Bohemian Rhap-city: Prague (and an unexpected trip to Dresden)

Greetings once again – this time to the first country I’ve visited with a currency I didn’t have handy, and the first one that necessitated a 16-hour train ride to enter. I’m still in the EU and the Shenghen area, but things are starting to get different. Prague is the capital of Czech Republic, and also of the historic region of Bohemia (the other half is Moravia). It has been through its history the capital of the Holy Roman Empire and of Communist Czechoslovakia. It is famous for its castle complex, reputed to be the largest in the world and including the monumental St Vitus Cathedral; its role in the Hussite reformation; and for its centuries-confined Jewish ghetto and their Golem of Prague. Despite this significant religious history, the country is overwhelmingly atheistic, and today Prague’s Jewish community numbers just 2000 people. I spent three days here, getting around on foot and without much of a plan. Here’s how it went.

Compartment train seating? What is this madness?
Compartment train seating? What is this madness?

Praha – 17 June 

Once again I spent the first few hours of the first day doing an orientating free tour. Prague was very keen on them – in the main city square alone there were a good ten different companies dotted around. I’ve got no idea how they all make their money, or why they all stand in the same places. Surely they would be better off spreading out a bit and trying to pick up different people. The difference would be especially pronounced when you consider that some groups have a far better online presence, so that people (like me) will arrive knowing which one they’re going to and there’ll be 30 people for every one or two that go with someone else. I was tempted to abandon the big group, but being a cheapskate I realised that the smaller groups were going for high-value, low volume clients, and giving them just a few dollars would really stand out; so I chickened out and stuck around.

Prague was the first city I’d been to that was post-Soviet, so I expected a bit more about that, but most of the tour was focused on the Old Town, so it went back to the 14th century when their king Charles was building the Charles Bridge and the Charles University, and continued through various kings and battles, the Holy Roman Empire, and a hint of WWII (apparently Hitler loved Prague so much, he wanted to move there when he got old, so it was never destroyed like some other cities). It’s probably easier to tell the stories with some photos, so here they are.

Prague main square, with its asymmetrical cathedral
Prague main square, with its asymmetrical cathedral
Jan Hus, father of the Hussite reformers and indirect cause of the Thirty Years War, the bloodiest religious conflict in history
Jan Hus, father of the Hussite reformers and indirect cause of the Thirty Years War, the bloodiest religious conflict in history
The Prague Astronomical Clock - despite being regularly voted the world’s most disappointing tourist attraction, it’s actually really cool. Still working after 600 years, if you know how to read it you can tell the time, the phases of the moon, the month, the Czech name day (and thus the date), the status of the harvest, and something something signs of the zodiac. People seem to come just to see the little people come out (and I’ll admit, that is pretty boring :P)
The Prague Astronomical Clock – despite being regularly voted the world’s most disappointing tourist attraction, it’s actually really cool. Still working after 600 years, if you know how to read it you can tell the time, the phases of the moon, the month, the Czech name day (and thus the date), the status of the harvest, and something something signs of the zodiac. People seem to come just to see the little people come out (and I’ll admit, that is pretty boring :P)
The Prague Estates Theatre, where Mozart premiered his opera Don Giovanni, and the only remaining theatre where Mozart himself performed
The Prague Estates Theatre, where Mozart premiered his opera Don Giovanni, and the only remaining theatre where Mozart himself performed
The Franz Kafka monument
The Franz Kafka monument
Plaques found dotted all over the city, marking the homes and/or workplaces of people murdered in the Holocaust
Plaques found dotted all over the city, marking the homes and/or workplaces of people murdered in the Holocaust

After the tour, I went to the Jewish Quarter, well-equipped with a collection of historical sites including the famous Prague Cemetery, where over 100,000 people were buried on top of each other because the Jewish community was never given additional space after they were confined to the Quarter, and where the Prague Golem is still reputed to reside in the attic of an ancient synagogue. Some photos and fun facts? Don’t mind if I do.

The Old-New Synagogue, Europe’s oldest and the reputed resting place of the legendary Prague Golem
The Old-New Synagogue, Europe’s oldest and the reputed resting place of the legendary Prague Golem
Jewish Cemetery
Jewish Cemetery
“And as if that weren’t enough, how about testimonials from real political leaders!” - King Solomon Restaurant
“And as if that weren’t enough, how about testimonials from real political leaders!” – King Solomon Restaurant

I was done with the Jewish Museums in a couple of hours, and by this time it was early evening but still light, so I went for a bit of an aimless walk along the river (vaguely wanting to try and get onto one of the island parks in the middle of the river). This turned out to be great – walking down the side, I first saw a wall (apparently a famous one) where people had written all these messages about freedom and justice under Communism, and then a super-duper-long set of billboards talking about a British guy who organised to evacuate about 700 Czech kids and give them a new life in 1939. Most of these kids would have died – they returned to have nobody left from their families. They’d just done a re-enactment of the train journey for the 70th anniversary of the first trip, and five years later the display was up in Prague and I got to learn about it. Fun times. Pics.

A view down the river
A view down the river

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A small slice of the number of panels that were up (there were so many, and each double sided), and the cover picture
A small slice of the number of panels that were up (there were so many, and each double sided), and the cover picture

Praha – 18 June

Today I wanted to do something unique, so I went to an art gallery that I had seen before, which was running exhibitions of Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol and Alfons Mucha (a Czech Art Nouveau aficionado whose style you would recognise pretty clearly but have probably never heard of). €5 was a fine price for all three, so I went for it. Turned out it was five for each, which seemed a bit steep, but I made an on-the-spot decision and went for Dali. I had never heard of Mucha and I have seen quite enough of Warhol’s style, if not his actual paintings; Dali has always been at the periphery of my understanding and I felt I hadn’t given him a fair go. In any case, the exhibition turned out to be excellent. It showed, much like the Picasso museum in Barcelona, a wider range of his skills and styles than I had been aware of, as well as some of his most typical works, like The Persistence of Memory and that couch modelled on Mae West’s lips. 300-odd paintings, prints, plates and sculptures, all wonderfully off-beat, took up a good deal of enjoyable time.

Metaphoto and Mae West
Metaphoto and Mae West
Crazy-ass prints, I love line-drawings so much
Crazy-ass prints, I love line-drawings so much
Venus de Milo with Giraffe Neck and Drawers
Venus de Milo with Giraffe Neck and Drawers

Next up, I took the advice of a map-making not-for-profit I’ve been coming across a lot called Use-It, which makes guides for young travellers across Europe by getting people to set up and update them in their own cities. They’re very strong in Belgium and the Czech Republic for some reason, but they pop up in a lot of smaller cities (not so much capitals, but the second and third cities – not Athens but Thessaloniki, not Rome but Bologna, etc). They seem to be written predominantly by students because the cities with big student populations are far more likely to have one. Anyway, point being, this particular one had, as well as a larger and smaller map and recommendations for cafés, pubs, souvenir shops, restaurants, and tourist attractions, several walking trails that both made an effort to take you to interesting places, whether really touristy or not, by a route that wasn’t the main one. On this day I picked up the route of the major sights of old Prague, but via back roads and secret areas so that I would pop up from the most random places into the touristy areas everyone went into. By the end of it, I’d had so much fun visiting different things that I actually didn’t get a chance to go inside Prague’s biggest tourist attraction, the Castle, because even in summer it closes at 5pm. However, unlike Edinburgh Castle or the Tower of London, city castles in Eastern Europe, of which Prague was a prime example, tend to be castle districts or complexes, built with great palaces and cathedrals interspersed with businesses and residential areas; charging you to get into the government-owned heritage buildings but not controlling the flow around them. This being the case, I did get a chance to at least walk around them (a small consolation prize for missing out on a viewing of Da Vinci’s Woman With An Ermine, but what can you do?).

Beautiful gardens
Beautiful gardens
A literal peacock. The Czech Senate knows how to party
A literal peacock. The Czech Senate knows how to party
Czech-style hot dog (bun hollowed out and the sausage shoved inside)
Czech-style hot dog (bun hollowed out and the sausage shoved inside)
Backroad entrance to the locally famous hill park at Petrin
Backroad entrance to the locally famous hill park at Petrin
A carnivalesque Hall of Mirrors attraction atop a hill filled with ancient monasteries
A carnivalesque Hall of Mirrors attraction atop a hill filled with ancient monasteries
Prague’s sneaky copy of the Eiffel Tower, built in 1891
Prague’s sneaky copy of the Eiffel Tower, built in 1891
A monastery/brewery - apparently not that uncommon, considering Buckfast in the UK is the same
A monastery/brewery – apparently not that uncommon, considering Buckfast in the UK is the same

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A sneaky back way into the Castle, through the valley that bisects it
A sneaky back way into the Castle, through the valley that bisects it
St Vitus’ Cathedral, under restoration (classic)
St Vitus’ Cathedral, under restoration (classic)
Another beautiful and free landscaped palace garden
Another beautiful and free landscaped palace garden
Crazy-ass synagogue paint job
Crazy-ass synagogue paint job

Dresden and Praha – 19 June

Late the previous night, my three-month-old dodgy Chinese laptop charger gave up the ghost, splitting into a festival of shiny wires and completely failing to charge any more. Panicking slightly at the proposed cost of buying a new one and fearing that I wouldn’t be able to get an Australian charger while in Europe (funnily enough), not to mention realising that there wasn’t an Apple Store in the entire country and if I was to get help with a workable replacement I would probably need to hit them up, I frantically searched for solutions. It was lucky that I discovered the problem before embarking on my group tour the next day, because I found that there was an Apple Store at a shopping centre in Dresden, just 2.5 hours away on my unlimited rail pass; if it had come a day later I would be stuffed for nearly two weeks. I had even previously thought about going there, but written it off in favour of looking around Prague more or perhaps having a day trip out to another Czech area. So I hopped on the train, wrote a few postcards on the way, and got myself over to Dresden.

I’m not really sure what to make of the place. Suffering huge amounts of destruction from Allied bombings in World War Two, the city has been both rapidly modernising but also reconstructing its historical castle complex, where the Kings of Saxony once reigned. I went in feeling pretty well-disposed: enjoying the clean, modern shopping centres, the carefully eccentric public art, and the well-organised streets. However, after getting my charger (it turns out you can just switch out the cord attachment, so now I have a euro cord and an aussie cord!) I went up to the reconstructed Old Town. It was pretty, but all the attractions seemed expensive and not that distinguished compared to what I had already seen. I had no real desire to see another Old Masters gallery after the Museo del Prado, or more cathedrals after literally anywhere in Europe. Having originally planned to stay the whole day, I tapped out about 3pm and headed back to Prague. While you may have a good time if Dresden is one of the first places you go, it won’t be hard to beat it in my opinion.

The grand cavern of Dresden station
The grand cavern of Dresden station
Two serious pastries - in the shopping centre you had to pay for the toilets, but they gave you the equivalent in credit to a number of different stores. I found the only one selling food with less than a €5.00 minimum, and grabbed two of these bad boys. Let me tell you: the Germans are really not messing around when it comes to baked goods.
Two serious pastries – in the shopping centre you had to pay for the toilets, but they gave you the equivalent in credit to a number of different stores. I found the only one selling food with less than a €5.00 minimum, and grabbed two of these bad boys. Let me tell you: the Germans are really not messing around when it comes to baked goods.
Crazy public art
Crazy public art
My first go in the reconstructed old town - this building, with a mirror image behind me, houses the Old Masters gallery
My first go in the reconstructed old town – this building, with a mirror image behind me, houses the Old Masters gallery
Pointy buildings and pointy buildings and pointy buildings. Gah.
Pointy buildings and pointy buildings and pointy buildings. Gah.

Feeling slightly despondent, I decided to try for something completely different, taking the cue from Use-It once again and heading out to some really random places in the back end of Prague. These are up-and-coming districts with stories to tell and interesting things all over the place. I would have some photos to show you, but my phone died halfway through, so here’s a simple list for you to google image (in the interests of avoiding copyright infringement by pinching other people’s photos).

1. Postmodern architecture at the Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord

2. The Žižkov Television Tower, which is among the ugliest buildings in the world, has metal babies crawling all over it as eccentric public art, and has a public, free minigolf course (BYO balls and clubs) and another Jewish Cemetery (much like the more famous one, but I believe even older) at the base

3. The Cubist Bethlehem Chapel and its wooden-paved courtyard

4. The Vítkov Hill, which houses an enormous equestrian statue of national hero Jan Žižka and a former Communist VIP mausoleum, now converted into an exhibition on Czech history; and where I tried to find a back route out of and ended up stumbling down a barely-there track, trailing through hobo camps and ending up completely exposed next to a railway track before bushbashing up a vertical slope to then reach the park after about half an hour and shamefacedly take the recommended roundabout route out.

5. A walk down the river, through Prague’s modern business district and one of its legal graffiti zones.

And then, I simply headed home, and got ready to leave bright and early on my bus tour the next day. Thanks for reading as always, and I hope to soon have another post on some highlights from that tour! (It was very busy, hence why this one was so delayed!).

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