Friday, 13 November 2015

Prague (part 3): On the tourist trail

If you've spent the last week gripped with suspense and eager anticipation, awaiting insightful analysis from Prague's premier exposition of railway carriage accessories, you'll just have to wait a little longer.

Like a pair of opportunistic tarts hoping to achieve fame and notoriety with a sordid kiss-and-tell exposé, Ray Stenning and I have granted world exclusive rights to the story of our visit to the Railway Interiors Expo to the leading trade journal.  So you'll have to go there for your gratification - I'll tell you how to find it once I know whether they are actually going to publish it, or whether we are doomed to end up as a forgotten afterthought on the cutting room floor.

In the meantime, I'll fill in with some thoughts from a day and a half on the tourist trail and exploring Prague's public transport network.

Being a tourist was a novelty for me.  When travelling on my own, or with my more habitual travelling companions, it's all about the transport.  If the buses and trams aren't interesting, we're quite capable of charging through some of the continent's finest cities in a matter of minutes, sticking our heads out of the main station door for just long enough to decide that we really ought to come back some day to admire the lovely buildings, before returning to the more pressing task of finding timetable leaflets.

And if the buses and trams are interesting, we'll be off out into the suburbs, forsaking the tourist hotspots for a close-up view of where and how people live and move around their city.

It therefore made a very pleasant change to dwell somewhere for a day or two, in the company of someone who took a genuine interest in what was around us, and was able to communicate that passion in a way that made it easy to share his enthusiasm.

While Ray takes mischievous pleasure in playing up to the caricature drawn of him by those too lazy or narrow-minded to understand the man behind the beard, those of us who know him well and have the privilege to count him as a true friend know that he is a deeply intellectual, thoughtful individual with huge cultural knowledge and insight. 

It was no surprise therefore that he went to Prague armed with his Rough Guide and a list of the sights that he wanted to see, and it was an easy task to agree to spend the best part of a day accompanying him on his tour.  For balance, we agreed that once that was done we would set ourselves loose on the transport system.

We started the day with a bit of both.  Needing transport tickets, we started our tour at the main station and - after a bit of searching - found the original Art Nouveau station hall.  Now isolated from the action thanks to a motorway directly outside and a new, much larger functional station building beneath, the hall made a very pleasant backdrop for coffee while we planned our morning.

Our plan was to start by taking the Petřín Funicular to the summit of the hill of the same name, and then walk through open parkland to the historic buildings around Prague Castle.

Unfortunately the railway was closed for maintenance but on a glorious crisp winter morning we decided to walk the three hundred metres or so to the summit.

That's how we came across a most unexpected form of transport that kept crossing our path for the rest of the day.  Segway tourism appears to be the way the fashionable set hits the tourist trail, and wherever we went they were hunting in packs.

Not content with just going up the hill once, this particular pack passed us three times while we were huffing and puffing our way to the top - enough to cause one to have a few unguarded thoughts about accidentally giving one a gentle nudge as it came past - but luckily no such terrible misfortune happened and these particular segway riders went on their way.  Later we were to find them everywhere however, and walking through the grounds of the castle involved keeping a sharp look-out.  As with all exciting things however, no sooner has one person invented it than someone else wants to ban it, and we soon found that they weren't welcome everywhere.

Ray and I stuck with a more traditional form of transport - our legs - and that did at least give us the opportunity to take in some superb views of the city as we walked along the upper slopes.

I am ashamed to say that despite having an excellent tour guide and despite really being fascinated by everything we saw, the knowledge I absorbed leaked out of my brain almost as fast as Ray was filling it up, and barely a week later I struggle to remember much of the detail of what we saw.  If Ray wishes to fill in the gaps I will be delighted to publish his insights here, but for now you will just have to take it from me that we had a fascinating time studying some ornate, decorative and historically significant buildings.

I know we started at the Strahov Monastery - almost certainly my first monastery visit - with its impressive library.

We progressed past the Černín Palace but didn't go in.  I'm sure that when it was built in the late 17th century, the architect would have been delighted to learn that his imposing Baroque façade would one day form the backdrop for promotional posters for culturally uplifting experiences such as Slash and Five Finger Death Punch.

Next stop was Loreta, a very elegant chapel whose significance completely escapes me.

In due course we found ourselves at the real tourist hotspot of Prague Castle, arriving just in time for the Changing of the Guard.  However, no matter how well orchestrated the routines of the smartly dressed soldiers that were filing past us to take up their drills, none could beat the rigid formations of German, American and Japanese tourists all marching round the grounds in carefully drilled columns, all headed by purposeful tour guides proudly bearing the standard of their regiment of foreign visitors, in the form of metal 'follow me' poles adorned with a variety of colourful decorations.

At the heart of the Castle is the Cathedral.

Ray has fascinating and provocative views on religion and we spent some time wandering round the Cathedral debating his thoughts.  But no matter how artistic the religious symbolism, I can't help but find myself wondering at what point intricate design crosses over into exhibitionism, a sophisticated form of showing off.

Amid all the pomp and historical majesty, the city authorities continued their theme of never leaving a historic wall unadorned by some modern day culture, and an unexpected revelation from our visit to the Cathedral was the news that Barbie reaches her fiftieth birthday this year.

Having exhausted the sights of Prague Castle, we made our way down to Malostranské Square and the impressive St Nicholas Church.  Here we climbed 303 steps to the top of the Belfry, for more fabulous views of the city.

Less ornate than the buildings around Prague Castle, I found the Church of St Nicholas to be the most imposing and spiritually challenging of all the places we saw - perhaps precisely because of the lack of decoration.  Although I must admit, I had never really thought of a church as somewhere to have a nice sit down and check one's phone.

All the places we visited - and this was no exception - had admission booths staffed by a particular breed of very fierce women of a certain age, clearly not to be messed with.  We made the mistake of asking for one directions, and it didn't end well.

In every case, having been handed our tickets by the fierce admission lady, we would walk a few steps only to be met by a second a member of staff, whose sole job was to clip the tickets that we had been handed barely five seconds previously.  I'm not sure how the economics work but I guess it keeps unemployment down, even if the jobs must be soul destroying.

Finally I'm a little ashamed to admit that amid all the historical splendour, the one thing that caused me to deviate from my path was this beautifully simple yet elegant cycle rack.

Just a pity that no cyclists had apparently discovered it.  Perhaps they were all too busy trading in their bikes for segways.

I'd love to say that the experience has now convinced me of the need to pay more attention to the cultural highlights of other places I might visit in the future, and I would gladly accompany Ray on any such trip and enjoy being drawn into his insight and enthusiasm.  But apart from remembering we looked at some very nice buildings, I'm afraid the experience has shown me that when I'm on my own, I'll be sticking to the transport in future!

And sure enough, after what was in truth a very enjoyable and stimulating introduction to the historical sights of Prague, it was now time to dodge the McDonalds wrappers on the Charles Bridge and set off into the suburbs on a tram...

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