Ahh, Prague. The City of a Thousand Spires. Perhaps one of the best things about not being able to go to Russia was that I was able to add Prague to my ever-changing itinerary. I love this city.
I was first here in December of 2003. During the final phases of my assignment in London, I got the bright idea of taking a week's worth of vacation to backpack around Europe for a bit before heading home for Christmas. I was actually fairly excited about the plan. After working like mad for four months, it was time for a little adventure.
I found one brave soul to go with me - a buddy from the project named Lawton. He was as nonchalant about our course as I was, so it worked out well. We ended up booking a flight to Rome, and then found a train to Venice, and after a coin flip with Vienna on one side and Prague on the other, we ended up on a night train to the Czech Republic.
It was absolutely beautiful. Neither of us had heard much about it other than it was something to see, and at that point, fairly un-touristy. The moment we arrived, a gentle snow started to fall over Wenceslas Square. It was mid-December, and bitterly cold. Beautiful Christmas decorations adorned streetlights and building facades over the city. Christmas in Prague is something I'll not soon forget.
We ended up walking up to Prague Castle, and the beautiful, massive church inside it. We wound our way from Mala Strana across Charles Bridge to the Stare Mesto (Old Town), where the open square had been taken over by tents and portable shops selling everything from candle holders to caramel corn. The lights on the massive Christmas trees twinkled like the Griswold's house.
We only had a day and a half in Prague back then. Far too short, but then, six days isn't much time for four great cities in Europe. Beggars can't be choosers.
Needless to say, I was excited about my return trip. As I stepped off the train, I immediately felt comfortable. I remembered the walk to the station's lobby. I remembered the location of the ATMs. I even remembered my way to Wenceslas Square, without looking at a map. It was a bit like going back to London, but a bit more foreign, and even a bit more exciting.
I ended up spending about a week in Prague. It was absolutely wonderful to have more time. I found a great hostel called "Sir Toby's" in the northeast part of the city. I figured out the metro system. I figured out the tram lines. I tried the cuisine at several local places I remembered from my last visit. I tried a few Czech beers. I walked narrow side streets didn't have time to venture down before. To top it off, I even had time to find a really good English-language church on Sunday called the International Church of Prague.
However, I quickly realized this trip was different than my last. First, it was about 50 degrees warmer. No gently falling, fluffy-flaked snow this time. While better for comfort, it detracted a bit from the original experience. Secondly (and more disappointingly), there were about a thousand times more tourists than four years ago. It was amazing. They seemed to ooze out of every door, past every window and down every street. Short little tour guides armed with a Madonna-microphone and a little speaker around their waist led packs of 10-15 wide-eyed tourists around the streets of the old town.
Yes, yes, I know. I'm a tourist too. I definitely don't want to become a traveling snob. As fate would have it, I read this quote a couple weeks prior to making it to Prague:
Travelers never think that they are the foreigners.
How true. But, it was disappointing - I had Prague built up in my mind as this perfect, snowy, gothic, picturesque place... and unfortunately found it has fallen prey to many of the same touristy gimmicks you find in big, popular cities. I wanted MY Prague. Alas...
Don't get me wrong. I still love the place. And despite the hordes, it's still one of my favorite places on earth. The architecture, the streets, the spires... It's still breathtaking.
I'm sure everyone who has visited Prague will have the same list, but there are three areas of town I will always go back to. Areas that ARE Prague:
1: Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral. The icon of the city. One of the largest castles in all of Europe, it sits across the Vltava river on a hill overlooking the entire city. The castle itself is impressive, but the church in its heart is absolutely magnificent. It's the first thing I look for. From a distance it looks almost jet-black. Its tall sharp towers pierce the horizon. If I could save only one thing from Prague, it would be St. Vitus.
2: Charles Bridge. In my opinion, one of the most beautiful bridges in the world. It arches gracefully over the Vltava, linking the old town with the castle. It's adorned with beautiful gothic statues opposing each other on each side. And, like all the architecture in Prague, the bridge and the statues themselves are made of dark stone, have sharp edges, and seem to collect shadows. It's gothic architecture at its best, and I absolutely love it. I love the fact that the statues are black. They seem more defined, more imposing. I walked across Charles Bridge no fewer than five times during my visit. And, as with anything, if you stay long enough, you'll hear some interesting discussions. At one point I heard a distinctly American voice (notable for A. its volume, and B. its southern twang) say "I wish I had a power washer to clean these things up a little." Sigh.
3: The Old city. The old town of Prague is stunning. As all European cities, it's dominated by a large open square surrounded by huge churches and outdoor cafes. Every hour, large crowds gather around the Astronomical clock, trying to get a glimpse of Death and the Apostles. Towering around the square in each direction, magnificent spires stab at the sky.
Unfortunately, during this visit there was a good deal of construction - the main church had scaffolding all over it. The main fountain was surrounded by a large advertisement. And, the square was full of tourists instead of tents and Christmas vendors. Definitely not Christmas of 2003. Can't have everything I guess.
4. Legends Sports Bar. As a matter of fact, the drinks were way over priced, and the menu sucked, but they were showing American football on Sunday night. It was great to actually watch a game. And, accordingly, it was packed with American ex-pats. The games were ok, and the crowd was decent, but I absolutely loved the décor. It was an underground bar, and at equal points around the bar were posters of different sports. Rugby, soccer, tennis, cricket, and yes, even American football. And the best thing of all, was that the poster was of John Elway. They could have picked anyone of any era of the NFL. Good to see even the people of the Czech Republic know greatness.
Prague is amazing. It's one of the best cities in Europe. And while this visit didn't have the same effect on me as my last visit, it was still impressive. I can't wait to go back.