Tuesday, February 2, 2016

the castle has never been the same

I don't see no castle!
 I didn’t stay long in the Czech Republic the first time I visited. I stayed for about two weeks – part of it was a quiet and the other part was a riot. I was traveling all across Europe, a rucksack on my back and pulling along an accordion in a hard case tied down to a luggage dolly. It was rough. Over the cobblestone streets of Prague and the rest of the old towns of Europe, that accordion was bouncing and booming and wreaking havoc. Back then, a man could play just about anywhere on the street. Street music was a thing of celebration and experimentation. When I came back a year ago, I found that the scene of freedom and chaos had died down about. Everything was becoming more and more organized and sullen, a real slap in the face from my three-year life in Tbilisi, Georgia. But perhaps a little quieter is what I need these days – 

But back then was about freedom and chaos. And with an accordion, you’d be surprised about how much easier couchsurfing is. When you’re just a bloke, couchsurfing can be terribly hard. Most women prefer women guests because couchsurfing men are usually on it for sexsurfing, whereas most men just wanted women, because – bet you can’t complete that sentence. But when you’re not a normal bloke, but you’re a bloke with an accordion, things change entirely. Suddenly a new world opens up to you. Both men and women become intrigued, they thing, “Who the hell is this American traveling around with an accordion?! I swear, the CIA or the FSB or whatever spy agency would do a lot of good by investing in some accordions. They can get you anywhere and keep you going for however long. Especially in those days.

It started with couchsurfing. My first request was the golden request. There was Jitka, a student at Charles University, shortish with glasses. Real sweet and living in a flat with six other girls and a guy who slept in the kitchen. An accordion could do worse. Though it meant I ended up sleeping on a small mattress on the floor of one of their rooms, where two of the girls were living. Then once the kitchen man went away for the weekend, I took his spot. The group were environmentalists, vegans, and bicyclists and they complained about all facets of Czech life. There are no vegan restaurants! No bicycle lanes! No nothing. But since I’ve been back, they seem to have been hard at work. There are now lots of vegan restaurants – Plevel and Loving Hut to name a few. As for bicycle lanes – Prague remains to be a not so bicycle friendly town. There are one or two lanes, but the real problem is that the city is so hilly and that the roads are narrow enough as they are and there tend to be a million tourists on any given road. Anyway, trams are cheap, so what’s the point of bicycle? 

A view of Vysehrad, Prague's real castle
While I was staying with the girls, they had a party on the theme of making cities more progressive and we watched a video on the public transit success of Bogota with lots of interviews with the then mayor. After the video, I took my accordion and we went for a midnight jaunt down the main street, Legerova, and across Nuselsky Most (Nusle Bridge) to Vysehrad. What’s weird is that I haven’t been back to Vysrehrad since – not for the entire year and a half that I’ve been living here. The place was beautiful and pristine on that cold, December night. Lamps were lit all up and down the walkways on the ramparts. You see, Vysehrad long ago was the first castle of Prague – according to locals, not according to history – built sometime before the 900s and where the first ideas of building “The Castle” were hashed out. Though the real thing is, is that Prague Castle – “the Castle” – hardly even looks like a castle. Vysehrad, for all you castle mongers out there, looks like a real castle. It’s got all the steep rock walls, the ramparts, ruins, and old stuff. The oldest building in all of Prague is in Vysehrad, the 11th century Rotunda of St. Martin. Someone took off their rucksack and handed out the beers and I started cranking up the squeeze box, singing my small collection of tunes that I knew back then. Let’s leave that to say that walking back was a lot more difficult than walking there.

The mirror maze on Petrin
I was convinced now to see a castle. The Castle. If Vysehrad was that awesome, then the Castle must really be something, especially with how Jitka and the other Czech girls were going on about it. So the next day I set off on my own, finding my way to a bridge and looking out. They had pointed in this direction, hadn’t they? Where was it! I saw a big Gothic church on the hill, lots of spires, lines of beautiful buildings. But no castle! But maybe up on that huge hill, with the wall going down it, maybe there was a castle there? So I walked up the hill, Petrin Hill, and found myself in a weird grove with a very unique, three spired Orthodox Church – the Carpathian Ruthenian Church of Saint Michael the Archangel. The small wooden church was completely out of place to Prague, and historically, it is. It was originally located in Carpathian Ruthenia, in today’s Ukraine, and was brought over in 1929 to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the Czechoslovak annexation of that territory. Also on the top of the hill is a weird mirror maze – which isn’t so much a mirror maze, but a mirror tunnel with a painting and cannon in it.

Oh! That castle!
From there, I found an amazing overlook over the city – you could see the entire expanse of the old town, from the Castle to Charles Bridge, to Our Lady on the Tyn. Wait. Rewind. Castle? On the hill I asked someone where the Castle was and they pointed to the hilltop with the giant church. “That’s the Castle?” Being an American, and having lived in Georgia – the country not the state – for such a long time, I was used to big stone fortress structures, this was more of a sprawling palatial complex. To be fair, there are parts of it that look more like the traditional castle, especially the side closest to the river and facing the Belvedere Garden. But when walking through it, the place is just so massive that it doesn’t really feel like a castle so much. Originally, it was the stereotypical fortress style, a bit over 200 years ago, except Marie Teresa had decided to redesign the place in the high Baroque style, and ever since then, the castle has never been the same.

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