Praha, the Czech word for Prague. Prahahahaha. Ok, that joke is out of my system.
(As the post title and first line denote, I’m full of puns today. Be warned.)
I am fresh off a long weekend trip to Prague, Czech Republic. Katie and I arrived to the city late Thursday night after a quick 2 hour flight from Rome. Everything in Europe is two hours by air. Everywhere. I don’t know how it is all equidistant. Euro-magic. Anyway, Katie’s cousin Kelly, who lives in Prague, met us at the airport and took us back to her apartment in the Vinohrady district. Since it was late, we drifted off to sleep with the promise of Prague there to greet us in the morning. Really it was more like collapsed into bed – but drifting sounds much more romantic, and we’re here to stylize.
Friday morning. We awake. (I’ll switch to present tense, ’cause why not?) Katie and I grab our things and head toward the metro station to advance toward our hotel near Old Town Square. The metro drops us as Wenceslas Square. This is the huge square of New Prague: shopping, hotels, restaurants, horse statue, and Starbucks. I’m a bit ashamed to admit that we made a stop, but the idea of walking with a hot drink in a to-go cup was too much to resist. Italy does not believe in such luxuries.
Anyway, after making our way into Old Town and checking in at the hotel, which was just a tiny (a TON) nicer than our typical hostel arrangement, Katie and I hit Old Town Square for food: first great beer, sausages, goulash (see pictures below and salivate). Let me describe Old Town. I relate the aesthetic as a mix between Amsterdam, Brugge, and the village of Duloc from Shrek. I’m so cosmopolitan, but really the similarity is impressive.
Post lunch, we go on a bike tour. This is highly recommend the next time you find yourself in Prague. It hits all the major sites in about 2.5 hours, you look cool on a bike, you get a great feel for the layout of the city, and you have the cutest little tour guide girl from Alabama. We see the Vltava River, Lennon Wall, Mala Strana district, dancing building, cafe where Franz Kafka pondered metamorphosis, Powder tower, and many other sites.
Now, we are ready for sustenance. Insert hot wine and sweet rolled street bread. Hot wine would be blasphemy in Rome, but Prague does it very well. I describe the sweet bread as an unrolled and rerolled cinnamon roll. Yeah.
Time for the Jewish District. Prague’s Jews lived in a small section of the city before their forcible removal by Hitler. We see some synagogs and the Jewish cemetery. This cemetery, the size of a large backyard, is packed with some 12,000 tombstones. The cemetery has 12 layers of bodies, estimated to number 100,000 in total. Unbelievable, crowded, and eerie.
Leaving the Jewish quarter, we wander, as we are known to do, and decide it is time for dinner, Czech style. We find a nice restaurant in a cave – because if you can, caves are best – and have traditional Czech meals. Meat, potatoes, bread. Maybe some form of cabbage. Maybe. The Czechs don’t mess around with rabbit food. Nope. Oh, and another great beer. Beer is cheaper than water in Prague and probably more plentiful. There’s a saying that Czech people do not start counting their beers for the day until dinner. By then they’ve probably had at least 2.
After dinner we see Old Town Square by night with Our Lady Before Tyn Cathedral and the Astronomical Clock Tower all lit up. Ironically for all the gothic cathedrals, Prague is now almost entirely Atheist. Ruminate on how that chances a national culture for a second. Ok. Our Lady has two towers representing the two sexes. The male tower is slightly bigger than the female tower. The astronomical clock was installed in 1410, making it the third oldest in the world, and the only one still working. Every hour on the hour the clock puts on a show with doors opening and little wooden statues emerging. Ironically, the clock doesn’t actually tell time, only astronomical positioning. For time, there is a smaller clock installed at the top of the tower.
Saturday morning. We wake up and head to Bohemia Bagel. Two things: I haven’t had a bagel and peanut butter for so long. This is awesome. I reiterate, why don’t Italians eat breakfast? Second, before becoming the Czech Republic, the country was called Bohemia. Why not Czech Bohemia? I’m just saying, it was an opportunity missed.
Then we meet Kelly and head to the Strahov Monastery where the monks brew their own beer and read a ton and, I suppose, pray. Their libraries are beautiful and include cabinets of curiosity – the forerunners to museums. Basically you collecte bizarre things in your cabinets to show off. I think there was actually a small dinosaur, but I’ll have to get back to you on that.
Notes: Monk beer is good. Who knew I like dark Czech beer best?
From lunch we walk around Petrin Hill to Prague Castle, which is actually more like a compound. The most castle-looking edifice is the impressively gothic St. Vitus Cathedral. The Castle also offers an amazing view out over Old Town. We walk through Mala Strana, where the wealthiest of Prague used to live. It now boasts tourist shops, bars, and thai massage places.
We grab some hot wine and cross Charles Bridge. The view from the bridge looks strangely like the view of the Seine River in Paris. This is conscious. Prague’s architects decided that they wanted to be the Paris of central Europe. The aesthetic is there under the surface. It’s like a shrunken Paris with colored roofs and buildings. Hitler liked it – he spared the city from bombing and planned to move there after his victory in WWII. Oops.
We walk ALL OVER PRAGUE. Because one castle is never enough, we see Vysehrad Castle. (That’s not a typo. They love their v-consonant combos.) Eventually we land in Kelly’s hood of Vinohrady for tea and cake. We walk down by the river and soak up views of Prague Castle across the shore. Then we find a restaurant in Vinohrady and grab a beer and some sausage. Fun fact: in traditional Prague bars, they often serve only one beer. Here, they bring everyone a beer, without you ordering it, and then continue to bring new beers until you actively tell them to stop. Cheers.
We called it a night after a beer in a bar made in the underground tunnels of Prague. See cave comment above.
Sunday morning. Brunch. Again, taking advantage of a country that believes in such a meal. We catch one more show at the astronomical clock, stroll along the river, cross Charles Bridge, and meander the afternoon away before reclaiming our bags and heading to the airport.
Prague. Let’s review. Great beer, heavy food, orange roofs, and gothic spires. I had an amazing time. How can you not? The city is big enough, yet manageable. It has sites but encourages you to stroll its labyrinth streets. It’s black gothic architecture pulls you into a story-world feel. The tourist shops detract from the authenticity, but the Old Town Square and Czech dialect build it back up. The city feels layered, as I said before. It’s Amsterdam, Brugge, Brussels, and a taste of Paris. It references so many other places, while being distinctly itself. Prague is somewhere that a new-traveler can immensely enjoy, while the seasoned traveler can appreciate it as a composition. I liked Prague for the pace of our sight-seeing. I liked the importance of the sit-down meal, the mid-day beer, the stroll across the bridge, the lazy dinner.
I like that the city, like it’s clock, is more concerned with the signs than the time. I like that Prague lets you stop counting.