Let me start off by listing the things I like about Prague, the things I don't like, and the things that have surprised me.
First off, I worried whether Prague would live up to the billing that I had heard. It certainly has. It is an amazingly beautiful city. All the old fin-de-siecle, art deco, and secessionst buildings have been restored, and ever their decorative trims glisten with new gold leaf. Where Budapest exuded faded glory struggling to bloom again, Prague has been thoroughly refurbished.
What isn't so nice are all the tourists who financed this reconstruction. The city is by far the most touristed place I've been on my trip, including Paris (though granted I was in Paris at the very end of May and now we're in high season). The same crowds that fill the Louvre fill every major street in Prague. It's hard sometimes to see the ancient preserved city behind the mobs on every corner.
Another thing that comes with that is the predatory tourist pricing. After a month in Poland, Prague prices came as quite a shock, being on a par with Vienna. In Poland, I knew that whether I bought my water in a kiosk in the main rynek or in a convenience store, I was going to pay basically the same price (plus or minus a few groschen). Here, fast food stands on Wenceslas square sell a 0.5 liter of water for 60 kronen (about $2.75), while the convenience store sells a 1.5 liter bottle of the same water for 11 kronen (about $0.50).
Under things that surprised me, I should first off list how many cognates with Polish I've noticed in Czech. It certainly has made understanding signs much easier. Also, the subway system seems to be modeled on Budapest's, down to the same tilted ads on the subway escalator (perpendicular to the railing, not the floor) and the same system of validating tickets along with ticket inspectors.
Last night after dinner, I basically just walked around the city. I wandered through the Old City and Josefov, and then across the Charles Bridge. I went to sleep a little early, but still woke up earlier than I hoped, around 6:30 am, because the hotel turns the AC off for a few hours while the guests are sleeping. The increased humidity woke me up. I stayed in bed watching BBC world and then had a nice buffet breakfast in the hotel.
I decided to start off this morning with Prague Castle. I took the tram up the castle hill, but, as is so typical for me, I got off one stop too soon, fearful I'm might miss my stop. But also typically, this meant I saw things I would otherwise have missed: the Royal Gardens. The path wound gently up past the Ball Court, where the sgraffito on the side, depicting the various elements, sciences, and virtues, was "updated" under the communists to include a hammer and sickle.
I bought the "combined ticket," which allowed me to see "everything." I later decided that some things were definitely worth it and others I could have done without, but then you only realize these things afterwards. The cathedral of St. Vitus was rather nicely restrained in its interior decorations, but I particularly liked the 20th-century stained glass, much of it art nouveau/seccesionist in style.
My ticket allowed me to climb to the top of the south tower and so I did so. Along the way, I found myself giving moral support to one tourist unprepared for the 287 steps. I thought she was going to have a heart attack, the way she panted and collapsed on the bench at the top. The view, however, was quite lovely. I could see the entire city and river. The only drawback from the climb and the descent is it left my legs a little winded, and I found myself taking more frequent rest breaks.
The next stop was the Old Royal Palace, from whose windows the Catholic ambassadors were "defenestrated" (i.e. thrown out) in 1618, starting the Thirty Years War (they survived the fall, by the way). I sat and watched the film on the castle. It was in Czech but it gave me a few moments to rest my legs.
Then I walked across to the Basilica of St. George. This was recently restored to reveal its original Romanesque design, but was not particularly interesting. Next to it is one of the wings of the National Gallery. This part specializes in baroque and mannerist art. Since I had bought the ticket, I felt compelled to enter, despite the fact I don't really care for baroque art. This museum, with its tortured, grotesque crucifixes; its nuns, priests, and saints twisting in ecstasy; and its dark, shadowy portraits did nothing to change my opinion of baroque art. I think the yiddish phrase for it is "goyim naches."
There is one exception for my distaste for this art and that's Caravaggio. A recent article in the Guardian on a new exhibit on Galileo and the Inquisition argued that the counter-reformation essentially killed the Italian renaissance. This is far outside my area of expertise, so I will entirely defer to others on whether this idea holds any water. What I found interesting was the author's argument that Caravaggio represents the last painter who expressed the renaissance interest in the sciences. Using the painting of a boy bitten by a lizard -- http://www.wga.hu/art/c/caravagg/01/042boy.jpg -- the author argued that the boy represents the western (read catholic) world's reaction of shock to the discovery that the natural world can disturb us. As I say, I don't vouch for the historical accuracy of the analysis, but I found it interesting.
After that, I wandered over to the Powder Tower, now transformed into an exhibition on 17th and 18th century military weapons and techniques. Moving quickly on, I joined the mobs in the Golden Lane, a ancient narrow passageway that has been redone into tourist traps for which you have to buy a ticket even to have the opportunity to enter. That being said, the little shops were scenic, but had a Disneyland feel to them.
I hoped to see the changing of the guard at noon, but by 12:05, I realized that the gate in question was at the opposite end of the castle complex, so I decided to get lunch instead. Afterwards, I wanted something completely different, so I went to the Museum Kampa, located on the Vltava River. This was the private collection of a wealthy Prague woman who was interested in 20th century Czech art. The main collection was full of interesting and playful works, and the political art of the 1970s and 80s was far more daring than any contemporaneous works I saw in Hungary or Poland.
But what I really, really, really, really liked was the exhibition of the painting of Frantisek Kupka. The museum described him as a cubist, but he combined elements of cubism (particularly Mondrian) with the colors of expressions artists like Kirchner, and the interest in light of rayonist painters like Larionov. In fact, for the first time in my life, I actually thought about stealing a painting, since they wouldn't let me photograph it, and I knew there wouldn't be a postcard of it for sale (there never is, you know).
While that picture, called "Cosmic Spring," is not on the web, I have found some others that are similar, if you would like to get an idea of what his art is like:
And this one is probably most similar to the one I really liked:
But the one I liked had more reds and oranges, and looked like some one had peeled a bright, sun-filled orange, and left the peels around the middle.
In the late afternoon, I decided to visit the synagogues, but had to race a bit to see them all before they closed (I bought a combined ticket). Most have quite restrained interior decorations, but I couldn't tell if that was because they were built like that or if the Nazis had destroyed them and the restorers chose not to bring them back. The only exception was the more liberal Spanish Synagogue, which closely resembles the Tempel Synagogue in Prague and the main synagogue in Budapest with its use of arabesques and orientalist gilded themes.
I had originally thought I might visit Mariansky Lazne tomorrow (my cousin spends a month there every year), but I just came back from the bus station and its a 3-hour bus ride and the bus doesn't leave until 11:30. The bus to Karlovy Vary, on the other hand, leaves every hour on the hour and only takes 2:12 hours. I think that's where I'm going tomorrow.