The Paris of Eastern Europe

Trip Start Mar 14, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Czech Republic  , Hlavní Mesto Praha,
Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Paris, billed as the world's most romantic city, has many similarities to Prague. Think about it. They've both got beautiful rivers, crowned with even more beautiful bridges. They've both got varied histories - from Charlemagne, the Reign of Terror, Jacques Chirac and nuclear testing to  the Habsburgs, Austro-Hungarian Empire, German occupation and Soviet communism. They've got amazing architecture and distinctive culture to boot. Might as well throw in a couple of big tourist draws like the Eiffel Tower/Arc de Triumph/Notre Dame, or the Prague Castle/Astronomical Clock for good measure.

Praha, I believe, is a real contender to steal Paris' title in the romantic city stakes. Sure, it's not an easy task, but it has all the goods required to possibly clinch the title. At least in the East.

We started our visit to Prague by venturing into town via the tram. As we came into the city centre, the stone buildings of the city, illuminated by glowing street lights, appeared. We disembarked and made our way across the famed Charles Bridge, with its numerous statues. Buskers stood outside the many jewellery stores selling Czech garnets, and steam rises from the chilly waters of the Vlatva river nearby. Trees are adorned with golden coloured leaves and pedestrians amble along, necks wound with scarves and hands thrust deep inside coat pockets. I was immediately struck by the lovely, romantic atmosphere. We wander aimlessly, eventually stumbling upon the Old Town Square. After admiring the baroque churches, we  seek warmth in an 18th century converted dungeon, feasting on Czech pilsner, goulash for me and pork knee for Kyle. A local trio played traditional Czech tunes on their double bass, accordion and fiddle. Delightful.

The following day was one of our biggest on record. During our travels, we've discovered the Sandeman's New Europe walking tours, which are a great initiation to a city. Plus, they're basically free cos they work on tips basis. We met at the Old Town, and heard more about the churches and Astronomical Clock (for the record, it is better than Munich's Glockenspiel).  We strolled about the city, hearing stories about the city's history, tales of defenstration (the term given to the Czech fondness for throwing people out of windows) seeing places of cultural interest and admiring the varied architecture - from Neo-Classical government buildings to  a Picasso inspired Cubist cafe. I'm no expert, but it seems to me Prague is definitely a destination that should be on an architectural buff's bucket list. As well as an historian's.

I was enthralled by the history lesson we received. Not only did I put the Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic question to bed (former neighbours Czech and Slovakia were once united, but peacefully went their separate ways in 1993) I was also able to feed my growing fascination with former communist countries. The Czech Republic itself has a somewhat sad history of continual occupation and oppression, from being part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to occupation by Hitler, to Soviet communism and fleeting periods of independence in between. Anecdotally, our tour guide told us that her husband's grandmother, who was born in the 1930s in Prague, has lived in a total of 8 different countries during her lifetime - without ever having moved!

We enjoyed our morning tour so much we decided to continue on into the afternoon, and explore the town on the opposite side of the river. This meant we got to see the castle and its changing of the guard, where we learnt that Mick Jagger kindly donated the lights that illuminate the majestic castle at night to the city of Prague. Apparently he thought it a shame that the sprawling castle complex was only visible during the day, and it sure would be.  During the tour we had time for a quick beer whilst admiring a beautiful panorama of the city from a monastery high upon a hill, as well as a walk through the emotional Jewish quarter and then Wenceslas Square. Here, we heard stories about the Velvet Revolution. Hearing the story of Jan Palach, a Czech student who sacrificed himself by lighting himself on fire in Wenceslas Square, in a desperate bid to draw the attention of the world media to the oppression of Czechs under the communist government, gave me chills. It was heartening though, to learn that the eventual drawing back of the 'Iron Curtain' in Czechoslovakia in favour of a more liberal government came peacefully and smoothly - hence the name Velvet Revolution.

I'd already been completely gripped by learning about the communist experience from our time in Berlin. Prague was the perfect continuation of my new interest. During my history studies I'd always focused on either ancient or western history, so discovering more about the experience of Eastern Europe during the war and post-war years I found so fascinating. It has definitely inspired me to start planning a trip to Eastern Europe sometime next year. I'm keen to see Poland, Hungary and maybe a little Slovakia and Bulgaria thrown in..... but getting a little ahead of myself!

If history is my obsession, there's no doubt that Kyle's is beer. Our evening was spent on yet another tour, our third for the day. This time it was a 'beer experience', and we couldn't wait to rest our aching legs over a cold pint. We hopped around 4 renowned Prague beer houses, tasting the the best they had to offer. Czechs, the clever lot, helped to pioneer modern beer making with their infamous Pilsner. We tried some un-pasturised beer, which means it still contains impurities and bacteria following the brewing process. You'd think it'd taste like feet, but instead I was surprised to find the cleanest, freshest beer on my tastebuds. Apparently this particular brew is very exclusive, it can only be stocked by a prominent beer house will sufficient patronage to ensure that the kegs are drained in a timely manner - to prevent the beer from going off.
Czech beer is measured in degrees, rather than alcohol percentage. Kyle tried one at 30 degrees - it was very syrupy and heavy, like a dessert drink!   All this beer washed down some more traditional Czech food: deep fried Camembert and goulash. Stodgy, yes, but also the perfect comfort food to offset the chilly weather outside! Our sun-filled days on the Mediterranean are far behind us now, sadly.

On our second day in Prague, we decided to venture our of Prague. First though, we made a stop at the Communist museum (told you I couldn't get enough of this stuff) where we saw recreations of everyday kitchens, shops and schools during the communist rule. We also watched a moving documentary about the Czech liberation and the events leading up to it.

Afterwards, we boarded a train, bound for Kutna Hora, a medieval town about an hour away. What we really went to see was the famous Sedlec Ossary. It's a Roman Catholic chapel decorated with the bones of around 50,000 people. Macabre much? Yes, but also strangely beautiful in an eerie sort of way. Apparently many of the 'decorations' met their end during the Hussite wars and the Black Death. The church came to be decorated in this way when, during construction mass graves were uncovered. It was a place that definitely needs to be seen to be believed.

Despite a couple of full-on days, we still hadn't had enough of Czech Republic. We then  spent the next two nights at Cesky Krumlow, a town a couple of hours drive away from Prague. It was quaint and picturesque, and has a castle to rival Prague's. A charming river winds its way through the tiny town, and it's another one of those gorgeous places that keep postcard photographers in business. We spent our days doing not much more than wandering the paved streets, eating, warming up by the open fire and recuperating in our awesome hostel (no other place has felt as much like home). We did manage to drag ourselves to the local brewery, Eggenberg, to learn a bit more about the brewing process and, of course, sample a bit more Bohemian brew. The perfect finish for our week in the Czech Republic.

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