Prague (the Paris of the East... but better!)

Trip Start May 22, 2005
Trip End Aug 09, 2005

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Thursday, June 16, 2005

June 13
We hopped on the bus in the morning and enjoyed the beautiful German countryside, which is lush and green, despite it being 10 degrees in June. Our mid-day stop was in Dresden, where we grabbed a quick bite to eat at a market. Dresden looked like a nice place, be we did not see much of the city. Dresden city centre was unfortunately decimated at the end of WWII due to massive bombings and a fire storm (which apparently covered 15 square kms) in the historical centre. Once back on the bus, the Busabout tour guide warned us to be on our best behaviour at the Czech border crossing. She told us they might board the bus and take our passports, which they did. It was funny because everyone on the bus got really quiet, as though we were making our way through the "Iron Curtain." But the guards were pleasant, though not talkative. The upside was that we got a Czech stamp in our passports (which the Aussies on the bus really got a kick out of). About an hour before we arrived in Prague, we made a Busabout "bonus" stop at the concentration camp of Terezin. The camp was a staging ground where they kept political prisoners and Jews before sending them off to camps such as Auschwitz and Dachau. Over 100,000 people passed through Terezin, of whom over 300 were executed or tortured to death, and over 2500 died of diseases because of the atrocious living conditions. An example of the terrible conditions was the fact that 100 people were packed into a room about 20 feet by 40 feet with bunks stacked three high on one wall, and one toilet for all of them. Of course, the Jews had it even worse as there were 60 living in a room that was 12 feet by 20 feet, with no furniture at all and only one small hatch for fresh air. They didn't even have room for everyone to sit down to sleep, never mind lie down. There was also no toilet or sink in the room. Sorry for depressing everyone, but we just wanted to express that reading about these occurrences is very different from seeing firsthand what people had to endure. A subdued Busabout group finished our journey to Prague, which somewhat lifted everyone's spirits with its incredible beauty. After checking in to our hostel we went on a walk of the historical district -- Prague's history goes back more than 1000 years and it was virtually undamaged by WWII.

June 14
After a nice breakfast in the garden of the hostel, we walked about 10 minutes to the old city centre. Weaving through medieval and baroque streets, we reached the Charles Bridge, which is one of Prague's most famous landmarks. The bridge had 30 or so statues along its sides, including one depicting soldiers throwing St. Jan Nepomucky over the side of the bridge to his death for helping the queen keep her lovers secret from the king. The statue is rubbed frequently for luck by tourists and locals alike (though what kind of luck they're looking for escaped us). At the other side of the bridge a steep incline led up to the castle complex -- which itself is one of the largest castles in the world. In its heyday, it was more like a self-contained village than just a castle. St. Vitus' Cathedral, which took more than 600 years to complete (lazy Czechs!), we felt rivaled Notre Dame. We went from the highest tower (over 280 winding stairs) to the royal crypts under the church (where Charles IV is entombed). The views from the tower were breathtaking (360 degrees), and it was easy to see why the castle had been situated there with its natural fortifications. Next we visited the Old Palace, which has amazing interior architecture, like something out of Lord of the Rings. The other highlight of the castle complex was the Golden Lane, where medieval alchemists tried to create gold and later on Franz Kafka lived for a time. This has been one of the highlights of the trip so far, and accordingly we spent 6 hours there. You MUST visit Prague, we feel it is a much more desirable destination than Paris, for example.

June 15
Today was a rainy day, and so we spent part of the morning updating the website and relaxing. By the afternoon the rain started to clear and we headed out to Josefov, the old Jewish part of Prague. While the Jewish population there has diminished due to WWII, there are some beautiful old synagogues and an old Jewish cemetery. For anyone who is up on medieval myths, Josefov is the area where Rabbi Low created the Golem (a man made of clay). Afterwards we walked to the town square, where the astronomical clock is located and some of the prettiest buildings in Prague are gathered. The whole square gives you the feeling of stepping back in time about 500 years. There was even a street festival taking place, with jugglers, horse-drawn carriages, and guys riding around on unicycles! We started walking back towards our accommodations, stopping along the way to take in a marvel of modern architecture -- the "Fred and Ginger Dancing Building" -- which looks as though the it's swaying (see picture). We switched accommodations for the night so as to be closer to the Busabout pickup, which is quite a ways out of the downtown area. After another eventful day it was off to bed.
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