Welcome to Praha! Do you ever wonder why we don’t pronounce country’s names the way they pronounce them in their native language? It never made any sense to me. Anyways, for my first re-cap, travel guide, I have decided to take you guys back to our visit to the Czech Republic. We took the train north from Vienna which was only about a four hour ride (again illustrating the ease of travel between European nations) and arrived in Prague in the late afternoon. The first thing that caught my attention was the sun. Obviously, I am very tuned in to the light, hence the name my website, so the fact the it had begun to turn stale around 1pm really caught me off guard. Prague is the most northern location I have ever traveled to. It is situated far above many of the cities in Canada, such as Montreal and Toronto. Therefore the sun seemed to hang low much earlier in the day than what I have ever been used to.
The train station where we arrived, Hlavní Nádraží, was located in the center of the city which made it very easy to get to our hotel. We took the subway two stops and walked up Legerova, which seemed to be a main drag, to the Royal Court Hotel. Although very tiny, it was a clean place with breakfast included each morning, complete with little mini hotdogs on a good day. There was also a spa and heated bathroom floors in each room! However, it was situated on a hill which we had to walk up and down every time we wanted to go into the main part of the city. And even though the hill wasn’t super steep, it was one of those inclines that tends to sneak up on you after a few days of walking it and on our last day there we ended up lazing around in the spa. But hey! That’s what a vacay is for!
Prague is a beautiful, old city. It reminded me of Vienna but even more ancient. It was also much more active and very loud! The entire town is cobble stone, including many of the sidewalks (good luck riding a bike). Sometimes, you don’t even realize that you have been walking in the street until a car pulls out of nowhere and starts heading right for you! And although I like to consider myself to be excellent with directions, even I was often turned around and confused by the little streets, underground passage ways and unassuming corridors. On the main streets the cars drove so fast and so constant that under the road walkways were built for pedestrians to get to the other side. The subway was very comprehensive and just like the rest of Europe, seemed to rely on an honor system which I could never see working in America. Whenever you wanted to ride public transportation, you would purchase a ticket from a machine. You had the option of getting tickets according to the time you were going to use them (hour/day/week/etc.). These tickets were then activated once you punched them with a time stamp, but you only had to punch them once. There were no turnstiles to walk through, no cards to swipe or tokens to drop, you just would walk straight on to the trains, buses or trams. Apparently, there are transit officials who could stop you and ask to see your ticket, but in the whole three weeks we were there, we weren’t stopped once in any of the cities we were visited. So technically, we could have ridden free the whole time! But we decided to be good, trustworthy Americans.
On the first day, we explored Wenceslas Square. It’s a main tourist corridor that is capped on one side by the Česká Společnost Antropologická (Czech Anthropological Society). This beautiful building was one of the first things we encountered on our journey down the hill. It was so much darker than than the buildings we had been seeing in Vienna. It looked so grand and proud, yet it had an eery, somberness to it. And right out in front, there was a cross built into the cobble stone. It really caught my eye because it was built over what looked like two lumps. Was something buried there? And then there were flowers, scattered all about it. Very bright flowers that stood out so vibrantly against the grey stones. And as tourists tripped obliviously over it, and children scrambled to play on top of the bumps, I felt a sadness surround it. I looked for a plaque of some sorts to explain what it represented, but at the time, I didn’t see one around. Upon our return to the hotel, I immediately resorted to Wikipedia to investigate.
Beginning on January 5th, 1968, the then Czechoslovakia entered into a period of liberalization from the then Soviet Union. During this time of reformation, the Czech people sought to obtain greater individual rights and freedoms, and the government became decentralized, a move that was not received well by the Soviet Union. In response, the Soviets sent several troops and tanks to occupy the country. And although there was little violent resistance from the Czech’s, there were several protests that began to erupt throughout the country people. Enter, Jan Palach.
Jan Palach was a twenty year old student studying at Charles University at the time of the Soviet Union’s invasion. On January 16, 1969, amid throngs of citizens and tourists, Palach set himself on fire in the middle of Wenceslas Square, in protest against the Soviet Union’s occupancy. As he ran through the square, he finally collapsed in front of the Museum, on the spot where the cross resides. There are differing stories as to what exactly he was protesting. Some say that he had clear objectives, such as the abolition of censorship, others, specifically the burn specialist who took care of him after his self-immolation, claim that he did so instead to wake up the Czech people who in his mind, had begun to give up the fight. In any case, since his death, several others have followed in his footsteps. As recently as 2003, a total of six young Czechs set themselves on fire in the square, and collapsed atop Jan Palach’s cross.
“It was not so much in opposition to the Soviet occupation, but the demoralization which was setting in, that people were not only giving up, but giving in. And he wanted to stop that demoralization. I think the people in the street, the multitude of people in the street, silent, with sad eyes, serious faces, which when you looked at those people you understood that everyone understands, that all the decent people were on the verge of making compromises.” –Jaroslava Moserová,
And as we continued to uncover Prague, we found that the whole town was shrouded in a veil of a similar tragic past. And how could a place that old not be? A lot has gone down! We of course had to visit the tourist destinations. We stopped by the Charles Bridge which these days is only used as a foot bridge. It was covered by street performers, beggars and people visiting from all over the world. As touristy as it may be, with its beautiful old statues that line both sides, and the breathtaking view down the Vltava River, it is most definitely worth a visit.
The Old Town Square is also situated somewhere between Wenceslas Square and the Charles Bridge. It’s a super festive, very large square, again filled with performers, local food stands, and two very important landmarks. First is the Prague Astronomical Clock, or the Prague Orlog. The clock is broken up into three main parts, the mechanical clock with an astronomical dial which shows the position of the moon and the sun; the walk of the apostles, a show of figures which performs each hour; and a calendar. The oldest part of the clock dates back to 1410 and is the third oldest clock in the world. It’s pretty cool and even if it ends up boring you, there are plenty of noodles taking hilarious selfies to keep you entertained.
Prague is also known as the city of 1000 spires and it’s true! Everywhere you look you’ll find pointy little castle tips poking up behind every building. Kostel Matky Boží před Týnem (Church of Tyn), is probably the most famous/recognizable of them all. Pictured above, it is also located in the Old Town Square and although it doesn’t reach skyscraper heights, it’s dark, almost foreboding spires can be seen from many spots about town. It’s also a good way to find your way to Old Town Square. Just walk towards it!
We came across many other attractions in the area. There were plenty of gift shops which, although were pretty cheesy, actually had some really cool stuff (for cheese). There was also a KGB Museum run by a crazy Russian Ex-Pat. He is pretty intense and is apparently really into Stalin, but if you are able to leave your politics at the door, I hear the tours are pretty intense, interesting and informative.
So at this point I’m realizing that this post is getting epically long and I still have so much to talk about! So I’ve decided to split it into two parts. Check back later this week to get more details on restaurants, museums, art and all things Prague!