This Sunday morning we set out on foot from our hotel headed in the opposite direction from all the activity of New Town and Old Town. Last night Jason asked the hotel staff about an old tunnel/former city wall through which we had driven when we arrived Friday night. They said it was lovely and suggested we explore it further in the daylight. The entire area is called Vysĕhrad and sat atop a hill; what a delightful surprise and how fortunate that Jason had asked about it because it wasn’t on our list from the ‘Top 10’ guide book!
There was a large church at the top of the hill, the Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul; we didn’t go inside because they were having worship services.
Next to the church there was a cemetery filled with massive headstones. (In reading about this cemetery later, I learned that Dvorak is buried here.) The entire cemetery was stone – not a blade of grass in sight. A large number of the plots had greenery and flowers on the stones, appearing to be still actively cared for. A number of plots appeared to be family plots with a giant headstone with the family name (perhaps the patriarch and matriarch) then smaller headstones containing numerous names. One such plot had a total of 48 names etched on the stones with plenty of room for more. I got the impression that people buried here must be very wealthy. Overall, a gorgeous cemetery!
We then walked further up the hill to the very corner of the property (Citadel), where two wall fortifications met. It provided quite a view up the Vltava river and across much of Prague.
Once we left Vysĕhrad, we walked along the river past a dance hall. A picture of this building had been hanging on the wall in our hotel breakfast room and we asked the hotel staff if it really existed. It is a glass building shaped like an hourglass with the entire building leaning. Very unique.
We continued walking along the river towards the Charles Bridge. Once in Old Town, we headed into the Jewish Quarter. We couldn’t visit anything without purchasing a Jewish Museum ticket which included a number of synagogues and the Jewish cemetery. We wandered through the Jewish Cemetery which was simply astounding. It is a small parcel of land used as a cemetery from 1439-1787. Jews weren’t permitted to be buried outside the Jewish Ghetto so there are estimated to be over 100,000 people buried here although there are only about 12,000 headstones. When space ran out, they brought in more dirt and piled it on top of the graves so they could bury another layer of people. In some places the graves are 10 people deep! The headstones tilt every which way and many are so worn they can no longer be read.
At the entrance to the Jewish Cemetery we caught a glimpse inside the Pinkas Synagogue. It wasn’t on our list of places to visit but it had the names of 80,000 Bohemian and Moravian victims of the Holocaust written on the walls so we decided to go in and have a look. It took my breath away. I don’t know what I expected but 80,000 names written on the walls took up all the wall space of this multi-level synagogue. And this was only 80,000 names! It is estimated that over 70 times this number were killed in the Holocaust. When seeing it displayed in such a way, the total number of 6 million is incomprehensible. According to our Jewish Museum brochure, the Communist regime destroyed this memorial following the 1968 Prague Spring. After the fall of communism, it took 4 years for these 80,000 names to be rewritten on the walls.
In the upper level of the Pinkas Synagogue we walked through an exhibit of children’s drawings created 1942-1944 while they were living in the Terezin concentration camp. The families living in the Jewish Ghetto were rounded up by the Nazis and transferred to Terezin concentration camp. Terezin was basically a holding area until the Jews were shipped to various death camps. The Jews were forbidden to continue the education of their children by setting up a school while in Terezin but the Jewish elders, valuing education, convinced the Nazis to allow art classes for the children. There was a teacher at Terezin who recognized the need for the children to process their fears and confusion about what was happening to them so she encouraged them to process their emotions through artwork. These pictures survived because this teacher buried 4500 drawings in a suitcase which was discovered after the war was over. This was by far the most difficult and emotionally draining part of our visit to Prague – but such an important part of history.
It was well after lunch time when we finished visiting the Pinkas Synagogue so we were all ready to find something to eat. We went to a nearby café thinking it would be quick. Some places we wanted to visit yet today closed at 4:30 so there was no time for a leisurely lunch! Unfortunately, it wasn’t as quick as we had hoped (Then again, most eating establishments in Europe aren’t quick the way Americans think of quick!) and the food was only ok; it sustained us, nothing more. By far the most memorable thing about this café was the music playing through the speakers; they had a repertoire of two(!) songs which played repeatedly. We struggled for the remainder of the day to exorcise that music from our minds!
After spending an hour at the café eating mediocre food and listening to two disco songs on endless repeat, we walked to the Old-New Synagogue, one of the oldest surviving synagogues in Europe and continuously in use for 700 years. It was closed earlier in the day due to a wedding. I don’t recall ever being inside a synagogue before but this wasn’t anything like I had envisioned. It was rather plain with wooden chairs lining the perimeter. This was the men’s area; the women sit in another room and listen through tiny slits cut into the thick wall. There was a high wrought fence in the center surrounding an altar.
We left the Jewish Quarter and went up the hill to Prague Castle via the subway and tram (streetcar). Our first visit was to St. Vitus cathedral. Work began in 1344 to build this cathedral but it wasn’t finished until 1929. Construction was halted due to the Hussite civil wars in 1419 and when construction resumed the architectural style had moved from Gothic to Renaissance. Therefore, there is a rounded cap (onion dome) on a Gothic base. Why wouldn’t the builders keep within the same architectural style? We happened upon a couple having their wedding pictures done in front of St. Vitus’s. It was picturesque with the bride in her white wedding dress, the groom in his black tuxedo, and the background of this 600 year old cathedral.
Our hotel staff recommended we visit the Loreto – a church that contains a replica of the house believed to be where the Virgin Mary received the Incarnation. (Apparently the original is in Loreto, Italy.) Our hotel staff said the bells that chimed on the hour were lovely. We arrived 15 minutes early and were happy to sit on the steps across from the church and watch the clock on the church tower. When the bells began to chime, we were surprised because it wasn’t just a chiming of the hour. Numerous tunes were played (supposedly Marianic music) but it wasn’t melodic. We walked away after 7 minutes as the music continued to play. It was interesting that the bells played a number of musical pieces, but it would have been more appealing if the bells were in tune.
We walked down the hill from Prague Castle across Charles Bridge and back into Old Town. It was so pretty. Natalie wanted to walk through the Medieval Torture Museum and that visit was downright disturbing! As we were reminded earlier today when viewing Jewish children’s artwork during the Holocaust, mankind has the capacity to be cruel and inhumane. We then headed for dinner at a restaurant in Old Town recommended by our hotel staff. What a delight! This was our last night in Prague and we all resolved to eat authentic Czech food since we really hadn’t up to this point. Natalie had goulash soup which was served in a (rye?) bread bowl, Jason had goulash and I had Svíčková (sveech ko ‘va) which is a piece of pork (I think) topped with a dollop of cream and cranberries in this sauce that covered the entire plate and was probably ¼” deep. Luckily I liked the sauce! On my plate were also two bread dumplings which were comprised of moist bread cubes molded into a ball. I had a dry red Moravian wine which was also enjoyable. After we had finished our main dish, a waitress brought toothpicks for us; for some reason that reminded me of my grandmother! 🙂 One of the wait-staff who served us was a young guy (late teens or early 20s). He had a tattoo on his arm that said, “Don’t Back Down,” in English; I found that interesting but refrained from asking him more about it.
For dessert Jason & Natalie ordered apple strudel served with vanilla ice cream and a decorative garnish that was a clear glaze drizzled and hardened; it was paper-thin and delicate like a snowflake. I had something called cream cheese dumplings. I should have taken a picture of it, but I was too busy gobbling it up! They were dough dumplings filled with a milk chocolate sauce. The dumplings were sitting in a liquid cream cheese and the entire thing was drizzled with strawberry syrup. It was delicious!
We walked back to our hotel along the river. Our hotel staff recommended this walk at night because the views of Prague Castle across the river are breathtaking. What do you think?
The next morning we bid a fond farewell to Prague with promises to return.