Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Czeching up on our Prague-ress

   Phew. The problem with putting off blog writing because there's a lot to talk about is that the stuff to talk about keeps piling up! Time to dash one off before I end up having to write a novel. (You're welcome.)

   Okay, action. Where was I? Oh yeah, three and a half weeks ago. I am getting lazy.

   So, where I last left you was the day before a whirlwind weekend adventure in Prague! Rewind your mental clocks to Friday, 15 June.

   The majority of the day itself was fairly uneventful (I hope, because I don't remember anything of it). Until, that is, at around 6 PM when I scurried home, hat mich umgezogen (changed my clothes), and headed off to an evening choir concert at a church in nearby Bogenhausen, a yuppie neighborhood on the eastern side of the Isar. We sang through a fairly quick rendition of Palestrina's Canticum Canticorum (Song of Songs), checking watches all the while, hoping we would get out soon enough to catch some of the Euro Cup Germany/Greece match. Our director helped us out by starting at 8:00 PM on the dot and limiting himself to a five-minute intermission. The concert ended promptly at 9:30 (exactly the time halftime starts) and we all ran out the door, smart phones in hand, to the nearest beer garden/restaurant broadcasting the game, and were able to perfectly catch the second half. If you happened to have been watching the Euro Cup games (not holding my breath, don't worry), you may recall five of the six goals took place in the second half, so we chose the right part to watch!

   Fueled by the resounding German victory, we took a bus into the Innenstadt (city center), entertaining the other passengers with some random choral music on the way, interspersed, of course, by various German victory songs. My game plan was to stay out as long as possible, since my bus to Prague left from the northern bus station at 1:05 AM, so it made sense just to stay out until then. So we set off for Leopoldstraße, the large boulevard stretching from Odeonsplatz up through the University and the Siegestor (victory gate).

   Okay. To fully grasp the madness of this scene, we're going to have to do some exercising of the brain. Picture all the people that fit in your high school football stadium during homecoming. Got it? Good. Now multiply that by ten. Now make every one of those people drink at least four beers (that's European style, so I'm talking two liters). Now put all of them in Deutschland Fußball shirts and stick them on the same street. You've about got it. The scene was basically madness, but in the best of ways. There were police everywhere, but their only function was basically to make sure no one got hurt. Cars would slowly brave the masses, driving up over the base of the Siegestor, and wild fans would gather on either side and rock the cars back and forth, screaming cheers all the while. Every now and then, the crowd would sink as a whole to its collective knees, honoring (I guess) the football genius of their home country.

  It was something, all right.


  Thoroughly impressed by the competitive spirit of my host country, I sadly abandoned the scene and took the U-Bahn a few stops north, where I problem-less-ly boarded a large bus bound for Prague, buckled in, put in some ear plugs, and slept the night away.

  Okay, that last sentence was a lie. There are few things as uncomfortable as trying to sleep on a bouncy bus speeding down an autobahn, sitting fully upright on a slippery leather seat, while a large Czech teenager snores beside you. Let's just say I dozed my way northeast, waking fully up at about 5:45 AM as the sun rose (lies, this far north the sunrise is at like 4, but I denied it as long as possible) over the outskirts of Prague. We arrived successfully at the bus station at about 6:15, and, having told my parents I'd aim for 7:00 at their hotel, I successfully (first Czech interaction!) bought some coffee at the train station kiosk to break my 100 bill (in Korunas, that is. So about 5$). Fortunately the word "cappuccino" is fairly ubiquitous. Thank you, Italians, for so dominating the coffee industry. After fiddling with the ticket machine for a bit, I finally broke down and bought a subway ticket from the counter, and took the U-Bahn about four stops to my parents' hotel, arriving at their door at exactly 6:59 AM. (Let's just say Germany has done wonders for my punctuality.)

My first step after arriving
   And after that, the day sped by in normal touristy fashion! My parents and I breakfasted at their hotel, before checking out and towing their luggage (rolling suitcases + cobblestones is not the best combination) to their new hotel, as city centre-ish as it could possibly be (literally next to the gorgeous Tyn Church), and meeting up with their fellow travelers Neal and Lettie. Neal was my dad's best friend from high school, and they traveled Europe together quite a bit when they were young hooligans, so it was very cool that it worked out for them to meet up here! We took off, armed with only a guide book and the approximately fifteen words of Czech we knew (most of them phrases I had scrawled down in a notebook the night before: "Do you speak English?" "Excuse me!" "I don't understand," etc. And my father helpfully learned the word for beer, so we were ready for anything).

Our hotel was next door to that. NBD.
Good little tourist

Neal and Lettie

   Luggage safely stowed, we stopped only briefly to pick up some more coffee for me (I don't let little things like three hours of sleep on a bus slow me down in a new city!), and set off to see Prague properly, as only Rick Steves-equipped American tourists can. The day promised to be warm and lovely, so we were determined to take advantage of it. Stopping briefly in the main square to admire the clocktower, we boarded a tram and headed up to Petřín Hill, the large hill west of the Vltava River. Eschewing (foolishly) the line at the funicular, we opted instead the walk up the hill, proving to be quite an accomplishment for the heat of the day. Fortunately a beer garden halfway up called to us, giving me my first taste of Czech beer (in this case, Pilsner Urquell). We then headed up the rest of the way to see a gorgeous view of the city stretched out below us. The hill is topped by a huge tower, a miniature of the Eiffel Tower. Though much smaller, it's designed so that when combined with the height of the hill, it's exactly the same height as the Eiffel Tower. We splurged and took the elevator to the top of it to get the full effect.
I can't take these clowns anywhere

Petrin Tower

Dad, Neal, Lettie, Mom
Memorial to the victims of Communist rule
Looking down at the Charles Bridge and the old town
   Morning mission achieved, we headed back down the hill to get some lunch at a Rick Steves-recommended restaurant in Malá Strana, the "lesser quarter" district of Prague. Fed and watered, we wandered back over the famous Charles Bridge (managing not the get pick-pocketed in the meantime; my dear father took extra precautions against this possibility by safety-pinning his pocket shut) and meandered through the winding streets of the Staré Město (old town) and into Nové Město (new town), stopping only to purchase some gelato. Though I feel like I'm leaving a good four or so hours unaccounted for in there, so there may have been a stop at another beer garden somewhere in there.

Mom and Charles Bridge

Vltava River (or Die Moldau, if you're leaning towards German)
Charles Bridge
St. John of Nepomuk

   We headed then to Wenceslas Square, the long boulevard leading up the the National Museum and most famous as the site of the demonstrations during Prague Spring (1968) and the Velvet Revolution (1989). This is a period of history I for some reason know far too little about (I think all of my late-1989-history energy is concentrated a little further north), so it was fascinating to read about all the events that happened there in our guidebook. I won't go into much detail, but you can read all about it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Velvet_Revolution. There's something sort of magical about being on the site of something so incredible. I had the same kind of feeling about the Berlin Wall. In Wenceslas Square, Communism fell because 500,000 people, led by university students, came out em masse and protested something they thought was wrong. No violence, no war, just their presence. 

Sun setting down Wenceslas Square
Memorial to the two men who lit themselves on fire in protest of Communism

   Anyway, it was cool. We enjoyed the sunset from the steps of the giant statue of St. Wenceslas (also known as Good King Wenceslas, if you're a Christmas song fan. Or a Love Actually fan), even witnessing a real live protest in action (a rather crazed Czech fellow who'd been protesting for over 1,000 days straight about his land being seized by the government, or something like that). We then headed back to a restaurant around the corner from our hotel for some much-needed (at least for me) dinner. Not bad for a day's work. 

   The next day we awoke bright and not-so-early, breakfasted, and headed north from our hotel into the old Jewish quarter of the town. Prague has a long history of anti-Semitism; the first pogrom took place there in 1096 and the Jews were concentrated into a walled ghetto shortly thereafter. The old city was mostly demolished and remodeled in the mid 19th century, but the old synagogues and remnants of the old town still remain. The ghetto was astonishingly not destroyed during the Nazi occupation for a fairly terrifying reason: the Nazis planned on opening an "exotic museum of an extinct race" once their extermination of the Jews was complete; the Jewish museum in Prague is one of the largest and most complete because the Nazis collected artifacts from all of Bohemia and stored them for their future plans.

   Choosing not to pay the fee for entry to the museum (not one literal museum but seven different synagogues, all with various different exhibits), we wandered around from sight to sight, reading about the synagogues in our guidebook as we went, including the Staronova synagogue, Europe's oldest active synagogue, completed in 1270. We also stopped to admire a monument to Franz Kafka, as well as peek through to the old Jewish cemetery, a tiny little patch of ground allotted for the graves of supposedly over 100,000 people.

Klaus Synagogue and neighboring mortuary
So many graves piled into one space the ground is completely uneven

Dad attempting to look properly humble next to the greatness of Kafka
My father has trouble looking normal in pictures
  We then headed across the river and picked up a tram to take us up to the top of the castle. (Highly recommended, I may add, as then you get to do the entire walk downhill). Castle is really a misnomer; it's actually a series of palaces, mixed in with chapels, a cathedral, fancy-yet-quaint old neighborhoods, and the occasional ice cream shop, of course. We bought a ticket that covered entrance to most of the important places, including a walk through the secret parts of the cathedral, with peeks at St. Wenceslas's tomb, a walk through the interior of the old government palace (including a visit to the room where the defenestration took place!), and a stroll down the Golden Lane, quaintly tiny little houses where the goldsmiths used to work, including a house Franz Kafka stayed in for a while. 

St. Vitus Cathedral 

Dad pretending to be a cockroach in honor of Franz Kafka's house
Proper sunburnt tourist
David Cerny's "Czech" sculpture
   Sated on castles, we had a late lunch at a restaurant across from the Kafka museum (my dad and Neal dined on pork knuckles, but I rebelled against the fairly unimpressive Czech food at that location and got all the waiters laughing at my German-ness when I managed to put together a Semmelknödel mit Pfifferlingesoße (dumplings with mushroom sauce), a typical Bavarian dish. We finished the evening at a small creperie, finally having found some beer other than Pilsner Urquell (I confess I'm not a huge fan of Czech beer), and ended the night at a little courtyard restaurant with live music sung by an old Czech woman. It was a lovely night. We walked back to the hotel, content, at the perfect time so see the lights of the city stretch out over the river.

   My parents and I awoke early, caught a cab to the train station, and hopped on our respective buses: I, back to Munich, and my parents, off to Berlin, to meet again the next weekend when they came to Munich! 

  And that was our Prague adventure. Though I really enjoyed the city, I have to confess I didn't fall in love with it the way I did with Berlin or Vienna. It is incredibly beautiful and charming, and I feel like I got to know my way around pretty well, but I don't ever feel like I felt the heart of the city itself. Maybe it's just hard for a city that spent so long being beaten down under Communism then graduated so quickly to the third most popular tourist destination in Europe to retain its essence. 

   I also think the language was part of it. Though Prague's definitely not a city where you need to speak Czech (almost even less so than German in Germany, really; I suppose the difference is there's a fairly good probability that tourists know some German, whereas Czech isn't really one of those languages people just pick up due to exposure), it frustrates me incredibly to not be able to communicate in the local language. I disliked that about my experiences with Sofia as well, even having an excellent interpreter with me at all times. I pride myself on my ability to do well with languages, and having that skill taken away just makes me feel like another dumb American tourist. 

   But regardless, Prague and I got along just fine!

   I do apologize for leaving you still a couple of weeks behind, but it's past my bedtime and when a blog's too long no one reads it anyway! I promise, the next one will be coming very soon: parents in Munich! 

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