Petřín Hill

after exploring the rest of the Czech Republic by various modes of public transportation, I returned to Prauge eager to visit sites I hadn’t had time to visit at the outset of my trip. high on the list, right the abandoned castle fort of Vyšehrad down the river, was Petřín hill. the hill stand some 327 meters above sea level, climbs 130 meters from the bank of the Vltava River and is covered almost entirely by parks and recreational trails.

the day I visited (in the middle of a week at the beginning of October) was cool and dreary and the park proved mostly quiet. rather than climb up, I opted for the three-stop funicular that runs between the neighborhood of Malá Strana beside the river and the top of the hill.

the funicular began operation in 1891 using water balance propulsion, but closed at the outset of the First World War. it did not resume operation until 1932, when all the equipment was overhauled or replaced. it ran for about thirty years before shifting earth once again forced the closure of the line. twenty years later operation resumed with new cars and following track reconstruction. it runs every ten minutes from March to November.

a lookout tower stands near the upper station of the funicular and offers views over the city from two observation decks. it was built the same year as the funicular after a group visited the Paris World Expo of 1889 and was inspired by the Eiffel Tower. it took four months to complete and advocates are quick to point out that, while inspired by the Parisian example, it differs significantly in design, with an octagonal base and support structure.

Petřín hill has featured in numerous pieces of Czech literature, including a short story by Franz Kafka (“Description of a Struggle”) and in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. my interest in the hill, however, stemmed from a novel proposed for use in the Muir Writing Program — Mark Slouka’s The Visible World. it is one of the best and most melancholy books I’ve ever read — certainly the best book I read in the year preceding my trip to the Czech Republic. the heart of Visible World revolves around the wartime experiences of the narrator’s mother, whom he has deduced had a great love who died during the Second World War. there’s an intense scene set atop the hill involving gestapo and a firing squad.

despite the verdant, serene recreational area Petřín is now, it has a dark past, whether the executions depicted in Slouka’s novel occurred or not. in the middle of the 14th century, Charles IV ordered the construction of a defensive wall along the top of the hill to protect the Castle from attacks from the west or south. employing locals in construction, the hladová zeď (or hunger wall), helped people fend off the effects of a famine that descended upon the city in 1361. while it helped many, it was a time of acute hardship among the greater populace. today about 1,200 meters remain of the original structure, which stands some 6 meters high and 2 meters wide. while Charles IV later cultivated a reputation for doing good for the poor, the construction of the wall was probably more strategic rather than a public works project. today the phrase hladová zeď is meant to refer to what is considered a useless public works project.

St. John of Nepomuk

statue on the Charles Bridge

John of Nepomuk is the national saint of the Czech Republic. he lived during the 14th century and was reputedly the confessor of the wife of King Wenceslas IV. he studied at Charles University in Prague (which was established around the time that he was born) and later at the University of Padua. he became the vicar-general to the Archbishop of Prague, who had a contentious relationship with the king.

according to legend, John of Nepomuk served as confessor to the queen in and, when he refused to betray that relationship to the King, who suspected his wife of infidelity, the King had John of Nepomuk tortured. when the latter died under torture, the perpetrators panicked and threw the body into the Vltava River. the body surfaced several days later and upon examining the body, legend holds, it was discovered that John of Nepomuk’s tongue had curled up, which the Catholic Church took as sign of a miracle and John’s commitment to the sacrament of confession.

the real story of John of Nepomuk and his death/execution/martyrdom proves significantly more convoluted and hazy. who would imagine that over seven hundred years a story would get re-told and re-imagined to suit shifting political and religious goals?

location from which he was thrown into the Vltava

one historically viable account holds that John of Nepomuk was trapped by the political machinations of Wenceslas (who was King of the Romans and King of Bohemia) and the Archbishop of Prague and, in siding with the latter, earned the King’s wrath. the political issue that sparked this contention was the appointment of a new abbot to a powerful abbey, one who would prove a vital ally for the King against regional nobles. additionally, while the King backed the Avignon papacy during this period, the Archbishop backed the pope in Rome. John of Nepomuk confirmed the Archbishop’s choice for abbot and, as soon the King concocted a viable explanation, the King had him killed and thrown in the Vltava on March 20, 1393.

statue on the Vltava in Krumlov

consensus agrees that John of Nepomuk did live during the 14th century and served as vicar-general to the Archbishop. details grow murkier from there as, over the centuries, Catholics, Protestants, Jesuits, and others argued over the precise role that the man played in the administration of Wenceslas IV. one account even held there were two Johns of Nepomuk. as Wikipedia explains it, “John of Nepomuk is seen by Catholics as a martyr to the cause of defending the Seal of the Confessional, by romantic nationalists as a Czech martyr to imperial interference, and by most historians as a victim of a late version of the inveterate investiture controversy between secular rulers and the Catholic hierarchy.”

whatever the real story, the man is clearly venerated by the people of the Czech Republic and there are statues all over the country in spite of the communist regimes best efforts to stamp out religion. Benedict XIII canonized him in 1729 and centuries spent weaving the story into national identity and folk heritage cannot be unraveled by a couple of decades of repression, no matter how oppressive.
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busts galore

though the museum’s pride in occupying the same building as a McDonalds seems somewhat overdone, the Museum of Communism in Prague does a remarkable job of illustrating the hardships endured by the Czech people under communism, from the end of World War II until the success of the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

an array of busts took up a portion of the middle of the museum; ones completed in bronze, studies in plaster and clay, half-completed relics of Stalin and Lenin. a display explains the development, construction, and demolition of the world’s largest Stalin monument, which was located in Letná Park across the Vltava from the Jewish Quarter. construction began in the early days of the new communist regime, when adoration for Stalin remained high. the process took five and a half years, however, and the accelerating rate of anti-Stalin sentiment during the period mean that even upon its unveiling, the statue quickly became an embarrassment for the Czechoslovak Communist Party. all the same, the state unveiled the monument in 1955 under even greater stigma than produced by mere anti-Stalinism — unable to endure the pressure exerted by the party, the secret police, and hate mail from Czech citizens, sculptor Otakar Švec killed himself three weeks before the unveiling. in 1962, the monument was demolished. a new sculpture, the Metronome, now stands on top of the plinth.

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astronomical clocks, part 1: Prague

the Astronomical Clock is perhaps the most iconic image of Prague. it is certainly one of the most visited sites in the city, particularly at midday when people crowd into the square next to the Town Hall and crane their necks for a glimpse of the noon display. the oldest part of the clock — the mechanical clock and astronomical dial — dates from the early 1400s (1410). the current clock has three components: the astronomical dial, which includes depictions of location of the Sun and Moon; a calendar dial with ornate medallions representing each month; and the Apostles that parade past the two doors at the top (closed in the picture) to mark each hour. (for more on how to read the clock, check out the Clock’s Wikipedia page.)

for centuries, legend held that renowned the clockmaker called Hanuš, or Jan of Ruze, created the clock and refused to share the designs with anyone. when the city elders heard rumors that Hanuš planned to construct an even more intricate and elaborate clock in another city, they had him blinded so that no other city could compete with their Clock. taking revenge, Hanuš damaged the clock such that no one could ever repair it to its initial, smooth working condition. unfortunately, documents uncovered in the 1960s proved this legend simply that; while Hanuš possibly did repair work the clock, the man who constructed the mechanics of the astronomical dial was actually Mikulas of Kada, working in cooperation with Jan Sindel, a professor of astronomy at Charles University.

a tale of revenge from a bitter clockmaker makes a much better story as to why the Clock broke down so routinely, especially when it more or less broke down all together in the early 18th century and thereafter remained motionless for nearly a century. retreating Nazis set fire to the buildings on the southwest side of the Old Town Square, severely damaging the Clock in 1945. once again, restoration took place and within three years the improved mechanics had the clock chiming out Central European Time (rather than Old Czech Time, wherein 24 marked sunset, a time which varied by up to four hours depending on the season.)

(if you’re inclined, a better explanation of the Prague Clock.)

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golden raspberry white-chocolate torte

one reason I chose to travel when I did this year was to have something memorable to say about my golden birthday. three years ago, I went to a club in North Park with two friends who were California natives. two years ago I went to the San Diego Zoo, then out to one of my favorite places in San Diego — the beach in Coronado. last year, I went out to Blue Mounds State Park with my parents for a hike on what was a decidedly, wonderfully fall day.

this year, I was in Prague. lovely, lovely Prague (even if it was sprinkling most of the day). I certainly didn’t want to go without some special birthday treat to mark the occasion, so after a morning of wandering around the city I popped into the Prague Bakeshop just a few blocks the fashionable Pařížská and Old Town Square. there, I enjoyed a cup of reasonable Earl Gray tea (the Czech Republic is not known for either its coffee or its tea) and a perfectly delectable white chocolate torte with chocolate crumb crust and fresh raspberries. I was never been much of a white chocolate person, but I do believe the Czech Republic might have me swayed in its favor now and forever.

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medieval rivalry

On my last full day in the Czech Republic, I took a bus out to Kutná Hora to see one last set of UNESCO World Heritage sights. during the late Middle Ages, the wealth from silver mines in the area brought the town cultural and economic prestige to rival Prague, which is less than 40 miles away. it’s somewhat hard to imagine now — a town of just over 20,000 once standing toe to toe to a city of well over 1.25 million.

the proximity to Prague also made Kutná Hora a convenient base for launching attacks during the Hussite Wars. in 1420, Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund launched an unsuccessful attack on Tábor, center of the Hussite movement at the time. in response, the Hussites (led by Jan Žižka) temporarily took Kutná Hora in 1422 before imperial troops reclaimed and burned it to deter the Hussites from reclaiming the city. of course, with silver mines as large profitable as these, razing of the town didn’t deter Jan Žižka and the Hussites and thereafter followed a century of prosperity for the town.

the prosperity didn’t last, however; in 1526 the Hapsburg Empire took over the region and twenty years later the richest mine flooded. the plague ravaged the town repeatedly, as it did much of Europe, and the Thirty Years War further decimated the area. while some made attempts following the end of the war to re-open the mines, they did not succeed and by the end of the 18th century all of the mines were abandoned.

Melantrich Building

it never fails that I set out to write a quick post about some place of seemingly limited historical significance, only to learn it’s far more important than I understood at the time of my visit.

situated on the southwest side of Wenceslas Square, the Melantrich Building doesn’t stand out from other facades but is steeped in history. it was reconstructed in the early 1920s and renamed for the Czech-language publishing firm that occupied the building. until well into the twentieth century, German was the official language of the Czech lands and there is a long history of fighting or Czech language rights to support Czech autonomy.

the publishing firm was established in 1897 and lasted until 1999, surviving the many political ups and downs of the twentieth century. initially, it was associated with the Czech National Social Party (which formed after breaking with the Social Democratic Party) and began a “printing press for national socialist workers”. a printer from the firm (Jaroslav Šalda)began a successful daily in 1907, “The Czech Word”, and with it’s success the firm purchased the Hvězda building (or “The Star”) on Wenceslas Square and began reconstruction to suit its purposes. during this period of success, the firm adopted the name of Melantrich (after Jiří Melantrich from Aventino, a 16th century printer) and gave the building that name after completion of reconstruction in 1922.

in 1919, the publishing firm obtained an official permit to print newspapers and began to expand throughout the country and, in the 1930s, even got into film production. during the years prior to Nazi occupation, circulation on some of the newspapers and journals reached hundreds of thousands and, in a few cases, over a million.

during the Nazi occupation, the press was taken over by the Germans and Šalda was thrown into prison. the communists took over publication in 1948 but Šalda no longer wanted to participate in politics and was removed from his position by the communist party leaders.  the firm was split into three parts and, while technically owned by the state, the party ran publication. this odd arrangement resulted in protracted legal battles during the 1990s and, eventually the firm was sold off and, when the new owner bankrupted in 1998, what remained of the firm couldn’t compete.

and now the part I set out to tell you: in 1989, the balcony of the building was used as a platform for those addressing protesters gathered in Wenceslas Square during the Revolution. the success of the protests, moreover, was confirmed when Vaclav Havel (future president of the new democratic Czechoslovak Republic) announced the end of the communist state from the balcony.

the building is now luxury apartments and a Marks & Spencer.

Vladislav Hall

the most “castle”-like section of the Prague Castle that I visited was the Old Royal Palace, which occupies a chunk of the southern wing of the structure. the most striking feature of the wing is Vladislav Hall, which, Lonely Planet tells me, is famous for its beautiful, late-Gothic vaulted roof, rough wooden floors and vast, rustic spaces. of course for some reason photography was prohibited in the entirety of the Old Royal Palace, so you will have to imagine this impressive, high-vaulted space that was used for royal purposes like coronation festivities beginning in the 16th century. three original halls were combined into one space that became the “biggest vaulted interior space in Europe without inner supports”. despite the impressive ceiling and impressive spaciousness, the Hall still felt rather Medieval. stand at one end and you can see all the way into the chapel at the other end. to be honest, I’ve seen dining halls in stately homes more impressive. of course, those don’t have the weight of history. in the late 1990s, the Bohemian tradition of electing kings in the Hall was resurrected when members of parliament crowded into the space to elect the Czechoslovak/Czech president (the ceremony has since moved to a larger, more stately room in the palace).

the most unique aspect of Vladislav Hall, however, I have not seen replicated elsewhere. during rainy weather among many, many other things the Hall was used for jousting. I don’t know quite how mounted riders could get up to speed with such a relatively short start but that doesn’t seem to have mattered. the entrance to the Hall from the courtyard is sufficiently tall and wide to let a mounted soldier gallop up the stairs and into the space. I wager they cleared out the market stalls that occupied the space at other times (so that nobles needn’t mingle with the filth that roamed the streets of the city down the hill or across the river). although sealed up somewhat against the elements now, the Riders’ Staircase is wider and more stately than the castle entrance gate facing towards the city.

public transportation

I’ve had a draft post on public transportation waiting for me to expound on it for months — I use it whenever I travel and it has a sameness/ foreignness from place to place that begs comparison. the more I travel, the easier it become to adapt to different systems and, whether because of that or not, the public transportation systems of the Czech Republic were the easiest I have ever navigated. despite the occasional language barrier (most window clerks understood English), I always got to my destination — more or less leaving and arriving on time.

the systems are a public-private hybrid that offer a quite a variance in speed, comfort, and accessibility. the ones most heavily patronized by tourists were often much nicer (the train to Karlstejn versus the local I rode from Olomouc to Prague, as seen to the left, illustrates my point), which makes sense for an economy that relies as much on tourism as that of Czech. the one to Karlstejn reminded me of riding the Metra into Chicago from the nicer suburbs on a Saturday; on the ride from Olomouc I had the car to myself until a Czech woman with a fully-stocked traveller’s backpack joined me. (she chatted to people on the platform before the train departed, and then picked up a Czech romance novel once we got going.)

in the two larger towns I visited — Prague and Olomouc — there is a combination of buses, trams, and (in the case of Prague) metro. for the trams and subways, fares are collected on a kind of honor system. passengers are expected to purchase tickets from tabacs or yellow fare machines in stations for the correct fare, and then validate them upon boarding the tram or train. there aren’t any turnstyles in the metro stations, just validation machines, which struck me as rather odd after experiencing the lengths to which other cities go to prevent people from skipping turnstyles.

I say it’s regulated by a kind of honor system, though, because there are routine checks by transport police, who stop passengers and demand to see validated tickets. I encountered them twice while I was traveling, once on the Prague metro and once on the tram in Olomouc. the guys in Prague were standing in the exit tunnel in obvious police garb, trying to catch as many people as they could streaming up from the station platform. in Olomouc, a couple of (rather ratty-looking) plainclothes officers got on the tram before a long stretch between stops to check tickets, then got off. that pair even dutifully validated their tickets on boarding the tram, then tucked them away as they got off. (tickets are usually good for 60-75 minutes, to allow for transfers — I wonder if these transport cops validated new tickets every time they got onto a new bus or tram?)


apparently there have been problems (whether past or present) with non-police types taking it upon themselves to check passengers for tickets — and then collecting the fine of upwards of 500 crowns (around $30) for not having a validated ticket. to rectify that, legit officers carry silver-dollar sized, red shields that identify them as such. I had no idea what the guy who stopped me in Prague wanted, until I realized that he was half-heartedly holding up his transport badge, not just holding his arm at an awkward angle by his belt.
(the issue of transport police doesn’t arise on longer-distance buses, as you purchase your ticket from the driver, and then it’s on your honor to get off at the destination that you paid for.)

is the honor-system profitable? probably not as much as the tightly regulated systems of London or New York, but it does make for easier ingress and egress and an overall faster metro or tram ride.

Prague Castle

two castles have defended the city of Prague from the hills of the Vltava River. the more famous of the two overlooks the Karluv Most (Charles Bridge) and Stare Mesto (Old Town). it’s been a long time since I’ve been inside a legitimate castle (the closest I’ve come since Windsor in the fall of 2004 was the appointed Castle In the Clouds in New Hampshire where my friends got married in 2008) and I’m not sure what I expected. by some measurements, it’s the largest in the world — the Guinness Book of World Records lists it as the largest coherent castle complex in the world and, put in those terms, it certainly does seem like that. there are three grand courtyards, the most spectacular church in Prague (and maybe the country), and a quaint artist lane tucked into a corner of the castle grounds.

the complex grew and morphed over 1200 years and expand into the extensive structure that exists today. really, it was rather difficult for me to comprehend it as a “castle” at all, since all of the such-named sights that I have visited have afforded one with a contained single, heavily-toured unit. none of these vast sections that are closed to the public, or areas that are still used as artist quarters, or going in and out of buildings throughout the complex and having your ticket stamped or torn at each stop. (thinking back more closely on my potential castle visits…) Trim Castle that I visited last year was a well-preserved relic of a castle. nothing so substantial as an original (or even authentically restored) roof or period-appropriate furnishings. perhaps it is a byproduct of the expectations of tourists for each site — the castle in Trim is beyond Bru na Boinne, well beyond Dublin and not necessarily on the radar or day-trip plan of traditional tourists. Prague Castle, on the other hand, is a primary destination for those who choose to visit Prague. how could it not be, dominating the city skyline as it does?

the weight of history of the place is not insignificant. the first walled building on the site was a castle and the Church of Our Lady in the 9th century, followed shortly thereafter by two basilicas and the first convent in Bohemia. there were periods of Romanesque inspiration, of Gothic inspiration, of modern inspiration, and of no inspiration at all, where the castle stood empty for periods. with the establishment of the Czechoslovak Republic the castle became the seat of presidential elections and other formal state functions, though the building suffered acute ill-treatment under both Nazi and Communist rule. it’s now been restored spectacularly (no surprise), and I’ll have more on the various sites on my tour ticket as we move forward.

(and, hopefully, I won’t go quite as long between posts as I have of late …)