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Archive for August, 2012

Notes on Accessibility

Prague is not wheelchair friendly, but with a helper, most of Prague becomes accessible.

Often landmarks and attractions are described as wheelchair accessible but there are always at least one or two steps. The funicular and Petrin Tower, for example are described as accessible, but the slope up to the funicular is at least one in eight. Then there are two steps to the first carriage. It’s possible to wheel to the tower and take the lift half way up, but coming back to the funicular there are about eight steps to the nearest carriage. 

The streets are cobbled, and the gutters are often five or six inches high so a wheelchair user needs a helper to get about both the Old Town and the Lesser Quarter.

Some of the trams are low and have a button that a wheelchair user can push to alert the driver that the ramp is needed. However, only once did the driver step outside to put the ramp out. The older trams have very high steps that I was able to climb using my crutches. 

The room in my hotel was described as a disabled room, but there were no bars in the shower or toilet, I could barely reach the shower hose when standing, and there was no seat in the shower. The room could be accessed from the garage rather than the front door where there were eight or more steps, but there were two steps up from the garage!

Everyone in Prague seems to assume that someone in a wheelchair will have a helper, and that one or two steps are no barrier. 

With Peter’s help, and with the use of crutches I was able to get just about everywhere.

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Monday 27 August

We  haven”t yet seen the inside of the Old Town Hall, or St Clements church. We’d like to see the inside of St Salvatore in the daylight, and climb at least one of the Charles Bridge Towers. 

It’s early so we  make for the bridge. I walk over it, then up the Old Royal Road. We realise that St. Nicholas is only a few hundred metres away so we visit it again. This time I find that all the white marble statues and gold trimmings are oppressive. The friezes and statues looming overhead from the walls and ceiling of the long narrow nave now feel claustrophobic. The only respite is under the huge dome.

Walking/wheeling back down the road toward the bridge I notice a tour group coming out of a door. It’s the church’s bell tower. I’m tired from walking so I suggest that Peter climb the more than 200 steps  and take photos of the view for me. Apparently the Czech secret police used the tower during the communist period to spy on the nearby embassies of the US, Germany and Yugoslavia!

I wait on the footpath outside. The sun has come out and it’s warmed up a little, so it’s quite pleasant. 

When Peter returns he is excited about the view and what he has seen. I regret not climbing the tower so, with Peter’s encouragement, I knock off yet another tower! It’s really interesting to see the surveillance equipment used by the police, and to see the buildings they were spying on. To think, some elderly people have lived in Prague before the war when it was free, as it is now, through the war when Czech was occupied by the Germans, then afterwards when it was occupied by the Russians, then with a communist government, and through the velvet revolution when the communists were ousted. I begin to see why Czechs loved Havel and cried when he passed away.

From here I can look down over the gardens we visited. The houses are built side by side and it is amazing that the Vrtbovska exists amongst the many buildings. From here I can see that quite a few are villas. Amazing! I can also see Prague spread out for miles. It’s not so high that individual buildings disappear, but high enough to see over the tops of roofs. I’m glad Peter helped me climb up … And down again.

We find Kampa park beside the river and eat our picnic lunch. Although there are plenty of gardens in Prague, they can be difficult to access. It’s nice to sit by the river. The buildings on the other side are colourful and there is little uniformity in style or architecture. From a short distance I can see how picturesque Prague is. Inside the winding lanes its difficult to appreciate this.

Peter is going to climb the Charles Bridge tower on the Mala Strana side. As we cross the bridge I see amongst al the vendors a stall with earrings, glass blown in Prague. I have another souvenir!

I think that Prague is a difficult city to get to know. Many of its treasures are elusive, like seeing the picturesque in the rows of coloured apartments, or appreciating different views of the same rooftops and buildings, or noticing the lighting effects of different times of the day . Charles Bridge and the river are very different early in the morning, during the day and at night.  The skyline changes dramatically against a grey sky compared to a blue sky.  The view over  the rooftops of Prague is very different when you look from different towers and from different heights.

Prague  is like an old lady, much of her beauty lies in the past.  But the gothic churches and brooding towers seem at times black and foreboding, and it is against this backdrop that one of Prague’s greatest talents lie – her musicians. 

Four concerts in five days! Tonight we are at the Mirror Chapel in the Klementorium.  It’s architecture is baroque and the marble and gold is opulent. There is an organ at each end. The organs are marble, the one at front is open, almost at floor level. The organ at the back is larger, up in a balcony that stretches from one side to the other. The balustrading is marble and dark polished wood with occasional gold balustrades. The floor is made of large marble mosaics, like the Escher patterns we saw in Italy. The patterns are reflected in the dark overhead oval mirrors that are set in four elaborate arches that form the vault.

The musical ensemble consists of two violins, a viola, cello … And organ! The music is amazing. I have never heard strings accompanied by an organ before, but it is awesome. Schubert’s Ave Maria, Dvorak, Vivaldi … It is all magnificent! What a way to spend our last evening here. I have found my Prague.

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Prague – Day 4

Sunday 26 August

The Charles Bridge is at its finest in the morning before the crowds arrive so we head off to the river. The sky is a brooding grey and I can see why many of the paintings sold on the streets and in the market are so dark.

There’s hardly anybody in the Square as we wander round taking photos of some of the more ornate buildings. We arrive at Old St Nicholas just before 10am mass so we sneak in to take a look. There is a massive chandelier in the middle! I’m guessing that once this was filled with candles. It sparkles. Like St Nicholas in the Lesser Quarter the ceilings are covered in frescoes, but the rest of the interior is white plaster with black balustrading around the alcoves above. It’s much smaller than the other St Nicholas. It’s lovely.

We keep walking/wheeling. In Prague I take my wheelchair everywhere but have my crutches on hand to walk up steps, round churches, and just to take a break from the chair. Most places that are described as wheelchair accessible have a few steps, or slopes that are very steep, but that’s ok – for me anyway. 

I want to find a pharmacy and we’ve been told that there are shopping malls near the Powder Gate. We weren’t going to bother going there but I’m glad we end up where we do. It’s close to the Old Town Square where the only people you see are tourists or people servicing the tourists, but here there are real Czechs! Czech women are beautiful. They remind me of Parisiennes, beautifully groomed and petite. While we are in the mall I spy a pretty blue cotton scarf, too pretty to leave behind, so, voila! I have my Prague souvenir!

Our intention this morning was to ride the funicular to Petrin Park where there is a mini Eiffel Tower. So after a few short tram changes we’re on our way. The view over Prague from the funicular is fabulous! 

It’s been a little cooler today, and at the top of the hill under the trees, it’s quite chilly. We were going to go from here back to the castle but Peter remembers that the tickets are back at the hotel. Just as well, because I’m going to dress more warmly. 

It turns out that it costs only 20k for both of us to take the lift up the tower. We were going to anyway, but it’s nice to get a big discount just because I’m in a wheelchair, especially as I cause more trouble than other customers! The view over Prague is great. We’re above the castle, above the trees, above everything! And the wind is blowing hard! Back down we go, and in only thirty minutes we’re back at the hotel. Ready to leave again …

Returning to the Prague castle late afternoon is a different experience from the first: there are fewer people, I can recognise landmarks we have now visited, and I can appreciate more the feeling of Prague. It’s a moody place, sometimes light but more often dark and gothic. It’s the gold that sparkles on church spires, on the swords or shields or wings or accents on otherwise grey statues that lifts the city from its darkness. 

While we wait for the concert at St George’s Basilica we sit facing the golden portal of St Vitus. What a marvellous place to wait!

St George’s Basilica is an ideal place for a concert. The acoustics are remarkable because of the dome, the stone walls, the shape of the building and the wooden ceiling. The very old Romanesque church provides a superb ambience.  As soon as the ensemble strikes up we know that these are professional musicians. The music may be a selection of well known classics, but there is nothing cliched about it. From the first piece by Smetana, then Dvorak, Bizet, Vivaldi, Mozart and lastly, Brahms, these musicians play with passion, skill and sensitivity. The solo soprano is drop dead amazing. Both Peter and I nearly cry when she sings Schubert’s Ave Maria. When I hear Mozart’s Alleluia chorus I know I will never hear music as good as this ever again.

Friday’s organ recital was dramatic in the St Salvatore cathedral, Mozart with dinner was fun, but tonight’s concert is SUBLIME.

 How does Czech produce so many musicians? I think I could stay in Prague for weeks and listen to a concert every night. Prague has the theatres and the talent to make every musical evening memorable. It is a city of music and drama.

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Saturday 25 August

Today we plan on crossing the Charles Bridge again to visit the Lesser Quarter (Mala Strana). We take the tram to the Town Square (Malostranske namesti) and head for St Nicholas Church. You can see its dome from across the river and from Prague castle. It must be a large church but nothing prepares us for the interior. Wow! It’s unlike anything we’ve seen so far! It’s light and airy … And dramatic. Every piece of the ceiling is painted with frescoes. It matches the Sistine chapel in magnitude if not in detail (and talent). Light pours in and the huge polished white marble statues glow. Four larger than life sized statues round the altar represent the Eastern Church Fathers. They are a bit weird, with one of the priests holding a staff and pinning a man down on the ground by his throat.

Around the base of the dome are four large white marble (all the statues lare of white marble) statues of women, then  in between them are six smaller statues, life sized, recessed into the base of the dome.

The floor is made of slate and white marble flagstones.

I notice that the altar is set up so that if a priest were saying mass, his back would be to the congregation. I assume that the church is no longer used as such. Peter confirms this when he notes that there is no tabernacle light. Also, there is a charge to enter, something that can’t happen in a church. (Though once you’re in the church you’re often charged for climbing a tower, or visiting a crypt …)

 The pipes of the vast organ are white with gold finishing. Apparently Mozart played this organ during his stay in Prague. (Much seems to be made in Prague of Mozart’s stay here). The gold finishing on the organ and elsewhere is more understated than in the other churches and, instead of dark wooden decorative features, the columns and pulpit are made from coloured marble. Above the altar, is another larger than life sized statue, this one a gold plated copper statue of St Nicholas. The dome is huge, with windows set in it. Around almost the entire church runs a balcony made of marble. We are able to climb to the balcony and see how it has alcoves that may have been used by dignitaries perhaps, rather like boxes in an opera house. The alcoves are decorated with large paintings.

Downstairs again we look at the side chapels, some of which are a bit gruesome with boxes containing plaster skeletons in odd postures, probably symbolising something that is lost on us twenty first century westerners.

We make our way to a garden I read about. It’s supposed to be behind the Wallenstein Palace (which is now the Czech Senate), which is only a few hundred metres away. There is a large ornamental pond near the entrance, a few peahens roaming about, some gardens, and a fountain in front of a frescoed stage …. And the melting wall! It’s a sculpture! A wall somewhat pretentiously described as dark and mysterious, supposedly a blend of synthetic and nature. The crevices hide animals, snakes and faces. The wall extends around an aviary in which there are half a dozen sleeping owls … The wall is supposed to contrast with the sound of birds. Well these birds won’t make a sound during daylight so I suppose the sculptor means silent birds.  It’s bizarre, but I’m glad we’ve found it.

Next stop is the Vrtbovska gardens. They’re not far away either. But I’ve read that they can be easily overlooked because they are hidden behind a gate that simply has its street address, number 25 Karmelitska. 

These gardens couldn’t be more different from the ones we’ve just visited. They are beautiful. The gardens rise in terraces and on each level are small renaissance style gardens. A wedding is about to begin, and we enter to violins being readied to perform Ave Maria, Vivaldies Four Seasons and more. It’s exquisite. The gardens are a natural amphitheatre and as we climb we hear the music clearly. 

At the top we among the roof tops of Prague. It’s surreal. The view is stunning. Look down, we see the gardens, look to the left and right, we see into people’s apartments, look across and we see the spires and domes of churches. The gardens are tiny, but in this cramped city, they are a gem.

We’re suddenly so tired! It’s barely mid afternoon, and we could do so much more but we’ve the Mozart concert and dinner tonight so we head back to the hotel for a senior citizen nap. 

The concert is at the Mozart Cafe. From the first floor where we are sitting we look straight across at the astronomical clock, not even thirty metres away! What an unexpected delight. The windows are open because the evening is so warm. It’s very pleasant. We watch the eight o’clock “performance” and later the  ten o’clock. The colours of the clock seem to deepen or brighten according to the time of day. It’s a thing of beauty, as well as a feat of mathematical engineering – built over 600 years ago! It’s amusing to look down from behind and see the lights from all the cameras and videos playing on the clock.

The musicians enter the “salon” a few minutes after eight. They’re dressed in period costume, their wigs perched perilously on heads. Two violins, a viola and a bass. The musicians are having a ball, laughing amongst themselves …  You get the impression that they’d be just as happy to play without an audience as with one. Though after every piece at least one of then acknowledges us. There are only eight at dinner. Ourselves, another couple and a group of four. 

The music is wonderful. I can’t believe that such talented musicians would play at a dinner concert. Perhaps they are retired, or this is a form of practice, or maybe they just love performing. Eine kleine nichte, Mozart’s symphony number forty. I love the finish – a fabulously plucking of strings. The food is pretty good too. It’s one of the. Best dinner out I’ve ever had. 

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Friday 24 August

We’re going to spend all day exploring Prague castle.

We catch the tram up the hill and enter through one of the many gates. First though we watch the changing of the guard. It’s great to watch the precision marching and the drill. 

I want to see the palaces that are supposed to be outside the castle grounds, but with so many gates I’m not sure outside which gate. We find the first courtyard and exit the gate there. We are surrounded by the four palaces! I know that down an alley next to the Archbishop’s palace we will find the Steinberg palace which I have read holds a major private collection of European art. It does. Much of the byzantine art is by florentine and Sienese artists. It is exquisite. There is also Etruscan work.  There is an enclosed courtyard outside. There were very few people looking at the art, and nobody is outside. It is an oasis of solitude. Everybody is in such a rush to get to the castle that this marvellous art and garden are overlooked.

As we approach the Matthias gate to re- enter the castle, the noon changing of the guard is about to happen. The street outside the gate is cleared before a group of soldiers come marching through. First, the two guards at this entrance are changed, then the troop continues through the castle to provide the guards for the rest of the day. The guards are changed every hour, but this procession only happens at noon.  It’s impressive.

From the first courtyard we move into the second where there is a  big fountain, then on through  the  third and, wham! There is St Vitus!  It soars upwards,  just fifty metres away from the archway. Its proximity is sudden and awesome.

The nave is long, the vault high. The stained glass windows behind the altar are tall and narrow. I turn and look back at the huge, beautiful rose window. The organ is massive. Everything about this cathedral is on a grand scale. There are twenty one chapels, all ornate. The sarcophagus of Charles 4th is almost unbelievably ostentatious, but the solid silver casket with over a thousand gems is gorgeous. 

Engineering had clearly not caught up with the dreams and designs of the architect. Outside, the main entrance before the cathedral was completed is known as the golden portal because there are numerous solid gold knobs on the wooden doors. But the effect is somewhat diminished by the need to have a rib down the centre so, rather than having one big entrance, there are two quite narrow doors separated by the rib. Nonetheless the doors are beautiful.

The cathedral and its clock tower can be seen from all over Prague. The view from the tower is said to be spectacular, so I climb all 297 steps of the spiral staircase. On the way down I can feel the Odstock electrode on the back of my knee. It’s quite painful as I bend my knee on every step. This is probably not good … 

Next we visit the Old Royal palace. I particularly want to see the Vladislav Hall. It is impressive with its high vault, wooden floors and it’s sheer size. I can imagine great banquets here. The Diet room next door is interesting. It’s some sort of court where decisions were made. The only woman ever allowed in that room was Marie Antoinette the Queen of the Austro – Hungarian Empire. She was the mother of Marie Antoinette who was guillotined during the French Revolution.

There are other Palaces within the castle. They hold art collections and museums but the only other place that I’m interested in is St George’s Basilica, a Romanesque church. It is made of stone with a high wooden ceiling. There are remnants of friezes on arches. Its simplicity is beautiful. It was built in the tenth century, but renovations have uncovered a first century crypt (with skeleton) under the foundations. 

We wheel/walk down the hill from the castle to the Lesser Quarter then along to the Charles Bridge and back to the hotel. 

Tonight, at 10pm we are going to St Salvatore for a candle lit concert. The organ is magnificent, as is the tenor. The absolute highlights were Schubert’s Ave Maria, and Bach’s Toccata in Fugue – brilliant!

St Salvatore is opposite the Charles Bridge. As we approach the bridge we can see the statues are a brilliant white under the floodlights. Somehow the lights have turned even the grey statues into a startling white. As a flock of birds fly past, through the lights, they too turn white. The whole scene is surreal.

It’s been a great day!

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Thursday 23 August

PRAGUE

We’re here! The hotel is quite close to the Charles Bridge and to the Old town Square, but I’m not sure I can explore the area walking. We wheel/walk to the river. The sun is on Charles Bridge and there are few people around. We go over the bridge toward the Lesser Quarter, then turn and go back toward the Old Town Square. The towers at either end of the bridge are impressive. They are made of dark stone with grey statues and decorated with shields and bits of gold. Along the bridge are larger than life statues with religious significance, some saints, a crucifix and so on. 

We continue on to the Old Town Square and the first thing we see is the astronomical clock on the Clock Tower. It’s fantastic in every sense of the word. No wonder it’s such an icon of Prague. It has a fairy tale appearance but it’s nothing of the sort. The clock must have seemed a wonder at the time it was built, and six hundred years later it still is. It had to have been the product of a Mathematical and Engineering genius, a genius who also had an artists’s eye because it is beautiful. The colours …. The shapes … The figures … The parade of the apostles … It’s as much a sculpture as a clock. The heraldry is great too. After the mechanical performance on the hour, a trumpeter plays from the top of the tower from all four walls. It’s a real spectacle!

I decide to take the lift to the top of the tower, rather than walk up the steep ramp. From the top there is a great view over Prague, especially towards the castle. St Vitus dominates the skyline, but there are domes and spires of churches everywhere as far as the eye can see … Well almost … There are big concrete apartment blocks that were probably built during the time of communism. Apart from these ugly blocks there doesn’t seem much left to mark their legacy. There are large tracts of forests near the castle, and these make Prague seem quite green.

Our Lady Before Tyn is on the opposite side of the Square from the Clock. It’s twin towers are massive, but inside it is spectacular. The vault is really, really high and long. The main altar and the chapels are all made of black wood with lots of gold. Gold. Gold. Gold. On Black. There are friezes on the ceiling but my greatest impression is of lots of gold on black.

On our way to the Halveska, Havel’s market, we wander into a few galleries. One has fabulous original oil paintings of scenes around Prague. These originals have been reproduced by the tens of thousands and their prints are sold everywhere. I’d like to buy one of the astronomical clock, I love the way it’s painted, but at over one thousand euro it’s a little pricey! Its interesting that none of the street vendors seem to know who the original artist is, yet the gallery that sells his work is only a few hundred metres away.

Some of the vendors at the market sell their original art as well as the prints. I love the work of one artist, and given what it is, I think that one hundred euro is a good price, but Peter doesn’t much like it. It’s a collage technique using old paper, calligraphy, gilt, and textures. She happily shows me her other other work knowing that I won’t buy anything, but perhaps likes my enthusiasm for her work. There are so many talented artists in Prague! I am amazed!

We head off to Wencelas Square, not knowing what to expect. It’s a sort of strip mall with nice shops leading ultimately to the National Museum. It’s closed for renovations so we only walk halfway down. I find the H&M shop where Amy bought some inexpensive tops, but other than buying Peter a cap in one store and an a tie in another,  our money stays in our wallets.

We go back to the hotel to check in. We’re tired from the long flights but want to see the day out so that our bodies can adjust as soon as possible to the time difference. So we visit St Jilji. It’s a smaller version of the Tyn Church, but just as OTT. 

Between 4 & 5 we go round in circles within the old town centre. We find a bakery, yum, and eventually break out of the narrow winding lanes. 

We’re in bed by 6.30. End of day one!

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Wellington to Prague via Sydney and Abu Dhabi

Wednesday 22 August

Here we are in Abu Dhabi Airport.

NEVER, NEVER EVER transit through Abu Dhabi. Approaching Abu Dhabi, I see pretty white domed buildings that turn out to be the terminals. Not only are they pretty on the outside but inside the rounded ceilings are covered in beautifully coloured mosaics.

And that’s where the good stuff ends.

The shape makes for a cacophany of sound, and an inefficient layout with too little seating and people wandering around everywhere. We need boarding passes for the next flight but instead of simply scanning our information, everything must be entered by hand. There are phone calls when something goes wrong, though what that is, we don’t know because the staff at the counter are unhelpful and unfriendly. Other staff wander arbitrarily through the growing queues writing on tickets and waving confused people away without any explanations. Technology is primitive and the going so slow that we wait over half an hour for several staff members to process us, taking turns to pick up and put down our information.

I’d hoped to be able to walk for half an hour or so and raise my feet to reduce the swelling. But the man who met me at the plane with a wheelchair keeps me in it. I try to explain that I want to walk but he says I will get too tired. I stand up and walk for a little but he soon has me back in the chair. I watch the people around me. It’s fascinating seeing such diversity, and especially to see how the young Muslim women add beautiful embroidery to their clothing. Even those in full burka have elegantly embroidered patterns on the edges of their robes.  Some young women, of whom you can see only their eyes and hands, have perfectly manicured and painted finger nails.

It takes over half an hour to give us boarding passes, then it’s down to the gate. Can I climb stairs? Yes, I can. Again and again I’m asked this. It turns out that there is no air bridge! 

We arrive at security and the man pushing my wheelchair takes us past the queue to be processed. The man in charge yells at him and tells him to take us to the back of the queue. Our man ignores him and throws our bags over the rope and onto the conveyor belt. There are no boxes for neatly keeping your things together. Baggage goes through higgledy piggledy. I set the alarm off, of course. I always do. A woman takes me to another room to pat me down.  I guess a woman cannot be seen being touched by a stranger in public.

We wait … And wait. Passengers have to be driven on a bus to another terminal (?!) to board the plane. We wait some more. The plane should have left by now. We are waiting for someone to unlock the door to the outside! Every now and then someone rattles the doors, but no, they are still locked.

A bus is waiting. There are more people than seats, so another bus is needed. Nobody had thought about how seats would be needed!

Finally, we’re on the bus on the way to the plane. When we arrive, despite having agreed that I would climb the steps up to it, a man wants me to enter on a fork lift. No, I want to climb the steps. He insists. I insist. He insists. I insist. I win. 

I climb the steps and we’re on our way to Prague!
 

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