14 January 2009

Le Pouvoir de Prague

The second leg of our amazing Christmas-break trip was the stunningly gothic and utterly cinematic Prague.

A 14-hour overnight bus ride transported us across a large swatch of southern Germany, where we encountered some pretty great Germany
customs agents. Sample interchange:

German border patrol agent (as he goes to open a bag): Is this your bag?
Czech man resembling every stereotypical Euro-trash movie villain ever (indignantly): May I ask you why you would like to search it?
German border patrol (deadpan): It is my job.

Managing to get a surprising amount of sleep on the crowded bus, we pulled into Prague a little afte
r noon. After some major snafus in trying to locate our hostel, we eventually took the long way around and arrived at the Hostel Elf. Thankfully, there were no spinning elves in sight, but the place was pretty funky. The hallway walls and doors had been elaborately spray painted and the lobby’s leather couches were perpetually filled with characters whom Ben dubbed “degenerate hippies.” In all, our accommodations were pretty nice. The facilities had clearly been recently redone. Plus, there was a kitchen and free Internet at our disposal.

By the time we ventured out it was late afternoon and, with suitable maps in hand, we set out for town. I had to find a bank to change my Euros to
Czech crowns, and we were, of course, in search of the ever-elusive dinner. I exchanged my money, and we headed into the Old Town section of Prague. There, we encountered a number of old-school Gothic buildings. They were each so striking, as historic artifacts of a time past and in their dissimilarity to the Haussmannian constructions that I have grown so used to in Paris.

We stumbled upon a Christmas market in Old Town Square. Still quite commercialized, it struck my as utterly tradition in comparison to the phony chalets erected on the Champs-Élysées. We strolled through the tiny, old streets of the medieval section of town until we reached the river where the beautiful Vltava and the vista of the illuminated Charles Bridge and Prague Castle gave us a wonderful first impression.
We ended up finding dinner at a restaurant which could have been mistaken for a basement, or wine cellar, but where we were pleased to find English translations on the menu.

As much as I loved the exoticism of words peppered with V’s and upside-down circumflexes which resembled excited arrows bearing down on unsuspecting letters (sample word: Pražský hrad), I had no luck with the Czech language.

The next day was Christmas Eve and rather than take the time to relax while museums and most attractions were close, we decided to explore the city by foot. We walked – I should say hiked – for over five hours straight. But we did cover the whole city, including its parks and outskirts. Although Google exaggerates a bit because it cannot find the exact paths we used to maneuver through parks,
this is a vague approximation of our trek.

From our hostel we headed off to the point on our map intriguingly labeled “Prague Metronome.” At said spot, we found, high atop a hill, a giant, working metronome. Curious, we climb up the massive set of stairs for a closer look. While the metronome, a modern sculptor’s 1991 creation as a replacement to a giant Stalin statue, was cool, it was the view from the hill that was breathtaking. All of Prague unfolded clearly before us with its colored rooftops and cluttered quartiers.

As the day unfurled, we visited the
Prague Castle where we took a look inside St. Vitus’s Cathedral – you have to give props to the Bohemians for giving love to some of the lesser known saints – whose flying buttresses could challenge Notre-Dames’, and bought some postcards at a bookshop where Franz Kafka lived and wrote. The views from the castle were equally pretty, but crowded with tourists – we had the lookout from the metronome all to ourselves. Another perfect example of the tourist crowd-think mentality.

We fought the crowds down to the Charles Bridge, sight of a number of
music videos and a climatic Mission: Impossible scene. It’s also old and historic and stuff. Afterwards, we made our way back up the hill. The road we were on became increasingly steeper until it terminated in another set of unbelievably long stairs. Although we were exhausted when we got there, Petrin Hill was a lovely – and deserted – park. I snapped photos of the scaled-down Eiffel-Tower copycat and the labyrinth, which was unfortunately closed. After a lengthy and disheartening search, we finally stumbled upon the Ukrainian, pagoda-like church that we had been looking for all along. Wet, cold and sore from all the walking, we decided to head home as night fell. We detoured past St. Wenceslaus’s – another one for you – Square and settled in for a cozy evening at the Hostel Elf.

Our last day in Prague was Christmas. We took the opportunity to visit the modern section of the Prague National Gallery, which happened to be open – much to the chagrin of the very bored museum guards. The place was immense, and we easily wasted the day away there. We finished off our stay in Prague by taking a
walk through the Jewish Quarter, which we had yet not visited, and stopping at a café to use up our remaining crowns on some Christmas treats. The café may have been a bit “frou-frou,” but I was extremely pleased by my pancakes with yogurt and forest fruit. I imagine that Ben was equally sated by his hot apple pie and vanilla sauce. Plus, the café was broadcasted VH1 Classic on its flat-screen TVs. What’s better than some Toto “Africa” to cap a great Prague experience?

Prague was a wonderful
palimpsest of histories from the Bohemians to Kafka to the Communists on which the present of an up-and-coming modern European city is being written. Although it may have worn us down a bit, Praha’s stunning vistas and dramatic spirit were unforgettable.

We bid our adieus to the Hostel Elf early the next morning and made our way – much more successfully this time – to the bus station to head off for Vienna.

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