In EUROPE 2011: The Churches of Prague, we were searching for Dancing House, which sits on Ressolva Street across from the Jiráskűv Bridge. Dancing House was designed by Croatian-born Czech architect Vlado Milunić in collaboration with Canadian architect Frank Gehry. read more…
Sunday morning dawned cold, and a light rain fell. The weather app on our iPad read, “1.1 celsius,” 34 degrees. We dressed in as many layers as possible; it didn’t matter whether or not anything matched, as long as we dressed warmly. On our way out of the hotel, we grabbed umbrellas at the entrance, then trekked up the hill to see Prague Castle, which is actually a huge complex of museums, churches, palaces, and gardens. The castle complex sits high on a hill above the Charles Bridge and the Vltava River, and is the focal point of Prague. The immense Gothic cathedral of St. Vitus dominates the skyline. You can wander the castle complex at will, as it is free; however, some of the buildings will cost you. The architectural styles range from Romanesque to Gothic. The Old Royal Palace itself was home to Bohemian kings during the ninth century.
Besides St. Vitus Cathedral, I wanted to see Golden Lane, a quaint row of brightly colored houses dating back to the sixteenth century. These historic homes sprang up after the construction of the northern wall of the castle and were inhabited by the castle servants and perhaps goldsmiths. The author Franz Kafka lived in house number twenty-two from 1916 to 1917.
St. Vitus Cathedral is the largest and most important church in Prague, but my reason for wanting to see its interior was the stunning stained glass windows. The overcast day couldn’t detract from their beauty. Nothing could—not even seeing them in the dead of night.
After our ninety-minute self-guided tour of the castle complex, we walked briskly to Prague’s Old Town. But first we bought sweatshirts, hats, and gloves, pleased we had made our purchases before a crowd of twenty or more entered to do the same—and they bought all of the umbrellas.
In the Old Town Square, we gathered before the Astronomical Clock, a six-hundred-year-old clock on front of the old city hall. We waited patiently for it to strike the eleventh hour. Every hour, on the hour, the time is announced with a procession of the twelve apostles passing by the window above the astronomical dial. The timepiece is a popular tourist attraction.
Next, we headed to St. Nicholas Church, a baroque church dating back to 1755. Even in the subtle light of the day, the façade gleamed a lovely white. By now, the tourist crowds had emerged from their hotels, so we stayed inside long enough to admire the beautiful interior, then continued on to Týn Church.
The exterior of the Týn Church is, in my opinion, a truly Gothic structure with ominous-looking and powerful black double spires. The exterior mimics the dark history of the church, which was founded during 1385, a turbulent period when the Hussites were being slaughtered by the ruling Roman Catholics.
Old Town is separated from New Town by the Powder Tower or Powder Gate, which is a Gothic tower and one of the original city gates, dating back to the eleventh century.
From the Powder Gate, we walked to Wenceslas Square, which is really a boulevard. At the top of the square is the National Museum. In front of the museum is a statue of St. Wenceslas on a horse. This is “Good King Wenceslas,” who was murdered a thousand years ago by his brother. Wenceslas is the patron saint of the Czech Republic.
My goodness, I thought, all this murder and mayhem! But not much has changed since the Middle Ages as far as homicides and violence in society are concerned. Just then the skies cleared, a good omen, but a chill still hung in the air.
At noon, we ducked into the first restaurant we came to, noticed the dining area was crowded with what appeared to be locals (a good sign), and perused the menu. We didn’t see any small portions of anything, so we ordered what would be an early dinner. Dave had a pork shank with mashed potatoes and all the condiments: two kinds of mustard, horseradish, and pickles. I ordered duck. The meal came with sautéed red cabbage, potato pancakes, and fresh applesauce. We politely declined dessert.
The afternoon proceeded at a more leisurely pace. The inclement weather had improved, so a walk fit the agenda. From the restaurant, we headed to Peace Square to see the beautiful stained glass windows inside the Church of St. Ludmila. After the short church visit, we toured the square, then retraced our route to the National Museum. From there, we planned to head down Wenceslas Square and eventually to the National Theatre, where we would walk along the riverfront until we found Dancing House.
We paused near the National Museum to double-check our street map. When we looked up, we saw a woman approaching. She asked if she could help with directions. We told her eventually we wanted to see Dancing House. She advised us to backtrack to Žitná Street and follow it to the riverfront. We were about to inquire why, but she spoke first. “It’s rare, but occasionally we do get political protestors, and today there are about thirty participating in an anti-Syrian government demonstration.” We thanked her, and she went on her way.
We heeded her advice and detoured to Žitná. As we neared New Town, we veered from our original course to see the baroque Jesuit church of St. Ignatius. From the street corner, my attention was captured by a gold aureole surrounding a statue. The statue, as I anticipated, was of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the patron saint and founder of the Jesuit order. I spent a few moments inside the church, then we proceeded toward the Vltava River, now walking along Ressolva Street where Dancing House is located.
Overnight, the weather had turned colder and rainier. We packed, checked out, and waited inside the hotel lobby for our cab ride to the Western Railway Station. There, we planned to catch the express train from Budapest to Prague, about a six-hour trip. On the railway platform, Dave kept asking me not to lag behind.
I was quite taken by the architecture of the building. Not modern by any means, but the unique design reminded me of something, but I couldn’t think what. Later, after some research, I found my answer.
The Western Railway Station was designed by August de Serres and built by the Eiffel Company of Paris. The construction took three years to complete, and the iron building was cast in Paris. The station opened in 1877, twelve years before the Eiffel Company built the famous Eiffel Tower. To date, the train station has retained its original style. Over the years most of the old iron structure has been recast and replaced. Yes, the building houses a McDonald’s, but as many have said—and I agree—it is the most beautiful McDonald’s in the world.
Slightly lost as to which train to board, we were scoping out the station when a man hurried toward us saying, “Prague?” He yanked my roller bag out of my hand and took off. I scurried after him. He climbed the steps to a nearby train and demanded my ticket. I showed it to him but held on tight to it. He ushered us toward a compartment, hoisted my bag, along with Dave’s, into the overhead rack, and stuck out his hand. Dave gave him the equivalent of a six-dollar US tip in forints. The man looked at the money, looked at Dave, and back to the money, all the while shaking his head. Then he said, “Euros.” Dave dug into his pocket, took out the equivalent of an additional four dollars US, and said, “That’s it. No more.” Grumbling, the man walked away with his ten-dollar tip.
We had booked a semiprivate compartment, which meant we shared it with one other couple. We had just settled into our assigned window seats when the other party arrived, led by the same man, and he followed the same routine. He pocketed his forints and euros, and left grumbling. “I’ve never heard anyone in New York complain about a ten-dollar tip for two small bags,” said the man to his female companion as they made themselves comfortable in the seats next to us.
Some friends who had taken the same train trip the year before said the scenery offered nothing noteworthy, so pack a good book. I planned to spend the time writing my next book. However, I had read Brno was the most scenic part of the trip, and after scrolling through images on the Internet, I realized this town would have been an interesting place to visit for its scenery—and its architecture. From the moment I first saw a photo of German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat, an icon of modernism, I found it hard to pass Brno by. But I had no option; it all came down to time.
As the train left the station, we struck up a conversation with our compartment companions, Kath and Tom, two attorneys from Albany, New York. They were drawing to a close on a nine-week backpacking trip through Europe and “parts beyond,” as Tom put it. Between chatting, writing, and a short break to eat a ham and cheese sandwich, the ride moved along quickly. As we neared Brno and the Austrian border, we left our compartment and headed to the opposite side of the train to photograph the beautiful farmland. Someone mentioned we were passing through a biosphere area.
Six hours later, we pulled into the Prague train station and wished Kath and Tom goodbye, then walked the two blocks to the taxi stand, where we caught a ride to the Alchymist Grand Hotel. As we neared our accommodations, an officer at a police checkpoint stopped and searched our cab. Later, we found out the Alchymist was located across the street from the US Embassy, and the search was a precaution. I noted this incident for a future book scene.
At check-in, while we sipped champagne served by the hotel staff, we were informed of a large family group staying on the lower floors, so we had been upgraded to a suite. The room was comfortable but a bit dark, and the overhead lighting poor. I drew aside the heavy damask curtains to let in more light, but the small dormer windows didn’t admit much illumination; that, coupled with the overcast day, meant no sun to brighten or warm the space. However, the soft lighting gave the room a certain ambiance. Never one to overlook an opportunity, I used my active imagination, immediately envisioning this setting as one for a scene in a future Darcy McClain and Bullet thriller. So while Dave unpacked, I typed notes into my iPad and photographed the room for future reference.
Across the hall, the small bathroom had a sloped ceiling, making the area hard to negotiate without hitting your head, especially if you were tall, but the solitary dormer window overlooked a series of balconies. The 1954 movie Rear Window, in which a wheelchair-bound photographer (James Stewart) spies on his neighbors from his apartment window and becomes convinced one of them has committed murder, came to mind. Another plot point in a new Darcy thriller?
On our first night in Prague, we decided to eat at the hotel restaurant. Before dinner, we unwound with a glass of wine in the lobby and listened to rain pelt the windows. We hoped the weather would clear overnight, for the next day we had a full agenda.