Up at 7, thanks to alarm on phone. Showered, dressed and up to breakfast in the hotel dining room which does not disappoint. Joined by Robin, who’d made her first espresso before I was out of the shower.
I gulped my porridge and double shot cappuccino and flew down the stairs to meet my guide, Nina, who arrived promptly at 8:30.
Weather was cold and raining or sleeting while we did our tour. First driven around in a nice car while she pointed out buildings of interest from, from a queen’s renaissance palace to a palace repurposed for KGB interrogations, to the famous Fred & Ginger dancing office towers, which were more delightful in person than I anticipated.
Back up the hill to our first stop, the Strahov Monastery Library.
I’d signed up for a private tour, but thought that meant she’d walk me in and tell me about it. No, we had the whole of the library to ourselves, while tourist peered in, gawking from the cordoned off doorway. Bookshelves filled with massive volumes in double rows on Philosophy, mathematics, and law. Cabinetry that could display books with multiple shelves on a rotating wheel, a clever table that parted to reveal a chair which folded to become steps, bindings made of white leather (from pigs), and brown leather (from cows).
Illuminated manuscripts, painted maps of Europe in the form of a virgin, or at least certainly a woman. Nothing on the map to prove the V- word was apt. though the Czech Republic was strategically located in the center of her abdomen.
My guide’s mother was a teacher of library science, so Nina understood my astonished reverence. The ceiling mural was painted by a monk, whose name means ‘nose.’ He made sure he would be remembered by giving all the figures imposing snouts. The other long library troom was paneled in walnut and two stories high, with spiral stair hidden behind secret doors in the shelves. That ceiling celebrated the quest for wisdom, and the love of one woman for her sombrero.
There are 13 monks there now. Few Czech people are religious nowadays, as a result of harsh anti–worship measures during soviet rule, (police blocking the church doors on Sunday, taking names and threatening their families and jobs) but she insists they are spiritual quoting a Czech writer as saying, “I am 100 percent atheist, but I worry God’s gonna be mad at me for that.”
Rejoining the throngs of umbrella toting tourists and walked through the castle complex, passing guards in elaborate uniforn and gothic stone work galore. We toured St Vitus, begun in 930, worked on as war and $$ permitted, and completed in 1929 – 600 years of ongoing home improvement. Mostly gothic and neo-gothic, with Renaissance and baroque details were added over the following centuries.
Loved the 14th-century mosaic of the Last Judgment above the Golden Gate, the baroque silver tomb of St John of Nepomuck, the ornate Chapel of St Wenceslas, and a marvelous art nouveau stained glass by Alfons Mucha. As I looked around at the might and splendor, voices of a choir singing a cappella rose above the shuffling din of tourists.
Visitors like the rest of us; the choir members spontaneously broke into song that the lovely acoustics carried. A hush descended as the crowd transformed itself into a circle holding up iphones, their video recorders a casting a nimbus of cell phone light around the singers, like a halo of respect and attention.
Out into the castle complex courtyards. It’s cold and raining and I’m wet even under my happy blue skies umbrella, so after Nina explains why she doesn’t think Isis will target Czech – the communists wall that kept them in, kept others out, and the Muslim population is infinitesimal, we agreed to change the subject to Czech government through the ages, and I half listened while following her. At this point the names and dates of various Czech rulers begin to slide into a puddle in my mind. I was soaked and shivering, so we stopped for a hot chocolate at the Lobkowicz café. Revived, we headed down the hill, past scenic overlooks with impressionist views of this city of domes and spires cradled in fog and rain. Sleet began to bounce off the cobblestone, as we picked out way down a walkway flanked by grape vines.
I heard so very much about Czech history and culture, complete with names and dates by the dozens, that I only recall a tenth of what I was told. The Protestants who hid under the queen’s voluminous skirts when the mob came to throw them out the windows, the visionary who said build the town here and name it after the first thing you see people doing , which happened to be placing the threshold of a doorway, thus Praha. My eyes were reeling from the splendor while my heart was breaking from the tragedy – the philosophy student who self-immolated in protest, the Russian Orthodox church who hid men in the WWII resistance after they assassinated a Nazi officer (they were hunted drowned in the crypt when the Nazis couldn’t get to them any other way.)
Back to the room around 2pm. When Robin returned from wandered around the castle complex we exchanged stories and best of tips. A brief rest, then out for dinner. The first place we tried turned us away, the next was by the river, and fancy but you only live once. So it was boars’ neck stew for her and flank steak for me.
The Maitre d’ had lived in Key West, so we chatted about that for a bit. He loved the freedom and openness of American society, but came home to help out his aged parents. He was expecting a call from his wife, pregnant with their first child and a day past her due date, any moment.
I walked back to the hotel in the dark, supported by my daughter’s steady arm and keen eyes – “Curb! Hole!”
Tomorrow she goes on a day trip group tour to Kutna Hora, the famous Bone Church, and I’m following one of my audio walking tours.