Day 5 – Prague, Czech Republic

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Our day began with a bus ride up to the hills overlooking the beautiful city of Prague to Prague Castle, the largest castle complex in Europe. As we began the ride, our local guide Kamila told us some of the history of the Czech people. She was the only female ruler of the Hapsburg empire and she and her husband had sixteen children, including one who would build the fortress of Terezin [which became the concentration camp of Theresienstadt under the Nazis] where we will be visiting this week, and the youngest, Marie Antoinette, who would marry Louis XVI and be executed during the French Revolution. She spoke to us of the independence of the new state of Czechoslovakia following the breakup of the German Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire and how, under Jan Masaryk, Czechoslovakia had the eighth largest economy in the world 1918-1938. Kamila talked of the Munich Conference in which the Allies dismembered Czechoslovakia in what would later be called a policy of appeasement by the Allies, giving Hitler the Sudetenland, while not inviting Czechoslovakia to be present at this conference. Kamila said Czechs refer to this as “Politics about us without us!”
During the ride Kamila also told us a little about the geographical layout of the city as well as some of the demographics. The capital city of the Czech Republic has a little more than one million residents, and is called Praha, which means ‘threshhold’ because as she told us, one never knows when they are crossing the threshold from history to mythology in this city. We were to learn that from several of the stories we would hear throughout the day. 

 

We started at the Strahov Monastery manned by friars who came to Prague in the 12thcentury from France, selling their services as bibliophiles (librarians) and scribes (copies of books). Strahov means “guard” and the beautiful Strahov Monastery, overlooking the city of Prague, was the spiritual and physical guard of the city and castle. A special tour had been arranged for us and we were able to physically enter the two beautiful halls of their library, one for theological works and one for philosophical works. The library contains over 45,000 volumes of working dating back to the 10thcentury, demonstrating how the church institutions were the depositories and guardians of much of the European culture. In the Hall of Theology, which held 20,000 books stacked two deep, we learned how the friars would determine whether a book was acceptable to the church or needed to be archived as a forbidden book because of the content, which was anything which challenged the teachings of the Church, such as Copernicus and Galileo’s theories. She also impressed upon us the value of a single book to people in this time period by showing us a statue in one of the halls. The man is carrying his book around in a pouch, because having a book was like having a diamond, she said, and one did not leave it behind. In the Hall of the Philosophers, which held 48,000 books, Kamila explained the beautiful paintings which adorned the ceilings and showed us the hidden staircases to the second floor. Shalmi also showed us one of his favorite pieces of furniture:  a book wheel.  Researchers could open a book and be reading one text and then need to reference a different passage from another book, so put that book on the wheel, until they needed to refer to yet another passage from an additional book which could be opened and placed on the wheel, etc.  In this way, the researcher could turn the wheel and read different relevant passages.  This was a precursor of what we would call in our digital age, hypertext, whereby we are linked in one document to an additional document which can add additional information or clarify something in the original document. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the top of Castle Hill we had wonderful panoramic views of the city of Prague and nice spring weather to enjoy the walk down the hill into the Lesser Town. During our walk we were able to see the Schwarzenberg Palace, the Archbishop’s Palace and the Sternberk Palace. We viewed the magnificent St. Vitus Cathedral and visited the former Royal Palace dating from the 12thcentury where Shalmi told us the story of how horse manure and an event in this building called defenestration, led to the disastrous Thirty Years War in Europe. Continuing down towards Lesser Town, we walked through the Golden Lane, which students felt looked like something from Harry Potter stories and marveled at how short the doors were at the time.

 

 

 

 















Arriving in Lesser Town, we ate lunch, and then continued our walk. We stopped at the John Lennon Wall which is a memorial to freedom of expression in Prague. Kamila told us how under Communism, people would write messages on the wall in violation of the law, and then the government would constantly be painting over the graffiti. Yet in no time, new statements and art appeared, and this wall continues to represent free speech. We also saw the site where people in love have attached locks to the bridge as in many other cities. Kamila showed us the memorial by the Charles Bridge to the firefighters of 9/11 in New York. We then climbed the stairs from Lesser Town to the Charles Bridge which connects the two sides of Prague: Castle District / Lesser Town and Old Town / New Town / Jewish Quarter. Walking over the bridge provided us with incredible views of this beautiful city and Kamila told us several stories connected with the statues and the bridge. In St. Vitus Cathedral she had told us the story of King Wenceslas, whose wife had bared her soul to the Confessor. When asked what his wife had said to him, the Confessor refused to betray the sanctity of the confession, so he was taken to the Charles Bridge, his tongue was cut out and he was thrown to his death from the bridge. 400 years later, the tongue was found in the river, Kamila said, and it is now buried in a huge silver statue in the Cathedral. The site where the Confessor was thrown from the bridge also has a statue and people make a wish, rub the statue, and their wish will come true. Remember the meaning of Praha – threshold between myth and reality.

 

 

We had started our day in a library, learning about the history and importance of books to Prague, and we ended our day with a visit to the public library where Kamila showed us a tower, the Wall of Knowledge, in the library foyer, composed of over 8,000 books.
We stopped in the Market Square for a short while where we could purchase some souvenirs in the Easter Market, before heading back to the hotel to get ready for dinner which would be with our friends Tony and Eva Vavrecka.

 

11 comments

  1. It's wonderful to be a virtual traveler with the group and I'm enjoying the experience of following your journey day by day. The meaningful nature of this experience is significant and it's clear the students are learning a great deal. Be safe!

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  2. I never knew about the John Lennon Wall. What an amazing concept that continues to be relevant today as a representation of freedom. That food also looks delicious. Prague really looks like an amazing city; I would love to visit one day. Hope the trip is going well.

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  3. When you look at a place like Prague, with hundreds if not thousands of years worth of history, it makes countries like the U.S.–which has only been around for ~240 years–seem kind of insignificant. Do the people there have a different perspective on the world around them? Are they more conscious of how things will work out in the long run, and how the world around them is changing on a larger and longer scale>

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  4. It is amazing to see more students taking the same journey that my fellow peers and I did last year! This trip is truly incredible and memorable. Hope everyone is enjoying themselves and remembering to soak up as much knowledge as they can! I

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  5. That's amazing that in Prague there is the John Lennon memorial wall. I love that people were still trying to stand up for their opinions under Communism. It's great that they were voicing their opinion even when the government didn't want to hear it.

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