In Prague, No One Knows Your Name

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I mean, that’s true of any city you’ve never been before. Unless you’re like, Brad Pitt. Then maybe.

I was stoked all the way into Prague. I literally had no idea I was going until just before I arrived. Between getting to Prague, and deciding to go, was about three hours. I love Europe! I didn’t think I was going to get to visit anywhere but Ukraine and Turkey. Which, I mean it’s not like that’s a bad deal. But when you’re expecting to see five countries, and you only see two, well… it’s a bit of a disappointment.

We landed in Poland first, and I went through the wrong customs’ line, and after running down half the airport to get to my plane, I realized I was in the wrong terminal and had to sprint back. Not easy with a 50lb pack on your back. Plus, the previous flight had been delayed, so I was already short on time, and my plane was set to take off just twenty minutes after I landed. Blitzing through the customs line for a second time–taking off my shoes, jacket, pack, laptop, camera, and various sundries and then packing them all away again for a second time–I fairly flew through the airport to get to my gate, breathless and sweating, to discover the flight was delayed, and I had half an hour.

There was a gathered crowd waiting for the same flight, and they watched my antics with smiles and some chuckles. A Dutch couple sympathetically told me “not to sweat it.” I couldn’t tell if they were making a pun.

I spent the next half hour in the Lego store next door, and then gratefully boarded the plane.

Touching down in Prague, I snagged the first cab I saw and directed him to a hotel that looked relatively close to Prague’s Old Town. Turns out it wasn’t close, but that wasn’t a big deal. I was knackered–I’d started the day in the Carpathian mountains–and anything resembling a bed was alright by me.

img_20161015_192656Taking another taxi the next morning into Old Town was about half an hour and $20. Not too shabby. Prices were catching up to me, but it was still a far cry from the 10 minute ride and $55 fare from San Diego airport to my house.

I’d managed to find a hotel smack dab in the middle of Old Town for pennies! Well, not pennies. I mean, I guess pennies, but, like, a lot of them. Probably thousands. I don’t know. It was $30 a night. Which is super! It was walking distance to all the parts of town I wanted to see.

If you haven’t been to Prague, let me put it this way: Prague is AMAZING. I have to admit, I didn’t know anything about the city before I arrived. There are so many cool cities in Europe, and I just really didn’t know much more about Prague than I had seen in the movie XXX with Vin Diesel. I set off with a mission that day of seeing the whole city, and ending up in the castle on top of the hill on the far side of Old Town, on the other side of the Vltava river.

IMG_20161015_193453.jpgWalking down the medieval streets was such a treat. It really looked like it was right out of an old fairy tale. The buildings there are remarkably well kept, and many are several hundred years old. The Charles Bridge–the famous bridge you always see in pictures of Prague–was finished in the 14th century, to give you an example.

There were a lot of tourists–this is definitely a tourist city. But it’s beautiful. The architecture is nothing short of breathtaking. The average stores you stroll past–carved with caryatids of classic Greek soldiers supporting the roofs, and elaborate stone work–are oftentimes two or three times older than my whole country. It’s mind-blowing.

Also, in Prague, there are a lot of Germans. There are Germans everywhere. In every store, filling every street, bursting out of every tourist attraction, Germans and more Germans. In fact, I am quite convinced there are more Germans in Prague than in all of Germany. This is not a bad thing, as a rule, for Germans are generally quite courteous and considerate and interesting people.

IMG_20161015_195041.jpgI’d decided that I’d make a video about Prague detailing its history. I researched a few articles about the city and wrote up a page summary and kept it on my phone, explaining the various sights as they appeared. It was a lot of fun, and actually probably a good template for visiting other cities and countries in the future. You definitely appreciate what you’re looking at when you know more about it. How could you not?

It’d be difficult for me as a writer, and probably tedious for you as a reader, to explain all the incredible architecture and interesting sights, so I’ll gloss over the neo-classical and Gothic buildings–which are truly stunning–and carry on with the narrative. I didn’t have many encounters with anyone I’d consider “local”. The whole Old Town is geared around tourism, and there are a lot of foreigners and jaded owners running the shops. Tour guides line the streets and it does make a little hard to become immersed in the atmosphere when you’re constantly bumping into someone selling souvenirs.

IMG_20161016_064426.jpgNo matter. I wandered the alleyways and side streets, stepping inside little churches and marveling at the gold leaf designs and frescoes and ornate stone carvings. The whole city is a work of art. Sad we build everything from concrete and glass and steel these days. Humans aren’t cold–we shouldn’t live and work in cold buildings.

My destination was becoming clearer as I headed west across the city. Prague’s castle–or “Hradčany”–sits atop a plateau above the city at the far end, giving it a view over all of Old Town. It’s a pretty spectacular backdrop for the city, and really adds to the medieval charm. It can be difficult to find, disappearing behind lower buildings and peeking out again between red tiled rooftops here and there. I finally arrived at the famous Charles Bridge, and it’s just as breathtaking as you picture it to be. The movies don’t do it justice, but it does give you some idea about how majestic the whole scene is.

IMG_20161011_233059.jpgThe brown waters of the Vltava wound below the ancient bridge’s weathered stone pylons. The castle rose imperious and grand over the church steeples below, perched mightily atop its antiquated bastion, looking much as it has for hundreds of years to millions of eyes. What a sight.

I set off across the bridge, which was slightly disappointing for the crowds. Milling multitudes lined the old street; painters, artists, musicians, mongers of all kinds selling useless knickknacks to greedy tourists. I just wanted to see the bridge empty and quiet, pristine below the castle. Alas. People.

After another half an hour I arrived at the foot of the castle, only to discover it was closed for the day. I’d gotten started around 11 or so, since I had to write up the script for the video, and it’d taken six hours to get there, accounting for all the time spend wandering and looking around old buildings. The clock tower itself took an hour! Not because of a line or anything, I just soaked every inch of it in.

IMG_20161011_191928.jpgSo I took a slow walk back, and stopped in a little eatery below the castle. It was probably the most charming place I’ve ever eaten, and though I ordered a pizza (god help me, I’m not a fan of trying weird local foods–I don’t get my jollies off of blood sausage or “Vepřo-knedlo-zelo”,  or any of that goulash nonsense–the atmosphere and service were exquisite. The young man serving me was a delight and terribly courteous. I spent nearly two hours there just reveling in the experience. I wished I’d had someone to share it with–then, probably more than any other time on the trip.

The rest of the night was uneventful, and I walked back home as slow as possible. I’m not much for nightlife, so I just took in the cold breezes and twinkling street lights and glimmering water reflecting the old bridges before calling it an evening.

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