Wednesday, June 24th
The train out of Berlin was operated by the Czech railway. It seemed like a fairly nice train, but was a bit different as I think it was meant to be used as a sleeper train. While most trains so far has seats set up in rows, sometimes facing each other, sometimes not, this train was set up so little groups of six seats had their own room. Good for sleeping but a little cramped otherwise. Our little compartment was already occupied by a father, son, and an older woman when we got on the train. The scenery was pretty nice leaving Berlin and heading south. Near the southern edge of the country are some mountains, not very tall but still a lot more scenic than going though endless countryside.
Arriving in Prague, something comes apparent very quickly: hills. Having a knack for picking hostels in the hills, the walk from the train station seemed like it was almost entirely uphill. At least that had the benefit of making the walk into town almost entirely downhill.
Another thing that you’ll quickly notice is the seemingly erratic parking. In most European cities, you’ll see parallel parking and the occasional slanted parking. In Prague, it appeared people just felt like parking on the sidewalk. That was actually how you were supposed to park. There was a line on the sidewalk marking the forward limit of parking and another line on the pavement showing the other end of the parking space.
Speaking of sidewalks, Prague had some amazing sidewalks. They were made out of small stones, probably inch to an inch and a half cubes in black and white. The stones were laid in patterns, sometimes for multiple city blocks. I guess I should also note that these weren’t the sidewalks that people parked on, usually.
Walking around, I soon came across a strange sculpture. It was like someone took a head, cut it into horizontal strips, and let them rotate. Also, this sculpture was 20 feet tall and metallic. I looked it up later and I guess it is supposed to be a memorial to Franz Kafka, who apparently was Czech as there were a couple of other things dedicated to him around the city.
The heart of the old city is on a river. To enter the old part of town, you have to go through a literal tourist trap. It’s a narrow path through a building lined by tons of souvenir shops. Cars don’t have it much better, as they also have to drive through part of the building and share their lanes with the city’s tram.
Immediately after the tourist trap was the Charles Bridge. I guess it was built in the 1300s, and there obviously aren’t too many bridges left from that era. It is a pedestrian bridge now, with the occasional city vehicle also crossing. Along the bridge are at least a dozen statues and most of them a very old. Some might be original, but it was hard to tell. There were tons of artisans, I guess you could call them, on the bridge. People selling handmade things and sometimes making more of them on site. Portrait and caricature artists. The occasional musician. It wasn’t the normal selfie stick or other knick knack selling crew. One of the musicians was pretty unique. He played wine glasses filled with different levels of water. Each glass had to be wired with a microphone to be audible. The other end of the bridge was more old buildings, often only a couple stories tall. That side of town was also home to the old Prague castle, set high on a hill.
Back across the river is the core of old town. It had a large town square, as I had come to expect in old towns in Europe. Like many town squares, it had a large town hall with a large clock. Of course, you could also climb to the top of this tower and get a really good view of town because everything was much shorter than the tower. This clock tower was unique because it has a famous astronomical clock on one side, and also does an animation once an hour, which a large crowd gathers for as it gets close to the top of the hour. In a nearby shop we found a shop selling nesting dolls featuring various sports teams. They didn’t have any K-State Wildcats, but they did have some Jayhawks and Chiefs. They even had some baseball teams, eight or so. One of those teams was sold out, the Royals. I guess their success over the last two seasons has a worldwide effect!
Thursday, June 25th
Many of the days attractions were located in the area near the Charles Bridge. First was the Lennon Wall, a graffiti filled wall dedicated to John Lennon. I’m not sure what his connection is to Prague but I guess at some point someone felt that it was necessary to start a wall with his lyrics and other things painted on it. Next was an attempt at finding an efficient route to the castle. I don’t think there really is an efficient route since it’s at the top of a huge hill, but our route definitely was not efficient as we wound up above the castle at one point. On the way uphill was the American embassy. It was a normal neighborhood building on a quiet street, and the only sign that something was different was that the street had security about a block away checking cars trying to get into the area.
Finally arriving in the castle area, it feels like the castle is its own neighborhood. By this time, a lot of the castles started to blend together. It was neat, and it was old, like many of the other castles. There was a monumental church too. One different thing about this castle were what appeared to be servants quarters, a bunch of really tiny houses lining the castle walls. This place also had a weird thing about photography permits, or an attempt to get a couple extra bucks out of the tourist. No one obeyed the permit thing in the church, and many of the rest of the buildings weren’t worth taking pictures of anyways. In one particular building the staff member overseeing it cared quite a bit about enforcing the photo permit thing, although the older guy taking photos probably should have quit the first time he was asked. Another interesting part was little museum for the castle guard and how their role had changed over the years. As Czechoslovakia was one of those countries that was communist after World War II until 1989, there was a pretty big gap in the guard’s role (the castle was closed to the public and guarding it became just another normal job) but they’re now bringing back an old tradition.
Google Maps indicated a large garden space near the river. The entry to the area was rather narrow, and easy for many tourists to miss because it looks like a fairly simple courtyard from the street. The space opens up into a large fountain and pool that felt nice and not overdone. Just some water plants and some large koi swimming in it. The area had some peacocks that occasionally let out loud squawks. The garden got more interesting with more fountains in statues. One area had a huge wall made to look like a grotto. There was also a stage that looked like it was being set up for a concert. After reading the sign that was completely in Czech, we decided to come back after walking around the neighborhood a bit more closer to what appeared to be a listed time on the sign.
Coming back for the concert was a great idea. The area was full of people and we got a free, hour-long concert featuring many classical music pieces. I know there was at least one Bach and one Mozart piece played each, but I couldn’t tell you which ones were played. There were probably a dozen or so instruments in the ensemble and it sounded like they were some of the top players in the country.
Friday, June 26th
Friday continued the tradition of the last day in a city being a rather lazy day. The major attraction for the day was the Jewish Museum in Prague. It was tucked away in a part of Old Town and everything was within a couple blocks of each other. One of the weird things that first strikes you about the place is that it appears to be walled off from the outside. I’m not sure if that was done to make it into a ghetto at some point or if it was for security, but it still seemed a bit strange. It was also a bit annoying that they only accepted cash, so I had to spend most of my remaining Czech cash on the admission. The ticket allowed admission to about six buildings in the area, but a few of them stuck out.
There was one building that was pretty empty. It had an elevated box seat area in the middle of the room, otherwise the focus was on the walls. On every available wall surface were handpainted names of every Czech Jewish victim of the holocaust, organized by their hometown. It was a very striking sight when you consider that this was only a monument to one country out of many affected by the Holocaust.
A large portion of the area was a cemetery. It was ancient, with the first burial hundreds of years ago. The Jewish people will bury bodies on top of each other as long as their separated by a certain amount of dirt, so the area was very dense with headstones, which were all in Hebrew. The burial method also meant that the cemetery was rather hilly even though the paths were flat because there were so many levels of bodies.
There were also a couple of active synagogues. The first seemed fairly new and had just a few pews. The other is apparently the oldest synagogue in Europe despite its name as the Old New Synagogue. It’s rather plain from the outside. Inside it’s even stranger as the main area was a series of booth-like chairs on the outside edge and a ring in the middle of the same type of chairs facing towards the outside. Some of the seats had names assigned to them. As a bonus, I got a souvenir kippah for going to this synagogue since they require them for all men.
Another walk through town took us by the astronomical clock and its square once again. Today though, the area was far more crowded as a film crew was trying to shoot a scene in front of the clock. A bit of searching on the internet revealed that it was the crew for Legends, a mediocre Crime/Thriller/Action/Drama on TNT entering its second season. It turns out that filming is rather slow and grows boring pretty quick as a guy tries to micromanage an area that has a ton of pedestrian traffic. Maybe they should have tried to shoot during a time that isn’t at the peak of tourist season.
Heading south and across the river again was a park called Kampa Island. It had a lot of open space and in one area they had these really creepy crawling baby statues. We would later see the same statues crawling on a large TV tower.
… and now it’s picture time: