They final city our our most recent European tour was Prague, a city much hyped and vastly popular with European travelers theses days. It's popular for a few reasons, one being its stunning old world beauty. Prague was not bombed in WWII, one of the only great European cities to escape being leveled in rubble, so it's street grid, buildings, and history is all originally preserved. Second, Prague sat behind the Iron Curtain of the Soviets for a long time, so it was largely undiscovered except for the last 20 years. Apparently that makes it feel more like an "authentic" European destination in our ever-globalizing world. (I for one think the city seems to have been "found" as it was so crowded with throngs of tourists.) The last thing that makes Prague a delight is that it is low on sights and high on ambiance, so it basically begs for strolls, and lingering lattes at cafes and a general sense of meandering.
After Berlin we shifted gears and took a train to the city of Prague in the Czech Republic with Will and Carmen, while John and Lauren made their way to Italy. Prague was in stark contrast to Berlin, as it is one of the only cities to escape any bombing in WWII. Thus the city retains the charm of an old European city with winding medieval roads, loads of ornate and varied architecture from different eras of fashion, plus intact cathedrals and a castle, all flanked by a lovely rive - the Vltava.
Many people describe Prague as magical. I have heard it called a Fairy Tale city and a like-a-postcard. And by many accounts they are right. Prague is lovely. Also, it is crowded. So, so crowded. We were surrounded most times with other French, British, Spanish, and American tourists. Prague seemed eager to handle the tourist flood. In fact, thanks to the throng of tourists, Prague almost felt a bit confused in its identity. On one hand, the visuals of the city are so refined and elegant and stately. On the other hand, the tourist industry in Prague is almost shameless in their blatant effort to sell the city - with kiosks blasting rock music and Abba and postcard shops on every corner. I know it's not my place to judge an entire city and culture, but I will say that it gave me a sense of sadness for the Czechs, as it seems like their modern culture never was given a chance to form a proper and lasting identity - they went from crushing Soviet tyranny to tourist capitalism so quickly that they have not necessarily defined any of their native culture as sacred yet.
I will say that one thing that makes Prague a delight is that it is low on sights and high on ambiance, so it basically begs for strolls, and lingering lattes at cafes and a general sense of meandering. We obliged gratefully as we escaped the crowds.
Above Prague sits one of the larges castles in Europe. It has been there in various states of construction since the 13th century and still functions as the seat of Czech government. Above the castle is a monastery, and the walk from the monastery to castle offers sweeping and stunning views of the charming city below. The monastery is also where an old Czech lady tried to rip Sam out of 300 crowns by giving him the wrong change. Turns out, the guidebooks are a bit right about Prague being full of swindlers!
We took the tram system up the big hill to the castle in a tram almost entirely to ourselves. That was nice, because my favorite Rick Steves suggested this tram line is ripe with pickpockets. Since we were green tourists, we were highly nervous of the pickpockets (some of us more than others, Will was cool and trusting).
We saw two Taiwanese brides getting wedding portraits taken under the astronomical clock. It was just too funny to see one in the picture and the other with a camcorder, all in the great old square FULL of tourists, looking totally out of place.
On our last day Sam and I took a paddle boat out on the Vlatava for a relaxing hour long float. The river is really calm, so it was easy to navigate under bridges full of pedestrians with views of the Castle and the Charles Bridge. As we pedaled under one bridge that led out to a river island, we saw a woman squatting under the bridge, surrounded by ducks. "Fun," we thought, she must be feeding ducks. Then we got closer and saw her trousers were slipping down around her ankles. "Oh my," we thought "maybe she is peeing." Then, as we paddled within about 15 yards of her, we saw her belt unwrapped from her arm and we realized "Holy sh*t, she was shooting up." It was quite a contrast to our tourist bliss. But don't let drug addicts scare you away from the joys of paddling the river. Otherwise, it was very lovely and relaxing.
The Jewish Quarter in Prague is amazing because it holds history from centuries and centuries of European Jews. The circumstances that created this cultural richness are tragic and unfair, as the Jews of Prague had been quarantined to this small area of the city since the 1500s through the Nazi expulsion in the Holocaust. Through the 400 years of their time in this quarter, there was only one cemetery to bury their dead, so the graves stacked upon each other over the years. With time the headstones shifted, leaving a crowded, chaotic, yet peaceful cemetery representing a long history of a people. We toured the cemetery along with several synagogues and museums that shared the history and heritage of the Jewish faith and people. Additionally, the Jewish Quarter of Prague is one of the most beautifully preserved Art Nouveau neighborhoods in all of Europe.
We rented an beautiful apartment with Will and Carmen that came with two showers, two queen sized beds, a fully stocked kitchen, How I Met Your Mother dubbed in Czech on TV, a bidet, and this tiny elevator that was supposed to comfortable carry three. In reality, it barely carried Sam and one suitcase.
Prague castle is one of the biggest in all of Europe, and included a lovely cathedral built in several phases in different centuries and featuring lovely stain glass, plus a giant hall where nobles used to conduct horse jousting in bad weather. We hiked a long hill down to the castle where we tried to take nice photos, but the sun was so bright (finally) I could barely open my eyes.