Sunday, July 16, 2017

Europe 2017: Four Hours in Prague

Initially my plan for this afternoon was sit in my room, rest from my full week of VBS, tour Plzeň a little bit, eat dinner at my hotel's restaurant, and go to bed early.

But then I suddenly realized that my vacation was almost over. I leave tomorrow morning and will (God-willing) be back in the United States by the time the sun sets.

With that in mind, I decided to spend my last few hours in Europe traveling around my favorite city in the world: Prague.

I was last in Prague in 2011, and it was one of the first places I visited in Europe. We went on a Saturday (after arriving on Friday) and spent the day seeing the main areas of the city: Wenceslas Square, the Old Town Square, Charles Bridge, St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague Castle, the Prague astronomical clock, and the Jan Hus statue, plus a few other beautiful churches. I immediately fell in love with the beautiful buildings, the crazy pattern of streets, the remnants of the old wall, and the concerts that are offered pretty much everywhere.

In all of my travels since then (including this very trip) I have never found a city that captured my heart so much as Prague did. So it would have been a shame to be a mere 90 km away and not visit the city.

So I went to the Plzeň train station, got a round-trip ticket, and was on my way!

But I did have a busy morning, too, before I could begin my adventure:

VBS Closing Service

Instead of the normal church service, our closing service took its place. We invited all the children and their parents to attend, and I'd say we had about half of the kids come back with one or both parents. 

I played piano preservice in the same way that I play wedding preservice: concluding that no one is listening but I'm just going to have fun. Petr's daughter Romana also played a song at the beginning of the service. 

Petr's wife plays guitar, and she played the Czech hymn at the beginning. Everything for the congregation was projected on the screen I'd been using all week, and I chose to listen rather than butcher the Czech words. 

Barb and Becky had two sections of English for the kids. They read two Bible passages, and also explained the word "LOVE" in regards to Christ. 

We had two baptisms during this service with two of our VBS kids! Luke and Barbora, probably about 8 or 9 years old, were baptized. Petr brought them forward, they expressed their wish to be baptized, and then they were! It was wonderful to see. Ed, in his infinite wisdom, had purchased some baptism gifts from NPH before coming, including a card that all of the Americans signed. 

My portions of the service went very well. The kids sang "Sing, Rejoice" and did great. Here's a pretty rough cut to enjoy. Keep in mind, these kids speak Czech. Most of them knew very little or no English when they came to us. (And none of the Americans are singing along, including me, who was directing them):


The American women sang "Sing a New Song," a piece I've been dying to accompany or perform for about four years! It went really well. Petr said we sang like angels in Czech, and he didn't need to translate it for me to understand. 

We finished the service with "The First Song of Isaiah" and had our lovely drum set accompaniment I've waited for years to do! The kids sang the refrain, and the Americans sang the refrain and verses (not the full SATB - just the melody). I knew I had to record it so I could show future pastors and teachers how awesome it sounds, so here you go:



All in all, the service was great. I got compliments on the music, and the kids were still singing the church stuff (and "Baby Shark"...sigh...) after the service when we had a little potluck reception on the basketball court. 

This was another chance for final hugs, photos, and farewells. I got some gifts: chocolate, lotion, an angel pendant, and a stone angel carving from my favorite helper of the bunch: Majda. It had a hole on a wing so I could use it as a Christmas ornament, so I quickly wrote the date on the back and had her sign it so I could remember. 

It was clear our work was appreciated by those that came this morning. It was a great way for the VBS to end. 

Unlike last time, I knew this would be my last time doing this VBS in Plzeň. I was so glad I could do it a second time, but now my time and money have to go towards other things. I relayed my thanks to Petr and Ed for giving me another chance. 

Four Hours in Prague

I quickly took the tram home, changed, and took the tram to the train station. (Thanks to yesterday, I was very sure about which stop was the right one!) I had written down the specific train times on a piece of paper to avoid the language barrier, and the lady easily gave me my ticket. (Total cost for the trip: about 9 bucks, believe it or not. I'm going to miss Czech prices.)

The train was delayed about 20 minutes, and when it arrived it was already pretty full. They had compartments (like the Hogwarts Express) so I squeezed in with a crew of Germans in a 6-person compartment. 

The Prague train station is smack in the middle of the city - a great bonus, because I didn't have to worry about getting into the city itself. I left the train station, took a left for 200 meters or so, and I was right in Wenceslas Square! (Yes, named after Good King Wenceslas.) 

It was amazing how much of the city layout I remembered from six years ago. I went down the square, veered right, and was in the pedestrian street area that leads to the Old Town Square. It's a giant tourist trap, with a bunch of shops that sell kitchy items that I didn't bother to buy. However, I did stop at a bakery that specialized in a cylindrical cinnamon bread. People were walking around with that - but also with ice cream inside! I had to get it. It was some of the best ice cream I've had this trip!

I toured the Old Town Square, Jan Hus statue, and mass of humanity while eating my messy dessert. After that I went to a cathedral I'd never seen - St. Nicholas, right off the square. While small, it is beautifully decorated. 

I missed the astronomical clock chiming the hour last time, and that was on my list of musts for this trip. It was on the list for many people, because the area around it was packed. Not many pictures will turn out, because the area around the clock is being refurbished and is covered in blue tarp! Luckily the clock still struck. It was pretty underwhelming - the 12 apostles appear in two windows at the top, and the little statues chime away, and then the bell tolls. Honestly, the clock in Frankenmuth does more than this one. 

Another thing I was unable to do last time was see the old Jewish sector of Prague, which has a high percentage of Jewish people, and has for many years. I didn't do it because we went on Saturday, and all the Jewish locations were closed for the Sabbath. But today is Sunday, and everything was open!

You actually buy one ticket and it gets you into almost all of the synagogues in the area, most of which have been converted into museums, and the old Jewish Cemetery. I was presented with a map and seven different locations highlighted. My ticket would get me into all of them except the Old-New Synagogue, which cost a little extra. 

I started at Maiselova synagoga, which talks about Prague Jews in medieval times. Then I proceeded to the Pinkasova synagoga. This was fascinating - it's now a memorial to the Czech Jews who died in the Shoah (the Holocaust). Every single name of a Czech Jew who died is inscribed on the walls in three different rooms. 

Upstairs is an exhibit featuring artwork that was done by children in the concentration camps and were recovered. These were very powerful - some showed what the children knew of before the camp, and others showed things in the camp, like the showers and cleaning the dorms. After visiting the Topographie of Terror in Berlin, this was incredibly moving. A few of the pictures also said who drew them, and showed their birth and death dates - the children died in Auschwitz. 

Outside this synagoga is the entrance to the Old Jewish Cemetery. It's the largest of its kind in Europe, and the stones are literally next to each other. The bodies aren't, though; due to Jewish customs, they couldn't disturb the graves already there, so they usually piled new soil on top of the old graves. There is a mound that's twelve layers high!

A few famous Jews are buried here, and all the gravestones are written in Hebrew. Unfortunately, they're very hard to read. (But I kept taking pictures of Hebrew signs thinking, "I have two brothers that could translate this for me!")

The third synagogue, Klausová synagoga, talks about Jewish burial customs and people that were part of the Jewish burial society. This is a big deal!

I halted my Jewish sector tour here because I wanted to get over to the Charles Bridge, one of my favorite things in Prague. As usual, it was busy, but because I was by myself, I could go at my own pace and enjoy what I wanted to enjoy. There were street musicians, artists, people selling their wares, and more all up and down the bridge. I ignored them all and enjoyed the sight of St. Vitus Cathedral and the Prague Palace on the other side. (It was too far for me to get there today, unfortunately, but I have been there!)

I was getting hungry and thinking of something to eat, and on the other end of the bridge I stumbled upon a French Street Fair! They were selling French foods and wines, so I ordered a ham/egg/cheese crepe and had a little wine, too. It was all I needed. 

I sauntered over the bridge again and wandered around the streets of Prague. I thought about seeing one of the many concerts being offered, but the prices seemed a bit too high for a concert I'd probably have to leave halfway through so I'd catch my train. So I passed. 

It was probably a good thing I did, because I did get a bit lost around the central part of the city. Not anywhere dangerous, but I wasn't quite sure where to go with those crazy streets! I eventually found myself back by the river and proceeded to the nearest Metro station. 

Yup, I was in another subway. Thanks to clear markings, I took the Metro underground to get back to the train station. Even with one station closed, they actually made sure there was a detour for passengers! (You hear that, London Underground? They offered an ALTERNATE ROUTE.)

Before I knew it, I was back on the train and heading back to Plzeň, incredibly happy with my last-minute choice. While I was in London for four days, I did all the stuff I wanted to do in Prague. Like Walt Disney World, it is a place where I love seeing the familiar sights. Eventually I'll see more, but I saw a lot of great stuff that made it feel like putting on an old glove!

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