Damn it, did the morning of day 10 feel good. Taking the previous afternoon off and resting, even if I didn’t get to nap like I wanted, really helped me recharge for the last few days. We were headed to Prague that morning, which is only about a three and a half hour drive north-northwest, but first, we made a stop in a beautiful little village on the Danube called Dürnstein. If I don’t end up retiring to the Rockies like I plan to, this is my backup spot.
Arriving in this little town, the Danube greeted us to the left, and to the right were nothing but vineyards running from the valley up to the hills. Jutting out on a bit of an exposed rocky hill is Burgruine Dürnstein, a medieval castle where King Richard I of England (the Lionheart) was once held captive for personal offenses and suspected misdeeds against the family of Leopold V, Duke of Austria.
We parked in a small lot adjacent to the Danube, and Manny, Carmen, and I immediately spotted several dogs, which we called to, but sadly did not get to pet. We had a leisurely stroll along the Danube a few hundred yards until we reached the shopping street. I would’ve been absolutely fine walking along the river all morning, admiring the rolling hills across it to my left, but the old town streets themselves were just as beautiful. As with the countryside in southern Poland and into Slovakia, it felt like I’d stepped back in time a few hundred years and was being welcomed by the warm rustic arms of ages long past. Walking uphill from the river, you pass through a short tunnel and return to daylight between walls perhaps 12 feet high, made of stones large and small that have seen centuries and generations come and go for multiples of our life spans. Vegetation grows over and on the walls, in some places covering the signs of age, and in all places beautifully complementing them.
We had a bit of free time to explore, so I walked on to the end of the street until the shops disappeared, and I found myself perched above the Danube with a better view of the verdant hills and homesteads across it to the south. One day I will return and get lost in the old streets of the other communities across the river, which we didn’t get to visit that day. Maybe I’ll even go for a hike in the woods. But on that day, admiring them from afar would have to suffice.
Now, on to more important and pertinent matters. There was reportedly good alcohol to be found a short walk back down the street. Dürnstein is famous not only for wine but for apricot liqueur, and I found a small bottle of apricot schnapps that I picked up along with a few other items for family and friends. I have sampled it on at least one occasion since returning to the states, and it’s quite good. There was also a small booze shop, which Renata recommended we visit to try these small chocolate candies, which I believe they referred to as “rabbit shit,” because they looked exactly like it. I tried a few of the different flavors they had, and they were pretty good. Definitely better than rabbit shit, I would imagine. I will live on that assumption; no need to actually compare.
Now, I’ve learned to bargain shop well, as taught by some important women in my life (*ahem* Mom and Grandma), so I quickly spotted a great deal. Contrarily, I am not a shopper, and they did not teach me how to shop for booze, but there was a 750ml bottle of Wieser Alte Rum (Old Rum) that had been marked down to €25 from €50. The shopkeeper had several different bottles of spirits on a shelf behind the counter, so I politely inquired in German if I might sample some of the rum. She was all to happy to oblige at the still young hour (it wasn’t yet 11.00), and I was quite happy with the taste I was given. The logical next step was to capitalize on the obvious opportunity and make the purchase. I have since drunk that rum on several occasions, and I am very happy about my decision.
Just as I completed my purchase, it was time to start walking back to the bus. This time I walked along the main street as it made 90 degree turns left and right, eventually leading me back down to the river. I climbed a short, narrow stone staircase and found myself immediately in a vineyard between the river and the rocky, green hills where the castle ruins still stand. It was one of those perfect moments. What a great little town.
Back aboard the Pawel Express, we were headed to lunch at the Austrian-Czech border. What a strange stop that would be. At one point on this journey, I believe the bus’ GPS got Pawel lost in the countryside, but of course he expertly remedied that situation and got us to the lunch spot on time. I cannot remember the name of the place, but it was a long stripmall, and we went in one building that was shared space between a little restaurant and a pet store downstairs, and a fish pedicure place upstairs. That alone was odd. However, in the parking lot there was an enormous restaurant of some forgotten name resembling a castle, complete with a dragon. An old commercial jet had been parked at the opposite end of the lot and converted into a restaurant, as well. I recall my grandpa telling me how odd it was before we went on the trip, as he’d previously taken this same trip, but it was just something I had to see for myself.
We drove on some miles more until we stopped in another small town somewhere in Czech Republic, but I can’t recall the name of it. All I recall is that it’d been the set of several movies, famous for its grand old square and architecture. There were public restrooms, an ATM, and a small pawn / coffee shop where we stopped and paid something like 50 Czech crowns for at-best-mediocre coffee from some odd touch screen Keurig-style machine the shop owner had brilliantly placed in his store. The Czech crown was something like 23 or 24 to the dollar, if memory serves. So what the guy didn’t make from pawn, he easily made up some of the difference in coffee sales.
We only had a short drive on to our hotel in Prague. The original hotel was supposed to be a little further north, closer to all the sights, but ended up getting changed to the Barcelo Praha Five, which was a little further south in the Smichov part of the city. We were right down the street from Staropramen brewery, and one of the first things I did upon arrival was go down to the hotel bar and order a few cold ones for myself and my grandpa. I had every intention to visit the brewery, but there just wasn’t enough time. Although I’d give it an average at best rating, that beer at that time was one of those perfect beers. We sipped them as we waited for the group to reconvene in the lobby. Renata was taking us to the metro and on to Old Town for the evening. Prague’s metro is super easy to use with only three lines, and we’d only be using the yellow (B) line to come and go from the hotel to Old Town, so that was nice. We rolled into Old Town with an hour or two of daylight to spare, and Renata showed us around Old Town Square. We stopped for a moment at the Astronomical Clock, where Renata gave us the lowdown on the clock’s history.
The clock was originally installed in 1410, repaired and improved in the 1500s, was neglected for a few centuries, and finally, in 1865, it was extensively repaired and modernized with a new calendar dial added beneath the original clock. It suffered damage from WWII, as nearly everything on this trip did, and was later repaired yet again. The top of the clock is the astronomical dial, which indicates three different times depending on which of the three dials you’re looking at: Old Czech Time, Central European Time, and Babylonian Time. In Babylonian Time, the hours are longer in summer and shorter in winter, and this clock is the only one in the world capable of measuring it. The background of the clock consists of the earth, which is the center circle. The blue area represents the sky above the horizon, and the brown the sky below the horizon. The Zodiac ring represents the stars in the night sky and moves according to the sign to which the planet is currently oriented. To each side of the clock are four small sculptures: Death beckoning a Turkish man, who shakes his head in response; Vanity, who looks at itself in a mirror; and an old miser with a moneybag, shaking a stick.
The lower calendar dial, added during the 19th century renovations, describes every day of the calendar year on its outer dial, with the current date indicated at the top, and the inner circle contains the signs of the Zodiac. Flanking this dial are four stationary figures: an astronomer, a chronicler, a philosopher, and an angel.
Every hour on the hour, the clock puts on a show, and a huge crowd gathers to watch. The four figures of the astronomical dial spring into motion, and above that dial open two windows, where the 12 apostles, each with his attribute, rotate through. Once this show is done, the doors close, and the golden rooster atop the clock crows and shakes its wings. The bell then chimes the hour, the crowd applauds, and everyone disperses until the next hour. Pretty amazing device to say the least.
Old Town Square itself is absolutely beautiful. The architechture spans Gothic and Baroque, and includes the Church of Our Lady before Týn, the Astronomical Clock, Old Town Hall, Church of St. Nicholas, and an enormous statue of Jan Hus, the leader of the Hussite movement, which notoriously spoke out against corruption in the Catholic Church in the first half of the 15th century. Myriad restaurants and shops line the remainder of the square, and about 8 or 10 of us broke off to go enjoy a leisurely and filling dinner at the Old Town Restuarant (Staromestská Restaurace). I added to my running total two new Czech beers of the darkest and strongest variety, the Master Polotmavý 13° and Kozel Cerny Dark 10°, both of which were delicious and satisfying. We took our time and enjoyed each other’s company as we sipped our booze before heading back out to the square, which by now was all lit up and glowing a warm, deep orange hue, complementing the slight buzz obtained at dinner. Everywhere were kiosks and shops selling chimney cakes and ice cream, but between the huge dinner, dessert, and beer, I had no room left.
We slowly made our way west through the twisting streets of Old Town until we reached the Charles Bridge, which was full of foot traffic. Vehicles are prohibited from using the bridge and have been since the end of WWII. The bridge was commissioned by King Charles IV in 1357, although it was not given his namesake until the 19th century. This was the most important bridge in the city, as it connected the castle with Old Town and was integral for trade. Over the centuries, flooding of the Vltava River has damaged the bridge on several occasions. A dark note in the bridge’s history is its use to display the severed heads of anti-Habsburg revolutionaries in the mid 17th century as a deterrent to any Czechs considering following suit. At each end of the 2,000+ foot bridge are gorgeous Gothic towers, and lining each side of the bridge between them are 30 Baroque statues added in the late 1600s and early 1700s. Well, I should say replicas of those statues, depicting various saints. The originals, I believe, are in the National Museum.
On our walk we passed several beggars, who often use their dogs to play on tourists’ emotions. We were informed by our city guide that this is illegal, and all Czechs receive basic social income. I did see police talking to them on several occasions, which we were told is all that really ever happens. The cops run them off, and they go beg somewhere else, and the cycle repeats.
We all continued our leisurely stroll back through Old Town Square and out the Powder Gate, added in the late 15th century and deriving its name from its use for the storage of gun powder in the 17th century. We found our metro stop and made the short trek back under the Vltava to Andel station, where it was only another two to three minute walk to our hotel. I was really looking forward to the next day. I’ve wanted to visit Prague for a while now, and I could tell immediately upon arriving in Old Town that I was going to absolutely love it!