Friday, December 28, 2012

Mistakes Aren't Always Bad

The other day I had a little time on my hands and I decided to go check out this Prague Metronome thing I've heard about. If you look for it you can see it from the Charles Bridge. I misread my map and thought it was just across the Charles Bridge, not overlooking it. Oops.
The story about it is that were the metronome is there was once a GIANT statue of Stalin. The statue was destroyed, blown up, and nothing sat in it's place for a long time. Then someone put up this metronome. Really if you want to know more about it read this. I understand it is a great place for skateboarders now.

Upon closer inspection, this thing looks like a repurposed oil derrick to me. It is good for something else too.

If you have an old pair of shoes you don't want anymore you can just hang them from the power line that feeds the metronome. The park where the metronome is is a very large park on a hill and affords some pretty great panoramic views of the city.

Anyway, like I said. I misread the map and was trying to get across the river on the wrong bridge. I thought the thing was across the Charles Bridge and I was wrong, but to avoid the tourists on the bridge I took a bridge in between the Charles and the one I was supposed to take. Sounds complicated, I know. It's not really. Maybe a map will help.

So, as you can see, I was not even close by any calculation; unless you count that I was in the same city. As I started walking across the square I felt a few drops of rain. "No big deal," I thought I'm sure it will be light and over soon. I was telling myself this because this was the first time I left the house without my umbrella. Well, I was wrong.
I made it all the way to the other side of the river and was now making my way back to where I thought the metronome was. Of course I was incorrectly going in the wrong direction. I thought this might be a nice time to walk without crowds and find the thing. I walked past several groups of tourists cowering under bridge arches and awnings etc. It was also pretty cold and I was pretty wet. It was of couse pouring now. My jeans were soaked, which really wasn't so bad as long as I didn't have to lift my legs up too high to do anything practical, like walking up stairs. If you haven't been here, Prague is not really ADA compliant. If you're in a wheelchair you are pretty much screwed. The jeans being wet really was the worst part. My wool jacket wasn't going to be a problem and my synthetic watch cap fortunately works a lot like wool. So, other than freezing when I lifted my legs up I was just a bit heavier than normal. I could stand to pack on a few pounds anyway, but we all know about water weight.
By the time I made it to the Charles Bridge I had decided that it was going to be dark soon and it was going to get colder then and having soggy britches was going to really be annoying. So I said to myself, "forget the metronome for today. I'm going to go home and change pants." Off I headed home, over the Charles Bridge because it was the fastest way, and it had thinned out just a bit. Well, by the time I made it to the other side of the bridge, the rain had stopped and I got to see the first thing I would call a sunset since I arrived here. Now, the sun didn't come out mind you but enough of the clouds parted to make things pretty. So, since I wasn't getting any wetter I decided to photograph the sunset.

See, I told you it was pretty. I shot from a few places on the bridge and these two were my favorite. I also took a photo of a statue with some nice clouds behind it.

I stopped for a little bit to listed to a song by this jazz band that plays on the bridge and in the square and tries to sell CDs. They are pretty good. I grabbed a frame of the singer/percussionist with the castle in the background and then I went home to change my pants and then go to the store.

Later I decided to look at the sunset photos from the bridge and make them the pretty ones up above there. All my photo buddies will notice that these images are worked a bit. Really, they aren't that bad. "Nothing you couldn't do in a darkroom," as they say and I'll have you know I only used one RAW frame to make these photos. So really, it's just a crapload of burning and dodging. Granted it took me a while to process these and I like them, possibly the tighter one the best but that isn't the exciting part.
After I finished making these I said to myself, "wow, these are really pretty. I'm going to make a wallpaper picture out of them." I do that a lot with photos I take a really like. Maybe not A LOT, I've done it 20 or so times. Well, I've been messing around this week with Photoshop CS6 and I remembered it has a new feature called "Content Aware Scaling." This is a scary thing for serious documentary-style photographers because it is advertised to make a photo fit a given size frame without removing anything from the photo.
I thought to myself, "these photos are just for my wallpaper. I'll give Content Aware Scaling a try since I don't want to crop." Well, I forgot to resize the photos at all and just did some of the CAS steps. It's really quite simple. The result was very encouraging for me.
If you've read my post about going to Washington D.C. you remember that I really liked viewing impressionist paintings when I was there. I loved them and I had been thinking a little about how to make my photography more impressionist. That is a tricky thing considering that some impressionists were in part rebelling against pure realism. Then when you consider that the camera is a pretty powerful pure-realist tool change gets tough. But when I looked at my wallpaper and saw this:

I got really really excited. This is pretty much EXACTLY what I have wanted to do. Which I suppose is more post impressionism or surrealism, but whatever. This photo will fit the screen on your 17" macbook perfectly by the way. This one is my favorite. It was a complete mistake and I can't wait to make it again. I am pretty excited about experimenting with this mistake and seeing what I can come up with.
The same effect applied to the first photo has a bit too much foreground in it for my tastes, but I'll put is up anyway so you can see. I have a lot to learn about how the computer makes calculations about what it keeps, it will be interesting to learn for sure.

So, if you're keeping score that is four mistakes for the day. They all combined to make me really happy with myself. I went back to the metronome the next day and took some photos of it. There were many skateboarders near it as well, just like the Wikipedia entry said.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Back to the Hrad

So the other day I made a trip back to the Prague castle, or Pražský hrad in Czech. Hrad means castle, I think you can figure out the other part.
I really like the castle. It's a little difficult to explain my appreciation for the place. I'm not particularly awestruck when I visit, but the more I learn about it the more impressed I am by it. It's just a really nice place to walk to and wander around aimlessly watching people and just "seeing" as Mark Holm would say. I think as I get more comfortable going there I will shoot more. Right now I just like going and "seeing" to fill my mind, not my CF card. That isn't to say I don't always crack a shutter when I go.
For this trip I walked from home. It takes about 15 minutes and I went a different way than I usually do this time. I'm not too sure I can reproduce it on a map as the streets here are still confusing me a bit, but I'll give it a try. That's the one trouble with cities that are over 1000 years old, the planning departments didn't really have much vision.  

As near as I can tell this is basically the route I took. Google says it's a little over a mile. I walked across the Charles Bridge and as I neared the castle I started going up some stairs next to the south castle wall. It was really a very nice walk in the snow and this route isn't quite as populated as the main route so I felt a little old world and more special since there were not tourists all over the place. 

As you can see I had it pretty much to myself by this point. At the top of this hill before you go into the castle complex there is a great view of some of the U.S. Embassy grounds, they are truly impressive.
I was lucky as well, I made it to the top of the hill about 15 minutes before the once a day, bells and whistles, full fanfare changing of the castle guard. They do it once a day at High Noon. The whole ordeal takes about 15 minutes and I have decided I need to do a blog post on nothing but guard changes at the castle. They change the posted guards every hour, but it's nowhere as special as the once-a-day party. Sure it's no First Cavalry Division change of command, at least I didn't see any one with a basket of carrots, but it's pretty good. I debated not staying for it, but I'm glad I did.
After the changing of the guard I went and bought a ticket that lets me get into some of the other restricted areas of the castle. The ticket was 350kc and let me in to a bunch of other places. I could have forked over another 350kc for a self-guided audio tour thingy, but I just did what I usually do and did my own thing.
The castle area has been inhabited since prehistoric times and was officially founded in 880 by some price or some such. I absorbed a lot of information and don't want to get it mixed up so I suggest reading this if you're really interested. It is worth the read.
I think one of the things that stirs me about this place, and many other places I see here, is when I think about all the amazing historic sites I visited in the southwest and realize that people over here were building impressive fortifications that are still being used today at the same time Native Americans were building stuff out of mud and rocks that really, in my opinion are not nearly as impressive compared to this stuff. Sorry folks, I'll change my mind when I see a grand kiva with flying buttresses.
I checked out the permanent exhibit called "The Story of Prague Castle." They don't allow photography in the exhibit, so no dice and I didn't want to risk upsetting the nice old Czech ladies in every room to enforce the rules. I don't know if you've ever been cursed out by a Czech woman, it's not pleasant. There are all manner of artifacts and such in the exhibit and perhaps some of the most interesting things were the graves which had been moved to the exhibit.
When I say graves, I mean actual graves. They didn't just take a plaster cast of the skeletons and recreate them, no. They dug all around the grave and figured out some way to support the bottom and moved the whole kit and caboodle into this exhibition. There were several such graves in there. One of the recurring themes was that the bodies where thrown in the graves with their hands tied behind their backs. This was typical of a certain time period and the literature informed me it was most likely to stop the people coming back from the dead. It was interesting to know that people were worried about the zombie apocalypse a thousand years ago even.
Before I went into "The Story of Prague Castle" exhibit I noticed a really cool wall covered with vines. I'm sure I'll be back to this. I think it was a grape vine. I'll find out in a few months.

To me though the best part of this trip to the castle was going up in the bell tower at St. Vitus Cathedral. The tower reaches a height of 317 feet and offers some really impressive views of the city as well as the castle complex and cathedral itself.

This is a view of the castle complex and you can see town in it too. It was snowing so things were a little hazy. I think it adds some charm. The bridge on the far right of the frame in the Charles Bridge which I walked across to get here. You can also see the Church of Our Lady before Týn pretty well in this photo. It's right at the Old Town Square and about 150 feet from where I live. So you really can see my house from here.
Of course the view from the tower also afforded an amazing look at the cathedral itself. There is an extra charge to go up in the tower of 150kc but they give you a commemorative coin, whoopee. The other catch is that you have to have the fortitude to climb a 200+ foot tiny spiral staircase.

I actually had to stop a few times while climbing this because I was getting dizzy. There are many really great things about this tower. This staircase is one of them because many people don't want to bother with it, fine by me.
The staircase of course goes right by the bells in the tower. The bells are difficult to see and the one really awesome frame I wanted to make while I was in the tower was completely obscured by a wire-mesh door.
When I got to the door and looked inside there were a few ropes for pulling bells a small desk up against a wall and off in the corner, behind the ropes, was a little Christmas tree about four feet tall modestly decorated with a few ornaments. The light was excellent, the ancient wooden floor was rustic it was a great frame. I tried for several minutes to figure out a way around the mesh door, but it was just to tight. I even tried to see if my iphone lens was small enough to not be obscured, no dice.

This really was about the best I could manage for a photo of anything that says bell tower. I had to shoot this through a window which has not been cleaned in 50 years or so. You can see the effects of the window pretty clearly in the photo. Notice the reflection at the top left and the blooming just over the window. It's like I used my Hipstamatic only for reals.
Of course I was rewarded by fantastic views of the cathedral itself when I got to the top too.

These are the spires at the front of the cathedral. I really like the way the snow is clinging to the roof next to the spire.

This spire is in the middle of the cathedral. I have no idea what it is for, but there is a ladder in it so I'm sure somebody gets to go up in it every once in a while. And it's copper, which is awesome.

I was really impressed by the roof of the cathedral. Like I said Native Americans were building mud huts when people here were making copper cocks and intricate roofs like this 200 feet up. It really is impressive to me.
The 350kc pass also lets you in to areas of the cathedral you aren't allowed in for free, I assume worship is another story I'll find that out tonight at midnight mass. It's really a pretty typical cathedral inside with altars all around it and ornate stained-glass windows. The thing I liked the most about it was probably the coolest nativity scene I've viewed in a long time.

As a post-publication note: The Bishop's processional out of the cathedral at the end of midnight Mass stopped at this nativity to sing a hymn.
I have to say, for a country with the reputation for being the most atheist in Europe these folks do love their Christmas. There are trees practically everywhere. There were several in the cathedral at certain places and then about 10 or so right around this nativity. Heck, you can buy Christmas trees at Ikea in this country, awesome.
Another place I was able to see with my ticket was Vladislav Hall. Evidently it was quite the engineering feat of its day. The fact that it doesn't have any internal supports holding it up is quite amazing. I read that it was built to be large enough for nights to have combat contests in it and there is a stairway large enough to accommodate horses.

The floor alone was stunning. I doubt horses or dudes in iron shoes did particularly well on it. I suppose they put something down to keep slipping to a minimum. Just off the hall in the same building was basically the land registry office. It is where all the disputes between nobels were registered and books were kept with who had what.

The spines of the books were painted to make it easier to pick them out from the huge cabinets that housed them all.
After all this it was time to check out the Golden Lane. It's basically a bunch of little houses and shops built into the outer castle wall. You can go up into the wall battlements and there are suits of armor on display in the wall. There were rotating arrow slits in the wall. I'm a sucker for arrow slits. I really do think they are awesome.

The wooden center part rotates. Ingenious. At this point I had spent over five hours wandering around the castle and it was getting dark and I was getting hungry, but what castle tour would be complete without a medieval torture device display?

Yup, pretty standard torture stuff. The large piece on the left is of course a rack.

A better view of the rack and you can see some of the other crazy stuff. There are some masks with horns on them which I can only assume were for forcing people to drink until they popped. At least I think that is what they were for. So after I checked this out I made my way back down the hill using the main steps this time.

It is impossible to traverse these stairs without encountering at least half a dozen beggars, street musicians or the occasional living statue dude. I suppose living statues are street "performers." This guy was playing some pretty awesome flamenco tunes and he of course had picked out an awesome spot next to a altar for guitar players. You can't not make this frame and it is my favorite from the day.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sailing on a river of pivo

So far I've discovered that there are lots of really neat things about the city of Prague. There are bars which are more like rabbit warrens. There is a place called U Sudu I have been to a few times. And there is another place called Chapeau Rouge which is supposed to be four stories underground with a dance club and some other kinds of venues all packed in there. But no matter what the bar they all have one thing in common, beer.
There is practically a bar on every block in this city. I don't just mean to say the center of the city is packed with bars and pubs and whatnot, when you get outside the city center there are still bars everywhere. Some bars are a little harder to find than others and it's hard to tell if some of them are open or not until you push on the door. In this city it is completely reasonable to have maybe five neighborhood bars you can walk to in five minutes and they all have beer.
It turns out Czechs drink more beer in a year than anyone else on the planet. Yeah, I thought it was Germany too. Turn out Germany is a fairly distant second to the Czech Republic. If you don't believe me Wikipedia has some figures here. We all know everything on Wikipedia is true.
If you go to the right bars and get the right beer you can generally have a half liter of draught beer for anywhere from 28-35kc. So, you're looking at $1.50 or so for a pint of REALLY good beer. One Albuquerque bar I worked in we charged $1 for a pint of Pabst. Any beer you can get in a bar in Prague is 100000 times better than Pabst. Also, a bottle of water in a restaurant will cost you the same, if not more, than a 1/2 liter of beer so why bother to drink water?
I think one of the reasons beer is so cheap here is that no one in this country has any idea how to pour a draught beer. There is always so much head on the beers that it gets a little frustrating. I simply do not have enough nose grease to deal with it all. I've resigned myself to simply just waiting a little while for the beer to settle.

The guy who poured this beer did a pretty good job. This is genrally how it goes though.
The other interesting thing is in most bars different brands of beer come in different glasses. This is a great idea and it makes it easier for the bartender or waitress to know what kind of beer you need filling up. 
Bars are great and all and being social is awesome, in fact I'll probably go to the Irish pub around the corner from my flat when I'm done here so I can watch the Cowboys game and pay WAY too much for beer. Beers are 65kc there, it's a ripoff, but the atmosphere is good and the staff are all really nice so it's worth it. If you really want to get good beer cheap though the grocery store is the place to go.

This festive holiday concoction was 10kc at the store. That's $.50 or so. You'll note it is imported from Germany. It wasn't particularly good, but it was still better than say Budweiser. And speaking of Budweiser.

Would you look at that, real Budweiser. Everyone here calls it Budvar. I think I bought a six pack of 1/2 liter bottles at the store for something like 79kc, so $4. This stuff is a lot better than American Budweiser and I've heard since the huge Dutch brewing conglomerate took over operations the quality of ingredients in American Budweiser has gone down. People tell me that Budweiser isn't as good as it used to be. I never really considered American Budweiser "good." 
I've heard rumors that some American person essentially stole the this name for his Budweiser. I don't know about that. I do know this Budvar is better and they have been brewing it since 1785 or something like that.
I really like dark beer and while not as popular here as I'd hoped, you can still find it pretty easily in stores. It's harder to find in bars. There are really only two kind of beers in the Czech Republic dark and light. And light beer doesn't have anything to do with calories or carbs or any of that "doesn't fill you up and won't slow you down" crap. Light beer is golden. Dark beer is dark. The dark beer is kind of like brown meets porter, it's a little maltier than a brown, but not as heavy as a porter. I like it. 

I think I paid 10kc for this at the store. I'd have to say this is my favorite dark beer so far. If you're interested Gambrinus is my favorite light beer, which is good because it's cheap. Before you ask me about Pilsner Urquell I will explain myself. It's pretty popular, but it's heavier than a lot of other beers and a touch too hoppy for me. Look at me getting all beer snob. I can usually drink three or four liters of Gambrinus without any trouble, not so with heavy Pilsner. Plus for what it is it's too expensive. There are a lot of other, better beers out there for less. If I'm at the store buying beer I skip the Pilsner.
The interesting thing about buying beer at the store is they don't really have it in bulk. From what I've seen it's mostly sold by the bottle and then maybe a six or eight pack. You can of course by a 2liter bottle of some brands though. I think the 2liters are pretty cheap, but if you complained about your 40 being all warm backwash at the end I don't think a 2liter is for you. Maybe the idea is to share it or something.
Then there are a few novelty beers. Bow your heads Simpsons fans and revel in the beer that is Duff.

This is a german beer too and it's WAY overpriced. This .33liter, or 11oz, bottle cost me 35kc. I bought it at the same time I bought four of those Krusovices for 10kc each and those are 1/2 liters. I bought it for the reason they are making it, the novelty. It's not very good and essentially a rip off. It is actually pretty difficult to find it in stores. The place you are most likely to see Duff is at street vendors down around Wenceslas Square. 
I was sadly disappointed that Duff Man did not come crashing though my wall with a bandolier of beer on when I cracked the top off this bottle. I can hear the Duff Man music now. Homer would be proud of me, but I think Homer would understand if I never buy this over-priced, lousy-tasting piss again.
I doubt you will ever see Duff Beer in the U.S. the creators of the Simpsons said they will never license the name to make actual beer because they don't want kids to want to buy it. And think about it, how much marketing would a company brewing Duff really have to do? Everyone is going to buy it at least once because Homer does it. I don't think you could call yourself an American if Duff Beer were available in the States and you had not had it at least once. Evidently the creators of The Simpsons aren't really too stoked on anyone making Duff Beer and are trying to make sure it goes away. There is a pretty interesting Wikipedia article on it here. Right now though it looks like if you're in the States and you really want a Duff you'll have to break south and hope you can find it in Mexico.
The only problem with going to the store to buy beer is my silly small European fridge. It's a little larger than the one I shared with my roommate in college. Only four of us are using this one. Luckily it's winter time and I have the perfect solution.

This fridge has the best view of any fridge I've ever seen and it's colder than the one inside. The only problem is that the light in this fridge doesn't work all the time. Well, that is about it for beer. I have about an hour before the Cowboys game, so I'm going to reach in the fridge and grab dalši pivo while I wait. 
Oh yeah, pivo is beer in Czech. Pivovar is brewery. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Kutná Hora

This last weekend I ventured outside the city of Prague with some friends to a little town about 73 kilometers southeast called Kutná Hora.
The trip by train takes just under an hour and the total price was 115kc each. We did buy a group ticket and the cost was less so that didn't hurt. Essentially from what I have heard, when you buy a group ticket, anything more than one person, the first person pays full price and everyone else pays 1/2 price. I'll try to clarify that later at some point. Anyway, 115kc is about $6.00. For a 140km day trip that is awesome in my book, a movie in the states would have cost three more bucks.
Kutná Hora is on the train line in between Brno and Prague, so there are trains leaving every hour to get there and there are trains heading back to Prague all the time. It was a no brainer, we knew we would not get stuck there as long as we finished up before 8 p.m. or so.
When we arrived at the train station we noticed we were pretty much on the outskirts of town. We had been told at the station in Prague that we could make a transfer from the station we arrived at and get to the city center easily. We didn't want to do that so soon and we started walking. The town isn't that big so a walk wasn't going to kill us.
The outskirts of the town really aren't that picturesque in fact the most interesting thing we first came across was a Phillip Morris factory. I don't know if they have tours, but I'm going to go back and find out. I've never seen a cigarette factory before and I bet it would be cool to see. Maybe they'll give you a free pack of smokes at the end and I can sell it and make 60kc or so to offset the cost of my trip.

The prettiest part of town is really the city center.

This is a view back into the town from the St. Barbara Church. I didn't like any of the photos I took of it this time, so that will have to wait until my next trip. The building at the top of the hill on the left is a Jesuit College and the church you can see in the photo is the Church of St. James. I really liked this church and have quite a few photos of it. It is in the heart of the city center.

This is a view while walking through the city center.

This is a view of the church from the road right next to the Jesuit school. You can see the road in the very first photo of the town here.

We found a great restaurant and spent about two hours there eating goulash and drinking beer, very Czech since goulash and beer are very traditional. I also had some mead which was excellent and I had it warm. This was perfect because it was really cold all day and wandering around outside in the winter time really only stopping to see churches and cathedrals is not a way to get warm. It turns out 500 year old churches don't get central heating when they are renovated and I can't blame them. When you have a fifty foot ceiling the place would cost a fortune to heat.

But our main reason for visiting Kutná Hora was not to find a great restaurant and look and wander around the old town center. We were there to see the Sedlec Ossuary. A quick Google search will tell you that an Ossuary is a container or room into which the bones of dead people are placed. I've never heard of one of these in the states and if you want to know more about this particular one just click the link up there and Wikipedia will help you out.
The brief synopsis is that there had been a mass grave in use right near the church for centuries and it was excavated for some reason and they had to do something with the bones. So, some guy had the brilliant idea to put them in the church. I imagine, and this is of course pure speculation, that he got tired of stacking all the bones and went a bit nutty and decided to start using them for interior design.
I could sit here and type for hours and not really describe what the end result was. I'm just going to throw a bunch of photos up and let you check it out.

So, this is pretty much what I would expect to see in an ossuary, given the Google definition. It's a pretty mundane stack of human bones with a little flair at the front. Don't ask me how that tunnel part was achieved, I have zero experience stacking human bones. I think it was probably tricky. The pile of bones is basically a pyramid going all the way to the ceiling and is about 20 feet high. There are four of them, one in each corner of the church.

If you're interested in some tips to improve your bone stacking technique perhaps a close-up photo will help. If you look at the skull in the center you'll see a coin in the right eye, it's a 2kc piece. Evidently tossing coins as an offering is pretty popular in this church.

As you can see from this photo a broken cranium makes a great place to leave your offering. Most of the coins are pretty small, but if you look at that one at the bottom center and left a bit that is the largest coin possible, a 50kc piece. If I'm going to throw money at the dead I'm going to throw big too.

Like I said, tossing money as an offering is really popular.

This is one of the pieces of art which greets you as soon as you walk into the place. As you can see somebody spent a lot of time and effort to make stuff out of human bones. And it gets even stranger.

Also at the entrance are this huge chalice looking things, one on either side of the church but we're not done.

A bone coat of arms. It really doesn't get a whole lot more interesting than that, right? I mean what else can you do with a coccyx?

This isn't my favorite photo, but it is still pretty important. This chandelier contains at least one of every bone in the human body. So I'm told, I didn't examine it to find a hammer and anvil. I believe them. I think you have to be very creative, slightly mad and completely burned out from stacking human bones to be able to create something like this.

Compared to the chandelier and the coat of arms, this is just a few boring jolly rogers stacked on one another. Honestly, it is one of my favorite photos from the day.

I was with other people, and I could have spent a lot more time in the bone church taking photos, but you have to go with the group sometimes. I also could have spent half the day taking photos in the cemetery which surrounds the church. Like I said, I want to go back in the spring or summer when it is warmer, the days are longer and I can spend more time photographing the amazing town. Maybe the grapes will be growing by the Jesuit school too.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Well, it has been just over two weeks now and I have been pretty busy. I have also had some time to explore the city and notice differences and similarities, at least on the surface. So here is goes, I'll try not to ramble too much.
So far people are just people and the world is pretty much the same. I could do with the words being a little shorter, but I'll figure that out it's just tricky with words like Českomoravská and they get longer.
Českomoravská is a metro stop by the way. I think it is a neighborhood.
The metro is really the easiest way to get around town and there are three lines. It's less complicated than Washington D.C.'s or New York City's. I've spent a good amount of time on it so far and the other night I was lucky enough to ride the Prague version of the Polar Express.
As I was waiting for a green-line train to take me to Staroměstská the PA buzzed and an announcement in Czech blared through the platform. I heard a few people near me chuckle. Then the tell-tale wind rushed into the station and a retro metro train which looked like Pullman-style cars pulled up. There were paper icicles on the top of all the windows and green garland with ornaments hanging off of it strung up on all the side windows. On some of the windows were drawings made by school children of what I assume to be traditional Czech Christmas figures. There was a devil-looking character and and angel. I'm going to find the train again and get some photos, it's pretty cool.

This is not the super-cool Christmas train I talked about. This is a normal one.
They really like their Christmas here in Prague and not in the same way as in the U.S. Here there are decorations, but there aren't sales being advertised all over the place, although I don't have a TV so I can't be sure about that. I've been in a few stores and it's not consumer Christmas mania like I'm used to. In fact the only Christmas music I have heard so far is from carolers and street performers in the city center.
When I got off my train I headed out to try a burrito place someone told me about. I know, I know why would I want a burrito after living in New Mexico for so long? I had to try it, it was passable. Better than any of the burgers I've had here. I thought a burger would be difficult to screw up, but I was wrong. Anyway, I needed to go through the Old Town Square to get to where I was going. That was a HORRIBLE idea.
Turns out I was just in time for the annual lighting of the super-important Christmas tree in the Old Town Square. I can handle myself in crowds ok, but they aren't my favorite. The square is usually pretty crowded with tourists, I suppose I'm to be included with them, and this night I swear 80% of the population of the Czech Republic was crammed into the square to drink over-priced mulled wine and watch a tree turn on. So I beat it out of the square as quickly as possible, which was about thirty minutes because it was so packed full of people who had no clue where they were going. Turns out the tree is pretty beautiful and in a scenic setting. I went back Sunday night to see it without 100,000 of my closest friends.

I don't really know how tall this tree is, maybe 30 feet tall. In the background is the Old Town Hall Tower, it houses the Astronomical Clock. I don't have a photo of the clock yet, later.
 As you can see it's a pretty scenic thing to see. Everyone likes a nice Christmas tree and this one doesn't disappoint. I did make it back to the square for the tree lighting, but by the time I arrived there was no way I could get close enough to see it happen. The only way I knew it was happening was because all the lights in the square were turned off. So I wandered away to find a bar with some friends and as I was leaving someone tried to sell me some drugs, ahh Prague.

This is the view from the tower in the background of the first photo. The completely awesome church in the background here is the Church of Mother of God before Týn and if I can find the door I'm going to go inside someday, maybe even to worship.
Stopping by Old Town Square to see the tree, and Christmas Bazaar was the end of my day though. I was diligent and completed a lot of my work the day before so I could have some time to explore. My travels took me all over the place and I ended up missing my aim of taking the Castle tour. There will be time to do that later. I just wandered about. I discovered a monument to the victims of communism that was really quite stirring, especially if you consider the perspetive many citizens in the U.S. have that the U.S. will be communist very soon. The memorial moved me, but I can't really express it in words so I'll just show you and let you make up your own mind.

I'm usually a little slow when it comes to extracting the meaning from art, but I understood this on right away. I can't wait to go back and see it at night.

Graffiti is a pretty common thing and some idiot decided to mark up the statue, but it's bronze so that paint will buff right off. This isn't the whole memorial, it is a large set of stairs and this is the end of it. The bronze strip you see going up the middle runs the length of it and has something I don't understand written on it. And just in case you're too thick to get that the Czech people didn't really enjoy communism there is this explanation nearby.

I'm not feeling to warm and fuzzy about communism after reading this. Not that I was before.
 Ironically enough, shortly after I found this I found the U.S. embassy. I didn't go in. I just saw the flag and a large sign on a fence telling me it was U.S. Government property and not to trespass. I was more distracted by a building that was very close to the embassy wall, in a park the wall marks a boarder of. I'm not sure what it is, but I think it is a mausoleum of some sort. There were some renovations being done to the grounds around it and it was roped off, so I didn't get too close.

I did duck under the rope for just a moment to take a photo of the door. I'm pretty sure no one saw me, even though this does provide good evidence of my trespass.

   What can I say. I have a thing for photographing doors. Anyway, this park waas large and basically consisted of a hillside that started a few blocks from the river and ended at the Petřín Lookout Tower. There were a bunch of people walking up the tower, otherwise I would have too, so I opted to save my $5 admission and walk over to the castle. 
On my way to the castle I stumbled upon the Strahov Monastery, which evidently has had monks in it since 1138. They took a few decades off in the last century, but monking is hard so you can't really blame them. This is a place I want to come back to as well. I guess there is an amazing library and I wasn't going to get in to the church because they were celebrating mass. I did sneak around a corner though and find my favorite frame of the day.

Then I wandered over the the castle, which really isn't that far and considered taking the tour, but figured it was too late. The tour is supposed to take about three hours and the castle closes at 4 on Sundays and it was something like 3:30. Also the I have only been to the castle on Sundays and there is always the prospect of mass in the cathedral messing up tourism, so I opted to go back early in the week.
St. Vitus Cathedral  really is amazing. It dominates the skyline. The inside is nice too, but cold. 

St. Vitus is on the left there. The river is called the Vltava. You can't see it but the National Theater is on the right across the street.

St. Vitus is top center here.
It is pretty inside. Like I said, just a little cold. It must cost a fortune to heat.
Around the outside of St. Vitus there are a bunch of random iron doors and iron pipes. I know the pipes were not part of the original construction, but I have no clue what the doors are about. Maybe when I take the tour I will find out.

It was after I left St. Vitus and started making my way through the castle complex back to Old Town that I saw just how serious the Czech people are about Christmas.

If you're posting an armed guard at a Christmas tree you aren't screwing around.
I made it to the square after dark, duh you can see the photos, because I stopped to have lunch. I wandered over to Wenceslas Square because it was the easiest metro home and saw my favorite street performer. This guy rules. I'm pretty sure I'm more Native American than this guy, but he's out there every day slapping his belly, beating his drum and doing the "woo woo woo" thing with his hand in front of his mouth every damned day. If  I were anywhere else I'd say this was offensive, not in Prague.

And this brings us back to the things that are taking a little time getting used to. Like I said, things really aren't that much different. I haven't seen a single Czech person with three arms or three eyes.
What is weird is that the change in your pocket has value. In the states you can't even make a phone call with one coin. In Prague you can buy at least one beer with the right coin. All that change adds up and gets heavy. I'm used to tossing change in a bucket and turning it into cash once every two years, not so much here.
The other thing, and this is pretty exclusive to where I staying, is the absolute stupidest invention on earth. I'll start with a photo and let you figure it out from there. Spend a good minute looking at the photo and thinking about what is different.

Figure it out yet? This device is called a "shelf toilet" and it is the absolute stupidest thing I have ever encountered in my life. I'm told it was invented by a German, I guess a coprophile at that. I realize there are many things which can be determined about one's health by examining feces, but I'm not living in a doctor's office. There have been a few times when I have thought I might need to do some googling after going to the bathroom, this is not normal. When you live in a society eating mostly sausage and potatoes this type of toilet is a bad idea. Seriously, a salad in a Prague restaurant consists of four slices of cucumber and a tomato wedge. Eat like that for two weeks and tell me this thing is your best friend.  This changes your entire vocabulary: The courtesy flush is now a necessity. Now consider the tank size and the courtesy flush situation. That thing is nearly seven gallons, so it becomes a beday and toilet in one. At least a beday had a focused spray. Anyway, I digress from middle school toilet humor and get back to it.
This city is beautiful, it is amazing when the sun comes out, which has been for a total of about ten hours in the last two weeks. Fortunately, I ventured out when the sun was out a week ago and I'll leave you with two photos from then.