Our wee NC State University gnome, Wolfgang, has traveled many kilometers with us while in Europe and was only left alone to guard the chateau when we flew to the Scandinavian countries. Now he and we had a hankering to make one last trip at this end of our stay in Grenoble. Wolfgang was packed for the last time to go with us to Prague, Czech Republic—Praha in Czech.
We arose at 4:45 am for the aérobus ride from the Grenoble gare to Geneva Airport. Our Swiss Air flight to Prague was leaving at 11 am, and we were catching the 6 am bus that would deliver us to Geneva in two short hours. We were toting all the earthly possessions that we were taking back to America; we were hauling the most baggage ever since our arrival in France. The airport was teeming with people in long lines. Oh, yeah. August is vacances (vacation) all over Europe!
The line moved quickly, and when we approached the baggage window, the Swiss Air worker seemed unperturbed by the masses. Steve was checking his oversized bag and the carry-on bag he usually takes with him in the cabin. His computer bag with TWO computers and his guitar would be his onboard luggage. I only had to check my oversized bag and would take on my carry-on bag, my backpack, and the 5.7 lbs. Le Robert et Collins French–English dictionary, which I had nonchalantly tucked under my arm as though it was my usual reading material. (I was going to donate the dictionary to the deserving Babel library, the language center in Grenoble, until I looked at the Amazon.com replacement cost. Our 35€ lexicon would cost me $120.00 at home. I wasn’t leaving that baby.)
Steve hoisted the BIG bag onto the scale. Knowing it would be over the limit, we were prepared to pay for what we expected would be a small amount (maybe $50) to send this bag on the 1 hour 10 minute flight. We’d worry about Prague to the United States later. The bag was whisked off to baggage handling, and he was directed to take a slip of paper with the official noted weight over to the counter across the concourse to pay for the overage. The cheerful Swiss Air employee there took the slip, crunched some numbers, and requested 615 CHF (Swiss francs). Steve asked the conversion into U.S. greenbacks. She answered, “$846.00.” We could have bought it a racking-fracking seat for $250! He choked. The clothes inside weren’t worth eight big ones. He shot her the question, “Can I get the bag back?” She looked puzzled but told him to go to the bowels of the baggage area and request the bag. Long story, short… he retrieved all our bags and proceeded to perform a core dump of most of the contents to the astonishment of the baggage handler observing all this. “You are throwing out all your clothes?” he gasped. “I will send them to you. Give me your name and address.” In disbelief, I jotted down our information, and he gave me his. I’ll let you know if any boxes show up postmarked Geneva, Switzerland, on our doorstep.
After all that, the flight to Prague was uneventful. We had arranged to be picked up at the airport by Jiri (Yuri), one of the owners of the Guest House Lida, where we would be staying. He was an animated man who had a keen interest in history and enthusiastically told us a little about his beloved Prague as we passed some of the landmarks. He also spoke of the trials of the Czech people over the years as he drove towards the guest house. When we arrived, Yuri single-handedly lugged many of the bags up the three flights of stairs to our clean and quiet room. “When you are settled, come downstairs, and I will serve you coffee and tell you more about Prague,” Yuri said. He was as good as his word; a little while later, we seated ourselves around one of the breakfast tables, and he revealed the ins and outs of the transportation system mysteries and must-see spots in Prague. We left the guest house armed with maps and knowledge and made for Old Town Prague with Kathy and Hilary, two American long-time friends, who had just arrived at the B&B as well and were heading in our direction.
The map of the Prague area was a challenge to us. It wasn’t because we are inept at map reading but because we are not very good at reading the Cyrillic alphabet. We had come up against this alphabet challenge in Greece as well; but there, the Greek words were mostly translated into English on the road signs. Nonetheless, we located a wonderful Czech cemetery—this always seems to put us in touch with the often untold history of the past denizens of the area (see An Artistic Haunt post)—and a moving but sobering exhibition that detailed the work of Nicholas Winton, the English stockbroker, who in 1939 rescued 669 Czech children from certain doom in Nazi death camps with his Czech Kindertransport.
The dated electric street car into the city center was readily accessible the next day, and we visited the Strahov Monastery and Library. In our efforts to determine the best beer in Europe, lunch and a brew (or two) at the monk’s brewery yielded more data for our study. After lunch, it was the Prague Castle in Castle Square, where we glimpsed in St. Vitus Cathedral the much celebrated art nouveau Alphonse Mucha stained glass window.
The special treat for us, thanks to Steve’s amazing colleagues at the Grenoble Ecole de Management, was the Best of Gershwin Concert at the small but ornate Spanish Synagogue. (YES, in Prague!) His friends had generously arranged for us to attend the concert as a gift to Steve in appreciation for all his hard work and because they took a fancy to this American man that we think they still find an enigma. The concert was truly enjoyable, and it surprised me to hear the other concert goers speaking so many foreign languages but who were obviously in love with Gershwin, too. Especially interesting to me was to be seated next to a Czech man swaying in near rapture to the music of this American icon.
The next day we trekked to the mini Eiffel Tower, the Petrin Outlook Tower. We had planned on taking the cool funicular, but the line was too long, and since the previous night’s rain had abated, it was a wonderful day for a hike up the trail al and allowed us to take in the poignant monument to the victims of Communism, which is composed of seven bronze figures descending a flight of stairs. The statues “decay” the further away they are from you—losing limbs and breaking bodies open, symbolizing how political prisoners were affected by Communism.
The view from the summit was worth the hike and rewarded us with a great view of Prague. We found the shortcut down, and once on more level land, we marveled at the architecture that had mostly escaped the ravage of bombings during WWII. Traversing the pedestrian only Charles Bridge that spans the Vltava River and was completed in 1400, we took in the kiosks offering jewelry, the local artists sketching both caricatures and serious portraits, the musicians with their open instrument cases waiting for coins, and the impressive views of the river and the bridge architecture. We didn’t tarry too long on the bridge because we had an appointment with a timepiece. The 15th century astronomical clock is one of the best shows in town. Joining the crowd in front of the clock tower a little before the hour, we waited in anticipation. More or less at 2 pm, the parade on the tower began. The Apostles and Jesus move along in a procession while Death strikes a bell tolling the hour.
Our last stop was the Josefov—Jewish Quarter or Ghetto—where we peeked through the gates to see the over 12,000 tombstones that seem to be heaving from the earth. The Old-New Synagogue, the oldest extant synagogue in Europe, built around 1270, and the Jewish Town Hall were our next stops. We found the quarter to be filled with a mixture of tourists, devout religious Jews, and vendors with tables set up plying everything from ornate mezuzah cases to comic rabbi figurines. Yes, if you make it, a tourist will buy it!
We have had the luck a few times, and did again, to stumble upon a wedding! The beautiful Czech bride twirled with her new husband for the photographer’s camera making us feel lucky to be able to share in their joy. It was a wonderful way to end our visit to Prague.
There was more to explore in Prague, but all too soon we needed to hotfoot it to the airport for the grueling return to North Carolina. As usual, we never do anything the easy way!