12 Sep 2011

Prague Day 1 – Sunday, September 11, 2011

Posted by Deborah

(By Deb)
We set out on our first day in Prague with the intention of touring the Jewish Quarter, but ended up across the Vltava River in Mala Strana instead. We’d had a hotel breakfast earlier, which was actually a fairly extensive buffet, but we were ready to eat again by the time we finally walked to the closest subway station and purchased 3-day transportation passes. Following our stomachs, we headed to “Bar Bar,” a trendy restaurant that was recommended by our Let’s Go guidebook, figuring that we’d work our way back across the river after lunch. The food was well-worth the extra time it took to find the place. Seth had a chicken dish served over a blueberry-cheese risotto and I had a fresh crepe filled with salmon and greens. The decor was more funky than the food – muppet-like sculptures inside old television sets on one wall and lots of paintings and photos covering the others.

Of course, by the time we’d finished eating it was already early afternoon so we figured we’d be better off saving the synagogue tour for the next day and opted to walk around Mala Strana instead. We stopped by an evocative memorial to those who had suffered under Communism situated among brightly-colored flowers in a small, steep park. From there, we followed a main street to the Church of Our Lady Victorious, which is famous for a wax statue of baby Jesus that’s said to bestow miracles on the faithful. A tiny free museum in one of the church towers contained embroidered and jeweled robes that the statue had been dressed in over the years. Further along the road, we came to a square anchored by St. Nicholas’s Cathedral. We had to pay a fee to get in, but we understood why once we got inside the Baroque-style sanctuary. Every marble surface seemed to be dripping with gold gilding. It seemed like more of a show of wealth and power than glorification of holiness. Even so, it was an impressive structure that, as Seth pointed out, will likely last far longer than our legacy of digital files and photographs.  (I’ll have to remind him of that when he makes fun of me for ordering prints for scrapbooks, never mind that I rarely get around to assembling said scrapbooks.)

Continuing our trek back toward the river, which serves as a natural divide between the Mala Strana and Stare Mesto neighborhoods comprising the historic city center, we detoured at the Wallenstein Garden. Along with a large koi pond and several bronze statues, the garden had an artificial “drip rock” wall that looked like something out of the set of the movie “Labyrinth” (Specifically, the scene where Jennifer Love Hewitt is falling down a passageway of hands, if you happened to ever see that movie, one of my personal childhood favorites). A plaque near the wall said it was designed to look mysterious, which also explained the numerous wooden doors in the wall that all apparently went nowhere. Near the drip wall was a small aviary with birds of prey. I’m sure they were frustrated at not being able to get at the peahens and peacocks running around the grounds. We also went inside part of the senate buildings overlooking the gardens. The large meeting halls were nice to look at; otherwise the exhibits showcasing Czech lawmakers and the various tea cups and medals they’d been given were fairly unexciting.

The train stop was right at the exit to the gardens, so we crossed the river underground to get to Josefov, the Jewish neighborhood. It was early evening by then, so we just looked at the outside of a synagogue and window-shopped. It was easy to get turned around in the narrow streets, but that was also part of their charm. We succumbed to temptation at a chocolate shop, buying a few overpriced truffles to fuel us along as we headed toward the National Theater. Like practically every building there, it was stunning on the outside. We took a break across the street at Cafe Slavia, a recommendation from a different guidebook. The cafe, originally opened in 1881, had been a popular hangout for artists and intellectuals, including former president Václav Havel. Aside from the history, it had a great view of the river and even better desserts. Seth had a tuna tartar appetizer before his caramel ice cream, while I went straight for the chocolate cake with maple walnut ice cream. It was supposed to be a snack to tide ourselves over before a late dinner, but it ended up being dinner.

We walked off some of the calories on the way back to the hotel, winding along the river to the “Dancing House,” a curvy condo tower designed by Frank Gehry. I thought it was beautifully imaginative but apparently some Prague residents have been vocally opposed to such a “weird-looking” building.

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