When JG sets his mind on something, there is really nothing much you can do to change his mind. So when he decided to stop by at Prague for a day, during our Berlin trip, my attempts to discourage him were futile. I was already worried about how we were going to adjust to winter at Berlin, I was afraid it might be worst in Prague. Plus after several trips together, we, especially I, should already know better that we are not exactly the most energetic, stamina enduring travelers around. The pessimist in me kept bugging me about how four hours in the train and another four hours touring around in the cold would definitely be a recipe for a fight. To which anyone would agree is something you don’t want to get into on your holiday. But I digress.
Also I really did know what to expect in Prague, unlike Paris or Rome, you get excited of the things that you would like to see when going there. Even in Berlin, at least learning more about its history is something to look forward to in a visit. Previous stories of people who’ve been there have only been vague, that it is a beautiful place, some place not many has gone to. If I did want to visit Prague, maybe some other time when I’ve learned more of it, or when I’m not going to be spending a day.
Anyway, so after a day of walking around Berlin we stopped at a small mall where you can get buy tickets for the train. Like a lot of things this past year, this was my first cross-European train ride, and I was curious to see how easy or otherwise it would be. And it was very easy, they did not even ask to see my passport, just what time I wanted to leave and if I wanted to reserve my seats. To be honest, if all train rides were like that, I am convinced that I now like it better than riding a plane when travelling. As soon as we were seated it was just a matter of finding a comfortable sitting position and off you go. Once in a while the valet will ask to see your ticket, and on our way back was the only time a police looking guy came up to see our passports.
Winter also made the scenery outside a highlight of the trip, although I am sure it is as beautiful as in any season, it was really a treat to see small towns along the river especially during the winter season.
So we get to Prague, and first on the list was to find the hostel we were staying in. By this time we decided that it would be too stressing to catch the last train of the day, and that it was best if we stay the night. The Czech Republic’s subway system was a bit old, and bit grungier if you ask me which kind of really made me think that I hauled myself all the way out here just so I can see old gray buildings. Our destination wasn’t so far thankfully, two train changes and less than 30 minutes later we arrive at the Old Town.
Five minutes of walking along gray buildings later, and what welcomed us really surprised me. It wasn’t called Old Town for nothing because you are welcomed to this picturesque medieval inspired square, with trees dried up by the cold season, some old cabins all with red roofs, and at the background was this Baroque Church that stood like a Castle over looking its village. It was truly something out of a postcard. I later learned that Prague is one of UNESCO’s world heritage sites for its many stunning architectural sites that they were thankfully spared during the war.
Since the Christmas seasons are coming, the town square is now busy with its holiday bazaar with stalls surrounding the area selling holiday knick knacks, souvenirs, even winter accessories for those who lack a glove or a warm cap. The smell of roasted nuts and all kinds of grilled, boiled, and warmed pastries fill the air and enough to distract you from the cold.
After we deposited our stuff in our room, we proceed on a search of the free tours. After we found our guide we were told that before the tour starts we should go by the huge clock and watch because something was going to happen. Because of the festive holiday atmosphere, I thought there were going to be carolers or a marching band would be coming out or that it would light up or shoot fireworks up the sky. It wasn’t any of my guesses but is entertaining just the same. The unique huge clock is called the Astronomical Clock, which basically shows three different ways of time. Every hour starting 7 am, I think, to 9 pm it does a sort of huge coocoo clock show. But instead of the regular chime and a bird coming out of a window, the big clock chimes, the skeleton statue rings his bell, the windows open and the more statues in the likeness of the Jesus’ Apostles take turns peering out the window; after which a trumpeter way up on the tower blows up a tune amidst the crowd’s applause back down the square. It’s probably a regular dull ceremony for the locals, but it is something new for us tourists visiting.
So on with the tour, our guide was another English bloke who teaches English in Prague. JG and I assumed that he was only during the tour so he could have some extra cash for pub nights and whatever hobbies he might have, to which we both agreed is a great way for a sideline. He was having some problems with his voice, probably because of the weather, nevertheless was very upbeat, funny, and even a bit pleasantly theatrical if you ask me; making the stories even more interesting to listen to.
Czech as a lot probably already knows has also went through a lot throughout its history and has been colonized several times in the past. One of the most interesting and a bit funny story the guide told was that Prague’s national anthem is entitled Where is My Home?, because when you think about it, a person living there has known several colonies during his or her lifetime. He jokes though, that Prague also has a high rate of people having one too many, who also fittingly sings their national song on nights after happy hour. But they do have a very interesting and colorful history including the Velvet Revolution which the city prides itself for.
Prague also had its share of history especially for its many Jewish residents. The famous Jewish Cemetery is said to be the inspiration for Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe site. We weren’t able to get inside, but even with the high walls surrounding it you could see the peak of the hill. But it isn’t just a hill, the guide said it wasn’t originally like that, he said before that was the only piece of land that was designated for the dearly departed of the Jewish Community, but eventually there wasn’t enough space to bury the dead in so they decided to they had to put tombs atop old ones, atop older ones, and so on…
The cemetery also houses a museum mostly on the holocaust, with the section that presents paintings of children while in the camp, the art materials were smuggled in by a woman and was able to hide the drawings in her room before she herself were taken to the camps. The great thing about the drawings they say, is that despite all the horrors the children go through in the camps, it is mostly about happy and positive works of art with rainbows and flowers. I did not go inside but that is one thing I plan to come back for.
Continuing with its Jewish history is the Old-New Synagogue which supposedly houses the infamous Golem of Prague in its attic. For those who don’t know a Golem is sort of a big animated being made of any inanimate matter, maybe mud or clay made in the likeness of a man. The story of the Golem of Prague is that it is made by a 16th century rabbi who made him to help the citizens of the city. You are supposed to put a piece of paper in its mouth with scribbled instructions. So the Golem goes around the city doing good deeds, but the story goes that the rabbi got cocky and made it work on a Sabbath which naturally offends God and the Golem suddenly loses control and wreaks havoc on the city it once served. Of course Mr. Comic book/JG couldn’t help add that the Golem was the inspiration for the guys who created Superman. I forgot if they confirmed if it’s still there, but today it is one of Prague’s icons in a way. You can find miniature Golems in souvenir shops.
I don’t know if its common knowledge, JG says it is, that Prague is also known as a Bohemian city. It’s pretty popular for some unique architectural buildings all over, including the Dancing Houses (we did not see that one though); but during the trip we stopped by two cubist architecturally designed building that was built a few years back.
We also stopped by the bronze statue of novelist Kafka, which they say gives a bit of good luck if you rub your hand with his foot. I haven’t had the pleasure of reading his books, JG and the guide agree that his stories were inspired mostly by his dreams or are dreamlike, which like most dreams often does not make any sense. The interesting part about him was that he had unfortunately died before his works were published and recognized courtesy of his friend who only did so in memory of him.
There are still lots of other places we went to like the Charles Bridge and this church whose name I completely forgot who the guide says houses a real-life hand. The story goes that it belonged to a man who in desperation tried to steal from the statue of the Virgin Mary in the church. Which again, naturally makes little Mary not happy and grabs the man’s arm and did not let go, stuck there the man was eventually found by the priests who gets a saw and decides to cut the man’s arm off. That is another thing I plan to come back and see, I asked a colleague of JG who was posted there before but said that he hasn’t seen it either so that is something to look forward to.
At the final part of the tour we sat at the steps of the Rudolfinum, one of Prague’s prestigious concert and exhibition halls, where the guide ended with the story of the assassination of one of the most powerful German SS leader during WWII.
At the east side of where we sat is a spectacular view of Prague and the Prague Castle.
JG and I were so exhausted after the tour that we did not eat dinner at plopped in our beds and were completely out as early as 7 pm. Unlike JG I did not sleep like a dead log through the night, because although the hostel was nice and clean, the walls were not that thick. Around 10 pm I was awaken by some mild rhythmic thumping coming from the other room, it wasn’t that bad or loud so I didn’t mind, few minutes later though it the thumping went up a notch to which point I was already shaking my head and laughing by myself while JG snored right through it. Unfortunately for those in the other room, the other other guests were apparently not as lenient as I was and I suddenly heard a loud knock at the other other side of their wall, the kind that says “Cut that racket out!”
The next day we were welcomed by a beautiful Old City covered in a blanket of white snow. At last the Filipino in JG had his winter wonderland fulfilled. Even I who did not have such a dream, was a bit taken aback by how beautiful it was, especially since the Old Town Square was already so great, the snow was an added feature.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t my favorite view of the trip, so as an ending to my visit, I leave you with the one picture that will always stick to my head whenever I think of Bohemian, historical, surprisingly beautiful Prague.