Tourist Info Desk

Welcome to Fernweh, a blog concerning the (mis)adventures of one Fulbrighter during a year spent in Europe teaching English.
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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Prächtige Prag

You never forget your first cathedral.

I saw my first cathedral on my first trip to the Continent at the tender age of 16. My mother and I had just begun a month-long tour around France, Switzerland, Germany, and Sweden, and were spending our first few days in Paris. Although perhaps not the best place to get a good first impression of Europe as a continent, Paris is lovely in many ways and has enough gasp-inducing landmarks to impress anyone, much less your average 16-year-old.

Along with the Eiffel Tower, Champs-Élysées and the Arc de Triomphe, of course we had to visit Notre Dame. I was immediately impressed by the creamy stone towers and beautiful carving, and inside, the vast arched spaces and, especially, the gorgeous stained glass windows. I remember being particularly enthralled by the rose windows--like frozen fireworks in lavender, magenta, azure, and gold--and standing motionless as other tourists swirled and eddied around me, trying to hold my breath so I could get a clear picture of every detail. We climbed the towers and I leaned beside a gargoyle, delighted with the height, astounded by the view of the city spread out before me.

Since then, visiting churches has become a priority in my travels. After the rush and stress of finding a hostel, looking for reasonably priced food, trying to spend money frugally and sensibly, worrying about pickpockets and watching the clock, these still and ancient churches are refuges for me just as they´ve been for pilgrims and wanderers for centuries. No matter what country you´re in, the cool dimness is welcoming, comfortingly familiar, intriguingly unique. Each one has a different character--different saints and patrons frozen in stone in the act of benediction or caught in the dramatic moment of miracle or martyrdom.

Some churches I experience and enjoy, then promptly forget, but others stick in my head forever for some impression on me. As I said, Notre Dame was the first, and has a special place in my heart. For fond memories, there´s Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, where a rector took my friend and I and a couple other people on a wonderful private tour for sheer enthusiasm. For romantic beauty, I always think of wandering past the warm golden light spilling out of cafes on dark, twisty streets, only to round a corner and find the white domes of the church of Montmartre looming like the spires of an Arabian palace in the gathering Parisian twilight. For pure shock-and-awe grandeur, the Dom in Köln is unbelievable; as you leave the Hauptbahnhof, it towers over you, filling your field of vision, forcing you to crane your neck just to see where its black spires meet the heavens. And for spectacular ambiance and stained glass, I always think of St. Vitus´ Cathedral here in Prague, which brings me in a roundabout way to today´s adventure.

We slept in somewhat and left our hostel late, wandering through the city and up the hill to find spectacular views over the city from a monastery perched high above the red tile rooftops. From there, we drifted back down to Castle Square and entered the castle complex. The entire top of this ridge is crowned by Prague Castle with the cathedral as the spiky, green-domed jewel in the center. The castle looks less like a castle than it does a row of fancy pastel houses, but the cathedral that sits in the middle is unmistakably grand, so we headed there first.

Through the doors and into the relative coolness and silence we obediently filed, navigating around tour groups with matching lanyards and oblivious sightseers with audioguides mashed to their ears. The wonderful thing about St. Vitus´ is that each window, down both sides of the cathedral and around the apse, is a different style and color scheme, so each chapel is a surprise. My favorite is the Mucha window, an absolutely stunning work of art in glorious colors depicting, in the center, an old woman representing the past and memory and a bright-eyed young boy in red looking to the future of the Czech people. There is so much detail and care in these windows that you could spend hours just studying them and staring.

We walked around the outside of the church, very impressed by the intricate golden mosaic over the doors, and then headed off to find dinner. We followed RFS´ recommendation to a hidden-away little place with views over the city and a very friendly, Anthony-Hopkins-look-alike waiter who impressed on us the importance of ordering things that were ´´traditional Czech.´´ By the time we left, evening was approaching, so we started to make our way back down toward the city, although we kept getting distracted by panoramic views over the city. On our way back to the river, we stopped by the Lennon (not Lenin!) wall, where Czechs expressed their hopes for peace and freedom during communism, and the tradition now continues with colorful graffiti messages. We finally made it back to Charles´ Bridge (with a short detour to see some of the sets from MI:I) as the sun was going down and wandered in a roundabout way back to our hostel.

Tomorrow is our last day in Prague. We will then be moving on to Salzburg, which is new to all of us. I´m looking forward to and apprehensive about this for the same reason: I will once again be expected to act as translator. Here in Prague, all three of us are on equal ground, being equally unable to make any sense of the (utterly fascinating) Czech language. In Austria, we´ll be back on familiar ground with German...but I´ll be expected to talk again. To everyone. About everything.

Ah well, it´s good for me. Good language practice as well as good practice being bold. I´m going to need both once I finally get to Stadtroda.

P.S. I know I keep saying this, but pictures coming later. Promise!

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