Prague was the most wonderful of surprises.
Maybe it was ignorant (and very ‘American’) of me, but when I would think of Prague, my mind would jump to what I thought of as Soviet Russia, the Iron Curtain, the Communist Bloc. I would think of gray skies and gray walls, of cold, reserved people, of plain architecture and city planning that existed simply and exclusively to fulfill it’s function. I wanted to visit because I had never before been to mainland Eastern Europe and because I know study abroad students love it; not because I thought it would blow me away.
Little did I know, Prague is stunning; every single building is dressed up to the nines. Contrary to my ill-conceived prior notions, nothing is plain. The ornamentation that transforms each home, office building and government hall into jaw-dropping creations of artwork makes the city a truly impressive sight to behold. We explored all day in happy amazement.
While Prague is grandly beautiful, it is small enough that we could hit most of the major attractions during our short stay. We began our day by exploring Old Town Square, home to the enormously impressive Astronomical clock – a stunning piece of architecture built in 1410 (let that sink in) that still, to this day reports the correct time, phase of the moon, hours left of sunlight, zodiac phase and date. Genius.
We began a free walking tour there (that I highly recommend) and explored all that there was to see on that side of the Vltava River, from Charles Square to the Jewish Quarters to the Kafka statue, with a stop at The Bakeshop which we continued to frequent again and again. The history of Prague is drenched in bloody violence, which only added to my surprised admiration of how well preserved the city is. Most revolutions of power and control have been marked by one group of people throwing other people out of windows or “defenestration” (who knew there was a word for it). Officials gouged out the astronomical clock’s builder’s eyes when they thought he might build more clocks in other countries, Prague survived the Holocaust alongside the rest of Europe and then it survived decades of communist rule before evolving into a democracy. It’s especially interesting because Prague’s beauty is what saved it. Hitler chose to leave Prague standing as is because he wanted it to be a major city for himself once he conquered all of Europe. This theme repeated as new cycles of rulers took and shed power and today, Prague continues to stand as King Charles intentionally created it.
We took a lunch break and meandered over to the iconic John Lennon Wall. This area was teeming with tourists but it’s a must-see when visiting Prague as it is so symbolic of that important time during recent history. To me, it also represents the worlds that Prague bridges – the city itself connects the communist era to freedom and expression, history to modernism.
From there, we climbed up to the famous Prague castle which was the perfect spot for a gorgeous panoramic view of the city. We treated ourselves to wine and cheese at the castle’s vineyard (Charles really outdid himself, didn’t he) and explored the vast expanse of real estate before making our way down to a traditional Czech dinner of Pilsner beer, cheese, Moravian pork and goulash.
Kristin and I started our Tuesday with a stroll back through Old Town Square and popped into a bar called Caffrey’s to try some traditional Czech hot wine for breakfast because when in Prague…right? Turns out traditional hot wine also has rum and vodka in it so disclaimer: if you ever find yourself following in our footsteps, proceed with caution.
It ended up being a fantastic stop because the Irish bartender we were chatting with suggested that we take a train to a town called Kutna Hora, about an hour outside of Prague. There, we explored the Sedlec Ossuary, a Catholic church decorated entirely with human bones and a final resting place of 40,000 people. History says that when the church’s cemetery – home to 30,000 who had died during epidemics and 10,000 who had died during the Hussite capture – was dug up, a priest decided to decorate the church with the displaced bones in order to remind visitors that we are all equal in the eyes of God. It was by far the eeriest thing I’ve ever experienced but it was absolutely unique.
We explored the small, quaint town of Kutna Hora some before making our way back. The train ride was interesting because it featured more rural parts of the Czech republic, parts that weren’t as glamorous as Prague. The images of these places aligned more closely with my mental vision of the Czech Republic as a whole, which gives me the idea that Prague is an exception rather than the rule.
Our time in Prague was fantastic. While I’ve been working on cultivating presence and a sense of wonder in my every day life, I have been itching to get out and see some more of the world. I loved Amsterdam and felt more at home there than I had in Prague, but this was a place completely foreign to me and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to explore it. What made it even better was the amazing group of people I spent it with – traveling in a group of 6 can be great or it can get messy and I had more fun with them than I ever could have imagined. For now, ne sheldanou Praha, you sure have been a sight to see.