Keepers of keys

Old Town Bridge Tower at night.

We didn’t expect to climb to the top of the Old Town Bridge Tower in Prague. It was one of those attractions that we looked at but walked past, heading across the bridge to Mala Strana. Unexepectly, we found ourselves with a delightful, unique opportunity: come to the top of the tower at night, after we’ve closed, offered by our friend and guide Mirek. So while he closed up for the night, we climbed the old tower stairs to the top where we had an amazing view of the city.

There was a half full moon hovering over the tower, hanging above its spires. Some of the tower’s decorative elements denote the moon cycle, but we failed to notice them as we fixed our eyes on the sky and the skyline. The Vltava River stretched out below, the lights and revelers on Charles Bridge arching across the dark water. Prague Castle lit up the horizon line, the churches of Mala Strana below providing light in the foreground. As we leaned back to take in the view, upstream on the river glowing red lanterns were released into the sky.

As we climbed the tower’s spiral staircase with Mirek he shared with us the reason for its clockwise turn upward: right-handed sword-wielding defenders has a better stroke on their way down the stairs than if it had curled the other way. Quite the thing to think about, but after all, the foundation stone for the tower was laid on 9 July 1357 for the purpose of protecting the cities and the bridge. One of the inscriptions on the exterior of the bridge reads (in Latin) “Be told, be told and watch out; he who touches me, dies“.

It was a treat to visit the tower with Mirek, who pointed out the different kinds of stones in its stairwell. He shared with us the best view (of course, of the castle) and gave us more history. As a final treat, he put the great big, old and authentic key to the tower in Vinnie’s hand and asked him if he wanted to lock the door on the way out. Of course he did! So as we left, Vinnie turned the key in the lock, followed by a final check from Mirek to make sure that the old lock fit in place just the way it liked.


A few days later we laid eyes on another set of castle keys after we made the climb up to Karlstejn Castle, just a short train ride outside of Prague. As we crossed the river and walked up the cobbled streets of the town below, Vinnie made the comment that this was a proper castle. Indeed, it had all the feel of a defensive keep: it soared above town, perched on an outcrop of rock that made it’s sides impossibly steep. Tucked away in a narrow canyon, you couldn’t really see it from out in the valley, unless you knew to look. Our tour guide told us that when the holy relics were taken from Prague Castle to be hidden at Karlstejn, the Swedish army passed by twice before they found the castle.

Karlstejn isn’t an imperial palace like Prague Castle, and what it lacks in ornamentation, it makes up with pure burliness. In some places it’s walls are 7 meters thick and this is castle has outer and interior walls, so an attacker would still have to fight hard once they’d breached the first gate. This castle is yet another project of Charles IV, who was the king of Bohemia and also the Holy Roman Emporer.  A series of towers provided the stronghold for both the Bohemian and Holy Roman treasurers, with the relics housed in the tallest town, the Chapel of St. Cross. During the summer months, the tour actually goes to the tower, but not so in March.

As we climbed from the courtyard to the hall of the knights, our guide unlocked the door behind us, then locked it when we had all entered the hall. So it went as we wound our way through the castle, always locked into the room we were viewing. The man carried a big ring of keys, a collection made up of keys much like the one Vinnie held at the Tower Bridge.

Painted wood ceiling panels.

Even on this somewhat warm day, inside the castle it was cold. Finally, when we reached the throne room, we warmed up a bit and our guide told us why. The throne room had wood paneling – deep wood panels, at least six inches thick. It was carved in geometric patterns, but all that wood provided insulation that made that one room noticeably warmer.

We had a terrific time getting out of the city to see this castle. The next time we come to Europe, we’ll be looking for castles that are off the beaten path where we can have more of this kind of experience.


Views from Old Town Bridge Tower


Sites from Karlstejn Castle




Breathing in history

When I was a kid I loved history. As an adult, my relationship to it grew distant: it was a a thing to enjoy in books. In the three hours we spent with our guide Mirek in New Town Prague, I walked with history in a way that I never have before. Mirek is a 29 year old Czech man who loves history and music. At the National Theater he explained how the people of his country spent 40 years raising money to build the Theater so that they’d have a place to play their own music and perform their own theater, rather than the works required by the state.

As we continued deeper into Nove Mesto (New Town), Mirek told us of changes in architechural styles over the centuries and the shift to a preference to functional, and less decorative, buildings. We didn’t go far before a structure jumped out at me, mostly for being so out of place. Here was an old brick church, darker than the surrounding buildings. It stood well off the stree.  up on a foundation of nearly black bricks, its walls and window arches soaring above the sidewalk, traffic and trams. Capped with a steep red roof and a narrow spire, it was an outlier in this part of town where other buildings were only a few hundred years old. As we walked, it held my attention – so much so that I was late in seeing the church on our side of the street until we were at its foot.

Like its neighbor across the street, Saints Cyril and Methodius Cathedral was above street level and we climbed stairs into its courtyard. Here, Mirek wove his story into the time of World War II, talking about the Czech national heroes who fought to save their people by assisinating the “Butcher of Prague.” I’d read Madeline Albright’s book Prague Winter last year, and details started to come back to me. Yes, two men were inserted into the country, they hid through a network of supporters, they rode bikes to the road where they attacked Reinhard Heydrich (he died a week later from his wounds).

“They had to run, they had to hide,” I said to Mirek. “Didn’t they hide in a church?”

“Yes. This one.”

Suddenly the street noise dropped away. There were red poppies laid at the base of the cross in the enclave and two dark black columns standing seven feet tall in the courtyard where red candles, fresh tulips and a wreath were laid. Our small group stood listening to Mirek tell the tale of these men who hid in the church as Nazis blanketed the area looking for them, offering large amounts of money and safety to anyone who would give information. The two black columns, inscribed from top to bottom with names, is the list of all of the people the Nazis questioned and killed in their search for Czech’s national heroes.

To hear Mirek tell it was moving – here was a young man who’s grandparents lived through the war, a man who came from Sudentland, an area of the country that figured heavily in the story of Nazi occupied Czech. Bits and pieces of reading that had been recreational for me came crashing together with the story being told to me by a man with personal history. Standing in the courtyard the story was challenging enough, now we were going inside.

We’ve been in quite a few churches here in Prague, but this felt doubly silent and sacred. Here was a place where patriots had fought: 7 Czech soldiers against 800 Nazi troops. Four of the men were in the gallery, and my eyes lifted not to the ceiling frescoes, but to the narrow place from which I could imagine no escape, even though I tried. The four men fought, firing their weapons. Those who weren’t killed in the fighting took the poison pill they carried, choosing death over surrender. The four in the gallery eliminated, the Nazis sought the other three, knowing from their informant that they were hiding in the basement crypt.

The rug near the alter was rolled at the edge as Mirek approached, like a lip curled up. Even before he touched it, it spoke of much use. Pulling it back, he revealed the floor hatch that lead to the basement. Finally the Nazis would find this hatch. We had to go outside to enter, a dark door providing access to a small, simple, powerful interpretive site. The story is laid out in panels along the wall of the entry room: the loss of Sudentland through diplomacy, the sudden Nazi occupation of Prague, the training of Czech troops by Allied Forces. While there were many people involved in Operation Anthropoid, the two who stormed the car of Heydrich throwing in a hand grenade that would lead to his death days later, were featured in the story. The journey of Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis was traced up to the fateful time.

The brief tunnel into the catacomb room is closed off by a swinging metal door that latches in a way that feels final. First in, you see the tiny opening in the ceiling, where there once was a ladder, that the three men used to access and hide in the room. For days, people had brought them food as they huddled hungry and cold, wondering if there would be a way forward for them. When the Nazis found the room they also found a window to the street outside, which they used to pump water into the room, filling it chest deep. I remembered reading Prague Winter, hoping as I read the story that they would find a way out, that they could escape and flee. One of the people on our tour asked as much. Mirek replied, 800 soldiers outside surrounding the building. Prague occupied by Nazis. Where would they go?

The story does not end with their miraculous escape. It ends with their deaths, with their bodies behind paraded in the street by Nazis. Busts of the seven men quietly fill the small subterranean room, red poppies commemorating the soldiers. It was impossible to know, and impossible not to wonder, if any of the people visiting this site were descendants of these soldiers or the people who died as the Nazis sought them out.

Out under the blue sky, the sounds of trams and traffic bringing me back to the present, Mirek shared how proud the Czech people are of these men and the people who helped them. They showed that Czech would fight.

We continued our walk through New Town, other challenging topics coming up as we went. Mirek shared them all in a way that presented the history of his country and clearly showed his love for it. Later, I asked Mirek how it feels for him to tell these stories that are so fresh from his country’s past. He said it is an honor to be a person his age in this time who cares about history and who can share it. A friend told him, Mirek, you are meant to drink beer and tell the story of the Czech people. That, he said, was a good compliment. As we walked and talked, history lived and breathed for me in the best and hardest way it can.

Taking the bus – a meditation on kindness

Waiting for the metro in Prague.

Our past few days in Prague we started to get the hang of using the public transportation system. It’s been great for us.

Saturday night we left Old Town with our new friend Merik to watch his band play in a jazz club. We ended up staying to watch the next band and got separated from Merik, so we had to find our own way back.

And so began Czech Public Transportation 101. Getting on the right bus was easy – it came to the corner at the club. We tracked the stops and got off at the metro station that would take us back into the part of town we know. We were the only people walking towards the metro station soon it became clear why – the metro closes at midnight.

Now we were in a part of town we didn’t know, without our friend, in the middle of the night. Prague, however, is a city that doesn’t sleep and plenty of people were out and about. Two guys who spoke just a touch of English got on their phones to find us a way home (we’re WiFi only on this trip). They sent us to the stop across the street and gave us the tram number that would take us back to the tourist part of Prague. People came to the stop, trams came and went. We stood alone. We trusted.

When our tram came we jumped on. It was packed, so we couldn’t sit together. Stop after stop, I watched the text scroll by announcing the pristi stanice, the next stop, looking for a name I might recognize. Since I’ve only learned a few words in Czeck, the odds were low. But finally we came to a stop where I recognized the name and Vinnie recognized the sidewalk and we got out, happy to find ourselves in familiar territory, just a block from the hostel.

The massive main train station.

The next day, charged with a growing confidence, we headed for the main train station to ride to the castle at Karlstejn. Walking into the main train station was overwhelming: it is huge, with pigeons flying around and all signs written in Czech. Thanks to a couple of super helpful station employees, we found our way to the ticket booth, then the right platform, and in just a few minutes we were watching the city go by from a new perspective.

The big challenge came Monday morning, when we were leaving for Budapest via bus. We wanted to know if we could possibly get a train ticket for a similiar cost, so first we went to the hlavni nadrazi (the main train station) – no luck on train tickets. Having used that time, now we needed to hustle to get to the masarykovo nadrazi (the main bus station).

Does this mean anything to you?

Walking in what we hoped was the right direction, at a cross walk we asked the group in front of us. The Czech woman and her two teenage kids really wanted to help, we could tell, but they didn’t speak any English. A few blocks later, the young professional woman sent us to the bus stop that would take us to the main station. At the bus stop we found a sign completely in Czech that seemed to indicate  some kind of change, but we couldn’t guess at what it might be. Then we saw the bus a block up the street, too far for us to race to. The driver pulled over where we were and picked us up. We asked if we were on the right bus to the station, but he didn’t speak English either. He recognized the word Florenc, the name of the bus station, but it’s also the name of a metro station, so we sat down, not knowing if we were on the right track.

Again I watched the display to see the next stop, and when it said Florenc BC, I figured we’d get off. The man in front of me said yes, go to the stop light and go left, and you will get to the bus station. We couldn’t see the way because there was a huge construction project, but we jumped off, hoping to figure it out.

Just a few seconds later, the bus stopped and a passenger jumped out and waved to us to come back. The only words in English she said were “not right” but I could tell by her expression that she was helping us, so we followed her back onto the bus. One turn and a block later, they shooed us off the bus, pointing towards a station that looked a bit like the one I’d seen on google map. Inside we asked on more person for help and with five minutes to spare, we made it to the platform where the bus waited, filling up with people.

After just two days of riding public transportation in Central Europe, here’s what I think: riding the bus is a meditation in kindness. It’s a time to be exactly in the moment, to be open to what happens and trust that we are all connected and that we all want to help each other.

During our week in Prague, we’ve gotten familiar enough that people have started to ask us directions, and generally they don’t speak English. The language barrier isn’t nearly as dark and imposing as I imagined it to be when we were state side. So we smile and listen for words we might know, and point and encourage, just like so many others have done for us.

Three weeks ago I couldn’t have guessed that riding the bus would be such an opportunity for kindness and gratitude.

There and back again

Sad to be leaving Prague.

Vinnie and I left home 17 days ago. We’ve been to three countries and four cities in that time. We’ve taken four flights. We’ve booked good rooms and one bad room. We’ve been on tours, swarmed amazing places with the rest of the tourist crowd and gotten muddy out on a trail. We slept in our tent in the Scottish Highlands because I really wanted to and 35F is really not all that cold. We’ve travelled by plane, bus, taxi, Uber, underground and by foot. We managed to get through all of those transfers and places without much in the way of unexpected events.

Until today.

Today, things went sideways. Although, not in a way that any real damage was done (gratitude for that). It just meant that we had to be flexible, amenable, willing to change. Two of the places on our list – places that Vinnie really wanted to see – dropped of the list. Two countries: Romania and Austria. And Hungary was in jeopardy. We realized last night that we weren’t going to get to Romania – it’s a long, long drive to Sibiu (8 hours and 1000 kilometers one way) for a short visit, so it got waitlisted (another reason to return to Europe!).

We planned to head out to Budapest today, with a side trip on the way to Kutna Hora to see the Church of Bones and a short visit to Cesky Krumlov (both in Czech Republic). So, this morning we packed up our things, sad to be leaving Prague and our awesome room and folks at Hostel Downtown. We hopped on the Metro (super easy to use), then caught a bus to the airport car rental to pick up our auto for the last seven days of our trip.

Full stop.

Car hire in Czech is not the same as in the UK and Ireland, and – short story – no car hire for us. We sat in the cold plastic chairs feeling a bit of free fall: first we gave up Romania, now our side trips in Czech, Hungary and Austria were simply not going to happen as planned. We wondered if they’d happen.

Happy to be back in Prague!

We decided to retreat to Hostel Downtown to regroup (location is everything). Vinnie was messaging the awesome receptionist (we’ve got Czech friends on Facebook now!) before we even left the airport. We were back on the bus, then back on the metro, then back in a room at the hostel all within an hour and half since we left. Smiling faces greeted us when we returned. We were smiling too – we love these people and this place.

Within an hour of being back at the hostel, we had a train booked for a two-night trip to Budapest, a plan to join the hostel’s guided trip to Kutna Hora next Friday (yay!) and we’re going to see our guide’s band play tomorrrow night. Tomorrow we’ll see some of the sights in Prague that we missed and we have an open day on Sunday for whatever might develop.

Before we left the US I wondered (okay, I worried about) how we’d handle it when things didn’t go as planned. Today, we did just fine. We were so glad to have this great place and helpful folks to come back to. And when we lined things up so quickly and easily, it felt like this is probably the better option anyway.  All is well for us, because we’ve done some wonderful things on this journey: we’ve made friends here in Prague, we’ve got to get to the know the place and we’ve smiled through the twists and turns. That’s a pretty picture of success.

Look, don’t touch – Strahov Library

Looking uphill at Strahov Monastery.

It was a long walk up the hill to Strahov Library in the monestary, where on a fine summer day folks sit on the brewery patio with a tremendous view of Prague. St. Vitus Cathedral rises out of Prague Castle, the domes of churches in Old Town populate the sky line and the guilted roof of the National Theater sparkles. But I wasn’t huffing up Nerudova Street for the view, I was on my way to see old books.

Strahov Monastery

Sitting at the top of the part of town called Mala Strava just inside the defensive wall, the Monastery began in 1143 and suffered ups and downs until 1586 when a new abbot breathed life into it. The parts I came to see are much newer. The Theological Hall was built between 1671-1679 and the grand Philosophical Hall in 1783, with the walnut cabinets and internal work done by 1794.

The library also include the Cabinets of Curiosity, a collection purchased in 1798 of things considered mysterious and strange (at the time) that mostly include specimens from the sea, bugs, butterflies, an amazing collection of tree books and what they believed at the time to be a unicorn horn. The corridor containing the Cabinet of Curiosoties (really several cabinets) is a look back in time at our urge to know the world and to see unimagined things from far away places. The transition time from natural philosophy into the natural sciences is a fascinating thing.

Cabinet of Curiosities

The trek to Strahov was not the things I hoped for, although I didn’t expect to get: peering into the spines of books hundreds of years old, craning my neck to look up at ceiling frescoes, holding my breath to look at a Blaeu family map or globe, soaking in the quiet and mustiness of a library. In fact, to preserve the rooms and their contents, you can only go into the halls by arranging for a tour (as in planning, which isn’t part of this trip). Otherwise, you stand in the doorway looking in.. The library, even at the top of the hill, certainly isn’t quiet as groups of tours come through the narrow connecting hallway between the two rooms, and it’s even lacking the old musty smell, what with the conditioned air being circulated.

The Philosophical Hall

Even still, Strahov Libraby is a place of learning and commitment to preserving old books and specimens. The walnut shelves of the Philosophical Hall and the gleaming, geometric pattern of the floor are something to see all on their own. And the seeing but not touching leaves a whole lot of room for the imagination.

The Theological Hall