Prague has been at the top of my bucket list for over a decade. Since my first sojourn abroad when I studied in London back in 2007, Prague was thee name people would mention, wide-eyed, when discussing European destination musts. Once Isabel and I first began discussing this trip, it was always going to be a definite inclusion in our European itinerary.
Yet again, our location could not have been better: just five minutes by foot from the train station, and a ten minute walk to the Old Town Square. Also once again – a UNESCO World Heritage Site (I think they’re following us at this point). The Old Town Square is the epicenter of activity in Prague. When Isabel was here last, it was during the 2006 World Cup. They had large screens in the center of the Square and beer tents full of people filled the rest of the space. Isabel and her siblings may have enjoyed a drink or two … or ten.
Our stint in town happened to coincide with the week leading up to Easter, so naturally the Square played host to a massive celebration. Sausages and kebabs, chimney cakes with ice cream, waffles with chocolate syrup … beer and blacksmiths and beer and petting zoos and beer and musicians and beer. Oh and cheese. And beer. It was festive, and even though we’d cross back and forth through the Square constantly for all our sightseeing, it was also a great place for a delicious, lively and inexpensive lunch every day. We did a great [free!] walking tour, and our Polish guide stood in the center of the square and pointed out some famous homes: like where Franz Kafka grew up, as well as where Albert Einstein lived the year he was appointed professor of theoretical physics at Charles University.
In one corner of Old Town Square is the Astronomical Clock Tower. At first glance I thought, Oh cool, this is the famous thing. Next. But then once all the intricate details and different facets are pointed out to you, it’s really quite an astonishing feat, even more so when you realize it was built over 600 years ago! Every hour on the hour, quite the automated show starts up. The four figures flanking the upper clock are set in motion – three representing the sins of vanity, greed and lust, while the fourth representing death, reminding the sinners that soon their time will come to an end. The twelve apostles cycle through two open windows above the clock. And a rooster crows signifying the end of the show. The clock hands don’t merely tell time, that would be too simple, they also identify the position of the sun and the hours of daylight remaining. It also highlights the zodiac sign, for the astrologically inclined. There’s a secondary astronomical dial below, that revolves to show what month’s zodiac symbol is present, as well as the day of the week. All perfectly helpful bits of information centuries and centuries pre-smartphone era. It’s really quite fascinating!
Old Town is just one of five historic towns that make up the central hub of Prague. The other four are New Town (where we stayed), The Jewish Quarter (more on that later), and on the other side of the Danube (Europe’s second longest river) we have Prague Castle (self-explanatory), and Lesser Town (the least intriguing of the five … honestly). To cross over from Old Town to the Prague Castle, you cross the Charles Bridge. Beginning construction under the rule of King Charles IV in 1357, it was completed some 50-odd years later. On both sides as you walk along are beautiful sculptures and biblical statues. Old men play beautiful music in bands and people line the walkway. What one was a functional means of travel and accessibility has today become one of the hot spots to merely be.
Prague Castle is the most crowded tourist spot in the city. And that’s really saying something. The line for tickets always seems to be a mile long. Luckily, you can walk around the complex and see everything from the outside for free! Well, almost everything. At noon everyday is a changing of the guards ceremony that tourists camp out well ahead of time to snag their photos and videos. We weren’t able to catch the main show, as it was inside complex’s main square, but we did see the ceremony of the two armed guards stationed by the main entrance and exit! In the square behind St. Vitus Cathedral was another outdoor market celebrating Easter, a perfect opportunity to enjoy a potato-and-spinach snack and some green beer, naturally. As you descend the hill from the castle to cross the bridge into the Jewish Quarter, the view overlooking the city below is positively sublime.
The Jewish Quarter of Prague is one of the most well-preserved parts of the city. This is no coincidence, though the reasoning behind it is rather disturbing. During World War II, Hitler was quite fond of Prague. He thought it would make for a nice summer home after the war and so didn’t want it destroyed. He gave strict orders to his soldiers specifically not to destroy the Jewish Quarter, planning for it to remain as a museum of an extinct race. We learned that bit from our walking tour guide the day before. That nauseating and infuriating knowledge was very present in my mind as we explored the Jewish Quarter on our own the next day.
One of the most important and highly-visited historical monuments in all of Prague today is the Old Jewish Cemetery. Active for over 300 years between the 15th and 18th centuries, the cemetery naturally struggled for lack of space, so new soil was placed on top of older plots to make way for more. In the densest of areas graves lie as many as twelve layers deep (the cemetery sits high above the surrounding streets, supported by retaining walls, so it’s depth is rather prominent). During this process, the Jewish people would extract the gravestones and replant them on the surface, explaining the dense forest of gravestones that stands today.
Walking the meandering path around these gravestones, I couldn’t help but think how beautiful this place is. Yes it is a cemetery, but it also represents the resiliency of the Jewish community from centuries before. And therefore a celebration of Jewish life here in Prague. Within the Jewish tradition, it is customary for mourners to place rocks or pebbles on the gravestones of loved ones. A quick Google search turns up over a dozen different explanations behind this (a common trait shared by many Jewish questions), but I like to think of it simply as a leave-behind to honor those which you have visited to pay your respects. The mounds of pebbles on the many gravestones that lined the path were a beautiful sight.
The other highlight that our Jewish Museum of Prague tickets gained us entry to was the Old-New Synagogue (Altneuschul), Europe’s oldest active synagogue. Completed in 1270, it has withstood the test of time and today remains a prominent prayer house amongst the local community. In the attic, according to legend, lives the Golem of Prague. The story goes that in the late 16th century, Rabbi Loew ben Bezalel created a Golem out of clay, and brought it to life through Hebrew rituals and spells. The animated Golem, who would work six days a week and rest on Shabbos, was tasked with the job of protecting the Jewish community from pogroms and other anti-Semitic attacks (The Jewish Quarter gets its name from being the ghetto of Prague, where the Jewish people of surrounding areas were brought, and forced to live in segregation). A slightly more recent story from World War II tells of two Nazi agents who went against orders and climbed up to the attic intent on destroying the Golem. Those Nazis were, of course, never seen or heard from again.
Isabel often includes in our travel itinerary something far off the beaten path. Split, Croatia gave us Froggyland. Vienna, the Kriminalmuseum. Prague’s quirky offering to this list would be: the Museum of Miniatures. Microscopic works of art. It’s astonishing what the artist was able to create; a row of camels in the eye of a needle, shoes on the wing of a flea, and the world’s smallest book (according to Guinness). Weird, but really interesting!
Too many times on our travels we have experienced the deleterious effects of overtourism. This can exist when either too many tourists overwhelm a destination or visitors show a complete and utter disregard for rules and common decency, leaving negative impacts on the land, community, environment or tourist attraction itself. Inappropriate dress in holy places. Lack of respect for local regulations and customs. Bus tours on bus tours on bus tours full of loud, rude travelers making it impossible to enjoy an authentic experience. Isabel had been to Prague before and was excited to show me the Lennon Wall, knowing it would be right up my alley. After the 1980 assassination of John Lennon, an artist painted his portrait on a city wall. It quickly evolved into large-scale murals depicting his likeness with Beatles lyrics and promoting peace. It’s evolved over the years. Though the site still bears the same name today, it is utterly unrecognizable. The beauty of what once was is covered over with years of random scribbles and names, layers of twitter handles and doodles. Yet people flock to pose for Instagram shots competing for likes. It’s one thing to wait your turn for a photo op, but when you’re constantly running into people who prim and pose and take up prime real estate for many minutes on end, showing a compete disregard for those around them, it becomes infuriating.
On our daily walks between the Airbnb and Old Town Square, we’d pass under the Powder Gate. Not only famous for being the meeting point of seemingly every walking tour in Prague, it is also one of the thirteen original city gates dating back to the late 1400s. Initially intended to be an attractive entrance to the city, in the 1700s it was used to store gunpowder, thereby explaining its name. Speaking of really old things, we went inside City Hall to
learn about important historical nonsense ride the paternoster! A paternoster is an old-school version of an elevator, with cars that have no doors, no buttons for floor numbers. The cars go up on one side and down on the other and you need to hop in and jump out. For the obvious safety reasons, these aren’t widely used today, and never made it to the States.
One thing that all travelers of age in Prague must do, is try Absinthe. Czech Republic is one of the few (if only?) places that still make it with the original ingredients. The hype around the hallucinations exist if you drink a ton of it; but really if you drink a lot of any liquor, you’re bound to see some things that aren’t really there. The bartender brought us a tasting plate of four different kinds. Isabel loved them all, but she has no taste buds and lives for the burn. I enjoyed one above the others, but as I’m not a fan of licorice-flavored liquors, I pulled some faces as I struggled to swallow it down. One of them made my mouth go completely numb! The Absintherie we went to had a really cool design inside, too. We loved all the art they had on the walls. Sadly, they were all out of postcards, so don’t expect to get any green fairies in the mail from us.
Last but certainly not least, we must highlight the food we ate (aside from the sausages we had for lunch everyday at the Easter market). We got some restaurant recommendations from a couple of friends, and they did not disappoint. I quickly discovered that traditional Czech dishes usually consists of a glorious trio I like to call the holy trinity: meat, gravy and carbs. Our first night in town, we went for an early dinner at a restaurant near the famous Kafka statue, V Kolkovne (Thanks Jocelyn!). The food was so good, we came back our last night, too! A glistening golden bar by the front door, wooden tables in the back, it had the perfect decor. The next night we sought out another of her suggestions, Mlejnice. They have two locations, so if you can’t get a table at the original, try your luck at the secondary much larger spot! Another night we found ourselves at U Pinkasu (Thanks Katka!). Each spot serves up traditional Czech fare, and it is all so good. Also from Katka, if you find yourself near the Astronomical Clock Tower, grab a drink in the speakeasy downstairs at the Black Angels Bar.
Prague had a lofty reputation to live up to, and it did not disappoint. I absolutely loved it here, and never tired of walking the same cobblestone streets every day. As a city, they do an amazing job of preserving the old architecture, look and feel, while also not lagging behind the times to meet the demands of tourists. It’s an extremely walkable city, and such fun to explore. Our interest was piqued when we learned that at the famed Charles University (the very first in Central Europe, dating all the way back to 1348), anyone can study for free – provided you can speak Czech. So all we need to do is become fluent in an entirely new language, and I think another trip just may be in the cards!