Prague (2012)

Synagogues and Cycling

We visit every synagogue in Prague and cycle up the steepest road in the Czech Republic and possibly the world.

Swipe left and right to browse through the photos.

Our last night in the Czech Republic already: tomorrow a KLM aircraft will return us to our regular lives. But before we get to that, what else did we do in Prague?

Monday, synagogue day

The biggest attraction in Prague we had not visited yet—although we had accidentally crossed it a few times already—is the Josefov, the Jewish quarter. We took the metro line to Mustek and from there took the shortest detour to the Jewish quarter. A detour which did lead us by the Palace of Books, a large Prague bookshop. Of course I could not ignore a store with such a magnificent name, so before Vonne could formulate any kind of protest (“You have enough books already! You still need to get started on Eco!”) she was already being dragged into the palace hall and found ourselves surrounded by Czech books. Of course it would not be worthy of the name palace if it did not have an international section and soon we found books that we were able to read. After browsing for a while and promising ourselves to read more classics (and Pride and Prejucide and Zombies), we continued on our path.

Near the bank of the Vltava and one of the many bridges of Prague, we turned into a small alley and walked into a maze of winding streets that could have come straight out of a painting; the bricks, the yellow walls, the lanterns and gates… We explored the maze and suddenly found ourselves at the St. Agnes monastery, which was unfortunately closed on mondays. We carried on in the general direction of where the synagogues should be and found the Spanish one first. We purchased a ticket which allowed us to visit six synagogues in total, in addition to the Old Jewish Cemetary. As we were at the Spanish synagogue, that is where we started.

Once inside, we both realised that neither of us had actually been inside a synagogue before. They are apparently seen as a substitute for the destroyed Temple of Salomon, waiting for that one to one day be rebuilt. They use the same attributes and features, carrying the same name as in that temple. There is no altar, but there is a large—for lack of a better word—cabinet, richly adorned and decorated, which serves as a facsimile of the tabernacle containing the Torah scrolls. The Spanish synagogue itself was very richly adorned with murals and like most synagogues in Prague now in use as a museum, featuring display cases showing the history of the Jewish community in Prague, the persecution during World War II and Jewish customs and traditions in general.

What would these people have done with their lives if it had not been for someone with a terrifying ideology coming into power?

The Pinkas synagogue, next to the Old Jewish Cemetary, in particular turned out to be deeply impressive. On its walls are inscribed the names of passed away members of the Prague Jewish community, listing their dates of birth and of death. And there are many walls. It is intensely saddening and depressing once you realise that all of their death dates are between 1941 and 1944. That feeling gets worse once you start looking at their dates of birth as well and realising their ages. What would these people have achieved and what would they have done with their lives if it had not been for someone with a terrifying ideology coming into power?

The Old Jewish Cemetary too offers a unique sight: for several hundred years Jewish people have been buried there, with estimates indicating that about 200.000 people have been buried there—and no, it is not a particularly large cemetary. Above ground, the tombstones are packed in close rows and frequently stacked against each other. Many have sunk away or are in the process of toppling over, only remain above ground partially and many have been worn away to such a degree that they are hardly legible; time slowly, but steadily, wiping out these last reminders of the lives these people once led. How the cemetary is organised below ground remained a bit of a mystery, but it must be quite the chaotic endeavour.

A special moment occurred in the Old New synagogue: usually it is Vonne who needs to be covered up in churches and mosques (scarf across the shoulders or over the head, that sort of thing), but this time it was my turn. At the entrance actual single-use skullcaps were handed out, which are a requirement for men to enter the oldest synagogue still in use in Europe. I am not sure what the wrath of YHWH entails in the year 2012, but as the stories in the Old Testament are anything to go by, covering my head to please a deity is a small price to pay.

Having seen more synagogues in a single day than in the rest of our lives combined (only a mandir left to go), we spend the last part of the afternoon shopping for souvenirs. Fortunately—or unfortunately, depending on your point of view—Prague seems to have more souvenir shops than buildings, so that should be an easy task. Should, since of course we see lovely drawings for on the wall at home in one particular shop, and decide to check out the Charles bridge and the souvenir shops on the other bank first, before deciding that those first drawings were by far the nicest ones. So we end up crossing town several times in a hurry before the shops close, leaving almost too little time to have dinner before returning to Vysoký Újezd.

Fortunately we finally find a small shop near the Old Town Square carrying very similar drawings to the first one, so we buy a nice one featuring a view of Prague from the Vltava, and have dinner in a close-by restaurant. On the way back to the metro station we still have some time for Vonne to try out a local Czech delicacy: a sort of rolled up pancake with cinnamon, which is indeed excellent. And on that sweet note we say goodbye to Prague, as the metro takes us away deep below the bowels of the city, heading towards Zličín.

We are not ready for the Alpe d’Huez

The last day still, or rather again, featured beautiful weather; the weekend had been fairly cloudly, although it was still pleasantly warm. We wanted to see whether we could get down to the blue water in the Velka Amerika and it was again no problem to rent the bicycles for the day. And here too I should rather use another word: loan—as we returned the bicycles, our hosts refused to accept any payment for the use of their bicycles. How friendly is that?

Underneath a burning sun, and this time an extra layer of sunscreen, we set a course for Mořina. It is not long before we once again arrive at the large hole in the ground. Which incidentally turns out to be the result of mining, an information sign that we had missed the first time tells us. Not a geological disaster, no meteorite impact and not a giant prehistoric monster waking up and digging its way out to terrorize the Czech farmers in the countryside had created this hole, but regular digging and machinery. The official viewpoint on the other side we had visited before, equally does not feature any sort of path down. We do see a path running alongside the bottom, which exits from a large tunnel in the rock wall. We check on the other side of the road and do find a road down which leads to… a closed door. This side of the tunnel is apparently closed off, which means that the mountain goat path down does seem to be the only way down.

I promise never to cycle again and not to move a muscle for the next ten hours.

We cycle on to Bubovice in order to have a drink on a terrace and cool down in the shade. We find a small bar where no one speaks English and when I inform the old lady behind the counter in fluent Czech that I do not actually speak the language after she starts telling me an entirely imcomprehensible story, she sighs deeply and makes a gesture that says something akin to “Well, that is not very useful. What possesses you to come to Bubovice in that case?” Fortunately we can make it clear to presumably her daughter and owner of the bar, that we are just two innocent cyclists passing by who are thirsty for a coke on the terrace and everything works out just fine.

From Bubovice however, Vonne insists that we return across a route that will take us to the road from Lodenice to Vysoký Újezd, which turns out to be possibly the steepest road in Bohemia, Moravia and possibly the world—that is at least how it feels when you try to cycle it. And after the first hundred yards, you are no longer cycling, but walking. After another gruesome climb in the heat we finally reach the top and once again ascend our bicycles for the last leg to what has become “our” village. Once in the pension, I drop down on the bed more dead than alive and solemnly swear never to cycle again and n ot to move a muscle for at least the next ten hours. Promises that I almost immediately broke, but were very sincere at the time.

Finally, an answer to my questions! I finally remembered to ask the daughter of the pension owners about them as she passed by to walk their dog. And these are the results:

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