(thankfully I only stayed here a day so you'll only hear that joke once more)
06.07.2010 80 °F
Allow me to pause, gentle reader, and take notice of the fact that although I still have a full five and a half days remaining on this trip, I can’t help thinking that I’ve passed the halfway mark and the days I have left will fly as fast as have the previous ones. Also, it feels odd to be writing and reflecting about something that is still going on right now – presently I’m typing this post (having just completed the previous one as well) on the train from Prague to Vienna, where I will arrive to a new adventure in about two hours.
Prague was certainly an adventure, and mostly due to some unfortunate travel blunders, I must admit it took me a while to enjoy myself here. Now, how many of you assumed from the ominous ending to my last post that I missed the train the following morning? I did no such thing, ye of little faith! I walked to the Friedrichstraße station to catch the transfer to HBF, the main Berlin station, and just as I ascended to the platform, saw the train pulling away from the station. No big deal, I thought, I’m sure there will be another shortly – but after consulting the schedule it seemed one wouldn’t arrive until 8:36, which was when my desired train to Prague was leaving! Decision time. I looked at a map of Berlin. HBF didn’t seem that far away from where I was, so I gathered my bags (how thankful I am I not only packed light for this trip, but left bulky things like sneakers in London!) and ran along the river to the station, arriving to the platform with approximately one minute to spare. I’ve just bought myself two extra hours in Prague. ☺
On the trip, I met a nice German woman with a one-year-old named Jarrett who had some of the biggest blue eyes I’ve ever seen, and was just at that age where they’re curious about everything, including goofy Americans who make funny faces. I struck up a conversation with a friendly Mexican girl named Montserrat in the seat in front of me and we ended up talking most of the trip, and I’m actually resurrecting some of my high school Spanish from years ago. Upon arriving in Prague at around 1:45, we agree to meet up at a train stop called Staroměstská where we had been advised was a good starting place. She hopped in a cab and I decided to risk the adventure of the subway system. I quickly discovered that of any of the cities I’ve visited, Prague feels the most foreign – very few instructions printed in English, and the subway map was a nonsensical jumble of strange-sounding places. The thick slavic dialect is everywhere – it's the first place where most signs are not also printed in English, and sadly for me, dramatically fewer numbers of people seem to speak English. (Sorry, I know it's wrong, but I just can't help seeing this classic sketch in my head.)
It takes me a long while to get to my hotel, which is considerably further away from the center of town than other lodging situations I had found. On a whim, I switched it up and decided to book an actual hotel room for this stay, following in the footsteps of where Amsterdam friend Rachel had stayed. (I knew she’d have left Prague already, but she had seemed a competent traveler and the room was cheap at 27 Euro.) I quickly unpacked and showered, and at 2:50 was told by the hotel clerk that it would take me about 15-20 minutes to get to that stop, using buses. Having been provided broken English directions which would involve taking two buses, I hurriedly set out. At the nearby transfer point, I asked a fellow at the bus stop if I was getting on the right bus to reach this stop, and he consulted a map and confidently said yes. I get on the bus and everything is unfamiliar, practically no one speaks English, and I can’t identify any of the stops the bus is making on my already-confusing map of the city. Finally, after about 15 minutes of riding the bus, an older woman and a young girl with decent English piece together for me that I’ve traveled in exactly the opposite direction from where I needed to be going. I’ve finally arrived at one of the few really frustrating points of my trip. I piece together the train station to get out at, and have to buy a new ticket as my original 75-minute ticket has already expired. Oddly, this isn’t sold by the station ticket counter, but by a tobacconist shop. Also, I can’t make heads of the monetary system – the Czech republic doesn’t use Euro (which I had the hang of) but uses crowns, and it seems that things are paid for by units of 1,000s, which makes me intrinsically a bit nervous. The woman in the tobacconist shop hands me my tickets – why there are three I have no idea – and I almost leave a 1,000 crown note on the counter. The ticket seller and the woman next in line share a subtle chuckle at this American, and I can’t say I blame them. I figure out the trains and finally arrive at the stop by 4:15, obviously Montserrat is long gone. and the Mexican phone # she gave is not working. (Though I imagine it cost me 30 bucks just to try the number a few times!) So, sadly, this was my introduction to Prague. I felt really bad but there was nothing I could do. If you ever read this, Montserrat, lo siento mucho!!! Things could only get better.
Just outside the station, I happened upon a large concert hall (jst found out its called the Rudolfinum) which I realized belonged to the Czech Philharmonic, an orchestra I’m familiar with through recordings, and one obviously one connected to the music of the great Czech composer Antonín Dvořák. (There’s a large statue of him outside.) I feel my streak of bad luck in Prague changing once I notice that that evening a concert would be held – I mistakenly assumed it was the Czech Philharmonic – featuring the terrific conductor Christoph Eschenbach (now working at the Kennedy Center) and world-famous baritone Matthias Goerne, performing Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder and… wait for it… the Fifth Symphony! The 5th has for years been one of my absolute favorite pieces of music, though I’ve never heard it played live. I make a point to return to the ticket office at 19:00 when I hope to buy a ticket.
I cross one of the great bridges of Prague and look out at the old city. My friends at Wikipedia tell me that Prague is apparently the 6th most traveled city in the world, and apparently one of the great draws is that because Prague missed most of the bombing endured by many of the other European capitals during WWII, much of its ancient architecture remains intact. I walk in the direction of Prague Castle, allegedly the largest medieval castle in the world, high up on a hill in the distance. I stop into an American-looking coffeeshop and devour an iced coffee and half of a mozzarella sandwich.
Much of the following hours consisted of walking through arches and along buildings with contrasting colors, taking photos all along the way. (With only one day per city at this point, I want to maximize my shots!) Prague is indeed beautiful and very old feeling, and at least in the section I’ve found myself in, seems almost entirely built of upward hills. I walk by dozens of quirky craftsman shops, and notice a number of “marionette shops” – the detail and characterization on these puppets is really striking. I like the fact that old traditions of craftsmanship are maintained, though I can’t imagine these puppets are in high demand. I had pre-loaded a webpage on my iPhone which told of the Národní section where Mozart had lived (he apparently drank heavily at a tavern called U Medvídků, still standing) and crossed another bridge to find this area, passing by lots of medieval pubs and signs for Pilsner Urquell and Budvar, predecessor to the American Budweiser. (Strangely, during my whole time in Prague I didn’t try either of these beers.) I passed by a strange statue of a man hanging by his arm, dangling out in the street. Also, my cousin Ben had advised me to look out for “Lobcowicz” signs of which I find many; he had told about a messy kid down the block from where he grew up in Massachusetts, who ended up being Prince William Lobcowicz, who owns the brewery here and whose family was a sponsor of Beethoven! And he’s right, the Lobcowicz name is all around the city as well.
I make it back to the orchestra hall by 19:05 and queue up to buy a ticket. I take the closest seat I can find to the stage without paying top-rate price, which ends up being 6,000 crowns. I ask the ticket seller if she has any idea how much that might roughly equal to in Euro – she rather bruskly says no. It’s frustrating to not know whether I just paid $20 or $200 for my ticket! I’m finding the people in Prague a touch colder than the cities I had previously been to, though I certainly ran into helpful folks as well, to the extent that language barriers allowed. I walked back over the bridge – it’s sort of lame that I took this bridge around eight times over the course of the day, yet never found an opportunity to travel over the major bridge, called the St. Charles. Next time. I walk up the windy alleyways again, trying to squeeze in a visit to the Prague Castle, but this ends up being over-ambitious in the 30 minutes before the concert begins, so I make my way back.
The hall is gorgeous and ornate, though perhaps smaller than most of the orchestra halls I’ve been inside, and I’m surprised to see it only around 70% full. After wondering why the members of the Czech Philharmonic all looked around 25, it dawns on me that in fact I’m not hearing that orchestra, but a student orchestra, the Schleswig-Holstein Orchestra, originally founded by Leonard Bernstein, comprised of some of the finest young classical musicians in the world. Their conductor, Christoph Eschenbach, is a top-notch artist whose work I’ve been a fan of ever since hearing a CD he conducted of the somewhat obscure new work Old and New Rivers by American composer Thomas Picker, featuring the acting of Sir John Gielgud. The first half of the program featured Matthias Goerne, one of the best-known young classical singers in the world, and I see why. Sitting about 6 rows back from the stage (maybe 20 feet away?), I almost felt I was getting a private recital. Goerne sang Mahler’s Ruckert Lieder, which I don’t know well outside of the stunningly beautiful Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen ("I have become lost to the world"), and his memorization allows him to completely commit, practically acting out the images of the texts. He receives a standing ovation and two curtain calls, and after the interval, Eschenbach returns to conduct Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C# minor. I’m sitting on the edge of my seat to hear this piece live, and because I know Mahler 5 so well in my head, the experience of listening to it feels like driving a Bugatti around some curved Alpine mountain passage – the orchestra is a well-oiled machine. I really wish everyone in the world could experience the joy of knowing this music like an old friend – there’s just so much in it and to me it's one of the things that makes life worth living. (Lifted from wikipedia: Conductor Herbert von Karajan said that when one hears Mahler's Fifth, “you forget that time has passed. A great performance of the Fifth is a transforming experience. The fantastic finale almost forces you to hold your breath.”)
In terms of the performance, there were perhaps a few barely noticeable blips here and there, but to be honest I think I’d rather hear an orchestra of young musicians play Mahler; the intensity, passion, even sense of risk seems greater. After the emphatic final chords, sounding like the hand of God slamming down upon the hall, Eschenbach gets a standing ovation from the enraptured audience, and he and Goerne come out for around four curtain calls. I start feeling that the experience of attending this concert has redeemed Prague – which I know isn’t fair, but I’ve come to realize that people and experiences are really what define new places for me.
It’s around 21:00 (11pm) and I decide to keep exploring, so I cross the bridge again and head toward the castle. On the way I hear the comforting sounds of people joking around in English, and I approach: “Are you guys American?” Most of them: “Yes!” A few others: “No, we’re Canadian.” Me: “Well… happy 4th of July!” I start singing The Stars and Stripes Forever and the others join in. The Canadians feel left out. (What else is new?) After coming upon a creepy mannequin whose hands are coming out of a dungeon-like underground, we exchange names, and I start taking photos of the group. Two cousins, Johnny and Tim, Tim’s girlfriend Savannah (from Texas), and what was his name? (ooh... it was Ducky! or, Ryan!) know each other from college and have already made stops in Barcelona and Munich, while Sara (from California), who was staying at the same hostel as these others, is on her first day of a solo trip. Walking up the ancient staircase toward the castle, I’m handed a bottle of absinthe, which is incredibly strong stuff! The group of six of us chat and look out over the city, then keep climbing, and enter into the Prague Castle within which the really old (like built in the 11th century old) Cathedral of St. Vitus, a classic example of Gothic architecture, is enclosed. We’re all taking photos and laughing and everyone seems in a permanent state of looking upward. I had always heard that one of the most fun parts of traveling alone is linking up with new groups of friends, and this has absolutely been my experience. What a cool group of people!
We keep walking back over my same bridge (in hindsight I should’ve requested we walk over St. Charles!) and end up back in front of the orchestra hall, where we pose in front of a poster with fireworks on it and sing halfway through the Star Spangled Banner while the Canadians take photos – Johnny (or was it Tim?) walks away in a pretend huff and in a gesture of international appeasement we break out into Oh Canada but no one knows the words. More absinthe is handed around, and I wonder how this whole “drinking on the streets” thing would go over in America. Passing by the “Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments,” we make our way through windy cobblestone roads in search of a pub. We stop at a small “Old traditional goodies” booth which sells cheap beer (I have a Gambrinus Svetly) but also an intriguing local pastry known as trdelnik, which the young attendant seems proud to whip up for us. Trdelnik is a round, conical light pastry rolled in sugar, though it looks like it could double as a camera lens.
It’s late and we never find an actual pub to sit in, so we end up sitting on chairs in a little square by a fountain, and we meet two other Canadians named Paul and… I can’t remember. It’s all great fun. After twenty or so minutes, we continue walking in the direction of the group’s hostel, and I regret that my hotel is so far from this more centrally-located area. No more staying far away from central locations, czech that. The others invite me to join on a “free” tour of the city at 11am the following morning, and I pledge to try to make it, though I know this will be complicated given that I have bags and need to check out by noon. I hop in a cab and it takes me a good minute to find the business card with the address of my hotel. Oh, tourists. I get back to my room, take a nice hot bath, set my alarm for 8:30am, and drift off by 4am. I’m so pleased that after a shaky start, Prague redeemed itself for me, based on a terrific combination of tremendous art and terrific people. Would love to come back here any time!