Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Prague Blog

Wow. It feels good to be back in bloggerville. It’s been a while.

Welp, never thought I’d say this: but I went to the Czech Republic last week. I’m gonna be honest, I didn’t really even know where the Czech Republic was until this summer. And, in case you don’t know either, it’s in eastern Europe, just west of Poland. And, that’s a looooong way away. The girls I traveled with, Jill, Millie, Sarah, Melinda and I, had to take a 15 hour over-night train from Eindhoven to Prague. I don’t know if I ever really fully expressed how horrible the overnight train back from Venice was; we had to sleep in chairs that reclined about two inches and we were continually awoken by police arresting illegal immigrants and conductors asking for our reservations….not my favorite experience. But we learned our lesson from that train and reserved ourselves a coachette, which is basically a 6x6 room with 6 bunks. It's cozy. Yeah, cozy, that’s what we’ll call it. But, hey, it’s definitely better than sleeping on a chair.

We shared a room with Taylor. And I think the word 'hippie' sums her up pretty well. Originally from Colorado,s he’d been traveling around Europe for the past 3 months. It was interesting to get to know her and hear all about her adventures, and get some insight and advice concerning our future travel plans.

Here is a picture of our cozy lil’ coachette.

The next morning we woke up early, which was lucky, considering the train conductor did not come by with our wake-up call until we were in Prague….thanks, conductor. We were so anxious to get off the train, stood by the window for the final 20 minutes of the train ride. As we pulled into Prague, you could see the nearly the entire city. The rustic orange rooftops and the occasional tall gothic tower were first to catch my attention.  It's a really a very pretty city. But looks different than Western Europe for sure.
After exiting the train, it quickly became obvious that we were no longer in Western Europe.  First off, there is very little English; nearly everything was written in Czech, a language which was nearly impossible to decipher….seriously, just look at the words on this street sign:

…and our Euros were no longer valid.  We found an ATM at the train station and withdrew 2000 korunas, which is the equivalent of about $100. Converting money is really strange. You basically feel like you’re spending monopoly money the entire weekend.... which probably isn’t good. But it’s hard to think otherwise when the bills in your wallet are purple and orange.

(photo cred: Melinda Zanner)

We tucked our money into our always-stylish money belts and made our way to our hostel. Unable to decipher the Czech signs and winding streets, we founded ourselves to be completely lost. Thankfully, we ran into Jordy, one of the guys we had met on the train, and he had a GPS on his phone which he allowed us to use.  So we found our hostel, The Old Prague Hostel, at last! Lesson learned: it’s always helpful to make friends with fellow Americans. Especially the Americans with GPS on their phones.

We dropped off our bags and made our way back out to the city.  We found ourselves wandering the streets and window shopping.  It was fun to wander, but I was very thankful that we were going to be getting a tour of the city at 2pm. I'm realizing that I find it extremely frustrating to be walking around a city and seeing all of these possibly really important monuments and not knowing what I was seeing or what history I was missing.  I had done some research before leaving Maastricht, but it’s still very difficult to know what I am seeing once I’m actually there.

So I was very excited when we found our tour guide in the Old Town Square. She was a young woman from Minnesota and had been living in Prague for about 3 years.  She was very easy to understand, energetic and very knowledgeable about the city, which made for a good tour.  The tour lasted nearly 4 hours but it was SO good! She walked us through most of the major areas and historical monuments throughout the city. Here are some of the sights we got to see:

Jan Hus statue

 the Czechs love their Marionettes
....even ones that look like Michael Jackson and Captain Jack Sparrow.

Wenceslas Square                                                                          


     Fun fact: this is actually a central location 
where the Czechs meet up for blind dates!

And, yes, I did sing “Good King Wenceslas” while standing in this square. Like I always's never too early for Christmas carols. 

Street Performers

LOVED this guy:
...can i keep him?

Astronomical Clock

This clock strikes every hour on the hour. (To see what happens on the hour, click here to see my video! Watch the little marionettes on the wall and the man playing the trumpet at the top!) 

Our tour guide tried to explain to us how to read an astronomical clock, but I think I’ll just stick with my nice little analog watch, thank you very much. It's much easier.

Here’s a fun fact about the Czech Republic.  There are only 365 names for men and women that parents can choose from for their children. Those names are written on this clock and everyone gets to celebrate their name day. So you basically get two birthdays in one year, which is awesome! However, as a result, your name might be Anežka, Bohuslava, Dobroslav, or Vavřinec….which is kinda unfortunate. And it also suppresses the creativity of parents when thinking of names for their babies... But considering that in America we have celebrities getting TOO creative and are naming their kids Apple, I guess it’s not a bad idea.

Jewish Cemetery:

Located near the Vitava River is an area of Prague known as the Old Jewish Cemetery.  This cemetery dates back to the early 15th century, with the oldest tombstone’s epitaph dated as 1439. Although the cemetery is no longer used for burials, burials took place for about 350 years and currently houses about 100,000 bodies.. The Jews of Prague were persecuted for hundreds of years by the Crusaders and the ever-changing regimes that ruled Czechoslovakia. As a result, Jews were expelled from Prague and confined to this area of town, known as the Jewish Quarter Unable to bury their dead outside the Jewish Quarter, the Jews were forced to use this small plot of land for cemetery. However, this plot of land was not large enough to contain all of the bodies, so Jews were forced to dig up the bodies and bury them all vertically and on top of each other, often times up to twelve layers deep (which is why the cemetery actually towers above street level).  Although many of the tombstones were damaged during WWII, Hitler ordered that the cemetery be left in tact.  He had intended to build a museum around the cemetery after all of the Jews had been exterminated.  Hitler’s intentions were evil, but I was thankful that he decided to preserve this cemetery because it was incredibly moving to see what the Jews of the past had to endure not only in their lives but also in their deaths.  

It was so good to learn the history of the city because, by the end of the tour, I had developed a deep respect and compassion for the people of Prague. It was so incredible to hear about how much war and oppression these people had endured…and so recently! And all of that history was right there in the city and was reflected in their culture.  For example, their National Anthem is titled “Where is My Home?” which is fitting, considering their government and borderlines had been changed so often, it’s hard to feel like their own country is home.  And, interestingly enough, the Czech Republic is actually the most atheistic country in the world and the has the highest consumption of beer, which are apparently both results of all of the oppression they have endured. But, despite all of the hardship, the Czechs love their country, and I was really humbled by their loyalty to their homeland.  

The tour concluded in a heavy rainstorm. So we quickly found shelter and grabbed some dinner (the best sausage and potatoes I have EVER had) in the Old Town Square.  AND we got some desserts. The Czechs definitely do dessert right there:

CREPES:                                                                                                                        KOLACHES:


There were hundreds of people watching the Poland vs. Greece Euro Cup game in the Old Town Square and so we stayed and watched until the end of the game. We rooted for the Polish, mostly because everyone else around us was cheering for them too. You really don’t want to be caught rooting for the wrong team in a foreign country.

Saturday morning, we made our way towards Charles Bridge, which was on the way to the castle.  
 Here we are on Charles Bridge....see the castle in the background???
(photo cred: Melinda Zanner)

 The castle in Prague is actually the largest Medieval castle in the world and so we could see it from nearly any place in the city, but it takes a while to get to it because the roads are so winding. (Why can't ever place in the world be like Wichita and just use the grid system? It's so much easier.)  But we finally made it to castle, after making our way through the crowd, and up the couple hundred stairs (with all the stairs and walking I have done this summer, I expect to have calves of steel by August. just sayin.) Because the castle sits atop a hill, the view from the castle walls is spectacular.  All of Prague can be seen and it was exciting to see the monuments from afar, like we did on the incoming train, only this time we actually knew what we were looking at.

 I had expected the castle to be one large building, but I soon discovered that the castle is actually made up of many different buildings. The first building we entered was St. Vitus Cathedral.  This is the tallest building in the castle and was the location of the Czech coronations.

The next building we saw in the castle was the Old Royal Palace, which was originally called the Pernštejn Palace, built in the 9th century. Perhaps the most historically significant room in that entire palace holds the “Defenestration Window.”  This window is famous for its significance prior to the Thirty Years War.  For those of you who haven’t taken a history class in a while, the Thirty Years War was a result of the Holy Roman emperor's attempt to force his Bohemian subjects to return to the Catholicism. Such tension climaxed in 1618 when Protestants, in an act of rebellion, threw Catholic Imperial ministers from THIS window! Having studied the Thirty Years War, it was exciting to actually see the window.  Amazingly, the Catholic men survived the fall… but that was because they landed in a giant pile of manure. Not sure what’s worse: being thrown out of a window or landing in a pile of manure. Either way, the men were not happy and thus began the Thirty Years War.

The Defenestration Window

Next, we made our way into St. George Basilica. Located her are the tombs of St. Ludmila, the first Christian Duke of Bohemia, her husband, Prince Borivoi, and Prince Vratislav, the father of St. Wenceslas are all buried here. Unfortunately, I did not have much previous knowledge of these saints and, therefore, my appreciation for the Basilica was limited.

The final place at which we stopped during our stay at the castle was the Golden Lane.  This lane, which is basically just a street along the outer wall of the castle complex, has been around since the 15th century.  It was a popular residential area for goldsmiths, hence the name “Golden Lane.”  However, today, it is an area for tourists to shop and learn about medieval weaponry and textiles. I even got to learn how to shoot a cross bow here! And, yes, I even hit the target. Be impressed.

After our time at the castle, we made a quick stop at the CHOCOLATE MUSEUM. Czechs aren't really known for their chocolate but the guy out front said 'free chocolate' and so there was really no question about it.

Here is our Czech chocolatier, making some delicious hazelnut chocolate for us. YUM.

After that, we grabbed the same dinner we'd had the previous night (because it was THAT delicious!) and made our way to the train station.

 We unfortunately had to sit in chairs on our train ride back, which was, of course, not comfortable. But we made the best of it.

The next morning, our train arrived in Eindhoven an hour earlier than what our ticket said. An HOUR early! Trains are NEVER early in Europe. So we were obviously all still fast asleep when the train pulled up into the station. But thankfully Jill woke up while our train was stopped and woke us all up. We scrambled off the train, still in our pajamas. The train conductor was outside and so we asked him why we had arrived so early. "I know a short-cut," he said with a wink.  A short-cut? How do you know a short-cut on a train? Whatever route he took, I'm just glad I was asleep during all of it.

We had a wonderful weekend in Prague, and would’ve loved to have stayed longer, but we were all happy to be back ‘home’ in Maastricht.

Prague is an incredible city full of history and beauty; it definitely exceeded my expectations. I would have loved to have stayed longer but hopefully I can go back some day and see it all again. If you’re ever in the area, I highly recommend that you ‘czech’ it out!

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