Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Prague: Present tense

Embracing the family car trip, we recently drove to Prague. With our car’s navigation device, we are emboldened, perhaps too much so. We plugged in our coordinates and took off. All went well until we ran into Europe’s August road renovation. Diverted from the main roads by the navi and without an actual map, we took the scenic route into Prague through fields and tiny villages. The scenic route took a couple hours longer and the kids had read all books and listened to all podcasts by the time we finally rolled into Prague. But it was worth the wait as soon as we drove across the river, taking in the views of the castle high above the city and the beautiful architecture all around.
The kids and I spent one day wandering around the city, walking up Petrin Hill and down into the castle. Though we had maps and plans, the walk was easy. We just followed the crowds of tourists. At the Prague Castle, the kids got excited by the fact that it was the biggest ancient castle in the world, according to Guinness Book of World Records, our favorite source. We took a nice tour of the castle, walking through some rooms from different time periods. The castle began around 980 as the walled Church of Our Lady.  The gothic Saint Vitus Cathedral, one of the central features of the castle, was only completed one hundred years ago. The castle and Prague were prominent throughout Europe’s history, as a center of the Holy Roman Empire (Charles IV) and also for the Hapsburg Monarchy. Favorite exhibits included Czech crown jewels and two thousand year old tapestries in which we could still see the graphic print on the fabric.
Just walking around Prague was exciting, seeing the different churches, towers and of course the bridges. The kids loved walking over the Charles Bridge, watching all the street performers. The kids, perhaps reflecting on all their musical instrument lessons, are adamant about giving spare change to street musicians. We had plenty of opportunity to give out Czech money and whatever Euro coins we had, while we tried to figure why some countries in the EU maintained their former currency. The kids were perplexed by the currency change counters, never having seen them before. We had forgotten them too. They were a staple in our former Eastern European life but only an airport thing in our part of Asia
The grungy currency exchange booths were about the only reminder of the Prague we used to know. Phil and I could not stop marveling about how much Prague had changed since we had last been there, about fifteen years ago. We had vague memories of certain streets and monuments but everything was spiffier and busier. Starbucks were everywhere (and actually a welcome surprise after the dearth of them in Munich) as were a number of American chain restaurants, which we were tempted by but stayed out of. The final indication that times have changed came on our drive home. We drove across the former border without a stop. There wasn’t even a person, just lots of empty looking buildings. Then we realized we had left our passports back at the hotel in Prague. We pulled over, called and had them sent via DHL. They arrived the next day. Unbelievable from the days of exit visas.


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