I left Melbourne, almost six months ago now, with a naive, unfounded notion that I could get everywhere in Europe I wanted to go. Six months is plenty of time, I thought. As I approach the end of my trip, I am realising that I was very much mistaken. Berlin, Copenhagen, Dubrovnik… just a few of the many places I would have loved to visit but didn’t have the chance. But there is one place in Europe – a city I vowed not to get back on the plane to Australia without having seen. And that’s Prague.
So, I managed to find a couple of free days, a willing travel partner, and together we booked a trip to the Czech Republic. We arrived in Prague on Tuesday night, and crossed our fingers that the rain that greeted us wouldn’t hang around. On the way to our hostel, we glimpsed Prague Castle lit up across the river, and a few late night revellers in the Old Town Square. It didn’t take us long to discover the wonder of this beautiful city.
The first thing we did the next morning was take a walk along the famous Charles Bridge. It’s lined with impressive statues, dating back to the 18th Century, but is well and truly alive today as tourists buzz between musicians, jewellery stalls, portrait artists, and more. We wandered a little further on, before coming back to the town square to meet our free walking tour.
This was the fourth one of these New Europe tours I’ve done, and I was no less impressed. Our guide was knowledgeable and animated, and as we stopped at various points, he told us stories and gave us all sorts of information that we couldn’t have got just exploring on our own. It was a good way to get a feel for the city, and pick the places where we wanted to spend our time.
Every building in Prague is more beautiful than the last; every street more enchanting. I became a bit of a liability there. As we walked, I would gaze up at the architecture, and be so taken aback that I would lose my footing or almost walk right into somebody.
Although rain was forecast, it didn’t happen. It was quite warm in fact. That afternoon, we made our way across the river and up the hill to Prague Castle. It is not only a Castle, but a collection of worthwhile things to see. Of these, the most impressive is undoubtedly St Vitus Cathedral, astounding both in its exterior and interior. Within the Cathedral, there are many small chapels, the most famous being the richly decorated 14th Century St Wenceslas Chapel.
Other highlights of the Castle include the Golden Lane, a 16th Century tradesmen’s quarter of tiny houses built into the castle walls. Some serve as mini-museums, while others have been converted into cute little souvenir shops. There is also the Romanesque Basilica of St George, and the Old Royal Palace, which houses the vast Vladislav Hall. And because the Castle is atop a hill, from various points we had amazing views of the city.
On the walk back down from the Castle to the centre, we wandered through some cool Baroque back-streets, which I have since learnt were built by Catholic clerics and nobles in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Exhausted from our day of sightseeing, we settled in one of the many restaurants in the Old Town square for some dinner.
It’s a little difficult to try the local delicacies if you don’t eat meat and don’t like beer. Fortunately, Rob doesn’t fit into either of those categories, and enjoyed his goulash and Czech beer on behalf of both of us.
After dinner, we found a really cool bar in which to pass the evening (and try some more Czech beer). It was full of local students, and decorated with dusty odds and ends, particularly an excess of Pulp Fiction paraphernalia. I think the Czech Republic is a little bit backward when it comes to health and safety, because people were allowed to smoke inside. And we were about the only people who weren’t. But the place was full of character, and it was good fun.
Prague of course has a particular interest for me because of all the Jewish history there. The next morning, we bought tickets which allowed us entry into the Jewish cemetery and a variety of Synagogues. Unlike many other European cities, in Prague, Synagogues and other evidence of a once prosperous Jewry have been left intact. We were told by our tour guide of the previous day that Hitler intended for Prague to be a museum of an extinct race. In fact, Prague was left largely intact during World War II because Hitler was fond of it.
The four Synagogues that we went to were set up as museums, together comprising the Jewish Museum of Prague. The exhibitions focussed on the Jewish religion, with specific attention being paid to Prague’s Jewish community prior to World War II, and their fate in the holocaust. Particularly pertinent was an exhibition where the walls were covered with tens of thousands of names of the Czech Jews who perished in the war.
Just when I was starting to get a little jealous that Cathedrals and Basilicas are always far more visually impressive than Synagogues, we went into the Spanish Synagogue. It was probably the most impressive Synagogue I’ve ever seen. Build in 1868 it is richly and intricately decorated inside with an imposing dome overhead. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take photos inside any of the Synagogues.
It is worth noting the old Jewish Cemetery. The most recent grave there dates back to the 1700s – wow. The cemetery is above street level, because when the Jewish community requested a new cemetery, they were repeatedly rejected, and hence had to create new graves on top of older ones. Apparently, in some places, there are as many as 12 graves on top of one another. As such, the grave stones are clustered together rather than spread out.
The cemetery is well maintained, although of course the condition of grave stones has deteriorated over time, and they are largely impossible to read. Unlike the cemetery we visited in Czestochowa, Poland, many people visit this cemetery. Not being Jewish, I was pleased that Rob found this all as interesting and worthwhile as I did.
Built in 1410, the Astronomical Clock, just off the Old Town Square, still works today. Every hour, it entertains hordes of tourists who gather to see its emerging apostles and chiming bells. We climbed up the clock tower to get a view of the city, a worthwhile thing to do. The city seen from above is quite something.
In the same complex, we visited the Old Town Hall, and a contemporary art exhibition which was cool and cutting-edge. Amongst the awe-inspiring architecture, Prague is exploding with museums and galleries, especially those centred on modern art.
Next stop was St Nicholas’ Church. It was only fair since we’d spent the morning in various Synagogues. This particular church, one of many in the city, is regarded as one of Prague’s greatest Baroque buildings. It boasts 17th Century passion cycle paintings, which we could see from the upper gallery. Quite a spectacle.
We rested a little bit in a lush, green park, which was a low-lying island beside the river. After that, we headed to the Franz Kafka museum. I was interested, having studied bits of his work in one of my classes last year. It was a brilliantly put together museum. He certainly was an intriguing (subtext: disturbed) character.
We had come to Prague at a good time; in time for its annual local food festival which takes place in the Old Town Square. It was fun to walk around, observe whole pigs being roasted over coals, and stalls selling all kinds of things from sweets to meat to wine. When I approached one of the stands and asked if they had anything vegetarian, they looked at me as if I was stupid. So while Rob had some ham (which we saw being carved right off the pig), I had a delicious traditional Czech sweet pastry.
We spent our last couple of hours before we had to go to the airport enjoying the atmosphere in the town square. I feel like I say this about a lot of my trips, but Prague has been one of my favourite places. People told me it was an amazing city; it reached and exceeded my expectations. As Kafka once wrote, “this little mother has claws.”
Other than the trip to Prague, I have spent the last week seeing friends, most of whom I don’t have a lot of time left with. On Monday, I went with Sabrina and Laia to Brighton, an atmospheric beach town about an hour out of London by train.
Tomorrow, Natalie arrives. I’m excited for one of my best friends to see where I’ve been living, and to experience with me the city I’ve grown to love. Above all, though, I’m excited to see her after so long. We have a few days in London before heading to Paris and then to Spain. These are essentially my last days in London. Sure it’s a cliché, but where has the time gone?