Praha - The Golden City
Trip Start Apr 30, 2006
12Trip End May 14, 2006
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People often visit Prague for the opera and music of Mozart; some include it as a stop on a larger European vacation, while others come to explore their ancestory. For me I had no single reason to visit Prague except to say that while researching vacation destinations, I was immediately drawn to Prague. I am not sure if it was because I had heard so many good things about the city or had seen several Hollywood movies that were filmed there (Mission Impossible, XXX among others). Rather the thought of visiting a non-English speaking foreign city, with great beer and centuries of preserved architecture - as the city escaped significant bombing during WWII - was appealing.
It would choose to be an amazing and wise choice.
Welcome to Praha
Upon arrival at Ruzyne Airport, I felt like I had entered communist Czechoslovakia while clearing Czech customs. I was greeted by an older, stern looking Czech border agent where instead of "Dobrý večer!" (Good Evening!) I received a blank stare as my passport was handed back to me in silence. After this "welcome" I would thankfully receive an immediate dose of Czech hospitality as I was met cheerfully by Jan, owner of the B&B I was staying at, in the airport terminal for the drive into Prague. Jan was great as he gave me a quick history lesson and noted the sights and historical points of interest during our drive. After our arrival at Guest House Lida (the B&B named after his mother) he sat me down and made sure I was ready to tour Prague the next morning. He provided me with a transport pass, an entry card to most of the key sights, arranged for a morning bus tour and highlighted all the key tourist areas on a map of Prague. What great hospitality and service! You certainly wouldn't get this at any hotel.
As I would find out the next day, Prague is intoxicating! I do not mean from the copius consumption of wonderful, inexpensive Czech pivo (beer). My overdose on Prague after my first day of touring would leave my head spinning, trying to process everything I had experienced - it took me a while to relax and fall asleep that night.
Prague, often referred to as "Golden Prague", contains a rich, diverse mix of architecture, parks, monuments, castles and museums. It is possible to experience many different things while visiting Prague but my three day journey would only realistically allow me to sample some of what Prague has to offer.
My favourite highlights of Prague were visiting the Charles Bridge - by day and night; wandering around the winding streets; and visiting the countless historical treasures in abundance.
The Charles Bridge, once you look past the endless stream of tourists, is a small reflection on Prague itself. The bridge - known as Karlov most to the locals - is the oldest bridge in Prague at approximately 650 years old. The most stunning aspect of Charles Bridge is the approximately 30 stone statues that line both sides of the bridge. These statues venerate various saints important to the Czech people (St Vitus, St Wenceslas among others) and each one has a unique story to tell. For example it is the custom to touch the statue of St. John of Nepomuk (see picture) as it will bring good fortune and ensure your successful return to Prague.
_________________Images of The Charles Bridge__________________
Sunset over the Charles Bridge
The bridge breathes a life of its own. During the day, the bridge is lined with vendors selling bohemian glassware, jewelery and other traditional arts. Musicians ranging from the One-Man Band (a guy with numerous musical instruments attached to himself) to The Bridge Band provide light entertainment for the crowds. However, after the sun goes down, a dull yellow glow eminating from the streetlamps cast shadows of the statue's saintly poses and many crucifixes to transform the bridge into an enchanting experience.
Even with a pass for the efficient, always on time transport system - a leftover from the Communist era - I navigated Prague mainly by foot.
Every street contains eye popping, neck straining sights - you could spend all your time just walking around without even entering any of the many castles, museums and beer gardens. To put this in perspective, if Canada had just one of these magnificant buildings, it would be deemed a national treasure - in Prague there are literally hundreds and line the main streets and squares.
This is really the only way to see Prague and explore the streets which seem to lead from one market square to another. I really enjoyed Staroměstské náměstí (Old Town Square) where I climbed the old town tower to amazing arieal views of the many spires and domed rooftops of Prague. From here, one can see the entire old town square - which incidentally is where the new Coke commercial showing people moving from a bottle shape into the glass was filmed. The main attraction of the old town square is the Astronomical Clock. This ornate clock creates real excitement at the top of each hour when the square fills with hundreds of spectators to view the 'twelve apostles' (twelve small statues, one each for the twelve apostles) walk out and pose for the gallery below.
Down in the square itself, you can just hang out and people watch in the Old Town Square. All you need to do is grab one of those sweet tasting Czech rolled pastry treats from the vendor, pick a seat on a bench/fountain's edge to watch the stream of locals and tourists moving to and from within the square. One point to note is that there are proper toilets located in the basement of the Old Town Tower where it costs a couple kC (you pay an elderly lady at a small window leading into the bathroom) to visit and use the facilities.
What I found really interesting while walking around was the convergence of Eastern and Western cultures. While there is undoubtly a clear eastern European flavour about Prague, there are instances where the bridge between the east and west is blurred. For example on my first morning in Prague I exited the subway metro line to the buzz of a traditional marketplace with the faint sound of music in the background. I was excited to hear some traditional music so I hustled to the source only to realize that the name of the band was the 'Czech Dixie Band' whom were playing southern dixie. I was a bit upset at first but then came to appreciate the Czech 'soul' being put into the music. A real treat indeed!
Exploring the marketplaces is interesting as they contain traditional Czech foods and wares. While walking around in one market, I snacked on traditional spa wafers and viewed such 'oddities' like wild boar skins, stringed marionnettes (which are big here) and endless lines of beer steins and those wooden, hand painted stacking dolls.
On my second day in Prague I headed early to Josefev - the Jewish Quarter of Prague. This area was originally the ghetto where early kings forced the Jewish community to live in tight quarters. The close proximity is highlighted when I walked in the Jewish Cemetry where thousands and thousands of headstones (12,000 approximately) compete for each inch of space. The early morning sun peeping over the nearby buildings and trees only added to the sombre mood.
The amazing thing about the cemetry is that the headstones only reveal part of the story. Much in the same manner as visitors to Newfoundland marvel at icebergs, what can be seen by the naked eye is not the full exent of the wonder. While some twelve thousand grave markers exist, there are in fact over one hundred thousand graves here. It was common to stack graves one on top the other - in some places the plots are twelve graves deep.
The troubles for the Jewish people did not unfortunately end with the various Czech kings. During WWII, the ghetto was a holding area before transport to Terezín - a Nazi concentration camp outside Prague. There was an exhibition in the Pinkas Synagogue of children's drawings that disturbingly depicted the sequence of events leading from Prague to the concentration camp. The pictures start off with colorful, happy drawings while in Prague (as this was thought to be a temporary thing - a sort of adventure for the children) and gradually turn darker as the events leading upto and within Terezín are presented from the eyes of the children.
Having grown up in Canada, the Second World War and these terrible events never seemed totally real. These drawings started to stir a sadness and sense of shock that only increased as I entered the next room containing a memorial to the victims. The memorial was the interior of the Synagogue where all the walls contained the names of over seventy five thousand Jewish Czech people that died at the hands of the Nazis. In one section of the wall I started to read the long line of names such as Josef, David, Jiri etc until I reached the end and saw the family surname. All these names I had just read were from the same family! It was at this point when the magnitude of it all struck me.
Czech People and Language
Prague is a very tourist friendly city to visit, especially if you only speak English as I found that the younger generation would speak very good English. Jan told me that English is taught in school as a second language - even his own children speak it very fluently.
While visiting the souvenir stores, the store clerks are eager to speak to you and inquire where you were from. Older Czechs, whom seem to work mainly in the museums and major attractions, while not having as clear understanding of English, always had a big smile and were polite. I must admit there was one exception at the Museum of Music when I dared to attempt to take a photo and an elderly lady came to me waving her finger and saying 'Ticketa Photo" or something similar. I had no idea what she meant so I stopped taking pictures. I later realized you needed to by a pass that permitted you to take photos.
The only time I encountered a language barrier was at a little restaurant near the Staroparen Brewery where the waitress only spoke Czech and the menu board was written totally in Czech. I was about to dig through my translation book (to see what chicken was in Czech) when I heard that familiar sound of 'goulash' and I immediately said "gulás prosim" followed by "pivo." We both sighed with relief and I sat down to enjoy my pivo while I waited for my lunch. Crisis adverted!
Czech Beer and Food
The beer, oh that wonderful Czech beer; in fact Pilsner beer was invented by the Czechs. Pilsner style beer served in North America pales in comparison to the version flowing from the taps in Prague. The Czech people are so proud of their beer heritage - a point immediately pointed out on the bus tour when I was informed that, per capita, the Czech people drink the most beer in the world.
A pint of Czech beer will set you back anywhere from 50 cents to $1.50 Canadian. Yes, you heard me - it was cheaper than buying bottled water! I had arrived in beer heaven! Great beer at low prices - there must be a catch. It was explained to me that the Czech people take great pride in beer and it is brewed primarily for the enjoyment of the people, not solely for making money. Labatts and Molson please take note!
I was a bit worried about eating in the Czech Republic. Not because of the language barrier and the possibility of ordering cow's eyes or something even worse but the guidebooks described Czech food as, light on quality and heavy on quantity. However, to my great delight, all the traditional Czech food I sampled was excellent and really reasonably priced. A typical supper including beer, main course, dessert (plus taxes and tip) only cost about $15 Canadian and considering I just came from England where the same meal would cost four times that!
My favourite eating place was a restaurant overlooking the Vlatava River. It had the best up close view of the Charles Bridge with Prague Castle hovering in the background. It was here that I chose to relax and spend my last free moments in Prague before heading to the airport. A great place to chill out and feel the vibe of Prague, enjoy great beer and food and view wonderful scenery - I think I have found the essence of Czech life and this beautiful city.
Where I stayed