Czech Yourself Before you Wreck Yourself

DSC_0394Hello everyone!  On Saturday we arrived in Prague.  We arrived mid day, so I spent the daylight hours looking for a bank and finding a grocery store, then once evening rolled around, had an adventure with Jordan, Ally, and Laura attempting to find food.  Now, Vienna was a wonderful city: easy to navigate, clear maps and road signs, people who were glad to point you in the right direction everywhere you looked.  In Prague, not so much.  We were given maps upon our arrival at the hostel, but did not know that these maps were outdated.  The group was tired after a long bus ride and anxious to claim a premium bunk in the 6-bed rooms, but with everyone loudly figuring out room keys and whatnot, it was difficult to hear Chris explaining which metro lines we could use, which caused us to miss the explanation that the metro line which looks very direct on the map no longer existed.  We managed to get on what we thought was the right tram, only to be kicked off two or three stops later at the planetarium.  Confused and getting hungry, we managed to figure out another tram to take, only to find that when we got off the tram, most of the streets in this area of the map were too small to have names printed.  Thank goodness for Google Maps!  We plowed through the streets, bypassing tons of beautiful buildings lit by floodlights in the dark.  After maybe 15 meator 20 minutes of Jordan and I hardcore trekking, hangrier by the minute, we found our desired spot: a neat basement pub called Krema.  Unfortunately, all the tables were full or reserved, and since many European countries have a custom of long dinners, there is a policy of only counting on seating one group per table per night.  We turned away, about ready to eat the table outside, and finally stumbled upon a Pillsner-Urquell pub down the street where we had mediocre food but a very interesting experience. Sitting at the tables next to us was a large group of men in their 20s, loudly and boisterously enjoying mugs of beer.  They conversed with the waiter in Czech, and four hooks on poles were secured to the table shortly afterward.  We were finished eating at this point, but we were so curious what the posts were that we decided to stick around. About 30 minutes later, four lantern looking things were brought and attached to the posts.  The lanterns had many spikes protruding outward from the center, and the skewers were stuck through chunks of raw meat of a variety of sizes.  We were a little confused until the waiter took a lighter to each of the meat lanterns, setting it ablaze.  The group then proceeded to skewer pieces of meat and eat them straight off their knives (although this may have been more our benefit, as they realized they were under surveillance by this time).  This was our introduction to the Czech Republic.

DSC_0353The next morning, we jumped on the bus and headed towards Prague’s main castle to meet our guide.  The castle complex here was really wonderful, containing a beautiful castle building, an impressive gothic cathedral, a much older basilica, various government buildings and museums, and a place called “The Golden Lane.”  This row of vey, very tiny houses is, according to legend, where the alchemists worked at turning lead into gold.  In reality, the buildings were built by soldiers stationed at the castle, and were used later by goldsmiths, pub owners, and even a psychic to do business.  Later, Franz Kafka held a residence here for a time as well!  We visited the dungeons, full of medieval torture instruments that made my skin crawl, until we were beckoned by the guide to the castle walls overlooking an absolutely gorgeous view of the city (a much more pleasant sight).  Afterwards, we walked through part of the old town, down steep and narrow streets to the legendary Charles Bridge, where a saint was apparently thrown into the river to drown during one of many invasions of Prague, and the river changed directions.  We crossed the bridge and walked through more of the old town to get to another very old building containing one of Prague’s treasures: the Astronomical Clock.  I wish we had gotten more a history lesson on this clock as I’m still not entirely sure when or by whom it was built, or what is does besides tell time (I’m assuming something to do with the position of astrological bodies).  Regardless, the clock itself is a very impressive and beautiful piece of machinery, although the display that occurs on the hour (it apparently has lots of moving parts, including mechanical people and animals pulling bells and running around between doorways) was rather anticlimactic.

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DSC_0449Hangry once again, a small group decided to check out the street booths near the clock, where I discovered my roots by purchasing a large bowl of potatoes and cabbage, before heading underneath the clock for a tour of the underground city.  The city of Prague used to sit two or so stories below where it now sits.  Hundreds of years ago, after particularly bad flooding from the river, the residents decided to raise the city by filling the streets with anything they could find: rubble, stones, bodies, rubbish, etc., and build their new city on top of the filled streets.  Some of the buildings survived, and tunnels between the houses were left open, which allowed us to explore some of the original dwellings.  TheseDSC_0471 spaces were not unused all these years, however: for a time they were used as prison cells for political dissidents.  You can still see names scratched into the stone walls by the prisoners, dated from the 1600s.  On of the coolest parts of this tour was actually at the end (and beginning): a vaulted ceiling tiled with intricate mosaics, depicting scenes from Czech history and legend.  These mosaics were plastered over during WWII to protect from destruction by the nazis during their occupation of Prague, and so have miraculously survived to present day when so many other great works of art did not.

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The group then parted ways: some returning to the hostel for a nap, and they others to check out the old Jewish Quarter.  We first visited the cemetery, which almost seemed like a scene out of Tim Burton film.  The gravestones were sticking haphazardly out the ground in every direction, and some were so old there was no hope of reading any of the inscriptions (since they were in Hebrew, it wouldn’t have mattered much if we could see the script).  A few of the trees actually grew around the stones.  Some of the gravestones have been DSC_0507dated to the 14th century, and since the bodies cannot be disturbed until judgement day, thousands of new graves have been created on top of the old ones.  It was beautiful to see so many years of history and tradition in one place, although it did stir up many memories of Zach’s family, specifically the passing of the beloved Grandma Lila (I can’t believe how much I still miss her, and my other family).  Before we moved on to our next adventure, I placed a small stone on one of the graves for her.  Our next stop was a small synagogue on the grounds, then to the impressive Spanish Synagogue a short distance away.  Here, we found the interior intricately decorated in a manner similar to some of the gothic cathedrals we had toured previously on the trip, complete with a pipe organ.  The upper floor contained display cases covering a the brief history of the Jews in Prague, from the first Jews in the area through the occupation by the Nazis and later the Soviets, and notable writers and artists of Jewish descent from the area.

DSC_0642We spent the rest of the afternoon walking the streets of Prague, taking pictures of the buildings with the streetlights after dark, and eventually made our way to one of the more unusual places (for me at least) that I visited on my trip: the Ice Bar.  Drinking is usually rather low on my list of things to do while traveling: most days, I would rather sleep early and catch the sunrise over a bridge somewhere.  However, when Scottie previously visited Prague he missed the ice bar, so Laura, Ally, Jordan, and I escorted him over on our way back to the tram.  The other three opted to wait outside and work on long division while Scottie and I ventured inside.  I’m not sure exactly what I expected from an ice bar: Scottie had told me about the glasses made of ice, and I guess I imagined a normal bar with people trying to finish drinks quickly before their glasses melted.  I think I realized I was way off base when we were DSC_0627shepherded into a narrow hallway full of people wearing matching silver parkas and gloves.  Donning our own cold weather gear, we entered the ice bar.  Everything in sight was either made of of frozen into blocks of ice.  There was an ice throne, ice walls (with bottles of beer and vodka frozen inside of them), even an ice DJ for a photo op.  We had four choices of ice drinks: sweet, sour, bitter, or beer.  We gathered up our citrus and vodka filled ice glasses and made our way to the ice throne, trying not to let the slippery glasses escape from our shivering hands.  We took our photos, talked about life, and I ate part of my glass until the 20 minute timer ended our brief stay in this winter wonderland.

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DSC_0737In the morning, Jordan, Laura, and I returned to the Charles Bridge just after dawn in an attempt to get some photos and see the bridge without the hordes of people from the previous day.  We were in luck: we shared the bridge only with a few photographers and the occasional jogger.  We had agreed to meet Scottie after mass at the cathedral in the castle complex, so we had a few hours to kill.  We grabbed a quick bite, then wandered down to the Lennon wall, spray-painted with years of graffiti.  We took our time wandering through the old city and bohemia on our way up to the cathedral, stopping to enjoy the views of so many spires stretching up to meet the sky.  We met Scottie inside the DSC_0789cathedral, and spent some time marveling at the intricate stained glass windows and a really awesome wooden carved cityscape of old Prague from centuries ago.  Scottie and I then climbed up to the top of the cathedral spires to enjoy views of the city from one of the highest possible points.  When we returned to the ground, the girls had found a missing a child, but once we managed to pass her off to a police woman we made our way over to the much older basilica DSC_0987of St. George.  It was rather anti-climactic after experiencing the incredible vaulted ceilings of the cathedral, but this building contained much older history, including a small crypt and frescos on the ceilings that were so faded they could barely be perceived with the naked eye in places.  We made our way out, grabbed a weird lunch in a local cafe, and hustled our way over to the other side of town for one of my favorite parts of Prague: the Museum of Communism.  Filled to bursting with busts of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin; original Soviet propaganda; a sizable chunk of the Berlin wall; and a little more that slightly-biased displays in six languages about the history of communism and it’s effects on the people and countries of Europe, the museum was a history buff educators dream.  The museum shop was where the real magic happened though, boasting original soviet posters doctors to portray a more accurate (read: sarcastic) picture of what life was like, such as a group of happy, smiling women declaring “It was a time of happy, shiny people. But the shiniest were in the uranium mines.”

clubice bar round 2We ventured back to the hotel to get ready for a night out.  Laura really wanted to go try out the ice bar, so we all met up with a large group of the members of our trip and headed in.  It was a lot of fun to be there with a big group of people, and afterwards we decided that since our cover charge included entrance to the five story club (the ice bar was merely one room on one floor of this gargantuan party), we decided to explore.  We visited all the floors of the clubs, which were divided by genre: dance music, oldies, hiphop/rap, rock, etc, and after discovering a crazy laser-mirror room and wandering up and down a ton of stairs, the group collectively jumped into the dance pit on the third floor, and there we stayed for the next three hours or so.  I’ve never in my life been to a club and I didn’t really know what to expect, but this was one of the funnest and most memorable experiences of the trip.  After a night of dancing with the group and other random people from all over the world, and becoming the unofficial bouncer for our corner of the floor when anybody outside the group became a menace to any of the girls (I learned that derby hip checks are fun, both on and off skates), we made our way back across the Charles Bridge, where I had been that morning at nearly-dawn, to catch a cab and a few hours sleep before an entirely too long bus ride to Krakow the next morning.  But that’s a story for another blog.

Thanks for reading,

T

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