Our guided tour of Prague came with our travel package, and included both a guide (Slavik) and a driver (Jan) who met us in the lobby of our hotel yesterday at 8 a.m. We were already acquainted with Jan, who'd left a nasty message for us when we first arrived at the hotel because we hadn't shown up at the Prague airport on Tuesday at the appointed time. That's because our flight had been cancelled, as detailed previously; though we'd tried to leave a message for Jan, it hadn't gotten through. He was still angry, and kept saying "it is such a pity" that we didn't reach him by phone. Apparently, he'd spent a lot of time at the airport waiting for us.
As Lanny and I apologized yet again, trying to explain what had happened, the cheerful and smiling Slavik the tour guide intervened. He'd been trained in the concept that the customer is always right. "All's well that end's well," he kept saying. And, finally, "Let's go get in the car!"
As it turned out, Jan the driver didn't really warm up to us until about three hours later, when his tour of duty came to an end and we tipped him. He'd earned his tip. But it was Slavik who was the most impressive. For four hours, as we drove around Prague and, at 11 a.m., got out and walked through the Prague Castle, he talked nonstop about the history and architecture of Prague. A 27-year-old Ph.D. student, Slavik was a walking encyclopedia and seemed to be able to field any question we threw at him, no matter how off the wall. (Jan, who'd heard Slavik's speech a hundred times, wasn't so impressed, and joked later that the ideal driver for the Slavik's tours is one who doesn't speak English.)
In the photo above, St. Vitus' Cathedral rises from the center of the walled Prague Castle. While we saw the castle first from below, in the area of the Charles Bridge (which is in the foreground of the picture), we spent the end of the tour at the top of the hill walking through the castle.
As Jan drove and Slavik narrated, I took pages of notes. Slavik never asked why I was taking notes, which Lanny laughed about later, teasing me for being a somewhat unique tour customer. I'll spare you most of the details, but suffice it to say that we learned quite a bit. It was fascinating to me how Slavik's monologue about Prague veered back and forth through so many historical periods, from the medieval, to World War I, World War II, the Soviet occupation, and so on.
Among many interesting tidbits, we learned that Woodrow Wilson is a hero in Prague for his role in supporting an independent Czech nation following World War I. The train station is the "Wilson Station" and the "Woodrow Wilson Center" stands next to the U.S. Embassy. That wasn't the only presidential anecdote during the tour. According to Slavik, Bill Clinton once played saxophone in the Reduta jazz club and Laura Bush recently visited Radio Free Europe, which broadcasts from an office building in the center of town, heavily guarded since 9/11. Slavik liked telling the story about how the woman who got out of the car in front of the radio building on the day Laura Bush was here wasn't actually Laura Bush, but was a "decoy woman" designed to throw off anyone who was up to no good. The real Laura Bush used a rear entrance.
Another interesting fact from the tour: although there are churches everywhere in Prague, more than 70% of the Czech population is atheist or agnostic, and the churches are largely put to uses besides worship, such as hosting music recitals. According to Slavik, the Czech population is hostile to organized religion as a result of the years of conflict in the city by rival religious groups.
After the driving tour through the city, we crossed the Vltava River and went up the hill towards Prague Castle, which was founded circa 880 but has been added to extensively through the years. The photo below shows a palace that is just outside the castle walls.
When I returned to the hotel after our guided tour, I discovered I'd taken 145 photos, of which I've uploaded a few more below. (I had an e-mail from Andrea that said, in essence, "more photos!") Below is one of the many buildings inside the castle complex; specifically, it's the north end of St. George's Basilica. In the foreground, you can see Lanny (left) and Slavik (right). The hats were to keep the snow off their heads. Though it's not visible in the photo, it's been snowing on and off since we arrived--most noticeably, last night, when huge flakes were coming down as we walked through the streets of Old Town after dinner.
The centerpiece of Prague Castle is St. Vitus's Cathedral, which was shown in the first picture in this post. Below, a group of tourists are gathered in front of the cathedral. According to Slavik, there aren't many American tourists this time of year. Most of the tourists are students from Spain and Italy, in addition to "the Russians, who don't care about the cold."
Below, that's Slavik on the right, and Lanny on the left. Although Lanny seems to be paying attention, I'm sure he was thinking about checking his Blackberry. He's been able to get quite a bit of work done on that thing--impressive, if you're the type who likes to keep working while you're in Prague.
In the next photo, I'm standing outside the castle. On the hill over my shoulder on the right, there is a miniature replica of the Eiffel Tower, which is unfortunately closed in the off-season (and not visible in the photo either, so don't look for it).
When the tour ended at noon, we tried to get Slavik to eat lunch with us, but he said he had another tour to do. He left us at Old Town Square, the subject of the set of pictures I posted yesterday. In a parting bit of wisdom, Slavik shook his head when we told him we were going to walk back to the hotel. "It's very uncomfortable to walk so far," he said, and told us how to take the tram.
We didn't listen, of course, and began walking back, stopping every so often at bars along the way. The first thing we did was cross the Charles Bridge (shown in the first photo in the post), which was built in the 14th century. The photo below shows the scene on the far side of the bridge, where the tower once provided a fortification for the bridge's east entrance. According to my guidebook, by the 15th century, the tower "was already considered to be one of the most beautiful gates in Europe."
Just on the other side of one of the the most beautiful gates in Europe, we found a McDonald's, as shown below. It's one of the four American chains in Prague, the others being KFC, Subway, and TGI Friday's. Just to the left of McDonald's, though not shown in the photo, was the Museum of Medieval Torture, which shares space with the Spider and Scorpion Museum ("over 500 live specimens!") We took a pass on the museums, although we did pause to check out the crowd in McDonald's--it was packed.
After we got out of the historical district, we stopped in a bar with Internet access so I could log on to Legal Underground for Lanny, who was wondering about what I'd said about the trip so far. My previous entries apparently met with his approval, because he got out his Blackberry and sent some e-mails to his friends with the web address. Since then, he's experienced some of the introspective self-awareness that comes with having to keep a public account of a trip to Prague--that is, he's given me a number of posting suggestions, many of which made me laugh out loud but most of which I finally deemed too risque for a family audience. (By which I mean, of course, my family.)
The photo below shows the Prague tram in the area where we stopped to hook up to the Internet. The Internet, by the way, has been my only means of communication home, since my cellphone isn't working. The time difference makes even this communication a little hard to accomplish, although there was one time when Andrea and I were online at the same time, and sent a few messages back and forth in an instant-message type of communication.
This brief photo tour ends with a few shots of the mall that Lanny discovered yesterday just four blocks from our hotel. It was sort of fun to walk around the mall as the local residents were getting off work. Other than me and Lanny, there didn't seem to be any tourists around. I think we must have stuck out anyway, judging from the way the checker at the grocery store, which is in the center of the mall, got annoyed at the way I didn't give her the right amount of money the first time around. I was buying a toothbrush, which seems to be the only thing I forgot when I was packing, other than the charger for my iPod.
It was at the mall where I saw the first little kids since the trip began. It made me miss my own kids, who assured me by e-mail just a little while ago that they're reading these posts.
I'll check in with more later . . .