Prague: If My Soul Were a City

I’m excited to write this post about my trip to Prague, just so I can relive the experience. Out of every wonderful, beautiful, historical city I’ve been to, I think Prague has been my favorite.

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It’ll be your favorite by the end, too.

All of the architecture radiating outward from Old Town looked like this. Prague was probably the most touristy of the European cities I’ve visited, but unlike a lot of other travelers, I don’t mind that. I like to walk past all the cheesy souvenir shops and hear people speaking in ten different languages. I also tried to learn some Czech and buy stuff in grocery stores and eat at less touristy places, of course, but Prague has been welcoming tourists for most of its history, so it’s kind of become part of the culture there, and I don’t mind being one of them.

I spent four wonderful days here, and still didn’t see everything I wanted to, which just means I’ll have to plan a follow-up trip.

Day 0.5: The City at Night, My First Czech Food

I got to Prague around seven or eight pm, after a bus ride from the airport and then a confusing metro dash. I’d memorized the Czech for “Do you speak English?” (mluvíš anglicky) and a few other useful phrases, so I managed to get to my hostel without incident. Even more than saving money, taking the buses and metros – and even better, walking – are how you get to know a city, and I try to do it whenever possible, instead of taking a taxi. After checking in, I had my first Czech meal of potato and ham dumplings, which tasted a lot like the Romanian food I’d come to enjoy:

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Then I went wandering in the neighborhood of the Powder Tower, a local landmark, which was lit up for the evening, and made my first foray into a grocery store for toiletries, where I discovered, to my joy, that they sell roll-on deodorant, instead of the spray kind which confuses and frightens me in Ireland.

 

Day One: Karlův most, Stare Mesto, Klementinum, Pražský hrad, Concert at St. Giles’ Church

I woke up at about 6 am for one purpose: to walk on Karlův most  (Charles Bridge). I know that I just got through saying I don’t mind tourists in the previous paragraph, but I wanted to see the famous bridge without its customary wall-to-wall people, mainly because it’s renowned for its architecture. Begun in 1357, the bridge is famous for its 30 statues of saints and other religious figures, and affords a beautiful view of Pražský hrad (Prague Castle) and the Vltava River.

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I walked this bridge over and over the next few days, shuttling back and forth between the castle side and the Stare Mesto (Old Town) side, but I never got used to the beauty and atmosphere of this bridge: people getting wedding photos taken, playing jazz music, selling souvenirs. That quiet, peaceful bridge walk was a great first introduction to the city.

I came back to meander through Old Town and eat my first trdelnik of the day, because my tour at the Klementinum didn’t start until later. Trdelnik are delicious chimney cake pastries, not unlike the kurtos I’d had in Transylvania. They’re not as big as the ones I had there, but there is the option of getting them with ice cream, which I’m all about. I ate way more of these than I’d like to admit during my stay.

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Feel free to drool.

The sad news was that probably the most famous landmark of the whole square, the astronomical clock, was under repair for the duration of my stay. They had a replica on a green screen, which still sounded out the hour, but it just wasn’t the same.

The Klementinum is a complex of buildings where important Czech libraries have been housed for hundreds of years. It is also an important center for astronomy, having been a place where Copernicus, Kepler, and other astronomers once studied. Daily weather measurements are still taken here.

At the risk of shoving aside the beautiful Trinity College library in Dublin, I have to say that in Prague, I saw some jaw-dropping examples. My first was at the Klementinum, which, unfortunately, I was not allowed to get a picture of (don’t worry, more to come later). But here is the view from the astronomer’s tower: 20180323_110509

Directly in front is the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, the main feature of the Stare Mesto skyline. Just before my tour at the Klementinum, I was able to go inside there and at St. Nicholas, another church on the square.

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The beautiful chandelier at St. Nicholas.

The first thing I noticed about churches in Prague is that they are extremely cold. All large churches and cathedrals are cold to some extent, just because of their enormity, but I could literally see my breath in most of the ones I visited. I guess it keeps you from falling asleep in church.

My next stop was to go across the river and up the hill to Pražský hrad. By the time I got to the top, I was a little winded, I have to admit.

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The steps leading up to the castle.

The castle is another complex of buildings of different periods and architectural styles. It’s the largest medieval castle in the world if you take into account all the buildings surrounding it – something like 750,000 square feet. Most of these buildings are closed to the public, because it’s still the office of the Czech president, but there’s definitely enough to occupy a person for most of a day. The spires of St. Vitus Cathedral direct you where to go first. Built in 1344, it’s a great example of Gothic architecture and the seat of the archbishop of Prague.

 

 

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The stained glass window is a beautiful example of famous Czech artist Alphonse Mucha’s work (more on him later), installed in 1931. The tomb pictured just after it belongs to St. John of Nepomuk, who was drowned in the Vltava after being thrown from Charles Bridge by order of the Bohemian King Wenceslaus. Apparently, there was a fight over St. John’s confirmation of a candidate for archbishop.

Outside the cathedral, I stopped for lunch at one of the stalls selling skewered pork, chicken, and onions and roasted potatoes. It was pretty overpriced for Prague, but I love food that’s been cooked outside over a fire. It still has that smoky smell to it that reminds me of Dutch-oven cooking when I was a little girl.

Around the outer wall, sort of built into it, actually, is what’s called the Golden Lane. These tiny, colorful houses were first used for the craftspeople and laborers who called the castle home. Some of them are still decorated as they would have been in various periods during the castle’s use as a royal building, and some are cute little souvenir shops.

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I also explored the old royal palace, which was rebuilt in the Gothic style around the same time as St. Vitus. The best example of the architecture is Vladislav Hall, the great hall:

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While I was exploring the palace’s cellar, the lights unexpectedly went out on me. I was afraid there’d been a power outage or something, so I went up to ask. The response I received was, “We’re closed now. Time to leave.” The complex didn’t close for another hour, I’d thought, but apparently the buildings inside it operated on different schedules. Czechs are incredibly direct, it turns out. It’s honestly refreshing, as an American who’s used to beating around the bush a lot more, but it caught me a little off guard that first time.

After closing time, I went back to Stare Mesto to just roam around and take in the festival atmosphere until it was time for the concert I’d booked later that evening. It was close to Easter, and there was a huge market on, with lots of great food and music.

Just walking around Prague, you’ll see vendors outside almost every famous church and even some of the smaller palaces, holding leaflets for classical concerts later in the evening, advertising everything from Czech composer Dvořák to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. A lot of people might bypass this as a cheap way to make money off tourists, but don’t if you love classical music. What better way to unwind at the end of a long day than sit in a beautiful historic building listening to some of the greatest music of all time? Book a ticket here.

The church I chose was St. Giles’, which is where part of Amadeus was filmed. I didn’t know that before the concert began; I chose it for the musical selection, which included Bach’s Toccata and Fugue and Massenet’s beautiful Meditation from Thais, which was done on organ with violin accompaniment.

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Imagine sitting here, wrapped in a blanket provided free of charge, while you listen to organ music waft down from above.

At the end, I got a surprise when the organist played an unannounced piece, Boellmann’s Suite Gothique, which is my favorite organ piece (Toccata and Fugue is my second). When I excitedly told my mom later that evening, she responded that I’m a nerd for having two favorite organ pieces. Whatever.

 

Day Two: Church of Our Lady Victorious, Sedlec Ossuary, Kutná Hora

Before my day trip to Kutná Hora, I went to check out – what else? – another church, The Church of Our Lady Victorious. This one, however, wasn’t famous so much for its architecture as it was for its statue, The Infant Jesus of Prague.

The Infant is a statue made in the 15th century, which some say once belonged to the Spanish mystic Saint Teresa of Avila. It was brought from Spain by a Spanish princess who married into the Czech royal line, and has been crowned by two Popes. The statue is dressed in one of its many different robes from time to time by the Carmelite nuns at the church. Here’s the robe the Infant Jesus was wearing on the day I visited:

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The Czech Republic has traditionally been a Catholic country, and it’s interesting to compare the shrines and relics I saw in Prague and here in Ireland with the ikons in Eastern Orthodox countries like Romania and Moldova. But that wasn’t the end of my religious exploration – hold on tight for more in this post.

I like to see all sorts of things when I’m traveling, as anyone who’s been reading this blog for a while well knows by now. A lesser-known interest of mine, however, is creepy and/or haunted places (see my post on Dracula’s real castle). So the Sedlec Ossuary has been on my list for a while. Get this: it’s a church. MADE OF BONES.

 

 

These are mostly plague dead, so the place is definitely haunted. But Sedlec was a place people wanted to be buried as early as the late 13th century, because the area’s abbot was sent by the Bohemian king to the Holy Land, where he picked up some dirt from Golgotha and sprinkled it over the cemetery, making it a holy place.

The chandelier in the first photo has at least one of every bone in the human body, even the small ones from the ears. There are also four massive chambers with pyramids of bones, and a coat of arms of the Schwarzenberg ruling family. That’s just so awesome!

You’d think there wouldn’t be a way to top it, but next, we traveled to the town of Kutná Hora, just a few miles away. Led by our funny and personable guide, who had been pretty much everywhere in the world (including my hometown in Idaho!), we had first taken the train from Prague and now took a bus. (Incidentally, our guide, David, has since started his own company, Hike Czech, which I strongly recommend you check out if you want to see more of the natural beauty of the Czech Republic).

Once in Kutná Hora, we stopped at a great restaurant, Dačický, where I tried fried cheese for the first time. This is a Czech specialty. It’s kind of like mozzarella sticks, except less fast food and more gourmet. Didn’t get a picture because I inhaled it.

Though it’s a very small town now, Kutná Hora used to be almost as big and important as Prague, back when it was one of the silver mining hubs of Europe. After lunch, we visited the grandiose St. Barbara’s Cathedral, a twin to the more famous St. Vitus.

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David told us that in his opinion, St. Vitus looks better on the outside, and St. Barbara looks better on the inside. After seeing both, I agree.

This cathedral was one of the few I had been to which allowed visitors to go to the upper gallery for an amazing view. From there, you could see the ancient coats of arms of medieval families decorating the ceiling, as well as some remaining frescoes from that time period.

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After we explored the cathedral, we walked around the sleepy little town for a bit before boarding our train. I love the wild, mountainous countryside of Eastern Europe, and Kutná Hora was a prime example.

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After arriving back in Prague, I went in search of that spinning Kafka head thingy that you always see in Instagram feeds. On that note, you can check it out on my Instagram feed here. It was pretty cool. Weird, but cool.

 

Day Three: Alphonse Mucha Museum, Strahov Monastery, Petřín Hill

Even though I literally can’t draw anything more complicated than stick figures, I’ve always appreciated art. Maybe it comes from growing up with a mother and a sister who are both extremely talented. One of the artists introduced to me by said sister was the Czech Art Nouveau printmaker and painter Alphonse Mucha. Maybe you’ve seen some of his work:

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One of my personal favorites.

His art, as I’ve already shown, can be seen all over Prague. At the museum, I learned more about his life. He was a Czech nationalist at a time when the Czech Republic was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When it was reborn as independent Czechoslovakia after World War I, Mucha donated his time to create medals and even banknotes for the new country. He also made beautiful patriotic posters and gave a series of 20 paintings, which he called his Slav Epic, to the city.

 

 

I continued the art theme with my next stop – though this time, the beauty could all be found on the ceiling. Yes, I’m talking about the famous libraries of Strahov Monastery!

The monastery is full of all kinds of oddities, including dried sharks and a mysterious codex. But the most famous parts are the two library rooms, the Philosophy and Theology Halls.

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Wondering how I got such pristine photos? That’s easy: they don’t let you go in the rooms. Kind of a bummer, but they probably wouldn’t like someone like me putting their grubby hands all over their centuries-old books. Which I would most definitely do.

After exploring the monastery, I didn’t really have a set plan. I decided to go for a walk further up the hilltop, to take a look at what everyone had been calling “the lookout tower” since I’d gotten there. It was supposed to look like the Eiffel Tower, or something, but it appeared kind of ugly next to the grandeur of the castle and monastery, so I figured it wasn’t worth wasting my time.

You can probably guess what happened next. I ended up climbing the tower. I still maintain that it’s kind of ugly. But that doesn’t really matter, especially with views like this:


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That’s the castle district, glimpsed through the tower’s beams. The featured image on this post, though, is my favorite. It shows both sides of Prague, laid out like little toy houses.

Turns out the tower was built as part of an exhibition for the 1891 General Land Centennial Exposition, back when Prague still belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The builders were inspired by a recent exposition in Paris. Next to the tower is another leftover from those days, The Hall of Mirrors. I wouldn’t recommend paying for it unless you’ve got small children in tow, but I’d never been in a hall of mirrors before, so it was okay.

After trying to find a shortcut back down the hill and getting my boots muddy for my trouble, I called it a night. I had a big day ahead of me, starting with a tour about one of my favorite subjects: World War II.

 

Day Four: World War II in Prague Tour, Josefov (Prague Jewish Quarter), Národní divadlo

Since I am a huge military history buff, I’m always watching war movies. One that I had recently seen before going to Prague was Anthropoid, the story of how two Czech operatives, parachuted in from Britain, carried out a plan to assassinate Nazi third-in-command Reinhard Heydrich, a plan which ultimately succeeded. I loved the movie (and not just because I think Cillian Murphy is both handsome and talented), and so when I heard there was a WWII in Prague tour, I signed up.

When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938, it became The Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, subject to Nazi rule, and more often, their punishment. The Czech resistance was one of the bravest. The really cool thing about this tour was that we got to go underground, below the astronomical tower, into tunnels from the 12th century which were used by the resistance. At the entrance to the tunnels, a cross made of burnt wood is hung. This is to commemorate the Prague Uprising, which was an attempt to liberate Prague from the Germans, lasting from May 5 to May 8, 1945.

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By the time the Red Army arrived to free the city, they found that it had already pretty much freed itself. The main square had been mostly destroyed, the astronomical clock lay in ruins, and many brave resistance fighters were dead, including the two assassins of Heydrich, who had committed suicide in a church after being cornered in a shootout by the Gestapo. The Czechs had been basically abandoned by the Allies at the beginning of the war when Hitler invaded, but they made it clear they weren’t going to take it lying down. It was both sad and inspiring to spend some time learning about them and their struggle.

The tour ended at Josefov, the old Jewish quarter of Prague. I’d already bought my ticket that morning, so I started exploring right away. The quarter is comprised of five synagogues: The Old-New Synagogue, Pinkas Synagogue, the Spanish Synagogue, Maisel Synagogue, and Klausen Synagogue. They are all beautiful, but Klausen (a Baroque-style building) and the Spanish Synagogue were my favorites.

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The gorgeous Spanish Synagogue.

I’d never been in a synagogue before, so I didn’t know what to expect. While they don’t have any of the religious imagery or paintings that I’m used to seeing in Christian churches, they are still just as beautiful, as you can see above. In Klausen Synagogue, which is used as a museum, I learned a lot of fascinating things about the Jewish faith. When exploring religions, I think it’s always best to go right to the source instead of read books or articles by someone who probably isn’t of that faith and may have misconceptions. I definitely had some, and I was glad I got the chance to rectify those here.

The Pinkas Synagogue was heartbreaking in the same way Auschwitz was. On every available inch of wall space are carved the names of every Czech Jew murdered in the Holocaust, and upstairs is a museum dedicated to those who were transported to Terezin (Therisienstadt in German), the “show” camp built by the Nazis to convince the outside world that everything they were hearing about concentration camps was a lie. Unfortunately, even living at this camp was not enough to save many, who were later deported to Auschwitz.

Also included in the ticket was a visit to the Jewish cemetery. Because of historic persecution of the Jews by the people of Prague, they were only allowed to bury their dead within a very small area, leading to headstones almost on top of each other and bodies buried several layers deep in the earth.

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The Jewish quarter of Prague is one of the most complete in Europe, but for a terrible reason: Hitler wanted to keep all of the treasure that had been stolen from other European synagogues there. Eventually, when he’d slaughtered all of the Jews, he wanted to create a “Museum of an Extinct Race.” Exploring Josefov is not for the faint of heart, but it’s necessary, like I’ve said before. It’s a part of humanity’s history, a part we need to remember if we don’t want to repeat it.

I walked out of Josefov, still thinking about what I’d seen. I decided to stop for lunch and try to get WiFi to text my mom. I always talk about deep stuff like this with her. I headed to a restaurant I’d seen recommended online, Sisters Bistro. They’re famous for making new versions of a Czech favorite, the traditional open-faced sandwiches called chlebíčky. I tried the roast beef and maxi (egg and chives over ham and potato salad). Both were delicious, and I can say without hesitation that this was my favorite restaurant in Prague.

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After lunch, I was feeling like something sweet, so I walked to Perníčkův sen, an adorable gingerbread shop recommended by a friend, to try some of the famous Czech treat. I wasn’t disappointed here, either:

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‘Praha’ is Czech for Prague, just FYI.

I then went into a food coma until it was time for me to go see a show at the Národní divadlo, or National Theater.

I’d wanted to see a ballet when I booked my ticket before coming, but they’d all been sold out, so instead, I bought one for Pride and Prejudice. I was thinking it would be all in Czech, just a repeat of the period piece I knew so well, but I mainly just wanted to see the theater, so I was okay with it. But I’m so glad I went. The play they performed was a modern version of the classic, and there were subtitles above the stage in English, so I could enjoy right along with everyone else in the audience. Usually, I think it’s a shame that other countries are expected to cater to English speakers instead of making us learn their language, but it’s nice when it works out well for me.

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Anyone else getting Phantom of the Opera vibes?

It was a perfect ending to a perfect stay in Prague, in other words.

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6 thoughts on “Prague: If My Soul Were a City

  1. Thanks for sharing this Kuniko! The part about your Mom calling you a nerd for having two favorite organ pieces made me laugh. I am with you about other countries catering to those who speak English. We really need to change that. Russel M Nelson said we all need to be learning Chinese!

    Sorry to hear about your grandfather’s passing! :’-) Best of wishes on your Polish Adventures!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Layne! I’m trying to learn Polish right now to prepare, but it isn’t going very well. 🙂

      Like

  2. Nice article, as you mentioned it always helps to learn the language of the place. I had learnt a bit of Catalan before I went to Barcelona and it helped me a lot.

    Like

    1. That’s so awesome! I’ve heard Catalan is s super difficult – I’m impressed!

      Like

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