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 old town

28 leden (jan)
The Vltava River
winds through the city of Prague, flowing effortlessly like slow moving clouds. The older areas of the city hug its shores, the two halves tied together with bridges like laces hooked on a tall boot. An effective network of public transportation moves people in the metro (subway), tram with its web of lines hovering over major streets, and buses, filling in the gaps where the metro and tram do not reach.

My flat is near a metro stop. From my tenth floor apartment I can see a tube snaking across a small river tributary through the landscape of boxy high rises and then disappearing underground again. The public transit system is easy to negotiate, with tram and bus schedules posted prominently on the streets. The school has provided me with a pass that allows me to hop on and off these cars with no thought to paying. I have been told that an occasional inspector will board and ask to see tickets, with hefty fines for freeloaders, but haven't encountered one yet. It seems to run like an honor system.

To reach the level where the metro runs, long escalators descend below ground. They move much more rapidly than American escalators, so you need to pay close attention when you step on or you'll lose your balance. Posters line the walls around these moving staircases and are tilted perpendicular to the stairs, so that, if you straighten the posters in your mind's eye, people appear to be leaning backwards at an impossible angle, or bent forward as if they are falling - an optical illusion that amuses me every time I ride. During my first few days in the city, I found my way to some of the major sights, knowing my time would soon be filled by studying and coursework.

The Charles Bridge is the king of bridges. Dark statues dot its edges at regular intervals watching over the multitude, some historic, some religious, some artistic. Pigeons perch on their heads and streak their shoulders. It's a lively place to walk, crowded with people, buskers and vendors during the day. Local artists display photographs and watercolors of the bridge at dawn when no one is around, the statues emerging in shadowy shapes from the fog. Musicians play and stalls offer jewelry, postcards, t-shirts, beaded bottles, toy sized pastel buildings and tiny astronomical clocks. Beggars humbly kneel on the ground face down, holding out a hat, with no eye contact.

Cobblestone streets and sidewalks wind between canyons of ornate buildings. They open up to a wide L shape in the Old Town Square. Around one corner sits the famous clock. A series of revolving overlapping circles in blue and gold represent the movement of the sun, moon and planets, as they were understood when the clock was created 500 years ago. A brown and gold circle underneath the clock describes pastoral scenes, saints and zodiac signs around a castle at center. Symbolic figures, a skeleton, angel and others stand by the disks. On the hour, two doors open above the clock and twelve beautifully carved apostles parade by, each pausing to look out at the crowd below. The Tyn Church rises behind lower buildings in the square. Its dramatic black towers are lit at night and look like an apparition over the spacious square. A huge sculpture of Jan Hus, a Christian religious leader, dominates one end of the square. Tourists and lovers sit on the steps of the sculpture, people-watching.

Wenceslas Square is a broad cobbled avenue. The huge National Museum sits at the top of the hill on one end. Stately buildings along its length house blocks of upscale stores and restaurants. Always full of people, it has the feel of New York's Fifth Avenue. At either end are major metro stops, the place to transfer between the different metro lines. I must have been reasonably successful in my attempt to fit in, at least in terms of clothing, with my long black coat, because I have already been stopped many times by tourists asking for directions.

Despite the accessible transit system, Prague is really an inviting city for walking. It is easy to follow the tram lines or just wander down twisting streets. Big parks and inviting squares are in every neighborhood. In the old parts of the city, every street is picturesque and interesting, every building different, many sporting artwork or stone figures. The buildings are tall, like the Czech people. Roof tops are red and tiled or black and pointy. Sculptures adorn tops of building and doorways. Walking along the river, you can let your mind wander, watching a swan drift by, and look up to see spires and towers against the cloudy sky. It's a good place to spend some time.

Although when I first arrived I was told the weather was unseasonably warm, there is a frequent cold wind and the past week has been snowy. Snow swirled around in the air for days, but didn't accumulate more than four or five inches. It's been cold enough to stay on the ground and humid enough to have the consistency of mashed potatoes, rather than the light dryness of the Colorado snow which packs easily. I haven't seen any evidence of plowing. It doesn't seem to slow anyone down though. They just tromp through the slush, wrapped up in heavy scarves, big coats, and knit or fur hats.


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