There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle. –Albert Einstein
This is Part II in the series. If you missed it, visit Part I here.
About now, you might begin to feel like the fairy dust is wearing off, and perhaps you should have popped for a ride up the hill in one of Prague’s (in)famous, stretch, convertible, authentic-reproduction-antique limos.
Because soon, the road ahead begins spiraling into blue sky and thin air. You glance up from the sloping road in front of you and notice the castle on the hill in the distance nestling near a ledge of slow-moving stratocumulus. You feel extremely pleased you wore your sensible shoes.
You climb the hill on Thurovska until you hit the tiny side street of Zamecka, where the cobblestones begin an even steeper scramble. Sometimes, you peruse a finely-crafted door and wonder just what kind of stories a door like that could tell if, say, maybe there were a statue of Kafka sitting on its mantle.
If you glance ahead from here, all you see is “angles” slanting up and maybe decide this might be the perfect place to grab a seat in a sidewalk café and down another double espresso. You begin the steeper climb here, opposite the Staroceska Kavarna, on what is known as the Zamecky Schody to the right of that medieval stone wall. You’ve chosen the long way up, and perhaps will take the shorter route down.
A ways up the stairs from where you are, you see a girl, smiling, with arms spread joyously, open wide. The girl is not glad she’s trudging up: she’s ecstatic to be going down.
You climb and climb up these steps of the Zamecky Schody, which translates to “castle steps”, originally a wagon trail from the late 1300’s and known then as the “steep path”… yet once again displaying the Praguean simplistic naming of things. The statue in shadow at the far right is an angel on the wall, and is named…right… angel on the wall. If you look closely almost dead center, just to the left of the lamp, you get a glimpse of the not-so-ugly-from-here Zizkov Television Tower in the distance. If you enlarge the photo, you can even make out Cerny’s babies crawling on the tower. The ironic thing about those babies is that some people believe they betray their own version of ugly.
There were, and still are, less-steep and shorter roads up this mountain to the Castle, but this is the oldest route, the most direct, and perhaps the most interesting and authentic. You climb higher and higher, getting gorgeous views of Prague rooftops: some, close up; some, all the way to the horizon.
You are glad you weren’t born as a donkey during the Middle Ages and forced to schlep gold bars or broadswords up to the king on your back. Or perhaps, you were a donkey during the Middle Ages, and that’s why you don’t have to schlep stuff up in this lifetime—karma. Who really knows how the cosmos works? Maybe you die and move toward your god. Maybe you die and turn to dust and that’s the end. Maybe you die and reincarnate into a donkey or cockroach. But is this something—here in the 21st century—we need to continue brawling about?
If you see a bride and groom in formal attire and cross-trainers, it is not a wedding with comfortable shoes. Apparently in Prague, couples who are getting married will take their wedding photos before, or after, the wedding—at various picturesque locales around town, such as Charles Bridge, Astronomical Clock, Prague Castle.
You will see more women in wedding gowns in one day in Prague —either actually getting married or merely taking photographs—than anywhere else in the world. Or in any six-month period of time. Or perhaps, your entire life. Note: if you scroll back a few photos, you’ll notice another bride in a wedding dress, half hidden behind the descending, joyful girl with open arms on the lower stairs.
While you climb, you overhear numerous conversations of others ascending the hill. Their conversation was in Czech, but you believe this is what you just overheard: “Jesus, Mary and Joseph—it’s a long way up this god-forsaken hill, Olga!” Or something to that effect.
Right about here you begin to see a beacon at the end of the tunnel—only a few more steps up.
5. PRAGUE CASTLE
When you reach the summit, it feels like the gods have favored you with grace on this particular day: Starbucks has recently opened a branch here on the hilltop directly across the road from the castle.
You do not feel sorry for Starbucks, obviously, with such a view of the city and Petrin Hill from here, but you might wonder just how much it costs to purchase, or rent, real estate in a location-location-location like this.
You’re especially glad you made it to the top when you discover even more celestial favor: on the corner of the square, Baroque and Classical entertainment begins to blossom at the cobblestone curb—a little Mozart on the menu, a dash of Haydn, maybe.
Note to self for next excursion to Prague: take the stretch limo or ride a Segway up that mountain—if touching St John’s statue, or cross, on Charles Bridge works, and there actually is a next time.
The entrances to Prague Castle are guarded by the military, and at Courtyard 1, also by numerous aggressive statues, including the “fighting giants” above the gate.
Interesting aside: apparently it takes a guard wearing camos and wielding a CZ 805 Bren assault rifle to defend the guard in a baby-blue uniform in the castle guardhouse…if I’m reading this scene properly?
You walk through the long archway of Matthias Gateway from Courtyard 1 and glimpse the front of the castle at Courtyard 2, with the spires of St Vitus Cathedral beyond–the ideal fabric of legends, sagas, and fables.
A fine tower of Baroque castle architecture with interesting slanting windows rises before the entrance and tower of St Vitus Cathedral, looming like some atavistic gothic vision—spires, gargoyles and bells tolling for you.
Construction of the cathedral began in 1344, but took almost 600 years to complete. You wonder if it’s also held together with eggs, and just how many chickens were needed. If you still feel like climbing, you can mount the 287 steps to the top of the South Tower (if there are no services taking place…or weddings!).
According to the Guinness Book of Records, Prague Castle is the “Largest Ancient Castle in the world.” It comprises 753,474 square feet of space—the area of something like seven football fields. If an average two-bedroom house contains, say, 1600 sq ft, Prague Castle would hold over 470 of them.
The main purpose of gargoyles, of course, is to drain rainwater away from the masonry and prevent erosion on the stone and mortar below (especially if egg yolks are not used); gargoyles are usually fairly grotesque for some reason–some say to scare giants away, some say to scare illiterate peasants into the church. They all have open mouths that seemingly “spit” the rainwater away from the building. Some gargoyles on St Vitus appear as dragons—which means here in our very own fairy tale, “thar be dragons, mate.”
Bartolomej and Janek are smiling because not only are they now on their way downhill, but they have just stopped off at J.J. Murphy’s tavern near the top of Zamecky Schody and downed a few Pilsner Urquells—in some people’s book, the Czechs’ best beer, though some may argue it’s Staropramen (who on their bottle actually claim to be “#1 Beer in the World”), and you have to admit, it’s a close call.
Don’t worry, these folks who just came down this short distance from the castle will be cooled off and smiling by the time they finish their pints. The Czechs have a saying that goes something like this: “it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a pint to raise a smile.” Okay, if the Czechs don’t actually have that saying, they probably should.
There is evidence that beer was first created in Mesopotamia something like 5000 years ago: more than 4000 years before gunpowder, almost 3000 years before steel swords, 4998 years before condoms—clear evidence of man’s priorities, and proclivities. The Czechs did not invent beer, but they have certainly perfected it and probably enjoy it more than most cultures.
In the Czech Republic, a country with a population almost equal to Los Angeles County (say about 10 million), there are over 90 breweries, who knows how many brands in total from the different breweries. And according to the Kirin Beer Consumption Report, Czechs drink more of the stuff per capita than any other country in the world, way more. The average in the UK is 67 liters. In America, 76 liters. For Czechs, it’s 147 liters a year, which is something like 12 ounces (355 ml) of beer every day for everyone—each man, woman and child—in the Czech Republic.
It’s nearly impossible to find a pub lacking character in Prague. Na Zdravi—to your health—is the traditional Czech toast. And it turns out, they knew what they were talking about when they first coined that phrase: researchers—and perhaps not even funded by breweries?—are now saying that drinking a glass of beer a day lowers your risk of heart disease; they also say beer protects brain cells, aids digestion, and fights inflammation; and it may even prevent some cancers. Na Zdravi, indeed. But why do researchers never invite us to participate in this kind of healthy research?
Prague’s only canal, the Certovka, is actually fed by, and runs parallel to, the Vltava. This area is called the Venice of Prague where lovers hook locks to the bridge, similar to the Pont des Arts in Paris, a public display of affection without the rigmarole and expense of actually getting “hitched.”
7. TO PETRIN HILL
As evening begins feathering into your day, you decide you still have time and the desire to also visit Petrin Hill, home of Prague’s Hunger Wall and “Little Eiffel Tower” surrounded by woodland and stippled with numerous well-groomed gardens. You work your way over to Karmelitska Street and walk a few blocks south until you see the sign for Petrin Hill.
There is a walkway and stairs leading to the top of Petrin Hill, under a thick canopy of Lindens and conifers. If you’re fit and adventurous, you might decide to hike up this even-steeper mountain, too.
There is also another option: a funicular, dating from 1891, that works on a water-balance drive system, which is extremely energy efficient. Rather than using an engine, the lower car is pulled up the hill by filling the upper car’s reservoir with water until it is heavier than the lower car. The brakes are then released and because the upper car is heavier, it moves downhill, pulling the lower car up, without expending any fuel.
At less than $1.50 for a ticket, this is one of the best deals in Prague—you can ride it 14 times for the price of one shot of the finest absinthe in town. However, if you’re lucky, your coins won’t work in the ticket machine, and the nice lady driver of the funicular may let you ride for free. Otherwise, take the long and winding trail up, and sweat a little more (note: carry a flask of Urquell, or visit in winter).
But here’s another option for the frugal traveler: Prague’s public transport network is koruna friendly—one ticket is valid for 90 minutes on all public transport: bus, tram, metro. And also, the Petrin funicular.
There are several gardens in the vast park on Petrin Hill, what some might call a “haven of calm” away from the hustle. First, you’ll happen upon the Rose Garden, full of various-colored and different species of roses, the Church of St Lawrence huddles to one side. Petrin hill is a major facet in Kafka’s short story “Description of a Struggle.” And there is mention of the hill in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
The Church of St Lawrence, an interesting building with elegant Baroque towers and spires, sits along a section of Prague’s Hunger Wall, visible to the right of its steeples.
During its history since 1360, the Wall has been used for defensive purposes, but legend states that Charles IV began construction mainly so the poor would have jobs and money to purchase food during a time of great famine. Legend also says that Charles actually worked on the wall a few hours daily to give moral support to his poor.
If we believe Charles Bridge is mortared with egg yolks, we just might believe the king pulled off his robes, gold chains, and rings; hauled rocks; and slathered cement in the wall here alongside his humble subjects. Perhaps his queen ladled lemonade? Nobody really knows how the cosmos works or what history truly is—anything could be accurate. Another instance, perhaps, supporting the notion that what we choose to believe…is what is real for us.
A vast park, a thicket of trees, and flower gardens surround the Petrin Observation Tower—supposedly Prague’s answer to the Eiffel Tower, though it doesn’t actually look like it and is a fraction—1/5th—of the height. Built in 1891 for Prague’s Jubilee Exhibition, it measures 208 feet in height (63.5m), a little taller than the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the summit of which—because it sits atop Petrin Hill—is approximately the same elevation as the top of the Eiffel Tower: 1043 feet (300m).
If you climb the 299 steps to reach the observation area at the top of Petrin Tower, you find marvelous 360-degree views over Prague, and when weather permits, you might be able to observe most of Bohemia. Sundown may not be the best time to visit if you’re trying to avoid crowds—twenty-five people in the vast gardens is a haven of calm, twenty-five squished into the top of the tower is…well…not.
From the top of Petrin Tower, you can discern just how massive the Prague Castle actually is—the castle runs from one side of the photo to the other. All those other houses the castle dwarfs are not tiny cottages.
Down the hill a ways, you’ll discover Nebozizek, a fine-dining restaurant with an outstanding view, of course. And as one might imagine, they cater weddings and receptions. Do not expect Mickey D prices at this elevation.
Maybe you eat a light dinner here, maybe you simply down another pint of local brew and continue wandering the luxuriant hill.
8. TURNING INTO PUMPKINS
It’s easy to lose track of time in a fairy tale. At some point, you notice it’s getting late, lights are coming on in homes, street lamps illuminate, and you realize it may be about time to start heading back toward Old Town.
You find yourself wandering along the river near the Kampa Museum. You notice a row of 34 amber penguins (I warned you) on a pier above the water. These penguins are more appealing at a distance and at night when illuminated. Made of recycled plastic, they are part of the “Re-Evolution” exhibition by the “Cracking Art Group” of Italy. During daylight, like this, you might judge the penguins rather out of place and unsightly. But then, perhaps no more unattractive or out of place in Prague than babies crawling on a tower or two men peeing in a pool in which they both stand. Perhaps, Einstein was right, everything is relative?
Perhaps you pause in Lesser Town for a quick snack or a brew on the sidewalk at Ristorante Casanova.
By the time you begin sauntering back across Charles Bridge, it’s getting dark.
The Castle on the hill and the restaurant near the Frans Kafka Museum on the water glow in faint luminosity.
Surprisingly, you discover the crowd on the Charles Bridge is even denser now than during the day, and also, more animated—maybe we’re dipping into the witching hour here?
As night begins to shadow the city, lights glisten off the Vltava below the high bank of Old Town.
This photo? Heaven only knows—haven’t you ever taken a hand-held, low-light photograph without a good excuse and put it in a post for no good reason—or is that just me?
You’ve been wandering all day. At this latitude in summer, the sun finally goes dark behind Prague Castle at 10:30. There is no moon, so you stroll home under a raven-black sky, along atavistic stone streets, cruising along the very cobblestones that Mozart and Kundera walked over, the same stones Antonin Dvorak and Hans Christian Anderson walked over. You’ve seen the wonders they saw, you’ve glimpsed their muses. You’ve felt the spirit, the miracles, the splendor of one majestic and magical city. Now, it’s almost time to return to that pumpkin of a life you live.
FYI: Badfish receives no subsidies for mentioning cafes or brews in the post, but don’t you think he should get a couple free espressos or pints—one a day—or, hey, a massage at that Laboratory Spa, just for hauling his fine arse into those places?
PETRIN TOWER INFO: Web: http://www.muzeumprahy.cz/prazske-veze, e-mail: email@example.com
tel.: +420 257 320 112, +420 725 831 633
Advance tickets to funicular: +420 602 528 672
More Lucile’s: Photo Rehab
PREVIOUS RECENT POSTS ON PRAGUE:
Einstein photo credit: Come to Prague
Gargoyle Photo credit: http://weburbanist.com
CASTLE ETCHING: By Dr.J. Kosina; Jiljí Sadeler (1607), Public Domain,