History Hedonist: A Week in Prague

Over the years, I had heard many things about Prague, all of them good…but what, actually, is there in this city?  I had no idea and resolved that we would spend the ensuing week discovering things in our own way and at our own pace (slower than guided tours).  We arrived at night on a Saturday, as the parties were just starting to rage…but we just had enough energy to down a Pilsner before crashing for the night.  The next morning, we struck out for our first day of Prague exploration.

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As we were staying just a block from the Old Town area, it was easy for us to stumble into the Old Town Square, with its fabulously preserved buildings and the 600 year old astronomical clock.  We handed over some coins for mulled wine and strolled past the street performers…everything from traditional Bohemian instruments to Bolivian pipes to fire eaters to living statues…and eventually into the cathedral on the corner, where an organ was belting out Beatles music.  Losing ourselves in the streets again, we ended up crossing the river and walking past the famous flock of swans and the Franz Kafka Museum.

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But that first day was just a taster.  Prague is a city of stories…each building, each stone, the shape of a window, a plaque hidden in a courtyard, an anomaly in a sculpture…each has a tale to tell and the tales are layered on thick.  We kept coming back to the astronomical clock and the Charles Bridge.  Both get thronged with tourists, but the hordes just demonstrate the hold these historical landmarks have over people’s imaginations.  The march of saints on the hour at the clock, with Death standing by to remind us of the wages of time, enthralls visitors with each ringing.  Visitors from far off lands rub particular statues or friezes on the bridge for luck or fertility or wishes.  In the twilight, standing under the faces of the bridge statues or the clock’s faces, it is easy to imagine how they must have thrilled others in centuries past, as well.

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This city has been at the crossroads of history for generations…everything from King Wenceslas to Mozart (he loved this city and finished Don Giovani while staying here with friends) to Kafka to Kepler to WWII to the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe.  And where better to really experience that than on Castle Hill.  Our first stop was St Vitus Cathedral, with its fantastical gargoyles in all different shapes.  They are meant to represent sins and demons, now in servitude to the church.  Inside, we inhaled an ancient scent of incense as we walked past the stained glass and altars.  Just behind it, we took time to duck into the older and simpler Basilica of St George, which was established about one thousand years ago.

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That same day we took our time exploring the Golden Lane in the hinterlands of the Prague Castle.  A street of fairy tale-esque houses stretch between towers in the castle wall.  Kafka lived in number 22 on this street, as he found the atmosphere inspiring.  We also visited the home of Madame de Thebes, a famous fortune teller whose fame was international…she started reading tarot after her son disappeared in WWI, but she always set a place for him at the dinner table.  As the Nazis took over Prague, she repeatedly foretold their downfall, which earned her a death at their hands.  Speaking of nasty deaths, we saw a lot of armor and torture equipment, as well as large displays of swords from centuries past displayed in the second story of the homes.

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And then, of course, there was the castle itself, in all its drafty glory.  I don’t think we were supposed to take half the pictures we did, as we didn’t purchase the photo license.  Oops.  We spent a long time in the ancient castle and the adjoining museum, inspecting every inch and artifact to feed our geekiness.  Getting to see even more examples of armor and royal dress proved especially handy for someone who was about to start the Game of Thrones books for the first time.  After such a long time soaking in the historical sites, we took a slow walk down the high castle hill, enjoying the views, and feasted at Country Life, the amazing vegan buffet.

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After a lot of time in museums and musty old buildings, we needed some time in the fresh air, and Prague was full of parks that suited our needs perfectly.  We walked around Vinohrady neighborhood, first to check out the big park on the hill and the nearby TV tower with alien babies crawling up it…but there were also a lot of thrift shops, where we each bought a pair of badly needed sneakers.  Let’s just say we had three pairs to donate to their ‘dead shoe’ box!  Walking around other parks in the central city, we ran into more alien babies, glowing penguins, and more green than we knew what to do with.

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On our last full day in Prague, I insisted that we get ourselves up the hill and behind the castle, to Strahov Monastery.  All I needed to see was a single photo of the library and I was in love.  When I found out that the monks brew beer and it is served in a little pub right next door….that was IT.  There’s not much to see of the monastery or the church, really…but the library is worth it.  And this time I certainly slapped down the extra money for the photo license.  Totally worth it.  There is a room for natural curiosities, historical objects from different countries, a small area for displaying manuscripts from the collection, and the two halls of the library that one can look into (but not enter).  The white hall is for theology and the brown one was for philosophy.  Book nerd, explode.

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Just when I though it couldn’t get any better…I remembered the brewery!  We decided to sample three of the draughts…the amber lager, the November brown ale, and the black lager.  All ridiculously delicious, perfect for washing down a literary feast for the eyes.  With that, we descended the castle road, taking in all the sights that we had fallen in love with one last time.  When we had arrived, fall colors had been at their full peak, and in our last couple days, we started to see the leaves all fluttering away in the November winds.

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We bid goodbye to Prague, but not too sadly, because we were on the bus to Berlin…to see Franzi!

 

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