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Sunday, August 31, 2014

8/25: Prague's Captivating Old Town Square & Astronomical Clock

N.B. The following post is from 8/25 and it's been ready for days to post BUT we've had internet problems, so here it is at last.  Believe me, I'm trying to get these out in a timelier fashion for both you and me!

Got the big yellow school bus, oops I mean the Student Agency Bus, in Brno for the 3 hour ride to Prague, or 'Praha' in Czech, arriving at noon.  After deciphering Prague's metro system, we made it to the very large Downtown Hostel for our 5 night stay in the Czech Republic's capital. 

Sara, one of the friendly staff members, escorted us to a lovely large room on the 4th floor with our own bathroom and shower just a few steps away, even asking if we were OK not having the bathroom and shower right in our room! They have a huge kitchen/eating area but only a tiny area for guests to prepare their own food as most of the area is for the staff to prepare breakfasts (at a fee), host beer tasting sessions, etc. We'd been spoiled since most of other hostels had breakfast built into the cost of the night's accommodation.

After a quick bite and, of course a cup tea, we set off exploring. Until about 1800, Prague was actually 4 distinct towns with 4 town squares, all separated by fortified walls. Each town had a unique character which came from the personality of the people who initially settled it.

Our plan for the afternoon was to visit Old Town including the square by the same name and Josefov, the Jewish area, all only a 10 minute stroll from the hostel. The other Prague 'towns' are the Castle Quarter, Little Quarter and New Town, to be saved for the next few days. The focal point for most visits, Prague's Old Town Square, is one of the city's top sights; it's been a market square since the 11th C. The old-time market stalls have been replaced by outdoor cafes and 'touristy horse drawn buggies' as travel writer Rick Steves says. Pooh on him - they look charming to these tourists!

Below are all photos of Old Town Square to give you a sense of how massive it is .

Church of St. Nicholas: Originally Catholic, now
Hussite; we gave this one a miss (I think our 1st 
 but we did tour the church with the same name and 
by the same architect in Little Town later.

Jan Hus Memorial: Erected in 1915, 500 years
 after the Czech reformer's martyrdom by fire, it
 symbolizes the long struggle for Czech freedom.

Kinsky Palace, the  part of the National Gallery
that houses an exhibit of Asian Art.

You can just see Tyn Church at the top.

The row of pastel houses has a mixture of  Gothic,
Renaissance and Baroque facades.
Love this type of street performers.

Old Town Hall with the
Astronomical Clock around on the left side.
27 Crosses: Embedded in the pavement at the base of the Old Town Hall tower are inlaid crosses marking the spot where 27 Protestant nobles, merchants and intellectuals were beheaded in 1621 after rebelling against the Catholic Habsburgs; the executions ended Czech independence for 300 years.

Astronomical Clock: Having read about it, like the hundreds all there with us before it worked its magic at 2pm, we waited to see how it worked. With revolving discs, celestial symbols and sweeping hands, the clock, installed in 1400, keeps several versions of time; 2 outer rings show the hour: gold Gothic numbers counts from sunset and Roman numerals indicate modern time. 500 years ago, everything revolved around the earth, the fixed middle background with Prague marking the center of course. There are also the signs of the zodiac, scenes from the seasons of a rural peasant's life and a ring of saints' names, one for each day of the year.

Can't miss the 4 statues flanking the clock that represent the 15th C. outlook on time and prejudices: a Turk with a mandolin symbolizes hedonism, a Jewish moneylender is greed, the figure staring into the mirror stands for vanity. Then there's the face of Death, whose hourglass reminds us that our time is unavoidably running out; oh, what a cheery thought!

At the top of each hour, Death tips his hourglass and pulls the cord, ringing a bell, the windows open and the 12 apostles parade by, acknowledging the crowd of onlookers, the rooster crows and finally the hour is rung.

The Church of Our Lady BeforeTyn: Tried to visit this church on the square not once, not twice, but 3 times; yeah, finally it was open - can't call us quitters! It was Catholic before the Hussites and was returned to Catholicism after the Hussites were defeated.

Yes, we did walk through the church
 but unlike other churches,which charged 
an entrance fee, this 'asked' for donations
 and also forbade photos.

The only entrance was down a very narrow
 alley; thus this was the only close up
 photo I could get.

We then walked to Josefov, Prague's Jewish quarter, named after Emperor Josef II who ruled in the 1780's and, motivated more by economic concerns than by religious freedom, eased much of the discrimination against the Jews. The Josefov area must be a hugely popular area for tourists of all faiths as it's the 3rd highest 'attraction' on Trip Advisor. In addition, Rick Steves describes the area as having the most interesting Jewish sights in Europe. That was enough for us to warrant our spending a couple of hours touring the 6 sights in a 3 block area.
Steven doing his Kafka pose!

Kept seeing signs, monuments, etc about the author, Franz Kafka; haven't checked what his link was to Prague yet. Will do that in my spare time, haha. As in Poland, there are masses of independent bookstores everywhere here in Prague, very unlike anyplace in the US we've visited.

Pinkas Synagogue: Site of worship for almost 500 years, it's a poignant memorial to the victims of the Nazis; the walls are covered with the handwritten names of 77,297 Czech Jews who were sent to the gas chambers; the names are organized by hometown (in gold, listed alphabetically), family names are in red, followed in black by the in.dividual's 1st name, birthday and last date known to be alive.

Just imagine wall after wall inscribed
with people's names and their dates.

Upstairs is the incredibly moving Terezin Children's Art Exhibit displaying art by Jewish children who were imprisoned at Terezin Concentration Camp and later perished.

Old Jewish Cemetery: As we wandered among the 12,000 tombstones here, we discovered that from 1439 until 1787, this was the only burial ground allowed for the Jews of Prague. Guides claim the tombs are layered 7 or 8 ft. deep and say that there are close to 100,000 tombs here. with its many layers, the cemetery became a small plateau; that's why as things settled over time, the tombstones became crooked.

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Ceremonial House: A mortuary built 
in 1911 for the purification of the dead.

17th C. Klaus Synagogue: The final wing of a 
museum now devoted to Jewish religious practises.

I found this poem profoundly moving.

The Torah (the 1st 5 books of the Bible) and the
 solid silver pointers used when reading it as the
Torah is not to be touched.

Old-New Synagogue: The most important
synagogue in Josefov, it was built in 1270

 and is the oldest synagogue in Eastern 
Europe; the 2 following photos are also
 of the Old-New Synagogue.

3 photos above are all of the Moorish style Spanish Synagogue built in the 1800's; certainly the most visually stunning of any synagogue I've ever been in.