I had been genuinely excited about reaching Prague. Everybody who's ever been there has loved it. Any city in Eastern Europe that ever shows glimpses of emerging into a tourist hot spot is labeled the "New Prague." To not like Prague, it seemed, you had to be degenerate scum. I however, was not as impressed with the city as I had hoped to be. That being said, I had a wonderful first impression of the place. I arrived into town late on a Sunday in time to meet up with my cousin Briana and her friend Allison (part of the reason why I had decided to do Eastern Europe north-south instead of the much cheaper alternative). The girls only had two full days in the city and wanted to visit the concentration camp their first day -- I had no interest so I decided to use that first day to allow myself to get completely lost and see what I could find in the city without doing anything too touristy since I'd play that role the next day
. And I wound up having a fantastic day. I inadvertently stumbled upon every major hotspot -- the sprawling Main Square, lined by churches and cafes, the Charles Bridge, an old pedestrian bridge over the Vlaty River where jazz bands play and there's a new sculpture every few steps and the Prague Castle which sits atop a hill and supplies excellent views of the city. I was going at my own pace and every time I turned a corner I felt like I was finding something new and picture-worthy, it was fantastic. Later in the day I had an hour to kill while burning a CD so I pulled up a seat on the bridge, listening to the jazz and sitting next to a passed out shirtless drunk. The singer was extraordinarily kitsch, like a wannabe Euro-trasher who would show up at piano bars and say things like "This next song is a personal favorite, and it goes out to all the ladies," and the drunk was such a hit that it was great fun sitting there watching people's reactions, giggling, snapping pictures, the occasional kid coming and giving him a poke with a stick or plastic sword. It was even how I made friends with Bez and Liv from Sydney -- they wanted a picture but weren't sure what the etiquette was, so they tried to be discreet. I called them out on it and two hours later they were back at my hostel reveling in happy hour. I loved Prague, I was ready to camp out for a week or two.
The next day, things changed
. I headed with Bri and Allison first to the Jewish Quarter since that was number one on their priority list. The quarter was packed and the admission was extortionist. To see the Old-New Synagogue and then a few others scattered around town cost 330 Czech crounas, roughly 12 euro. In a country where everything is supposed to be cheap I was paying double what I had for the Acropolis and all the other ancient ruins in Athens. The Old-New Synagogue alone cost nearly 6 euro and all that was was one single room and not even a plaque to tell you when it was built or why you just paid 140 kc. It's not that I mind paying admission fees, I did it all over the place throughout the ruins in Greece and the museums in Berlin, it's just that in all those places I felt like I was adding in someway to my trip. Whether I was at Delphi or Checkpoint Charlie, I was more than happy to pay because my experience in Europe and around the world was being enhanced. Aside from the Jewish Cemetery, with its overlapping tombstones, I don't feel like anything I saw with that ticket added to my trip. That's all I'm saying. After going around the Quarter for a while we fought the crowds and went to the Main Square to watch the Astronomical Clock hit the hour and put on a show. The show was, as Jen and Jen from Satisfaction in Ios had warned me, "shit." Basically a whole flock of tourists come to this clock every hour on the hour to watch some statues roll by above the clock while a skeleton rings a bell. Afterward, the crowd gave a rousing ovation, and I call crap
. You don't clap for something that's totally rubbish and completely overhyped. Now, if the skeleton struck down a tourist with every bell chime, then I would applaud, because at least things would have gotten entertaining. I also would've waited until 1 to see the show. The whole rest of the day we were squeezing through tourists and tour groups, ducking carriages and other tourist trolleys and by mid-afternoon I was starting to feel claustrophobic. Now, I'm from New York, I love the pace, getting lost in the crowd and all that, so a place like Prague shouldn't feel overwhelming. Overall, I would come back to Prague in a heartbeat, I still think it had a lot to offer and there was a part of me telling me to stay as I got on the train to Krakow. But never again would I come in July.
In the middle of my stint at Prague I decided I wanted to get out and see a little more of Czech Republic than just the one city that everybody goes to, so one morning I ditched my stuff at the hostel in Prague and went off with a daypack to spend two nights in Cesky Krumlov. The town is sort of a miniature Prague. It's nearly turned into an island by the Vlaty which loops around it and it too has a castle smack dab in the middle. It is also getting to be quite touristy, though we're not at an overwhelming level yet. You can easily, in half a day, walk every side street in the town as well as climb to the top of the castle for excellent views of the surrounding countryside
. The other thing on offer in the town is to take out an innertube or a boat and cruise around the river for the day. The river has man-neutered waterfalls to slide down (they tell you not to go down them in the tube, but what they don't know can't hurt them), otherwise you're just cruising for the day. Not quite as exciting as Vang Vieng, or as boozy, but still a solid way to kill a few hours.
On my way back up toward Prague I stopped at Cesky Budejovice, home of Budweiser Beer -- the REAL Budweiser beer. Of course I took the tour, but it was sorely lacking in samples. At least, with my student card I got 50% off the admission fee. As I said, this is a country with its priorities in order. If you're ever cruising the beer aisle in the States and come across Czechvar, that's Budweiser, so give it a go. You'll realize just how shit the American stuff is. And in the States, Budweiser may taste like water, but it isn't cheaper than it.
Before arriving in Prague I had been hearing rumors that the beer there was not only delicious, but cheaper than bottled water. The legends, I'm glad to report are true. The Czech Republic is clearly a country with its priorities straight.