Sunday, June 10, 2012

Prague, Czech Republic (6/5/2012)

8/6/2012, 14:46.  I am sitting on a train from Lutherstadt Wittenberg to Hamburg as I write this. 

Jeff and I woke up on the 5th and took our sweet time getting ready for the day.  Sometime after 9:00 we went next door to the hostel and bought some nectarines and a large pastry for breakfast, all for about two or three US dollars.  Everything was beautifully cheap in Czech Republic, which I enjoyed (after all, from here on out everything will cost more: I’m going to Germany and Scandinavia!)  
It was a very cold day in Prague, and I was wearing shorts and sandals.  After walking to Old Town Square, where we intended to meet a free walking tour at 11:00, I decided to return to the hostel and change into warmer clothes.  On the way back I took a different turn than before, thinking I knew how to rejoin the main path, and got very lost.  Turns out it’s pretty difficult to navigate in a disorderly labyrinth of roads like in the old parts of Prague.  Luckily, after asking several very kind people and triple-checking my map, I made it back to the square at 11:07, and the tour group was still in the square.
Our walking tour was absolutely excellent.  The guide, a young Czech architect, was both entertaining and knowledgeable.  He showed us around the historic sites of Prague-- the Astronomical Clock Tower and Old Town Square, the Orchestra Hall, a view of the Charles Bridge and Prague Castle, the Jewish district, Charles University and the Opera House, the old city wall, and Wenceslas Square.  If you’re interested, here’s a few bits of history I remember still (skip past the numbered section if you don’t care):
  1. The Czech Republic was once separate kingdoms Bohemia and Moravia.  After World War II, these and Slovakia were combined as Czechoslovakia, and were under Soviet rule through 1989.  It was a year or two after that the Czech Republic and Slovakia split.
  2. Before Luther started the Reformation in 1517 or so, Czechs had their own break from the Catholic church, led by a man called Huss.  He made a list of grievances of the Catholic church, saying that the Pope and many Catholic practices and indulgences were not Biblical and should be thrown out.  He was burned at the stake in Old Town Square.  There are still protestant Hussites today, although most Czechs are athiest, and many Christians are Catholics because of the rule of the catholic Hapsburg Empire in the 1700s.
  3. There was a large Jewish population in Prague at one time, but they were annexed in a tiny walled ghetto.  Many died from the awful conditions and were buried in the ghetto, eventually leading what is now 100,000 graves, layered on top of each other in thin layers, upon one hectare of land.  After that, many remaining Jews were killed during the Holocaust.  Today, some Jews remain, but they don’t live in the Jewish district where they attend synagogue.
  4. There are many high-end stores in the Jewish District, including Hugo Boss.  As it turns out, Hugo Boss supplied the uniforms for the Nazis in World War II.  It is the grossest sort of irony.
  5. On top of the Orchestra Hall in Prague (in front of which is a statue of Antonin Dvorak, the greatest Czech composer) there are statues of many famous classical composers.  During WWII, it was ordered that the statue of Felix Mendelssohn, a Jewish composer, be taken down.  But the men assigned to the job didn’t know which statue was his, so they chose the one with the largest nose, based on racist stereotypes.  As it turned out, they had taken down the statue of Richard Wagner, an anti-Semitic German composer and the favorite of Hitler.
  6. During the Communist era, a giant statue of Stalin was erected on the west side of the Moldau river which runs through Prague.  Of course, it was exploded shortly after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
  7. Wenceslas Square (named after Vaclav, aka Wenceslas, a great Czech hero) was the site of a few rebellions during the Communist era.  In 1961, there was a particularly large uprising with thousands of people, and in that same year another political hero (also named Vaclav) achieved more access to the western world for the Czechs under Communist rule.  Shortly thereafter, though, Soviet tanks rolled down the very same square and things turned for the worse again until 1989.
  8. The most famous king of Czech history is Charles (the second?  Not sure.)  Along with overseeing the construction of the Charles Bridge and other major construction projects in Prague, he is remembered for his social policies as well.  Charles University in Prague is of course named for him.
  9. Next to the main building of Charles University is the last standing opera house where Mozart is known to have conducted his own works.  Apparently, he often said he would live in Prague if he didn’t have an income in Vienna, because he was always well-received there.  His opera Don Giovanni was premiered in that hall, written especially for the people of Prague.
After the 2 1/2 hour tour, we grabbed lunch at a stand outside-- döner kebab for Jeff and a Czech sausage for me (delicious!)-- and grabbed tickets for The Magic Flute (at a different opera house than the one in which Mozart conducted, but a good one!)  Then we met Zach, a friend I had met in northern Slovakia two days before, who had studied in Prague for a semester and offered to show us around.  It was great. He shared his knowledge and excitement about Prague and showed us the Charles Bridge and the Prague Castle.  (Fun fact from Zach: several movies that are supposed to be set in old-looking towns are shot in Prague!  For example, I saw the spot where Ethan Hunt’s team turned on him in Mission Impossible, and several movies use the Charles Bridge to have people-jumping-off-of-bridge sequencesCool!)  Then Zach took us to this great authentic pub downstairs from where he lived for the semester.  where we had smooth Czech microbrews and huge plates of delicious food. I chose the pork knuckle in a thick creamy sauce, moist warm dumplings, and juicy sauerkraut.  
After a very satisfying meal, Jeff and I parted ways with Zach and headed to the Opera House for The Magic Flute.  It was a great performance-- not the best opera I’ve seen, but great.  Even if the rest hadn’t been good, though, the Queen of the Night would have been worth the two-and-a-half hours.  She totally nailed both of her incredibly technical and difficult arias, and then regally marched up the stairs to her heavenly abode in her poofy black dress and two-foot tall crown.  Very impressive.
Jeff and I returned to the hostel to plan our next day of travel to Berlin.  In our dorm room, we met three cool guys from Bowdoin College in Maine and a girl from South Hampton, England.  I have so enjoyed meeting lots of other travelers in the hostel, making friendships, and sharing stories.  It’s what makes hostels fun!
  1. Always check the weather before heading out!  Common sense.
  2. Stay away from complex neighborhoods of windy disorderly roads.  Unless, of course, you want to get lost.
  3. Free tours!!  They’re are an incredible way to learn a city’s history and significance, see the sites, and get recommendations of places to go, all for free!  (Although you should tip your guide, if you can.)  You can usually get information at your hostel.  
  4. The benefit of staying in hostel dorm rooms is two-fold: one, it’s often just as nice as a hotel but for far cheaper, and two, you meet lots of cool people!

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