Tschechische Republik – Synagogen und Parks

We woke up after a short night’s rest and walked down the street to grab breakfast on Sunday morning. Today the weather was a little colder than yesterday but we had crystal clear skies, a welcome sight with all of the cloudy weather we see in Germany. Today our plan was to see a few of the sights we missed yesterday before hitting the road in the late afternoon.

We went back to the same little cafe to grab a bite on the go. Unfortunately they were sold out of the tasty hot chocolate, but I had a different sandwich than before and before long we were on our way to our first stop, the Spanish Synagogue. Although this is the most recently constructed of the synagogues in Prague, it is among the most beautiful. Construction was contracted to Spanish Moors who made the building with arches and intricate decorations. Domes and arches frame the interior, while natural light spills in from the dome’s apex and sets the gold trim aglow. The interior is not large, but the view is stunning.

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The synagogue also hosts a small collection of treasures and artifacts gathered after WWII, relating to Jewish life during the war or carrying historical significance. It was sad to see the drawings children had made while at the nearby concentration camp, but reassuring to know that adults at the camp did everything they could to ensure the children were distracted and as comfortable as possible. They also continued with lessons (including instruction in their faith) in secret.

We spent a little time admiring the details of the building before heading out to check out the nearby cemetery, where thousands of Jewish-quarter residents were laid to rest. The cemetery had been built up over the centuries due to overcrowding, and now the graves seem to occupy every bit of imaginable space in the densely populated graveyard. We didn’t spend long here, but walked through the path laid out among the memorials in silence.

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Stones, not flowers, adorn these graves as tokens of remembrance

Exiting the graveyard, people wanted a little time to look for a souvenir, so we lingered by the shops just next to the graveyard. Since the graveyard is raised from street level, the shopkeepers were sharing a wall with the built-up graves. It was a little strange to think about all the bodies just a few feet behind the market tents, but I can’t explain why. I had been inches from bones in Paris and seen lots of graveyards elsewhere. Somehow standing level with them above ground gave me an odd impression.

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At the river one last time

Exiting the graveyard, we made our way back to the river for a brief stroll through a park on the hilltop forming the opposite bank. The park overlooks the city, offering beautiful views of the river and cityscape. After a short climb up some stairs we enjoyed the quiet in the late morning, taking in the views and the sunlight. The overlook where we lounged used to be the site of the largest statue of Stalin ever erected. Stalin died shortly before the statue’s completion. Soon after it was finished, the monument was destroyed as the communists fell out of favor with the occupied locals. Now, a red metronome swings back and forth on the site. According to our tour guide from the day before, the kinetic art serves to recall the time lost under communism.

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Charles Bridge isn’t the only way to cross the river

We finished our stroll through the park and exited towards the Prague castle. Because the cathedral had been closed the day before, we wanted to take a quick look into the interior. The cathedral looked similar to others we had seen on the inside, but due to the sunlight we were treated to a warm glow from the stained glass painting the interior a reddish-purple hue. Most of the church was closed off, so we did not stay too long.

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The glow of the colored glass

We explored the castle grounds briefly before winding down the path towards the river along a different route than we had taken the night before. We stopped in some art galleries to check out some paintings (because some people were looking to buy).

Our group was looking to be on the road before it got too late, but we wanted to catch a late lunch in town before we left. Our guide had recommended a place just off of the main tourist drag by Charles Bridge called Lokal. Here we had tasty food and a few last drinks. The highlight of the lunch for me was definitely the dessert: we had these light crispy pastries glazed with some subtle caramel and filled with a rich vanilla cream. After we ate, we began our trip home to Stuttgart in the car.

Prague has a ton to offer. A variety of architectural styles, rich history, great nightlife, and lots to see are waiting for you in Praha. Like Poland, Prague was pretty affordable, had friendly locals, and was a refreshingly different experience when compared to “conventional” western Europe. I could easily see myself going back someday, but with so much I want to experience, I’m afraid I’ll be adventuring elsewhere for at least a while. You’ll have to hear more about that next time. Until then,
Best wishes and safe travels everyone,

– Ben

Tschechische Republik – Prag

It’s the weekend again, and this time I gathered a group of people bound for Prague, capital of the Czech Republic. After work on Friday, I took the metro to meet at someone else’s apartment, and soon after we were on the eastbound autobahn. Our drive over was relatively uneventful – we stopped at a classic European restaurant, McDonald’s, for a quick dinner. Before too long we were on the outskirts of the city, where we parked and caught an Uber into town.

We found our Airbnb that I had booked. It was a bit of a strange place, 8 beds spaced out in an attic apartment. The price was great though and the location was perfect for us, so I’d say it worked out well. One girl who was with us forgot to bring her passport and had some  issues checking into the room. Thankfully, we were able to convince the guard to let it slide and made our way up to the apartment. Shortly after, we headed out to a nearby bar to grab a quick drink – Prague is famous for its beer so I thought I’d give it a try. We drank and discussed a plan for the next day in a casual setting. The drinks were tasty and the highlight of the evening was when a stranger came up and wordlessly challenged me to an arm wrestling competition. I took him down, but I had the easier position (his arm was further extended) and he was very inebriated; I suspect he was stronger than he seemed. We didn’t stay out too late and got to bed around 1AM, plenty of time for a good night’s rest.

In the morning, our plan was to take a free guided walking tour of the main sights. We left the apartment just before 10:00 and grabbed breakfast at a nearby cafe. I had a croissant sandwich and some tasty hot chocolate which was rich and thick. Someone spilled their hot chocolate on their shirt when trying to snap a picture on their phone, but even after the fact he agreed the drink had been tasty.

Our tour was set to depart from the old town square. We arrived at our scheduled tour time only to find our spots had been given away. Apparently you need to show up early to notify them you’ll be taking your spot. As unfortunate as this was, the guides informed us that we would have a spot at noon, so we wandered around the square to kill an hour.

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The Church of Our Lady Before Tyn. The two towers represent Adam and Eve – Adam stands a bit wider on the right

The old town square was bustling with tourists and guides, food vendors, and the occasional street performer. We took an opportunity to grab some Kürtőskalács, which are not Czech but rather come from Hungary. They were spiral-cakes, with sweet dough coated in sugar and nuts. I liked the cake and didn’t mind too much that it wasn’t local, as the warm sugary flavor made up for it in the cold morning. We saw the famous Astronomical Clock, including a rather ssimple anamatronic show which is only cool when you frame it in the context of operating in the middle ages. Considering the clock’s age, however, the fact that craftsmen engineering working animated figures is impressive. We went up the clock tower at the town hall, which gave us a good vantage point to survey the city from. There we got a good look at the Church of Our Lady Before Týn standing over thee square.

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Our view from the town hall clock tower, overlooking the old town square
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Prague Castle stands sentinel in the distance, as seen from the town hall.
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The (still functioning) 15th century Astronomical Clock
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The clock mechanism shows a ton of information. Notice the partially-black ball, depicting the current phase of the moon.

After our short stay in the square, we went to wait for our tour guide (early this time!). Our guide was studying English and American literature, which I thought was in interesting choice for a Czech college student. Our tour group was pretty large, but I was glad to have some source of context and background for all the pretty sights we were seeing. We learned a bit about the history of the city, of the influence of the Nazi and Communist occupations and how the people resisted foreign rule. We learned of the peaceful “Velvet Revolution” and about how the architectural styles fit in with the time of construction.

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We visited the Jewish quarter, where we learned about the formation of the Jewish ghetto and about how the area is now a posh high-end living space with high rent and luxury retailers. Prague had a large Jewish population before WWII, so synagogues were abundant in this part of town.

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Beautiful ornamentation is common on the synagogues which seem to pop up on every corner
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A view of the Cathedral in Prague Castle from the river

Our tour concluded near the river which divides the city in half. We thanked our guide and made for the other side of town across one of the most beautiful bridges I have seen, Charles Bridge. Statues line the sides of the walkway, flanked on both sides by tall guard towers. The statues depict religious scenes and figures, and frame the artists and performers catering to the crowds. We took our time strolling across the bridge to take it all in. The statues were very intricate and detailed, but many were darkened from continuous exposure to the elements. At both ends of the bridge there are touristy areas with lots of dining, shopping, and bustling crowds. We didn’t linger too long at the far end of the bridge before we turned our attention toward the hilltop and Prague castle. Climbing through winding streets, we worked our way towards the entrance.

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The first tower we saw at Charles Bridge
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Some of the figures flanking the bridge

 

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At an overlook near the hilltop
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The gate to get in, flanked by guards around the clock

The castle sits atop a hill and the walk up affords good views of the city sprawling before it. We were in a bit of a hurry because we had been trying to arrive before 5PM when the cathedral closed. After our climb and a quick security check, the building we had seen all day in the distance, St. Vitus’ cathedral, stood before us. Unfortunately while we did arrive before 5PM, the last entry to the cathedral was at 4:40PM. We walked around the outside to take in the details – gargoyles, arched windows, and jagged spires framed an imposing figure. Gilding on one facade laid out a beautiful ornate scene.

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St. Vitus Cathedral
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Our group at the cathedral
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Charles Bridge from above

After exploring the castle grounds and some of the surrounding buildings, people wanted to grab some drinks at a place our tour guide had recommended. We Walked a short way over to a nearby monastery where monks brew beer on-site which they don’t sell anywhere else. The beer was delicious- I had a blueberry-infused Pilsner and a dark stout, both of which were excellent. Warm and content, the group agreed to stay for dinner. I ordered roast duck which was not fantastic, but the atmosphere, drinks, and live music more than made up for it. Dinner was served in a converted wine cellar. You could see the old vaulted brick arches overhead and the restaurant was calm with a violinist and guitarist taking requests.

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The cathedral lit up at night

After dinner, a few people in our group were pretty tired from all the walking we had done. With the sun having set while we ate, it was a little chillier now, so someone suggested we take an Uber back to the room. Everyone was on board with this till I suggested that a walk back at night would be a nice way to end the day, so two guys and I made our way back down the hill towards Charles Bridge.

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This statue points the way toward the castle

I liked seeing some of the sights lit up at night, and the nighttime hubbub was a good chance for people watching. It took us about 45 minutes to make the walk back to the Airbnb, but I’m glad we decided to take our time. After the walk, everyone hung out and played some cards before we went out for our nighttime activity. Normally I’m not one to like nightclubs, but this one had an 80s/90s music video party going on and was a ton of fun. Normally if I go out I don’t know most of the songs, but at this club I knew all the words while everyone else was a little lost.

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Around 2AM, we finally left the club and by now even I was tired out. Fortunately our room was a short 5-minute walk away, so before long I was sound asleep after a long day. There was still more I wanted to see in Prague, but I was satisfied with how the day went and excited for what was in store tomorrow. Until then,

Best wishes and safe travels everyone,

– Ben