A long weekend in Prague!
About a month ago, just moments after having booked a week in Devon with Rams for when we are both home, Ramona started talking to me on facebook:
“Have you ever been to Prague?”
“No, but I’ve always wanted to! Why?”
“Do you want to go in the Winterferien?”
And there it was, 4 days in Prague were booked about half an hour later. It seemed to just come up so quickly too! I had been poorly and there was a moment where I thought I might not be better in time for Prague. Prague became my focus and the thing which forced me to stay in when I couldn’t bare it.
Our train left Erfurt on Saturday at 10.30. We agreed to meet on the platform at about 10.15 although I insisted that I would be at the station by at least 10, and was ;). The journey was only 5 hours and we only had to change in Dresden. All in all, it was a rather boring train ride. For most of the way, we traced the route of the River Elbe. I am sure that this may usually be a rather beautiful landscape but with a blanket of snow covering everything the eye could see, it became monotonous and dull. I am so sick of winter now that the black and white views only made me desperate to see green.
Once we arrived in Prague, I was excited and we found our hotel quickly and easily. The lady on reception was lovely and the room was perfect. We decided that we would try to go and see the castle before finding somewhere to eat and so went straight back out to the tram. Unfortunately, despite it being light when we left, by the time we got off the underground it was completely dark and our trip on the tram was unsuccessful as we couldn’t see where we needed to get off. No matter though, it was nice to see a little of the city and the views of Prague across the river at night were beautiful. We ate dinner right next to Charles Bridge and I had goulash soup. I wanted to start early on the Czech cuisine ;).
On Sunday, we decided to do a walking tour of Prague in the afternoon. It wasn’t expensive and seemed a good way to see the city quickly. We chose one which took us through the main parts of the city and up to the castle and decided to go and see the Jewish Quarter ourselves in the morning. This is now one of the most expensive areas in Prague and the streets were scattered with designer shops. We went into one of the main sights there which is the Old-New Synagogue, thus named, it is thought, because the stones from the Temple in Jerusalem were flown by angels here to Prague to build a synagogue. A Czech Jewish lady showed us round and talked to us about the rituals and history of their holy place and about the legend of the Golem in Prague. It is said that he now lives in the attic of the synagogue and will come back to help the Jews of Prague if they need it. She did ask where he was during the first world war or the financial crisis though. What she didn’t mention was the Holocaust. At the start of the tour, she had asked us where we were from. She knew that Ramona was from Germany and so she didn’t say anything about it. That actually kind of upset Ramona. The Holocaust is the most terrible and significant thing that has happened to Jews in Europe in recent times, if not ever. But she didn’t question why the Golem didn’t come then. It is completely wrong that people of today should have to feel responsible for the atrocities of the ancestors. I am proud to be British. I’m not sure that people here find a pride for their nation so easy to express and that seems brutally unfair.
Before our walking tour, we settled down for dinner at lunchtime as we were going out in the evening. In an effort to keep going with the Czech theme, I chose cabbage pancakes. I had no idea what to expect but they came with a sour cream and garlic sauce so I figured I could just slather them in that if they weren’t nice. As it turns out, they were delicious! They were just like the potatos I bought in the Christmas markets and it was nice to have something new which felt kind of familiar.
The walking tour itself was really good fun, if not very, very cold. Our guide, Tomas, was very strange and was successful in ebbs and flows. The start of the tour took us through the middle of the city, through the shopping district. Tomas proceeded to tell us about every shop we could see and tell us the shops which used to be there. This was interesting in a few, select circumstances when this led to a discussion about what it was like under Communism, but generally speaking, I didn’t feel that hearing about a Planet Hollywood outlet which was no longer there was really relevant. He seemed to love the phrase ‘economically viable‘ and used it about 20 times in the space of 15 minutes or so. Ramona and I just enjoyed the views and took lots of pictures.
I must admit to knowing next to nothing about architecture but to me, all the buildings in Prague seemed to either be black and Gothic or built in an Art Nouveau style.
Maybe he just wanted something to say while we got to our next destination though as we quickly arrived in the main square and I really started to see the beauty of Prague. I’ll be honest, Prague took a while to grow on me. It was unlike any of the West European cities I had ever been to, of course and it was grey and cold, not really showing itself off at it’s best. The street we were staying on was perfect. It was right in the centre with everything on top of us and we could walk to lots of the sights. It wasn’t pretty though and it was full of shops and ugly tour operators. I was not complaining when I realised there was a Tesco opposite us, of course, but it took a while for me to see this Eastern city’s charm. Here it was though, right before us. We walked through a small street and all of a sudden we found a massive great square in front of us. There was a massive fountain of Jan Hus to my right, in front of a beautiful white church. Directly in front was another beautiful, ancient building and I could see the edge of the astronomical clock.
There are certainly advantages to taking a tour with somebody who really knows the secrets of a city. Tomas next took us into what looked like tourist information underneath the astronomical clock. As it turns out, whatever it was, you had to pay. Tomas just walked us straight past all the ticket booths though and through the door at the end. He walked us round a corner and into a small room which was just breathtaking. Maybe this bit was free. Maybe his sense of purpose was something no ticket inspector would argue with. Either way, I’m so glad he took us there. The room was covered in mosaic. All the walls and every piece of ceiling were covered with colour. The most wonderful thing about it is the fact that they were nearly destroyed. The Nazis tried to destroy all of the pieces like this but somehow, the people of Prague managed to convince them that pulling the mosaic off would compromise the building so instead, they covered it in cement. Now, all this has been removed and we are once again able to observe the beauty underneath.
A trip across Charles Bridge, full of its blackened but beautiful statues, took us across the river and on our way towards the castle. We took a detour though past the John Lennon memorial wall. This is not actually public space but the people who own it are quite happy for the wall to be covered in poems and tributes to the late musician. Not everyone has always been happy about it though and the Communist government even painted over it. However, the next day, the wall was once again completely covered with graffiti and Beatle’s lyrics.
On our way to the castle, we went past the British embassy and I had to have a picture with Winston :).
Before going to the castle, we decided to stop in a cafe to warm up and eat the most AMAZING chocolate cake ever. I think it had nougat in it. Yum! Then we had a long trek up the hill to the castle.
“Unfortunately for us, castles are usually built pretty high up for security reasons.” Thanks Tomas, no kidding!
There were a lot of steps to the top, but I was just happy to keep moving in the bitter cold. The views from the top were beautiful but I was disappointed that it wasn’t less misty and more sunny. An excuse to go back though I suppose ;).
Once we had finally finished our climb, we wandered through the grounds of the castle as the building itself was already closed. It was interesting though and we walked through the equivalent of 10 Downing Street too. This prompted some political discussion from Tomas about the EU as the Czech Republic have just elected a new, much more pro-EU president. He is not currently in office but Tomas told us that once he is, the EU flag will once again be flown alongside the Czech flag.
As part of the castle complex, there is a street called Golden Lane. They are tiny little units which were originally built as cheap, affordable housing for the people who couldn’t afford to live close to the city centre. Now, these houses demand some of the highest rents in Prague, certainly per square metre! Usually you have to pay to go down there, but for whatever reason, we were able to go down there for free that day, maybe because it was quite late in the day. We wandered down, past the beautiful houses and saw the house where Franz Kafka wrote “A Country Doctor”. We also went into a lovely little pottery shop. I bought some beautiful souvenirs there: a bell which says “Praha” at the bottom and is now hanging in the corner of my room, a lovely egg for Easter which is hanging from my shelves, a little milk jug and a little dish (presumably for tea bags) but which I have currently got a pile of chocolate easter eggs on. Yes, I am desperate for Spring! More pictures to come later, once there’s no snow left and I feel a little less ridiculous! 🙂 Anyway, as we left, he turned the sign in the door to closed and we felt even more lucky than we had done.
On our way back down towards the city centre to catch the tram, we went past the guards and we saw the new ones coming down the hill. We decided to hang about for a few minutes and see the changing of the guard, something I’ve never even seen in London! It sounds silly, but it was nice to see something ceremoniously military, even though I will never catch Ramsey wearing a fur hat ;).
That evening, we went back to the beautiful Municipal Hall which I had seen earlier that day for a concert of World and Czech music. I’m so pleased that Ramona had found out about it and suggested it because it was brilliant. It was a strings group and was happening every Sunday in February. The music was fantastic. As Ramona said, it sounded like a recording. The only negative was the nonchalance of it all. They looked like they were sitting in their living room at home. I suppose that’s because it’s so normal for them and the place was by no means full. It was a magnificent setting though and I was sad to find that the concert had ended.
On Monday, we headed back up to castle early so that we could have a look around in the cathedral. It was beautiful and the windows were fascinating, almost like a mosaic in glass. It was disappointing in the same way that all the other churches we went to were though: it just wasn’t quiet. There was no peace in the place and peace was something I was desperately searching for. Between the loudly talking tourists, phones ringing and the deafening sound of the security guards radios, the atmosphere was entirely lost on me. I cannot deny that it was a beautiful building though and I was glad to have seen it.
Later that day, after a sit down in a medieval tavern (no joke!) we went to the Deutscher Botschaft (or German embassy for you English readers). In the time when Germany was divided, it was here that held the West German embassy. During the existance of the DDR, East Germans were allowed to travel to the Czech Republic. Lots of incredibly brave people came and gave up everything they had to risk their lives and jump over wall into the garden of the West German embassy. Eventually, there were 1000s of people camping in the garden and they were eventually granted safe passage to West Germany. It was the courage of people like that that encouraged other people to fight against the oppressive regime. It was a great opportunity to see a part of history that many people in Prague don’t really remember. Although, maybe they remember all the Trabis which scattered the streets, abandoned.
After that emotional visit, we did something a little more frivalous and went to see the ancient library which is featured in Casino Royale. Ramona in particular is a massive James Bond fan and the library was beautiful. She even sneaked an illegal picture ;). I, however, didn’t but there was a beautiful house by the entrance, covered in leaves.
On the last day, we didn’t have to catch our train until 14:30 so we visited a few things near to our hotel. We went to the Bethelehem Chapel which has been quite significant to the history of Prague. It has a rather torrid history and has changed hands a lot of times. The founder of the Hussite movement, Jan Hus, preached here between 1402 and 1412 but since then much has been destroyed. It has now been restored and despite it’s substantial size, it is still used as a chapel. Due to it’s relationship with the university, university ceremonies and events also often take place in this building. It was the first place we had been to which was quiet and Ramona and myself just sat silently for what felt like a long time. It was nice.
As a last thing, we grabbed a hot drink and cake in a little cafe which had been recommended to us. It was decorated in a cubist style apparently and it felt like going back in time. It was lovely! Even our cakes came out in a cubist shape but I ate mine too quickly to take a picture!
After a wonderful trip, we headed back to the hotel, picked up our bags and began our journey to the mainline station. We validated tickets we thought we hadn’t used and got on the underground. This was the one day we saw ticket inspectors and they only checked our tickets. Well, apparently they had been validated twice. After lots of investigation, we could see it but it was a mistake, we hadn’t realised and there was a lot of discussion about my ticket before they decided mine was wrong too. Well, there was an 800 Kroner fine to pay, each. We had spent every last Kroner we had in the cafe and I didn’t have enough euros to pay my half of the fine. Thankfully, Ramona did and she paid the 65 euros for the both of us. I don’t know what would have happened if she hadn’t have had enough and we had a train to catch! It all could have been a lot worse.
Anyway, we did get our train with lots of time to spare too so I was willing to let the fine go. I’ll just make sure I carry a lot more money on me when I travel in future! Well, Prague didn’t disappoint, even with the fines. It was freezing and the sun never did come out but we had a really good time and I’m glad that we went. I have never been to that area of the world before, it always seemed so far. Now though, the world feels a little bit smaller, in a good way. There’s so much more of Eastern Europe to discover too 🙂