8.42pm – we are entering the Czech Republic. Soft, timber-clad hills and rolling plains of golden wheat rush past. Puffy opal clouds gather around the setting sun as we shake to Prague on the Eurorail…
Where late afternoon concertos spill onto the cobblestone streets mixing with the smell of roast yams alongside the riverside air…
First stop: McDonalds. Not for its food, obviously, but for spare change necessary for the Metro. The Metro is spanking modern and clean. Inexpensive and efficient for us to get from the train station to the hostel.
I wake on a fresh and bright Sunday morning, stirred by the swaying melodies of a thousand church bells and pigeons flapping their wings. It is nine o’clock. I clamber out of bed and turn the curvaceous chrome taps running to the foot-wide rain shower. Copious streams of hot water pour downwards to ease my thoughts and soothe my muscles. It is going to be a good day.
Stepping back into my room, I throw open the white-framed windows, and through the roses and lilacs sprouting outside, I peer onto the street below.
Just the echoes of bells from the far off church, and gentle rumblings from the number-six tram. The morning breeze drifts through my hair and I smell the city’s dew, consequent of the storm the night before.
I go down the cast-iron staircase and out the door. The architecture of the late baroque period greeted me. built at the time when Prague was at the height of its artistic legacy. Tinted floral copper bannisters, decked with summer blossoms spring from every terrace. The city is barely awake, a calm before Sunday worship, when they would all wear their best.
I duck into a dimly lit mall, probably centuries old. Teak doors and windows wavy with age lead to a wonderland of czech art, painted eggs, wooden puppets, etched lead crystal and hand-blown glass. There is a retired theatre showing remnants of the Titanic, lovers’ letters and survivors’ tales. Hanging from the domed, stained glass ceiling is a knight in full armour on his horse, which hangs upside down. I snicker at the comical, colourful shadow cast on the mosaic floor tiles.
I turn through an abandoned space of old furniture, brass fittings and debris into an urban oasis, landscaped with trimmed fir, benches and giant light bulbs posing as street lamps. Outside the whimsical ancient mall, time had passed and already, the Czechs are out and about in their Sunday best. Gentlemen in flannel jackets and pressed shirts guide their partners donning summer floral dresses and parisols. These couples together with their families resemble a Chanel catwalk sponsored by Versache and Dior kids. Claude Monet was right, people still do these things.
I follow them to a church, the Church of the Lady of the Snows, and I wait a while for Sunday service to end. Soon enough, they glide out of the church’s heavy doors and fill up the surrounding cafés. I enter the church courtyard and see a nun consoling a heartbroken young lady. Another is talking merrily with a group of mothers with their newly-borns. I slip past into the vast, empty church.
I stand by the door, admiring the vaults above the nave and suddenly, out of nowhere, a pastor shakes my hand. He wears a red cap and ministerial robes. “Welcome!”, he exclaims, smiling warmly. “How oriental!”. “My my!”, I exclaim in return, “what a nave! You cannot see such things in Hong Kong”. Of course, catholic churches of such grandeur are non-existent in Hong Kong. I follow Pastor Malý to the altar as he introduces himself and the Church to me. My eyes take a few seconds to adjust from the daylight outside, but for my patience, I am awarded the sight of the interior. The sun’s rays stream into the vaulted interior to rest on the open bibles on the lectern. Hanging above the pulpit is ivory Jesus himself, god ornaments and a vast pedestal to facilitate the worship of their christian faith. The west wall is filled to the top with ornately carved adornments. It was an impressive sight, to see so much crammed into so little.
Pastor Malý and I sit on the benches to chat. The other monks are sweeping the floors and picking up the bibles left by the Sunday mass. For a while, I feel the tranquility that so often eludes the church crowds. I feel the draft that flutters with a strange combination of silence, cool and warmth coming down and sweeping across the benches. I feel a little thirsty talking for so long, and I bid farewell to Pastor Malý.
Then, like the others, I sit down at a café across the church – Café Jungmann. I order a Prague Breakfast and lean back to watch more tourists march through the main road, unfazed by the discreet entrance to the urban oasis, ignoring the small gem of a church that lay behind the now-closed wrought-iron gates. A gaggle of tourists, sticking to their burgers and clutching their Starbucks. They will never know.
My coffee arrives with the café’s own chocolate. It is an Italian brew, toasted just right with a roast coca scent. A sip, and a smooth, nutty aftertaste. I pour the hot cream across the brown surface and the chaotic emulsion blooms into a white flower before fading again.
Then my breakfast arrives, together with a basket of baguette slices enough to feed a party of five. This is no simple plate of food. This is a platter fit for a king. Five slices of local country carambert; five slices of ediner; two eggs, sunny-side up with a glowing orange yolk that can only originate from free-range chickens; two rashes of boar bacon and a tomato. Oh, what a tomato! Why just one!?
I begin to stuff myself.
I ask for a refill. She takes it away and comes back with another coffee, with more chocolate on the side. I now know what ten centimetre-slices of cheese can do to you for breakfast. I shall not have lunch today. I sit there for a while, unable to move. The sky is becoming a deeper blue. Food has just lost its meaning.
Breakfast came to kr.99.
I struggle against gravity to get up, and I walk past Lancôme, Nike, Hugo Boss and Kenzo before getting to Powder Gate. An imposing 17th century tower, carbon black, arching into the sky above. Its carbon façade accentuated the golden copper statues, swords and staves standing on its corners.
A bearded man comes forward and beckons at me with his crafty eyes. “Concert tonight?” He whips out a book, some portfolio and shows me pictures of the Great Smetana Hall within the municipal theatre. Plush red seats, golden armrests and walls covered with religious and royal symbols, untouched since the baroque times. “I don’t have time today”, I said curtly. “Tomorrow then! The royal orchestra comes to play”. He leads me to the ticket office and I pay kr.800 for Mozart and Strauss by the Czech Royal Orchestra.
Avoiding the tourist throngs, I take the narrow alleys winding up to Staré Mêsto – the old square. I walk past cream walls, under orange roof tiles, on rounded cobblestone streets, and through vaulted tunnels, and there it is, the astronomical clock, flanked by cast-iron gas lamps. Four seasons, twenty-four hours, the zodiac and all the cycles of the sun and the moon. Aha! So the Jewish moneylender pops out of the clock at two o’clock.
I discover the town’s only police van, parked in the middle of the square like an ice-cream vendor. It warns of pickpockets and sells maps. Then, I discover it. The Prague Segway Tour. The Segway is a two-wheeled transportation device which you stand upon, holding onto its bicycle-like handlebars. Mr. George Bush Jr. fell off it. No one else would.
I stand on the thing and it balances itself. It moves forward as I lean forward and begins to stop and reverse as I lean back. I tilt the handlebars to turn it and we set off together with Anna the guide towards the hills on the other side of the river. We zoom past the awestruck crowds, over the bridge and up to Prague Castle before crossing to Petrinske – a vast, wooded park with rolling lawns of soft, long grass and statues of the town’s artists and craftsmen; people who made Prague as great as it is today. There, right next to the rose garden, she enables the full-speed switch. I speed up to the observatory where I can see the entire town unfold below. The hustle and bustle under the orange roofs and turquoise domes fade away and a blanket of serenity covers us. I begin to notice the bikers huffing and puffing up the slope. Couples are strolling the rose garden and children are playing in the playground. Every great city should have a park that reflects its greatness.
Getting off the device is a pain. Walking is no longer comfortable anymore. I hobble along for a while before I could walk normally again. I take a south along the river Vltava to a hill fortress/monastary called Bsenaras Vyŝehrad. With panoramic views stretching south to west, this fort controlled river traffic flowing northwards into the city. As I continue towards the fort, Prague’s famous yams have begun to roast in the people’s little ovens.
Along the way, I see father and daughter feed swans and ducklings with breadcrumbs; a young lady leads her possum on a jog; and a fine mist begins to form just above the waterline, scattering the golden rays of dusk. Seeing the Vyŝehrad ruins to the left of me, I turn and climb the narrow, winding steps upwards to the abbey. Already, the locals have saved places for their families’ evening picnic. A fantastic affair of cheese spreads, loaves of rye, wheat rolls, salami, fresh fruit and beer on chequered cloths. I edge close to share their view of Prague and its southern reaches.
Vltava reflects the evening light onto the hills and adjacent villas, and at the same time, muffles the sounds from the bustling town. I put my elbows on the hillside fort battlements, lean out and breath in the thyme, yam and somewhat whimsical air. The sun is setting, and a good day it has been.
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