is the shot of the famous Charles Bridge which is one of the most associated images of Prague.  It was built by Charles IV in the 14th century.  It's a cool bridge but I was a little surprised by the color.  It looks like someone put a factory underneath it for a couple hundred years.

Here's a shot of me on the Bridge overlooking the Castle.

This is a shot of the Little Quarter on the way to the Castle area.  It looks quite medieval.  This shot is very indicative of what all of inner Prague looks like.  Like a lot of other places, the buildings are old but well maintained and the streets are all cobblestone.  This is great for pictures but terrible if you're a girl who wears heels.

Here's a shot of the main entrance to the castle with St. Vitus, which I put at #2 on coolest church I've seen, towering above it.  This is where the president lives and works, so there is a heavy security force surrounding the area, including a ceremonial changing of the guard like the Brits do.  Apparently, it's not a good idea to "poke the bear" so to speak.  We didn't see it but some girl got a little too close and got a forearm to the sternum.

Here's the shot of St. Vitus.  Construction began in the 14th century but it wasn't completed until the 1920-30's.  The front half is Gothic architecture and the backside is neo-Gothic.

So you must be thinking, "Kenny, why are you wasting valuable blog space with a stained glass window?".  And the answer is simple:  This is the first billboard in the Czech Republic.  On it are Bible versus that say things like, "Who will take care of you when there is fire, flood, death, etc.?'.  On the top is the omnipresent Eye of God. And on the bottom in the red squares is the first insurance company established in Prague.  They apparently paid for this stained glass window to be put in around the time the stock market crashed in 1929.  I'm not sure if an advertisement in the most important church in the Czech Republic is hilarious or very very sad.

Here's the view of Prague from the castle. You can see the Charles Bridge in the background.

And here is the shot without us in it.  I've included this because I'm sure everyone was too distracted looking at us in the previous shot to appreciate the beauty of the city.

Tomorrow, we head on a day trip from Prague to Kutna Hora, which as you'll see, will put everyone in the Halloween mode.  Later...