Czech this out!

Trip Start Sep 04, 2006
Trip End Dec 24, 2006

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Monday, November 27, 2006

This past weekend was our last weekend trip, to Prague in the Czech Republic. It was absolutely wonderful. Prague is known as "the Paris of the East" (although if you ask my Czech friend Tomas, who was our guide for the weekend, it's Paris that is the Prague of the West), and I think that is definitely true, except I like Prague better (cleaner, nicer people, people pick up after their dogs, easier to get around, etc.). Plus, having a local to show us around and tell us about everything was such an invaluable experience, especially with a country that's had the kind of history that the Czech Republic has had and with a guy as smart and hilarious as Tomas. I really felt like we got an experience of life in the country, and not just sightseeing - totally different from what it would have been if we had just been two Americans seeing it on our own (and having someone to speak Czech for us didn't hurt, either, even though nearly everyone speaks English - it just made things easier). He took us to the places we wanted to see from my guidebook, but also took us to places he thought we should see - really awesome places we would never have known to see otherwise. He picked us up at the airport and even gave us really nice hardcover picture books of Prague. It was really awesome talking to him about what he remembered about communism - he was seven when the Velvet Revolution ending Communist rule in Czechoslovakia happened - things like there being nothing to buy in the stores, and how people are starting to forget how bad it was under communism and want a communist system again because of the economic problems the Czech Republic has currently. He also knew really great places to take us for coffee and for dinner that were really delicious, but out of the touristy areas and so really cheap. Prague was so incredibly cheap coming from the eurozone - I was stunned to pay only $10 for a big dinner entree, my share of an appetizer I split with Jen, a beer, and mead (I thought it was so funny to try mead like in all the old English stories we had to read in high school, like how they're all sitting around drinking mead in Beowulf).

We had a great night in Paris Friday with Alec, with a great Italian dinner in Saint-Michel and a looooong walk all the way from Saint-Michel to the Trocadero. It was a great view of the Eiffel Tower, though. Our hostel was in a pretty sketchy area of Paris, but at least it was right by the Metro stop and the hostel itself was pretty decent (and we only paid 20 euros each for a private room - about $30 - which is unheard of in Paris). Anyway, once we got to Prague Saturday morning, Tomas met us at the airport and took us into the city centre on the tram. He spoke to the hotel guy in Czech for us, which was lucky because when the guy started speaking English to us his accent was almost unintelligible. We then started a walking tour of the city led and guided by Tomas, who knows tons about the history of his city/country. We started off in Wenceslas Square (named after the Good King of the Christmas carol, who was actually a Czech prince), just minutes from our hostel, which was the scene of the 1989 protests that led to the end of Soviet rule in Czechoslovakia. We also saw the National Theatre, which was where Mozart's Don Giovanni premiered, and crossed the Vltava River, after pausing on the bridge to admire the view of the city, to see a sculpture Tomas thought we should see. It was an artist's depiction of what communist rule had done to the Czech people, and was really moving. We walked up a huge hill to Prague Castle, which is a complex including the old Royal Palace, where the Czech president lives now, and several churches including St. Vitus' Cathedral. There was a great view of the city from the castle complex, so of course we had to stop and admire and take pictures. We came back across the Vltava by way of Prague's most famous sight, Charles Bridge, which is always packed with tourists, artists, and people selling little trinkets. It's famous for a reason, though - it's very beautiful, has a great view, and is covered with fascinating statues of a religious and historical nature. By this time it was dark - it was about 4:30 p.m. - and pretty cold, so we walked a while until we came to Tomas' favorite coffee place, which was absolutely adorable, and had a live pianist playing Chopin and Mozart the whole time, as well as delicious coffee.

For dinner, Tomas took us to a restaurant on the same street as our hostel, which also makes its own beer, for some traditional Czech food and beer. (Czechs rival the Germans in the quality, quantity, and reputation of their beer - in fact, my first impression of Tomas was the first day of my international trade class last year when he and another Czech got into a big argument in class with a German student over whose country's beer was better) Jen, who is from Saint Louis, was dismayed to discover that her city was not the first one to produce Budweiser - the Czech town of Budvice, or Budweis in German, has been producing it for centuries, much longer than the Americans, but didn't register a copyright on the name, so Anheuser-Busch was able to start producing it itself and didn't even bother to change the name. And I must report that the Czech Budweiser, which I enjoyed very much, tastes much, much better than American Budweiser, which I think tastes disgusting. Even Jen admitted that it had more taste. She kept repeating the whole weekend, "I can't believe we stole it and didn't even change the name!" Anyway, for dinner I had beef in smetana sauce with dumplings, which was really delicious. Jen and I wanted to try beer cheese, which is strong cheese soaked in beer. It was disgusting. Way too strong of a cheese. But at least we can now say we've tried beer cheese.

Sunday, we slept in. Tomas had to work on his thesis until the afternoon, so we headed to Wenceslas Square to go to the Museum of Communism. It's supposed to try to recreate what life was like under communism and we figured that he already knew, so that would be an ideal thing to see without him. The museum turned out to be surprisingly intense and moving. There were all kinds of actual artifacts from the Soviet era, and recreated rooms, like schoolrooms with propaganda on the wall, workrooms extolling the virtues of the worker and work, shops selling only two kinds of canned food, and even an interrogation room. There was also a film room that showed footage from the Prague Spring of 1968 when the Czechoslovakian leaders tried to grant more freedom to the country and were rebuffed by the arrival of Soviet tanks, Soviet show trials, and most movingly, the 1989 revolution, with protests in Wenceslas Square and Soviet police trying to beat back the crowd. There was even a clip from a state media report on the protests with the anchor stating the government attributed the protests to a few extremists who were trying to provoke violence and ending with the anchor saying "THEY ARE LYING AGAIN!" Plus, the exhibit was really good about explaining the whole history of everything from the independence of Czechoslovakia in 1918 and the rise of communism in Russia during the same period up until the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It really made the situation seem a lot more real, and brought home how horrible things really were under communism. It's hard to believe that so many Czechs want to return to such a system after all of those horrors, but Tomas says that's the case because they forget so easily.

After the museum and lunch, we went to the Christmas market near Wenceslas Square, where lots of artists and craftspeople had booths to sell various crafts and souvenirs. It was really nice, especially all decorated for Christmas. One of the popular Czech objects is the marionette, so Jen got a really cool handmade Harry Potter marionette at one of the booths. We met up with Tomas there, who was wearing his Texas sweatshirt and underneath it his McCombs School of Business shirt for the occasion, and from there headed to the Old Town Square, which is also very famous. There is a very cool astronomical clock in the Town Hall tower that we saw, and several churches. We took a coffee break in what Tomas called the Starbuck's of the Czech Republic, Coffee Heaven, which was pretty good, and then he showed us around the historic Jewish Quarter. Unfortunately, most of the synagogues and the Old Jewish Cemetery are closed on the weekends, so we didn't get to go in anywhere, but it was cool to see. It's also the area where Franz Kafka was from. For dinner we went to another very traditional Czech place, this one specializing in Czech Budweiser so that we could try the Czech version. Tomas had been impressed that I had learned a few Czech words and phrases and that I remembered them, so he kept trying to prevent me from looking at the English menu and told me I'd have to order for myself in Czech, but that did not happen. After dinner, we did go to mass at the beautiful Church of Our Lady Before Tyn in the Old Town Square, which was of course entirely in Czech - I understood three words of the reading, "Yes, Amen" and "king" - but at least the liturgy is the same everywhere so we knew what was going on everywhere except the homily, and it was pretty cool (although it was kind of awkward not knowing how to say "peace be with you" back to the Czech people who said it to us - we just smiled and nodded and tried to look friendly).

We had a 6 am flight, so that meant getting up at 3 am to go to the airport. We were sooo tired, but at least we made it. I can't say as much for Jen's bag, though - it still has not been found as of Wednesday afternoon. We had to go talk to the baggage people because it didn't come, which took forever, so that left us with 10 minutes to get to the other terminal and onto our train, and we might have been able to just make it except the shuttle bus driver left just as we got to the stop and shook his head at us when I waved frantically at him. We had to wait another 10 minutes for a bus, so of course we missed the train, and just generally had all kinds of problems the entire time we were at Charles de Gaulle Airport (which is all I've ever had there). We had to pay 10 euros each to change our tickets to a train leaving from the Gare Montparnasse, plus the 8 euros it costs for the RER train into Paris. Plus, the baggage people told Jen they don't do home deliveries of people's baggage, so she'd have to come back to Paris and pick it up herself when they found it, although they'd make an exception for her and ship it to Nantes for her, except that she'd have to pay for it herself, despite it being their fault. I love how in France the customer is always wrong. We weren't feeling particularly pro-French that morning. But even the best efforts of the Parisians and the most badly designed airport in the world (seriously, Charles de Gaulle Airport must have been designed by a sadistic, mentally-challenged rodent on hallocinogens...I will be so happy to get back to the efficiency, excellent layout, and just general way things actually make sense in DFW) couldn't ruin a wonderful weekend in the newest addition to my list of favorite cities.
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