A history lesson

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We, the East Europeans, have something special. I know, I know, The Czech Republic, and implicitly Prague, are not in Eastern Europe, but in Central Europe. But during my three days in Prague, I felt as I am in Romania, and I even understood a few words I heard. No matter where I was, I felt I was hearing the history of the place I’m coming from. I felt like home.

Prague was on our bucket list for a long time. Yet anytime we were thinking about going here, something happened and we couldn’t do it. In the meantime, all of our friends went here and all of them came back with the same advice: we are not allowed to miss this place.

While we kept postponing this, my brother-in-law kept on asking us to do it, and we were already embarrassed to refuse him once more. You remember him, the guy that managed to buy his plane ticket to Catania on a different day than ours. But this time he didn’t ask us, he just told us that he’s going and that if we want to join him, we are free to do so. And it looks like threatening us worked better than inviting us.

So, we have decided to take this trip on the 1st of May, a rare occasion in which Romanians and Swiss can celebrate together like we did last year by going to Poland. All of us booked the tickets and an apartment in the Ohrada area of Prague, which sounds very similar to the Romanian word for “garden”. You have no idea how similar the cuss words are!

Getting in Prague

We were planning to arrive on a Wednesday. My brother-in-law and his girlfriend got there earlier than us, at around 4 PM, and we were supposed to get there later, around 8 PM. But of course, our flight was delayed! It was the only one on the board that looked delayed like it was openly mocking me. It was our first time coming to the airport just one hour earlier, thinking we don’t need to make the passport control. It was a good idea since we had to wait two more hours for the delayed flight. It’s interesting to have a 90 minutes flight delayed by two hours.

Still, when the plane finally arrived, we found out that, due to unknown reasons, we were missing the aircraft, so an empty one was sent from London just for this flight. And I assume also the crew was taken from their free time, considering they were really into having fun and they presented the safety features in a way similar to this:

Anyway, since I changed my job (details here), I started to get these sorts of video all the time, and I hear more often about people that were kicked out of the plane for not listening for the safety instructions. The presentation was quite cool, and they seemed like my type of people: pretty funny, but without actually joking when it comes to the important stuff.

After a flight that was so short I didn’t even get to read the full onboard magazine, we have reached our destination. Of course, it was too late to use the usual means of transportation to reach our accommodation, but we had plenty of time to plan this before our departure. After the landing, we went to the ticket vending machines with our Revolut card stacked with some currency already on it. But, unlike in Stockholm, where we didn’t even see how a krone looks like, Prague is still a city where one will need to carry cash.

So, not only that these ticket machines were not working, but also the people from the information office told us we could try to pay at the bus driver. We had to do a cash withdrawal from an ATM, but the driver didn’t want to take our money, so apparently, we couldn’t pay at the bus driver after all. In conclusion, we have to apologize to the transport company in Prague because we didn’t pay for our ticket on the 1st of May 2019, around 10 PM.

But at least we paid for the metro ticket since these machines were working, so I feel less guilty now, and this ticket was also valid for the tram we used to finally reach our final destination for the evening. Luckily, our travel buddies have had time to do some shopping, so we could improve our state of mind with a glass of wine – embarrassing beginning for a trip in Prague, the city of awesome beer.

The first day in Prague

We started this long waited trip with a free walking tour from Sandeman. You should be used by now with us being their fans, and I am honestly thinking of becoming one of their guides in Basel, as a side gig. We have enjoyed the presence and knowledge of a very nice girl named Kateřina for almost three hours, and she even told us how is her name pronounced with that supercool character in it.

While taking this tour I realized that Prague is not about the beer (although it’s not bad at all), it’s not about ice cream kurtosz kołacz, it’s not about beautiful streets and well-preserved architecture; Prague is about history. Anywhere you look around there’s a glimpse of this country’s difficult history, along with the country whose capital city it is. And for us, Romanians, this history is a little bit too close to home to not feel the pain.

I didn’t live in communism. But I have read a lot and, most of all, I have listened to people. As my grandmother was saying (and she went to school only for 4 years): “Children should go to school only to learn how to read and basic arithmetics. You learn geography by traveling and history by living it and listening to others that have lived it.”. This is how she saw the world after 90 years in which she was a witness of a world war, she lived in a kingdom, a socialist republic, and a constitutional republic without changing homes stayed in lines and built your house from scratch.

And I know that for most of you history is a thing not to love because it makes you learn lots of digits by heart, but apart from dates, and years, and wars, history is what makes us, well, US. I can easily see it now, when I’m not leaving with people I share a history with, and I realize my grandma was right: ten years ago I didn’t even hear about Capo Verde, I had no idea where Bali is, and I didn’t think I’d ever see the Maldives. But here I am, learning geography by traveling and history by living it.

Sorry, I drifted a little bit, but I am always overwhelmed when I feel like home while away from home. While on this tour we found out more about the so-called Bohemia crystal, or about the good glasses that our parents used to keep only for special occasions. Also, we found out that in Prague they use two numbers for their houses, and this system was initially not so smartly implemented, but it was an improvement to the system they had before, which was to represent the house by the owner – a shoe repair guy had a shoe, a farmworker had a pumpkin and I don’t even want to think about an animal keeper. We also found out that the Czech Republic is the biggest beer consumer in Europe, even bigger than Germany, and after three days in there I can safely say that it’s true.

The tour also thought us about how they used to get rid of unwanted political people, and it didn’t seem like such a bad idea, if it wasn’t illegal: the process is called “defenestration” and it mostly means to toss these people off the window from a higher building and hope they die, and if they don’t, to be killed by your colleagues that are waiting for them on the ground. They had more sessions of this process over the years, so I think it was, eventually, efficient.

The astronomical clock in Prague

After this, we talked about the astronomical clock, or Prague Orloj (this is the old word for “clock” in Romanian, by the way). The clock, and specifically the show when it strikes an hour, is honestly kind of boring. You’ll see if you go there that it’s not such a great thing. But while thinking at this, remember that it began working in 1410, it’s the oldest clock of its kind that is still working, and it knows how to show you the following:

  • The sunrise and sunset times;
  • How many hours of light and darkness will there be today;
  • The time in 24 h system, in two versions:
    • the modern one, that starts at 00:00;
    • the antique versions, that starts with 00:00 when the sun rises;
  • The sun, the moon, and their respective zodiac sign today;
  • The moon phases;
  • The solstices and equinoxes;
  • The next sun and moon eclipses.

I know, when it strikes an hour it doesn’t seem like a big deal, there are only some small dolls wandering around with some small bells attached. But don’t forget how many things this 600-year-old clock knows how to do!

Prague’s Jewish quarter

After that, we visited the Jewish quarter, a place full of a very painful history. Although the Jewish community in Prague was one of the biggest over the years, it was unfortunately also too close to Germany for its own good. Still, this quarter is like a giant open-air museum, this is how well it was preserved. There are rumors that Hitler wanted to keep this quarter as a “museum of a vanished race”, considering that it didn’t destroy it, but he brought things here over the years.

In here you can find the oldest synagogue that is still being used, called the New-Old Synagogue. Near it there something that I think is unique in the world: a clock that was made also for the Jewish community, or so they say. And how does a clock for the Jewish community look like, you ask? A very smart guy thought that since in Hebrew the writing is from right to left, so this clock is not only “written” in Hebrew, but also its clockwise is the other way around compared to all the other clocks in the world. I honestly think this is the only clock in the world that has this unique feature. Again, the whole quarter has a very special architecture, against all odds since it went through so many wars over the years.

The Jewish cemetery takes up a very small surface because these people were not allowed to get out of this area (and this was before Hitler, mind you), so they didn’t have a place where they could bury their dead, hence their tombs were like apartment buildings, with multiple stories. Near the cemetery, you can visit a museum that speaks about Jewish history in the area during the Second World War. And I know that no one goes on vacation to get sad, but we should, from time to time, visit these sort of places. So that we don’t forget. Or to just find out about the history, since we cannot speak anymore with the people that lived it.

Towards the end of the tour, we found out how did Prague manage to have the best-preserved Old Town in Europe. And please note that this old town area is the original, historical one, and not a new and remade version like the one in Wrocław, which only has one old building that doesn’t even make it into the nice photos of the city center. Prague was only twice attacked during WW2, which is impressive compared to the surrounded countries that were almost extinguished.

It seems like the first time it was by mistake: an American pilot mixed up Prague and Dresden one day and bombarded Prague for like 10 minutes until he realized it wasn’t quite the right city. “Luckily”, the center remained untouched, and the affected areas were only residential neighborhoods: in 10 minutes he managed to create 700 victims. Quite a big number for an “Oops!” kind of moment, if you ask me. The second bombing was near the end of the war, when the American army was two hours away from Prague, but couldn’t come and help them because the post-war deal said this area had to be freed by the East forces, not the West ones.

Prague castle – Pražský hrad

Because our tour ended near the Prague Opera house, we decided to also go and visit the castle. We initially thought of visiting this during two days, because the tickets are valid for two consecutive days, but we managed to put everything into one single afternoon, and we even managed to squeeze in a beer before going there. The whole complex is the largest ancient castle in the world, and anyone can see this when visiting. But I have to warn you about the keyword “ancient”.

Why? Because we’re used to some pretty new castles since we usually visit the ones that are 400-500 years old. Well, this one was built in 870. I’m trying to provide a little bit of context so you’re not as disappointed as I was when you’ll realize you’ve seen all of it in like 20 minutes. And this is because it doesn’t have a lot to display since it’s pretty empty. The whole complex is very beautiful, and there are a lot of buildings to see, like an amazing cathedral and a weapons museum, but you have to be prepared for the following three things:

  1. Everything is uphill. You need to be quite fit to get here and it can be difficult to arrive with boogies or wheelchairs.
  2. The area is very crowded. Like most of Prague. But you can feel it worse in here.
  3. You need cash to use a toilet.

Honestly, we almost peed ourselves, I have to embarrassingly admit because we didn’t have any cash left and we couldn’t find a free toilet or one that accepts credit card payments. And this in a touristic complex visited by thousands of people a day.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s worth it to go there. But try not to get your hopes so high that you cannot match them with reality. And remember the year 870. Do not expect something that could compete with Versailles.

After we have discovered that we don’t need two days to visit the castle, we went to Petrin Hill to try and see the sunset. What we didn’t know at that time was that I cannot be seen from anywhere else than a tower, since there’s no other observation point of the West side of the hill. The area is very beautiful though, there’s a lot of green space around, and has helped me gather around 30.000 steps that day.

Because yes, I have managed to surpass my record from Stockholm and, if my brother-in-law and his girlfriend weren’t there, I would have been the first one in our group of friends’ competition, a thing that never happened before. On the way home we stopped at a very nice restaurant on the side of the river, a place I cannot, for the life of me, find on Google maps. What I can tell you is that it was a great way to end a full first day, and to get ready for the other hill that we had to take to reach home.

The second day in Prague

After we have managed to squeeze everything there was to see in Prague on the first day, we were in the position of having two more days to do things we didn’t plan. But my brother-in-law’s girlfriend tried to educate us during this time. She is the type that goes to art galleries, that visited the Louvre for a few days, that reads a lot about painters and is very passionate about these sort of things. And then there’s us, 3 IT geeks.

Maybe I have a slight artistic angle somewhere, but this is surely not in the area of visual arts, as you can see from the pictures I take (I know, it’s embarrassing…). So the nice girl took us to an art gallery with reproductions after Salvador Dali, hoping to make us think outside of 1s and 0s and RGB codes. I am very proud of us, we were some very well-behaved robots. All jokes aside, we liked Dali, he’s a cool guy..

After that, even though the temperature was to low for our taste, we still wanted to go and see the Dancing buildings, with a small detour by Freud’s statue that’s hanging over a street. What was cool was that we found one more couple hanging over a street between the two spots, and no one knew anything about this one (you can find the place in here). Unfortunately, I think there’s just one good angle for that nice, dancing building, and I couldn’t find it to take a decent picture. It is located on a very crowded street and there are some cables spread out in the air that you just cannot take out of the frame, no matter how long you try. At least the hanging people were helped by the wind to face us from time to time.

To be able to handle the cold weather, we decided to eat and have a drink at a restaurant they tried a day before. The food was delicious, I even had the chance to taste a deer steak again, something I haven’t done since I was like 5. It’s not like the reindeer that I’ve tried in Stockholm, but it’s not that far either. But the beer tasting was the highlight of the day. We tried 6 different beers, a very small assortment out of the available options, and even me, and I’m ignorant, could say that not all beers taste the same.

And because the other two guys were still cold, and the beer wasn’t enough to make them not care about it, we left them at a bar and left to John Lennon’s wall. Don’t get your hopes up, it’s just a wall with street art all over it, it’s not like the Berlin Wall. It fits into two pictures, one next to the other. But after you cross Charles Bridge, where there are SO many people, getting to this Wall makes you feel a little better. And because not everyone goes there to see a wall, you can still have the privacy that you crave after being surrounded by hundreds of people all the time.

Speaking of crowdedness. O-M-G! (imagine Janice’s voice when reading that. You know, Janice, from “Friends”. Am I that old?) I know I’m a hypocrite to complain about the number of tourists in Prague since I’m also a tourist. But God, it’s like they were all there! In the central square, you can barely breathe. Along the narrow streets in the city center, where all the influencers take the nice pictures for the ‘gram, there were so many people you couldn’t see the cobblestone that tends to impress everyone lately.

I felt the need to keep my backpack in the front because I didn’t feel safe in that crowd. Charles Bridge is the same, full of people! And don’t get me started with the Castle, where the Weapons Museum is in a very narrow building with a spiral staircase, so narrow that I thought you can become claustrophobic in there. Along the so-called Golden lane, I couldn’t even see the sun (being 5’4 tall didn’t help with this) and we even got into a traffic jam. Yes, a pedestrian traffic jam.

After we reunited, we thought about visiting the big church in the central square, you know, the one from all the pictures. The building is very beautiful, no matter how much I’m not usually impressed by churches. But it’s harder to reach it, as you can see from the pictures. We circled the area a few times to realize the buildings in front are touching the church, so the entry is made through a shady looking passage. On our way out, we bumped into some people that were selling tickets for a concert that was taking place the next day. We registered for it and went home, determined to lose the beer weight and to not feel the cold so bad.

The third day in Prague

We started our third day with a Vltava boat trip. The experience was nice and the provided information interesting, but the rainy weather messed up our mojo. The view of the city from the river is spectacular, and the trip makes you dream of listening to a symphony in a ballroom. After this, we stuffed our faces in here. The place is amazing and they even had an offer for free refills on the side dishes. I have never in my life eaten so much mashed potatoes as I have then and there.

I know, my tastes are embarrassing, but you try living in Switzerland for a year and then laugh at me. And because the weather was truly not our friend that day, we had no other option but to visit multiple bars and try a beer in each of them. We even found a tavern that was named like the company I work for; the place looked so shady that, when I showed the picture to my colleagues, they were confused if it’s funny or it’s not.

And I know that, if you judge me by stories, I don’t seem like a very cultured person, but I have to admit I am a sucker for symphonic music. I had a slightly weird music teacher in school, hence I can identify a Vivaldi no matter where I hear it, and I only need a few notes to do so. For this particular passion, Prague is the place to go: the concert house in here is known to have a special acoustic, and the are lots of classical music concerts here all the time.

When we visited, there were concerts all across the city, in all major churches. And listening to Bach in a church is an unusual experience for me. The acoustic is really good since these buildings were made to enable easier sound propagation. Also, we had the opportunity to witness an organ concert, which was the first experience for us. The whole experience was awesome and my only regret was that I didn’t have my nice outfits, so I couldn’t dress properly. Yes, I’m that person that thinks everyone should dress nicely when going to the theater or the opera house.

Looking for a good kurtosz kołacz (I will get back to this), we bumped into the Sex Machines Museum. Yeah, I know, we were JUST out of the church. But we don’t care that much about this (I apologize if I offend someone, I don’t wish to, but this is how I feel and I have promised to deliver full honesty here), and we thought this would be a fun place to visit. A note: I did not visit Amsterdam yet, but my husband did, so it was my first museum of this kind.

I found it educational (I can hear you laughing, you know…). No matter how embarrassing it sounds, the place was a museum, with explanations, with old pieces, sometimes with instructions on how they were used. It was not a sex shop with an entry fee, but an actual museum. What impressed me the most (Stop laughing!) was an entire area of devices that were meant to inhibit sexual instincts considered as sinful during some times. And by inhibition I want you to read punishing teenagers that were, you know, teenagers. It’s a crazy world out there!

About the kurtosz, what can I tell you? We all know it’s a Hungarian pastry, but most people don’t know it was invented by a Hungarian chef that lived in Transylvania, so pretty close to my home country. Well, in Prague, you’ll encounter this dish in lots of variants: with chocolate, ice cream, fruits, nuts or whatever you could think of. I can provide some useful advice:

  1. Don’t get your hopes up. You don’t want high standards. See #2.
  2. Do not buy it in the first place you see. If the ice cream is very low quality (yes, there IS such a thing), or the chocolate is like the worst one (again, it IS possible), you’ll be disappointed.
  3. Get ready to get dirty. It’s gonna happen!
  4. Try not to buy it right from the center of the tourist traps area, but try to at least move a few streets further away, if you would like to not pay for it as much as for a dinner at a nice restaurant.
  5. Try not to stay in the crowded city center when eating it. You’ll get other people dirty too.

The last day in Prague

We have started our last day, while the others left early, with a little mix-up. Two days before, we had contacted the owner of the accommodation and asked for a late checkout, if possible. He agreed, basically said we could leave anytime we wanted. So, on the last day, we have received the unannounced visit of two nice ladies that came to clean up the apartment. My husband, who just got out of the shower, was very pleased to bump into them on the hallway inside the apartment. He managed to cover himself up with a towel in the last moment, otherwise, it would have been even weirder than it already was. The nice ladies didn’t understand English, but we kept explaining that we were supposed to check out late.

So, they left. We got on to our luggage and morning routines. Two hours later, they showed up again. We were out of ideas on how to explain the situation. In the end, one of them called the owner and all four of us were enlightened: when we had asked for the late checkout, the owner mixed up Saturday and Sunday, and he allowed us to leave anytime we want on Saturday, while we had the reservation until Sunday. No idea how that made sense in his world. The deal is that he was expecting other guests that day, and we really couldn’t stay there anymore, and the nice ladies needed to start working to be able to finish in time, because we have kept them for such a long time, and it was not their fault.

I have no idea when I managed to finish packing and to go towards the train station, thinking we could find a locker room to leave our luggage for a short time, while we go and take a final walk. We found one, but it was an interesting system that needed to be used. There were lockers for various sizes, but it was opening with a code received by SMS or email; the problem was that neither of us had the roaming activated. Yes, mobile services in Switzerland are extremely expensive, and/or we are so cheap, it can go either way. We have managed in the end to free up one of those lockers, it was the last one, we soon found out. Again, a little bit complicated, but if I were to do it again, I would nail it.

From there, we got down to the really important business: breakfast in here. Because, yeah, Prague is, in fact, about food. Or maybe it’s just me? Uhm, I better not go that route. The food was delicious, the coffee was perfect, the people were nice. And it was not even crowded, due to the distance from the city center.

Then, we took a walk through the old town area, mostly in the Jewish Quarter. I finally did what I don’t usually do: I wandered around the streets with the sole purpose of soaking up the whole history of the walls I’m seeing. We looked at the show provided by the people watching the Astronomical clock striking an hour, and their disappointment was abysmal (I know, fancy word, I know it from “Friends”). We enjoyed the sunshine and the quietness of several streets where I could take some shots the way I like them: without any people in sight like I’m in some sort of twilight zone. We then went to the airport and got back home, without any further adventures. Boring, I know.

But I kept something. I kept some mixed feelings about Prague. I remember the crowdedness: I have honestly not seen so many tourists in such a small area in a long time, and I didn’t miss spending my time in human traffic jams. I remember the dirtiness because this is the effect of thousands of people in the same place. I remember the national anthem, called “Where is my home?”, which can say something either about a sad history or about a generous amount of beer. I remember the people: open, friendly, happy to share something about the place they call home.

The takeaway: Prague will surprise you. In which way, I cannot tell you, it depends on your expectations. But it will surprise at least once. This is Prague: a history lesson that’s very alive and always surprising.

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