Of Germans and Gardens

September, 2000

Early this morning, I left the kids with their dad and took the bus downtown to play tourist. Armed with my digital camera, I got off the Metro at Staré Město (Old Town) and walked around admiring the buildings and taking a few photos. I also walked across Karluv Most (Charles Bridge) early enough so that there were far fewer tourists than usual, and was pleasantly surprised at how tranquil the pedestrian-only bridge can be.

It was a beautiful day–65 degrees and sunny, which seems to be fairly rare around these parts even if technically it is still summer! The artists and postcard-sellers who line the sides of the old bridge were just setting up. Czechs seem to take the hordes of tourists which invade their town in stride. I have yet to be hassled by a vendor, or even to experience any rude behavior. While not exactly warm and friendly, the Czechs are unfailingly polite, and even spare a smile on occasion, usually when I attempt a bit of Czech conversation (I’m glad I provide them some amusement!)

With no rugrats in tow, I was able to absorb the street scene without worrying about Liam diving into traffic, or Rachel wandering off on her own. I can even understand a bit of Czech, which in this case did me little good, since the downtown area seems to be completely dominated by Germans and Japanese on the weekends.

How many Germans are there, anyway? I am sure that half the country must be deserted in the summer months, as they all appear to be traveling abroad. At first glance they might be mistaken for Americans, with their comfortable shoes and brightly-colored clothing. America’s large percentage of German-descended people has resulted in a similar physical appearance as well. A group of Germans on holiday might as well be a group of tourists from Omaha or Chicago.

But when you get closer, there are subtle differences. Unlike Americans, they are not suntanned but sunburnt, a result of holidays spent in the sun after nine months in the eternal gloom of the European climate. Unlike Americans they scoff at sunscreen. A red face is a trophy to be proudly displayed after a holiday in the sun.

I ran into an agglomeration of German tourists while climbing the terraced gardens below Prague Castle. These gardens occupy land that once formed a defensive embankment for the castle, which looms over the rest of the city from its perch on rocky outcropping. The castle is actually a collection of buildings– churches, residences, and halls of various kinds–surrounded by a tall stone wall. It is currently the official residence of the President, Vaclav Havel. In peaceful times, these slopes were transformed by wealthy merchants into about 30 individual terraces, zig-zagging the hillside with staircases, rosebushes and Romanesque “follies.”

I arrived at the gardens a bit footsore from miles of strolling through the narrow, winding, cobblestoned streets of Old Town. At the bottom of the gardens there is a very nice little cafe–in Prague there is always a nice little cafe!–which welcomed me to an outdoor table for cappucino and jablkovy zavín. The latter is also known as apple strudel, which these places always have in readiness for their German visitors. It was delicious, of course.

The Germans didn’t so much visit the garden, as conquer it. They climbed up the narrow staircases in pairs, each round little gray-haired woman in her Reeboks accompanied by a round man with a bald, sunburned scalp. (That’s it! If they were American the men would all be wearing ball caps!) Like so many salt-and-pepper shaker sets they stood to admire the view, briefly, at various “overlooks,” and then march onward to the top. After reaching the peak, some head back down again, and collapse red-faced at the cafe to be revived by a liter of cold beer, even at 11 AM.

I squeezed myself into various corners too small to accomodate the Germans, and took some beautiful pictures of the city’s rooftops spread out below. I’ll bring the kids to the gardens soon, but perhaps after the height of tourist season is over. There are too many places where my son could break his neck on the pavement which lies as much as fifty feet straight down from the terraces in some places.

You can actually enter the castle from the top of the gardens, but you have to fight a horde of tourists spilling of the gates. It would feel a bit like being a salmon swimming upstream, I believe. There are two very young Czech guards who stand outside the gates like the guards outside Buckingham palace do. Alas, they lack that famous British reserve: one of them couldn’t hide a smile as a buxom, blonde young Scandinavian woman cuddled up to him to have her picture taken.

Groups of tourists were congregating around their guides (In Prague guides carry flags like Scoutmasters), and flowing down the right-hand fork of a street leading down the hill and back to the Malostranské Metro station at the bottom. I therefore took the left fork and found myself the only occupant of a beautiful, shady cobblestone street which follows the edge of the ridge down to the main street level. Five minutes of blessed silence, and much appreciated.

Despite the crowds, the gardens were a lovely place to visit, and would be even more so in the off-season. As much as I despise cold weather, I’ll put up with it for that view!

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