Prague

I had been in Durham for a few days to see an old friend of mine. He’d just received his university results and ended up with a 1st, which is the best you can get. After spending a few days exploring the sites of Durham and Newcastle and much drinking I headed to Newcastle airport to catch my flight to Prague.

I’d checked the weather before I left and things looked a bit bumpy coming in to Prague. There were a few thunderstorms around! And indeed, it was a bumpy descent!

Part of a Cumulonimbus

Here’s a picture of one of the smaller cumulonimbus clouds as we came in to land. Even flying through some of the smaller cumulus clouds produced a heck of a lot of turbulence. Needless to say I enjoyed the approach. We had a lovely view of the city as we came in too. I was itching to get exploring.

Things ran very smoothly. We’d got off the plane, got through passport control, and my bag was already waiting for me on the conveyor. Now to get to my hostel.

I knew exactly how to get to my hostel and it involved a few different forms of transport (although I regret to say I didn’t once use a tram on my trip). The only problem was is that I only had 200Kr notes and the ticket machine for the bus only took coins. I rushed back into the terminal to buy a bottle of water, figured out how to use the ticket machine and caught my bus to Djevicka. Here I went down to the metro and caught the train to Muzeum, changed lines and ended up at the main train station. Here’s where things get interesting. I had my map, I’d read the instructions on how to walk to my hostel, I’d checked it all through on Google Street view, I couldn’t go wrong, right?

Getting lost whilst traveling, I think, is an important part of the experience. You usually find something you weren’t expecting. This isn’t useful however in the late afternoon when you’re trying to find your hostel, and even worse when you get lost pretty much immediately, as I did. It was pretty hot, I had my 65 litre backpack on my back and my normal dag bag on my chest, the map strewn in front of me and I was sweating. Nice! After aimlessly walking around for about 10 minutes trying to find street names a nice Czech chap approached me and guided me in the right direction. When I figured out where I was I was amazed at how badly disoriented I was – how did I get this lost so quickly! I found my hostel with relative ease. I set up my bed, had a shower, found somewhere for dinner, got to know some of the other travelers and promptly headed off for bed. A day of exploring awaited.

I soon found that Monday in Prague is much like a Sunday in the UK. Everything’s closed. I changed my plan to wonder around, get to know the place, where things were and if anything was open I’d pop in and look around. My first stop was the Old Town Square.

Old Town Square

The Old Town Square is a busy place. Packed full of tourists, tour groups, cafes, restaurants, horse drawn carriages and people trying to sell stuff. It’s hectic!

I’d managed to arrive at 5 minutes to 10, which was pretty lucky because it meant the Astronomical Clock was about to do its thing. There was a huge crowd and I hustled into a decent viewing position.

The Astronomical Clock

It’s next to impossible to tell the time on this intriguingly looking device, it’s far easier to look up to the top of the tower and read off the normal clock. Every hour a skeleton feature to the top right of the clock pulls a cable that rings a bell, along with this two doors open up at the top and figures move past for about 20 seconds and that’s it. The crowds then flee elsewhere. On every other day a group of people were at the top of the tower where a guard with a trumpet trumpeted a tune every hour.

I made my way towards Charles Bridge now as I’d planned to visit the castle on the other side of the river. After briefly getting lost again I arrived at the bridge. This is a lovely stone bridge with large figures, some covered with small pieces of gold, sat at regular intervals. It was quite difficult to get a good look at any of these statues, hordes of tourists shoved you by so they could get there photo taken with every other one. This was a shame really as it’s a fantastic little bridge and perhaps I should have taken the advice from my guide book and gone along in the early morning or evening. As well as the tourists the bridge had artists and musicians playing wonderful music. At the end of the bridge the long climb up a rather steep hill to the castle began.

At the top I had to sit down to rest and catch my breath. Thankfully this gave me a chance to enjoy the superb view over Prague. You could see everything!

View over Prague

Prague castle is apparently the largest castle complex in the world. The place looked huge. I found the ticket office and managed to wangle a student priced ticket (I’m a part-time student at the Open University but never sure whether I’m entitled to full student discounts) that’d enable me to view just under half of the buildings – the full price ticket was a bit too expensive for me and I didn’t really have much time left in the afternoon to see everything.

The first stop (and I’ll only talk about this one so I don’t make this post too long) was St Vitus’ Cathedral. The cathedral was founded back 925, yes over 1000 years ago. It was expanded and upgrade in 1060 and again later in the 12th century. It’s a great example of gothic architecture and houses the remains of many Bohemian kings.

St Vitus' Cathedral

The interior is a beautiful mix differing stained glass, impressive statues made of stone and metal, some rug like items hanging from the ceiling around one monument and splatterings of beautiful gold and silver.

The exterior of the church is equally as exquisite. Tall enough to be seen from nearly all of Prague you strain your neck to look up at this masterpiece of early architecture.

Exploring around the castle complex took up the rest of my day, so I headed back for dinner and a good nights sleep.

The first thing I planned to do was to visit the Johannes Kepler museum which was located close to Charles Bridge. Hadn’t it have been there I wouldn’t have found it. This is a small and new but rather unknown museum hidden in the depths between some small shops. It is actually located where Johannes Kepler once lived and worked whilst he was in Prague for a time. He is a great and very important astronomer and I want to talk about what this small museum shows, about Kepler’s life and the work he done in Prague. Work that changed the face of astronomy for ever.

Johannes Kepler

Kepler was born in Germany on the 27th December 1571 and at a young age showed great mathematical ability. At the age of 6 he saw the Great Comet of 1577 and a few years later a lunar eclipse. He had become awed by the heaves and at the age of 23 became a teacher in mathematics and astronomy.

In 1600 Kepler went to Prague and was introduced to the astronomer Tycho Brahe who had carried out lots of accurate measurements of the movements of the planets. After a brief dispute with Brahe Kepler was allowed to work for Brahe with less restricted access to his observation. Kepler returned to Graz to pick up his family but due to various political and religious issues was unable to return to Prague until he refused to convert to Catholicism when he was banished from Graz. In late 1600 he returned to Prague.

After Brahe’s sudden death in 1601 and after studying his observations meticulously, eventually in 1609 Kepler published his first two laws of planetary motion. They are seemingly simple:

  1. Planets orbit the Sun in an ellipse with the Sun at one focus
  2. A line joining a planet and the Sun sweeps out equal areas in equal time

The first law was difficult to come to. At the time, and in the past, scientists were believers in a perfect celestial geometry. That is that the orbits were in circles. However Brahe’s observations of Mars did not fit in with a circular orbit and after many years finally came upon the ellipse. Kepler was a great man of his time, one of my favourite quotes of his is:

The truth is more sacred to me – Johannes Kepler

It appears Kepler was one of the first secularists, giving way to critical thought rather than assumption. He must be courageously respected for this.

Eventually after many more years he came upon his third and final law of planetary motion:

3. The square of the orbital period of a planet is directly proportional to the cube of its semi-major axis (average distance from the Sun)

This can more put into a nice, simple equation – P2 = a3 where P is the orbital period and a is the semi-major axis.

Carl Sagan explains these laws nicely in his 1980’s series Cosmos.

There’s no over-stating how important these 3 laws are. They are used by scientists even today, and will continue to be used ever more. They also led Issac Newton to develop his theory of gravity.

Johannes Kepler Museum

The museum houses a fair few information boards coming from the walls that detail Kepler’s life, his works, his laws, his personality and so on. Kepler was also fascinated with how snowflakes grow and there are small interactive features showing you snowflake growth. It’s beautiful, no wonder he was awed by it. It’s also interesting to read about other famous scientists views of him. There’s a board with opinions from Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan and many more.

There is a display about the new NASA Kepler mission that is currently out searching for Earth-like planets, and whilst not directly related to Kepler’s work it’s main principle is relating to orbits.

I spent over an hour wondering around this tiny museum before heading back into the Old Town Square where my next port of call was Tyn Church. This church stands out amongst everything else in the area. I made my way in to be greatest by vast swathes of gold. After looking around for a while it became apparent that some of the old wall artwork had been destroyed, meaning this place was once even more magnificent. I silently made my way round taking in the beautiful artwork and architecture. Towards the front was the grave of Tycho Brahe which had recently be exhumed, but you couldn’t tell.

I headed back towards Charles Bridge to explore the Klementinum. I was to be left disappointed because large refurbishment works were being carried out which meant I was unable to see anything in the buildings. I’d really wanted to visit the Astronomical tower where observations had been made in the past. But oh well, maybe another time.

The next day took me to a few of Prague’s museums. First off was the Czech National Museum. I found myself in the rock and minerals exhibit. 5 rooms of rocks and minerals, fantastic, the geologist in me could go mad! Whilst others hurriedly scurried past I took my time looking at all the different rock types, some seemingly plain and others extravagant and extreme. I then came across the meteorite exhibit in which was to be found large metallic meteorites and then to my complete surprise part of two meteorites I’d learnt about in my recent planetary science course – Allende and Murchison. Allende is the largest carbonaceous chondrite meteorite to fall to Earth. The white grains that can be found inside it represent the oldest material in the Solar System – in excess of 4.5 billion years old! I spent a further 3 hours in the museum looking at the paleontology exhibits, the stuffed animals and the ancient history exhibits. I then moved on to the museum of Communism to learn about the Czech Republics history with Communism. A very interesting and sometimes upsetting experience.

This pretty much marked the end of my short trip. I found time to walk around up to the national monument to enjoy the greenery and the views but promptly had to get myself to the airport and home. There’s so much more to do in Prague that I’ll almost certainly be visiting again at some point in the future.

Czech National Museum

Looking Back at Charles Bridge

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