|Castle Hill. Was she aghast? Yawning? Signalling? KGB?|
Tuesday, July 14
I’ve already mentioned that when we arrived in Prague on Monday morning (July 13), the tourist office’s only affordable lodging was located in a neighborhood that looked suspiciously like farmland with a village stuck in the middle. Outskirts is putting it mildly.
It was a suburban sports club facility, intended as something along the lines of a very small, localized YMCA (without the “Christian”), with a soccer team of its own and an emphasis on grassroots physical fitness in the absence of huge capital outlays.
Sportovní klub Dolní Měcholupy (Na Paloučku 223/11, 109 00 Praha-Dolní Měcholupy, Czechoslovakia) was allowed to host tourists, who slept in finished rooms amid a building that remained under construction. The vibe was rather like a hostel, which is the way the tourist office described it.
This exterior view of the unfinished Sportovní klub Dolní Měcholupy was taken on the final night of our stay in 1987. We’d just returned from Plzeň.
And 30 years later, via Google Map.
That’s the place, all right, and it proved to be marvelous. The double room was brand new, and an amazing bargain at $7 per person, per night, with a few extra coins required for public transport both ways.
There’s the rub, because it was quite distant, and first we had to find it.
Directions and a sparse map had been provided at the tourist office on Monday morning. The sports club was a lengthy commute from the city center, roughly 11 km (7 miles), and required riding a subway to the end of the line, then taking a bus to the final destination.
This valuable information duly was recorded and placed in my shirt pocket, to be examined eight hours later after a hot, taxing day of too little food, too much beer, and unexpectedly, a few glasses of Moravian wine.
In mid-afternoon, reeling from multiple Pilsner Urquells at U Dvou koček (At Two Cats), we encountered a bearded intellectual wearing a beret who had spotted us wandering the streets.
Both definitions of the word “Bohemian” aptly describe him.
1. a native or inhabitant of Bohemia.
2. a person who has informal and unconventional social habits, especially an artist or writer.
In gestures and very slight German, a deal was reached. In return for buying him glasses of Vltava Embankment in his favorite wine cellar, we could listen as he spoke quietly to us in several languages, none of which resembled English, discoursing about … well, I’ve never really known, to be honest.
It was fascinating in an incomprehensible but atmospheric literary Prague sort of way — and we emerged at street level far more intoxicated than before.
It was early evening, and we stumbled back to the train station to liberate our packs. The subway portion of the journey was manageable, and now we only needed to locate the bus stop.
At this point my faculties utterly deserted me. With bus route signs on every corner, written in a Slavic tongue I’d never encountered, all the while experiencing some semblance of fatigue-, hunger- or alcohol-induced delirium, or probably all three, my sanity plain left the building.
Barrie endured my frustrated temper tantrum, which included kicking an unattached garbage can. No doubt aware that we were foreign guests visiting a Cold War police state, he sighed and placed a hand on each of my shoulders, forcibly seating me on a nearby bench, and saying just one word:
I obeyed, watching as he strolled over to a sign that read “Taxi” (hmm, just imagine loanwords), approached the first car he saw parked near this sign — it amazingly bore a corresponding “Taxi” inscription — and pressed a five dollar American bill into the driver’s palm along with the sports club’s address.
The driver nodded. Barrie turned to me and spoke a second word:
The driver probably would have taken us all the way to Brno for $5, but point humbly taken and an important lesson learned. Small wonder Barrie became a teacher. Minutes later, we were standing outside the sports club headquarters.
The man on duty was friendly and welcoming, and had inexpensive light snacks and beer for purchase at rock bottom prices. In the three decades since, Prague appears to have expanded outward to meet the facility, but at the time there were fields and a peaceful, easy feeling. I’m forever glad we booked it.
On Tuesday we found the bus stop, and henceforth experienced no problems in the least with taking a series of 25-cent bus and subway rides. First on the priority list was Castle Hill, featuring Prague Castle and sweeping view of the city.
Below, the American flag flies from the United States embassy. On the skyline can be seen the “rabbit hutches” (prefabricated housing blocks) of New Communist Prague, surrounding the historic city center like a wall.
The construction of St. Vitus Cathedral, which sits like a crown atop Castle Hill, began in 1344, but the church wasn’t completely finished and consecrated until 1929. The juxtaposition between this symbol of Catholicism and the life of Jan Hus is instructive.
Early in his monastic career, Martin Luther, rummaging through the stacks of a library, happened upon a volume of sermons by John Hus, the Bohemian who had been condemned as a heretic. “I was overwhelmed with astonishment,” Luther later wrote. “I could not understand for what cause they had burnt so great a man, who explained the Scriptures with so much gravity and skill.”
The Protestant Reformation wasn’t simple in the lands comprising a modern Czech Republic, but the cathedral’s gargoyle decor was mighty keen, and I had a zoom lens.
Eventually we descended Castle Hill and climbed one of the towers down by the Charles Bridge.
It’s amazing how empty the bridge was then, compared with today.
At last, it was time for restorative beers and a square meal at the legendary brewery and restaurant called U Fleků. At the time, only one house beer was available, a rich black lager with more alcohol than most and a higher price tag.
In 1987, U Fleků had the faded ambiance of having seen better days, though the beer was solid — not so much so in 2006, but seeing as the web site of today depicts a plush interior, let’s hope beer and furnishings have been rectified.
30 years ago, U Fleků’s higher prices remained a stunning bargain in American terms, but qualified the brewery as a tourist joint by local economic standards, and the waiters (mostly male) were both multi-lingual and comically theatrical in their snobby demeanor.
For instance, the food menu. If you didn’t speak Czech, the offerings came down to three items: “Pork, beef, goulash.”
Eight years later, revisiting U Fleků with one of my beer tour groups, it finally was revealed that a typical Czech restaurant menu had always been available. Tourists didn’t know the system, and the waiters weren’t about to reveal it, because it was easier for them to remember three words in a dozen languages than navigate choice.
In 1995, we watched in delight as a stubborn Frenchman refused the Holy Trinity and asked instead for a salad (in English, by the way).
He was exaggeratedly refused, but persisted. Finally he stood and guided his waiter to a menu posted on the wall, pointing to the words for his salad.
The waiter squinted, then dramatically pulled his reading glasses from the depths of a soiled apron. He stooped to read … and shrugged.
The Frenchman got his salad.