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.

Badlands National Park

one upside to visiting National Parks like the one in the Badlands a second time as an adult is that my memories have faded enough to allow for a wholly new experience. I have vague recollections of our last trip to the monuments and parks of western South Dakota, but nothing concrete. I remember washing dishes at our campsite, being surrounded by bison on a drive through Custer State Park, going to a cave (but nothing about the cave), lights on the surface of Rushmore (but not the carving itself, really), the heat and dryness of the Badlands.
now that I’m older, however, and have a much more comprehensive understanding of the geological (or other) forces involved in the creation of these sties, I am much more in awe. the height of the buttes and spires is obscured as you approach from the north as they’re carved out of the plains moving southward. they’re impressive and, as the name suggests, impressively inhospitable-looking. true, a fair amount of prairie grass covers the top of the butte and on the plains below — enough that someone was conducting a controlled burn of the lower prairielands as we drove through the Park.

people have inhabited the area for more than 11,000 years, the earliest of which were mammoth hunters. the Lakota moved in during the 18th century and came to dominate the region in part because of the command of horses they learned from Spaniards (it’s much easier to hunt bison on horseback …). French trappers quickly encroached on the Lakota, and they were shortly followed by soldiers (see: Custer), miners (see: Deadwood), cattle farmers and homesteaders (see: Dust Bowl).

following Wounded Knee, the Lakota were confined primarily to reservations, including the Pine Ridge Reservation which shares oversight of the Stronghold Unit of Badlands National Park. during the Second World War, the U.S. Government took possession of more than 300,000 acres of the Reservation to use the land as a gunnery range. accuracy wasn’t always great and several buildings in the town of Interior (just south of the North Unit of the park) were damaged. nearby farmers often had to take cover to save themselves from falling or misdirected ordinance. among the many informational PDFs available on the Park website is one on the history of the gunnery range that includes information on identifying and avoiding unexploded ordinance (UXO).

the site was authorized to become a National Monument in 1929 but didn’t become one until a decade later. it was redisignated a National Park in 1978 and in 1999 took over supervision of the nearby Minuteman Missile National Historical Site.