“You can’t stand around and wait to be asked to dance.” -Amy Poehler
After 13 hours of bus excersions, and I’m not exaggerating: 2 buses and 13 hours later I had made my way from Venice to Prague.
This would be my second time in the land of my ancestors. Which, by the way, my family tree has been traced back to Moravian Czechs, my mother has 100% Czech blood despite the family line going back as far as 4 generations living on American soil. My mother’s mother’s mother’s mother came straight in from the port of Galveston in the 1800’s, but that’s a story for another time.
My first was back in 2010. Even though it would be my second trip, Prague was actually one of the places I was most excited to see. The first time around, although I found the city lovely, exploration was limited due to it being a semi school-related trip. My mother was 100% certain 18 – year-old me would get “Taken“. So this time around, I was ready to indulge in what the city had to offer.
I was greeted at the bus station by a little convenience store that sold all the requirements for a satisfactory mini breakfast: kolac and coffee (and take away coffee at that!). After checking the map, my compadre and I were on our way to the hotel. Mind you, it was 5 am when we arrived. Check in wasn’t until 11 am, but the hotel staff were much obliging and allowed us to drop off our bags and told us we could check in as early as 6 am.
And that’s when I had the brilliant idea to watch the sunrise from Charles Bridge.
This bridge was as it will never be during the day: desolate.
Oh, and I should mention that Prague is absolutely glowing at night (both literally and figuratively).
Even with overcast skies, the experience of gazing over the Vltava river on a bridge built over 700 years ago to see the sun break apart the darkness was nothing short of majestic.
I was entrenched in utter delightful bliss.
Now, after the fantastical experience, we were met with a new obstacle. Finding breakfast in Prague before 9 am was a seemingly impossible task. It was quite possibly the most daunting task I believe I will take on for this trip.
We wandered around for an hour to find only some measly cafe with less than filling cuisine. After arriving back at the hotel around 10 am, I took a much needed cat nap.
For much of my trip after this point I traveled alone. Although my compadre and I were together, we did our own individual things until he departed from Paris to get back to work. When I awoke, my compadre had left to explore the city. Left to my own devices, and fiercely malnurished, I set off to find the feast of my people: meat, bread, and beer.
I set my sights for U Houdků, which was quite a journey from where I was staying. But I walked anyways.
The pub was small, warm, and inviting. Luckily the sole waiter/bartender spoke English. Otherwise, I was the sole foreigner in the whole establishment, not to mention the only female (the place was full of middle aged Czech men sitting around drinking and chatting).
But oh my gawd was it worth it.
I wish I had a photo to show you, but I honestly was ill-prepared for such a delight. I normally can’t finish dishes that are served on platters as wide as my chest, but this one was too good not to complete.
The dish was comprised of pork ribs inside a beer bread loaf (there might have actually been some veggies on the side, but I wasn’t too concerned with those). I know it doesn’t sound all that special, but the meat was so tender it fell off the bones. The sauce was so flavorful, a bit sweet but not overly so, and the beer bread was it’s perfect companion; the sweet and the salty became eternal lovers upon my plate.
I’m also writing this a week later….so you KNOW that the food was good. And on top of that, to stuff my face, it only cost me $8 (beer included).
I went back to the hotel to lie down and not move for about an hour. I only proceeded to get out of bed when my compadre requested my accompaniment to search for the best beer in Prague.
Besides wanting you to lust after that amazing food, I tell you the story of U Houdků because when I went to pay for my meal, the waiter gave me this piece of advice: don’t trust anyone here.
That was day one.
Day two I put my hiking boots on and took to trekking.
My compadre and I figured out how go purchase a metro ticket (a much more confusing task than it should be), did up some laundry at a local laundry mat, and then I was left to my own devices.
I took a tram across the city center and it deposited me at the foothill of Prague castle. I sludged through the rain on cobblestone streets to rejoice at the view I came to find.
Hard work has its reward.
I wound through the little streets back down to the river. I managed to stumble upon the Lennon Wall and a great little park.
The John Lennon Wall (Lennonova zed’) which was used as a source of irritation for the Communist regime in the 1980’s, continuously painted over by locals and tourists alike, stands as a symbol of global peace and love.
Sauntering across a much more crowded Charles Bridge, I found myself at the doorstep of the Klementium (the national library). Here is where one of the most gorgeous libraries in the world rests. Unfortunately no photos are allowed of the library, so here’s one from their website.
For 3 euros, I got so much more than I expected. For I believed the tour was only to go and tour the centuries old library. Instead, there were a number of things included in the tour including the climbing of the observation tower that used to signal to the city the exact time. This was done by using a small window in the side of the wall. A string was stretched across the floor and when the shadow cast by the string from the sun aligned with the string itself, this indicated the time was exactly midday or noon.
At the very top of the tower, tour participants are then allowed to walk to the upper terrace that includes an even more spectacular view of the city. (Though honestly I don’t believe Prague has any bad views.)
Of course it was raining when we went to the top of the tower.
Even hailing a bit at one point. YAY for winter travels!
View from the Klementium observatory while the storm passed over us.
Afterwards, I rewarded myself for my struggles with hot chocolate and trdelník (you can’t go to Prague without getting trdelník, even though it’s a more traditional Slovakian pastry).
That night I met up with my compadre in New Town and we made our way over to the ever classic U Fleků. It was an upbeat experience, with lots of beer, music, and flavorful Czech cuisine.
Crowd waiting for the top of the hour with the clock plays a little tune and small wooden figures do a little performance
Day three had just as much trekking around as day two.
I was determined to go see the lesser known catacombs of Prague and had found that a tour is offered through the old city hall (entrance is through the tourism office to the left of the astronomical clock).
Once again I was pleasantly surprised by the guided tour and got so much more than I thought I would.
Not only did I get to see the catacombs, but we were given a tour of the most reconstructed town hall, even catching a glimpse of the astronomical clock from the inside (so much more cool than watching from the outside)!
Now, like every post, let me give you a bit of history, because I don’t think people know just how far back Prague’s history goes.
The first known inhabitants of the land now known as Prague were predominately of Germania and Celtic origin. They occupied the land from as far back as 5500 BC. Fast-forward just a bit to 700 AD, when a settlement was established, slowly beginning to create the city we now know and love. The work for Prague castle actually began at the end of the 800’s.
The first Bohemia king didn’t make Prague his home until the late 11th century. Old town was established as far back as the 13th century (1230 to be more precise). Around 1350, Prague became the capital of the Bohemian Kingdom and Holy Roman Empire. At this time, New Town was formed, as well as Charles University.
Here’s where the history gets really interesting.
The construction of St. Vitus Cathedral began in 1344 (the cathedral at the top of the hill that looks as if it’s almost protected by the castle) yet the construction didn’t end until 1929. That construction lasted through dynasties, occupations, revolutions, political and religious reforms. Oh, if those walls could talk.
In 1526 the Hapsburg dynasty ascends the Bohemian throne, lasting until 1918, when the proclamation of independence of Czechoslovakia declares the country a new state. This national revival came with none other than the industrial revolution.
Then begins the more known Czech history lesson: Nazi Germany occupied Prague fro, 1939 to 1945, destroying much of the old town. Hitler was against anything not proclaiming German greatness and had many buildings and artifacts destroyed. With the end of World War II, Prague and Czechoslovakia fall under the control of the Communist Party of Czechoslavakia. It wasn’t until 1989, with the Velvet Revolution, does the country convert to a parliamentary democracy. In 1993, Czechoslavakia splits in two and the Czech Republic (as well as Slovakia) are formed.
I’m sure at this point you’re wondering, but what the heck do the catacombs have to do with any of this?
What would have been a medieval jail cell. Prisoners were kept here with no toilets, and the state did not give any food for it was the family’s responsibility and option to supply their unlawful member such delicacies.
The catacombs of Prague are a network of underground tunnels that are connected throughout the city. Much of them are in Old town, and there’s even a tunnel that connects old town to the castle from under the river (supposedly).
These catacombs weren’t an intended product of the city. Instead, they are entirely an environmental accident.
In the beginning of Prague (circa the 12th century), people would throw their garbage and waste upon the street. Add in the fact the river floods the city once every year, and viola!, you get an entirely buried city. And that is what the catacombs are: bits of old residences, shops, streets, and even jails, that were once a functioning part of every day life in old Prague.
Total tourist photo, trust me, I know. But I wanted to show you how tall these houses were. Also, see this square things above the guide ‘ head? Those were the windows. And that there below? That was the door! These old homes and pathways are now buried 14 meters below ground.
It’s the perfect mixture of creepy and awesome.
Carved signatures of late prisoners on the walls of the catacombs. See there in the top left corner of the door frame? It says 1609.
Moving from the catacombs back into the foyer of the old town hall, we are greeted by something a much less grotesque.
While Hitler was going and destroy bits of Czech history, a few brave town hall workers found a way to hide a fantastic mural just at the foot of the astronomical clock tower.
Other things Hitler forgot to get rid of? The Jewish cemetary.
Really, he didn’t forget. He intentionally left it. He intended to use it as a landmark to remind people that there once were Jews.
When this cemetary was founded, no one can be sure. The oldest gravestone indicates it is from 1439. The last grave comes from 1787, a couple of years before burial inside the city walls was banned.
Wondering why the cemetary seems so high up? I was unsure at first too. Turns out out of piety and respect, Jews are not allowed to destroy old graves. Because space was limited, new layers of soil were heaped upon available areas. In certain areas there are as many as TWELVE layers. The gravestones are so densely populated because they were moved to the surface as a new layer was added to the cemetary.
After much walking, I found myself back at the hotel to get some much needed rest. That night my compadre and I made our rounds to the local bars and clubs, living it up one last night before we were to head off to Paris the next day.
I’m sure you’ve heard of bohemians. The style is everywhere, emerging as a new trend. Yet, Bohemia is a region in the Czech Republic and has very little connection to the modern term.
Want to know why I think it’s so great?
Bohemien is a French term. Meant to describe Romas and gypsies. But by the 19th century, began to be used to describe poor artists in Paris, leaving an unconventional lifestyle.
The first generations of bohemians were mainly bourgeois youths trying out independence for the first time. They were able to pretend to be poor before returning to their privileged lives back home (*cough cough* George Orwell, anyone?).
A boheme is known for their vagabond lifestyle, merry poverty, unregimented life without assured resources, pursuing that which brings life new pleasures: music, color, relationships, and overall connection to the world around them. (Sound familiar mom?)
I believe freedom is found in this kind of existence, one not held by conventional means, unapologetically pursuing that which is your passion.
The legend goes there was a princess that foresaw prophesies. In one such prophecy she predicted the glory of Prague. “I see a vast city, whose glory will touch the stars! I see a place in the middle of a forest where a steep cliff rises above the Vltava River. There is a man, who is chiselling the threshold (prah) for the house. A castle named Prague (Praha) will be built there. Just as the princes and the dukes stoop in front of a threshold, they will bow to the castle and to the city around it. It will be honoured, favoured with great repute, and praise will be bestowed upon it by the entire world.”
Hers is the mural that was saved from the destruction of Hitler in Old Town Hall.
Modern stained glass windows inside the chapel of the Old Town Hall
Many people wait for their turn to live. Never feeling the madness in the air, letting go, and dancing to the music.
A whole history would have never been built. A mural never saved. A revolution never started, if the unconventional hadn’t set their sails against the current. The only way to move forward is to take the step. The only way to build is to lay the first stone.
The only way to begin is to begin.
Life is short, but oh so sweet. If you can take any lesson from Prague, may it be simply, kdo hledá, najde (he who looks, finds). Much of what I fell in love with in Prague, I wasn’t expecting to find.
But those are the best kind of treasures, right? The ones unexpectedly found.
The other lesson? No obstacle is too difficult to overcome. The city is literally built on the ruins of centuries past ans revolutions have been had and won three times in the last 100 years!
Now go get yours, you unconventional vagabond, you.