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Published: December 11th 2017
By November 24 we had arrived in Prague, the fourth capital scheduled on this tour. After years of hearing about this city from family and friends, I was excited to spend time here myself, to see the world famous Astronomical Clock and to explore Stare Mesto, the Old Town area. Our groups walked over the 15th century Charles Bridge, looking at the grey Vltava River below, and, even though it was early morning, wended our way through blossoming crowds, full of travelers visiting in this unusually cold late autumn weather. After our orientation walk, two friends set off with me to find the Infant of Prague, a statue that for some reason I dearly wanted to see. Located in Our Lady Victorious Church, we confidently headed off in the direction our local guide had pointed, only to find upon arrival that this was not the right church. No matter; all three of us were enjoying our good walk, so we continued on and took turns asking police officers, people at random, and finally staff at restaurants if they knew where Our Lady Victorious Church was located. Asking for directions was a bit difficult as we only knew how to say hello, please and thank you in Czech, and many of the adults we asked did not speak English. Eventually a young local man understood what we wanted, and indicated we were quite near; we were just two blocks away. Success! After entering the church I expected that the Infant of Prague would be displayed quite obviously, but after searching for several minutes, I stood silently observing people in the church, and noticed many were praying and/or taking photos along one of the side walls. Yes, here was the Infant of Prague! Smaller than I had expected, and wearing a different headpiece than I had seen in photos, but we had found him. The actuality of seeing the Infant of Prague in person was slightly disappointing, and I tried to remember why and what had initiated my compelling desire to see this statue. Perhaps it was something the nuns had said or taught us in Catechism class when I was a child, but here it was, and while small, it was very beautiful. Neither of my friends was overly impressed either, but I did wonder how his headpieces were changed, and why doing that would be important to someone.
Of course we got lost meandering through the twisting streets trying to get back to the Old Town area, but after heading in exactly the wrong direction for several blocks, we asked another local person, turned around, retraced our steps somewhat, and finally again crossed the now very familiar Charles Bridge. At that point one friend broke away, but two of us continued to explore Prague's streets and byways all afternoon (in the now intermittent cold rain), watching the Astronomical Clock perform again, visiting churches and the Jewish Quarter, and, lovely surprise, finding a concert at St. Nicholas Church (on one corner of the square) where we enjoyed the Christmas choral music, dried off a bit, and rested awhile. Prague is another city where I would love to spend more time, but preferably in warmer and more clement weather.
At the end of the main tour, most of the people did not stay for the extension to Poland, but twenty-seven of us did. We made our farewells in Prague, and then our new reduced in number group continued on to Krakow. On our first night there some of us rode the Metro over the Vistula River into their Old Town, finding another glorious square, the largest medieval square in Europe! It was full of people, churches, nearby museums, restaurants, shops, and an enormous Christmas market. What fun just to walk around that huge square, humbly admiring and appreciating its ancient beauty! Krakow was founded in 1257, but some of the churches there are even older. And at night, with the Christmas market lights and decorations, with the horse-drawn carriages all beautifully decorated, the sound of horses clopping through the streets, music, bells ringing: it was a magical entrance to a city of which previously I had known very little. We stepped into St. Mary's Basilica, just to see its windows and altar; its blue ceiling was covered with stars (reminding me of the ceilings on Emirates' airplanes), but this was magnificent. The whole church was astonishingly beautiful! I could have stayed in that square for hours, but my companion was tired. (It's quite common for me to wear people out so I am used to this.) We took the metro back to our hotel; I knew I would be able to explore more of Krakow in the next two days.
In the morning we had our typical orientation ramble, including walking through the street where John Paul II had once lived. A photo of him as a very handsome young man hangs outside his house; before he chose to enter the church as his life's work he had wanted to be an actor. (Such information we learn on these tours!) Another very important stop was in front of St. Mary's Basilica to hear the hourly bugle call from the church's watchtower. The legend, called the Hejnal tradition, tells that a bugler was shot as he was alerting the city to an approaching attack from Tartar invaders in 1241; to this day, every hour the bugle is played from all four corners of the tower (a real bugle, with a live musician playing it), dramatically ending mid-note in commemoration of his being killed. It is an eerily pretty tune, but not one that I'd imagine would be a very effective call to arms. Krakowians/Crakovians and visitors can listen to these hourly bugle calls, but it is also possible for all of Poland to hear them at noon each day when they are broadcast by radio across the whole country. Thus, Krakow's living legend of the bugler continues.
Immediately after our group walk a friend and I set out to explore the Wawel Castle; we had gotten tickets to see the State rooms inside, an opportunity neither of us wanted to miss. Nor did we want to miss a tour of the afternoon's Wieliczka Salt Mines, another impressive and truly amazing UNESCO World Heritage Site, so, focussed on our limited time, we walked quickly through the Royal Castle Hill area, into and through the great cathedral where John Paul II had preached, across the river, and back to our hotel for the afternoon's adventure. Krakow was turning out to be a fascinating city, one I was enjoying immensely.
As it is in the Czech Republic, there seems to be music everywhere in this city, on almost every night. On our final evening in Krakow I chose to attend a concert in St. Peter & Paul's Church on Grodzka Street. I was not able to convince anyone to come with me (they all pled exhaustion), but undeterred, I went on my own. Such an opportunity was not to be missed! The metro was easy enough to navigate, and I was anxious to hear more professionally played classical music while in Europe. The Cracow Chamber Orchestra of Saint Maurice performed in the church that Wednesday night; I had a front row seat to enjoy pieces by Vivaldi, Chopin, Straus, Mozart, and Bach, among others. A companion would have been pleasant company, but I was surrounded by a church full of other music afficianados, and enjoyed one of the most delightful evenings of the whole trip. I would be happy to do this every night!
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