I got back to my hostel at perhaps two thirty, maybe three in the morning. The twenty-four hour bar downstairs was still pretty full. Bars in Prague didn’t seem to close, ever. We’d been all over town looking for good times and gritty dives. I can’t recall how many drinks Rory & I had consumed, but at the equivalent of 20 cents a beer (and it was fantastic beer) I believe it was more than usual.
This was August 1999. Prague was an entirely different place back then. I found myself glued to a translation book, eating food I had never heard of without a single bachelor or bachelorette party in sight. The city was quiet and otherworldly.
In 2014 I revisited.
In 1989 the velvet revolution set the country free of its communist shackles and Europe gained it’s newest, freshest gem and like all gems, it was initially a little rough around the edges. In ’99 the country was still in transition, it probably still is. It was in the 00’s however that the results of globalization began to be seen. The world caught on and now Prague features in the same sentences as Paris, London or Venice.
The change between 1999 and 2014 is profound. When I walked the streets of Prague I felt ambivalent. The pride of wandering the streets yet untraveled by the masses was no more. In its place however was a sense of excitement and optimism.
I began my explorations with a stroll around town. The sense of historical significance permeated and I came to realize something which five years living in America had faded, Europe is ancient.
I wandered past the Estates Theatre in which Mozart had premiered Don Giovanni so many centuries ago. I wandered aimlessly down Golden Lane, where once upon a time alchemists had attempted (with futility) to turn lead into gold. I continued my stroll into Mala Strana, which translates as ‘Little Side’ (of the river). Dating back to 1257 AD, it is undoubtedly one of the quaintest areas in Prague, I marveled at the spire toped buildings, cobbled streets and impressive statues before finding my way to the Petřín Lookout Tower. This is an absolute must for any Prague visitor. It’s 62 meter frame was put together in 1891 and to be honest it looks a lot like the Eiffel Tower. To reach it’s summit one must climb a substantial number of stairs, 299 in fact, though there is an elevator to take you up the last few. Once up, you are rewarded with some of the best views of Prague available.
I made my journey up the stairs, huffing and puffing a little more than a spritely twenty-seven year old should, before walking out onto the crowded platform. I’d hit the tower in June, which combined with the beautiful weather that week had brought strong crowds to the main Prague attractions. That said, the views were certainly worth it.
I spent my evening sipping drinks with names I didn’t understand and watching the eclectic groups of tourists walking by. Call me whimsical but there is something innately wonderful about sitting in a historic European square with cobblestones under your feet.
The following day I headed to one of the most photographed places in Prague, the Charles Bridge. Endless photo’s of this iconic structure appear when Prague is typed into a google image search bar. The bridge was commissioned by King Charles IV in 1357 AD, and it’s original name, ‘Stone Bridge’ actually lasted five hundred years before it became what it is today.
I’d strolled across it back in ’99, though my inebriated senses hadn’t fully appreciated it. Now I marched in it’s direction, determined to soak up every drop of it’s vintage, classic Eastern European exoticness. When it came into view, it’s aesthetics were undeniable, however my mission was somewhat interrupted by the difficulty I had getting a clear view. Once again, I felt like a guest arriving rather late to the party.
I strolled along the bridge, watching the artists carefully craft caricatures of the western tourists for twenty euros a piece. The sun was already at full strength and I realized that the key to enjoying the bridge would be to see it at dawn or in winter, with snow on the ground. Of course this didn’t occur to me at the time, I thoroughly enjoyed my stroll, I took some compulsory photos and chatted to some of the artists selling their beautiful photography work. l took in the epic city views and enjoyed watching the thirty beautiful baroque statues which adorned it’s edges.
Once across I found myself in the 13th-century Old Town (Stare Mesto) and wandered into the Market Square. This area is famous for its 15th-century astronomical clock, and it is astronomical, in both size and beauty. It’s the third oldest in the world, and the last of it’s kind to remain functioning. If you’re wondering, I also had no idea what an astronomical clock was upon arrival, but it becomes evident pretty quickly. Its a clock which displays astronomical information such as planetary positions, as well as time. The level of complexity involved in a clock design like this is staggering.
The square is home to phenomenal Christmas and Easter markets which resemble the markets of the day, and the tower of the Old Town Hall gives another phenomenal panoramic view of the area.
Once down from the Old Town Hall I felt compelled to sit in one of the many wonderful restaurants in the square with a delicious espresso and a guide book. Entertainers performed magic tricks, and singers wowed the crowds with their vocal skills. One man wandered the square delighting young children by creating human sized bubbles which proceeded to chase them around. I probably dwelled here for a good hour or two before I found my way out of the area, to the nearby Old New Synagogue.
This famous religious building, situated in Josefov, is actually Europe’s oldest active synagogue. It’s an interesting building to wander through, full of historical facts and wonderful architecture.
Prague is by far one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited, and though I’ve been twice now, I certainly don’t feel like I’ve fully experienced it’s almost mystical quality to the degree I possibly could. There is so much to see, so much to eat and so much history to soak up. Prague has been discovered, there is no arguing with it, no one can claim this to be an ‘up and coming’ travel destination, it’s here and it has taken center stage. Seeing it in mid-summer is of course wonderful, and the crowds can’t suppress it’s charm, but next time, I’m going in January.