Just in case anyone thought I was going to take it easy while I was in Europe, I took this week to prove that that isn't the case. September class ended on Thursday so I decided to take some time and not leave on my next adventure for a day or so. I flew out to Prague in the Czech Republic in the early afternoon on Saturday. I got through passport control pretty easily and then was it full on by the language barrier. Most important signs were still printed in English as well as Czech but the bus schedule definitely wasn't. Luckily Prague is used to dumb English-speaking tourists and the lady at the ticket window spoke enough English to tell me where I need to go. My hostel was right outside the main tourist area so getting lost wasn't an issue as long as we didn't get too adventurous. I checked in with no problems and then went into the Old Town Square to try to find the other kids from my program that has left a few days before me. Within the two blocks I had to walk to the square I decided that Prague is absolutely beautiful. Everywhere we went was full of baroque-style architecture, cobblestone streets, and tiled sidewalks. The first night I was there we wandered around the city and went to the Charles Bridge. The Charles Bridge is one of the high profile sites in the city and dates from before the 14th century and is lined with religious-themed statues. The bridge is also a vendor hotspot where they sell prints, jewelry, characitures, and local musicians play and try to sell CDs. That night we ended up eating Thai food of all things, but it was cheap and I got a lot of food so it was all good. After dinner we went up to the hostel bar and met a couple of Australians. My group and the Australians went over to the Techno/Hipster club, Roxy, next door to the hostel for a while. The dance was kind of like walking into a cloud of smoke and no one was really dancing so much as just bouncing around. I had fun at the club but was also exhausted from travelling most of the day so I was happy when people decided to call it a night.
The second day I was there we went to the Old Jewish Quarter and did a tour that included several synagogues and the cemetery where some thousands of tombstones are crammed together because that small area was the only place that the Jews of Prague were allowed to bury their dead. The inside walls of one of the synagogues was covered with the names of those killed in The Holocaust. I think the tour said there were 80,000 names or there about. Even when you see the physical representation of a number that large it's hard to wrap your mind around it. We also saw the Spanish Synagogue, which probably the most elaborate place of worship we visited. Which is saying a lot considering all the baroque cathedrals we were in. After lunch at on of the infamous sausage stands of Wenceslas Square, we went to the Museum of Communism. They had a few nice displays of propaganda, especially anti-American, and some cool video footage from the Velvet Revolution. This was also served with a healthy dose of satire for the Western tourists including postcards reading "You couldn't always get laundry detergent but you could get brainwashed." That night we went to a Jazz club that was having a Jam Night and listened to some Chicago Jazz performed by Czech musicians before they started bringing up people from the audience. Two of the guys from the audience that performed sat across the table from us. Turns out that they're from the Midwest, go to NYU, and are studying in Prague for the semester. The best part was that they really knew how to jam and got everyone who was playing with them into it. It was a very fun night.
The last two days I was there were devoted to castles and churches. The first castle I went to has a really cool name in Czech but I don't have the keys to type it and was older than the second one and it took us a little while to realize that we were in the castle and not a walled park. It was very pretty even if it was missing some stereotypical "castle" features. From the retaining wall you had a beautiful view of the Vltava River and Prague Castle. The leaves were just starting to change which made it even more beautiful. We saw the castle cathedral which was huge baroque and ornate. Baroque cathedrals are probably the element I like the least of the movement. There's just soo much gold flake and multiple elaborate alters. I'm guessing some of the alters were dedicated to saints but if they didn't have relics visible it was hard to tell.
My last day in Prague I went to Prague Castle. It's up on a hill over-looking the old part of the city. In fact, the characteristic skyline of Prague is the looking up at the Castle across Charles Bridge. It's definitely a pretty picture. The Castle was occupied until much later than the one we saw the day before so it had more buildings and a more cramped complex feeling to it. More "castle-esque" if you will. My favorite part was the old royal place which reminded me of the great hall of Winchester Castle in England. It used plain stone work and large windows which gave it a very medieval feel. The was also St. George's Basillica in the complex. St. George is the patron saint of Britian so I was surprised to see him in a place of honor in the Czech Republic. Within the Castle complex they also had a national art gallery, dungeon, and a market corridor. The focal of the point of the complex was this MASSIVE gothic cathedral. The stain glass windows were huge and everyone had a different color scheme. While this cathedral was also crowded with assorted alters and statues, its size made it less overwhelming.
Czech food was an interesting experience and also surprisingly difficult to find. There were scores of Italy restaurants and a good handful of Czech palces we found required reservations. We finally were seated at a small cafe where the staff kind of spoke English. The main dish of the night was potato dumplings and like a beef stew-essectially beef mediallions in lots and lots of gravy. It was really good. The dumplings looked a little sketchy at first but they were really good with the gravy. The other popular Czech dish that I really enjoyed was the fried cheese. It looked like a big mozzarella stick but you could choose all sorts of different creamy cheeses. It's going to be very hard to go back to plain ol' moz sticks after that. I tried a couple different types of Czech beer, since they do consume the most beer per capita in the world, and found it to be more bitter than the stuff I've tried in England. It wasn't especially heavy but dark beers seem to be prefered over light ones. I also got to try a couple pastries. One was like a vanilla-flavored breadstick that was cooked around a stick so it made a circle. They took it off the spit and rolled it in almods and sugar. Delicious. The second pastry I tried was a regular pastry topped with different preserves and thick frosting stars. Also very yummy.
I had a lot of fun in this 1000+ year old city. It was absolutely beautiful and full of history. The langauge barrier was a little challenging sometimes but I would still go back (possibly with a Czech phrase book).