Do I need to mention I just love waking up in new countries? I love that feeling of actually LOVING to get out of bed and do what life is really about – discovering and exploring knowing that was going to be one of the days you would remember even when you are old and grey. So it was time for us to get lost in what looked to be a grey Prague morning and live our life and make memories… When I looked out of the window, grey skies seemed to me a beautiful theatrical setting for whatever our day would bring. We went down to get some breakfast and that was really filling and brought back memories of an amazingly substantial breakfast we had two years ago in Dresden, which is actually not too far from Prague and I could feel it with my palette that morning. We got a nice seat overlooking Dlouha Street. Right across the road there was a beautiful bakery and we could actually see people baking. On my first trip to Europe, I got to love that crispy chemistry of mornings and pastry and it hasn’t let go since. We made an observation as we were watching people getting out and about obviously on their way to work that they didn’t seem as happy as people in Rome and we somehow ascribed that to the Communist past our countries shared. A few sausages, some cheese, pastry and coffee got us fuelled for a day of exploring.
I felt fresh now that I’d had a decent sleep and excited about our first full day in Prague. Dlouha Street still had this medieval charm and I felt European to be walking along it on that slightly chilly morning. I knew well we were going to find ourselves amidst Old Town Square a few minutes later. Well, here it was and it looked quite different now that I’d just seen it in the morning! There was almost no one there at this hour and that was how I saw how travelling in a low season could be so much fun. I wanted both to take lots and lots of pictures and throw my arms into the air and shout “I’m here, Europe, and I’m so ready to take you in!”
The plan for the first part of the day was to go on a free walking tour of the city. As much as guided tours might leave us feeling disgruntled and leaving us wanting something more comprehensive to give us an idea of a place, we thought we would give it a try. There’s no fee for this kind of tours, you’re welcome to pay at the end of the day but it’s not reinforced. We were quick enough to find the meeting point and I was loving the fact we would be exploring the city centre together with an international crowd which was getting larger and larger. I felt amazing but a little bit insecure approaching one of the people in charge of the tour and humbled about being able to speak English but once I started, I really got into it and I loved the feeling doing that gave me! There turned out to be people from Brazil (poor things, it looked as if they were freezing), France, Germany… Do I need to say I felt so excited and it was also absolutely delightful to be spoken English with! No need to translate anything, just live the life and live it in English! Our guide turned out to be not the guy I originally approached to sign up for the tour.
His name was Martin and he was Czech and I wouldn’t have figured that out instantly because his English was really nice and that alone gave me a reason enough to admire him and I wish I could feel like this about my students back home. But I didn’t want to think about that life back home on that morning. Martin turned out to have spent a while living in New York and learnt English “the easy way”, as he put it. First off, he urged us to take a good look around us and take in Old Town Square which had textbook examples of Baroque, Renaissance, Rococo… We were of course shown and given some history of the Old Town Tower and the Astronomical Clock and that was when we found out a lot of people who had travelled to Prague cited the latter as one of the most disappointing attractions of the city. It does look very small and fragile but hearing the guide talking about it made me happy I’d get to see its miniature figures at the top of an hour a lot before we left. Our guide was an architect so I expected him to guide us through. He was really laid-back and told a few jokes. It was nice to get a tour with a local. After that, we walked a bit past some more medieval buildings which we hadn’t seen yet and there was a building of the Charles University in Zelezna Street founded in 1348. It was incredible it was actually the first university in central Europe.
Where I was working didn’t seem a university compared to that. There was also Estates Theatre (Stavovske Divaldlo) there and once we stepped out of Old Town, the atmosphere seemed a bit different in that lovely but more deserted square. Next stop was a very extraordinary cubist building named the House of Black Madonna with an almost incospicuous figure of the Black Madonna on its right side. It houses the Museum of the Czech Cubism and a posh café.
There are germs for architecture lovers everywhere in central Prague indeed! It felt good we had this part of the city discovered for us by the guide. We would have come across by it anyway but that somehow spared us the effort and confusion. Right across the road there was the Powder Tower which used to be part of the city gates. To me it really conveyed a persistently Gothic atmosphere of Prague which the sky kept agreeing with.
There was an impressive limousine parked right next to it and as I later found out, it was owned by one of the largest strip clubs in central Prague. It is a really liberate city and it makes you wonder how the modern (which is sometimes vaguely felt) lives hand in hand with the old.
We were now at the corner of Na Příkopě Street and it looked really impressive with the Municipal House (Obecní dům) with a very imposing green golden dome, The Theatre Hybernia and the building of the National Czech Bank.
We made a short stop right across the road from the famous Wenceslas Square that witnessed focal points of the Czech history. I couldn’t understand why on earth the guide had to make a reference to the events of 1968 when there were Soviet tanks here following the beginning of Prague Spring in an attempt to stop a revolution from unfolding. In 1991 here in this square the first McDOnald’s restaurant in the country opened. I got the guide’s message. It’s a funny thing that as much as we love to slag off our government, whenever we hear foreigners speak badly of it, we get all defensive. I guess a German couple standing next to us might have felt uncomfortable as well (even though it has to be said, I wasn’t feeling like that standing next to them). Let the dead bury their dead… I got a feeling Russians weren’t really liked here and as much as I could see that coming, I felt a bit resentful… Most of the group went into a pub to refresh while we decided to hang around on our own checking out the neighbourhood and popped into the famous Havel’s market to get a few souvenirs because as much as getting them wasn’t our plan, we couldn’t resist that. It was wet and foggy but I was loving to be standing here in this cobbled street just across the road from Wenceslas Square.
Our group gathered again and we made our way back to the Old Town and got to a very nostalgic area of the city – Jewish Quarter (Josefov). It’s incredible to think of all the persecutions Jews have been put through. The architecture of the area was evocative of grief and distress for me. It must have felt really isolating to be living here. The Maisel Synagogue named after Miška Marek Meisel, a philanthropist who built it looked rather eerie surrounded by other equally gruesome buildings. Being here was an experience on its own and it made a change from what we’d seen so far. Tucked away in the busy city centre, it somehow didn’t feel like Prague at all and only the famous red street sign reminded us that we were in Praha 1. As we were standing here listening to our guide telling us about the story of the neighbourhood, I couldn’t help thinking about all these heart-wrenching stories it had to tell. I remembered the film “Life is Beautiful” which light-hearted humour and vivaciousness made it one of the saddest films I’ve ever seen. This area survived thanks to Hitler who wanted it to house the museum of the extinct nation. I had yet to figure out how it fitted my idea of Prague that I was now questioning. The rooftops were edged with what to me seemed like stitches that made hearts bleed with pain of alienation and loss…
We walked on to find ourselves to what made a huge contrast to the Jewish Quarter. Pařížská Street is perfect for window shopping as it is one of the most famous high-end streets of Prague. I vaguely remember being here on my first visit to the city and nothing had changed much since then as I still could only afford to take photos of some items on display (but with a more advanced photo camera this time round). “Je suis Charlie” sign reminded of a recent Paris massacre and I wasn’t surprised I hadn’t seen any of those back in Moscow… Right up the road we were shown a spot where there used to be the world’s largest monument to Stalin which was here for only seven years till it was blown to pieces. In 1996 there was a water-filled statue of the legendary Michael Jackson while he was on tour here. These two names won’t agree in a Russian’s head of course. History always has its funny way. I felt slightly uncomfortable that the man who ruled the country where my ancestors were born was standing here being totally out of place even if for so short a time.
We were back in the Jewish Quarter and we saw the Old New Synagogue. The Hebrew numbers on its clock transcended me to another world and I found myself feeling even more perplexed now. For the reason I don’t remember the guide made another uncomfortable reference to Russians owning most of the Karlovy Vary property. Well, I’ve already mentioned Russians’ preoccupation with showing off their wealth and I was sorry I couldn’t provide any explanation as to why that is. They remind me of a disadvantaged kid who finally got treated to lots of nice things that he couldn’t even dream he would access… The Jewish Cemetry which is known to have over twenty layers of tombs made the sight really macabre and put me off wanting to take a pensive walk there later on our trip (it might have been a good idea to do that on a sunny day though). I was getting some of my sister’s blues she got the day before during our walk along the Charles Bridge.
We walked a bit further from where we started getting a view of the Prague Castle looming in the distance. We were in a square named after a young man called Jan Palach who committed a suicide as a political protest during the Prague Spring in 1969. Another inevitable but grim sight on our way… Our tour ended here right in front of the Rudolfinium, a music venue and art gallery which is a very imposing neo-renaissance building.
That was my first time in this part of Prague and I was really loving it on this grey winter afternoon. The Prague Castle was getting a little closer. We opted to take a tour of it a bit later on with the same guide because even though we weren’t too excited about some comments we had made, we were trying to stay nonchalant about that. At the end of the tour you are welcome to make a small donation and we did as well. I loved the tour as it helped us discover some more of Prague and do it in good English. On top of that, I was surrounded by an international crowd where for me two people stood out. They were a French stylish girl who did try to show off a bit and hid her slightly slanting eyes under her sunglasses accompanied by a black guy who looked really slick and stylish. Well, French will be French. While I was thanking the guide for this tour, I told him I hoped he didn’t have hard feelings about Russia even though as he had mentioned, a few of his relatives were affected by the Communist regime. All he did was to grin and based on that, I assumed Czech people were still bitter. As there was nothing we could do to turn things around, we got busy thinking of where to eat before our tour of the Prague Castle which was only half an hour later. I suspected a woman in our group was Russian (it was just my gut feeling I guess) and she approached us. It turned out her name was the same as mine and she’d been living in Berlin for about twenty years now. To be honest, I think she should have invested in better-quality hair products not to give her nationality away. It looked as if she was willing to get to know us better but we didn’t really feel like mixing with fellow countrymen so we ventured out to find a place to get a quick lunch. We weren’t really aware of where exactly we were going, but we had to make sure we stuck with this neighbourhood. We decided to check out a random café which had a “Tripadvisor Approved” sign. As it was a lunch hour, the service was unexpectedly quick and we stopped worrying about being late for our Prague Castle tour. We had a very generous helping of knedliki and pork and it was very delicious! The Czech language spoken on a TV made it a full-blown international experience! I even managed to understand some of it while I was queuing to get into the lady’s room. That certainly gave me a boost. My linguistic love and affection goes beyond English, it is for languages in general as tools enabling us to live, to experience and to do both through communication with other human beings. It’s a toast to languages! It was time to go and we were happy to find our guide standing right outside the Rudolphinium and we still had time to get some photos in front of a few monuments and take in this large imposing building providing stunning views of the Prague Castle and gaze into the eyes of some pensive statues. Just as we got our tram tickets to get all the way up to the Prague Castle, our tour began.
We walked along the Vltava bank and on our left we saw the Charles Bridge and that was quite a new perspective of it for us. Bare trees all around seemed a bit gruesome but I think that was what Prague is about. Look at these swans swimming in the river, they are so cute! We’ll be encountering them more closely a bit later. We got on a tram which spared us a long walk up the hill. I held onto the handle to keep my balance but it was safe. A short walk took us to a panaromic view of the castle framed with barren trees. Underneath it there seemed to be a large pit and I couldn’t resist leaning down. It was Gothic on an exaggerated scale! I was wondering what it must have felt like to be walking Hradčany some hundred years ago. It actually seemed we were frozen in time as we were standing here taking it all in. That was the world’s most ancient castle and I felt as if I were in a fairytale! We saw the Guards on duty of course. I remember seeing them but wearing lighter clothes on my first visit.
First off, we were shown a small amphitheate where you could stand in the middle of a circle and hear your voice echoed but it’s only you who can hear it. I was feeling a bit shy to go test it in front of everyone but I quickly did while they were all about to leave to move on to another attraction and I should say, that was very bizarre to hear my voice being echoed here. Magic truly never ends in Prague! Here we were right at the entrance to the Castle with a strange-looking man protesting outside it. According to the guide, he had been doing that over the past year and had even been on TV. From what I understood, he was protesting against the government getting an ownership of the state property. Yes, democracy can have certain implications of course. That was a truly magical place and this peaceful protestation was even adding an edge of authenticity to the scene.
Having walked a bit further, we got to see the Gothic emblem and epitomy of Prague – St.Vitus Cathedral. It was breathtaking just as when I first saw it. But there was also something more fragile about it against the grey sky. That just seemed so right and appropriate to be taking it in like this. We got inside and it was incredible and humbling to have it literally to ourselves as the cathedral was about to close for the day. I’d been in there before but that somehow added to the experience and let me focus on things I missed out on when I was here in the summer of 2012 feeling tears of joy and admiration coming to my eyes as I heard a choir of Asian singers in here. I’ve been in a few world-famous cathedrals and it’s curious how there seems to be so much they share and at the same time each of them appears to be distinctive. It felt chilly and wet here and being the last group visiting the place felt so unique! The watchers were getting a bit impatient and it was time to leave. Will I ever come here again? Let’s wait and see and in the meantime we moved on to what is “the cherry on the cake” – the façade of the cathedral. There’s just so much to take in you are virtually confused as to where to look. That feels like a Gothic Golem coming straight at you to leave you astonished. The gargoyles were larger than life. That is a masterpiece and leaves you feelinh humbled standing next to it.
One thing I couldn’t help noticing and feeling in my limbs was that it was actually chilly standing up here in Hradčany ! Who would have thought we would be feeling chilly here in Prague! I felt genuinely sorry for a girl from Romania who was wearing a little shawl over her sweater and got wrapped up in it to keep warm. Who I admired was a little cute kid being changed into warmer clothes standing up here with the wind blowing not making a sound and looking very cute, which is important! It’s amazing how kids are treated here as little personalities. I hope this kid grows into a very nice and handsome man. I was loving to be feeling cold and ironically, that was what we wanted to experience here. What we truly want is not a mere change of temperature but a change of scene and I enjoyed feeling cold HERE! We took a little break and got inside one of the cosy cafes to get some hot wine that brought this sweet delight to my limbs. That was magic unfolding. You actually need to get cold to see how fantastic feeling warmth back in your body really feels… It was getting dark and some streets lights were already on. I really felt I belonged here in these winding cobbled streets… I love to think there is still the air of me feeling happy lingering there. After the break, we all proceeded to the famous Golden Lane (Zlatá ulička) which can be visited free of charge after 4 p.m. It is funny that before that you have to pay to get into a street lined with shops that are likely to have you spending money too! This street seemed to small to be real and in fact there is still controversy over alchemists actually worked or lived here. We had walked it and that was nice anyway! The next stop was easy for me to recognize. That was The Toy Museum, the second largest exposition of toys in the world that I wished I had had time to visit when I was here first. Unfortunately, I wasn’t meant to this time either as it was closed for reconstruction. But at least the famous statue with a very worn-out private part was still here to make us giggle about our original reaction to it. There was some music playing from inside the Lobkowicz Palace right across the road showing how much more there is to be experienced up here.
Before our tour wrapped up, we went down a bit to see the evening lights of Prague. Do I need to mention I was enchanted? I’m a night person 100% and I have a secret love affair with night cityscapes. The Charles Bridge, St.Nicholas Church, Old Town Square, the Petřín Lookout Tower – Prague’s very own version of the Eiffel Tower. That view alone was well worth coming back for. I was standing up here surrounded by people of different nationalities listening to a guide speaking English, the language that brought all of us up here together. How majestic! We started coming all the way down and as you are standing up here, you are wondering how on earth you are going to find your way back down.
We followed the guide down to the Charles Bridge and went on our own right outside the Rudolphinium where the tour got underway. The guide mentioned there was a chance to go on a bar crawl afterwards. Maybe next time if our budget is not so tight… My sister was getting panicky as she thought we might not be able to find our way back to Old Town. In Prague I was feeling quite confident navigating the streets and after some confusion (I’m a stereotypical woman when it comes to finding my way around), I said “Let’s go up THERE, along this street”. This deictic word “there” was an indication of my evolving connection with where I was and that was a big thing for me. I felt content with myself as we saw the buildings of Old Town emerging. I did remember walking here with the guide. Feeling a little jubilant about my progress in navigation, I suggested we took a walk along the famous Parizska Street we saw earlier that day because I didn’t really want to get back to the hotel yet. It made for a perfect entertainment to see its window shops. We were back to Old Town Square for another show of apostoles of the Astronomical Clock and I was thinking I could well get used to that! We had another round of hot wine and trdlo and that has to be one of my most favourite Prague street food and I could also see it become a part of my daily routine that would certainly different from the one I had been trying to escape here and yes, I’d been a success so far! We headed back to the supermarket to get some new beers this time and that wasn’t difficult at all. We felt shattered after a day of walking (I thought I might have to ditch those shoes despite them matching my coat). Some TV, some more radio and I was off to bed to let my dreams and fantasies take over my sleep just so that next day I could wake up to what I knew would be another day to remember.