Prague: The Fairytale City of Brutality

The journey continues!

We arrived at the Prague Airport at about 4pm. Europe seems to be much like Nashville in the winter in that, once you reach 4pm, the sun has already donned its jacket and hat and is riding the subway back home for the day. Because of this, even though it was 4 in the afternoon, it felt like about 10 at night.

After going through nonexistent customs (I guess EU countries just really trust each other?), we sat on some chairs near the entrance and gathered our assorted Prague City Maps to try to figure out how to get to our hotel. On the chairs behind where we were sitting, there was perhaps the smelliest man I’ve had the displeasure of coming across.

He was lying down across a few chairs, his hair so long that I wasn’t entirely sure if he had a face. A few Czech policemen came over and said incomprehensible Czech things to him, but all it did was get him up for a minute before he came right back to the same spot and laid down again. Him moving meant that his horrific body odor was further coaxed into the air that I happened to be trying to breathe.

But enough about smelly guy.

We got some new money (the Czech Republic, while being a member of the EU, has yet to adopt the Euro. Same goes for Hungary, so all three of the countries we visited happened to use their own currency), then hopped on a bus that took such a meandering route to the metro station that we started to wonder if we’d ever really see Prague.

With it being so dark and us being so far outside the City of Spires, we joked that the flat plain surrounding us looked an awfully lot like Texas. A few days later, on our return trip to the airport, we laughed at how incredibly wrong we had been.

Took the metro to a stop we thought was pretty close to our hotel, and then walked for a REALLY LONG TIME. Lugging my suitcase wheels over pavestone streets and sidewalks made the walk feel even longer, so by the time we finally got to the hotel I really just wanted to melt into the sheets despite my incredibly vocal empty stomach.

During our walk, Maggie kept talking about getting Indian food, which struck me as a scrumptious idea. After decompressing a bit, we left the hotel in search of some Indian, and by some weird happenstance (being tired), we instead ended up at the restaurant directly next door. It was eclectically-decorated with all manner of decor (lamps, antlers, picture frames of everything, a few old instruments, etc.), and the only people inside were two guys sitting at a table.

It was then that we realized we didn’t know the first word of Czech, so we stood trying to mime eating and eventually got them telling us that we could indeed eat there. Staring at a menu of complicated Czech, we did some math and realized one of the truly great things about Prague: the beer is cheap. Really, really cheap.

A half-liter of Pilsner Urquell (a Czech pilsner available practically everywhere) will run you about $2. I saw a Happy Hour sign saying you can get the same thing for under a dollar US. Later someone told us beer’s cheaper than soda in Prague. It’s glorious.

With a beer and wine in front of us for a measly $4, we then split what was essentially just a plate of meat. Like I said, we were both very hungry. There was ham, a delicious sausage, some dumplings, some kind of chicken, and sauerkraut.  It was extremely satisfying and we made very quick work of it.

Back in the hotel room, we planned what our next day would consist of and drifted off into sleep.

We woke up, ate hotel breakfast, then called to make reservations for an all-day guided tour of the city. It was roughly $60 per person but included lunch, a boat ride, and 6 hours of a guided tour through the city. While I would prefer to see things on my own, with only a few days in the city it just made more sense to take a tour.

A van came and picked us up, then drove all over Prague picking up other people who were going on the tour. There was only one couple in the van when they got us, and when we started talking to them, we found out they’re originally from Vermont, but now live in Hong Kong. The woman was very forthcoming about how much she despises Hong Kong.

Driving around Prague is a noisy affair due to the pavestone streets everywhere. Once the car’s rolling at a healthy speed, it’s almost too loud to have much of a normal-volume conversation. At the designated start point we waited on our tour guide, and in the meantime I noticed that one of the (very large) pigeons nearby was hurt.

It seemed to have a broken leg, and while we stood there watching Czechs walk by and notice the hurt bird, I kept expecting for one of them to stop, take pity on the animal, and then reach down, pick it up and snap its neck, before calmly putting its body in a bag. They’d look at me, say, “Welcome to Prague,” in a gruff voice, and then walk away happy that dinner was so easily taken care of.

Of course, that didn’t happen. Czechs aren’t so different from Americans despite how much we all like to go on about our differences. American culture has so seeped into other societies – while also readily absorbing those societies’ unique viewpoints and ways of life – that it’s sometimes hard to tell where one begins and another ends. That’s the very reason Czech is even still spoken, of course, since even though it’s not very internationally-useful, there’s a certain modicum of the Czech culture that’s preserved in their language and killing it off is to kill off a certain element of their unique Czechness.

Our tour guide having arrived, he led us down some streets and showed us the old Jewish Quarter of the city, which is one of the oldest parts by far. In the attic of the old synagogue – Europe’s oldest active synagogue – there allegedly rests the golem, an anthropomorphic being created by the rabbi to defend the town against attackers. It’s a famous story and one that seems easy to verify or refute; simply go into the attic!

We walked by the Kafka Museum, the first of many Kafka-related things we would run across in Prague. The famous writer lived in Prague and created some of his best stuff there, so it’s no wonder they’re so enthusiastic about tying their city’s history to him.

It was then that we first walked into the town square of Prague, a ridiculously picturesque area resting in the shadow of the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, which I think is the coolest building I’ve seen in person. It’s ornate and gothic with big looming spires that reach over the city like the eye of Sauron. Just now I read that Tycho Brahe is buried inside.

The rest of the square consists of a very old statue and quite a few other very old buildings, spotted with touristy restaurants with welcoming heated and covered patios. A short distance from the church is Prague City Hall, which houses the infamous Astronomical Clock, a crazy clock that outlines the lunar cycle and essentially made Prague the place to be many centuries ago. We watched the hourly clock show (consisting of lots of bells and a trumpeter), then walked down a crowded narrow street, passing the Prague Torture Museum, and found our lunch awaiting us in the belly of a medieval restaurant.

We sat with the Americans from Hong Kong and our tour guide, who insisted that the restaurant was actually medieval, which kind of blew my American mind. It was a stone basement lit only with candles and decorated sparsely with metal chandeliers and snakeskins.

It was at this point that the American couple began to truly be annoying. You see, my first impression of them was that they were world travelers, the kind of American privileged and savvy enough to be able to move through international cultures and absorb interesting facts, bringing all of the worldviews together to form a wholly new and worldly one. In short, the kind of traveler I’d like to be.

What they actually were was the kind of American tourist that annoys foreigners, the kind that, even while living in Hong Kong for 3 years, can’t stop talking about how great America is and how lonely and lousy the Chinese weather is. During lunch, the guy wouldn’t eat his bread and his wife kept insisting he should eat it. Good golly gosh, you’re in a medieval Czech restaurant and all you can talk about is whether or not to eat the bread?

The food was pretty great – beef ghoulash for me – and was definitely accentuated by the beer (duh there was beer) and the atmosphere of the place. There was a sign outside for a medieval show – basically Medieval Times but for real – and I imagine all they even need to do is dress in tunics and dresses. The restaurant and food is authentic enough.

We talked with our tour guide, who studied English in Ireland and didn’t particularly love Czech society. This was the first of several conversations we’d have with Prague residents telling us Czechs are naturally cynical and depressed people, and that it started long before Soviet occupation.

After lunch we walked through narrow streets of tourist shops and found our way to a boat beneath the fabled Charles Bridge. The Charles Bridge is dotted with ornate statues that each have their own story, a few of which we heard on our boat ride down the Vltava River. Our boat captain doubled as the tour guide, and proved to have a very dry sarcastic wit.

He told about the giant Stalin statue that used to stand over a hill just outside of the city, and how they spent more money packing it with dynamite and demolishing it than they did to build it. He held up a picture of another statue erected in the same place and said anyone who can name who the statue is of deserves a beer. I named it almost immediately (Michael Jackson), and I think it freaked everyone out because the picture was of him from behind. I never got that beer, either – though, during our boat ride, we got our choice of coffee or beer (naturally).

We then hopped in vans again and rode to Prague Castle, the largest castle in the world. The castle is comprised of several buildings and several ancient churches, one of which, St. Vitus Cathedral, we went inside of. It was constructed in the 9th-Century, and, whether admiring its dark gothic exterior or the enormous interior, it’s pretty easy to see how people became such religious fanatics. If you only worked on a farm your whole life and you visit the newly-constructed St. Vitus Cathedral in the 9th-Century, you’d have to believe in a higher power. How could mere humans build that?

Walking out of the Castle, we saw a spot that Obama gave a speech in 2009, a speech that drew so many Czechs that the courtyard was flooded with people. We walked to an overlook and saw a gorgeous view of the whole city. Our tour guide pointed out the fact that the only tall buildings in all of Prague were secluded to one area, a creation of Soviets who cared nothing for the city’s rich history.

He also pointed out the area where all of the international embassies were, the American one being the largest and highest on a hill. At this, the American man started proudly smiling and rocking on his heels, caring nothing for how cocky and stereotypical his gloating looked, nor that he hadn’t lived in the country for years – and, when asked by our tour guide if the American economy was recovering, said, “I dunno, I guess.” Moron.

 We walked through a neighborhood that led to the Symphony Center, then past another super-old church, then saw the John Lennon Wall. Originally the wall featured a portrait of Lennon, but it’s lost under layers and layers of graffiti. It’s the only place in all of Prague where graffiti is legal, so the messages and images change every day.

Then we made our way back to Charles Bridge, where the tour ended as the sun was setting behind Prague Castle. The bridge was crowded, and while I took pictures and video of the sunset, punctuated by the river and the church and castle spires, with Charles Bridge’s ancient statues making their way surreptitiously into each shot, a Czech band started playing. They were very cheery, and quite good, and did their absolute best to make us feel like we’d just fallen into a to-be-made Woody Allen movie. They succeeded.

After listening to the band for a while, we stopped in a bar for some drinks and to figure out what we were doing. We bought some touristy things and admired the town square at night, the light bouncing off the pavestones with the grace that car tires could never accomplish.

We walked quite a long way back to our hotel, hoping to encounter some place for Prague Absinthe along the way, but our search ended fruitlessly. 

We stopped in a bar across the street from our hotel called Tiki Tavi that insisted they were Prague’s only tiki-themed bar. The decorations were layered and intricate and I began to get the feeling that that was the Czech way of doing things – just keep layering it until a certain eclectic flavor emerges. It was a dark and comfortable bar.

Went to sleep, woke up, ate, and then hopped a train to Kutna Hora, a city of 21,000 people about an hour’s train ride away from Prague. Since our tickets were only in Czech and we guessed which cabin we were supposed to be in, we ended up being wrong and a stern Czech conductor made sure to tell us that. He said it all in Czech, not caring that we were saying, in English, that we didn’t know and that we’d move.

Kutna Hora was an old silver mining town and used to be the second-largest city in all of the Czech Republic, but now it’s rather small and uneventful save for a few truly extravagant churches. We arrived with no plan and stupidly made none, just deciding to walk despite the rather bitter cold.

The first church was big and ornate but not very impressive after we’d been so spoiled by Prague’s cathedrals. The second church, however, was the reason we came to Kutna Hora. The entire interior of the Sedlec Ossuary is decorated with human bones.

The remains of 40,000 people are inside. There are four pyramids constructed of human skulls, along with a chandelier featuring every bone in the human body. It was a truly eerie place, and below it were the remains of 12 other nobles. A whole lot of death was there. It was especially creepy that a few of the skulls still had some teeth in them and you could imagine that those same teeth once chomped down on food when the skull was covered in muscle and skin and sat atop an actual functioning human body.

We left thinking we’d just walk until we could find a bus stop, but for some reason no bus stop ever came along, so we ended up walking a very long time. In the distance were some of the darkest European clouds that would threaten us on our trip. Frustrated and tired, we stopped for lunch at an empty Chinese restaurant that ended up being delicious. We set out again in the misty rain, determined to see St. Barbara’s Cathedral, yet another beautiful and ornate gothic church.

By the time we found it, the threatening clouds were right over us. I snapped a few pictures and we made our way to the door only to realize it was just past 4pm and we had been warned, upon first arriving at the bone church, that the Kutna Hora churches closed at 4pm.

Almost immediately after we realized that, the clouds let fly their rain. There were no bus stops and we had very little Czech money left. Miserable and wet, we ducked into a restaurant and got some drinks while we figured out what to do.

After getting some money from an ATM and being turned away by a hotel clerk (she could give us the taxi’s number but couldn’t call it for us since we didn’t stay in that hotel), we went back to the Chinese restaurant we’d had lunch at. Thankfully that woman was kind enough to call a taxi for us, and the taxi driver drove us recklessly across town back to the train station.

I refused to pay for the restroom, so instead I just peed in some bushes at the side of the road. The bush directly in front of me started to shake when I was halfway through the deed, and just as I was imagining what I would do if a man emerged from it, a bird chirped and flew off.

Back on the train, we both drifted off, tired and cold.

Back in Prague, we doubled up on clothes (it was very cold at this point) and made our way back to the town square. We bought tickets for the Prague Ghost Tour and spent our 20 minutes until it began by eating authentic Czech kolaches. They were delicious.

Our ghost guide was an American with a strange accent who’d been living in Prague for 8 years. The tour consisted of him, us, and two girls from Florida. He wore an old-fashioned black hat, a long black coat, and carried a lantern. It set the mood well.

He told us ghost stories that practically every Czech kid hears when they’re young. They consisted of: the creator of the Astronomical Clock having been blinded with hot pokers before breaking the clock with his dying breath so that the town of Prague might lose their extravagant mascot; a gate that leads into the catacombs of Prague (which we sadly were not taken into) and which they would haphazardly toss people into many hundreds of years ago; an anatomy professor that liked an assistant’s bone structure so much that he wanted to experiment on his skeleton; and a headless Knight Templar that occasionally rides through the streets.

In between his stories, he would tell us things about Czech people. They’re all depressed, eerily witty, and unfaithful. He told us at length about the Czech girlfriend he just broke up with, and while Maggie pretty obviously hated hearing about it, she chimed in near the end to inform him that he could remove her from his gmail chat list. He was very grateful for that knowledge.

He ended the above-ground portion of the tour by telling us that the white Xs on the pavestones in the square were to mark the 14 prisoners that were executed right there. Up until their execution, he said, they lived underneath the city hall, in the dungeon.

Then we went into that dungeon.

A special guard had to let us in, then locked us down there with only three LED lanterns for the five of us. It was pitch black and creepily quiet. Once we got to the bottom of the stairs, with only a dark hallway ahead of us, our tour guide started telling us about all of the creepy things that have happened to him and other tour guides as they walked around down there. It was at this point that it really felt like we were at the beginning of a horror movie and that there was some kind of killer or monstrous creature lurking in the darkness. Locked down there, we would have no form of escape.

It’s hard to say if the guide was telling the truth or even if he believes in this stuff (according to him, he didn’t believe in ghosts until 14 months ago, when he spotted one down there), but he was a passionate storyteller and played the part well. And besides, that place was so authentically terrifying, with such a history of torture and imprisonment, that it doesn’t take much to make you feel uneasy as you shuffle from room to room.

We were all on edge and I could tell Maggie was particularly freaked out. The guide told us about a shadow person tapping past guests on the shoulder, a little girl that he himself saw walking from one room to the next, a general moaning sound, teeth gnashing behind a wall, and other scary things that you don’t necessarily want to experience.

He showed us the pit into which they would starve people to death (it was very deep), and while we admired a different trash pit, we heard a moaning sound. It was from a set of pitch black stairs behind us, and it surely could have just been sounds drifting down to us from the busy square, but there were no such sounds up in the square and those were the only ones we heard.

Of course we were all pretty unnerved by the sound, but the guide moved on quickly. Maybe he was pressed for time, but it felt like a perfect moment to milk that terrifying dungeon for all the pants-peeing horror it was good for.

We came up out of the dungeon and went our separate ways. It was about 11pm and Maggie and I really wanted to go to Cafe Sklavia, a famous cafe that allegedly serves great absinthe (we were obviously quite intent on getting some absinthe). They closed at 1230 but the metros stopped running at midnight and our imaginations were turning our fellow street-walkers into pretty unsavory types.

We decided instead to head to the hotel, went to sleep, woke up, and rode the metro to where the Dancing House was supposed to be. A big weird-looking building created by Frank Gehry, we walked around a bit aimlessly but never found its organically-flowing structure.

We rode the metro to the airport, boarded our plane, and left Prague behind. It was a beautiful city with castles and churches like I’ve never seen. Somehow the brutal past of torture and communism makes a weird kind of sense when juxtaposed with its current beauty. I’d like to go back for sure, maybe to work as a ghost tour guide (probably not, but that would be cool).

The conclusion to my Europe trip is coming soon. Stay tuned for Budapest!

 

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~ by Jon C. Forisha on November 19, 2012.

One Response to “Prague: The Fairytale City of Brutality”

  1. Lovely photos!
    If you like photography, we’d like to invite you to participate in our next Travel Photography Competition. Here are the details:
    http://hitchhikershandbook.com/your-contributions/travel-photography/
    Happy travels!

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