In 2010, probably the hottest summer Europe has seen in many, many years, I embarked on my first solo trip to a country–actually countries– where I hadn’t a clue to the native language. I had taught summer school and I only had a couple of weeks to go on vacation before school started up again. I was considering several destinations–Germany being the frontrunner. The internet package deals were just out of control expensive (well–Europe in August is expensive) and I really wasn’t finding the itineraries I felt excited about–so I went to a travel agent. Steven from Liberty Travel was great–he listened to my concerns and did some travel agent magic to introduce Monogram tours to me. So my new vacation destination?—-Vienna and Prague. I got a “two-for”–two European bucket list destinations in one trip. I still felt trepiditious about the language barrier, but Steven assured me that Monogram tours was a good fit for me. They offered independent vacation packages with local hosts to assist in transport between cities, tours, and local sightseeing tips.
Prague was the latter half of the trip. Eric, the local host in Vienna, sent my small group of 4 other travelers to Prague via 1st class high speed train. The train car had a few captain chairs and lots of space–between seats, legroom, headroom, luggage storage, and wide open windows to catch the Austrian, Czech, & for a short time German countryside. Richard, the local host in Prague met us at the train station and made arrangements to meet with all of us after he dropped us off to the two hotels. At first I was a little miffed about sitting with him–Eric in Vienna was very casual and it was a 5 minute conversation and he sent all of my tours & tickets info to my hotel room–Richard wanted to give us a crash course in Czech history. The other member of my traveling group and I were talking with Richard for at least an hour. He dropped a lot great tips to getting around. He spoke a lot about when Communism and the USSR ruled the land from the effect of the 1968 uprising to the Velvet Revolution in 1987-88 ousting Soviet rule which he remembers being in college at the time.
Prague is known for its architecture–Art Nouveau, Belle Epogue, Baroque, and Renaissance Revival–it’s a little Paris complete with their own Eiffel Tower. Often time movies set in other European cities film in Prague–it’s cheaper and it wasn’t as destroyed as other European cities in WWII. The Czech Republic’s history is dominated by the Austro-Hungarian Empire or the Holy Roman Empire ruled by the Hapsburgs (think Empress Maria-Theresa and her unfortunate youngest daughter, Queen Marie-Antoinette of France). From the 1650s through WWI, Austria controlled the Czech Republic. Only German could be spoken and only Roman Catholicism could be praticed (serious Catholics those Hapsburgs). The Austrians were firm and domineering rulers–they crushed any rebellion–much like the Soviets that followed their rule after WWII. Other things Prague is known for: garnets or Bohemian rubies, cut crystal, and beer. The Czechs drink more beer than any other country in Europe. I had a red Czech wine one night with dinner and it was excellent–they’re gaining popularity throughout Europe.
My hotel, the Yasmin hotel, was literally steps from the National Opera House and around the corner from Wenceslas Square–not a square but a boulevard. Richard explained the Czech language doesn’t really relate shapes like squares or circus to streets . All things are “namestri” when not a street in Prague or Praha which means doorway. Wenceslas Square is a meeting point as well as a mini sin city–several gambling clubs, dance halls, and large gangs of British young men roam the streets looking to out drink each other. Apparently, Prague is “the destination” for British stag parties. The local currency is Kc or koruna, the Czech Republic is not on the Euro yet but it is an EU member. So my exchange rate was 20Kc for $1 US–and one night I walked into a little pizzeria and I had a huge personal pizza, salad, soda, & wine for dinner for about $10. In the US–a local pizzeria sells a similar type of pizza for $12-16 not including anything else! My favorite watercolor print of Prague I bought on the street from the artist was only about $5.
On my second day, I had a city sightseeing tour included with my package. We were shuttled to the National Square to then be divvied up according to preferred language. Helen was our tour guide–a proud born & bred Czech–she had a funny way of remembering the people in our tour group. The Canadians–I was included as I was talking to my tour mates who are all Canadian (I think she meant it to be a compliment to me), the NY Women–a mother and daughter who moved to NJ but identify themselves as NYers, the Single Guy from Dubai who disappeared from the tour during the changing of the guard ceremony, and the family from Dubai–British transplants with two little girls and they lived all over the world. The Egyptian family–after hearing where they were from–Helen launched into a story of a little boy she met in Egypt who was 10 years old and he spoke 5 languages but he couldn’t read or write. His dream was to give his children an education–she was misty-eyed before she finished the story. There was the Single Guy who the NY Women adopted into their group and the “couple who were not honeymooners as she was showing a baby bump” (Helen’s assumption not mine), and the rest were run of the mill tourists. Helen was a good tour guide: practical, full of interesting tips and facts, and funny in that matter of fact way some people have–she wasn’t trying to be funny but she was. As we drove through Praha–Helen related general history and commented on the sites. We walked through Castletown and saw the Changing of the Guard ceremony–the soldiers march in a procession through Castletown to the Castle and then enter the inner courtyard for the actual ceremony. Soooo Czech soldiers in dress blues are drool worthy and a delight to the eyes. I get that only the pretty boys get this plum assignment, but there was many a feminine sigh heard around me while watching the ceremony. I like Castletown–it’s high and across the Vlatava River from Prague proper. I decided to come back the next day for a full tour of Prague Castle.
It was a jam packed 4 hour tour–full of info and photo breaks. Some facts from the tour:
- Czech Republic has 10 regions and Praha is the capital of Bohemia
- Prague–1784 has 5 Quarters–I know its an oxymoron sort of–go with it
- Jewish Quarter aka Jewish Town–the oldest
- Old Quarter aka Old Town–the richest–4000 Euro a month for an apartment
- New Quarter or New Town–the biggest and “relatively” new being founded in the 1300s!
- Lesser Quarter or Little Town–now diplomatic residences
- Castletown–the poorest and where Prague Castle is located
- The Vlatva River (Gaelic for wild water) flows north to the Elbe River and the North Sea into the port of Hamburg
- Charles IV–the much beloved monarch–founded Carolinum (the oldest university in Central Europe) in 1348 after attending the Sorbonne in Paris. He wanted Prague to be at the forefront of European affairs and in his time it was #3 after Rome and Paris.
- He built the Charles Bridge in 1357–a pedestrian bridge into the Jewish Quarter
- Interesting local legend emerged–a common mode of assassination was throwing men from windows or bridges–seems messy and not a sure thing in the killing business–but then again I’m not an early Renaissance Age assassin……..
- 1918–Independence and nationalist revival–Czech language reintroduced & republican government formed
- post-WWII–became a Soviet satellite–crushed again by a domineering dictatorship
I noticed that through my visit that I kept hearing the same names of prominent families or monarchs when in Vienna, Prague and on another trip Budapest. Sissi–the beloved Empress Elisabeth of Austria & Queen of Hungary (more beloved after she was assassinated that is), the Wallenstein family–now citizens of Germany after an ancestor tried to overthrow the government, and the Schwartzenberg family–still important in Czech politics but they hold citizenship (as well as property) in Austria, Germany, & the Czech Republic. Both Vienna and Prague have Belvedere Palaces. It’s interesting to see the different perspectives of the same history. The same stories with very different twists! I traveled from Vienna–the center of Austrian control to Prague–the conquered people ruled by the Austrian Empire for hundreds of years. How people felt about certain historical figures swiftly shifted from loving in Vienna to hated in Prague. Some people traveling with me started in Budapest before Vienna, where I joined them, and they mentioned this shift in perspective as well from the conquered to the conquerers to the conquered again.
Before I leave for any trip–I do my homework–I read up on the sights and history. I even list possible souvenirs for the near and dear to me. For my nieces and nephew–I found Manufaktura (http://www.manufaktura.cz/en/). It’s an all “Made in the Czech Republic” store–toys, soaps, bath & body products, bags, home decor, & Christmas decorations. The toys are usually made from wood or the cool retro wind up motion toys. I visited the store several times–I enjoyed browsing. To see the store-click on the link- http://www.nelso.com/cz/place/265978/. I also picked up a garnet pendant for myself–not the Granat brand (they are more money than my thin wallet could lay out) and a Moldavite pendant for my mother. It’s a pale green stone similiar to a green amesthyst that is formed locally from the Vlatva River.
The current Prague Castle is more of a compound with several different buidlings and churches. There’s the Old Royal Palace from Charles IV’s time, St. George’s Basicilia, the New Castle (built by Empress Maria-Theresa of Austria) where the President lives, St. Vitus Cathedral, several museums, theatres, a vineyard, a summer palace–Belvedere or Queen Anna’s summer palace, and Golden Lane–a medieval street with restored shops and homes of the period [which was closed for renovation 😦 ]. It was a rainy day–actually there were periods of torrential downfalls–the inner courtyard easily had three inches of water. I had soggy sandals and it was like walking on two little slip and slides. So it was a bit chaotic running for cover when the rain wouldn’t let up. I visited the Old Royal Palace–someone was thrown from the window– 😮 –not really– everyone gets seems to get thrown from the window here. I had squeezed in the Maria-Theresa’s school for Aristocratic Girls and St. Vitus’s Cathedral but I didn’t really explore the rest of the museums. I was disappointed to learn that my ticket covered most of the admissions in the complex and I didn’t find out that fact until AFTER I left the Castle. I assumed I had to pay per museum–uhm–no I didn’t–so it’s a good value for the price and you can easily spend a good portion of the day in Castletown. I’ve since sworn to return to the Czech Republic and revisit Prague as well as wander the countryside a bit.
Through several twists and turns, I approached the Charles Bridge–Karlova Most–to cross over the Vlatva River into the Old Jewish Quarter. The bridge was built in 1357 and named after the beloved Czech King Charles IV. It’s a pedestrian bridge. and the stone work is dark from age and God knows what else–probably some blood–the Czechs have a bloodthirty history. The bridge is wide and there’s room for street performers and craft stalls. A leisurely stroll across only takes 15 minutes and that is with stopping to listen to the band and take pictures.
On the plane going home–I listed some Prague favorites:
Favorite Museum: Prague Castle
Favorite Area: Old Town Quarter
Favorite Activity: walking Charles Bridge
Wishlist: Mucha Museum, A return to Prague Castle–Picture Gallery, National Gallery, & Golden Lane
I love Prague and I know I will return soon. My fears of the language barrier were easily swept aside as the Czechs were eager to share their beautiful city and turbulent history. Along with Austria, I later visited France, Hungary, and the Netherlands on my own and I managed getting around without knowing the local languages. I no longer consider language a barrier to overcome when traveling but an opportunity to enrich my own knowledge of the world.