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prague

Kutna Hora and a Train Ride with Franz Kafka

 

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Czernin Palace gardens

My last few days in Prague have been full of ups and downs. After switching to my new (and much better!) hostel near Prague Castle, I spent a good bit of time wandering and exploring. I came across the beautiful Czernin Palace gardens, and then decided to make the trek up Petrin Hill to its lookout tower (which looks exactly like a miniature Eiffel Tower). As I trekked up the hill, I kept thinking of one of the eeriest scenes from The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which takes place on this hill (I don’t want to give any more away in case you want to read this book, which I recommend!) Surely enough, the rain started coming down. However, the view from the top of the lookout tower over Prague below was well worth it.

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And then one high point became another low point. On my way out of the tower, I decided to stop by the ATM to take out 1000 CZK (about 50 USD). The machine  accepted my card and then put the cash out…except nothing came out. The transaction posted in my bank account anyway. I’ve never heard of this happening to anyone, and it’s the last thing I’d ever expect to happen! The manager of the tower claimed to not be able to assist, as another company manages the machine. So I set out back down Petrin Hill in the rain, 50 bucks poorer with nothing to show for it. The thought of calling my bank from Europe (Bank of America has no online chat service…ugh!) exhausted me, especially after several days of trying to sort my lost luggage with Germanwings (it’s still lost as of day 9) and several emails and a (costly) phone call with NYU Law that day to sort a registration issue.

I am absolutely aware that these are “first world problems” and I am extremely privileged to even be able to travel and have these issues in the first place. However, I still felt distraught. Sometimes solo traveling can be the best thing to gain perspective, get your thoughts in order, and know yourself more. And sometimes solo traveling isn’t as fun–especially when you just want someone with you to make you laugh and take your mind away from the string of unfortunate events. Two days later, my $50 and my luggage are both still lost. But, I have my health and the rest of my travels, so many friends and family
I love (even if they aren’t with me physically right now!), and my first semester of law school starting soon. So, in my opinion, life is good and I have a lot to be grateful for as I continue on the big adventure!

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A lot to love…like this gorgeous sunset from Charles Bridge!

Things really came back into perspective for me the next day when I took a day trip to the Czech village of Kutna Hora. About 70 km from Prague, Kutna Hora was a major silver mining city during the medieval ages and competed with Prague for prominence as Bohemia’s most important city. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Also, my tour guide happened to be the husband of my fantastic guide from the walking tour 2 days earlier. They are officially my favorite Czech couple!

The first stop in Kutna Hora was at the famous Bone Chapel, filled with the bones of over 40,000 people who died from the bubonic plague and the Hussite Wars during the 15th century. Essentially, the city was running out of burial places for the plague victims, so their bones were used in the chapel to portray a message of “momento mori,” or remember the death, which highlights man’s mortality and equality before the judgement of God.

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The chapel was redesigned in the 18th century and the bones were arranged in a baroque decorative style. There are 4 large pyramids of bones in the chapel, as well as a Schwarzenberg family shield made from bones. I found this chapel to be extremely eerie, and it definitely made all of the recent misfortunes of my travels seem small.

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Kutna Hora is also the home of beautiful St. Barbara’s Chapel (it’s really more like a cathedral), a Jesuit monastery, and an Italian-style court where the King of Bohemia lived for a time. After visiting all of these places, we had a delicious lunch at a Czech restaurant before heading back to Prague.

 

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St. Barbara’s Chapel

As I prepared to leave Prague by train to Budapest the next morning, I stopped by to see the astronomical clock in the Old Town Square one last time. The astronomical clock was built in 1410 and is the oldest such clock in the world still in operation. Every hour, the skeleton (representing death) and other figures representing sins and vices chime and perform as the 12 disciples parade by a window that opens, followed by a crow and wing-flap from the golden rooster atop the clock. (It sounds ridiculous, but you just have to see it to believe it!) The clock shows the position of the sun and moon as they relate to the Earth, as it was constructed in a time when people still thought Earth was the center of the universe. It also shows the 12 signs of the zodiac. Even though the “performance” of the figurines isn’t much to watch, I found it charming and unique to watch both times I stopped by (especially considering its age and how advanced it was for its time…it was like the iPhone of 1410!)

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Once I boarded the train for Budapest, I settled in with a collection of Prague native Franz Kafka’s short stories, including Metamorphosis. I found myself laughing out loud as I read Metamorphosis on the train, in which a traveling salesman wakes up one morning as a giant bug and then must figure out how to handle his employer and family. An appreciation for Kafka, who was originally from Prague, is a fun takeaway for me from this part of the trip, as I wasn’t deeply familiar with his writing before visiting. However, while in Prague I learned a good bit about this early 20th century writer and what makes something “Kafkaesque.” Miriam-Webster dictionary describes “Kafkaesque” as “having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality” and as “often applied to bizarre and impersonal administrative situations where the individual feels powerless to understand or control what is happening.” I have decided there is no more appropriate word to describe my debacle with my still lost luggage and the ATM than “Kafkaesque.” And how fitting that it happened in Prague, Kafka’s hometown.

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I feel like Kafka would understand my pain!

 

While I appreciate Prague and Kafka’s work, I am hoping the luck of the Irish will return to me in the last 2 weeks of my travel.IMG_2773[1]

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Brussels and a Bohemian Rhapsody

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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.IMG_2297[1] I accomplished all 3 and made it home just before midnight for a few hours of sleep before my flight.

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Grand Place, Brussels
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.IMG_2330[1]

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.IMG_2362[1] 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.

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The view from Letna ❤

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!IMG_2409[1] 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.

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A view from Charles Bridge

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.

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The statue of Jan Hus looking out over the modern activities of the Old Town Square, with his church in the background
-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
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-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.

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The cemetery in Prague’s Jewish Quarter
-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.

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The death mask of student Jan Palach, who died protesting the communist regime
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.IMG_2514[1]

IMG_2527[1]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.

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