Thursday, November 21, 2013

bohemian rhapsody

During the very first week I was here, before I had conquered jetlag or memorized my new student ID number, my school hosted a travel seminar with Andy Steves (son of world travel extraordinaire, Rick Steves) to teach our unaware and unaccustomed American selves the ins and outs of traveling Europe.  Only a few years older than his audience, Andy shared his own wild and inspiring study abroad stories and introduced us to the program he started all by himself, Weekend Student Adventures (WSA for short).  He was entertaining, honest, and an incredibly astute traveler due to many years spent adventuring all over the map.  Needless to say, his presentation had my friends and I hooked, and within a week we were all signed up for one of the WSA weekend tours to Prague.  Both the largest and capital city of the Czech Republic (historically also referred to as Bohemia), Prague seemed like a good pick mainly because each of us had heard it was awesome from other friends.  I, for one, didn’t know much about it at all, but I was definitely game for an adventure.  Scheduled for the middle of November, our Czech adventure felt like it was a million light-years away.

That was early September.  And here I am already blogging about the trip past.  Time flies when you spend it flying all over Europe, huh?

We arrived in Prague around half past nine on Thursday night.  To make it to our hostel, we had to conquer the public transportation system.  Easier said than done, as I’m sure you’ve all caught on.  Flabbergasted by the strange Czech labels, we followed the directions our tour guide had sent via email closely and crossed our fingers for success.  Finally, we climbed up the steps from the Underground and our eyes landed in relief on our final destination: Wenceslas Square.  Sprinkled with street vendors closing up shop and bordered by tall buildings of hotels, retailers, restaurants, and more, the square was inviting, even though it seemed to be calling it a night.  At the end opposite where we stood, we laid eyes on the pinnacle of Wenceslas Square: the Czech National Museum.  The museum loomed over the city-centre, beautifully lit and carrying an uncanny resemblance to the United States Capitol.  I seem to see a little glimpse of home wherever I travel.
Wenceslas Square by day.
The four of us checked into our hostel (which was located right in the city-centre on Wenceslas Square and probably one of the nicest hostels I’ve been to thus far – booyah) and climbed the stairs to our room.  Since some of the others on our tour wouldn’t be arriving until early Friday morning, only one of our roommates had checked in.  Kimberly was a sweet, friendly Southern girl from North Carolina who joined in with our jokes about as quickly as she’d introduced herself.  We all hit it off right away.  We knew daylight would come much sooner than we’d like since we’d be sharing one bathroom with one mirror and one shower with at least eight people the following morning, so we decided to head to bed.  Minus a stint around four in the morning when our remaining roommates joined us (Question: when is munching on Pringles while the entire room is attempting to sleep ever okay?), we all slept soundly on uncharacteristically cushy hostel pillows, with visions of Prague dancing in our heads.

On Friday morning we bundled up and hit the streets in search of some breakfast before our tour began.  As we navigated the cobblestone streets, I felt as if I had stumbled onto the screen of an animated Disney fairytale; I would hardly have been surprised if Belle came rounding the corner with her nose in a book, singing townspeople close behind.  Mesmerized by the picturesque scenery and running out of time, we found that blessed place we all know best: Starbucks.  Here’s a fun fact: the Czech Republic uses an interesting form of currency called korunas.  My coffee and breakfast at Starbucks cost me 115 Czech korunas!  But since 20 Czech korunas is about equal to 1 US dollar, that was only a little over five dollars.  Still, forking over a bill labeled “100” to pay for Starbucks felt really, really weird.  And to think I thought British pounds were difficult to get the hang of…
Wandering the streets of Prague on a chilly November morning.
After breakfast we met up with our tour guide and the rest of our group from WSA to kick off the weekend.  One cool thing about WSA is that in each of their tour cities, the guide is a young adult who actually lives there and usually has lived there his or her whole life.  This means you get the full tourist experience, but with a unique local twist that many miss out on in such a quick trip in a foreign city.  Our guide in Prague, Iva, was an absolute gem.  She went to college in the States but has otherwise spent her entire life in Prague.  Iva knows her lovely hometown like the back of her hand.  That is, if the back of her hand also doubles as an encyclopedia and history textbook, because WOW does she know a thing or two about Prague.  All weekend long, she effortlessly rattled off names, dates, and places wherever we went.  Her enthusiasm was contagious and kept us going when the walks got long and the air got chilly.  Basically we loved Iva so much we wanted to take her home to London with us by the end of the weekend.  Chick is that good.
Photo-op with our fearless leader.
We started out in the middle of Wenceslas Square.  The street vendors that had been closed up last night were now easing into the hustle and bustle of the cool November morning and hundreds of people already roamed the Square.  Iva explained that Wenceslas Square is truly the place of the people.  It’s where all the action is – politically, socially, seasonally, what have you.  It’s been that way for decades.  In the late 1980s, this was where the people gathered by the thousands to protest the Soviet Union’s communist grip on the Czech Republic, projecting their disdain with shouts and jingling keys.  And on a lighter note, in 2010, this was where the Czechs congregated to celebrate their World Championship winning hockey team in an explosion of excitement and Czech pride.  

Continuing onward, we stopped inside Lucerna Palace.  This was one of the many passageways connecting the buildings surrounding Wenceslas Square, complete with restaurants, a theatre, a ballroom, shops, and more.  It felt a lot like an indoor shopping mall; naturally, I felt right at home.  Inside, Iva snuck the entire group of twenty into a hotel lobby to ride an old-fashioned open elevator shaft.  We literally had to jump into a moving box in order to ride it, bringing new meaning to the casual phrase, “Quick, catch the elevator.”  Two-by-two, we returned to the ground floor to a frowning security guard.  Worth it.

Continuing on in the spirit of things out of the ordinary, Iva pointed out a rather peculiar sculpture hanging from the ceiling: a kingly figure riding on an upside-down dead horse.  Its creator, David Cerny, is an Andy Warhol-esque artist whose controversial pop art can be found in odd and unexpected places all throughout Prague, poking fun at others with Cerny’s sarcastic social commentary.  In this case, the victim is the Czech president, who is said to be the horse’s rider.  Within the weekend, we stumbled upon two other works of Cerny.  We found one rather freaky piece high above our heads while walking back from dinner later on: Sigmund Freud, one hand casually in his pocket and the other gripping a beam that he’s hanging from.  Another was located outside the Franz Kafka museum, and it features two moving statues peeing on a map of the Czech Republic.  His mother must be so proud.

As we walked, Iva pointed out all kinds of interesting places.  One was Prague’s first theatre, called the Estates Theatre, which is where Mozart, a close friend of Prague, debuted two of his most famous works.  We also walked through a gate that’s been around since the 1300s.  Called the Powder Gate, this towering gothic-style arch was one of the thirteen original gates into the city.  Iva explained to us that during the Communist era, when the Czech Republic was under Russian control, the beautiful buildings and structures were left completely on their own.  Thanks to the severe lack of upkeep, these pieces of Czech heritage were seriously damaged.  So, the fact that this gate still stands today is a tribute to the talent and intelligence of its fourteenth century Czech architects.

Next came one of my favorite parts of the weekend: the Astronomical Clock Tower.  Located in Old Town Square, this grand old clock is the third largest in the world and the oldest working one, clocking in at over 600 years old (pun absolutely intended).  Legend has it that the clockmaker who made it had to have his eyes gouged out for some seriously whack copyright practices of the olden days.  He then defiantly threw himself into the clock system in suicidal protest, knowing that if the clock were ever to break, no one else would be able to fix it.  Lucky for Prague, this guy proved to be one of the best clockmakers around and the clock’s been running for well over half a century.  We took a glass elevator and a long spiral staircase up the inside of the tower and reached the top to witness an incredible view of the city.  They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so here’s a few pictures worth a few thousands words on this unbelievable sight.
We climbed down just in time to watch the clock go off at noon, putting on a show like a super-size cuckoo clock.  There are little figures that pop out, like the biblical Twelve Apostles and an angel of death and Saint Wenceslas.  I’ll admit the clockwork show was a little on the creepy side, but the clock itself was cool overall.  After the rooster crowed to signify the end of the spectacle, Iva led us to a restaurant called Lokal for a traditional bohemian lunch.  She walked us through the menu, pointing out her favorites and what foods make the best combinations, until we were each able to decide on something we’d like.  I went out on a limb with pork knuckle goulash and bread dumplings, which was actually pretty yummy and very filling.  We London girls were especially happy to discover that a good meal in Prague is quite cheap.  Our wallets thanked us profusely.
The Astronomical Clock Tower.
After lunch we kept walking all over the city, stopping at random places of interest.  We stepped inside one building, but I honestly couldn’t tell you what its significance was.  I can tell you, though, that right inside the door is a giant pillar of books, stacked on top of one another in a hollow column reaching from the floor to the ceiling.  If you stick your head inside, there is a mirror at the base that makes the book sculpture appear to go on forever and ever.  Way cool.  We then made our way through the Jewish Quarter, bearing witness to the Czech remains of this part of history.  Iva pointed out the Old Jewish Cemetery and the old synagogue, which happens to be Europe’s oldest active synagogue.  The Jewish Quarter wasn’t a huge part of our tour, but one thing that Iva pointed out that caught my eye were these little oblong boxes on the doorframes of all the houses.  These boxes hold Bible verses, and the Jewish families nail them to their doorposts to signify a commitment to Scripture.  What a remarkable testament to their faith in God, despite such a deeply traumatic history.  
A peek inside the book sculpture.
Our last stop on Friday before we took a break was the Museum of Communism, which, I might add, is located in a casino.  By this point we had been walking for so long that our movement would better be described as sleepwalking, so I can’t say that this museum was particularly engaging.  I did, however, get a little history lesson on communism in Prague.  Here’s the short version: The Soviets enforced communism in the Czech Republic from after WWII, when they saved the Czechs from Nazi rule, all the way until 1989, when the people revolted and dissolved the communist regime in Czechoslovakia.  By then, the Soviet influence had long overstayed its welcome, leaving this small country in a mess that would take them years to recover from.  I would imagine the Czechs waved goodbye to the oppressive regime with something along the lines of, “Don’t let the door hit you on your way out!”

As a Minnesota girl, the part of the museum that I personally appreciated most was when Iva talked about the importance of the Czech Republic’s national sport: hockey.  When it comes to hockey, this nation is small but mighty.  Iva recalled 2006 as a special year for her homeland – the year the Czech Republic beat the Soviet Union 3 to 0 in the Olympic bronze medal game.  Winning an Olympic medal was one thing.  Gaining that medal by defeating the Soviets, the nation that had kept their small country firmly under its thumb for so many years of communist domination?  That was just icing on the cake.  A tour full of American kids can vouch for that.  We get what it’s like to be “sick and tired of hearing what a great hockey team the Soviets have…”

At this point we got to relax for a bit before dinner, so we took the opportunity to explore some of the shops around the city-centre.  We stopped at one of the street vendors for a snack and got our first taste of a yummy Czech dessert.  Trdelníks, or “turtlenecks” as we so fondly refer to them, are breaded pastries in a cylinder form, with a cinnamon-sugarcoated crust on the outside and a warm doughy inside.  What’s not to love?  Come to think of it, these “turtlenecks” actually do look a lot like the neck of everyone’s favorite 90s fashion statement.  So not only is our nickname catchy, it is also quite clever.  Trdelník stands in Prague are about as numerous as crepe stands in Paris or dogs in Hyde Park; they are everywhere.
Warming up with a turtleneck.
Iva took our group to another traditional Czech restaurant for dinner called U Medvidku.  Don’t ask me what that name means, because I don’t have a clue in the world.  Our exhaustion kicked in right on cue and Kayla, Caroline, Kimberly, Abby and I laughed our way through a delicious meal of roast chicken, potatoes, and salad.  It was a scenario of utter simplicity – a fairly basic meal after a long, full day.  Yet all throughout the meal I remember thinking to myself that I couldn’t be happier.  There wasn’t really anything special about dinner, other than the fact that I was in Prague (which is a fairly big deal on most scales).  For some reason that I can’t quite put my finger on, I was completely undistracted by whatever had been previously on my mind and left with the simple, unhindered feeling of gratitude.  And that, my friends, is one wonderful feeling.  

Saturday morning our saint of a tour guide asked her favorite breakfast place to open an hour early to accommodate our group for a delicious and nutritious morning meal to start our day.  Major kudos to Iva because this was hands down one of the best breakfasts I’ve had since going abroad.  We then headed to the western side of the city and walked along the river for a while, pausing for nuggets of information from Iva and photo-ops on this picture-perfect day.  Just the day before, Iva told me that they rarely see the sun this time of year.  November has Prague forever frozen in a forecast of partly cloudy, mostly cloudy, and/or chance of showers.  Well, Saturday must have been our lucky day, because Mister Sun smiled down on us all day long.  And for that, walking along the river couldn’t have been lovelier.  We eventually made our way to the Charles Bridge, named for King Charles IV, under whose reign Prague absolutely thrived.  I mean just look at how pretty the bridge is…  Clearly good things were happening in Prague if those days inspired this gorgeous arched walkway over the river.  Along the bridge are handfuls of street vendors and musicians, but surprisingly enough these ones were not of the nagging variety.  They just went about their business as we continued on our merry way, soaking in the beauty unfolding around us. 
Bundled up and snuggled in tight on the Charles Bridge, with Prague Castle in the distance.
After crossing the bridge we entered into another area of the city and found the famous John Lennon Wall.  A bit smaller and more tucked away than I had expected (or, should I say, imagined), the wall was in a quieter area, lending the mural a more thoughtful and introspective air.  Some might be surprised to know that John Lennon never actually made it to Prague; he was supposed to go, but his untimely death prevented this visit.  During the Communist Era, the Beatles’ music was banned in Prague, thus inspiring the creation of the wall.  Since the 80s, young people have been coming here to tag the wall with their hopes, dreams, and words of inspiration.  It’s not even considered vandalism.  
Iva surprised us by bringing along cans of spray paint so we could join in the tradition and tag the wall ourselves.  Caroline, Kayla, Abby, and I painted our initials together in honor of our travels together, and then individually we made our own contributions to the wall.  I chose to write, “Be here now.”  Those three words have continued on as my personal mantra for my time abroad, sticking out in my mind as a constant reminder to be present.  Not only does this phrase carry personal significance, I learned in my Modern Popular Music class that this seemed to be a theme for the Beatles’ songwriting.  Lennon and McCartney didn’t believe in writer’s block.  In fact, if they had walked into Hotel Chocolat last week while I was struggling to crank out a blog post on Ireland, they would have looked at me quite puzzled.  You can always write, they’d say.  You just have to look inside yourself and write whatever it is that’s on your mind or on your heart in that very moment.  Considering their musical success, these guys just might be on to something.
Leaving my mark.
Iva gave us a little over an hour for a lunch break – plenty of time to grab a quick bite before continuing on with Saturday’s festivities.  Or so we thought.  She had also warned us to eat a light lunch, because dinner was going to be a three-course bohemian meal for FREE.  With the hallelujah chorus echoing in our minds, we walked into the Bohemia Bagel, which came highly recommended.  With Iva’s advice in mind, the five of us (Kayla, Caroline, Abby, Kimberly, and myself) sat down and kept it simple with our orders.  I ordered a whole-wheat bagel with PB and J.  Easy enough, right?  Wrong.  The five of us sat in the tiny restaurant for over thirty minutes waiting for our meal, watching other tables that ordered after us receive their meals long before we did.  Something was amiss.  Also, restaurants seem to have this odd effect on me.  I walk in totally fine, not even hungry actually.  But by the time my meal request has left my lips, I am immediately famished.  So that was happening.

Finally, the waitress came to our table and said (without an apology) that she lost our order a while ago and could we please repeat it to her?  We looked at her stunned for a second, not quite knowing what to make of this news, then proceeded to begrudgingly relay our orders.  She walked away with our ticket.  Another fifteen minutes passed.  After what felt like an eternity, our lunch arrived.  Alas, a few of our orders were incorrect, including mine.  Without any explanation, she handed me what Bruegger’s Bagels would definitely classify as an “everything” bagel.  It wasn’t until I indicated that I had actually ordered a whole-wheat bagel (okay yeah I know, diva alert, just bear with me) that she cared to mention that they had run out.  Like what, you didn’t think I would notice that my bagel was white and covered in sesame seeds instead of brown and at least pretending to be nutritious?  Half of us, mind you, simply ordered a plain bagel, with plain cream cheese.  This place is called the Bohemia Bagel.  How long does it take to pop a bagel in the toaster?  After eating and paying in less than fourteen minutes flat, we gathered up our things to leave, peeved to say the least.  Then, to our complete and utter surprise, our seemingly unapologetic waitress handed us a peace offering on the way out: a bag of cookies.  Okay.  Forgiven.

Now I didn’t write that to complain.  I didn’t even write it to shame the restaurant.  Really, I promise.  I actually wrote it because I’m already thinking back on the story and laughing over how utterly ridiculous it was.  It reminded us all of a similar experience we had in a French café, right on the Seine.  We thought we ordered ham and cheese paninis, but to our dismay, the very rude waiter brought each of us a meager slice of toast, topped with one thin slice of cheese and one slice of deli ham no larger than the palm of my hand.  And it cost 8 euro.  Then, get this: we found the same exact thing at a street vendor less than a block away for 3 euro.  At the moment, we were beyond annoyed.  Looking back?  I can’t help but smile.  The restaurant system in Europe is quite different from how it is in the States.  In Europe, they don’t hand out free meal coupons or drinks on the house to any angry customer that makes a scene.  Here, they typically could not care less.  This time, though, we walked away with cookies.  Victory.
I'm telling you, ALL the buildings look this cool.
We spent the rest of the afternoon popping in and out of little shops.  One of my favorites was an actual gingerbread museum, the perfect place to be with Christmas around the corner.  The shop was filled with thousands upon thousands of cookies, in all shapes and sizes.  They were incredibly intricate, covered in icing with highly detailed designs.  The shop carried a massive variety, too: cookies shaped like elephants, princesses, fish, flowers, Christmas trees, and anything else your sweet little mind could imagine.  They even had the city of Prague made out of gingerbread in a huge table display – a total shoe-in for any gingerbread-house-making contest.
The winding cobblestone paths wrapped their way up the side of a hill until we eventually reached Prague Castle.  Prague Castle encases a complex of royal palaces, cathedrals, gardens, etc., and it holds the Guinness World Record as the world’s largest ancient castle.  Before venturing inside, we stopped at the top of the hill for a while, pausing to take in yet another captivating view of the city.  It seems as if everywhere you look in Prague the sight is even more delightful than the last.
Looking down the oldest street in Prague.

Prague is so cool it even has its own mini version of the Eiffel Tower.
After watching the Czech rendition of the changing of the guard (which I will gladly report is tremendously shorter than the British version), we made our way inside the castle to the Lobkowicz Palace for a private tour.  This wasn’t just any tour, though.  Thanks to Andy Steves’ friendship with the royal family, our tour guide was eighteen-year-old Prince William Lobkowicz himself.  Prince William walked us through his family’s palace, which has now been transformed into a museum holding the Lobkowicz family’s famed collection of art, music, and artillery.  I swear, this collection must have taken centuries to compile; every time I thought there couldn’t be another artifact, Prince William would usher us into yet another wing filled with at least a dozen more paintings.  Perhaps the most memorable was the music room, which had an entire wall covered in old-fashioned instruments.  On the opposite wall was, among other works, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, one of the three symphonies that Beethoven commissioned specifically for Prince William’s great-great-grandfather.  I was going to raise my hand and say that at my house I have a CD signed by Amy Grant, but then I thought, mmm, better not… 
Prince William and da ladiez.
We finished off the tour by stepping out onto the balcony for yet another view of the city.  (Sensing a trend, are we?)  This time, however, it was from the balcony of a palace, with a real live prince, at night, with the city lights sparkling away.  AND it was a full moon.  Honestly.  You can’t make this stuff up.  
Once our visit was over and we had some time to peruse the gift shop and casually chat with the prince, we gathered the troops and made our way to our dinner destination.  The meal was absolutely, positively scrumptious and set in the coziest of restaurants.  The heavy wooden tables and the massive wood-fire oven in the corner created an atmosphere much like a mountain ski lodge.  We were treated to a delicious three-course meal of garlic soup, pork steak topped with poached pears and blue cheese with greens on the side, and for dessert: raspberry apple strudel a la mode.  As it was the end of the tour, Iva gave us the sweetest, teary-eyed goodbye and hugged us all.  It was the perfect conclusion to one fantastic weekend.  

On Sunday morning, with nothing else on our schedule except our early afternoon flight home, we meandered about the streets of Prague one last time, imprinting our memories with the sight.  We treated ourselves to breakfast at the cutest café called The Bake Shop, followed by one last sweet bohemian treat.  We had to get rid of the rest of our korunas, okay?
Old Town Square.
Let me just say that Prague was easily one of the most enchanting cities I’ve ever met.  If you ever get the chance to visit, take it.  As I said before, I honestly had no clue what I was in for.  And when I think about it, that glorious state of unknowingness couldn’t have been a better mindset going into the trip.  Certain cities come with certain expectations.  We can’t help it.  We can’t help it that the Olsen Twins traveled the world before we did and infused our minds with preconceived notions of what Paris is supposed to be.  Or what Rome is supposed to be.  Or, let’s be real, what virtually any foreign city is supposed to be.  We are victims of the media and slaves to our own presumptions.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’ve adored all the cities I’ve visited since the start of my travels, but each one seemed to come with its own set of expectations.  Prague was the opposite.  You don’t really see a lot of movies based in Prague (except, fun fact, Mission: Impossible) and it’s not the most obvious item on a list of famous travel destinations.  Prague was truly foreign to me.  I had no idea what to expect.  The little world that I discovered, then, apart from plans and expectations and premature judgments, was truly magical.  So here’s my two cents on travel, and I guess on life in general: erase your expectations and give people, places, and things the chance to be exactly what they are.  Give them the chance to astound you on their own terms, and they just might do it.

1 comment:

  1. K obsessedddd with all of this. Seriously, the picture of the Prague "Eiffel Tower", you just HAPPEN to get a flock of birds taking flight from the forest at the perfect moment?! Jeesh!! Haha but seriously loved this post and also super excited to get (re)-acquainted with my BADASS bestie who is apparently a graffiti artist now! Haha love ya Kates and can't WAIT for ya to come home!!