Czeching In

Sorry, no photos in this entry… we arrived in Prague late yesterday afternoon, met with our tour guide, and had dinner. We haven’t had the chance to do any real tourism — with accompanying photos of course — so that will happen today.

We have a full-day city tour booked for tomorrow with a private guide, a genial former organic chemist named Martin, whom we met through a friend of a friend. Turns out he’s a pretty well known guide and is mentioned in travel guru Rick Steves’ best-selling guide to Prague. (And needless to say, Martin’s been flooded with bookings since being cited in Steves’ book, so we’re lucky to get him.) We met him for drinks yesterday evening to plan out tomorrow’s tour and also to give us some ideas for today’s walking around so we don’t duplicate the sights on two consecutive days.

Immediately following drinks with Martin we promptly went out and got scammed in order to have a complete travel experience. We have experienced three scam attempts on this trip, and saw through the first two of them. They were in Paris and easy to spot. On our first day, some young guys with fake laminated IDs tried to “help” us buy tickets in the Metro. Alice almost got taken in but I saw through it and shooed them away. Three days later a guy on the Quai d’Orsay (the tree-lined sidewalk that follows the left bank of the Seine) “found” a massive fake gold wedding band on the path, declared that it didn’t fit him, and tried to sell it to us.

But last night was the perfect storm, when we were tired from a day of traveling (that included some glitches) and unfamiliar with the local currency. The Czech Republic, though a member of the EU, still uses its own currency, the koruna, at about 21 to the dollar (25 to the euro). We only had euros on us so I withdrew a few hundred dollars worth of koruna from an ATM on a busy street. A few seconds later, a guy offered to break a bill for me, since the ATM only dispensed large notes. He offered four 500 Kč bills (worth a little under  US $25 each) for my 2000 Kč note, and in my fatigue I did not ask the obvious question: Why would anyone want a larger bill for smaller ones? You almost always want to go the other way around. So I went for it, and — as I learned about an hour later when I tried to spend one — the 500’s were fake. I’m out a little under $100 but at least got a story to tell out of it. The irony is that the fakes do not even resemble actual 500 Kč  notes. (Though of course at the time I did not know what actual ones looked like.) Not-particularly-close inspection reveals that the writing on them is Cyrillic (instead of Czech) and declares them to be 500 Russian rubles. But they’re not that either. They’re basically realistic props, complete with embedded strip and watermark. Oh well. At least it was a more interesting scam than the attempts in Paris, and I have four fake banknotes to show for it.

So welcome to Prague. We are staying in a large, utterly beautiful apartment a very short walk over the Vltava River, the body of water where vowels go to drown. The apartment is at least 1000 square feet (93 sq meters) with high arched ceilings and thick painted stone walls; it is a renovated very old building. The flat is owned by an artist — a photographer as it happens — and so is beautifully decorated as well.

Prague itself is a very compact, walkable city whose architecture has preserved a lot of its 18th century character. Because of this, it is a popular movie filming location. It stood in for Vienna in the movie Amadeus — the actual Vienna being too modernized and too expensive to film in — and is the go-to Generic Eastern European City in any number of spy movies, e.g. The Bourne Identity.  It’s got a population of 1.3 million — and had 6.6 million foreign visitors in 2017. That’s not quite as lopsided as Iceland, but it’s close. There are a lot of tourists here, Germans being by far the largest group, with the US and UK in second and third place.

The city is loosely divided into four districts, being the “Old Town” and the “New Town” on the east side of the river and the “Little Quarter” and “Castle Town” on the west. We’re staying in the Little Quarter, a few minute walk over the Charles Bridge from Old Town. Our apartment living room faces north towards Castle Town: from our window we can see the imposing Prague Castle, a gloomily imposing 9th century edifice that houses the president of the country and was the former seat of power of the Holy Roman Empire. (Fun historical fact: the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, Roman, nor much of an empire. But it shows the importance of branding.) The castle also has the distinction of being the largest castle in the world, sprawling over 17 acres (7 hectares) not counting the exterior grounds. God knows what the heating bills are like.

Our plans today are relatively modest. We’re going to walk into the Old Town and visit the tiny Jewish Quarter, which has five synagogues including the most famous one: the “Old New Synagogue” (it’s a long story), which is the oldest in Europe that is still in use. And, being an astronomer, I feel compelled to make a pilgrimage to Prague’s famed Astronomical Clock, which is over 600 years old. It shows the Moon, the Sun, assorted astronomical information, and the appearance of a proper 500 koruna banknote.

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Categories: Czech, Europe | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Czeching In

  1. Anonymous

    Rich – thanks for the Czech story and the scam notes – sorry. I got the same trick done to me in Milan once. Most annoying.

    Must gosee the Astro clock at 10am demo – or before that to get a line of sight over the inevitable crowd. I went inside to see the mechanism first.

    We’re jealous of your apartment in Prague. Since we plan to return, pls don’t forget to tell us of your connection to that rental.

    New subject: I’m attending the Astronomy Interest Group in PLP and have taken the Frey’s classes on Black Holes and Exoplanets. As you said: “Since I’m an astronomer…” prompts me to send the following article from today. Something to fall asleep over:

    “In the Star Trek universe, the beloved character Spock hails from the planet Vulcan. This planet is, of course, entirely fictional. However, Star Trek producers eventually associated Vulcan with a real star near Earth called 40 Eridani A. New observations have revealed a planet in orbit of 40 Eridani A — our very own real-life Vulcan. The presence of pointy-eared aliens with green blood is not yet confirmed.

    Early in the existence of Star Trek, it didn’t matter much where exactly Vulcan was in the cosmos. All we needed to know was that it was close to Earth on a galactic scale. Later, the expanding of technical background details necessitated accurate connections to the real world. In 2002, an officially licensed book called Star Trek: Star Charts pointed to 40 Eridani A as the Vulcan system. These charts also showed up in Star Trek: Enterprise, which aired on TV around that time. That makes it canon in the Star Trek universe.

    In real life, 40 Eridani A is slightly smaller and cooler than the sun, with an orange-ish color. At a distance of just 16 light years, you can look up in the sky and see 40 Eridani A without a telescope. The star is about the same age as the sun, and it has a similar pattern of sunspots. That could mean its solar system is conducive to life.

    The planet is a so-called super-Earth with an estimated mass eight times that of our planet, which doesn’t match the fictional Vulcan as far as we know. The exoplanet is also orbiting very close to its star with a year of just 42 Earth days. 40 Eridani A is cooler than the sun, but astronomers still believe the exoplanet will fall outside of the habitable zone. Although, Vulcan itself was largely desert.

    Astronomers with the Dharma Planet Survey detected the planet via the radial velocity method. That we can infer its presence from small wobbles in the star caused by the orbiting planet. It’s unclear if the unnamed exoplanet transits in front of its host star from our perspective. If so, we may be able to characterize its atmosphere and verify the physical characteristics.

    A past study detected something strange with 40 Eridani A’s radial velocity, but that team was unable to verify a planet. The new study has additional data to makes its case. It’s still just a candidate planet, though. More observations are needed. I think we can all agree that we have to name the planet “Vulcan” if other studies verify its presence around 40 Eridani A.

    Now read: Scientists Say Closest Exoplanet (Proxima’s) Could Be Habitable After All

    Post a Comment 24 Comments”

    Regards – Don Dement

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    [I posted this as a comment on the email version to get to you before bedtime. Hours later I got a reject message saying “there was a problem” so post directly on the blog. So here it is, if late. Maybe it’s just too long! ]

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