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Mala Strana: the view from Karlův Most
On March 26th we left Wien and Österreich, and we headed north into one of the most anticipated destinations of our entire world trip: Praha (Prague) in the Česká Republika (Czech Republic). Even when we first began planning our trip two years ago, people would tell us, "You absolutely must visit Prague! It's one of the most beautiful cities in the world." (Strangely enough, this was usually followed by, "Well, I've never actually been there myself. But everyone else tells me that it's wonderful!") And now, our expectations were even higher because of the extraordinary time we had spent in Budapest.
Getting there was a bit more of a problem. When we left Wien, there were very visible and well-marked signs towards "Praha." However -- perhaps because we were dealing with an ex-Iron Curtain country -- the route we took was not the expected rapid ride via autobahn. Instead, we meandered along two-lane country roads the entire way. (In retrospect, it would have been faster if we had gone northeast up to Brno, then west back to Praha -- we would have been on the autobahn the entire way).
Once we actually arrived in the city, even basic navigation became a challenge. Gail, who was "on map" and navigating, had the task of deciphering the street names and getting us to the Hlavní Nádraží ("Main Train Station") -- Praha does not use the international pictograms on their signs. Fortunately -- or unfortunately -- downtown traffic was at an absolute standstill, so we had plenty of time to read the daunting signs. We finally found the Hlavní Nádraží... but we missed the turnoff into the parking lot. We ended up parking our car on an area of walkway between the main boulevard and the train tracks (well, other cars were parked there too). There, Russell left the rest of the family and went into the train station to find a phone.
(Our Praha accommodations had been made via email to Jarmila Krajčová at Dominium Prague -- she is an acquaintance of Tina, our landlord in Wien. Jarmila's company does not appear in any of our tour books, so we had no idea where our apartment is located. Fortunately, Jarmila provides a service of meeting her customers at the Hlavní Nádraží (they usually arrive by train) then driving them to their accommodations. Even though we had a car, we had arranged for a similar plan of going to the Hlavní Nádraží, phoning Jarmila to meet us there, then having her caravan us to our apartment.)
Once inside the station, Russell was immediately approached by four Czech policemen who asked (in Czech) to see his passport (luckily, Russell was carrying all of our passports -- on the other hand, he wondered what Gail would do if she was similarly approached out at the car). The policemen were kind enough to direct Russell (in Czech) to the phone, where he was relieved to discover that you can dial MCI International without depositing a coin first. He reached Jarmila (who speaks perfect English -- in fact, her accent sounded Irish), who seemed to know exactly where we were parked and promised to meet us there in 20 minutes.
Exactly 20 minutes later, Jarmila arrived in her huge people-hauling van. After a warm welcome, she led us through downtown Praha to our apartment, located next to the Mala Strana (Little Quarter) on the west side of the Karlův Most (Charles Bridge). We were on the same street as the US Embassy, so we got to watch the 24-hour Czech policemen conduct bomb-checks on all cars passing through (they use little mirrors on the ends of sticks). Our apartment was up one flight of stairs, and despite the secure street we were advised to bring all of our luggage in. Fortunately, we found a parking space just outside our door.
The apartment itself was plain but comfortable, with a living room, kitchen, two bedrooms, and one bathroom. The cold water tap in the bathroom didn't work, the radiator was turned way up (it ended up taking us two days to figure out how to adjust it), the television's satellite receiver had been rendered completely useless by the previous tenants ("Italians," Jarmila lamented), and the neighbors were very noisy. But the apartment had a bathtub (the main reason why Gail picked it) and the location was terrific. After locating an ATM, we went around the corner and had very good local food at the U Tří Zlatých Hvĕzd restaurant, where all of the waitresses spoke perfect English. We also went to the local Bio Market for supplies, where we purchased an amazing amount of groceries for 268 korunas (crowns) -- about $8 US.
Eight dollars' worth of groceries in Česká Republika
Česká Republika's history is every bit as fascinating as that of Magyarország. After the Austro-Hungarian Hapburg Empire collapsed at the end of the First World War, Czechoslovakia was established as an independent country. This lasted only until the Second World War, when Hitler and the Nazis marched in. The Czechs enjoyed one single day of independence -- on May 8, 1945 they freed themselves from German occupation -- before the Soviets marched in on May 9, 1945. With the painless "Velvet Revolution" Czechoslovakia became independent again when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989; and with the painless "Velvet Divorce" it separated into the two countries of Česká Republika and Slovensko (Slovakia).
Praha itself is composed of five previously-separate towns ("praha" means "threshold" -- according to legend, Countes Libuše founded the city by declaring, "I see a city whose glory will touch the stars"). Because of its constant occupation, Praha is the only major city in Central Europe that was not damaged or bombed in either of the two World Wars. And after ten years of freedom, it absolutely welcomes tourists.
On March 27th, we awoke to a day of no rain. Our goal today was a walking tour to the nearby Pražský Hrad (Prague Castle), one of the original five towns and the seat of the Bohemian Kingdom a hundred years ago. After a long and steep climb up the hill (Gail counted 208 steps), we came to a sudden stop amid crowds of people. Much to Cameron's and Joss' (and their parents') delight, we discovered that a film crew was busy filming a scene from "Shanghai Noon 2" -- we were thrilled to spot both Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson. (Apparently, Praha is a very popular place to make movies. "Amadeus" and "Mission Impossible 2" were both filmed here.) We spent a long time watching them set up and film a crowd scene (over and over again), then finally walked around the crowds and into the castle.
Look! It's Jackie Chan! And Owen Wilson! (and Praha doubling as... London?)
After a quick lunch of café sandwiches, we explored:
As we enjoyed a dinner of homemade soup back in our apartment after our first day of touring, we were already wondering how we could delay our next reservations in Berlin and stay longer in Praha.
On the Karlův Most
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