Prague; an Eastern European Gem

I had known since the beginning of my trip that I wanted to visit Prague. During the months leading up to my trip many people who had already visited Europe and backpacked across the continent highly recommended Prague for its beautiful sights, nightlife and general atmosphere. Of course arranging a trip from Rome to Prague was no easy task but after a long afternoon at a computer lab I planned a flight from Rome to Frankfurt and then a train ride to Dresden and another train into the Czech capital. I would now be leaving Western Europe and the warm climate of the Mediterranean but I was running seriously low on funds and the west was bankrupting me so I gladly welcomed the dollar-friendly exchange rates of Eastern Europe.

I enjoyed a long day of European mass transit during the course of which I landed in Germany. Germany was, from what I could see, very green and very modern. The German countryside is studded with wind farms and is spotlessly clean. In Frankfurt I purchased my tickets to Prague and boarded a German bullet train. Unfortunately when the train arrived in Dresden some hours later, I did not realize that the city had two train stations and I got off at the first while my connection waited across town at the second. With approximately fifteen minutes to get there I hailed a taxi to run me across town. Firstly, German taxi cabs are all Mercedes Benz and this one handled and accelerated like a race car. My driver was a trim middle aged woman with bleach blond hair cut into short spikes. She drove expertly and smoked cigarettes the whole time. If she got me there on time I would give her a ten euro tip. If we failed, I would wait six hours in the station for the next train to Prague. It was close. As I looked out the window I thought of Slaughter House 5 and how American bombers turned this city into powder during the closing days of World War II. Needless to say we made it; I tipped the cabbie a sawbuck (in euros) and sprinted with my cumbersome pack swaying on my back to the train.

The second train rode through the verdant forests of Eastern Germany. After an hour’s ride we passed nothing but small farmhouses and rocky outcroppings. Then we rode along a river in the middle of nowhere, whose name I never learned, that separated Germany from what used to be Czechoslovakia. We crossed the border and two customs officials smoking acrid cigarettes examined and then stamped my passport. After a few minutes the train moved forward, stopping at the first Czech station. On the signs indicating town names and danger signals I saw the accent marks and spelling of a Slavic language for the first time.

I spent the duration of my ride sitting next to a young Czech school teacher. She spoke some little English and talked with me, explaining the general layout of the city and places that I should see. She looked like many of the Czech girls I would see with a small lynx-like triangular face with a chic brunette bob surmounting her head. She was very slight but well dressed, though slightly behind the fashion. She was an interesting companion and when the train came to a halt in the station and we got off I said goodbye and went off to see the city.

Since my stay in Marseille I had stopped reserving rooms as I arrived in cities so I had no arrangements. My first impression of Prague was the train station, which was a seedy place that failed to inspire much confidence. I found myself clutching my possessions carefully. There were several burly men with signs indicating that they offered rooms for rent but I didn’t like the looks of them so I went straight to the tourist information center where I was able to book and pay for a room in a nearby hostel. I walked to the hostel, which was a large old building only a few hundred meters from the station. I was soon to find that my hostel was used alternately as an SS barracks and as a barracks for Soviet soldiers. The hostel was very large with many floors with dorm rooms, lockers and large public bathrooms. As night was falling I decided to stash my gear, grab something to eat and then get some sleep. It was a much colder night than any I had experienced in Rome and it had just rained, which made the city smell like early spring rather than mid July.

The next morning I woke up well rested and ready to see the city. My hostel and the train station were situated in the Nove Mesto, or new town, on the eastern bank of the Vltava River. As I walked through the Nove Mesto, I saw many 19th century buildings with modest but tasteful facades and elegant wrought iron balconies. The streets were cobbled with small square stones. It seemed that everywhere I went, somewhere in the distance rose the spires of some cathedral or castle. Czech architecture has many large pointed towers on ancient edifices but unlike many other, plainer forms of architecture, from each large tower branch out several smaller spires. It is a very unique and beautiful sight that is the first thing I picture when I think about Prague.

At the end of the my street, stood the impressive national museum. The museum is a large brown stoned building that looks as sumptuous and dramatic as the Paris Opera House. The museum stood at the end of a long boulevard that was effectively the heart of Nove Mesto. Lining the street are modern strip malls, fancy boutiques, neon lights and outdoor bistros and cafes. The street bustled with activity. In the center pedestrian island were several modernist sculptures that illustrated the Czech propensity for the absurd in art. One sculpture was a series of brutal looking male figures constructed entirely from iron plates bolted and riveted together. Another sculpture depicted Superman flying head-first into the ground. At regular intervals there were small stands that sold incredible hot dogs that cost only a dollar. There were also a number of outdoor bistros and cafes, which advertised traditional Czech cooking on black sandwich boards.

As beautiful as it was, I found that I had to keep on guard in the Nove Mesto. Prague is filled street urchins, salesmen, beggars and outright thieves. As in any city, I find it best to act confidently and act as though you are very aware of your surroundings. At one point I allowed a very solicitous man show me where I could buy a pack of cigarettes. I soon found myself with a faithful guide who wanted to show me where I could have a good time in Prague. I soon extricated myself from the situation with a little money for a tip, but I only needed one such experience to learn my lesson.

I soon made my way closer to the river, toward the Stare Mesto. In the old town the buildings get larger and larger with more spires. I made my way to Old Town Square in the heart of town. The square is extremely large and surrounded by tall buildings, cafes and restaurants. In the center of the square stands a large statue of Jan Huss, a Czech theologian who was burnt as a heretic during the Counter Reformation. Huss is depicted at the moment of his execution standing boldly upright. Today Huss is considered an important Czech hero. Overtime many of his controversial religious opinions have been adopted by various sects of Christianity.

Tyn Cathedral borders the square to the east. The church rises with twin towers surmounted by many smaller spires. The main nave is long and narrow but rises very high with buttresses neatly providing exterior support. On the western side of Old Town Square is St. Nicholas Church, a baroque masterpiece. Nearby stands the Old Town Hall, with its tall, slender clock tower from which tourists can peer out over the city. The most famous feature of the hall, however, is the medieval astronomical clock on its southern face. Crowds gather to watch the ornate display when the clock chimes the hour.

Moving west from Old Town Square, the streets become considerably narrower pedestrian pathways. Many tiny shops selling traditional Czech wares line these small streets. People hand out advertisements for eateries, classical music concerts and other sundry offers. I soon wound my way through these streets in the direction of the Charles Bridge.

The Charles Bridge is perhaps the most famous sight in Prague. The bridge was built during the 14th and 15th centuries as the only connection between Stare Mesto and Prague Castle. This sturdy stone span contributed greatly to Prague’s importance as a town on the trade routes passing through Europe. The bridge rests on a number of solid arches and is protected by three guard towers complete with spires, balconies and large powerful gates. During the 17th century a number of statues were erected on the bridge depicting saints and traditional Czech heroes. Today the Charles Bridge is a pedestrian thoroughfare across which throngs of people pass each day. The bridge is also a de facto market along which merchants sell wooden handicrafts, jewelry and artwork. Many beggars also line the bridge, bent low with hats in hand. Others seek their fortunes playing violins, guitars or clarinets for their alms.

The western bank of the Charles Bridge is known as the Lesser Quarter of Prague. There are, however, a number of sights to be taken in on this side of town. The most important, by far, is the Prague Castle. Prague Castle is the largest ancient castle in the world. It features an enormous courtyard, several of the tallest spires in the city and numerous lavishly decorated rooms. As I arrived at the castle I noticed a detachment of guards carrying bayoneted assault rifles. They walked with a high martial step in unison to the castle to relieve the guards on duty. It was fascinating to see this ritual of Czech pride parading through the streets.

Over the course of my week in Prague, I visited each of these sights in turn. I saw the requisite museums and climbed the many stairs to look out from ancient towers over the small red roofs and distant spires of the city. However, I derived the most pleasure just from hanging out in this charming city. Prague has so many cool places to see. One café I located in the Lesser Quarter of town was built on the ruins of a 13th century chapel. More than once I ordered a pot of tea and sat to relax in the underground vaults while reading a book. Near another café I found a small theatre that offered performances of its plays nightly to audiences of twenty or so. I attended one such performance called Mimi and her Lord which was a silent production portraying the escapades of a penniless Mimi as she went from employer to employer trying to earn money. At last she ends up working as a maid for a sadistic old man who throws around pasta for her to clean up and blows smoke at her. Despite having no words, it was quite hilarious.

Another night I attended a classical concert at one of Prague’s many small but ancient churches. The list of performances included various works by Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss and of course, Czech master, Dvorak. The concert was played by a violinist, a classical singer and an organist. The church organ dates back to the 17th century and is in flawless condition. The music soared through the eaves of that church and for one hour I was transported to an ethereal place where my whole existence was reduced to the sense of hearing. That hour went by so quickly and I was sorry to hear it when the instruments at last fell silent.

One of the best features of Prague was the cuisine. Czech cuisine is a heavenly concoction of meats, rich sauces and starches. At one restaurant near the Charles Bridge I enjoyed a pig’s knuckle with potato dumplings and vegetables. All week I ate other meals of various game animals at cafes, beer gardens and bistros.

After the hectic pace of Rome, I welcomed the laidback city of Prague. I lounged about in parks, public squares and cafes, reading books, watching people and taking in the sights. I found a large park on the western outskirts of town located on a green hill with fruit trees. From the park I could see the American embassy with its flag waving in the breeze. The sight of the flag was a welcome one but it made me a little homesick. I continued on, however, and spent a pleasant sunny afternoon reading Dharma Bums on the high wall of an abandoned military institution.

By night, there was always a lot to do in Prague. My hostel was filled with young people from various nations. The hostel’s courtyard had a small bar and was a popular place for people to hang out, play music and talk. I spent much of my time with a group of young French guys. They were shocked that I spoke French and I had fun dispelling many of their misconceptions about Americans in their own native tongue. We played cards, smoked cigarettes and listened to each others i-pods. One night the group of use went out to a club on river near the Charles Bridge. The club was incredible with many different levels, rooms and dance floors playing different musical styles: hip-hop, techno and rock and roll. We wandered throughout the place dancing, hanging out and having a great time.

Prague is a decidedly small city that can boast barely one million people. However, Prague is completely unique. The city was the home of Kafka and bears a museum in his honor. Fittingly, out front of the Kafka museum is a fountain shaped like the Czech Republic. In the middle of the fountain stand two copper statues of dictators urinating on the country. That’s what Prague does; around every corner the classical and the absurd are glaringly juxtaposed. The old and new collide everywhere in this city. Communist housing blocks, medieval churches and neon lights all abound in Prague. There is a thriving tourist trade, but Prague is not overrun and I never once felt crowded or rushed. I stayed long enough to see everything there was to see and by the end of my stay I was simply relaxing and planning my trip to Krakow. Even these days, however, never felt empty as the mere atmosphere in Prague has a tonic effect and I could see why virtually everyone recommends Prague to travelers of Eastern Europe. To their recommendations, I heartily add my own.

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