Czech Culture & Adaptation Outdoor Life

Walking shoes

November 14, 2008
Anna on cobblestone streets holding two icecreams

Traversing Prague’s cobblestone streets

When given the choice, my preferred mode of transport through downtown Prague is on foot. Despite, or perhaps because of, the narrow cobblestone streets, walking in the medieval old town is a sport recommended only for the sure-footed.

When I first arrived in Prague, I walked everywhere. It was surprisingly easy. On an average day, I’d walk from my apartment in Vinohrady to the language school downtown where I taught English; after my lessons I’d walk across the Charles Bridge to join a friend for dinner and later walk back through town home.

I didn’t have a car, nor did I need one. If a destination was too far to walk, then Prague’s public transportation system (with its extensive system of buses, trams and metro) could be counted on to connect my walking routes.

It wasn’t until I decided to urbanize my wardrobe, particularly my footwear, that I realized how walking gracefully (meaning, not tipping into the cobblestone cracks) is truly an acquired art. Noticing that many Czech women, of all ages, walked with seeming ease through town in very high heels or high-heeled boots, I decided it was time for me to join their ranks.

After wearing sturdy walking shoes my first winter, when spring came I splurged for a pair of heeled boots at the Czech-owned Baťa shoe emporium on Wenceslas Square. Although I knowingly selected sturdy, low square heels, I caught myself cursing each time I tripped over the uneven stones, which was to my surprise a daily occurance. Looking around I didn’t see anyone, except (perhaps my fellow American expats) suffering the same indignity. Even Czech men walked better in their heeled boots than I did in mine.

After wearing my boots for a few seasons, I eventually learned to navigate the tricky stones, but I never did grow comfortable wearing heels through downtown, and if there’s the least chance of precipitation, unlike the majority of the Czech female population, I opt for my rubber-soled flats.

When my family moved back to Prague a few years ago and I settled into my new role as a stroller-pushing mom, I remember sizing up the cobblestones and ultimately deciding I’d sacrifice fashion for sensible shoes and the comfort of knowing that I could break into a sprint, if needed, at any time. Navigating a stroller over unexpected bumps and up and down sidewalk curbs was challenge enough. These days, although I pass a fair number of fashionably dressed high-heel wearing Czech mothers pushing their strollers briskly through the ancient streets I admire their outfits, but I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes, literally.

Now that my almost-4-year-old daughter’s legs can handle a day of walking through the city, I’m savoring the joys of urban walking again. Last year, I could only venture short distances from our apartment pushing then-infant Oliver in the stroller and supervising Anna Lee as she alternated between walking and riding on the stroller’s running board. We still spent a considerable amount of time downtown, but we took a lot more public transportation.

After spending a delightful, sunny day running errands, attending a dance class and meeting with friends in downtown this past week, I got home and realized that Anna Lee and I had actually spent most of the day, apart from her class time, walking. Curiosity got the best of me, and I used to trace our route. It turned out she’d walked over 4km, plus spent an hour dancing.

We’d been gone for the better part of the day and had taken a picnic lunch break at the Naměstí Míru square and stopped for ice cream at the Hájek parlor on Vodičkova, but I was still impressed with Anna’s stamina. Usually, we do a fraction of that walk, and I have to cajole her into taking each next step and listen to her repeated refrains of “Are we there yet?” or “I don’t want to walk anymore.”

After our big walk, I thought perhaps Anna was growing up, and I got excited about the prospect of days spent exploring the city on foot not to mention long hikes outside the city. But I also realized that when I’d planned our day, I’d geared it (more than usual) toward her needs as well.

Instead of our usual harried plans to go into town just-in-time for dance class routine, this time I made sure we left the house early so that we had the entire day to accomplish a few errands. Keeping that in mind, instead of growing impatient when Anna stopped at the bus stop to stare at a Princesses on Ice poster or began skipping in circles around the stroller, I was able to slow my pace and appreciate her discoveries.

I’d also talked over the day with Anna in advance. She knew she’d have her regular dance class and that we needed to visit the bank, but together we agreed to buy some new modeling clay as well as a sandwich lunch if Anna kept her good mood till lunch time. Amazingly, with only a few reminders needed, our plan worked.

Oliver however was confined in the stroller for much of the walk, although he got a chance to stretch his legs and chase the pigeons each time we walked through a square or past a park. It’ll be another year, at least, before I can say farewell to stroller-pushing, but I was grateful to get a glimpse of the walking adventures that might be in store for our family as the children grow.

Throughout the day we’d passed a several groups of school children on field trips with their teachers. It was clear that some of the classes were headed to museums or the theater but other groups were doing counting exercises (i.e. counting the gargoyles on the cathedral) or just out for a healthy downtown stroll. Anna was fascinated by the reflective vests the children wore when they crossed busy streets as well as they way they formed lines and held hands.

Since the international media-explosion in recent years about childhood obesity starting as early as toddlerhood, with lack of physical activity being a major influencing factor, I was pleased to see these children getting a good dose of exercise without them even realizing it. If they walked in the footsteps of their Czech ancestors, these same children would soon be among those nimbly navigating Prague’s bumpy streets in heels.

When we were invited to join friends for ice cream after dance class, I let Anna decide. I figured if she was willing to walk the extra distance, she could have the ice cream with my blessing.

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