Raisng Prague's Not So Iron Curtain

Trip Start Feb 23, 2011
Trip End Apr 20, 2011

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Flag of Czech Republic  , Bohemia,
Thursday, February 24, 2011

Man- I don't even know where to start to try to describe what an absolute "jewel" Prague is.  I hate to be so cliche as to say I had know idea, but, I really had no idea.  
After I sadly left Stephanie from the Montreal airport, I arrived in London for a long, sleepless layover of about 7 hours, before finally hopping my flight to Prague.  I arrived with no trouble- Czech customs were an absolute joke- no greeting, no questions, no anything.  Just a stamp. Whatever.  Caught a cab to my home for 3 nights- Krystal hotel. 
First of all, before we get to the great part about Prague, indulge me while I take you on my" time warp" of a hotel stay.  The Krystal is probably THE most communist hotel left in all of the former Iron Curtain.  Steel bars everywhere, dark gray and maroon couches, no artwork anywhere, and people with smile-less faces that only 40 plus years of communism could bring.  Still, it was clean, albeit institutional, efficient, functional and cheap as hell.  I don't think the place has changed one bit since it opened in 1969.  
So why did I stay there? Well, it came recommended by the school that I am attending.  And, because, as my Dad would say to me, quoting a good friend of his, "you're a cheap prick, Vinny." He's probably right.  However, I don't really have a need for luxury accommodation.  I need something functional, well located, and clean- the Krystal fit the bill- And, if you're hanging out in your hotel room in Prague, you're missing the point of being there. But, on a brighter note, cheap, efficient, on-time public transportation, and stoic, institutional, clean and totally inexpensive hospitality is probably THE best legacy of communism.  But, since 1989, this area has been relieved of such "evil."  However, there are pockets where one can still see the effects communism had and how after 20+ years, some scars are still there. The Hotel Krystal is one of those scars.  It only added to the experience. I totally enjoyed my stay there:)
So, on to the goods.
The Czech Republic is a small country. It is sandwiched between the much larger countries of Germany and Poland.  It used to be called Czechoslovakia, but after the "Velvet Divorce" in 1989, the countries split rather peacefully into the Czech and Slovak Republics.  Czech people are rather stoic, sometimes sarcastic, and generally will not go out of their way to make you their friend, at least not right away.  Not that they are rude, but they seem to have a mild "distrust" with unfamiliar things, and therefore it takes a little more to break the ice with them.  Still, they are a good people and have afforded me all the respect I could ever deserve, especially when I tried to speak their difficult language.  Czech is a Slavic language- not related at all to English or Romance languages- has noun declensions, and tons of consonants placed next to each other. And I thought French was difficult. Anyway, I will do my best to learn survival Czech, because you really do get better service and respect if you know the basics, but I have no intention of diving into this language full on. French is plenty for me for now. Besides, at the school, we get Czech lessons every Monday.
OK, Prague is so fun, and it's ready to show anyone a good time. It escaped most of the bombings of WWII, unlike many other European capitals, and therefore is very well preserved.  And, now having been here for several days and having been "power" sight seeing, (freezing my ass off because it is really cold here still) I am totally blown away.  I understand why the place is so popular.   It's beautiful- The architecture alone is jaw dropping- A mix of Gothic, Romantic, Baroque,Rococo, and Art Nouveau.  Just walking around, you feel like you are wonderfully placed in a medieval fairy tale and everyone is walking around singing "Good King Wenceslas." Well, almost. (Wenceslas wasn't really a king at all but a 10th century wise and benevolent Duke of Bohemia. He is credited for Christianizing the nation and advancing the culture.) But everyday when the astronomical clock strikes, and the death skeleton tips his hourglass and pulls the cord and the parade of apostles goes by, the rooster crows and the hour chimes-(funny, because the number of chimes is often off because of the time change- Daylight savings time was worthless to a 15th century clock maker) Then, a guy dressed as a jester or someone from a deck of cards comes out and plays his trumpet ceremoniously from the top of Old Town Hall and waves to the crowd.  It's quite the spectacle-and every hour, on the hour, the place is jammed-packed with people to witness it.  It's one of those "does this place REALLY exist?" type of moments.
Prague has basically four areas of town:
The Old Town Square is the main focal point.  It hosts the Jan Hus monument, the can't miss it Tyn ("teen") Church, Town Hall Tower, the Astronomical Clock and the Church of St. Nicholas.  It is a feast of eye candy and you can seriously just walk around for hours and never get bored with it. 
Then you've got  the New Town and Wenceslas Square- more a grand boulevard than a square, but this was the defining place where in 1989, over 300,000 Czechs and Slovaks gathered to claim their freedom.
Across the famous and beloved Charles Bridge, a great 500 yard stroll, (you know the thing that "really ties it all together, man" as the Dude would say), you come to the Little Quarter.  Low on sights, but big on ambiance- great place to just cruise and get lost in the gabled store fronts and endless cobbled lanes.  And you really can get lost.  It's a total rookie mistake to try to do Prague without a good map. Still, it's so fun to just wander aimlessly.
The fourth area is the Castle Quarter where Prague Castle sits, looming large above the town like  a forbidding, protective older sibling watching over it's people. (Thanks, I coined that phrase myself)
But now, (according to me), I think there should be a separate 5th town which is the Josefov or Jewish Quarter.  Prague has one of the most impressive collections of Jewish history in all of Europe.  There are lots of moving museums and synagogues, but the most impressive thing I saw was the old cemetery here.  Gravestone upon gravestone piled upon each other, most spilling over or leaning on their neighbors and crooked.  This was the only burial spot allowed for Jews from 1439-1787 and space was at a premium.  Add to that the belief that Jewish people believe the body should never be moved once buried, and well, you can get the idea.  It is truly an amazing sight and wonderfully creepy. 

Soundtrack: Since I'm in Bohemia, Queen's "Bohemian 'Rhapsody' seems to be just right. Ridiculous? yes, but it's still a great song. Freddy Mercury's doubling and harmonizing with himself on the "opera" section is great. Also, Mozart's 'Don Giovanni' and 'Requiem Mass' work pretty well too. Mozart's tympani and horn hits that "go with the harmony" is totally evil and beautiful at the same time. Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons-Winter-Allegro Non Molto' is nice too. Throw in Thom Yorke's 'The Eraser' and you've got yourself some good tunes to explore with.

So, my classes start this week.  For the next 4 weeks I will get my ass totally kicked with learning how to teach English.  It should be a great experience.  I will write again and let you all know how it is going, but I will leave you with this.  Come to Prague before you die.  You will be glad you did.  It truly is an amazing city which captures the imagination unlike anywhere else I have ever been.  I hope this finds all of you well.

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Natasha on

I love you Stefan, and I think you're awesome.

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