07/06/12 1:40PM, Wenceslas Square, outside Museum.
[Bullet-pointed notes converted to prose on 08/28/12 8:11AM and later 09/23/2012 2:47AM in apartment, Berkeley, California.]
Upon arriving at the Golden Tulip Prague Terminus Hotel yesterday afternoon, my brother and I flocked to the overstuffed kiosk to help ourselves to the mishmash of free maps, pamphlets and other tourist bait, while our parents sorted out the logistics of our stay at reception (such is the joy of traveling with family- love you Mom and Dad!). Located on the corner of Hybernská and Wilsonova, our hotel was but a short walk from the Hlavní nádraží train station, where we disembarked from a long journey from Oslo. It was raining grey temperatures as we pulled our wet luggage into the warm foyer yesterday, so I was definitely pleasantly surprised by the sun-dyed city that presented itself when I threw apart the bedroom curtains this morning.
We have just had an oversalted lunch at a Chinese restaurant across the street and are now starting our “Prague Insider All-In-One Tour” with our matronly guide, Nina, at Wenceslas Square, outside the National Museum. She is pointing to a point on the ground in the centre of the square: here a memorial plaque rests to mark the spot where a 21 year old student called Jan Palach once set himself on fire to protest the Soviet invasion in 1969, the period otherwise known as the Prague Spring. He could not stand the “demoralization” slowly engulfing the Czechoslovakian citizens as the Soviet occupation advanced, and his public suicide marked a central point in the fall of the Iron Curtain later on. A group of students, similar to Palach, similar to my age, were supposed to have followed through with this suicide pact, but they bailed after Palach pleaded them not to on his deathbed about the degree of pain they’d have to face. A month after his funeral however, another student Jan Zajíc repeated Palach’s act. I wonder how that intensity feels to believe in something so much that you no longer fear self-immolation.
Still dwelling upon my own lack of political attachment, I almost didn’t notice that Nina had led us into… a shopping mall- but not without purpose. Stopping under a domed space, we suppressed our gasps at the hanging structure that met our upturned eyes. Behold the Upside-down Horse, sculpted in 1999 by a young Czech artist called David Cerny (http://www.davidcerny.cz/start.html) who, according to Nina, had a tendency to wear black and loathed the idea of having his artwork displayed so publically. Well, um, no offence for admiring your work, David. Pardon the unwitting tourist from Hong Kong. So what’s interesting about this sculpture is the power of the political message that bursts forth from its arrangement- a soldier riding a dead horse. The artist felt that the country was as dead as this belly-up animal yet its leaders were nevertheless ruthlessly trying to work it, all in futility. We left the mall feeling a tug of call of duty. Oh well, I’ll get an ice cream first.
We came upon the border between the Old Town and New Town. Technically, the “New” Town was founded in 1348 but we are talking relatively here. Random fact: this border used to be more defined when the Old Town lay 3m lower than New Town. Nina was also proud to tell us that the world’s biggest Dunkin’ Doughnut used to lie around the corner. Alas, the harmony of American capitalism and the Communist past doesn’t end here- the Communism Museum is right across from a MacDonald’s chain. Indeed, the Communism Museum is RUN by Americans- it was too much irony to handle in one day, but definitely drew a laugh from us after Nina told us about this fact with a mischievous smirk.
Snaking through more shop-laden alleys, we approached the Astronomical Clock, which really is, in my opinion, a historical testament to the early genius of scientists in Medieval times. Just a quick briefie on “astronomical” clocks- besides telling time, they also have dials that display the relative positions of the sun, moon, zodiacs, and even planets. This one, ticking along before my eyes with moving figurines of Death (a skeleton) and the Apostles at every hour, is the third oldest of its kind in the world but tops the list for the oldest one still working; in fact it is only 1 hour behind due to Daylight Savings today- and to think it was constructed in 1410, over 600 years ago! As Nina explained, the artist, unfortunately for him, was blinded afterwards so that he would not be able to replicate this mechanism elsewhere.
The clock is built into the Old Town Hall. Apparently 1620 was a historical year when 27 noblemen and rebel leaders were thrown out of this tower after the Battle of White Mountain of the Thirty Years War, their heads put on display at the Charles Bridge as a sign of warning for 2 (to 10?) years afterwards. Such is reason why there are 27 tributary crosses on the ground in front of this tower, and we aren’t supposed to step on them.
Across the stone-lined grounds of the Old Town Square, opposite the Town Hall, rises the dominant figure of Týn Church. Its striking Gothic architecture claw dramatic, black spikes into the placid blue of the sky. I wouldn’t say it’s intimidating, but there’s no doubt it commands attention, and from me, a sense of awe and perhaps déjà vu. The left tower once caught on fire, and was rebuilt with imperfect symmetry; from then on the two towers became known as Adam and Eve, Eve being the pregnant one on the left since it appears more bloated.
We’re barely halfway through the day! Come back Wednesday- I’ll take you through the rest of the city! Here comes those sucky words: To Be Continued…