At first, Prague seemed like a tough egg to crack. I arrived Saturday morning, after a fun one night layover in Brussels. While I always relish my “me time” while traveling and at home, this was the first time on my trip I didn’t want to be alone anymore. I think it is because of the wonderful week I had just had in Provence. Traveling to Prague and Brussels alone felt like jumping out of a hot tub into a cold swimming pool. Needless to say, I’ve adjusted and begun to uncover the layers that make “Bohemia” such a unique place, and it’s been good to be alone with my own thoughts again as I round out the last few weeks of this journey.
After leaving Marseille Friday around noon, I arrived in Brussels and immediately took the train from the airport into the city. Or at least, so I thought! Twenty minutes later, I was not in Brussels, but rather was in the village of Leuven, Belgium. The nice train station worker recognized my mistake and gave me a voucher to take the next train back to Brussels (which fortunately was leaving just 20 minutes later!) I then arrived in Brussels and found my way via subway to my hostel for the night.
By this point, it was already 6pm, and I had to leave at 6am the next morning for my connection to Prague. So I prioritized the following- 1)have an authentic Belgian dinner, 2)see the Grand Place, and 3) find this (in)famous fountain. I accomplished all 3 and made it home just before midnight for a few hours of sleep before my flight.
I arrived in Prague the next morning and found my way to my hostel via bus, train, and taxi (it was quite confusing). My hostel was located in the Zizkov neighborhood, which is supposed to be the “hipster” area of Prague. However, it just didn’t seem like much was going on there, so I made my way to Wenceslas Square (yes, like the Christmas carol!) and the Old Town to explore. From the first minute, I’ve found the blend of gothic, renaissance, baroque, and art nouveau architecture to be breathtaking.
The next morning, I woke up feeling flu-ish. My nice bunkmate from Hong Kong gave me an amazing powdered flu medicine from Japan. It tasted disgusting but I started feeling better soon! I then made my way back into Old Town, where I then climbed the hill to Letna Park and saw the metronome. The metronome is supposed to represent time lost during and then regained from the communist regime. For years, a giant statue of Joseph Stalin stood on the hill in this spot and looked over the city. Then, for a few weeks in 1996, an inflatable Michael Jackson statue also stood in this spot.
After laying in the grass and napping in Letna, I made my way over to Prague Castle to explore the grounds and gardens, and then stumbled upon the beautiful gardens at the Czech Senate, complete with peacocks! Afterwards, I crossed the stunning and ornate Charles Bridge and made my way back toward my hostel in Zizkov by foot. Since I am not in a hurry, I have been walking by foot everywhere in Prague and avoiding their (in my opinion) confusing public transportation.
The next day, I met up with a free Sandeman’s walking tour of Prague in the Old Town Square. Just like my Sandeman’s tour in Berlin, this tour was absolutely fantastic!! I realized that Prague, like Berlin, is a history lover’s dream city. I learned so many interesting facts about the city, but the following are my favorite:
-Bohemia (the historic name for the region now comprising the western Czech Republic) had its own Protestant Revolution 100 years before Martin Luther authored his Ninety-five Theses. It was led by a priest in Prague named Jan Hus, who began preaching in Czech rather than Latin and did not make the poor pay church taxes. He was burned at the stake, and a war between Catholics and “Hussites” ensued. His statue is in the Old Town Square.
-Neil Armstong’s favorite composer was Antonin Dvorak from Prague. Armstrong played Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 (the New World Symphony) during the Apollo 11
-Prague’s Jewish Quarter is home to the oldest synagogue in Europe, which has been operating continuously since 1270 (with the exception of the years during WW2). Ten percent of Prague’s population was Jewish when the ghetto was built, and they were forced to live within its walls, which encompassed just a few city blocks, for six centuries. After reforms during the 18th century, most of the Jewish population dispersed into other parts of the city. One eerie place in the quarter is the graveyard. The city only gave the Jews a small plot of land to bury their dead, so they were forced to pile graves one atop the other. It’s estimated there are 12 layers of bodies in this cemetery. Architect Peter Eisenman, the designer of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, said that one inspiration for the design of the raised blocks was this part of the Jewish Quarter in Prague.
-On a lighter note, I enjoyed learning the legend of the Golem, who was allegedly a clay figure that would come to life and roam the streets of the Jewish Quarter to protect the citizens 6 days a week (resting on the Sabbath, of course). Golem’s last appearance was on a Sabbath, when the rabbi apparently forgot to “deactivate” him for his day of rest. He was last active during the time the rabbi was reading Psalm 92 during the service, so Psalm 92 is now read twice each service to this day in honor of Golem.
-The USSR invaded Prague following the Prague Spring of 1968, when Czech President Alexander Dubcek refused to reverse pro-democratic reforms (socialism with a human face”) after direction from communist leaders. 8,000 Soviet tanks lined the streets of Wenceslas Square. A philosophy student named Jan Palach lit himself on fire in the square to protest the suppression of free speech and the message of the Soviet propaganda. Two other students followed in his footsteps over the following months.It was fascinating to learn more about this chapter in Prague’s history after reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Czech author Milan Kundera a few weeks ago, as the novel is mostly set in Prague during the time period around the Prague Spring.
I was stunned to also learn the Czech Republic has only been a nation for about 100 years, including the time it was joined out of convenience with Slovakia as sanctioned by the victors of WW1. Before then, the current Czech Republic had been constantly invaded and ruled by foreign powers. During those ~100 years of Czech nationhood, Prague has been invaded and bombed by Hitler (it was basically handed to the Nazis by the Allies as they were looking to avoid a war in 1938…that didn’t work out too well) and the communist USSR. For the past 27 years (since I’ve been alive!) since the Velvet Revolution, or the peaceful transfer of power from the USSR to the people of Czechoslovakia, the country has enjoyed freedom and prosperity, and currently enjoys the lowest unemployment rate in the EU under a democratic government. (The Czech Republic and Slovakia became separate nations in 1993 after the Velvet Divorce).
The hope for the future that Prague embodies is beautifully captured at the John Lennon wall, just west of the Charles Bridge and Vltava River. In the 1980s, the Lennon wall was used by Czech youth to express grievances with the communist regime and hope for peace and political freedom. At this wall, people from around the world still come to view, reflect, and leave their own messages. I found my way here after my walking tour ended.
I decided to extend my stay in Prague by a few days, and switched to a hostel in a charming neighborhood west of the Vltava River near the castle. I am looking forward to more time in this city.