Tuesday, November 18, 2014


Actually two clocks.
     The first stop on our tour was the celestial clock. In addition to being a very cool piece of machinery, the story behind it is fascinating. The guy who originally designed it was blinded by the city council after he finished so that he couldn't build another clock in any other city. The designer was quite expectedly distraught over this, so he jumped into the mechanism of the clock - committing suicide and damaging the clock at the same time. About as an appropriate revenge as possible; it took decades to repair it and it still doesn’t run quite right. Nevertheless, it remains a really cool piece. The clock tells time in a number of different ways: the Celtic system, the Roman system, astrologically, and by names. The "names" system is really interesting: there are fourth hundred names on a wheel and every day a hand points at a different name. If the hand is pointing at your name that day, then it's your “name day” and you get to celebrate. Totally random, but a great excuse for a party. Every hour a skeleton rings a bell and the 12 apostles rotate through two doors above the clock. Nothing spectacular, until you consider that it’s been doing this every hour for hundreds of years using nothing but gears and gravity. Then it becomes pretty spectacular.

A statue in honor of Mozart.
Also a great place to nap.
     After the clock we started walking towards New Town, which (you guessed right) is newer than Old Town. Our first stop was Wenceslas Square, which is the largest square in the Czech Republic. At one end is the main building of the National Museum, with a huge picture of Vaclav Havel hanging on the front. He’s looking really good too! Next, we weaved our way to the theater where Mozart premiered Don Giovanni - apparently he loved how appreciative the Prague audiences were so much that he premiered a number of his pieces in the city. Next door to the theatre is Charles University, the oldest university in Eastern. It's actually the 18th oddest university in the world, but the Czechs like to be the first, so they found a category that suits.  Our next stop was the Jewish quarter of the city. Built right next to the river, the former ghetto was extremely prone to flooding. Eventually the river was brought under control, but it still occasionally floods (as it did in 2002). Located within the quarter are a number of synagogues, including the oldest synagogue in Europe, the Spanish Synagogue. There is also an Old Synagogue and an Old New Synagogue – just to make things a bit more complicated. Next to one of the old synagogues sits the community cemetery. Since the community was confined to such a small area, they only had one cemetery to bury their dead. As a result, whenever the cemetery filled up they just added a new layer of dirt and started again. There are now 12 layers and over 20,000 bodies buried in an area about the size of a basketball court. We wrapped up the tour at the concert hall right next to the Jewish quarter and grabbed a quick lunch across the bridge.
So much stained glass.
     After lunch a few of us scaled a large hill, intent on visiting the castle sitting upon it . Located on the west side of the river, the location has been continuously occupied since the 9th century. However, major construction only began on the castle complex during the 12th and 13th centuries. The complex stretches over several dozen acres and feels like a city apart, walled off and perched atop the hill. It also currently serves as the residence of the president of the republic, so history and politics continue to mix in exciting, essay-worthy ways. At the center of the complex is the Cathedral of St. Vitus, the patron saint of the Czech region. The cathedral itself is absolutely stunning. With towering stained glass in a number of different styles and a huge central altar, it definitely makes a point about royal power. The walls are dotted with smaller chapels, including one that held a film crew taking some B-roll for a documentary about something.

The window is somewhere up there.
After the cathedral we headed over to the old palace, where the Defenestrations of Prague took places (it seems like the Czechs really like to throw people out of windows). There we got to see the actual window where the Second Defenestration of Prague - the one that started the 30 Years War - took place. I could totally see why it was considered miraculous that the men who were defenestrated survived; it is not a short fall. We finished up our tour of the castle with a fried potato on a stick and a traditional Czech pastry, trdelník. Pronounced like turtle neck, it's a cylinder of sweet dough that is coated in a glaze. It can then be rolled in any number of things – coconut, cinnamon, even Nutella. It's heavenly. That night the whole bunch had dinner together – twelve of us in total. The restaurant we got reservations at was located in the cellar, so there was more exposed brick and arched ceilings to appreciate. Czech cuisine, like Irish, leans heavily to the meat and potatoes, which I appreciated to no end. After dinner we headed out to grab a drink and try to meet up with a friend's high school friends who are studying in Prague. We didn’t end up finding said friend, but we did end up at the same bar at the night before. So, obviously, I played another game of pinball.

No comments: