I’ve actually made it to Vienna and have found a delightful little backpacker’s bar with internet (and as I write I am also drinking beer and eating chips. Such is the life). Before I start in on Prague, I want to say my big Viennese excitement for the day: other than having hot chocolate in the palace (a usual touristy thing that sounds a lot more extravagant than it is), I also saw both the President and the Chancellor of Austria. In real life. But… you’ll have to wait for my Vienna blog for that story. As for now, the “Golden City”, Prague (or to most of Europe, Praha).
Arriving in Prague was a culture shock. It (so far) is the most purely foreign to me. I felt pretty overwhelmed just making it to my hostel (Hostel Elf), but once I got to the cozy little independent hostel, and saw the big pot marked “Here I am… your tea”, I started to feel a bit better. At least it wasn’t ALL foreign!
I started my first night with a big CouchSurfers meetup in a Czech pub. I thought I wouldn’t stay for long, but it turns out the CS’ers are friendly people (and there were more than 200 CSers, they had booked the whole bar!), and I stayed for hours. I had an authentic Czech meal – roast beef with an oddly sweet sauce (with cream and jam on top as if I was having scones), plus big flat bread dumplings that I quite enjoyed. And then I danced to the wild techno on the dance floor under the pub, which, also oddly, had a fake spider pit and a cage up in the air for people to dance in. A couple of the braver ones climbed up to it.
My first morning in Prague was spent seeing the “Jewish Museum” which is actually 6 different sites in the Jewish ghetto, Josefov. The most striking were the Pinkas Synagogue which now has the nearly 80,000 names of Jews from the Czech Republic that were killed in the Holocaust written on the walls and an exhibit with children’s art from the Terezin camp (all but about 250 children of about 10,000 at Terezin were later transported and gassed at Auschwitz), and the Jewish Cemetery. The Cemetery is a crazy pile of headstones because the Jews were only allowed a small area for burying their dead for 400 years… and there was a huge Jewish ghetto! I saw the grave of Rabbi Loew, who legend has it created the Golem of Prague (not to be confused with Gollum from LOTR. That’s something else entirely). And, of course, there was the glorious Spanish synagogue!
I spent the afternoon visiting the Old Town Square and its astronomical clock that the tourists go wild over once an hour, the New Town Square: Wenceslas Square, that is (after the Good King from the Christmas song) – much like a mall on the ground level, but looking up is a crazy blend of architectural styles. I went wacko over deco. Art deco that is… it’s all over the city.
Following with my deco fever, I headed to the Alphons Mucha Museum to see his famous art deco style posters and the original works behind them. I really enjoyed this museum, and the included video really brought Mucha to life.
The next day was spent on the other side of the river… and first I had to get there! Getting there was the (in?)famous Charles Bridge, with its Gothic arches and tons of statues of saints. Unfortunately, the section on bridge in front of the most famous statue, St John of Nepomunk was closed… which meant that I couldn’t rub the golden picture of him being thrown off the bridge (and killed) to get my one wish. Rats. Well, apparently you only get one from there in a lifetime, so I guess I will have to return to Prague someday.
I wandered the “Little Quarter” on the other side of the river, and headed up the slippery, cobblestoned, sloping streets to Prague Castle (I’m literally surprised I made it without any broken ankles… it was raining and the streets are either cobblestones or marble! Eep!). I wandered the castle grounds (apparently its the biggest castle complex in the world right now, if you count the gardens).
The only actual castle building I went in was St Vitus Cathedral, which was the most excessively glorious church I have ever seen (probably because I’ve not yet been through the “Catholic kingdoms”, and Protestant churches don’t seem to be as decorative!). I admired the lovely stained glass windows (and stared at the window Mucha did for quite some time), the curving stone up to the ceiling, and the wealth of silver and gold all over the statues at the edges. I even saw St Wenceslas’ tomb. Wow.
I also stopped at the Doll and Barbie Museum, which is strangely on the castle grounds. I was entirely delighted to see the vintage toys, especially the vintage Halloween & Christmas things, and the Eastern European specialties. Oh, and I may have really enjoyed the Barbies too. It was quite a delight for a collector like me to see Barbies #1, #2, and #3, as well as the German doll Barbie was based on…. plus a whole lot more!
Afterwards I had a “menu” (which means a fixed price meal deal) in a cozy Czech pub with “potato soup” (I would call it vegetable really.. but it tasted just like my style of soup), apple strudel for dessert, and a main course of wild boar ragout and potato pancakes. I was expected it would taste like pork, but it tasted more like beef to me. I didn’t really like how sweet the dark gravy was… but the meat was tasty!
The last thing I did in Prague was take a “Ghosts and Beer” tour. Basically, it was a tour telling all the mysterious little oddities of Prague (including some ghost stories), and ended up at a pub called By the Executioner for a free beer. I preferred the curiosities to the actual ghost stories.. (such as the cage on a fountain around the corner from the Old Town Square that was once in the middle of the square in the 16th and 17th centuries and was where they would keep and torture suspected witches. Now why would they keep it and put it on a fountain? That’s beyond me…)
So Prague. Even my “not so good area” (as one Czech couchsurfer told me about my hostel location) was beautiful as long as you look beyond the street level graffiti and strip bars… just UP. I couldn’t find an ugly buidling in Prague if I searched for it!
Also… it was freezing! Pretty much the coldest I’d expected on my entire trip, and it’s still pretty early in the year. But I handled it well in my cozy jacket. No worries.