Clellie Lynch: A week in Prague

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EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. — Traveling from the airport, Danny and I get our first glimpse of the Czech Republic immersed in spring with hazy green hillsides spangled with blooming fruit trees. Golden dandelions dot the grassy roadsides; tidy beds of daffodils and tulips brighten the edges of lawns. It's the beginning of April and while it may still be icy and cold in the Berkshires, here the awakening season is warming up.

The taxi wends its way into the city, taking smaller and smaller roads, pavement giving way to cobbles, until finally we arrive at our small apartment in the MalaStrana, a dumpling's throw from the bridge. The bridge, spanning the Vltava, is the famous Charles Bridge, begun in 1357, joins the two parts of the sprawling city of Prague.

Like most old cities, Prague is on a river, needed way back when transport of goods was by cart and flatboat. From our window on the 4th floor (or is that 5th?) peaked, round and becrossed steeples and larger than life statues dominate the skyline, reflecting the city's religious history: Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Neo-Gothic spires as far as one can see.

Prague, so centrally located within Europe, was, from its earliest days, a bustling crossroads, making possession quite attractive to those in power which led to constant land grabs, squabbles, skirmishes and bloody battles among emperors and kings, princes and princelings. The hoi polloi kept their heads down and just went about their toiling and tithing.

Bishops and cardinals had no qualms, and often no choice, about joining the fray. Here the churches reflect the bellicose history, one building may have started as Catholic, then became Lutheran, only to emerge back as Catholic again. Now many are non-denominational, since most Czechs are non-sectarian, and house classical music concerts. All still have beautiful stained glass windows, hand-painted ceilings, and ornate pulpits and altars, even those associated with monasteries.

ESCAPED BOMBING

This bellicose history is reflected throughout the city in these old exquisite churches and elaborate palaces. Prague Castle, a walled city unto itself, sits atop a hill on the MalaStrana (Lesser Town) side across the river from the Old Town, New Town and the Old Jewish Quarter, all sections with history reeking from their foundations, for Prague, unlike many old European cities, was rarely bombed during the Second World War.

A must-see is the astronomical 16th-century clock in the Old Town Hall tower, an incredibly intricate and accurate timepiece that displays time in golden Arabic numerals. Another portion shows Old Bohemian (24-hour clock) time. The third displays our 12-hour clock using Roman numerals. Circles within circles. Various other mechanisms spin the orbits of the sun and moon around the earth and within the zodiac. What tourists — and there are many, many tourists about — come to see is the parade of the apostles that emerge every hour and and then disappear back into the inner clock workings.

Prague is a walkable city, barring sidestepping though the touristy throngs at the more famous places. Move away from the major attractions and the town is yours. Museums are not crowded either save the small Alphonse Mucha Museum, he of art nouveau fame.

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Although Mucha's famous pictures are more inclined toward the decorative, he spent the last years of his life painting the history of the Czech Republic, creating more than 20 enormous canvases, the "Slav Epic." This museum is not large enough to exhibit this series, but a guide book tells us that the National Gallery of Art owns them. Eventually we figure out that the Trade Fair Palace is the the national gallery.

As soon as we enter, we find out that there is "no suitable permanent place" to display the "Slav Epic," the paintings are in storage — which after we view the three exhibits of 19th-20th century Czech art, we find peculiar since only about half of the museum is currently being used. This was true of most of the museums we were in — odd, perhaps they were in the process of changing exhibits or lacked cultural funding.

The oldest church, Church of Our Lady beneath the Chain (the chain that closes off a monastery's entryway), is around the corner from where we are staying, built in the 12th century by the Knights of Malta. Who knew the Maltese made inroads here? Near the Grand Priory of this house of worship is the John Lennon Peace Wall, a long constantly changing mural created by students after his assassination reflecting his (and Prague's) "Give Peace a Chance" sentiment.

Another nearby church, Our Lady Victorious, built by the Lutherans but taken over by the Catholics in 1620, houses the Infant of Prague, adorned, the day we enter, in purple for the Lenten season. This wax statue brought by a Spanish princess is known for miracle cures and has been tended by nuns for lo these many years. His outfits are often the same as the priest's vestments. Copies can be found on Catholic dressers throughout the world.

A third much revered figure is Saint John Nepomuk, the unfortunate priest who heard the Queen's confession and refused to reveal her sins to the King. King Wenceslas (This Czech King wasn't as good as we have been led to believe) had him tossed off the Charles Bridge. If you see a statue with the head surrounded by gold stars, that's Saint John.

Binoculars always at the ready, we stroll through the large nearby parks, Petrin Hill and Letna Park, both just starting to be populated with spring migrants. Crested, blue and great tits, all quite similar to our chickadees, are plumaged for a fancy dress ball. In the grassy areas, white wagtails, tails a'bobbing, stay away from the waay larger magpies. In the river, tufted ducks are as common as mallards. Two interlopers from the south, the rose-ringed parakeet and the Egyptian goose, are nice pick-ups; both species are well established throughout Europe.

NO WAGERING

What's a visit to a new city without a trip to the racetrack? So off we go to Velk Chuchle Racecourse on the outskirts of the city. The racing form is in Czech, but we are able to figure it out — well, mostly. Then Danny goes to find out how to bet. And we were not allowed! We were not Czech citizens! Huh? Isn't racing all about money?

Prague is a city of contrasts. Since so much is from the 13th though 19th centuries, modern buildings stand out — some like the Soviet era block buildings, blots on the landscape, but a must see are the Dancing Houses — and dance they do!

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.


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